Curse the loathsome prokaryotes who try the limits of my immune system! Only after several days of torment has my body been able to accept sustenance without almost immediately trying to expel it in the most unpleasant ways. This quasi-metaphoric end was the final impression left upon me from my 9-day adventure to Qinghai. I shall begin, naturally, from the beginning…
[On a side note: my geography is terrible, so please bear with me if there are any mistakes or confusing logistical portions to this tale]
Although this was the first time I’ve ever used Chinese trains for transportation, the trip began as all others in China start: in overcrowded, less-than-admirable conditions. This mode in particular required our group of 14 separate among a few rooms, each containing two pairs of triple-stacked bunks. At first, I lamented the thought of a 17-hour train ride because I was by myself with some of the locals on the top bunk, but after a nap and reunion with friends in an all-student room, I honestly had a good time (and was especially fond of the shrink-wrapped fruits purchasable a la cart).
Upon arrival at the city of Lanzhou (not yet in Qinghai province), our first impressions were foreboding, as the train unloaded next to a freight train, which had military vehicles as cargo. This in addition to a light rain and clouds elicited an ominous 1960’s feel.
We soon met up with our two awesome tour guides, who accompanied us for the remainder of the trip. One was from Shangri-La who went by the name Yak and oft demonstrated his Yak Dance in times of awkward pauses in conversation or when he wished to display his merriment. The other was Sonam, a famous writer (though I didn’t find this out till about halfway through the trip) who frequently told blatant but joking lies to see who would believe him. We then partook on a three-hour bus ride to Xiahe, Gansu (province?), during which we were given a Tibetan number as a name for convenience.
During the bus ride, we witnessed the most beautiful, rolling mountains of rural China that bore no trees. Many were used for agriculture, which I have dubbed the Soy Mountains, where one could tell the farmers were taking advantage of all the available land. I was immediately enthralled by this beautiful scenery upon waking from a nap. The sectioning of the mountains resembled the layers of a cake, and barer, smaller hills looked like dollops of cookie batter… I must have been hungry…
To spare you the grueling detail of a daily account, I shall provide you a summary of the interesting, dangerous, and awesome things that we did (and if my notes are in proper order, these are also somewhat chronological).
I rode a horse for the first time, receiving some instruction from a man I did not share a common language with, who later thought me competent enough to manage on my own along a trail for about 40 minutes. The horse was a stubborn bastard, but we managed, and at times, I think he took offense to me swearing at him under my breath for disobeying my will.
We consumed anything and everything that is yak (excluding the tour guide), including, but not limited to, yak butter, yak meat, yak milk, yak eggs –more likely quail or chicken, but when everything else on the table was yak-related, one could only assume– yak tea, yak tendon, and yak yogurt, which I will honestly miss.
From visiting numerous monasteries, we were introduced to the basic concepts of Tibetan medicine and Tibetan Buddhism. Not going to lie, I was almost hoping for an existential crisis in one of the monasteries where I would have met a monk from a past life, but Tibetan Buddhism (I may not be entirely correct) seems to lend heavily from polytheistic Hinduism and I was not as fond of it as I had thought I would have been.
When leaving one of the temples, we saw a monk on a skateboard while eating an ice cream cone…I was thoroughly impressed.
In Lanzhou, a couple of friends and I walked through the less-touristy portions of the growing town to see the construction. There is so much trash in China that it makes me sad, and causes me to think that there is little to no hope of recovering on a local (town) level.
We stopped at a man’s house during lunch in between our travel to the next hotel. I intend to elaborate more fully in the following post, but to introduce the subject, he and his family are a minority group within China called nomads that are losing their way of life because of “conservational efforts” to protect the unused land they occupy. They will soon lose their ability to live where they have for generations, and although I am rather fond of the environment, these nomads do absolutely no harm to it, and I believe the government should be focusing their efforts elsewhere. I almost broke down on the bus once we left because I could not have imagined what to do to get unstuck from such a terrible situation. This was the turning point of the trip where I know I’ve learned from my experiences; the trip did not necessarily change me, but without it, I would not be as aware of my feelings on such subjects as I am now.
