#2 China, August 30, 2002

Dear Friends,

Last Sunday afternoon I did what apparently many Lanzhou folks do which was to take the chairlift to Lan Shan, a mountain peak just south of the city. For me it was quite a thrill (read scared as hell) but for those of you that ski, I suppose it would have been a cakewalk. Anyway, this lift was different from the one last week—those were small cable cars holding six people, while this one had just the chair—sort of like a big ferris wheel that went up for 20 minutes.

The late afternoon sun really illuminated the city with its almost all new buildings—many are white and five to 30 storeys tall. It also gave a perspective of why the city of Lanzhou is so long and narrow—there are rugged mountains on both sides of the Yellow River, which flows through the city.

At least 25 people caroled “hellloooo” to me as we met on the chairs going in opposite directions. There was an amusement park on top which I did not visit as the chairlift was plenty of ‘amusement’ for me. Interestingly, on both of these ‘lift’ occasions, I was far more relaxed coming down than going up. And on the way down from Lan Shan I spotted an archeological dig on the side of the mountain.

Monday I ate breakfast at my hotel with a large group of Chinese businessmen. A banner proclaimed that they were gathered for a ‘10th Annual Trade Fair.’ Special honorees wore large orchid corsages. I noticed that none (?) of the men drank tea for breakfast (as I did) but drank juice or milk. And I had to ask specifically for tea.

Off I went again on the number 1 city bus to the West Bus Station. While I did ask the ticket taker to let me know when to get off, I spotted it myself and she confirmed it.

I bought a ticket to Linxia (pronounced Lin-sha) for 20 Y, which I think was about double what locals were paying. On the Lonely Planet on the Internet, many backpackers complain bitterly about having to pay higher prices than the locals. In this case, for a four-hour bus ride, it was the difference between $2.50 and $1.25.

This bus was similar to last week’s bus to Liujiaxia, but newer, with more comfortable seats. The driver played traditional Chinese music via a tape deck. We stopped early on for a toilet break, and while there was a building there (toilet?) I noticed that several people (men and women) used the bushes by the roadside. There were also some perfunctory inspections that apparently were to check for too many passengers (not permitted). I gather that by taking extras the driver and ticket taker can scam a little extra money.

The scenery again was beautiful and interesting. We went through villages of minority people (Hui) that look very un-Chinese. We came upon a bus, like ours, that had broken down and so we stopped to offer help. Our bus pulled up alongside the broken down bus and several men climbed up to transfer many sacks of grain and sheepskins from the top of their bus to the top of our bus, the men straddling the two buses!

The passengers from the broken down bus boarded our bus. Later I learned that these were Hui. The men looked quite Arabic with facial hair, round eyes, and wore white skullcaps. They were obviously hayseed farmers (I don’t mean that disparagingly) and one even had (really) a hayseed clenched in his teeth. The women wore black flowered cowl headgear with faces uncovered.

Later our own bus developed some mechanical problem which involved stopping and taking the cover off the engine inside the bus next to the driver, and fixing it. We were on our way again in 20 minutes.

When we arrived at Linxia, I asked the young woman seated next to me if she knew where the hotel Shuiquan Binguan was. She asked others, and pretty soon about seven or eight people had entered into the discussion. No one knew or more likely could understand my pronunciation. Then a man from the back of the bus came up to me and asked, in good English, if he could help me. He suggested another hotel (the hotel Linxia) that was downtown (the other one was next to the bus station on the outskirts) and offered to guide me there. Since I had left my backpack in Lanzhou I only had a totebag with me, which he offered to carry because, he said, “I’m younger!”

We took a taxi to the hotel and he was right—this was a much better location. I offered to buy him a beer at the hotel, but he declined and said he had to leave. He had told me that he had learned English mostly by himself (his was remarkably good) and that he was from Lanzhou but worked here as an optical lens worker.

