Well, we’re off. Yesterday was one of those excruciatingly unnecessarily-painful (those words are in the right order) bus rides, where the the on-board ticket seller waits until everyone’s asleep and then puts bootleg Hong Kong karaoke tracks on the TV at max volume. In America, something like that on a long-distance Greyhound would absolutely warrant the inevitably resulting gun violence. But in China,
everyone just drowsily wakes up and starts watching, snacking, and chattering, some even rubbing their eyes and then singing along. The guy was genuinely surprised and annoyed when I pleaded to turn it down, for God’s (and Owen’s) sake.
And when it got really hot and the driver, who had the single openable window at his side, still didn’t turn on the extra gas-consuming A/C, everyone just complained quietly to each other. Finally a few brave entreaties did get voiced, and the A/C came on. And then five minutes later it was off again.
So here’s our not-so-over-generalization for the day: in China, people don’t just choose their battles; mostly, they forego them altogether. To complain about a given situation, when the rest of the group is not, often involves losing some face–even if everyone else might be secretly happy that the issue was raised, they won’t let on. What in the West is often admired for boldness, is often in China seemingly noted by others as simply impetuous, or an unfortunate breakdown that caused a person who just couldn’t take it anymore to stand out.
But there’s nothing like riding a bus across a mountain range in China (in this case, the incredible Qilian Range) to put one’s small discomforts in perspective. In America, crossing mountains involves nice views from the interstate, passing through state parks or past ski resorts, and maybe bad cellphone reception. In China, it involves seeing how the other half lives. In this case, it was views of nomad camps of the Yugur ethnic group (according to the guy in the seat across from us), a people descended from the 11th-Century Uighers of Xinjiang, who straddle the border between Qinghai and Gansu. In these cold, high mountains, China’s economic miracle in its eastern provinces has so far brought good cell reception nationwide, but perhaps not yet a whole lot more to these herders. And one wonders what, in their community, are considered admirable traits.
Anyway, on to Zhangye. After coming through the mountains, descending into the long, flat Hexi Corridor, with all its large-scale agriculture, almost felt like suddenly arriving in the American Midwest. Except for the minarets, of course.
The town itself was nothing special, and the nearby ancient cliff temples were less than spectacular, but with cool weather, great hiking (now with plenty of oxygen), and the prospect of much flatter, smoother roads ahead, we were happy to be here.
Anything to be off that bus.