China Travel Journal: Going West
|This travel journal is part of a series of journals, which are all written during a long trip between november 2007 and may 2009.|
> To Xining
10-06-2008 Right on time we rail out of Beijing little before two thirty. Our roommates for the next 24 hours are two Chinese-/American climatologists, on their way to Tibet. We suggest to hide ourselves in their big bags to peek outside every now and then, but eventually we refrain. How could those tiny Chinese guys carry us anyway.
For hours we ride through landscapes which look like they've endured a nuclear war. It's a desolate affair and there's really nothing around, except some small, dreary communities of boring, walled houses.
11-06-2008 After a short night, on a bed that absolutely deserves a spot in the Guiness Book of Records for the hardest bed ever (what do you mean soft-sleeper?), we wake up with a bright sunshine over a bizarre mountainous landscape. Dry and arid is this place and the mountains are, except for some tufts of grass here and there, completely barren. Small villages consisting of mud houses, are spread in the huge emptiness of the valleys, sometimes crossed by a river. Yet we see that people regurly succeed in growing some crops on this dry land. Roses, cabbage and corn are the favourites. Donkeys are used to plow the fields.
As we enter the platform in Xining somewhere in the afternoon we're pleasantly surprised by what we see outside the fences. It looks like we've entered an entirely different world. Hui-men wearing white hats and their wives wearing black headkerchiefs dominate the streetscape, but next to the familiar Han-faces we also see Tibetans, even a large number of monks. The athmosphere is relaxed and we;re obviously being eyed differently since earlier this trip. No more shameless, staring gazes, but people curiously turning their heads and every now and then we hear "hello" being yelled from a shop or a house.
Besides Chinese characters we also see much written in Tibetan as well and at the train station the signs are even bilingual. We take that as a confirmation that deep in their hearts the Chinese do know who lived here first and who's wrong because of that.
Only when we've moved into one of the hotels we notice how tired we really are. So we lazily take the bus to the center, where we eat a bit and are seriously surprised by the fancy clothing stores and the huge range in the supermarket. There's even more on sale here than there is in Beijing and for the clothes: for just a fraction of the Beijing-price.
> Nature and Tibetans
12-06-2008 When we walk out the door this morning a bright sunshine welcomes us once again. Since the weather is kind of unpredictable here on the edge of the Tibetan plateau we decide to sally forth right away, now that it's so clear. We call Niu Xiao Jun, the guide who offered us his services yesterday, to meet him thirty minutes later. Today he'll take us to some places not mentioned in our guidebook and not much later the three of us take a bus, out of Xining.
We obviously drive on a plateau, with high peaks in the distance and people working in the fields much nearer. An hour later, bumping and bouncing on a road Xiao Jun describes as a "good road", we get off at a small village called Bo'Er. The Tu-minority live here, where the men, like anywehere elkse in Asia, pass their time playing games, smoking and drinking outside, while their women are nowhere to be seen, as they're working in their homes or in the fields. Some kids who are too young to attend school and a bigger boy with with obvious special needs, are playing outside as well. When we Xiao Jun about it later, we hear the boy's not able to walk independantly, so he's crawling on the floor all the time and he has a mental retardation as well. Not something to wish for in a remote little village lick this, without facilities.
We continue the trip in a taxi. We're on our way to a 7-year old boy who's chosen to become the next Dalai Lama. Whether this really is picked by the followers of the current Dalai Lama, or a child chosen by the Chinese government, we're unable to find out, but we do have our own ideas about the whole story. First we drive to the largest place in this area, Huzu, where we're able to buy fruit to take as a present for the young Dalai Lama. Since we think fruit might be a very healthy gift for a 7-year old boy, but probably not one high on the list of presents to be wished for, we buy some kind of transformer-car, which changes into a robot while flashing its lights and dancing on the beat of its own music. We also buy a toy truck carrying small cars inside, to give to the handicapped boy in the minority-village later.
From the moment we driv out of town we see people busy with their crops in the fields. Next to their simple, stone huts they built their own greenhouses of earth and plastic. About a kilometer further on the huts get replaced by incredible, beautiful nature. Green mountains, a blue lake, a stream, flowers and a whole lot of grasslands as far as we can see. There's nobody here at all and the landscape strongly reminds us of Mongolia, where it was just as empty and wide and stunning.
