We hire a driver, a Salar Muslim, to take us to the Mengda Nature Reserve, an hour outside of Xunhua. On the precipitous and bumpy drive, he tells us, “The Salar people came here, and all of this was trees.” We look out the window at sandstone cliffs towering about the narrow gorge, through which runs the Yellow River. He continues: “Now, there are no trees.” Nick asks, “Where did the Salar Muslims come from?” “Arabia.” Nick: “That’s very far.” Driver: “They had horses.”
The nature reserve is stunning, with mountain and river scenery out of a movie. We arrive at the trailhead for Heavenly Lake; there is no information about the distance to the lake, only signs pointing up. We ascend, thinking maybe it’s a ten-minute stroll. Forty-five sweaty minutes later, we’re still hauling ass up stone steps. An old, blind woman, led by a younger woman, rests in the shade briefly, then trudges on. This hike will probably take her the better part of the day. After an hour of walking, we arrive at a lovely lake nestled between green hills. A tiny monastery is perched above us on a pointy cliff; there is just enough room on the mountain’s peak for the building, and no more. Prayer flags flap in the wind. I nurse the baby up there, leaning against a tree.
On the bus to Tongren, the Salar women love Owen. When he falls asleep, one of them is kind enough to offer him a sip from her sweet yogurt drink, which has a straw sticking out of it. It takes me a minute to process what she’s trying to do before I can say, “No, he is not able to eat.” Lord, lady, he’s asleep, and he’s 4 months old; he can’t drink yogurt through a damn straw! Later, he cries and a different woman offers him a handful of small, yellow plums. Thanks, but I think we’ll wait a bit to introduce whole stone fruits.
Meanwhile, the driver has changed his hat. When we left the bus station, he was wearing the white flat cap that the Hui Muslims wear. For the drive up onto the Plateau, away from the Muslim areas and into the Amdo Tibetan region, he dons a Tibetan nomad cowboy hat. He is a good driver, and leaves nothing to chance. That means, when given the choice of honking or not honking, he professionally errs on the side of splitting everyone’s eardrums and never risks the possibility that man or beast within earshot of his bus will be unclear as to whether he is fast approaching. As we slow down a bit going through a small settlement, he sees one of the many roadside stands set up at the approaches to big mountain climbs, selling water for vehicle radiators. We stop, the driver gets off, and comes back on with a hose gushing water. He then puts the hose in the aisleway, leaves it until there is an inch of water sloshing around the floor, and then returns it and starts driving again. The twisting turns eventually slosh the water out of our almost-swamped mountain bus-boat, and now the floor is clean.
The mountains are dappled with cows and strings of prayer flags. At one point on the ride, a woman in Tibetan clothing, all wraps and robes and tightly knotted little black boots, with long gray hair organized neatly in tight pigtails, requests a stop and gets off the bus precisely in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing, absolutely nothing around but hills and more hills. She steps off and walks quickly away, confident in her direction, and we speed down the twisty road.
Climbing upwards through a wide mountain valley, we arrive in Tongren. I watch men weigh a skinned lamb on a bloody scale on the street. The air is pungent with mutton. We look for a hotel, but we are turned away from the first three we try; they are not for foreigners. We finally find a place at the edge of town, next to a barbecue restaurant where we eat atomically-spicy grilled broccoli and lamb kebabs. A small dust storm kicks up and an ember from the fire flies into my eye; I am fortunately not blinded, but the night ends there.
Breakfast in the hotel is sheep’s milk yogurt, bought from a Tibetan man. The cups are uncovered and very sheep-tasting. We sit cross-legged on the bed to eat: the hotel rug is so thoroughly covered in hair that it gives new meaning to shag carpet. We don’t let anything touch the floor.
Fortified, we go to the Wutun Temple, a short cab ride away. We are met by a sign that says, “No women allowed during meditation time.” Nick goes in and I stay outside, snapping pictures and trying to look cool and unbothered. The golden prayer wheels spin in the morning breeze. I wait twenty minutes, squinting at the mountains piling on top of each other in the distance. Then Nick is back with news: I am allowed to enter, for the small fee of 80 yuan (around $12). A monk guides us inside, explaining that the “no women” sign was only put up to keep Han Chinese from flooding the temple. Apparently, American women are okay. We walk quickly through a maze of dirt paths to the inner living quarters, where we meet a round-faced monk in maroon robes who offers us tea and lovely dumplings with braided tops. He is the head of the art school that produces the Tibetan thangka paintings for which this temple is renowned. We spend an hour looking at his wares, which are extraordinarily ornate and equally expensive (up to $5,000 for a large commissioned painting), and decide to buy a small mandala piece that doesn’t break the bank. He signs the back in Tibetan and we pose for a picture with Owen. In parting, we ask how old boys are when they join the monastery. He was six years old, he tells us. Owen takes note. Maroon is a good color on him.
We leave the monastery and walk through an adjoining, scruffy Tibetan village, all mud-stone walls and narrow, rutted paths. In the center, some sort of ceremony is taking place. It involves a lot of singing, synchronized dancing, smoke and plant fronds. We understand exactly nothing of it, but watch anyway, careful not to stand in the piles of trash that surround the village meeting area. Nick curses himself for not reading-up more on Tibetan culture and language before this trip. Old women smile at us (okay, at Owen), and I notice that many of them have a single gold or silver tooth among their smiles. As the ceremony wraps up and the villagers prepare for the post-dance feast, we slip out the back way and trek across the valley. On the way, we are passed by monks on motorbikes, who give us directions to a 1,000-year-old ancient walled city. Ducking in, we find it to be an inhabited place with more dirt walls and maze-like construction. Powerlines have been rigged up, freeing the people from dependency on non-existent wood for heating and cooking. We wander a bit, mouths agape to be in such an old, intact place, then catch a ride back with friendly locals who offer a crying Owen an unpeeled lychee fruit. The driver chats with us about president Obama, of whom he approves. We ask where they are from, and they say they are locals. This is a dubious claim, since the locals don’t tend to be Han Chinese, drive nice cars, and go sightseeing at places they live next to. But we later discover that this response is common. No matter what tourist attraction we go to, and no matter how obvious it is that the Chinese we’re talking to are also rich tourists out travelling, they always say they are 本地人, “this-place people.” Only when pressed with extensive further questioning will they gradually hint that they have travelled from elsewhere. Nick does not know what dynamics influence these responses.
Back in Tongren that night, another crazy dust storm kicks up, complete with lightning and cold specks of rain. We decide not to brave the streets and instead buy a giant bread ring (approximately the size of my torso) for 10 yuan ($1.50) and watch a Chinese beauty pageant on TV in the hotel. The Chinese have inscrutable taste in women.
NEXT STOP: XIAHE’S LABRANG MONASTERY, FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE GRASSLANDS