If you haven’t already, please read the Introduction post first before reading ch.1.
Chapter 1: My experiment
I sit there stupefied as I take in the endless sand dunes around me. Farther away, a few wandering camels can be spotted, but before I can come closer, they have run away. They are even smarter than domesticated camels. I have been dragging my feet along for hours, my eyes continuously searching, and by now I am exhausted. Without a GPS device, without a sense of direction, to keep walking on like this is pointless. Fortunately, it is mid-Autumn. The weather is dry but the temperature is not too low, making it endurable. But the darkening sky worries me. By the time the sun sets, if I continue to roam in the desert without any protection gears, I am bound to die by either hunger or hypothermia.
Even with my eyes closed, I still sway on my feet. The dizziness from landing has not dissipated. Tiredly, I lift my left wrist to look at the time travel watch, and let out a heavy sigh. The third attempt is still failure, even though it is an improvement on the first two attempts, since this time I was able to land.
I have participated in this time travel experiment for over a year. As a research student majoring in history, my original purpose was merely to help lead the project with the advisor – a renowned history professor. But after meeting me, the biologists insisted on conducting physicals on me, and concluded that I was perfect test subject-material.
There were no shortages of test subjects, but all the previous volunteers have all failed in their attempts. After sending them home to recuperate, the researchers then shifted their ‘psychological warfare’ to me. As a specialized research student, I have a responsibility and duty to unveil the mystery, to decode the answers, to give truth to history. To be able to go back and experience the events in ancient history, how many can boast of such an accomplishment? If successful, I will become a pioneer, and my name will get recorded in history books like a legend.
I am a workaholic. My motto in life is: ‘a thousand books, a thousand miles, a thousand life stories’. I wish to become accomplished, to make my ‘boss’ proud. ‘Boss’ is the endearing term we undergrads use to call the project advisor. Because of that, without even waiting for my full ‘agreement’, the eager researchers have already pushed me on the experiment platform.
The first attempt, I was gone for not even half a minute before I returned falling backwards. I could not remember anything except a dizzy and nauseous feeling when I time travelled. All the equipment I brought along—14c detector, GPS device, laptop, digital camera, etc—was ruined by the high-level radiation. And so after half a month in the hospital, I began an expedited training on using primitive tools, including a small shovel used in excavations.
The second attempt, there was some progress. I disappeared for about ten minutes. Everyone was overcome with joy and ready to begin a celebration party, but then I was heard falling down on the grass outside the experiment room. When I woke up, I recalled briefly an image of a village and streams of people that I saw when I was airborne in space. The setting and clothes seemed to belong to the Han dynasty. But before I could land, a powerful force had already pulled me back. All the primitive tools I brought along were also broken into pieces.
Based on my report, the researchers concluded that the experiment could bring us back in time to two thousand years ago. Consequently, I had to revisit the history books on the Warring States period and Qin-Han Dynasty while still on the hospital bed. My injuries not yet fully healed, I was already forced to sit up and to undergo another expedited training. This time I was trained on drawing diagrams and charts, and sketching architectural works. The researchers decided to not let me bring any heavy tools, only ones that are small and light but handy.
By the time I was six months into training, the testing equipment was upgraded to a CT scan. My tools this time included a big sketchpad and pencils. Before I began the test, my boss advised me to be careful. I was not allowed to leave behind any non-biodegradable garbage from the 21st century, because that will create problems for future archeologists and historians.
In the third attempt, I landed successfully without any injuries since I fell down on a desert. But I soon realized my dire situation. Without a person in sight or any sign of life, after several hours roaming, I am still unsure whether I have arrived in ancient times. I can only confirm one thing—I have left the experiment room.
There is no water, no food or medicine, because even if I bring them along they would have suffer irradiation. My Northface backpack only contains a Swiss Army Knife, a compass, clothes, a notepad, archeological tools, a sketchpad, pencils and some change in old currency. Nothing that can help my current situation. May be I should give up and return. The researchers will continue to improve the equipment and hopefully next time, I will land at a place with people. Unable to contain it, I let out a sigh full of regrets. But with the sky darkening, I have to hurry, or else there will not be enough solar energy to start the device.
I pull out the radiation protection hat stuffed inside my Han costume and cover my head, put on gloves, and pull on the zipper. Tilting the time travel watch toward the sun, I turn the safety lock and count: one, two, three…
I count to ten but still nothing happens. I continue: twenty, fifty, a hundred…
What is happening? I cannot possibly be that unlucky. I look at the watch again. Still not moving. I tap on it, no reaction. I raise the watch higher toward the sun, still nothing. I take off the watch, shake it vigorously, and still the power light did not appear green.
