Archive for May, 2007

Xinjiang Trip Day 29 (17-4-2007)

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

I slept until fairly late but when I finally woke up I found it was a beautiful day. Chongqing is famously polluted and has only a handful of clear days a year. The storm had blown all the pollution away and so today was one of those rare days.

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I visited the small Flying Tigers museum, and then General Stillwell’s Residence. Both were interesting and had extensive displays in English. The General Stillwell Residence was built in an unusually modern style for China at that time. An American couple were being shown around the house by a local guide who was telling them far more about China’s growing economy than General Stillwell. They asked a question about the museum, and got an anecdotes about how many mobile phones her family now owned in response. I bought an interesting T-shirt based on the patch that the Flying Tigers wore on the back of their jackets. The T-shirt had the ROC flag on it (i.e. the current Taiwanese flag) and Chinese script explaining that the foreigner wearing the jacket was an American who had come to help the war effort, and that all patriots should provide him with protection, medical care, food and other assistance.

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In the afternoon I went out to Chiang Kai-shek’s official residence at Nanshan, also the site of the Flying Tigers command and training centers. The residences were set in a large hilly park on the south side of the river outside central Chongqing. The buildings on the site were all in more or less the same style and I guess they were all commissioned together. The so called ‘museum’ of the anti-Japanese war located on the site was more or less an empty room. The park was full of staff members relaxing around outside tables sipping tea and playing cards and Majong.

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Back in town I took a cable car (??) ride across the river. By late afternoon the pollution was starting to come back but the views of central Chongqing were stil quite dramatic.

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After the cable car ride I saw a sign advertising an ‘Erotic Street’ and went to investigate.

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The Chinese on the sign hadn’t said ‘erotic’, and so I wasn’t surprised to find the ‘erotic street’ was merely a tourist market selling handicrafts and local snacks. I think the word the translator was really looking for had been ‘exotic’. Of course even ‘exotic’ was a slightly odd description of a run of the mill market, but then the Chinese have a weakness for hyperbolic nomenclature.

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Taxi drivers I had asked about what there was to do in Chongqing had kept suggesting I check out a place called Yangrenjie (literally ‘westerner street’). At least one of them had given me the impression it was some kind of a bar street. I decided to go and check it out in the evening. The driver told me that he figured it would be closed but we could go and take a look if I really wanted. I should have listened to him. Yangrenjie turned out to be located miles out of town, and as he warned it was deserted when we arrived. It was a sort of cheesy architectural theme park, with miniature Eiffel towers, ‘crazy’ log cabins turned upside down, and so on. To add to the exotic atmosphere, within the park cars were apparently required to drive on the left rather than the right – opposite to the normal practice in China. It was all a bit silly though perhaps in the day time it would have made a nice picnic spot. The driver did his best to make it interesting but there was no point in hanging around and so I had him take me home.

Xinjiang Trip Day 28 (16-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I took a taxi out to Hongye Park, the site of the headquarters of the CCP and KMT governments during the latter part of the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance. There was a large and boring museum on CCP history. More interesting was the former CCP headquarters. There was little in the way of a display, but it was atmospheric to walk around Mao Tzedong’s old office, the radio room from which CCP radio broadcast to the base at Yan-an in Shaanxi, and so on. The old KMT headquarters building, located just down the hill, sat crumbling and neglected, and was not open to visitors.

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I asked a few locals where to get a good hotpot and one name that kept cropping up was 秦妈火锅 so I went there for dinner. This shop was recommended for its river front location and for the fact that the hot pots are based on a fresh spice mix. Worried the food might be too spicy I ordered a ‘yuanyang’ pot (??), or ‘Mandarin Duck pot’, which means a single pot divided into two separate compartments containing spicy and non-spicy soup. There is a Chinese belief that mandarin ducks remain faithful to a single mate throughout their lives, so in culinary terms yuanyang has become a kind of slang term for various popular combinations of two things. For example in a teashop a ‘yuanyang’ is a glass of milky coffee mixed with tea, while in a budget lunch canteen a ‘yuanyang rice’ is two different stir fried dishes served on rice. The food turned out to be excellent and surprisingly leaned more towards being fragrant rather than numbingly hot. Besides chili oil and Sichuan peppers there were a lot of other unidentified things floating around in the pot. The hotpot base was much better than in Shanghai.

