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Mystery to memory: Surreal time spent in China will linger forever
Mystery to memory: Surreal time spent in China will linger forever

How does one sum up the profundity of a moment that will last forever? That perfect convergence of planning and happenstance, when karma or God or the cruel and blessed caster of the cosmic dice serves up the exact experience that will pivot your life between what came before and what came after: How do you capture that in words?

"It was cool," said 17-year-old Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre dancer Nicole Reinholdt, moments after she was treated to a brief but poignant personal instruction in the art of Chinese traditional ink painting by a master painter in Guilin, China.

"It was so amazing," said Pablo Sanchez after being allowed to participate in a company class with members of the National Ballet of China, the most elite ballet group in this country.

Words. Even eloquently embellished, they seem frail and impotent when entrusted with the gravity of such experiences. In the moment, one sometimes questions whether this thing that just happened really happened at all, or if it was lifted from the Hollywood-script version of our lives.

Am I really here, floating lazily down the Lijiang River past breathtaking, fog-enshrouded mountains, watching a group of teenagers from Montana strut around on the boat's deck as they learn the Peacock Dance from a former principal dancer of the National Ballet of China?

Yes, I believe I am.

Did I really just walk through the Forbidden City, a place that was closed to outsiders for hundreds of years?

Yes, I believe I did.

Perhaps those experiences won't remain forever vivid in the mind's eye. Time dulls and distorts. But as those experiences gain context over time, twisting into the thread that connects past with present, the colorful poignancy may give way to profound significance: A sense that everything changed in those dazzled blinks of the eye.

On the evening of May 14, a small crowd of dancers and support staff gathered at the midtown Missoula building that serves as home to the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre. As a chartered bus idled nearby, the teenage dancers hugged their goodbyes to parents and siblings, doublechecked their passports, promised to e-mail. At 7:30 p.m. sharp, the dancers boarded the bus and set out for Vancouver, British Columbia.

One 10-hour bus ride followed by one 11-hour plane flight later, the RMBT delegation - 43 of us in all - touched down on the opposite side of the planet, in Beijing, China.

Smog. Strange odors. Construction cranes everywhere. Snarled traffic. More bicycles and scooters than cars. Signs written in a script that nobody on our bus could even read, let alone translate.

Yet beauty everywhere. Swaths of color-coordinated flowers filled beds that stretched for miles along the highways. Stunning skyscrapers sliced modernist profiles into the gray sky, towering over ornate, red-and-gold facades - ever-present reminders of Chinese traditions that date back far beyond the founding of our own country.

We traveled into the picturesque countryside for a visit to the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the man-made world. We spent a morning with the company of the National Ballet of China, one of the elite ballet troupes in the world. We toured a traditional hutong (a walled neighborhood that once served as the most basic form of social organization in China) and marveled at the Forbidden City, the ancient palace of Chinese emperors.

We ate sublime Peking duck, cautiously nibbled at pickled duck's feet and devoured plate upon plate of delicious sweet-and-sour fish, braised lotus root, and countless dishes we couldn't identify but loved anyway. We visited a traditional Chinese teahouse, where we were taught proper techniques of tea preparation and were introduced to the little ceramic pee-pee boy.

OK, you had to be there for that one.

And, being Americans, we shopped. Bamboo flutes and knock-off iPods, Mao T-shirts and traditional ink paintings: The loot we packed away from Beijing could serve as its own tour of this diverse city, poised on the cusp between traditional culture and modern capitalism.

After a few days (I'd count them, but it seems pointless: Time seemed to stretch far beyond the normal counting of days), we flew to Guilin, a steaming subtropical city of only about 600,000 souls - small potatoes, by Chinese standards.

Oh, but this was the town of Big Potatoes, as our tour-guide, Forster, assured us. Many "Big Potatoes" (his term) had visited Guilin and declared its beauty, including several U.S. presidents.

"I have found that no city can surpass the beauty of Guilin," Richard Nixon once said of this city, as Forster reminded us. "Guilin is really a bright pearl in China."

It is that, and so much more: A place where densely forested mountains jut thousands of feet into the air in the middle of the congested cityscape; a place where caves of hallucinatory beauty pierce deep into the earth; a river town where fishermen can still feed a family; and a place where we finally learned why so few pandas died in the recent Sichuan earthquake.

