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Friday, August 12, 2005

From Langmusi to Lanzhou

There is something about the rhythm of travel that often makes a single day feel like two separate days. Perhaps it is the sheer amount of free time one possesses. At times, too, it is the fact that the middle of the day is spent on a bus, and, especially here in China, the morning and late afternoon can find you in two places distinct in food, scenery, and dialect. That means that having not written an update on things for two or three days means conveying four to six days of experience and thought which is just about impossible to do.

I'll give it a shot, though. [That's why we admire him so! --ed.]

On Monday I took a morning bus to Xiahe. There is no direct public bus that makes this trip (you must first transfer in Hezuo), but I was fortunate enough that there was an empty bus making the return trip to Lanzhou and which would stop off in Xiahe for anyone ready to pay 50 RMB (6 USD and change) [I linked "RMB," for "renminbi," because Alan refers later in this post to "yuan." As you'll read, renminbi is the term for China's official currency and RMB is often used to designate Chinese money. Yuan is the term for the base unit of a currency, akin to the U.S. dollar (USD), and seems to be commonly used when referring to money matters. The official international abbreviation for Chinese currency is CNY.--ed.] There were about 6 of us, three Americans. One of the Americans is of Chinese descent, and a graduate student at Harvard. She is doing her thesis paper on a group of Chinese in northern Gansu province who started sneaking across the border to Mongolia at night to harvest tiny scorpions which were then sold to people in Guangzhou province for medicinal purposes. As they are paid by the jin (Chinese version of an ounce or pound), an incredible amount were harvested. The local ecology was being destroyed in Mongolia and in the area in China, while the economy was being depleted because everyone was too tired to work well in the day and the scorpion business was so much more lucrative. Apparently these people are all in rural areas and they are doing everything they can to make their children's lives better, sending them as far as 80 km away to school meaning that during the school year, they don't see their children too often.

Back to the day in question: The bus trip started off in the usual manner (late). We were set to leave at 7:30 and were on the road by 8. The first part of the road was paved and wonderful to savor for bones rattled by so many bad roads. Then, just as I was beginning to think that I might for once have a pleasurable driving experience here, we were pulled over. Every car transporting something was stopped at a crossroads. The reason, it seems, was that to drive in that particular part of Gansu province, the driver must have a special permit. Ours did not. Now, everyone knew the outcome would be that some money would change hands, but even that took about an hour. The most interesting thing was to see our driver and the other Chinese passengers in our bus sitting in the middle of the road setting 100 yuan bills out like they were playing cards, counting out to see if they had enough for the permit and any extra that was required to pass hands.

Following that, our driver warned us to move closer to the front as we were about to experience 60 km of bad road. At least we were warned this time. We drove through the many grasslands that surround Xiahe. We saw some sheepdog watching a herd of sheep. We saw another herd of sheep on a distant mountainside, looking like a field of wildflowers. The skies were deep blue and the clouds puffy white and again, the scenery just about compensated for the road that three times sent me flying out of my seat, my head just about cracking the ceiling.

As it turned out, we were driving into Xiahe the back way, which took us through the Sangke Grasslands, which is one of the main tourist sights in the area, and for good reason. After arriving in Xiahe, I met up with a friend of the family I spent the first week with. She was in Xiahe with her nephew. After lunch and putting our stuff in a cheap hotel, we hired a car to drive us back out to Sangke. She was surprised when I told her we had already been through there, as most cars come from the opposite side of town. We rented ponies and rode along a dirt path for about half an hour. Then we just walked and picked flowers and enjoyed the perfect weather.

We headed back into town at around 5 or 6 and stopped at a Tibetan style restaurant for dinner. We had Tibetan specialties. One of them, I forget the name, had a consistency not unlike that of cookie dough, and was delicious. The yak meat was tough and just about unchewable. The sour yak milk was also a bit tough to consume, but the dumplings and yogurt were excellent. After that, the woman I was with bought 52 yuan [CNY from here on out--ed.] worth of fruit. That would be about 7 USD. This bought her two full bags of peaches, a bag of grapes, and three full watermelons. We then took this to Labulengsi (Labrang Monastery), which is the main attraction of the town. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery outside Tibet, and to hear the sounds of the prayer wheels turning as the sun fades is to know peace. What was really great, though, was seeing three little kids use one of the larger prayer wheels as a merry go round, standing on the base and hanging onto it with one hand while turning it as fast as they could.

Anyway, our three-wheeled motorcycle taxi took us in amongst the monks' homes, a village of sorts within the monastery. She had bought the fruit to give as a gift to one of the head monks of the place, and thus it was that I found myself inside his tiny home drinking tea and playing with a kitten as the woman spoke to the monk's secretary (a younger monk). It turned out that that monk was not set to be back until later that night, and we probably wouldn't get to see him. What we also found out was that the next day (this morning it is hard to believe) the third highest monk (two behind the Dalai Lama himself) was set to be at the monastery. We saw him today, getting in and out of his car, and being led into the main building. There were a few TV cameras, a whole lot of monks, and an assortment of people from town, not to mention the tourists like me who just happened to be there.

