10 • Touchstone Button

10 • Touchstone Button

In September 1994, I flew from Hong Kong to Kunming with George and Catherine Ortiz. Our plan was to travel by road as far as Lijiang on the eastern slopes of the Himalayas, and return from there two weeks later by plane via Kunming to Hong Kong.

Lijiang is a beautiful small town built of wood and stone, arranged feng-shuily athwart three streams, and once rich from its place on the Tea and Horse trade route. The people of this area belong to the ‘Naxi Ethnic Minority’. Ezra Pound accorded Lijiang a Shangri-La-like status in his final cantos, although he had never been there; and Bruce Chatwin devoted a chapter of What Am I Doing Here to his visit there in 1985. For other reasons, also, Lijiang has been discreetly famous for a long time.

It is home to an orchestra that plays music composed in the courts of Tang and Song China, music otherwise completely unknown after the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century. Somehow, this ancient and refined court music has been uniquely preserved by the Naxi people in a remote north-west corner of Yunnan Province. It is said that the Tang Emperor sent an orchestra in the 9th century as a present to a local ruler who had helped him militarily, and the assumption is that as these court musicians aged, they passed on their style of music-making to local Naxi musicians. Rather like the troupe of Katthak dancers sent to the King of Granada by the Vijayanagar ruler in India in the 15th century, which had a lasting effect on the flamenco dances of Andalucia. Confusingly, another legend has it that the orchestral gift to the Naxi ruler came from Kubilai Khan himself during his military campaign in Yunnan of 1253, so the music played by this unique orchestra is either Yuan, Sung or Tang, or a mixture of them all. The second wonder of Lijiang is a tree in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery a few miles outside town, a peony tree known as the ‘Tree of 20,000 blossoms’.

It was early evening when we walked up the winding cobbled streets of old Lijiang from our hotel below. A few stalls were opening for the evening market, brightly lit, displaying piles of vegetables and domestic bric-a-brac, and among them was one stall with a sign saying ‘Antiques’. We went over to have a look. The previous day in Kunming flea-market I had bought a pair of unusually elegant old ivory chopsticks. George not only admired them, but to my surprise coveted them, so much so that he bought several pairs of chopsticks around the market and then proposed a swap – quantity for quality. It was not so much the quality that was inferior but none of his made a true pair, which he knew, and it irked him, particularly at dinner that night as I ate with my incomparably superior pair. As a result, when he spotted a tin full of chopsticks at the back of this stall in Lijiang, he made haste towards them, while I scanned the glass-topped cases in front, filled with miserable Mao-period memorabilia. The only thing that drew my attention was a button of matt black stone, which I guessed was a piece of touchstone, and I indicated to the owner of the stall that I wanted to see it. Spotting us in conversation, George rushed over, demanding to know what I had found. I explained that it was a piece of touchstone for which the price was $30, an absurd amount, so that if he wanted it he was welcome to it. He examined it and put it back into the case.

Next morning we drove out to the monastery with the prolific peony tree. Although architecturally unremarkable – traditional low monastic buildings arranged symmetrically around a rectangular courtyard – its situation is spectacular, wedged on a ledge cut into a vast and magnificent empty flank of the Himalayas. The monastery suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution, when the gangs of thugs arrived, and stole its religious patrimony, trashed what could not be removed, and then murdered the community of monks who lived there. Except that they missed one, who, extraordinarily, did not run away but instead hid nearby, because he realised that the pig-ignorant revolutionaries had missed the great treasure of the monastery – its tree of peonies. Such a tree needs looking after, and this he did for years at great personal risk, bringing the oil secretly at night to lubricate its extravagant roots, and ensuring a sufficient supply of water. And there the old monk still was when we visited, looking after his monastery and tree, in a place with a sweetness about it that you never wanted to leave.