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After dinner I went looking for a bar that had been recommended online called DD’s Bar. It was a mission to find but eventually I got there and found the place deserted except for a solitary Australian guy who gave the impression of being a fixture of the place, maybe its only fixture. He seemed delighted to have some company for a change and after finishing a drink in DD’s he suggested going to the more expensive Japanese themed bar slightly further up the hill. The Japanese place had a few more customers, four to be exact, and four girls working there. The customers were all foreign, including a Japanese and a German guy in addition to the Australian an myself. It made for a nice balance, and as the only customer who could talk to the girls much beyond asking for another drink I was probably having the most fun.

A storm began after we had been sitting in the place for a while and steadily built up into a major typhoon type of thing. The girls began worrying that a branch was going to come off one of the trees outside and decided to close the electric shutters at the front of the shop. Within a minute or two of them rolling the shutters down there was a massive thunderclap somewhere nearby and the power went out. There was no other way out of the bar so we were stuck.

Once some candles were found the situation began to look quite appealing. We had unlimited booze, the male-female ratio was perfectly matched and the girls all seemed to love me, and I didn’t exactly have anything urgent I needed to do. As predicaments went this was a pretty good one. Initially it was fun, but as an hour without power stretched to two hours, then three hours, everyone began getting a little frustrated. In the end everyone scattered around the couches in the bar and slept. Finally at 5am the power came back on and we were free.

Xinjiang Trip Day 27 (15-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I took a morning bus to Chongqing. The trip took around five hours along a high speed road and was fairly uneventful. I sat beside a girl carrying a massive backpack on her lap. The pack was so big she couldn’t see above the top of it. Since she seemed to be traveling I asked her about her trip. She told me she was not really on a trip, but was just going home to Chongqing. She said her backpack was a new one she had just bought to take on a company vacation to Europe in a couple of weeks time, and she was just taking the bag on a mini-trip to Chengdu and back to get used to traveling with it. It seemed a bit odd but she was making her first trip outside China and I suppose she wanted to be well prepared.

Arrival in Chongqing was confusing, with the bus station being well outside the center of town and filled with taxi drivers trying to scam new arrivals. I walked through the touts and out to the road where I found a normal taxi. The driver took me to strip of cheap hotels in the center of town and I booked into one. The place was a little sleazy and run down and I ended up moving to a better and slightly more upmarket place the next day.

The lay out of Chongqing was very unusual for a Chinese city. Most Chinese cities are flat and laid out on a square grid, but Chongqing’s location on a narrow peninsula in the Yangtze River makes this impossible. Chongqing thus is similar to Central in Hong Kong, comprising narrow winding streets set on steep slopes. The city is very compact and interesting to walk around, but also easy to get lost in.

I walked to Jiefangbei (???) in the center of town, wandered around the shops for a while, and ended up having some Sichuanese food in a hole in the wall restaurant. The city was far more developed than I’d expected, with plenty of big brand name stores in evidence.

Xinjiang Trip Day 26 (14-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

In the afternoon I visited the museum on Sichuan archeology, history and culture in Sichuan University campus. I nearly missed finding the place since the old museum building was boarded up and the new building appeared to be locked from the campus side, with the only entrance being from the street outside. For a while it looked like I was going to be disappointed again on the museum front, but eventually I found my way in. The museum was extremely good for a university collection, with lots of samples of Qing and Ming embroidered fabrics and decorative paper. The 10 RMB entrance fee was also very reasonable.

Xinjiang Trip Day 25 (13-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Without enough time to do any more serious traveling (i.e. going out to Emei Mountain or some other big sights) I just spent a day messing around. I did a little work in Starbucks, arranged plane tickets out of China (flying to Taiwan for a couple of days before going onto Malaysia), tried a couple of local snacks (jellified doufu mixed in a spicy sauce, or 豆花, and ‘dan dan noodles’, or 担担面, noodles in spicy peanut sauce).

In the evening I went to a teashop and did some writing up of my blog. A Wenzhouese guy at the next table started chatting with me and ended up coming over to join me. He was a nice guy. On hearing I had lived in Taiwan we yet again got onto the ‘Taiwan problem’. Unlike a lot of Chinese he was a reasonably logical debater. Not all of his arguments were very logical; for example, he said that since Taiwan was inhabited by people of Chinese descent it should logically belong to China (the example of Singapore demonstrates the silliness of this argument). However, he could understand why that argument wasn’t logical, reconsider, and come up with a new argument. Not once did he raise his voice and insist that I did not understand China. I had to like the guy.