When we crossed the plateau we get to another village and here we also visit the temple where the young Dalai Lama is living. A little separated from the temple there's a small monastery and in the back there's a brand new house, built by the Chinese government (?!) 2 years ago. Two smiling faces curiously check out the yellow car Peter is carrying. The young Dalai Lama has been assigned a study buddy, to make things slightly easier for him, as he's not allowed to leave the house until he's 18, something we find rather criminal. In fact the kid has been taken from his parents as a baby and is forced to live here as a prisoner. His parents are not allowed to visit him ever again, as he'll miss them too much. That's why we can't blame him for the serious face, but still the disco-car manages to make him smile a couple of times. The other boy is clearly subordinate to him, as he stays at the side line all the time and the boys aren't allowed to sleep in the same house either. We take a look at the exercise books in which they learn Tibetan, Chinese and Pinyin together and next we follow their teacher into the village to buy them some new exercise books and pencils.
After saying goodbye we peek around in the village school, as we're assuming Treelo might be able to offer a helping hand here. We're surprised, since there's actually enough schoolsupplies available here, like we've seen in other places in China, allthough it might get extremely cold in these classrooms during winter, even though there's a stove in each room. Books, exercise books and pencils are there plentiful and there's even a proper seat for all the kids. We figure it's better to spend our money some place else.
Back in Bo'Er, where we were this morning, we first find the mother of the handicapped boy. She gets her son and we give him the toy truck. However, the happiness about the gift is a bit too much for him and he gets a seizure. Fortunately his mother knows exactly how to deal with the situation and when he's feeling better we have lunch at one of the village families. The house looks nice and fairly comfortable and they sure know how to prepare food. That's why a visit to the toilet is rather surprising: two wooden planks with a hole in between, where the activities of all the family members are piled up. To flush one should throw a large amount of sand on your own piece of art to get the hell out of there. After lunch we're shown the costumes for special occasions, which we're expected to try on. When we found a fitting needlework for Treelo as well we're ready to accomplish assignment 40 for Treelo and so we end up earning Treelo-money instead of spending it. We do come up with the idea to buy a wheelchair for the handicapped boy back in the city, so he doesn't have to crawl on the dirty floor, but considering his epilepsy we think it might be too dangerous.
In Bo'Er we visit the village temple, before we take the evening bus back to Xining.
> Kumbum Temple
13-06-2008 Only around noon we leave the hotel, to go to Ta'Er Si, or Kumbum temple. This is, outside Tibet itself, one of the most important Tibetan temples and once the third Dalai Lama used to live here. It turns out to be a true hassle to find the right place for the bus to it, but eventually we get to the right bus stop and a girl shows us the bus to Ta'Er. The road shows much resemblance with the moon, because of the large number of craters and we slalom to the end of the route and the entrance of the temple in an hour.
From time to time we see Tibetan people in traditional costumes, who came here to pray. Especially the Big Temple with the golden roof, where the monastery was once founded, is very popular and the wear spots on the ground where Tibetans are daily sliding over the ground once more get a bit deeper.
In one of the temples the monks have just started praying and, probably because we're the only visitors, Peter gets permission to film all of it. The monk who gave the permission has a huge interest in our guidebook and finds Lhasa straight away. He'd like to know whether we'll visit the Tibetan capital as well, but we're not sure he understands the answer that we're not allowed to do so. What we are sure of is that this man would have asked us millions of questions when he was speaking English, but unfortunately communication is pretty hard now. So we say goodbye and visit the rest of the monastery, existing of some ancient, but also 2 brand new temples. Only by the end of the afternoon we hop on the bus back to Xining.
14-06-2008 It's one of those days of totally nothing, or actually quite a lot: buying train tickets for tomorrow, printing hand-made postcards to hand out as presents, sending e-mails, paying visits to a couple of shops. Even before we've noticed the day turned into night. Tomorrow we move on, not because we've seen enough of this area, but because it's raining the entire day and the forecasts for the entire week don't show any change. What a shame.
At the internet cafe we search for the story behind the 7-year old boy in the monastery, called the young Dalai Lama by our guide, but unfortunately there's nothing to find. We do secretly use a site to outsmart the great Chinese (cyber-)wall to read that the Dalai Lama only reincarnates when the present one has passed away, so it's impossible for anyone to be the 15-th Dalai Lama at this very moment. So who's this boy they've locked up there and who's annoying his caretakers with a dancing car transforming into a robot?
