Adventurer who endured Mao's cruelties tells of China's wonders

December 09, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

As did so many seventh-graders during China's Cultural Revolution, Keren Su had his youth stolen from him when he was sent to a labor camp in the country's remote northeast region.

But he was one of the few to take it back.

When he was in his 30s, he rode a bicycle across 3,000 miles of his native land, before exploring four times as many miles by motorcycle. He led mountaineering expeditions to some of the world's highest places and rafted down the 1,250-mile Tarim River.

At age 42, entertaining children with his tales of adventure at Glenelg Country School on Monday, Mr. Su seemed like a walking history and geography textbook.

He told of being shunned as a junior high-age student -- simply because his father was a scholar of the ancient Chinese language.

A native of the coastal city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, Mr. Su became separated from his parents in the late 1960s.

"Chairman Mao used students as a tool in the very beginning of the revolution.

"He believed all of the young generation needed a taste of the bitter life, so he sent all of the students into the countryside."

But after the revolution ended in the 1970s and Mr. Su graduated from the Hangzhou Teacher's Institute in 1981, he began exploring.

He took countless photographs, and when his camera broke, he made line drawings of the people and places he visited. He also recorded conversations and wrote poetry.

During his 1981 bicycle trip, he was hired by the Xinjiang Mountaineering Federation and the next year became one of China's first mountaineering liaison officers.

He led numerous expeditions to the Pamir Plateau, known as the "Roof of the World," and even led expeditions to Mount Everest and K2, the world's highest and second-highest peaks, respectively.

Mr. Su spent all day at the private school in Glenelg, visiting classes, speaking to assemblies and even showing students the fundamentals of tai chi -- postures and exercises developed long ago in China both as a system of self-defense and as an aid to meditation.

Twice during the day and once in the evening for parents, Mr. Su showed a slide show accompanied by New Age synthesizer music.

Mr. Su never climbed to the top of 29,028-foot Mount Everest, but he showed the Maryland children photos he had taken from a base camp at 21,000 feet -- slightly higher than the highest point in North America. Children and adults alike were struck by images of golden sunlight reflecting off the rocky summit at an hour when the sun had already set at lower elevations. They were also treated to time-exposures of stars that seem to be streaking across the sky next to the mountain.

Another slide showed a boat made of inflated goatskins lashed together that Mr. Su used to cross the Yellow River. Another was of a sandstone hillside with one branch of the Silk Road, used by Italian explorer Marco Polo, winding through it.

"I found people who live there, they still use the ancient road," he said, explaining that people still use ancient modes of transporting goods -- yaks, camels, their own backs.

Of particular interest to many students were women in western China who wore gigantic headdresses made of their own hair woven with the hair of their ancestors.

Andy Mason, 12, who interviewed Mr. Su for the middle school's Glenelg Gazette, was struck by how foreign the idea was.

"It must have seemed commonplace to them, but it really seemed weird and kind of sick to us," he said.

Mr. Su's importation of modern technology seemed just as foreign when he visited the northwestern Xinjiang province. He showed a slide of a village of straw-roofed houses, explaining, "I took this photograph with everybody hiding, they were so scared of my motorbike."

One boy in an assembly Monday asked Mr. Su if he had seen the "Abominable Snowman," the mythical hairy, manlike creature known in the Himalayan region as the Yeti.

Although teachers grinned at the question, Mr. Su replied that he had, in fact, been on an expedition seeking evidence of the creature. The group followed large, poorly defined tracks in the melting snow, but they ended at the edge of a glacier.

Mr. Su came to Glenelg Country School because of his association with one of its founders, county developer Kingdon Gould. Mr. Su led Mr. Gould, his wife and several other couples on a trip around China during the summer.

Organizing such trips is part of how Mr. Su earns his living, along with selling paintings and lecturing. He has lived in Seattle for six years since, he said, "political problems" forced him to leave China.

"I don't like Communists," he said, adding that he left the country in part because "I was regarded as a representative of bourgeoisie liberalism."

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