In my hotel room I encountered a first—the bed pillows were filled with sand or more likely seeds of some sort and weighed a ton! I also didn’t have a key to my room but had to summon the floor attendant when I wanted back in. And nicely, nicely, there were spittoons on each stairway landing.

This city of about 100,000 was interesting because of its minority populations of Hui and Dongxiang. The latter are believed to be decendents of 13th century immigrants from central Asia who were moved here when Kublai Khan conquered the Middle East. Both they and the Hui are Muslim and there are many mosques around the city.

Obviously interest in this city is not shared by other tourists! Not only were there no Westerners there, I didn’t see any Chinese tourists either. I was stared at openly and constantly, but not in any hostile way.

The next day I walked up, up, up to Wan Zhou, a Taoist temple—actually a series of them—on the mountainside. I thought there was a funicular but didn’t find it. My guidebook for this town (not Lonely Planet) is 15 years old, so maybe it no longer exists. Anyway, on the very top (pant, pant) was a many storeyed (12-15) temple with wonderful views of the city.

It was just after noon when I arrived and a group of workers and a monk were eating a lamb-noodle-veggie-soup dish. There was a big dishpan of the food on the ground outside of some living quarters and a dozen people were gathered around with individual bowls of the dish. I was invited to join in the lunch by a senior man with a gray beard. He invited me into his living quarters where three other men were eating. The room contained a bed, two easy chairs with a glass-topped table between, a cupboard, and a pot-bellied stove. He found a bowl in the cupboard, wiped it out with a rag and filled it from the dishpan outside. Back inside he handed me the bowl of food and invited me to sit in one of the easy chairs that another man vacated. I was also served a glass of tea. It was just the thing to revive me from the steep climb.

When I had finished eating the old gentleman addressed me showing one finger pointing to himself and again one finger pointing to me. Then showed two fingers together—I think I may have received a marriage proposal! Or something! Anyway, time to go but first I took some photos of the group, then walked down, down, down the mountain.

By the time I had walked back to my hotel I really wanted a cold beer. The hotel couldn’t provide a COLD one, so I walked down the street. When I came to a little restaurant, I pointed to the beer and asked for a COLD one. The man showed me ice cubes in his ice cream freezer. I declined, but showed him that I wanted to put the beer in the freezer for 20 minutes. He understood and did so.

As I sat people watching in this most pleasant atmosphere, it occurred to me that every time I saw a mother or father with a child, it was just that—ONE child—the result of Chairman Mao’s ‘one child per family’ policy. The traffic going past the restaurant consisted mostly of bicycles, with a few motor scooters, van-taxis, and a very few private cars. This town also has bicycle taxis. As I was waiting for the beer to cool, the proprietor started up some taped music—“Pretty Woman”, and “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

After 25 minutes I deemed the beer cold enough and enjoyed the Lanzhou Huanghe (Yellow River) beer immensely after my long walk back from Wan Shou Temple.

I swear this area (Lanzhou, too) needs a Payless Shoe Store. The men wear very cheap and ill fitting long, square toed shoes and the women walk about in the flimsiest of sandals, some with very high heels. It doesn’t look as though American sneakers have reached these parts yet—I wish they would as the people’s footware is bad for their feet!

When I got back to my hotel, there was a backpacker couple (from Austria, they told me) getting information about going to Xiahe which they were going to that afternoon, and I was going to the next day. We compared notes for a bit, and then I went back to my room to rest, and eat the two pears that I had bought at a roadside stand. They cost—well, I gave the man one Y (12 ½ cents) and after careful weighing he gave me back some change.

The next morning I got a bus to Xiahe (pronounced sha-hey, but the hey is sort of a grunt). The scenery was mountainous, as usual, but we went through many more villages and saw lots of farms. In the villages they were threshing barley with no mechanization—just people stomping on the grain on a threshing floor. The people in this area are from Tibet and barley is the main ingredient in their staple dish, tsampa. I saw my first herd of yaks—they’re really big and furry—and also saw three flocks of sheep with strange six-inch horns that were twisted like taffy and grew directly out to each side. The town is half Tibetan and half Chinese/Hui. It is also 13,000 feet above sea level (2920 m). I really noticed a shortness of breath if I walked fast. (Remember near Ariquipa, Peru, Jeanne Johnson?)