Two days later I opted out of George’s somewhat intense cultural programme and chose instead to pass a lazy day back on the terrace of the monastery. Arriving in Lijiang at the end of that day, I learned from the hotel receptionist that Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz had already set out on their walk through town, and were expecting me for dinner at a restaurant opposite the hall of the Lijiang Orchestra, for whose performance we had tickets that night. There was a light drizzle as I began my walk up through town, and stopping by the ‘Antiques’ stall on the way found the owner suffering from toothache, his jaw swathed in bandages. Interrupting his groans, I enquired again about the price of the touchstone button, which for the $1 he was now asking I bought, and slipped into my pocket. I spotted George and Catherine a little further on haggling at another stall and went over to greet them. Once we had exchanged details of our respective days, George turned to me and said: ‘I don’t waste my time like you do, look what I found while you were loafing around!’ and he started pulling an unexpected quantity of chopsticks from the various pockets of his tweed jacket. ‘There, what do you think of that?’ he asked, triumphantly. Relieved that my own pair was back at the hotel so that the immediate prospect of comparison and commentary was avoided, I congratulated him on having what must be the finest collection of chopsticks in Yunnan, if not in the whole of China, and he seemed rather pleased.

When we sat down in the restaurant George generously insisted I use a pair of his chopsticks for dinner, and as I was choosing a pair asked whether I had found anything to buy that day. I took the touchstone from my trouser pocket and flipped it onto the tablecloth. As soon as he saw it his face became contorted by a storm of conflicted emotions, until he shouted at me: ‘ You had no right to buy that! It’s mine! You told me I could have it!’ The violence of the outburst took me by surprise, as much as it alarmed our near neighbours in the restaurant. He continued, but more quietly: ‘You’re devious, dishonest and ungrateful, you told me $30 was too much so you could get it yourself!’ ‘No, George, $30 was too much, I just bought it for $1, and by the way, since I paid for it, it’s mine, not yours.’ The obvious next step was to hand it to George as a gift, but there was something in the dynamic of the situation which had further to go, because owning this worthless piece of stone, I realised, had temporarily made me the owner of George Ortiz as well. I vaguely remembered a story from long ago, called something like ‘The monkey, the cherry and the bottle.’

After dinner we crossed the cobbled street and sat in the columned atrium of an old mansion that now served as the Orchestra’s home. The performance was very moving, for its mournful, haunting melodies played on instruments that still existed only because they had been hidden from the Cultural Revolution by these ancient, long-white-bearded gentlemen in their elegant robes, who played so impassively by flickering candle-light, as if the entire span of what they represented was little more than the pluck of a plectrum.

When it was over and we went outside, the drizzle had become a torrential downpour, and as we stood waiting for a taxi I saw George slip Catherine some cash with which she slipped back into the mansion. Back at the bar of the hotel talk turned to the new weather conditions, and the barman was adamant that if the rain continued through the night and into next day, the Kunming flight would be cancelled. The only way to catch our connection from Kunming to Hong Kong the day after was to take the bus that stopped for passengers at lunchtime next day just outside the hotel. The trip took seventeen hours, and passengers travelled in hammocks packed like sardines in a very smelly tin. George went up to bed, and as I was ordering a final nightcap, Catherine came up and pressed two tapes into my hands, saying that George realised how much I had loved the music and wanted me to have these recordings as a souvenir. I was within a split-second of feeling very touched, when it occurred to me that the expected response was: oh how nice, and I would like George to have this precious piece of touchstone in exchange. I kissed Catherine goodnight, asked her to thank George for the tapes, and turned back to my drink.

Next morning the rain was intense, and the cancellation of our flight became inevitable. We got tickets for the bus, and then I wondered how best to spend the intervening hours and anaesthetise ourselves to the extent that it was possible, facing seventeen hours in a bus. Next to the hotel was a small bar owned by a young local couple, who had introduced me to the dark sweet wine of Lijiang, which they drink piping hot. I took George and Catherine there and we sat in their low-slung chairs to drink their potent brew, until indeed ‘all our problems seemed to fade away’, transfixed by the drumming of the rain, and the hot wine running through our veins. Until, that is, in our hazy tavern, George turned to me and said:

‘I only wish I could have made this trip with Bruce Chatwin.’
‘So do I, George,’ I answered.
‘What do you mean?’ ‘Mean’ was almost screamed.
‘If Bruce had been here, he would have written an incredible story about the world’s greatest collector of antiquities who lost his mind in Lijiang because he was unable to possess a piece of touchstone the size of a button.’

There was a considerable pause, and then George broke out into uncontrollable guffaws of laughter, contagious to the point that we all laughed until we no longer had the strength to continue.

I never did give the touchstone button to George. I felt the story it had to tell me was different from the one it could tell if he owned it. Each time he came to stay with me in London thereafter, I would put it on his bedside table next to the alarm clock, and the matter was never referred to again.