We talked for a couple of hours and he invited me out for hotpot the following night. His invitation was the usual Mainland Chinese ‘invitation to a foreigner I just met’. That is, he raised his voice so that everyone in the teahouse would know he, a Chinese, would be treating me, a foreigner, to hotpot the following night. He didn’t end up making good on his invitation but never mind. I had a feeling he wanted the thrill of inviting me out in front of his tea house friends more than he wanted to spend another evening chatting with me. After two hours of talking I had probably had enough of him too.

It was already quite late when I tried to get a taxi driver to take me somewhere I could get some traditional Sichuanese snacks. He took me to a touristified development called Jinli (锦里). It was something like Shanghai’s Xintiandi, a couple of lanes of restored or imitation Chinese lane houses, filled mostly with bars and restaurants. There was no Chinese food to be had so I ended up with a bad cheeseburger in a grubby but cheerful place called Claire’s or similar.

I was still hungry afterwards so I got another taxi and tried again. This time I had more luck and was taken to a strip of late night restaurants on the south side of the city that served congee and stir fried dishes. I ordered a pork dish with ginger and chili. The food didn’t really have a Sichuan taste, with the emphasis being on the pork and ginger. The manageress stopped by again to ask me how I liked it, and confessed that since I was a foreigner they had cooked a different dish to the one I had ordered. She told me that was what she used to do for her foreign customers when she ran her own small restaurant in the 1990s. I was slightly irritated, but she was trying to be nice so I didn’t show it.

She came back with photos of her old restaurant and customers. It seemed her place had been very popular with westerners. She thumbed through the photos and found ‘another New Zealander’ – a paunchy guy wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. I suspected she was making things up to stimulate my interest in her photos. It was sad to watch her flick through the album though. Her restaurant had apparently been torn down when the government redeveloped the neighborhood and for various reasons (mostly problems finding a suitable space) she had never reopened it People imagine China as a place that is opening up and where the people now have more opportunities than ever before. The reality though is that for a lot of people the best times have already passed. In the southern coastal cities like Chaozhao, Shantou and Xiamen it is common to hear people bemoan the struggling economy, and the boarded up bar streets in some of these cities are testimony to boom times long gone – at least for some. . .

Xinjiang Trip Day 24 (12-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I had a coffee and pie in Starbucks then wandered off to the Sichuan Provincial museum. The taxi driver took me to the museum and ‘discovered’ it had been pulled down a few months previously. To be exact he said that he didn’t realize I wanted to go to the museum itself, and thought I said ‘museum’ but was really going to do something nearby. Perhaps he was for real. He did tell me straight up that he could take me to the location the museum had moved to, but that he was 90% certain nothing had opened there yet. I asked him to take me anyway. As expected the museum was closed, until next year. I seemed to be having bad luck with museums on this holiday. Who rips a museum down and puts the stuff in storage before building a new museum anyway? The way they do things in China can sometimes be bizarre.

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All was not lost though because the site of the new museum happened to be very close to the Qing Yang Gong (青羊宫) Daoist temple, one of the main Daoist centers in China. It was a beautiful temple set in a serious of lush green courtyards. I ended up spending a least a couple of hours there since the place was just so relaxing. The monks were a friendlier lot than average too, stopping their sweeping up of the courtyard to offer to help me take photos.

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In the teahouse I chatted with a young Daoist priestess (or maybe it should be nun – I’m not really sure). She was interesting to chat to. As so often seems to happen the conversation got onto Taiwan after she found I had lived there, and things got a little complicated. It wasn’t that she was some chauvinist advocate of reunification at any cost; it was just that she was completely unaware that the Chinese government regularly threatened Taiwan militarily and interfered in its affairs in other ways. She seemed appalled (though still somewhat doubting) when I told her how the Chinese government had behaved during the aftermath of the 921 Earthquake in 1999, interfering with the rescue effort by requesting that other nations coordinate their aid efforts through Beijing rather than dealing directly with Taipei. Specialist teams of sniffer dogs trained to locate casualties in rubble sat stranded at European airports, their coordinators unsure of what to do, while people who just might have been saved died instead. It was a bit much for her and she retreated for a while and left me drinking my tea alone. When she came back we avoided revisiting the topic and talked about lighter stuff.

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I dropped by the police station to see if I could extend my visa for a few more days beyond the 18th but had no luck, so I guess my trip will finish in Chongqing.

