Archive for the ‘Gansu’ Category

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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Xinjiang Trip Day 19 (7-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

The combination of uncertainty about the boat situation and laziness on my part meant I didn’t bother to get up early and try and visit Binglingsi. Instead I just relaxed around town. I went out for some breakfast, had my shoes shined, and bought some breakfast buns for the shoe shine girl. We chatted a little as she was shining my shoes. She was working on Dingxi Rd. and said she was from Dingxi herself. She told me that if you followed Dingxi Rd. to the very end you would get to Dingxi. Back at the hotel I checked on a map found that Dingxi Rd. ended after a few blocks. Either she was living in a very limited world or had been joking.

Around noon I visited the bus station to try and buy a ticket to Xiahe, the location of the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet itself, and the second most important Tibetan Buddhist center in the world. Apparently the only bus left at 7am and it wasn’t possible to buy tickets in advance, so I would just have to come back early the next day.

I messed about doing some work and then spent the evening reading in a branch of the Shangdao Coffee chain. For dinner I had a Lanzhou style ‘shou zhua’ (手抓) meal. ‘Shou zhua’ literally means ‘hand grab’, and in the context of a restaurant indicates foods you eat with your hands rather than with chopsticks. ‘Shou zhua’ restaurants are all over Lanzhou and seem to be either the traditional local specialty or a recent local craze. The most popular item was chunks of lamb on the bone. The meat was tender but there was no seasoning besides five spice powder and salt. It was nothing special, but interesting to try once.

Xinjiang Trip Day 18 (6-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I arrived in Lanzhou around 6.30 am. Since I had heard that most of the better hotels in Lanzhou were clustered around the railway station I dragged my bags down the street looking for a place to stay. It seemed impossible to find anything decent since virtually nowhere would accept foreigners. I found a dirty room for 150 RMB but wanted something better. I even started checking out some of the cheaper hostels, which are sometimes more relaxed than hotels about the red tape associated with foreign guests. Walking into one of these places I asked to see a room and was told to wait a minute. As I waited a Chinese couple walked out, the woman fuming that the place was too disgusting for a dog to live in. Naturally I became curious to see just how bad the room would be.

The room was pretty bad. It wasn’t quite “how did shit get on the ceiling?” bad, but it was still bad. A depressed and grubby young maid met me and led me along a corridor to a room. The carpets in the corridor were black with dirt in some places and worn completely through in others. The whole floor reeked of piss from an uncleaned communal bathroom. In the room itself wallpaper hung off the wall and the carpet was covered with tangled black hairs, cigarette butts, and burn marks. All of this paled in comparison to the smell of sewerage from the ensuite bathroom though. To be honest, from a dog’s perspective the room would probably have made a good home (the heaters were on), but the dog’s owners would still have felt guilty.

Eventually I ended up staying at the Xilan Hotel which was only 160 RMB and had a swimming pool and gym.

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After dropping off my stuff I took a long walk through town, vaguely heading towards the city center and the river. Just outside my hotel I passed a young shoe shine girl, a little unusual since shoe shine people in China tend to be middle aged to elderly. I had some jellified tofu for breakfast in a tofu shop. Walking around I noticed a lot of local shops whose names and logos clearly copied famous international brands. There was a local fast food chain with a logo derived from McDonalds (the real McDonalds didn’t appear to have reached Lanzhou yet), and a supermarket chain that seemed to have drawn inspiration from Carrefour.

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Eventually I reached the Yellow River, which runs through the city. The water seemed quite low, and access to the riverbank was obstructed by a cheesy waterwheel theme park, in which the waterwheels were all out of service due to the lack of water. There were some old people playing croquet in a little park down in the river bed. University students were out soaping down the seats on the riverside promenade. There was a place to take a cable car across the river to a park containing some Qing and Ming pavilions on the opposite bank but I didn’t bother with it. The weather wasn’t particularly clear so I decided the views from the opposite bank would not be worth the trouble.

