Dad and I find ourselves on a sleeper train once again. Our bunkmates are a middle-aged couple whom we imagine are on a little illicit “office getaway.” Who knows, it’s probably a lot less interesting than that.
The last day in Xi’an was relaxing and fun. We checked out of the hostel, which was the best yet. For anyone staying in Xi’an, I can highly recommend the Xiangzimen Youth Hostel near the South Gate of the city. The atmosphere is great because it’s located in restored older building with lots of charm. The thing that makes hostels work though is the staff, and the girls that work the desk at the Xiangzimen were always friendly, helpful and cheerful. They assisted us in figuring out train travel, booking our next hostel, and recommended a restaurant that we ate at two nights in a row.
Because we had a number of hours to kill before our overnight train to Lanzhou, we decided to rent bikes and ride around the top of the city wall. It was fun to zip along the top of these ancient walls on a bike. Because it was a Monday afternoon, there were few people up there. The wall forms a square around the city about 3km along each side. It’s made of grey stone bricks, many of which bear engravings in very old script. Could they be original bricks from when the wall was first built around 900 years ago? The ride was extremely educational. The walls are about 5 stories high, which gives a great vantage point from which to see the city from all sides. We could see how old areas are being flattened to make way for new development. Just outside the walls, numerous 50-storey apartment buildings were crowding the sky, with many more under construction. Some people lament the loss of these traditional neighbourhoods, but I can’t see China’s burgeoning “me generation” being satisfied living in the conditions that their parents and grandparents endured, with no indoor plumbing, makeshift electrical and telephone wiring, and plague-inducing hygiene. My bike was a aging contraption with flat tires and barely-functional brakes. It made the crappletrap rattletastic I rented a couple of years ago feel like a Rolls Royce. By the end of the ride, I felt fairly pummeled on multiple surfaces, but it was still worth it.
After dinner, we headed to the train station to board our overnight train to Lanzhou. I was determined not to spend the night in Lanzhou, because from all accounts, there’s nothing there to redeem it from its grubby industrial status. I’ve spent only a few days in grubby industrial cities, and that was enough for me. The train left Xi’an after 10:30pm and arrived in Lanzhou bright and early at 6:30am. Lanzhou taxi drivers seem quite reluctant to make the trip between the train station and the south bus station, which are about 20 minutes apart. We ended up being crammed into a cab with a couple of strangers, our luggage hanging precariously out of the trunk. When we got to the bus station, we got dinged for a bill that was about three times higher than a normal cab fare in any other Chinese city. So, the lesson here is, just because something is uncomfortable and weird doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better or cheaper.
Dad and I were using Lanzhou as a transit point to get to Linxia, and then ultimately to the remote town of Xiahe. Xiahe is the home of a large Tibetan monastery, and the destination of many Tibetan pilgrims who go there to make a circuit around the monastery and to spin the 300 prayer wheels. Because of the heavy Tibetan population, the Chinese government places some restrictions on traveling there. I had done some research online, so I was prepared. My discussion with the ticket lady at the bus station went something like this:
Me: I want to buy two tickets to Linxia.
Ticket lady: What country do you come from?
Me: We’re Canadian.
Ticket lady: Ahah! You need to have a photocopy of your passport to go to Linxia. (waves a sample photocopy of a passport)
Me: I’ve got one! (producing a photocopy of our passports)
Ticket lady (inspecting the photocopy, disappointed, then lights up): Ahah! You need to have a photocopy of your Chinese visa too!
Me: Here it is! (producing the photocopy of our visas)
Ticket lady (inspecting the photocopy of the visas): Ahah! But you need TWO copies of each!
Me: Here are the other copies! (producing the other copies of the passports and visas)
Ticket lady (begrudgingly): That will be RMB 59.
Thank you, Internet. Again, you have proven yourself most useful.
