I woke up to find the bus stopped in the middle of the desert alongside a convoy of container trucks and other vehicles. We were not yet halfway to Dunhuang and the road ahead had been closed by a stand storm. The Koreans started getting restless and after some discussion half the group got off the bus and disappeared into the storm. They were gone for ages. It obviously wasn’t just a toilet break so where had they gone to? After about 40 minutes the Koreans returned with two giant bottles of Chinese baijiu. They had wandered off into a sand storm on a booze run. You can always count on the Koreans!
The Koreans invited me to join them for a drink. One of the central sleeper beds served as a table and we sat around it drinking baijiu and munching on raisins, peanuts, biscuits and other snacks. The Koreans were a group of teachers from the ‘Gandhi School’, an alternative education school in South Korea. They were scouting out the route for a school trip designed to expose the students to the diversity of cultures in East Asia. Since they were just scouting the route they had only spent a few hours in each of Wulumuqi and Turpan, and were only going to spend a couple of hours in Dunhuang before continuing to Golmud and then Tibet. When they returned with the students they would spend longer in each place. The full trip would start out in Vladivostok and finish in Tibet. It sounded interesting.
One of the group was a well known Korean travel writer and peace activist. Her travel books focused on places with political problems, and she had been to Iraq several times to protest during the lead up to the Gulf War and the early months of the war itself. She said she wanted to write a new type of travel book that went beyond simply giving information on sightseeing, accommodation, food and entertainment. She thought there was an interest in travel books that gave directions on how to make contact with foreign cultures and particular local people. The language barrier made it hard to get exactly what she meant, but it seemed an interesting idea.
We chatted a while about other things, including North Korea, the Iraq War, popular attitudes in China, and why successful revolutions always end in dictatorships. The travel writer finished by telling me I should write a book. People always seem to be saying that to me, so maybe I should.
It became difficult to talk after the bus started moving again, around midday, so we went back to our sleeper berths and alternately dozed or watched the desert scenery. Eventually we got to Dunhuang and I said goodbye to the Koreans and went off looking for a hotel. Considering the massive number of hotels in Dunhuang the driver seemed to have a hard time finding a suitable place. I guess he must have been taking a cut himself from the hotels he took me around. The first couple were bad quality and overpriced. The one I finally settled on was OK but a little overpriced given that there appeared to be a glut of accommodation in town and no tourists. I should have told the driver to get lost and dragged my bags round town myself but after a nearly 24 hours bus ride I just wanted to quickly find a place to dump my stuff and have a shower.
I had dinner at a Sichuanese restaurant. The food was average but the waitress was interesting. She was Mongolian from Inner Mongolia and on seeing me started talking to the rest of the staff about foreigners and how wonderful they were. Hearing her talk there seemed to be no area in which foreigners were not superior to Chinese. She praised me for going traveling alone, saying few Chinese would ever do such a thing. She talked about how foreigners knew how to enjoy their lives while Chinese only knew how to save money. She said foreigners exercised more than Chinese and were healthier. She said they danced better. She even told the other staff to say ‘waiguoren’ instead of ‘laowai’ when talking about foreigners, saying it was more respectful. I agree with her about the ‘laowai’ word, but wondered where she had picked this up. Most Chinese are insensitive to how ‘laowai’ sounds. I had a feeling she might have had a western boyfriend at some point.
It was sad to hear some of what she had to say though. Apparently she had applied for a French visa but never saved the money to travel to France and eventually the visa expired. She wistfully talked about how she would travel the world for 2 years if she had US$400k. She obviously had no idea how much US$400k could buy. Of course you easily could spend US$400k traveling the world in two years, but you could just as easily travel for two years far more cheaply.