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Instead I went to check out the Gansu Provincial museum. The museum had a good display on the Silk Road. There were scroll paintings from the Mogao Caves, Tang Dynasty ceramic figures of foreign traders, painted bricks from tombs of officials, and of course the bronze horse from Wuwei(?) in northern Gansu. Most of the staff were napping in quiet corners of galleries, but one guard who obviously had aspirations of being a tour guide was enthusiastically leading children around and introducing the objects to them. He was actually very good at it and since he was pitching his talk to children he was easy to understand. I listened to him for a while before wandering off. The rest of the museum was mostly dinosaur bones which I didn’t bother with.

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After having some cold noodles for lunch I went into a travel agent and tried to arrange a tour to the Thousand Buddha Caves at Binglingsi. I had no luck though since it seemed there were no tours until the start of the May Holidays. Nobody had clear information on the boat situation to get to the caves either.

I ended up walking practically from one end of Lanzhou to the other and was very tired by the end of the day. With the city being strung out along the banks of the Yellow River the distances are deceptively long. I still visited the hotel gym for a quick work out though. The gym was empty when I went in, with an awful pop song playing in an endless loop. Some children wandered in from the hotel’s revolving restaurant and followed me around asking me questions and just looking. Eventually their father wandered in and we chatted a little. His children took me in stride rather better than he did. He seemed so surprised to be talking to a foreigner that he couldn’t do much except keep bowing and welcoming me to Lanzhou. The children asked intelligent questions like what the different equipment was for. Eventually the father backed out the door, still bowing to me every couple of steps, and returned to the restaurant. His children stayed behind. It seems that in Lanzhou an exercising foreigner is a bigger draw card than a revolving restaurant. There has to be a business opportunity in there somewhere.

Xinjiang Trip Day 17 (5-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

I had made a deal with a driver the previous day to show me around the sights for 180 RMB. The first stop was the ‘Overhanging Great Wall’, which was a disappointment. It was just a heavily restored section of the Great Wall which happened to run up a mountain side. I didn’t get what was so remarkable about it or why it was ‘overhanging’. It was nothing compared to the Great Wall at Simatai near Beijing.

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Up on the wall I ran into a Sichuanese girl and Hong Kong guy who I had seen checking into my hotel at the same time as me the previous day. I had figured they were probably tourists too and nearly asked them if they wanted to share a car. It turned out the girl had been thinking the same and nearly asked me but wasn’t sure if I would speak Chinese so hadn’t. We almost decided to pay off one of our drivers for part of the day and have them go back but decided it was a bit evil.

Predictably their driver charged 30 RMB less than mine, possibly another example of the ‘foreigner price’. Later I did sound my driver out about the morality of ‘foreigner prices’ and he seemed to find it all very natural. He was a nice guy and all, and besides just driving me around he accompanied me into a couple of the sites and gave me a bit of an introduction to them, so if he overcharged me a little he also did a little extra to earn it. It is depressing though just how ingrained the mindset of gouging foreigners is among some Chinese.

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Anyway, the next stop was the most westerly watch tower on the Great Wall, which is located above a river gorge a few kilometers to the west of the Jiayuguan fort. The tower was badly weathered but the location was dramatic. There was also a reconstructed Qing Dynasty military camp which was worth a quick look.

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The highlight of the day was the Jiayuguan fort itself. The fort lies on the edge of the Gobi desert guarding the strategic pass of Jiayuguan, and was historically considered to mark the end of China proper. The air was still dusty so there were no views from the fort. It was a shame because on a clear day the scenery should be quite dramatic, with mountains on either side, the Gobi desert to the north, and more fertile plains to the south. The fort itself was impressive though, and though parts were reconstructed the reconstruction had been done quite well. Parts of the complex were locked up because of it being the low tourist season, and nor were any of the martial arts performances advertised at the front gate actually happening. Up on the battlements though there were women hiring out bows and arrows and letting people shoot at armor wearing straw targets below. It was pretty good fun.

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The last stop was the tomb of an official containing bricks showing scenes of daily life from several centuries AD. The bricks in the photo are from another similar tomb nearby that was excavated and moved to the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou.

