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.
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.
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.
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’ (é’ç¨žé…’), 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.