The wind is picking up, and soon the sun is covered by the billowing wind and sand. Damn this solar watch! Am I going to lose my life in this place of undetermined time and wilderness?
I point my finger to the sky and curse the researchers—not letting me bring any water or food, only some big and heavy coins, what is the point of it all? If I have known the watch was going to fail against the wind, I would have insisted on bringing food and water regardless of irradiation. After subjecting my body to this cursed watch three times, irradiation was already long happening. I would rather die by choking on irradiated bread than die by hunger and thirst this way!
I end the tirade when I get a mouthful of sand. The sun is disappearing fast on the skyline. Soon after, the desert will get freezing cold. My anti-radiation shirt can withstand wind and cold, but it can do nothing for my incoming hunger and thirst. I hunch my body and crawl up to a higher sand dune. Far ahead, in the dusty night, I spot sparks of a bonfire. I have never seen such warm light!
I cannot remember how long it took me to escape from that dark and hazy desert, except that by the time I stumble near the bonfire, my eyes are blurry and my throat is burnt dry. I notice that around the bonfire are various tents, sounds of people, and camels. Eyes bright, I burst into one of those tents and after that, I blackout.
Chapter 2: A monk and a nun
When I regain consciousness, I find myself surrounded by a group of strange-looking people: high nose, deep eyes, thin lips, round faces, short necks, smooth white skin, their pupils a dark brown. The men are thick and tall, the women plump and healthy. They all have curly hair, a reddish hue, down to their shoulders. Their clothes are even more unusual. The men are dressed in collared tunics with fitted sleeves and cinched at the waist. They wear boots high up to their knees and a sword slung on each of their back. The women’s dresses are knee-length with fitted sleeves. They wrap their shoulders in shawls and also wear high boots.
I am impressed with myself. Even in a state of exhaustion, I can still observe and describe the appearance and clothes of people around me like a professional with only a few glances. The information loses meaning when I start to smell the food.
There are only bread and bowls of hot noodles, but that is enough for me to salivate. I quickly take the food from the hands of a woman in her forties. After mumbling a thank you, I dig in ravenously. The bread soon vanishes and the noodle bowls follow after a few mouthfuls. My stomach finally regains some feeling. I still want to eat some more and hesitantly I begin to ask, only to realize a problem—we don’t speak the same language.
Not a surprise since a glance could already tell me they are not Han people, and I am still not certain whether I have returned to the past or not. Who knows, maybe this experiment is merely a free plane ride that can take me to some desert in the Middle East or Africa, only to meet a primitive nomadic tribe by chance. Maybe I am still in the 21st century. I try to use English, to no avail.
As I contemplate my dilemma amidst the strange sounds, two new people suddenly arrive in the tent. The others immediately stop their discussion and appear to be very respectful toward the newcomers. I can already guess their identities, but when they come closer, I get such a shock that renders me agape for a long minute.
They are a nun in her thirties and a young monk around fifteen, sixteen. But what surprised me the most is the dignified and noble aura they exude. They just stand there silently, and still their otherworldly aura spreads around me.
The nun’s face is similar to the other women, but her skin is a smoother white, her eyes are big, her eyebrows long and sleek. In her eyes there is a glimpse of worry. With her round and full body, even the simple brown kāṣāya* cannot hide its beauty. However, it seems the nun’s forehead is different compared to others—it is pressed down and back toward the nape, a somewhat bizarre image. I recall that ancient Egyptians and Persians used to have a custom of pressing their foreheads flat when young, but that practice was only limited to members of the royal family. I wonder whether the nun’s forehead was already like that at birth or got pressed afterward. Still, the flat forehead does nothing to lessen her beauty.
*kāṣāya: robes worn by Buddhist monks and nuns
My observation moves onto the fifteen-year-old monk and with a start, I realize how strangely bewitching his handsomeness is. Still the same high nose and deep eyes, but not as rugged as the others’. His face is exactly like a Greek statue, the lines radiant like a sculpture that was chiseled with great attention to detail. His countenance is a work of harmony: his eyebrows long and dark, his pupils a light gray and endlessly deep, untainted like the blue sky atop the desert. He may be young, but the air he exudes is majestic and bright, giving me a feeling of both warmth and intrigue.
His lips are thin but the lines are clear; when they are closed, the edges curved into an elegant line. His face is long, his chin sharp, situated on top of a thin and long neck like a swan, each line a vivid brush. Unlike the other men in the tent, his skin is the color of a honeycomb. Wrapped in a long cloak that covered his entire body, with his height at 1m70*, it makes him look even more imposing, but also renders his clothes rather plain. It is obvious he will continue to grow, maybe to 1m80* or taller.
*1m70 = 5’7” in height, 1m80 = 5’10”
I study those two strangers intently, my mind a mess, until I wake with a start when they begin to speak to me in broken Han.