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I tried some more Sichuan food for dinner, getting some stir fried beef in a chili sauce (far too hot to enjoy) and a dish of beans stir fried with garlic, chili, Sichuan peppercorns and garlic (very good).

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Xinjiang Trip Day 23 (11-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I caught yet another early morning bus, this time a 7 am bus to Chengdu. It was nearly a 12 hour trip, initially across the plateau, and then on a seemingly endless descent though the mountains. There must have been at least 8 hours of driving on mountain roads. A new road was under construction and in places the bus was forced to use alternative dirt roads. At one point we passed a truck that was completely stuck in the mud.

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In places the scenery was dramatic. The road followed a river downwards towards the town of Songpan. Parts of the town were still surrounded by the original city walls, while other parts were surrounded by what looked to be an oversized reconstruction. Below Songpan the river spilled into a decent sized lake. The road wound along cliffs high above the lake. Near the base of the lake was an imposing Qiang minority watchtower. The position of the tower at the top of the sheer cliffs was so commanding, and yet the tower was itself completely dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. It would have made for a truly amazing photograph but unfortunately the bus shot past far too fast. After the tower the scenery became a little more mundane. The road turned into a new valley and the river disappeared. The vegetation increased as we drove steadily downwards, the mountains shrank and the towns grew. In the foothills of the mountains were a couple of sizable but extremely elongated towns that sprawled barely a street wide along the length of the valleys. Eventually we emerged onto the plain an hour or two away from Chengdu and the scenery became more typical suburban China.

I took a taxi from the bus station in Chengdu and ended up in a slightly overpriced hotel in the central city. The taxi driver probably got a commission from the hotel (another taxi driver told me later that that particular hotel was well known for paying drivers to bring guests in). Unfortunately it was rush hour and there were few free taxis around so it seemed too much hassle to change hotels. The next day I changed to an equally good but significantly cheaper hotel across the road.

I took a wander around the city. The center of town was a little antiseptic but the place felt very comfortable. The sub-tropical weather and greenery reminded me of Taipei. I had some simple Sichuanese food ‘yu xiang rou si’ (鱼香肉丝 – or fish flavored meat strips, which doesn’t involve any fish but supposedly tastes like fish) and a spicy mushroom dish, then dropped by the Shamrock Irish pub for a drink. The Shamrock had a good crowd in, mostly foreigners.

Xinjiang Trip Day 22 (10-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

The next day it was another 7am start for the bus to Ruoergai in Sichuan. The road dropped a little in elevation but the altitude remained quite high. Most of the journey was across a grassy and occasionally marshy plateau, dotted with villages and grazing yaks.

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Once again my ten year old guidebook was less than informative. I was told to expect Ruoergai to be a small collection of ugly buildings, including one or two hotels, and inhabited mainly by a dangerous sounding dreadlocked minority called ‘Golocks’ (or something similar), who apparently liked to ride through the town on motorbikes, sporting large knives and threatening tourists. My plan was to make a dash through the gauntlet of knife wielding ‘Golocks’ and head straight to a hotel, probably remaining in my room with the door locked until morning. Of course if things went badly I would probably get surrounded by marauding ‘Golocks’ and be forced to draw my own pair of Uigur knives. I’d definitely end up having to abandon my bags as I fought the Golocks off. With luck I’d probably be able to push one of them off his bike without actually having to kill him, allowing me to steal the bike and escape. The Chinese policemen would be sympathetic about the bike theft but wonder why I was stupid enough to come to Ruoergai given the dangers of the place.

I found that whatever Ruiergai had once been, these days it was a picturesque little town recently rebuilt in a Tibetan style. There were neat rows of buildings painted with Tibetan motifs. The place was once again full of hotels. There were no obvious ‘Golocks’. It was all a bit anticlimactic and I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. There were a lot of policemen cruising the streets for a small town, so maybe the place had a rough history. It was hard to imagine looking at the scene now though.

I checked into a hotel and went for walk around town. The place was a reasonable size, bigger than either Xiahe or Langmusi, but probably smaller than Hezuo. There was nothing too special to see though. I got a haircut and as the stylist cut my hair the Sichuanese boss asked me why America couldn’t be more like China, which apparently throughout history had never attacked another country but only fought wars to defend itself. He had a point about American aggression, but didn’t seem to know much about its Chinese equivalent, and was oblivious to the irony that the U.S. had also justified its Iraq war as a necessary defensive measure in the ‘War on Terror’. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear me say that China must have attacked other countries to have become a nation with such large ethnic minorities living in its extensive border regions (i.e. Uigurs in Xinjiang, and Tibetans in Tibet and the surrounding provinces), but grudgingly conceded that I could have a point.