With that, we found our way to our red bus, bound for Linxia. The bus was of the normal long distance Chinese kind, which is to say, it is filled with Chinese people who shout into their cell phones, snort and hawk up phlegm from their throats, cough on the back of your neck, and smoke like chimneys, despite the prominent “no smoking” signs posted everywhere. Over the sound of all of this, there is either blaring Chinese pop music or movies played on the overhead LCD screens. The bus driver uses the horn in every possible way, and makes me want to invest in a Chinese bus horn concern, because I’m sure they wear out a horn at least once a week. On the highway, the horn can either mean, “I’m going to ram you if you don’t get out of my way,” or “I’m in incoming traffic passing you so look out.” While cruising slowly through villages looking for passengers, the horn means, “Hey, we’re going to Linxia, isn’t that exciting? Get on the bus!” In any case, it means the horn is blaring for approximately 96% of the trip. If you can endure all of this, there is stunning scenery outside.
The bus wound its way through the mountains, climbing higher and higher. We passed terraced farms built into the sides of the mountains, and cave dwellings dug out of the earth, which I’m almost sure are not used anymore. The land is extremely tough, scrubby, rocky and dry. The plots of land are often nearly vertical patches of tilled dirt, accessible only by thin, winding mule trails. Yet, the farmers here manage to scratch out a living somehow, growing corn, lettuce and cauliflower against all odds. Seeing these dirt farms redefined the term, “a tough row to hoe” for me.
A couple of hours later, we arrived in Linxia. We were dumped off the bus in an area that resembled a hillbilly’s backyard filled with old and dying buses. It wasn’t a bus station as we knew it. After inquiring about the bus to Xiahe, we were again bundled into a taxi, and driven a couple of blocks, where the taxi driver ejected us and our luggage onto the side of a dusty road between a couple of carts selling fruit. Apparently this was the bus stop. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, a blue bus trundled down the street with its door open, and a lady shouting, “Xiahe! Xiahe!” to the street.
We passed a lot of interesting sites on the way to Xiahe. There is a heavy Muslim population in the area, so there were many mosques, some of which were Chinese style pagodas with minarets on top. There were butchers with piles of sheep heads on the sidewalk in front. There were sheets of bright yellow corn kernels drying on the front steps of peoples’ homes while birds pecked at them. There were crowds of Muslim men in white caps congregating on the street for no apparent reason. Between towns, the bus crawled up valley roads, with a wild river below, and mountains forested by green pines and deciduous trees with fluttering golden leaves. As we went along, mosques gradually gave way to white Tibetan temples with golden tops. I don’t have photos of these things because the bus was moving too fast and vibrating too vigorously to catch them.
Finally we were in Xiahe, about 2900m above sea level. We walked the entire dusty 1km length of it to find our hostel, which initially seemed fine, but turned out not to have any electricity or running water. We thought this was a bit too much to endure, so we headed next door to the “International Hotel,” whose great claim to fame was their 24-hour availability of hot water. They also had no electricity, and we were told there wouldn’t be any until 7pm. There was some construction happening nearby, and that had knocked out power for most of the town. We also had no key to our room, because one of the staff had taken the key with her and left town until later that night.
We decided to spend some time walking around the monastery, following the pilgrims as they spun the ornate prayer wheels. The beautiful blue sky and forested hills were offset by chugging diesel tractor motors spewing choking fumes, and acrid piles of burning garbage. China never fails to provide a wealth of stunning contrasts.
I seem to be prone to altitude sickness, and my head was throbbing in no time. So after a quick but tasty meal in a very grimy local restaurant, I was ready for bed. Unfortunately, the hotel wasn’t. There was no heat because the radiators are heated by the so-called 24-hour hot water. I’m not sure when this 24 hours exists, but I now believe it’s sparsely dispersed throughout the year in five minute increments. The room was bone-chillingly cold. Combined with what I believe to be the one-watt lighting, it was a very gloomy evening indeed. I wore my jeans, socks, t-shirt, sweater and jacket to bed, and piled a sheet, two comforters, and a blanket on top of me. The freezing subsided, and I dreamed mostly about escaping from places, and helping other people escape from places.
This morning, we made an early break from Xiahe, catching the 7:30am bus back to Linxia, and then another bus back to Lanzhou. I was thrilled to be able to get train tickets to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, leaving in the afternoon. So that’s the train we’re on now. By the time I can post this, we’ll be in Hohhot.