It takes me a while before I realize they are asking me where I come from and why I am lost wandering here. I look at them with anguish and reply, “Please tell me, where is this place, and to which country does it belong to?”
The nun looks uncertain but the little* monk seems to have already grasped a few things. He suddenly bends down next to me; his handsome and pure face shines brightly. Bewitched by that beauty, my heart beats fast and I feel disoriented for a second.
*little as in age
“We arrive in Wensu, almost. You are Han?” he asks me.
Not yet recovered from my skipping heartbeat, I chuckle at how serious he looks despite his accented Han and mixed-up order of grammar.
Shyness overcomes him and his face reddens slightly, “Han language, I, speak not good.”
He turns back to the nun and speaks with her for a long while. I stop chuckling, trying to guess the place he referred to. From his pronunciation, it doesn’t seem like a place in the Central Plains [mainland China]. The monk turns back to me and continues with our conversation, “You, go, where?”
I reply eagerly, “Chang’an*, do you know it?”
*capital of ancient China for more than ten dynasties
Seeing the monk nod, I sigh in relief. So it is a landmark that exists and is known here.
“But…” the monk looks at me hesitantly. “Very far, alone, you?”
I nod my head tiredly. Right now, except for Chang’an, I cannot think of any other place. At the very least, I don’t have to worry about language barrier there.
“We, go Kuchi, you, on the way,” the monk says.
It takes him quite some effort to pronounce a word. I am brimming with laughter but I try hard to suppress it. Saving my life, and now making conversation with me, that is plenty to be grateful for. I wonder what is this Kuchi place? I must have already landed for seven, eight hours, and yet still no clue on where and when in time. A student researcher majoring in history from a famous university like me, what an embarrassment!
“You, your name?”
“Huh?” Lost in my own thoughts, it takes the monk asking a second time before I realize he is asking for my name.
“My name is Ai Qing.”
her name has the same pronunciation as the word “love” in Chinese.
My name has long been in a topic of laughter for people. Ever since I was young I was nicknamed “Love” [English]. The boys loved to tease and shout out my name: Oh, my love! [English]
I have fought to change my name but my parents refused. After a while I got used to it. Being called “ai qing” [love] is no big deal, except that after bearing such a name for years, there is still no sign of my love cupid.
“My name is…” the monk then says a long string of strange sounds that I cannot seem to remember.
I can only smile in reply. The monk patiently repeats it three times. Based on the pronunciation, I manage to find corresponding syllables in the Han language: Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, indeed quite hard to say. I try anyway, “Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba…”
His lips follow the ups and downs of my pronunciation and end in laughter—the sound high, pure and resonating like a stream of water against rocks. I suddenly remember, not too long ago it was me who laughed at his wrong Han pronunciation, now it is me on the receiving end. My cheeks burn.
The monk laughs for a bit and stops, perhaps noticing my reddening face. He points toward the beautiful nun standing behind, “Mother, my, Jiba.”
The beautiful nun is his mother? They are both monastic? Since he is so young, his mother must have induced him into Buddhism? A feeling of regret passes by me, but I soon chase it away. Jiba? I wonder if that is a given name or an honorific. I raise my voice and say her name. The nun nods at me.
“You, rest, we, tomorrow, journey,” are the monk’s last words.
After the two of them left, I stay back at the tent with four more women. I don’t understand what they say, but they seem friendly enough. Not daring to ask for more food, I lie down on the soft bedding they made especially for me.
So I am at a faraway place with a language barrier. Outside in the desert, the wind lets out a screeching sound, a terrible wail in the middle of the night. My heart weighs down, and every time I close my eyes, homesickness overcomes me and tears flow, wetting my pillow. I try to stop that pathetic feeling by using my most familiar method.
I begin to analyze the images that I saw before going to sleep and name each of the items: I lie on a bed with patterns sewn in rhombus shapes, my head lies on a pillow with flower patterns interspersed with small silver blocks, and my body is covered by a blanket with a triangle pattern. The item holding the water is a ceramic vase with one handle, patterned like a net. The bowl holding the bread earlier was a bowl made of clay. I guess that I have come to the ancient times because the techniques used to craft those items are still very primitive. Judging by the level of pottery skills in Central Plains, these techniques must have existed more than two thousand years ago. But I don’t know how it is here.
The screaming winds outside along with the steady breathing in the tent cannot stop the exhaustion and sleepiness coming to me. I curl up in the warm blanket and slowly fall asleep.
If any reader knows Chinese or is well-versed in Chinese history/Buddhism, you are welcome to comment on any inaccuracies. Comments on grammar and spelling mistakes are also appreciated. But do remember to be nice about it. Translating without any help or beta reader is hard work.