Published: August 6th 2011August 6th 2011
I have spent the last four days in minority-dominated and mountainous Western China. First stop was Xi’ning, the capital of Qinghai province. I sat next to some interesting people during the sixteen hour journey (no more beds were available) from Luoyang. There was the father with his two young sons, and a friendly, portly, middle-aged man. I slept for the first two hours or so. Upon awakening, I began to chat with my fellow passengers, and deliberately tried to make my voice Uighur-sounding. Apparently the ploy worked – the man with his sons thought I was a north-western Chinese ethnic minority, even after speaking to me. And this with only a two-and-a-half week beard! Of course, I told them the reality of my Americanness.
I can see why my new friend was mistaken. Qinghai is full of minorities – it is about one third Hui (Chinene-speaking Muslim), one third Han and a third Tibetan. The old Xi’ning train station is being remodeled, so I was dropped off at the West train station. I rode a taxi into town, and the first street I wandered down was full of bearded men in skullcaps doing brisk trade with traditionally-atired Tibetans. The items
at hand? Wholesale Chinese Caterpillar Fungus (Google it). I wandered around for an hour before finding a cheap room for the night.
Xi’ning is a bit quiet right now – Ramadan just started. However, after dark I was able to find some delicious grilled lam skewers and flatbread.
The next day I headed to Tongren, a Tibetan town. My expectation were a bit dashed – there are massive high-rises being constructed, and a jumbo electronic screen in the middle of town. Still, it was nice to walk around the monastery and see the colorful dress of the people.
After one night in Tongren I took the three-hour morning bus to Xiahe. The ride was impossibly scenic – clear lakes, large mountains, evergreen trees and prayer flags. The last hour was spent going through lush grasslands populated by nomads, sheep and yaks. The journey was somewhat mared by the Russian (perhaps Ukrainian or Polish) couple sitting in front of me, who kept opening the bus window to take pictures. Old Tibetan grandmas were not pleased by the resulting cold wind. The “snappity snap” of foreigners, with no regard for the comfort of others, is somewhat infuriating. Perhaps this
A man outside the guestouse in Xiahe wanted a picture with me and his family. I got one too.
is because, as a foreigner living in China, I have often had my picture taken without permission.
A woman on the bus sold yak milk yoghurt with sugar in it. A bit sour, but creamy and generally delicious. A Tibetan man sat next to me on the bus, and he practiced his English for a bit. He is also a 26-year-old (in East Asia) teacher. I took this to be a fortuitous sign.
When I arrived in Xiahe I found a dorm bed for 20 kuai a night – by far the cheapest lodgings of my trip through China. I chatted with a Basque man from the Spanish side of the border.
After lunch I went on a hike. Wikitravel recommends a route from the dry drainage ditch near the monastery entrance. I went up toa gravel road that leads to a small village. I found a gentle slope off to the left and began to climb. Soon I realized I was in someone’s barley field, and I turned back. I followed the road down to town, and then saw another way up the hill. I climbed through grasslands. Purple, blue, orange, and yellow flowers were blooming
Strange Fashion Model
Ten points if you know who this is.
in the warm (for all practical purposes, although I was technically in Gansu province) Tibetan summer. The air was buzzing with mating butterflies and crickets. I found some large burrows and wondered what made them. My upward progress was cut short by a barbed-wire fence about halfway up the mountainside. Although probably meant for grazing animals, I didn’t want to take any chances. I sat in the grass and admired the scenery. It reminded me of the grasslands above the tree line in Mt. Rainier National Park. Indeed, Xiahe is about 2,900 meters above sea level, and I was well above the town. During my descent I caught a glimpse a burrow-maker. Something between a pig and a rat spotted me and ran away!
A young monk began talking to me in a restaurant while I was eating a bowl of yak dumplings. Twenty-year-old Dzoba wanted to practice his English. We ended up talking for about two hours over yak milk tea. He claims to have only studied English for six months, but I can hardly believe this. He was able to communicate quite well, and his accent was especially admirable. Dzoba likes to watch American movies. Sometimes I
would need to say a word Chinese to help him understand new vocabulary. Dzoba told me, “many foreigners come to Tibet to learn, learn the answer.” So I asked him “what is the answer.” He readily replied “I don’t know!”
The Basque and I were joined by a Chinese man and a Japanese man traveling together. I spoke with the Chinese guy about beggars in China and America (lots of beggars in Xiahe). The Japanese man had a strong Japanese accent when speaking Chinese. They were both very friendly.
While wandering around town the next day I met a man in a funny hat (Han Chinese I think). He was selling socks. He first offer was one pair for five kuai. After much haggling and joking I bought four pair for ten. The man had pale blue eyes.
I walked up the same gravel path that I had traversed the previous day. This time I thought I would attempt the hill to the right. I went up through the grasslands and arrived in some old (?) ruins. The last one-third of the way up to the top was rocky and very steep. I had a few “what
Check out the eyes
the hell am I doing?” moments. Then I heard the thunder and saw dark clouds approaching. I carefully climbed back down, thankful to be alive but disappointed by another failed attempt at summiting a peak.
After an afternoon nap I decided to try to go on the English tour of the monastery. I walked to the main entrance. The place was crawling with tourists, buses, and hawkers. I decided not to go on the tour. Instead I walked up a small hill and admired the view of the town. I was soon joined by three red-robed monks. The youngest started talking to me in Chinese. We ended up having a good twenty-minute conversation about American politics, food, and women. The monks had a great sense of humour. They asked me if I was married. They asked me about Chinese girls. They asked me about Tibetan woman. They pointed to a young lady walking up the hill. “How about that one?”
After the monks left, I decided to try once more to summit one of the surrounding mountains (I figure if it is significantly higher than a town that is 2,900 meters above sea-level, it is a mountain). This
time I walked up along a fence that separated a forested area from a rocky slope. The angle of the path was very steep, and the air was a bit thin. I avoided looking at an amorous couple whispering in the bushes. After about forty- five minutes the trees began to thin, and I was approaching the summit…. Or so I though! I arrived to a clear area and saw that I had quite a ways to go still. I was thirsty and hot and tired, yet I pressed on, knowing that I would regret not going to the very top. Every two minutes I had to stop to catch my breath. After about twenty of these small breaks I arrived at the real peak. The view was indescribably awesome. I looked waaayyy down on the ruins I had visited the day before, nomad’s tents, sheep, and the town of Xiahe. A wooden pole with prayer flags graced the peak. There were small religious cards and a fire pit.
On the way down I lay down for a bit. A young couple(workers in my guesthouse) sat and talked near the false peak. I made it about a third of
the way down when I realized I no longer had my cell phone. My aching legs protested the trip back to the place where I had taken a rest. I searched in vain for about fifteen minutes before offering up the cellphone as a sacrifice. The sun sank behind the mountain peaks just as I reached town.
There are more photos below