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I spent the afternoon doing a little work in a Tibetan tea shop and restaurant. I had another opportunity to try Sampa and Momo. This time the Sampa seemed to be the genuine article and the Momo were far tastier than at the previous place in Xiahe, quite delicious in fact. The Sampa was interesting but not something I’m ever likely to find myself craving in future. Besides the hard cheese it was not bad, but the hard cheese was like leather and just too hard to chew. On the other hand the butter tea used to mix the Sampa was better than I expected. Rather than being floating with oil the tea was properly emulsified. It had a sour taste a little like the Uigur milk tea, plus a nutty flavor from cracked grains that were stewed together with the tea. Pretty good stuff.

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I took another wander around town in the evening but once again found nothing much of interest. In a small store I found an interesting bottle of something called ‘Za Jiu’ (å’‚é…’) or ‘Qingke Jiu’ (青稞酒), which looked to be a Tibetan beer. It was grain based but tasted was nothing like beer. It was flat, winey, and somewhere between homebrew gone wrong and a complex sour beer from Belgium. Overall it was probably closer to homebrew gone wrong than anything else, but I bought a second bottle for later anyway. Something about it was oddly like mead, with an almost primeval flavor.  The label claimed a surprising 11% alcohol by volume, which really didn’t come through in the taste. It was produced somewhere down the road in Songpan.

Still drinking the first bottle I wandered into a Tibetan restaurant and asked to see a menu. As the boss explained there was no menu I noticed how absolutely filthy the place and everyone in it was and used the lack of a menu as my excuse to make apologies and leave. I tried a busy little Chinese restaurant instead. There were no free tables but a couple of Tibetan monks invited me to join them. They were impressed to see me drinking the local brew, an attitude which hinted at less than complete devoutness but nevertheless made me well disposed towards them. I ordered some food and we chatted over dinner.

The monks were in their mid-20s but looked much older and had been monks since childhood. They came from a monastery near Langmusi and were passing through town for some reason or another. The younger one was quite well traveled and had been to Lhasa as well as some of the big coastal Chinese cities. He was vegetarian which and his older friend kept teasing him about this – behavior which didn’t seem very monk like. The older one was the more talkative of the pair but said he had never been to a big city, not even to Chengdu or Lanzhou. They talked reverentially about the Dalai Lama, lowering their voices and looking anxiously around as they did so, and expressed the hope that one day he would be return to Tibet. If I knew more about Tibetan Buddhism maybe I could have asked them some interesting questions, but I didn’t get the feeling they were necessarily that spiritual themselves.

They were actually quite funny. The older one told me that his religion meant it was absolutely forbidden for them to ask me if I had one or more girlfriends in China. The younger one leaned forward listening intently. They were clearly desperately interested in this topic! I told them that my last girlfriend had been Japanese but living in Shanghai. They tut-tuted and told me that I really shouldn’t have divulged that information. I told them it was really no problem and asked if there were any more topics we shouldn’t talk about – just in case. The older one said that we probably shouldn’t talk about things like alcohol and cigarettes, but that the most important thing was not to talk about sexual stuff. For example, he definitely shouldn’t ask me if my ex-girlfriend was pretty or not. The younger one leaned across excitedly again. I told them that I thought she was pretty but of course that was just my opinion and they might think differently. They agreed about different people having differences in aesthetic opinion, and mentioned that as Tibetans they found Tibetan girls pretty but that Chinese didn’t. Of course they added that this was all hypothetical and being monks they didn’t personally have any opinions on female beauty. The younger one asked me if I had a photograph of my ex-girlfriend. The older one frowned and scolded him in Tibetan. I didn’t have a photograph to show them in any case so had to apologize. It seemed the conversation had become too risque though so we moved onto other topics. As the restaurant began to empty I told them I’d better be heading back to my hotel and said goodbye. They gave me their phone numbers and told me to give them a call if I visited Langmusi again.

Xinjiang Trip Day 21 (9-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I got up at 5.30 am to make the 6 am bus to Hezuo. I took the earliest bus to try and make as much progress along the road to Chengdu in Sichuan as possible. I arrived in Hezuo around 7.30 am, too late for the only bus to Zoige, a town situated in the grasslands across the Sichuan border. That left me with the second best option of waiting for a bus to Langmusi, a Tibetan town in the mountains on the Gansu-Sichuan border.