> To Jiayuguan by Train
15-06-2008 In spite of the forecasts the rain has stopped anyway and under a watery sunshine we walk to the station. The usual security check, consisting of a metal detector, a luggage belt with check and a single police officer is much more tight here, with a whole team of policemen, each of them standing by their own car with flashing beacons. Are they expecting an uprising or an assault of the train station, as "Dalai Lama" was frequently googled from the internet cafe across the street yesterday? Or is this the usual way of treatment when the train from Lhasa is approaching? Yesterday in the tickets line all the Tibetans were asked to show their identity cards as well and their personal data were listed in a palmtop. Why?
The train ariives on time and we first make way for the many Tibetans getting off here. This is the last station on their territory, before the train enters the réal China, even though the Chinese think differently about this. Once we're in the train we find our seats in the back of a wagon. Yvonne is just shoving the luggage into the racks, standing on her seat, but according to Chinese customs with her shoes neatly taken off, when a fat Chinese stops next to her making an "ahum-sound". Peter suggests he might want to pass, but there's plenty of space. Yvonne doesn't offer up to leave the chair and now the man shows her his ticket: same seat number. Peter thinks something went wrong and we might be in the wrong wagon, especially because of the arrogant attitude of the man. Yvonne, however, concludes the man must be mistaken, as this really is carriage number 9. Under her loud "neh...nehnenehneh..." and obviously to the delight of some of the Tibetan fellow travelers behind us, the man has to cross the entire wagon to get to number 8. He thought to outsmart those stupid Laowai (foreigners), but now he's the lame-brain.
In this train, like at the station, all the signs are not in both Chinese and Tibetan language. This feels like another confirmation of our earlier conclusion, but we have to admit that this entire prestigious project of the Lhasa-train truely looks very modern and stylish. Smootly we glide high speed through the landscape, which we've seen in the reverse direction a couple of days ago, when we notice three policemen checking the tickets of the people behind us and sneeking through their luggage. Now what's this? We're asked to show our tickets as well and we have to point out which bags are ours. Everything has to be taken down from the racks and they yell us to "open". well, be our guest. We're not much appreciating this show of force and let the man who wants to see everything open the bags himself. The average Chinese doesn't own a backpack and it's obviously hard for him. Still he pushes through and he rummages through our dirty underwear. Yvonne grins at the fellow travelers behind us, but she decides to skip the corresponding sound. When closing the first bag we assist overly helpful. According to the officer this takes much too long, one more reason for us to take it easy and he's lost much of his enthusiasm when opening the second bag. Then he's giving up and the two daypacks are not even worth a look. Did we just hide our little illegal Tibetan in there.
Right after noon we arrive in Lanzhou, where we'd like to spend the night, to move on tomorrow. We first go for the train tickets and join one of the long lines. When it's our turn the tickets for the daytrain to Jiayuguan happen to be sold out and only available in a day or 4. They do have tickets left for the nighttrain, so we decide to leave tonight, as Lanzhou is not exactly a very interesting place for tourists.
When arriving in China, two months ago, we've been wondering at the first few hotels what an "o'clock room" was supposed to be, mentioned next to the single and double on each reception sign. Suddenly we got a clear inspiration and found out this is an "hour-room", a room available for just one hour. Personally we never thought a room like that of any use, but now an "o'clock room" seems to offer the possibility to take a shower before boarding the next train. And guess what? Not a single "o'clock room" to be found in the entire city of Lanzhou! After an hour of searching we give up. After we've done some sightseeing in the Islamic area of Lanzhou we enjoy an excellent meal at a local restaurant for only 2 Euros. Together!
Our fellow travelers in the softsleeper are two nice and quiet Chinese, so we have a good night this time.