At about 11 this morning we took a bus to Xiahe, which is where the woman I am with was born. The bus trip was awful again, although the change in the surrounding was interesting to see. Things became drier, and we saw more and more Muslim men and women along the road. Also, there was straw everywhere, piled along the road, in fields, spread across the road. This was pretty funny, really, as women would try to stack as much as they could before the next car would come by. We came pretty darn close to hitting one of them, in fact.

Xiahe itself was a pleasant surprise, and I would really like to go back on my return from the west (we were only there for the afternoon). There are more than 3,000 mosques in the Xiahe area, some looking like they belong in the middle East, others built more like traditional Chinese temples. With so much dust and dirt along the road, I really felt like we were in an outpost. Add to this small stores lined with pots and pans, or a Muslim man making keys, or a store selling handmade brooms, and endless piles of fruit under bright colored umbrellas and it felt as if the heart of the city beat to the drum of small time commerce.

Also of note were a few buildings filled with coal, and whose store fronts were hidden by even larger piles of coal. The main road was paved, but all the side streets were not, and many of them disappeared off at angles akimbo, enticing me, making me wish I had an afternoon or two to explore. As it was, I went first to the woman's childhood house, where her mother and sister live, as well as her nephew. Her daughter was there as well. It was down a small, narrow, dirty lane, but inside was a small but beautiful garden around which the complex was built. One small room had nothing more than 4 chairs, a table, and a Mahjong set...I want that room. As usual, the hosts were extremely ke qi (polite) enticing me to eat several juicy peaches (1 jin about 2.5 CNY, or .30 USD). Then we hired a few taxis and made the rounds of a few of the more important mosques. At two of these sights, I was led around by area government officials who at some point had joined our party, which made me feel quite important.

After we said good-bye to them [the officials--ed.], we drove about 25-30 km out of town to a small city called HeZheng. Here we visited a museum holding a number of fossils found in Gansu Province. After this, the woman's daughter, sister, mother and nephew headed back to Xiahe and we were on to Lanzhou.

I am convinced that the first thing that should be done here to improve driving is to eliminate or make illegal the honking of horns. Even as I type from a 24th floor apartment, I hear horns ringing through the night. The thing is, it seems drivers think that as long as they honk a horn at a slow car or a biker or a person that they do not need to brake and that a lane change is their right. Today, our driver three times passed a car that was passing another car in a two lane road.

Anyway, the first part of the drive took us through an interesting landscape and several small towns. Thanks to dirt sidewalks and Muslim men with small white caps and tiny square white goatees, and thanks to sheep running out into the road (almost causing an accident involving us), and thanks to the deep-folded dry mountains dotted with green vegetation, and thanks to the houses built from dried mud brick and faded red brick, it felt like we might have been in the desert already. [It seems Alan is a very grateful person this day.--ed.] I would have thought so except for the 8-10 high stalks of corn everywhere in sight. Again, there were stacks of straw everywhere, and this time we saw a few three-wheeled motos stacked so high with straw as to resemble elephants. One moto's stack stretched from the edge of the road to the middle of the line, and when we passed it, only the driver's feet were visible as the straw was stacked over his head as well.

Then we were onto a wonderful, smooth highway. The mountains became redder and less vegetated. They rolled up and back and away deep into the distance, a few towns tucked amidst the folds. The we were going down a slow hill and descending into Lanzhou, a city of 1.5 to 2 million. Walking the streets tonight amidst the noise and people and 20+ story high buildings, the glow of neon upon me, I felt almost as if I was back in Taipei.

So, that's where I am now, in Lanzhou. I am washing my clothes, thank God, and making some preparations for the trip out west. I will head to Zhangye two nights from now. [Didn't find an article for Zhangye directly, but this link whets your appetite for Alan's tracing of the Silk Road--cue the Yo Yo Ma CD, mom!--ed.]

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about today. There was a moment, while at the monastery, in one of the prayer buildings, hung with silk banners, dim in the hazy light, where a beam of sunlight came through the door, cutting the room in half, landing upon one of the prayer mats in the center of the room. The floor was wooden and creaked just the tiniest bit with each small step. There was dust in the light of the sun. It was a moment that passed, and a moment that will be forgotten. For the moment it existed though, it was like time stopped and nothing ever needed to be done again.


Anonymous Mom said...

It would be interesting for you to make a list of all the various types of conveyances in which you were conveyed from place to place. And you rode a pony! No more saying "no" to horseback riding! (We have peaches, too, from the backyard tree.)

9:00 PM  

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