I went into a restaurant outside the Hezuo bus station and had some noodles. With time to kill I pulled out my laptop to write up some stuff for my blog. The waitress’s reaction was alarming even to somebody used to getting odd reactions from Chinese people. She shrieked in amazement, gave a little jump on the spot, ran over to ask me several questions I couldn’t understand, and started calling the rest of the staff out of the kitchen to look. The boss’s wife, who spoke much more standard Chinese than anyone else, told her I was using a computer and that computers were the absolute cutting edge these days. She said I would be taking records of the restaurant so other foreigners would be able to find it, which seemed ridiculous when she said it but in a sense she was right since I have ended up writing about her restaurant.

It took several minutes before everyone stopped crowding round watching and went back to work. Twenty minutes later a Tibetan couple probably in their late 30s came in and were similarly amazed. The woman was clearly desperate to look at my guidebook and map so I invited her to sit down and help herself. She sat and poured over them intently for an eternity. I was certain she didn’t understand the English guidebook, and she also may not have understood the Chinese characters on the map. While she did that her husband stood behind me watching me type and softly sang a Tibetan song. I noticed a few Tibetans had a habit of very unselfconsciously singing to themselves as they went about their business. When he finally spoke her husband turned out to speak reasonable Chinese, not exactly good but enough to communicate fine. He asked me where I was from, if New Zealand was in China or America, and if we had yaks there. I had to disappoint him on the yak front but volunteered sheep as a sort of consolation prize. Despite seeming so interested in the computer he never asked me a question about it. Either he thought it would have been rude, didn’t want to embarrass himself, or didn’t have the words to ask. Eventually the Tibetans’ food arrived and they went to eat.

The bus ride to Langmusi was mainly across rolling hills on a high plateau and passed lots of Tibetan settlements. There was an interesting variety of architectural styles. Some villages were of squarish mud and brick courtyard houses in a vaguely Chinese style, others comprised brick block houses wrapped in glass conservatories, and others were extraordinary medieval looking affairs of wood and mud houses surrounded by stockades and with brightly colored prayer flags fluttering in poles near the houses or on high ground somewhere nearby.

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My decade old guidebook had told me that Langmusi was completely off the beaten track and had no accommodation besides one or two guesthouses, which lacked showers and were heated by fires lit in the guest rooms. I arrived in Langmusi and found a street of English signage advertising backpacker style guesthouses and restaurants. Admittedly half of the places were closed for winter and there was not a foreigner in sight, but the place was clearly not off the beaten track. In fact most non-Chinese would have an easier time of it here than in your average Chinese city.

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The thin mountain air made walking with bags tiring so I walked straight into the hotel nearest the bus station rather than scouting around to see what else was on offer. Three very pretty and clean Tibetan girls greeted me. The last of the three came running out of the back office with her trousers pulled below her waist, said hello to me, spent a moment staring into her crotch and adjusting something there, and finally pulled and buttoned her trousers up and complemented me on my Chinese. She was wearing thermal underwear under her trousers so it wasn’t as though I was going to see anything on account of her trousers being down, but it was still a strange display of complete unselfconsciousness. I was quite liking how naturally the Tibetans behaved. There never seemed to be much drama in dealing with them.

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Langmusi was somehow nicer than Xiahe. It was also a monastery town, but the monasteries were much smaller and complemented the town rather than dominating it. There were more locals and fewer pilgrims, which probably contributed to the much cleaner feel of the place. I guess it is hard to stay clean when on a pilgrimage.

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I took a wander towards the hills above the town, passing a school on the way. The school children asked me to teach them English so I sat down with them and chatted for a few minutes. Since they hadn’t started English classes it was a bit difficult to teach them anything, and after a minute or two of asking me English words for parts of the body they got bored and invited me to play basketball. I left them to their game and walked on up the hill towards a series of prayer flags on the edge of a forest.

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In the forest there was a kind of a shrine commemorating a tiger. I’m not sure what the story behind it was. Beyond the shrine was a river valley which I began to hike up. The valley appeared like an alpine wilderness in miniature, each rock or tree looming as a meaningful part of the whole scene, something like the illustrations in the Narnia books. It was very tempting to just keep walking up the valley and towards the jagged white peak that it seemed to be leading to, but the wind was picking up and clouds were gathering so I turned around round after only 30 minutes or so.