After having a coffee and some dinner (lamb stew and salad of something called ‘bitter vegetable’ – 苦菜) I took an evening train to Lanzhou. The train ride was uneventful. The attendants seemed desperate to sell yogurt and constantly came past offering it. They even found an English speaking attendant to drop past and offer me ‘sour milk’. I guess somebody overbought yogurt. A pair of Chinese guys sat getting drunk on Baijiu and boisterously declining the yogurt each time it came past. The last guy in my compartment was slightly unusual. He was more smartly dressed than most train travelers, in a pin stripe suit, pink silk tie, and fashionable metal rimmed glasses, but what really marked him out as different was his choice of water bottle – a spill-proof a baby bottle, complete with a teat. I waited for things to turn bizarre. Maybe he would wake up at 45 minute intervals during the night and loudly demand we feed him? However, besides his odd choice of water bottle he seemed perfectly normal. I suppose a spill-proof baby bottle is the ideal thing to drink from when lying in cramped sleeper berth, since you can drink while lying horizontally without worrying about spillage. Perhaps he valued practicality above self image? Maybe he was worried about dripping water on his suit.

Everybody ignored me and I managed to get a little sleep.

Xinjiang Trip Day 16 (4-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I took an early morning bus to Jiayuguan. The route from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan is more or less through the Gobi Desert and the landscape remained bleak and dusty the whole way. A lot of Xinjiang also has this type of landscape so it was hardly anything new, but I had to pity the people getting on and off at the small roadside villages we passed. Living in this part of China would be hell.

I arrived at Jiayuguan around midday and found a hotel. I took a walk around town, arranged a taxi for the following day, and dropped into a Manchurian restaurant where I had Manchurian style dumplings and herb infused baijiu. I had been meaning to have beer but a drunk group of Chinese guys leaving the restaurant as I ordered persuaded me to try the baijiu, which was apparently made in Manchuria by relatives of the restaurant boss. It tasted a little more interesting than most baijiu, but was still very rough stuff. Being infused with herbs it was reddish rather than clear so maybe it no longer qualified as baijiu (白酒 – literally ‘white alcohol’). The fact that it was about 50% alcohol by volume and served hot made it especially hard going.

Xinjiang Trip Day 15 (3-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

In the morning I wandered out to look for transportation to the Mogao Caves (莫高窟). There didn’t seem to be any buses so I looked around for a taxi and was lucky enough to find a driver who was already taking another tourist out there so we shared the cost. The other guy was a student from Xi’an. He was nice, though never seemed to get over his surprise at touring the Mogao Caves with a foreigner.

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The caves themselves were rewarding and disappointing at the same time. It was amazing to view so many well preserved and ancient Buddhist wall paintings in their original setting. Some of the paintings were from the 4th century AD, and had Indian and even Greek influences. As Buddhism became accepted in China the later paintings became more clearly Chinese in style. The scale of the place was huge, with around 500 separate caves. This was the problem though. Out of 500 caves the tour only included eight. The rest of the caves were kept locked and off limits. Obviously keeping the caves locked is necessary (enough has been stolen from the site already), but it was disappointing to see so little.

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The doubly frustrating thing was that apparently the tours visit approximately twice as many caves during the peak tourist season. I can’t see the logic of this. You would think that when there are fewer tourists the guides would have more time to give a longer tour, and that whoever is in charge of protecting the site would be happier to let the smaller low season tour parties visit more caves than the larger high season tour parties since lower visitor numbers should equate to less damage. They do allow you to pay on a per cave basis to see more, but with hundreds of caves, prices of 150-500RMB per person per cave opened, and no guidance as to which caves are the most worth seeing, it isn’t really feasible.

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Apparently a decade or so ago tourists were allowed to see much more of the site, with the entry ticket giving you access to morning and afternoon tours covering two different sets of caves, and the possibility of persuading or paying the guides to open extra caves time permitting.

Back in Dunhuang I bought a bus ticket for the next morning to Jiayuguan and went looking for lunch. I went into another small Sichuanese restaurant on the main street. The restaurant turned out to have an English menu which was nice, but then I thought again and asked to see the Chinese menu. Sure enough, the prices on the two menus were different, with everything on the English menu being roughly twice the real price. I asked what the story was and the waitress said they would serve me for the Chinese menu prices. I told the other diners that the restaurant had two menus with two prices. A shrug or two: “it’s the foreigners price”. Nobody seemed embarrassed or surprised at the dishonesty.

I walked out and tried the restaurant next door. It was the same story there. In fact every little restaurant on the main street seemed to be doing this. In one place I noticed the English menu was mistake free and asked who had helped them with it. They told me some backpacker had done it for free. So they get free translation services from some foreigner and that individual’s kindness then gets used to rip off countless other foreigners.

