Along the River

Here’s something I wrote after I arrived in Guiyang a year and a half ago:


The Sun has set behind the skyscrapers and mountains. In its place shines bright, flashing neon. I walk from my apartment to the Nanming river, along the way glimpsing the migrant workers who carry rubble in baskets on their backs from a building under construction. The workers empty the rubble from the baskets into a massive skip. They come from the hills and villages to do the city’s dirty work.


By the river is a little civic park where, after sunset, people dance, mostly women, in a kind of choreography that resembles line-dancing. All the generations, kids, parents, grandparents, walk without haste. It is a beautiful balmy night. I wonder how I’ve ended up in China, six thousand miles from everyone and everything I knew. The buildings flanking the river are reflected on the water, the river a smudge of drenched, electric colours. An old temple illuminated too, its curved roof decorated with light. And behind the electrified technicolour temple the Moon, full and milky, which in a few hours will shine on Ireland and be mirrored in the lakes and puddles there: Liffey, Moy, Shannon, Blackwater; Lough Conn, Lough Corrib; and on the surf of Atlantic beaches.


I stand on the promenade along the river, watching the neon blinking from the riverside buildings’ facades and reflected on the water; the glowing temple, the Moon. I think all this light, natural, manmade and reflected, is trying to tell me something, but at the same time the part of my brain captivated by Science remains aware it probably isn’t, and I tell myself I should instead simply rest my attention on the river, the city lights, without expectation. I walk on.


Above the promenade is the little civic park. Coming from the park is music. I walk up the steps and approach the music; two old men, one with a Chinese flute, the other a kind of saxophone, playing ancient Chinese melodies. I stop to listen. Others, too, are gathered. Is the music sad? Am I sad? Maybe. But not uncomfortably sad; instead it’s that sadness which is an awareness of loss and the knowledge that everything must pass, and accepting that fact. In being aware of loss and accepting loss a sort of comfortable sadness emerges, and a solidarity, a feeling both of separateness from and oneness with the world; listening to that old Chinese music by the old river, illuminated by the new lights – same in Spain, listening to the folk songs of Galicia, and in Romania, to the folk music there, and in Nepal, to the folk music there, and in Ireland, in a Sunday pub, to the fiddles and flutes; same feeling every time, solidarity and solitude: human… Songs of the streets and fields, of long-gone centuries still present.


The men play. The people listen. Along the path young children run happily. Men, thinking, smoke cigarettes. Somewhere in the distance, on another street, unseen, the migrant workers carry on their backs the rubble of China under construction, working under both Sun and Moon, no matter.


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