Visiting a local school (observing a class equivalent to juniors in high school), we saw and learned how hard Chinese schoolchildren have to work in order to get into a half-decent college. We were welcomed into the class of 42 with loud clapping, and were applauded after each of us introduced ourselves. It was funny to hear the students make comments of admiration or surprise when they heard that two of our students come from Washington DC.
Before meeting the class, we met with the two American teachers who worked at the school, who explained that this school (though having chipped paint on the walls and concrete floors), was one of the best and most rigorous boarding schools, hand-selecting all of its students. During class, we broke up into groups and just had conversations with the students. They were all extremely friendly and most were eager to practice English. Of the students in my group, one wanted to be a teacher, a translator (they have to study Tibetan, Chinese, and English), and a doctor.
This was likely my favorite part of the trip. I don’t know how the subject came up, but we were asked to sing a song for them, and thus attempted a Disney song or two, and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” When it was their turn, a girl was voluntold (more prompted than volunteered) to sing. She sang one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, choosing a traditional Tibetan song. At one point during our stay, our tour guide Sonam gave a motivational speech to the students. One student was translating it for me into English (as he told it in Tibetan), and explained that Sonam is a famous Tibetan writer. I had no idea at the time, and felt extremely humbled when one of the students asked if he was our tour guide or teacher.
We visited a Tonka master, a monk who specialized in crafting Tonka, or Tibetan Buddhist, paintings, often employing gold or other metals in the paint. After having tea with the master and learning about how he made the paintings, we were taken to the gallery. The paintings ranged between about $100 and $10,000 US…Sonam took us to his friend’s house in a nearby town. Though his friend was not a monk, he also made Tonkas, and sold us his for less than half the price. On a side note, the Buddhist monk Tonka master wore a very nice gold watch…
In Gharong village, we broke up into groups and stayed with local families. Although our groups contained students of various levels of Chinese, the family only spoke Tibetan. In an attempt to communicate in some way shape or form, I began to compile a dictionary of words we figured out (though whether or not we actually interpreted the correct meaning is up for debate).
After meeting for tea, we were off to help in the construction of a local monastery. Some students painted, others helped lay stones for outside flooring, and another group (myself included) helped build the exterior walls by hauling water, rocks, and concrete/mortar over two hours.
It was a rather interesting endeavor considering not all of the workers spoke Chinese, and even if they did, many of their words were nigh unrecognizable due to their accents.
Afterwards, we climbed a rather large mountain, where I tested my vocals (which were suffering by now from a cough from the beginning of the trip) in relative but appreciated isolation.
We returned for the best dinner I’ve had in China: the softest noodles in a wonderfully spiced soup/sauce with fresh vegetables. Although we did not speak the language, I’d like to think that we conveyed to the mother how much we appreciated the delicious food. We stayed the night in the house, and despite it lacking most commodities of the present century, there was electricity and a faucet for cleaning. I will never forget the hospitality.
The remainder of the trip was mostly uneventful, involving either traveling or eating –which yielded unpleasant ramifications for me…The night before we got on a 27-hour train ride back to Beijing, I spent a relatively relaxing night in hospital to regain fluids that would otherwise refuse to remain in my system.
On the return trip, we stayed on a similar train, though the carts on this one sold bird appendages instead of fruit. Because I slept for about 18 hours, the trip wasn’t that painful, but it certainly was not as fun as the trip up.
This 9-day excursion was insightful into rural China, especially how different Beijing (and it’s people) is(are) from the rest of China. [I would come up with a more profound concluding statement but it’s dinner time and I’ve finally regained a semblance of an appetite. Moreover, although I believe I learned a lot, these kinds of experiences are not easily summarized…thus I won’t try lol.]