Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore…
10.20.2007 - 10.21.2007 50 °F
As foreign as Beijing seemed, there was something familiar about it. Perhaps it was the Hyatt hotel we were staying in, or maybe it was all the English speakers, or possibly all the outdoor advertisements featuring American athletes or film stars, or probably because it shares so much with other mega-cities like New York, LA, or Paris; It always seems to have purpose or directed energy. Our two hour flight to Xining landed at 8:30 and the airport terminal was dark. Literally, the lights were off. That’s not totally true. There were lights, but the lights you might expect in a hallway during a power failure where the exit sign glows. Not the lights of an airport. Our bags met the carousel promptly and we were met by a driver and a local Xining expert whose name was “Lucky” who we all pronounced as Naki or Nochi for the next few days (whoops). We drove an hour to town and it was dark most of the way. We checked into the hotel with some lively discussion with the front desk about the concept of adjoining rooms that I won’t go into, and we settled-in for a night’s sleep in a beautiful room, that featured four spectacular beds of linen covered cement. The whole truth is that sleep followed a visit from an engineer who opened the doors between our rooms, apparently a very complex operation, as well as a visit from the hotel’s general manager who brought water and beer to the room, after a room service call, requesting that I pay in cash right there in the spot. I did. The beer was warm….. and most excellent.
We awoke to 20th story windows, displaying a town shrouded in blue-gray, quietly masking skeletons of buildings that looked like they started with bang and ran out of money… This is the town where we will meet the Beijing to Tibet train that will take us to Lhasa, but while we’re here, we thought we’d check out the surroundings. We were whisked away after breakfast. We drove through the city of more than a million, and were astonished by the difference between Beijing and this town. This urban center is rural. The contrast was palpable. Tall buildings meet tractors that double as hoes. Audi A4s drive along side three wheel work contraptions, over-flowing with Barley 10 feet high. We drove for a few hours, and saw the contrast disappear with every kilometer. We drove through farm lands and bustling tiny towns made of brick and mud. The altitude was now close to 11,000 ft. We stopped briefly at a remote Tibetan Buddhist Temple at Sun Moon Mountain, for some mugging and photos with locals, (sitting on Yaks and the like), and then moved on to Quinghai Lake, (China’s largest saltwater lake), where it snowed, hailed and rained, while shepherds marshaled sheep and cows across the plains like it was 75 degrees in Los Angeles. We met locals on horseback. We ate in a restaurant where you could see your breath. We marveled at the desolation of this place, and the “on water hotel” used in the summer (August – but no swimming) by folks venturing from the big city. The air was thin and made us all dizzy for a few moments, or was it the out of body experience of just being here. This isn’t Kansas anymore, is it?
Tu is better than two...
The next day in Xining we visited our first Buddhist Monastery outside of town about 20 kilometers. It was pretty wild. Photo snapping tourists, old monks with the latest cell phones, and folks that have made a pilgrimage to praise Buddha intermingle in a Yak-butter-candle haze. Pilgrims that have sold everything they had to get closer to Buddha and god, sit on streets begging for money or candy or food, so they can get back home or finish their pilgrimage. We ate at a local noodle shop, and ventured to a minority village. There are 55 minorities in China; Mongols, Manchruians, etc.. We visited the “Tu” minority – whose core economic focus is making barely wine – which we drank upon arriving and leaving. I kept asking where the second minority group was, because we were to see Tu minorities and I had only seen one. Carol pointed out that it wasn’t “two” minorities it was the “Tu” minority. I was so dense that I didn’t get it and belly laughed when I did. Was it the Barely Wine? I dunno…..hiccup.
Before we hit the train to Tibet hat evening, we skateboarded in a beautiful and huge park in downtown Xining, which once again attracted a large crowd, and this time… other skaters…! The boys exchanged tricks and hand shakes. It was cultural exchange at it’s best. The most common phrase uttered by the Xining local skaters, was “Shit!” as they muffed a trick. English is alive and well in Xining! The Xining people were awesome and did try and converse a bunch. But English doesn’t always make sense, like the back of the many buses in Xining… yet it’s vastly better than our nonexistent Chinese… The people of Xining were some of the nicest we’ve met on the trip.