In the end I had to wander into a side street to find a restaurant that didn’t make gouging non-Chinese people a standard practice.

In the afternoon I wandered up to the Dunhuang Museum only to find it closed. The woman selling seeds outside seemed to think it closed every year for the winter. I can’t understand why a museum would need to close for winter but never mind.

There wasn’t much else to do in Dunhuang, though I did try some of the famous local donkey meat noodles.

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Xinjiang Trip Day 14 (2-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

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.

Xinjiang Trip Day 13 (1-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I spent most of the day seeing the sights around Turpan.


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The highlights were the ruins at Jiaohe and Gaochang. I would have missed out on Gaochang if I had taken the sleazeball’s tour, since it was the furthest location from Turpan. Gaochang was extremely ruined and desolate, with little remaining of the old city. The desolation was what gave it its special appeal though. Wandering around it I couldn’t help thinking of “Ozymandius King of Kings” from the poem by Percy Shelly.

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” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Jiaohe was much better preserved and signposted, but also full of signs telling you keep to the paths – not that there was anyone around to enforce this. The setting was dramatic, with the city sitting on top of a small plateau lying between two canyons. The floorplans of some of the old Tang Dynasty temples in the city were also interesting, being rather different to those of the Ming and Qing Dynasty temples you usually see.

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The Astana tombs were worth a quick look but there was honestly not much to see besides the holes in the ground.

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Unfortunately strong winds were blowing up dust and the Flaming Mountains, the famous location from the novel Journey to the West, were only half visible. I didn’t bother with the Journey to the West Museum at the Flaming Mountains. From the display outside it looked like a cheesy private museum.

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I dropped by a little museum on the Karez irrigation system. There wasn’t much to it other than walking down into a real Karez but it was still interesting. The Karez is the traditional system the Uigurs around Turpan use to transport water from the mountains and down into Turpan and similar ‘oasis’ towns, and comprises a network of underground tunnels with access shafts at regular intervals along their length to allow maintenance. The access shafts are visible scattered throughout the desert as raised mounds of earth. Of course this elaborate water transportation system makes you wonder why Turpan is referred to as an ‘oasis’ town. Oasis to me means some kind of a small lake in a desert area, surrounded by date trees and houses and the like. I didn’t see any obvious oasis in the area. Turpan was greener than the surrounding desert, which wasn’t saying much, but it seemed that all the greenery was dependent on water from elsewhere. The driver mentioned that many of the old Karez are dry these days because drawing upon deep ground water to meet the needs of the growing population has lowered the water table. There is a going to be a water crisis sooner or later. Whatever you think of the politics you have to question the practical wisdom of the government encouraging settlers from the Chinese heartland to take up residence in Xinjiang. While diluting the Uigur and other minority populations is helping integrate these border lands into the Chinese heartland, the associated population growth is placing stress on the region’s scarce water resources. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out.

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The last stop on the tour was the Amin mosque, supposedly one of the best examples of traditional Uigur architecture in Xinjiang. It would have been better if the exterior hadn’t recently been restored to look brand new. Even the graves in the cemetery had been replastered. The effect was to make you feel you were wandering through a film set rather than looking at the real thing. The mosque had also been surrounded with the usual Chinese tourist site paraphernalia, with statuary, a viewing platform and so on.

After hearing I had lived in Taiwan the driver got onto the inevitable subject of Taiwan independence and expressed the usual nationalistic chauvinism and complete disregard for what Taiwanese people might want.

I caught an overnight bus to Dunhuang in the evening. I had tried to get the hotel to book tickets for me and for some reason they were unable to get me tickets for that evening, saying the tickets were all sold out until the next day. Oddly, asking myself at the station I found tickets available for that night’s bus. Were they trying even by devious means to keep me staying in their hotel another night? It certainly seems possible.

I put the Uigur knives into the back of my belt, hidden under my jacket, so I could put my bags through the x-ray machine without the knives being detected. It felt very desperado to be boarding a bus with knives down my back. Once on the bus I transferred them back into my bag.

The bus was almost empty, with just a couple of Chinese passengers and half a dozen Koreans. I had a snack and did my best to sleep.