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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Heaven Lake

Earlier on this trip I read a book by a guy named John Dalton called Heaven Lake. In it the main character is a missionary just out of college sent to live in Touliu, Taiwan (hey, I've been there!) It is set in the early nineties before a lot of things changed there, but a lot of what he talks about I can still recognize. Anyway, the character ends up being hired by a wealthy Taiwanese businessman to travel to the mainland, as far as Urumuqi to find and marry the girl that the man loves so that she can come back to Taiwan with the American. This was before things eased up a bit between Taiwan and the mainland, and marriage restrictions were quite fierce. It was also before China's tourist infrastructure had been better set up, and as the character follows a bit of the path I have taken it is interesting to compare what he dealt with and what I have seen now. Anyway, the book derives its title from a lake about two hours away from Urumuqi, a small lake nestled into a ring of mountains, some of which are snow-capped year round (you have to remember, the desert is not far away either and so the effect is really something)

What I could tell you about now is how beautiful the lake is (and it is). I could also tell you about the massive and obnoxious hoards of Chinese tourists who make the front part of the lake a place that is not at all peaceful or relaxing. I could tell you about walking around the lake, to the southwest corner where there are a bunch of yurts owned by a Kazakh named Rashit, where for 40 yuan you can sleep and have three meals...meals cooked on a stone stove outside, the smoke rising against a backdrop of tall, narrow pine trees. I could tell you about the millions of stars out at night, or the argument we listened to the morning after we arrived. It was an argument that pitted the men against the women and involved plenty of pushing and rock throwing, and ended in tears and storming off by all parties involved (a domestic drama to be found anywhere in the world, I think, though in the US it probably would have involved guns instead of rocks). I could tell you about sitting high on a rock above the lake and watching two men on horses lead a herd of cattle along a narrow mountain path, or later the herd of goats that munched grass on a steep slope as I climbed by them. I could tell you about the plaintive crying of a baby goat during the argument, or of a horse whinnying somewhere in a valley unseen, or cows mooing, or insects making intense buzzing sounds with their wings. I could tell you lots of things, I suppose, and already have. But this isn't what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about getting there.

Actually, I don't. Its pretty embarrassing.

So, my German friends arrive in the late afternoon and we head off to organize the trip for the following day. We go to where we know we can buy tickets. The man says 60 yuan. I say too expensive. He says ok, 50 yuan. I say we want to spend the night and come back the following day and it's 50 yuan a ticket, and he says ok. He starts to write out the ticket and I verify once more, and then he says, no, wait, its 60 yuan. Coming back the following day, it has to be 60 yuan. You just said 50, I said. No, 60. Fine, we'll go somewhere else. I figured he would call me back but he didn't. This was about 20 minutes wasted. Then I call a Kazakh I had met on the street the previous day. He said he worked in a travel agency and his English was good. He was at a party so it was hard to talk. We worked out that for the bus ticket at 50 round trip, for entrance fee at 60, and a night with Rashit at 50, the trip should be 160. Fair enough, I said. You should go to my company tonight to get the ticket, he said. But here, we could not hear very well, and I could not get the address so I was to call him back later.

Two hours later I call him back. We had been walking awhile by then. He gave me the address to his company after several minutes spent pinning him down on the price (I am learning this is very important here). We ask if we can just get the tickets in the morning. No, no, he says. Too early. The bus leaves at 8:30. Maybe no tickets, maybe no time. Go tonight. So now we took a cab to get to the company (and this cost about 9 yuan, or just over a dollar US).

We arrived and I explain to the man there what the deal is. He calls the Kazakh and talks for awhile. Then he hands me the phone. I speak to the Kazakh and say we are there and everything seems OK. I give the phone back to the other man, and then I hear something suspicious. A minute later the man hangs up the phone and says, so 50 to the lake, 50 back. Plus the different costs. So 210 per person. Well, by this time we had spent a good 3 or 4 hours working on getting these tickets (and as I'm the one speaking Chinese amongst our little group, I was the one dealing with all this) and despite advice to be found in my post, "Insulated Travel," I just about exploded.

"Ai ya! Na me ma fan a! Ta shi hen huai ren!" (Translation: Ai ya! What a nuisance. He is such a bad man!) Then I started to get up and the man said whoa, please sit. I caught myself and did, and then explained what the Kazakh had said, plus the amount of time wasted on this stupid endeavor (and I did not include all of the things here) plus the cost of the cab, and I said you better make it 50 yuan for the round trip. He did. Then we shook hands and chatted awhile. The next day, the man opening up the place knew me by name even though he hadn't been there for all this (but I had called the other guy to arrange to leave our luggage). Then we bargained Rashit to 40 yuan, which is normal, and on the following day, the girl waiting for us to escort us to the bus knew me by name too. When we arrived back at the travel agency they were all happy to see me and it was a nice happy feeling.

The point of the story, however, is not the warm happy feeling there, or the nice things at the lake. It is this: sometimes it is better just to take the price that is about 1 USD higher than to waste a whole day trying to get a better deal.

And a few afterthoughts...it has been interesting spending time with the German couple as they have been traveling for 8 months or so together, and they have similar personality differences to those that Natalia and I share in relation to travel and life in general (namely, I find it just about impossible to do nothing and sit and relax and this drives Natalia crazy). Also, after return to Urumuqi yesterday, I went straight to the bus station to get a ticket for Yining near the Kazakhstan border where I am now. Had great fun just eating dinner and buying some supplies for the journey...after all the crap in getting to Heaven Lake, I was afraid Urumuqi might hold unpleasant memories, but not after that hour or so of backslapping and small talk. And then, on the bus, I witnessed a wonderful farewell between a young woman and her beyond-handsome young baby boy (maybe two years and a half), and the rest of her familiy. They were all so good looking, the women in bright headscarves and the lone young man well dressed and shy. The youngest of the women, a sister I think, came on the bus and kissed the woman ten or eleven times and hugged her and her smile was just radiant. I had to take a pic but not enough light so I gave up. As I watched the family outside the bus, though, with their smiles, and because they were waving to me and the German girl now, as well, I had to go out and get two shots. One of the young man and one of the girl. I went out barefoot and got them, and they turned out quite well, I think. Then I was yelled at by the busdriver for going out without my shoes. But people on the bus were laughing and wanted to see the pics and all agreed the people were beautiful. This warm memory carried me through the one hour wait to start, and then the fact that we only made it about 70 miles in the following three hours due to various long and unneccessary stops.

Now in Yining for a laundry and relaxing day. Will head to another lake tomorrow, Sayram lake near Kazakh border, and probably stay in another yurt.

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