16-06-2008 By the first daylight we wake up and from our bed we can enjoy the red sunrise over a bizarre landscape of desert, oasis and bare, rocky mountains in the distance. It's like our first glimpse of Mongolia: wonderful. When we're enjoying the sights on the other side, from the corridor, the first sigaret of the day is lit in the hut next to ours. Smoking is, especially when there's aircon, strictly prohibited. So Peter points out it might be a better idea for the smoker to go to one of the balconies, where smoking is allowed. The man stares at us with his mouth open, not intending to undertake any action. Yvonne gestures, trying to make him understand what we want, but she also gets the open mouth and corresponding silly look. Teacher-time! She enters the compartment, gets the sigaret and extinguises it in front of the man, to get back to the corridor and sit down. The man doesn't seem to understand what's happening, but a little later his friend walks to the balcony, to lit his sigaret over there. The story of the Laowai, who entered the living room of their nationals, to do "something" in there, keeps circulating every now and then for the rest of the journey.
> The Fort and the Great Wall
Around 7 thirty we arrive in Jiayuguan and conveniently escape the welcome committee of taxi drivers, waiting for us to take us to the center for a "cheap price". We hop on bus 1 and ask the co-driver to let us off in front of a certain hotel. The hotel is crap, but we do find a room on the other side of the street. The weather is still clear and so we soon go out. First the sadles of our rental bikes are being lifted at the market, by a cycle mender, and then we're off. Our first goal is thé Fort, a defense structure at the end of the great Chinese wall, restored according to Chinese standards. En route we make a stop at a local market to buy some fruit, something obviously more scarse than where we came from. Soon we see the fort in the distance and in thirty more minutes we're there. After a 10 Euro entrance fee, a fair amount according to Europese standards, but a lot more than the average Chinese will earn for a day's labour, we're allowed to enter the gate.
We ignore the modern lake, made by Chinese hands and with ongoing construction to make it look even more fancy and sleek, ánd the kids playground to walk straight to the place where the original wall and fort have been restored. From the top of the somewhat artificially fort we have an amazing, clear view over the vast desert, featuring, as a giant ribbon, the original mud wall and the snow peaks of the Qilian mountains behind. At the side of the fort we have a slightly less appealing view on Jiayuguans industry and its additional layer of smog. We stroll around the fort (no we don't want to play archery pretending to be a Chinese warrior, or being photographed in a knight's costume and no we also don't need any postcards) to admire the brand new concrete stage for shows at the inner court from every side.
Still the view over the bizarre, empty landscape stays the best. When we enjoyed this to the max we walk to the adjacent Great Wall Museum. We're having trouble feeling any interest for the pots and vases which apparently have been found in the wall and the English signs are very limited as well. Soon we give up and leave.
We hop back on our mini-bikes and try finding the "scenic cycle route" which, according to our guide book, should follow the ancient wall, to a part of the wall called the Overhanging Wall. Unfortunately the only route we find a "Dusty Route", eventually leading to... nothing at all. And there we are, in the blistering desert heat, amidst pebbles, rocks and boulders. We turn around and take the normal asphalt road, crossing the desert for the last few kilometers. On the left side our sight on the old, mud wall is getting better all the time and in the distance we see the Mazong mountains and the ever clearer silhouette of the socalled Overhanging Wall. Once again cycling there takes longer than we'd expected after all, but we get there.
The wall has been restored here as well, but this has been done a bit more subtle, using natural materials, so much nicer. There are two slopes, on which pieces of wall are winding their way up, we choose the lowest to climb. It's still a steep ascend to the highest watch tower, but the view is more than worth it. From the top of the tower we have a 360 degree view on the mountains surrounding us, the other slope where the wall climbs its way up and then a large piece of grassland, the desert, the dirty industry of Jiayuguan, the Fort ánd the Qilian mountains. What an amazing piece of China this is!
Back down the wind has been picking up there as well, coming straight from the direction we're headed to. The road slightly inclines and our bikes are still too small, so it's not a nice cycle tour. Ninety minutes and quite some breaks later we're back in town, where, with some difficulty, we arrange train tickets to Hami. There's plenty of trains going, but all of them are departing in the middle of the night, ór arriving in the middle of the night. Eventually we leave the station with two hardsleepers for tomorrow night 00:08. Not the best tickets and not an ideal time, but hey... this is traveling and we're glad the lady at the counter at least kept trying to understand and help us, even though the line of pushy Chinese behind us kept growing.
