On the bus from Xiahe to Langmusi, the horn honks. There’s another car in the road. There are people on the side of the road. And places where there aren’t cars or people, but very well might be. The horn honks at all these places, sometimes short, often long, always loud.
We walk up behind the gold-roofed monastery in this tiny, foggy, high-altitude (10,000 feet) Tibetan town. On our walk we happen upon a sprawling sky burial site, where we step carefully around bones (some still pink with marrow), vulture feathers, hatchets, knives. [A sky burial is a Tibetan ritual where the deceased person’s body is taken to a designated place outside of town, where it is then hacked apart; vultures know the drill and swoop down to carry the meaty bits to the heavens, while the bones stay, chopped-up, on earth.] These are the first human bones I’ve ever seen, and I hold my breath. We walk through the burial site, lifting paper prayers with our shoes as we climb the ridge to peer over into Gansu province. All below us, green and mountainous and unpopulated, it spreads. Sichuan, to our backs, is craggy, black, misty mountains. The red roofs of Langmusi look like tiles below us.
They advertise pie at all the backpacker restaurants here. We order a slice of apple. It is more like a fried crepe with apple goo inside. Almost correct, almost.
There is a bar in town called Theme Bar. As if someone suggested that it would be smart to open a theme bar, and someone else took that idea and ran a very, very short distance with it.
Our second day, we pick a mountain on the edge of town that looks not-too-huge and endeavor to reach the top of it. There are no trails, and on the way up we get stuck on the wrong side of a chest-high cattle-enclosure fence. We take turns scaling it, and pass Owen across. The cows are nonplussed. We trek on, through high altitude flowers and wet grass lumps, up the steep bank of the mountain, until we finally reach the summit, which is rich with prayer flags whipping in the 11,500-foot wind. We are utterly alone, though far up the cave-filled valley we can see a herder with his sheep. On our descent, the vultures from the adjacent sky burial site circle low above us, eyeing a sleeping Owen. I admit, he does look deliciously fat, but unfortunately for the birds of prey, he is undead, and we carry on.
We move, by bus, to Linxia, a biggish city, where we climb up a 5-story Taoist temple at the edge of town. Our afternoon is free, so we walk behind the temple and…just keep walking. City turns to country, and we’re padding through a string of rural farming villages that look and smell like home (Vermont, that is). The sprawl of Linxia is invisible and inaudible. We are maybe ½ a mile from the city, but we’re completely in the countryside. A woman rolls up the dirt road on her bike and asks, “Are you from the Soviet Union, or America?”
At the chicken and potatoes restaurant, I change the baby’s diaper and (accidentally) leave the diaper on the floor when we go. We are becoming Chinese!
We board a speedboat to see Bingling Si, old Buddhist rock carvings in a grotto down a canyon. On our boat, Chinese men smoke cigarettes underneath the “no smoking” sign, and they toss empty plastic bottles out the boat’s window into the reservoir. The scenery is Utah on steroids. The Buddhas are, indeed, very old, though the star attraction (a 100-foot-tall Buddha) is under construction and unviewable. We take a golf cart ride up the canyon 3 kilometers to a remote monastery, where a garrulous monk shows us a stunning Tang-dynasty seated goddess, all gold and mascara-eyes. On the cart ride back, we pass canyon cows and a bird with a broken wing. Our driver slows the cart to watch the bird flapping futile-y on the canyon floor, then laughs out loud (the nervous Chinese laugh that substitutes for outward empathy).
From Linxia to Lanzhou by hired car/driver. The driver informs us that he will honk the horn frequently “for the baby’s safety.” And how! He honks at dogs in the bushes, cars in the other lane, people in their yards and on their front porches: 3 hours of nonstop honking. But, man, is the baby safe.
A few years back, Lanzhou held the title of the Most Polluted City in the World. It’s cleaned up its act and moved down the list a few notches, but it’s still basically a shithole. Everyone smokes, the restaurants are filthy, the streets are strewn with trash, and as we walk to our hotel we watch a 10-year-old girl take a giant dump in the middle of the sidewalk. Men strip down to their undershirts and get wasted on bai jiu (white liquor) at lunch. In our hotel, businessmen chain-smoke and drink heavily with the doors wide open (to let the smoke out and also to be social with other rooms of businessmen on the same hall), 24 hours a day. They leave their doors open while they’re in the bathroom, and leave the bathroom doors open, too. I watch a woman fix her make-up in her bathroom as I walk to my room. At lunch, the chef takes his shirt off while he cooks. The museum we came to see is closed for a “rest day.” We leave hastily.
NEXT STOPS: ONTO YINCHUAN TO SEE TOMBS IN THE DESERT, THEN TO INNER MONGOLIA FOR GRASSLANDS AND YURTS AND CHINESE TOUR GROUP SHENANIGANS