"This is because they do not wear shoes," explained Forster matter-of-factly one day, as we cruised along in the countryside. "The feet give them the sixth sense of the earth, and so they knew that this earthquake was coming. We have lost this sixth sense because we wear shoes all of the time."

Good to know.

In Guilin, the Missoula group spent a day at the local Normal University, where they learned traditional Chinese ink painting and performed for a troupe of ballet students. We took a boat ride down the stunningly picturesque Lijiang River, and spent an afternoon in the cobblestone backpacker's haven of Yangshou.

Then on to Shanghai, a gargantuan metropolis more than twice the size of New York City. Gleaming and cosmopolitan, Shanghai spears the sky with dazzling buildings, including the second- and sixth-tallest structures in the world; it has been termed an "architect's playground," and it's easy to see why - especially given all the time we had to ponder those buildings as we sat in the standstill traffic that plagues the city.

Perhaps it was all the time spent in traffic, or perhaps it was the exhaustion and homesickness that had begun to set in; but our time in Shanghai seemed all too brief. We did manage to see the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou - a justly designated World Heritage Site - and the troupe performed for a crowd of about 300 people at the Shanghai Drama Academy.

We ate more good food, visited a historical museum, and began thinking of home.

We woke early on our last morning in Shanghai, with one last stop scheduled on the way to the airport: the Jade Buddha Temple, a serene and beautiful temple tucked in the thicket of downtown skyscapers.

For me, personally, it was a heavy day, and not just because I dreaded the long plane flight ahead. I was thinking a lot about my father, who had passed away in a hospital room in Texas during our second day in Shanghai.

My old college friend, Mary Frances Cappiello, who lives in Shanghai and met us at the temple for the morning, explained to me that local Buddhists come to the temple to burn paper in memory of those they have lost.

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So I made my way to the temple's shop, where a friendly man who spoke no English provided me with a large, red paper bag, a Sharpie pen, and a plastic bag full of hundreds of tiny pieces of folded silver paper. With Mary Frances serving as an interpreter, he explained that I was to write my father's name, my name, and the date on the red bag; then I was to open each folded piece of paper and place it in the bag; this represented money that I was sending as good wishes to my father.

I felt hurried; our group was readying to leave for the airport. But Mary Frances and the shopkeeper helped me unfold the paper, piece by piece. I laughed out loud as I thought of dad, sitting somewhere out there, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he waited for me to send him this bag of poker money.

Finally, we finished unfolding the silver paper. I carefully carried my overflowing bag out into the crowded courtyard of the temple, and with help from a cleaning woman, lit it afire and placed it in an iron urn. I watched through tears as it slowly burned away, the silver paper turning a brilliant mustard yellow, then to ash.

Suddenly, I realized that I was surrounded. The entire troupe of dancers had wordlessly gathered around, some holding hands, others watching the flames silently. Some didn't even know my father had passed away. But in this moment, in this faraway place, we found communion, and paused, and reminisced.

This moment I will never forget.

As I write this, I am flying across the Pacific Ocean, returning home. Scattered around me on the plane, the dancers doze in their seats. Each carries back to Missoula memories of her own, moments seared into eternity.

Several of them have already voiced grand proclamations about the trip.

"It was definitely the best trip of my life," said Shonto Pete, a 28-year-old Navajo/Salish-Kootenai traditional dancer who had never previously traveled outside North America. "It really changed my perspective on the world."

Will it change his perspective back home, make him a different person, recallibrate his priorities? It's impossible for him, or any of us, to say for certain yet. But it's hard to imagine that these dancers won't find their perspectives changed in at least subtle ways.

"I think it's going to be so tough to go back and get into the groove of things, because this trip has changed so much about the way that I look at things," said 16-year-old Sentinel High School sophomore Kelsey Foshag.

"It's definitely made me more aware of the parts of the world that are not like America," Foshag continued. "We're not used to seeing beggars in the street like that. … If I ever go back to China, it'd be cool to go back to help with the poverty because it's so sad that people have to live like that."

It's too soon to know if Foshag or any of her fellow dancers will actually return to China. But one thing is sure: Their minds will often stray across the Pacific as they reminisce about this experience.

For them and for me, China is no longer a mystery, but a memory. In that distinction lies the transformative significance of this venture to the other side of the earth.

Joe Nickell covers arts and entertainment for the Missoulian. He can be reached at (406) 523-5358 or by e-mail at

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