> The Western most Tower of the Great Wall of China
17-06-2008 When we finally leave our room at 1, after a relaxing morning in our room, we first go for some info on buses to the Western most watch tower of the wall. This tower, at the very end of the Great Wall, is at the far end of the desert and at the foot of the Qilian mountains. It's built on the edge of a ravine, hovering high above the Taolai River and thus part of a spectacular landscape. There's not a bus going in that direction, as we understand from the few Chinese words we've learned so far, so we rent a taxi.
The driver hasn't been there himself as well and he asks us whether it's okay to take his son. A bit later the four of us are leaving the city, passing the first we visited yesterday. The road is crossing the barren desert and at one point even right through the wall itself. Would this part, like it happened at many other places, have been collapsed, or...? At watchtower number two it's obvious that a hole has been dug in the wall to let the train tracks run through. Here we buy our ticket, before racing the final kilometers through the barren landscape to watchtower number 1.
The view at the spot where the wall ends and the river can be seen in the depth is marvellous. All of it has been made even more exciting by a long suspension bridge spanning the river, wobbling crossed by all of us. We also take a look at the glass viewing platform, where daredevils, thinking the bridge is peanuts, use a cable to cross the ravine.
The rest of the day we spend doing useful things and we leave for the dark station at 11 at night.
> To Hami
18-06-2008 To our big surprise we're the only two passengers boarding the train to the West, just after midnight. After the bustle in the waiting room the silence of the tunnel to the platforms is a bizarre experience. Our train is already waiting and we quickly find our compartment. It's completely dark in there when we enter, since in the hard sleeper all lights are switched off at 10 pm. With just the glimmer of the emergency lights from the hallway we find our beds. Those turn out to be in different hutches, even though their numbers are the consecutive 12 and 13. One of the two beds has also been slept in and not been provided with new sheets. Since it doesn't look all that crowded and there's clean bedding in other beds we do a quick switcheroo. The stewardess is still standing on the platform and so we, silly Western people, hop next to each other in beds 11 and 13. Fortunately no one comes to claim number 11 during the night and except for one upstairs neigbour the upper beds stay empty too.
When it becomes light at 6 we can see a pretty dull desert landscape through our window for the next two hours. Just before 8 we arrive in the oasis town of Hami, where we treat ourselves with another luxurious hotel. We've earned that much after another night with little sleep. So we start with catching up a few hours in our huge kingsize bed.
In the afternoon we go to explore, but unfortunately the first impression we got in the train was the right one. There's not much left from the original cultivation and people. Several of the big brand names have arrived here in the desert as well, settled in the new highrise structures in Chinese style. Just like in the Tibetan part of the coutry there are bilingual signs here: usually very large Chinese characters, with smaller Arabic ones underneath.
Still we do find some leftovers of the ancient Hami, even though there are also large areas where the sledge hammers have done their jobs and where new buildings are rising or will soon rise. Nevertheless Hami impresses us in a very special way. Downtown the original inhabitants, the Uigur people, are dominated by the Han Chinese, but in the Islamic area this is completely different, The friendly people here take a curious look at us and we see cheerful smiles everywhere. A man is baking bread in the oven in front of his little restaurant and his neigbour is basting meat on sticks, while a group of men drink tea on his terrace. From donkey carts the famous melons of the region are sold, although the motorized carts are obviously gaining ground. There's a lot of shadow in the streets, due to all the trees. We find it depressing that there are so many new buildings, even in this working class district, but we can imagine a stone house has some advantage and offers a lot more comfort compared to a mud house.
> Friendly Uigur in Hami
We buy walnuts at a streetstall and at one of the carts a melon, which is instantly sliced into eatable parts for us. In front of one of the older houses we see a bench, where we sit down to munch our 2.5 kilo melon. When grandpa comes to check why his little dog keeps barking we offer him a piece as well. He thanks us, waves friendly and returns to his house.
We're just on our way back to town when we see a neighbourhood which apparently has been hiding from the sledge hammer. From time to time we take a peek through the gates, so that's how we see two women sitting down to chat at one of the courtyards. When we ask whether it's okay for us to take a photo we're invited in and they really try sitting as beautiful as possible. We're also allowed to take a look inside the house and the ladies ask for a photo of themselves in here as well. Then they point at a jar and as we don't want to be impolite after this much of hospitality we nod. Both of us get a bowl with water in an anextraordinary brown colour. Tea? It doesn't really taste like it. But what are those brown scraps at the bottom? Well, we are perfectly stocked with pills, so we don't think, but just drink. There's also fruit, put in front of us in a large bowl. We try and sit up a bit more straight, as we're still stuffed with melon, and somehow manage to eat a few. The Uigur-glossary in our travel guide is fairly limited, so we don't manage an animated conversation, but somehow it feels nice to just sit here. When we say goodbye we make them understand that we'll print the photos in the city to bring them by tomorrow.