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For dinner I visited a place in the town called Leishas Restaurant. Leisha was an elderly Tibetan man. He claimed to be illiterate in Tibetan, Chinese and English, but had somehow learned to cook favorites like risotto, frittatas, bruchetta, chocolate cake and apple pie, as well as a couple of stranger items like the ‘English potato sandwich’ – a chip buttie maybe? His Yak Burger, though unconventional (yak stir-fry served in a Hui Chinese flatbread), was tasty and extremely filling.

Xinjiang Trip Day 20 (8-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

The bus to Xiahe left at 7am so I got up at 6am and checked out of the hotel. I hailed a taxi outside and headed to the bus station. Halfway through the ride I realized the seat of my jeans was wet with piss. It was too late to be of any use but out of curiosity I had to turn to ask the taxi driver whether someone had pissed in the front passenger seat earlier in his shift. ‘Yes’ he replied disinterestedly. I wondered why he would let me sit in a piss drenched seat without warning me.

Xiahe was clearly a western tourist destination and besides me the bus had three other westerners on it, the first westerners I had seen on public transportation so far on my trip. The first part of the road to Xiahe wound through pretty mountain countryside. The area was predominantly Hui, and we passed numerous densely settled villages bursting with mosques and cherry trees. As the altitude increased the cherry trees disappeared, the villages became fewer in number and much smaller in size, the place names became Tibetan, Tibetan script appeared on the road signs, and colored prayer flags and stupas started to dot the landscape.

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The bus reached Xiahe around noon. A group of snotty nosed Tibetan children stormed the bus offering ‘taxis’ (actually pedicabs). Xiahe was a tiny one street town, with part of the main street actually running through the monastery, and so there wasn’t much need for a cab. I hopped into a real taxi van with the three other tourists though and we headed off together to look for a hotel. I chatted with the driver a little. Our Chinese conversation prompted the German guy beside me to gravely ask if I was a journalist. I said I wasn’t, and he said that hearing me speak Chinese he thought I must be “a specialist coming to report on the situation of the Tibetan people”. Germans have a way of being very serious. It would have been fun to pretend to be an undercover journalist sent to investigate rumors of a massacre of Tibetan nuns in the mountains outside town, but given my experience of plain clothes police in Yining it would probably not have been wise. China devotes a lot of resources to monitoring what visitors do in ‘sensitive’ minority areas.

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The Germans somehow disappeared after we arrived at the hotel. Maybe they went on to another hotel. I wanted to shower and change out of my piss-soaked jeans but with no hot water available it seemed too hard, so after dumping my stuff I wandered along the road towards the monastery.

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The town was clearly a tourist center, with lots of English signage advertising guest houses, restaurants and souvenir shops. Simultaneously though the town was clearly a genuine religious center, and the handful of tourists were easily outnumbered by hundreds of pilgrims.

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The pilgrims streamed around the outer perimeter of the monastery, following a circuit around specific stupas and buildings, and spinning the prayer wheels lining covered corridors. They moved clockwise, and made multiple circuits around each stupa or building en route. The pilgrims varied in dress. Some were dressed entirely in traditional Tibetan woolen cloaks and robes, the men sporting long, uncombed hair and with horn handled knives dangling from their belts, and the women with their hair plaited, lower faces covered, and wearing heavy silver and amber jewelry. Some were dressed in factory made jeans and windbreakers. Others were dressed in strange mixtures of traditional and western styles. A few prostrated themselves every couple of steps, but most just walked briskly onwards, heads bowed, keeping the prayer wheels spinning. Some mumbled or chanted as they walked. Some walked swinging miniature hand held prayer wheels. A middle aged man who moved with the enthusiasm of a child sprang out from the procession, grabbed my hand, and dragged me with him laughing. He smacked at the prayer wheels with his free hand, sending each one spinning ferociously. He was clearly retarded. I twisted my hand out of his grasp, patted him on the back and waved goodbye as he lurched along the corridor of spinning wheels, laughing as he went. Lammist Buddhism must be a wonderful religion for a retarded person. That sounds disrespectful but is not meant that way. The guy was obviously enjoying himself immensely.