My backpacker hotel (Tara Guesthouse) had Tibetan style rooms. There were many young people staying there, sitting in the living room drinking tea. They were from the USA, Brazil, Ireland, Australia, England and Israel.

I did check my email—as usual there are email facilities in even small towns—and was quite dismayed to watch a 12 year old in monk’s attire sitting next to me playing a ‘game.’ The game consisted of the boy shooting realistic looking men who, when hit by the ‘bullet’ would spurt blood and fall down. The room was full of youngsters doing the same. Isn’t that awful?

For breakfast I had yak yoghurt (very good), an omelet, and great jasmine tea. Afterwards I got an English speaking tour of the Labrang Monastery with several of the Tara guests. The Monastery is one of six major ones of the Tibetan Buddhism Yellow Hat Sect. The monk-guide spent two hours showing us many temples including one with elaborate yak butter carvings. We also saw several hundred monks seated on rows of cushions in their main hall, chanting and drinking tea. It was one of the biggest, most elaborate and well cared for monastery/temple complexes that I’ve seen, with dazzling artwork. There are about 500 monks living here now. Many of the buildings (and many of the monks) were destroyed during the ‘60’s cultural revolution. When I asked the monk/guide if the monks were killed or just dispersed, at first he pretended not to hear me, but then said, “I don’t know anything—it was before I was born.” In other words, ‘no comment.’

In the afternoon many of the same group and I took two motor rickshaws about 14 km out to Sangke and the grasslands where the Tibetans graze their yaks and sheep. On the way we saw several groups threshing their barley crops by hand, with equal opportunity—women and men joining in.

Once out at Sangke, we went for a walk but it became very marshy and muddy so I turned back while the others continued on. I went back the other way toward what looked like a shrine with a fence on which were hung many strands of sheep wool. Behind this and across a little stream there was a Tibetan family of seven people having a picnic. When they saw me approach (I was planning to ask if I could take a photo) they enthusiastically invited me to join them on their beautiful red carpet, on which they were sitting. One young man could speak a few words of English and using one word indications, I learned that the older couple were the grandparents of the darling little six-month old baby boy; the younger couple were the parents; and another man was a brother of the baby’s father.

The women motioned to my teeth and the English speaker proclaimed them “beautiful!” They offered me mutton and veggie dumplings (I ate three—they were great!) and then the younger sister (?) poured me some hot yak milk in a bowl. I was glad that I had only had a banana for lunch as the dumplings were good—the milk, less so.

After I ate (I gathered that they had finished before I got there) I took some photos and the English speaker (at my suggestion) wrote his address on a piece of paper in Chinese, which I will paste on the envelope to send them some photos, which I think they will enjoy receiving. What a lovely encounter.

This morning five other backpackers and I took the 6 o’clock bus back to Lanzhou. They were all going back to Beijing, and I checked into the Lanzhou Fandian, the hotel where I had left my backpack.

After a lovely lunch (shrimp with cashews and ginger, cauliflower with dried shrimp and two beers (Corona from Mexico!) I went to get my train ticket. Tomorrow I shall go to Wuwei and then on to Dunhuang. A truly satisfying week.

Thanks, all of you, that emailed me. I love getting word from home. By the way, what’s the stock market doing? I’m completely out of touch! Who cares!!

All the best—Carol

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2 Responses to #2 China, August 30, 2002

  1. Omar Jimenez says:

    Hi i love your, Blog i have a question is it really hard for a person that want to travel to china get a Visa? And is it true that I could just take a plane to china with out a Visa and request on in Honk Kong ?

  2. carolkiecker says:

    Yes, for US citizens. It took about 3 days to get a 90-day visa in Hong Kong. That’s why I went there rather than getting a visa from home through the embassy, as those are only 30 days.

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