In the evening we see crazy, white people on tv, partying around in orange costumes. A Chinese reporter has also dressed up in orange to tell us how well "Helan" is doing at the European Championships of football.
19-06-2008 After a long awaited nice and long night with lots of sleep we go collect the photos at the photoshop. First we'd like to visit Hui Wang Feng, the tombs of the Uigur-prinses and -prinseses and Hamis only real tourist attraction, to go deliver the photos afterwards. At one of the Uigur bakeries we buy some kind of Turkish bread with onion, which we eat for breakfast while walking. Perfect, it's still warm.
On the way our attention is drawn by the policeman we saw marching through the city, followed by his private mini-army, yesterday as well. The four military men all carry a big rifle and the five of them circle the melon-cart from an Uigur man. From a distance we see how the men's papers are being checked. We think it's a rather intimidating performance and as soon as the guy has his papers back he disappears with his cart full of melons. Now we have seen with our own eyes how, just like the "rebellious" Tibetans, also the terrorist (?!?) Uigurs are being kept under control by China. Last weeks the latter have been bullied even more than before, with the Olympic flame coming and the revolts against Chinese oppression in March as the main reason.
We now notice even more police in our vicinity and to our dismay they've seen us as well. We're aware of being among the last few people carrying a valid tourist visa and we know that even less people are traveling around by themselves. A good excuse for a police check of our passports. We quickly sneak into an alley, but secretly check and find out the little army is marching in our direction. As quickly as possible without being suspicious we keep on moving. A bit later we're being greeted by a passing Uigur on a motorbike and his friend. When turning around the militaries are nowhere to be seen, but we are standing right in front of a new police car.
The two men addressing to us happen to be on their way to a wedding and one of them invites us to come with them. We like the idea and a taxi is being summoned, in which we can join Ablat, the English speaking one of the two, to the house of the groom. We cross a main road, where we turned around yesterday, to end up in a true maze of clay Uigur dwellings. So they're still there, if only you know where to find them. Five minutes later we arrive at a house where it's already busling with people preparing for the wedding. When all of them are greeted with "Salam Aleykum" we take place in the guestroom, where we're being served a lot of fresh food. We're also provided with tea from a beautiful, handmade pot and we've barely emptied our cups or they're refilled.
In the room where we're sitting we see only men, but when we're done eating we're allowed to take a look in the women's roon as well. Then the father of the groom suddenly panics... foreigners in his house, and that with the Chinese army checking all the time. His fear also gets to Ablat and it's decided it's for the best we're leaving now. (for security reasons we'll post no pictures of the family) He takes us to Hui Wang Feng on his motorbike. The three of us race through the narrow, dusty alleys, being stared at by surprised Uigur inhabitants in their daily routine. Ablat doesn't want to hear about money for the taxi or gas and with a last wave he disappears.
There we are, our ears still whooshing, at the entrance of Hui Wang Feng, and the only thing we can think of doing is entering. The mausoleums in Arabic and Uigur style are wonderful and the little museum has beautiful, handmade musical instruments and utensils on display. Across the street we challenge the loose sand in which we sink ankle deep, to visit an Uigur cemetery.
Afterwards we return to the house where we were yesterday to deliver the photos. Since granny is probably sleeping we don't stay long and the rest of the day we relax in our luxurious room.
Update: The boy we met in the monastery is NOT the 15th Dalai Lama. We received the following response to our e-mail to the current Dalai Lama. "I appreciate that you have taken the time to write to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has not recognized anyone as the 15th Dalai Lama."
Ta'Er Si temple videoThe Ta'Er Si temples temple video will show here
North west China landscape videoThe North west China landscape video will show here
Click on the films up here to look around in the North-West of China, almost live.
> More Info
Also check our China info page, where you can find a lot of information about China and come see our Western China 1 photos and Western China 2 photos.