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I would like to say something about the spirituality on display, but somehow the most striking thing was the filth. Obviously there were exceptions, but as a whole the pilgrims were very dirty, partly from spending weeks on the road, and partly because a lot of them never washed anyway. Many had hands caked with what looked to be weeks of accumulated dust and dirt. Their cloaks were stained with mud and grease. A stench of piss hung over the monastery itself. It wasn’t my jeans. Everywhere I saw monks and pilgrims, male and female alike, simply using walls or squatting over ditches to pee.

 

The thing that struck me about the monastery complex itself was the use of cloth. The temples were draped with long banners and flags, and there were poles hung with brightly colored pennants. There was a feeling of movement as the banners billowed in the wind. It was very different to the more static feel of Chinese style Buddhist temples.

On the perimeter of the monastery was a knife maker beating blades out of steel with a hammer and sending sparks flying everywhere. Filth, pilgrims, colorful pennants, blacksmiths: the atmosphere was medieval.

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While wandering around I ran into a French guy who had been on the bus with me earlier. As we wandered we saw a group of monks rushing into one of the temples for some kind of prayer session. We wandered in and the younger monks, just boys of about 12 years old, enthusiastically gestured for us to sit down. We sat at the back and watched. The old monk leading the session chanted in the most mesmerizing fashion. The chanting was so deep, so powerful, and somehow so other-worldly that it was hard to believe it could really be coming the throat of the old man sitting a few meters ahead of me. The younger monks sat with heads bowed for a few moments, made a couple of responses, and then the session slowly but surely began to deteriorate. The old man chanted on, the middle aged monks concentrated on the prayers and responded as appropriate, while the younger monks fidgeted, kicked each other, threw their yellow hats around the room, fished raisins out of the folds of their cloaks and ate them, and made faces at each other. One group across the room was inspired by our presence to imitate Christian rituals. They enthusiastically crossed themselves, clasped their hands in prayer, and competed with one another to look pious before looking across at us and collapsing into giggles. There seemed to be absolutely no discipline, but the clowning around remained good humored and nobody ended up in tears. Just as my legs were about to give out from sitting on the floor the session ended, the children and ourselves were shooed outside, and the older monks retreated into an inner room and closed the doors.

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Back on the outer perimeter of the monastery me and the French guy (Giles) tried to chat with some young Tibetan women who sat down beside us on a wall to rest from their pilgrimage. They were very curious about us. They swapped comments about us in Tibetan and giggled. A lot of what they were saying seemed to concern our appearance. Giles did much better than me in communicating with them. He spoke much slower and more basic Chinese than me, and the women could understand a lot of what he said. When I tried to talk to them in Chinese they couldn’t understand me. I tried speaking slowly and clearly but I wasn’t very good at it. Maybe I had too much of a southern accent. Language barriers prevented the conversation from going far. They told us they were in town on a pilgrimage, and that they had come from Tibet itself. We couldn’t find out how they had traveled – i.e. whether they had walked or come by bus. Giles decided to ask them to recommend a Tibetan restaurant in town. I thought he was being a tad ambitious. First, their Chinese wasn’t up to discussing the intricacies of fine cuisine (not that Tibetan cuisine is intricate). Second, I doubted they were frequent restaurant customers. We never did get a restaurant recommendation out of them, and eventually an older woman traveling with them, maybe their mother, told them it was time to stop chatting with strange guys and continue with the pilgrimage. We waved goodbye and they disappeared among the prayer wheels and other pilgrims.

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I had a very late lunch with Giles. We tried some sampa and momo in a small Tibetan restaurant that seemed to be catering mainly for tourists (with an English menu etc.). Sampa is the stable in Tibet and is a dish of milled grain, which the diner mixes into a paste by adding hard cheese, yak butter, and yak milk tea. I don’t think the sampa in this restaurant was anything like what Tibetans eat. It was a sort of sweet cookie dough, shaped into balls and dipped in sugar. Giles said it was different to what it eaten before in a Tibetan area of Yunnan. Probably it was a tourist version. Momo are steamed dumplings stuffed with yak meat. The momo in the restaurant seemed to fit that description and were reasonable enough.

 

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After a rest I had a dinner inside the hotel. The waiter was a Chinese boy from a nearby village who had just graduated from school and was preparing to take university entrance exams in English in a few months. He was a desperate to practice his English so I chatted with him for a while. He had already been working at the hotel for a week or so but had still not managed to visit the monastery even though it was located just a hundred meters away. It was typical of how employees in low end service jobs get treated in China, with their bosses allowing them absolutely no free time, even when their job is not busy – the hotel and restaurant were practically empty.

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