The Hangzhou airport is so far out of town that it takes almost as long to get there by taxi as it does to get to Shanghai, 130 miles away, on the new bullet train. In keeping with Hangzhou’s up-and-coming-ness (and nationwide overinvestment and indebtedness by local governments), the airport is big, clean, overstaffed, and a total pain in the ass. Owen is a small child who sits on Mom’s and Dad’s laps while jetsetting around the world. In China, this means he still pays around 100USD for all his plane tickets. Most of this money is taxes and government fees. When Nick gives his unsolicited opinion to the airline company clerk that it’s a little ridiculous for an 18-pound wriggling Mom-parasite to pay that much when he won’t be taking up a seat or using any of the airplane services, the clerk is surprised that in other countries he can ride for free. “But with his ticket, he can eat the food,” she says.
The men’s bathroom at the glistening airport is spot-clean. This is a hard state to maintain in China, where the men don’t like to stand too close to the urinals and usually direct a good portion of their urine onto the floor. But this is a good habit, in a way, since here it provides jobs to rural migrants who presumably are valued more in this economy for wiping urine off the airport bathroom floor than for tilling the difficult land their ancestors settled down on a millenia ago. The bathroom, although clean, is filled with the strong odor of tobacco, as if moments ago a crowd of pipe-smokers just walked out. This is funny, given that above every urinal is a big “Smoking Strictly Prohibited” sign. These signs are repeated above the sinks. Just as he is laughing to himself that human behavior is never altered by signage alone, Nick hears a small “pssh” emit from above the paper towel dispenser. It’s one of those automatic air fresheners. And then there it is, stronger than ever: the rich, aromatic smell of Grandpa’s pipe, filling the non-smoking bathroom. Is this a cruel form of torture? Or perhaps the airport administrators chose “leathery tobacco mist” as a strange way to console and comfort the addicted who find themselves stranded in this desert of prohibition. Or, perhaps it was chosen as a clever way to mask what everyone knows that everyone is going to do anyway: smoke.
A woman and a 3-month-old baby sit in front of us on the airplane. The baby cries mournfully for hours, and the woman keeps giving the child water from a baby bottle. The flight attendants repeatedly offer her “milk powder” (formula), but she says no, that she has some. Eventually, she mixes the baby a 14-ounce bottle of formula, which the child sucks down to the bottom and sleeps deeply. The baby has a bald ring around the back of her head, a common sight in China. I ask someone what it’s from, and he says it’s a calcium deficiency. Is it because the inexpensive formula isn’t of high enough quality, or that Chinese give their babies water from a young age? Formula is expensive, and in a nation where breastfeeding is in the minority, many people cannot afford to give their babies powdered milk every time they’re hungry or thirsty. I don’t know the answer, but we see babies every day with this bald ring.
Xining is definitely a different place; Hangzhou immediately feels a world away. We see the moon and stars for the first time since arriving in China, as we speed from the airport to our hostel late at night. Wake to the call to prayer around 5am, and soon after the small park below our window fills to the gills with people doing morning exercises: shouting, arm circles, stretching up against trees, high knees, tai chi, sword play, the whole shebang and then some. We head out early and walk the entire city, which is a small provincial capital at 8000 feet with Tibetan and Hui Muslim minority populations.
On our walk, we stop in a park by the river to listen to a folk concert put on by three old men, one of whom stops playing his instrument every 5 minutes to answer his cell phone, talks to the caller leisurely, then hangs up and starts picking away at his strings again, but not before he lights up a cigarette and smiles at a female onlooker. The band suffers badly when he’s not playing, but no one seems too concerned.
I use the scariest bathroom of my life, which is in a fancy shopping mall. It is pitch black in the stall. As I am finishing up and buttoning my shorts, I notice movement in the darkness to my left, and I realize (far too late) that the stall has two squat toilets in it with no divider, and I’ve just peed ten inches away from another woman without even realizing it.
In the late afternoon, after a day of pleasant wandering, we board a bus to Xunhua, bags of homemade Muslim breads in hand. I call the breads “lilywhites,” because they are small white discs with brown spots where the heat blistered their surfaces; their interiors are plain and the color of snow. They are delicious and simple and they tide us over for the three cramped hours it takes to get to Xunhua.
It’s cramped because the driver pulls out of the bus station and trolls the road at 10 miles per hour, his associate calling out the door the destination, and people walking by hop aboard. It’s unclear if they planned to get on the bus, or if they just decided on a whim to go. They pay the same rate we paid at the bus station, which forces us to wonder why they didn’t just buy a ticket in the first place. They sit in the aisle on tiny folding chairs that the driver’s assistant produces from under a seat. When we get to a traffic checkpoint (where police will check to see that the bus is not overcrowded and that everyone on board has a seat), the driver instructs the aisle-sitters to get off and walk 400 meters down the road. We meet them on the other side of the checkpoint, where they all re-board and resume their aisle-squatting. The people who sit in the aisles speak a dialect we cannot understand; Xunhua is the Salar Muslim autonomous region. It is the first time we have seen people who are not Han Chinese. They wear traditional clothing and have high altitude faces: brown, wind-whipped skin and high cheekbones. The mountains here are blue and red, rising in all directions and impressive to us city folk.
The bus driver tears down the road at breakneck speed, honking at everything that moves, including birds that fly in our path. The birds are smart: they get the hell out of the way.
We arrive in Xunhua to friendly, Central Asian-looking people and no other tourists at all. We eat lamb and noodles and Chinese celery at a family-run restaurant, drink warm, 1.5 yuan beer, and wake again to the call to prayer so early that even Owen is still sleeping. We sleep fitfully after that; everyone in town is waking up and honking their horns as if to announce, “Look, I have a car! Hey, the engine turns on!”
We drink packets of Nescafé for breakfast, along with plums from the market, which we wash thoroughly. The coffee is terrible: it is equal parts sugar, non-dairy creamer and instant coffee granules in one package, cheerily called “2+1” and tasting like a Frappucino that sat in a dumpster overnight. We drink it anyway. We have sights to see.
Nick goes out and tries to buy bus tickets to our next destination (Tongren). He is told to just show up at the appointed time: “There won’t be many people; no problem.” It’s not the kind of place where people get on buses all the time and go places.
NEXT STOPS: XUNHUA’S MENGDA NATURE RESERVE & HEAVENLY LAKE, TONGREN’S BUDDHIST TEMPLES