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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.