West again: A few final stories from my last trip in China. With two weeks to kill between the end of classes and graduation, I bought a plane ticket to Xining, the jumping-off point of so many previous adventures (like in July 2011, July 2012, and November 2012). I had two choices: I could head south, back up into the Tibetan area of Amdo and perhaps onward into Kham. Or I could shoot west, through the semi-forbidden areas of western Qinghai and then down into Chinese Central Asia. I chose…
“Huatugou,” I said to the ticket lady. I looked up one more time at the crudely-depicted map of bus routes on the wall above me. The characters 花土沟 were there, sitting on the far left extreme of the map. “Flower Dirt Ditch,” was the literal translation, although I suspected they might mean “Potting Soil Ditch,” or even “Dirt Erosion Ditch.” In any case, the town was named for some kind of ditch, and I was trying to go there.
I had just landed at the airport outside Xining a little over an hour ago. As we’d landed, I’d been amazed to see jagged rows of snow-capped peaks in the distance–probably the Qilian Mountains–through my scratched airplane window, considering it was June. At that point I’d decided I’d head south, by local bus, to Sertar, and then west to Zadoi, covering a good eastern stretch of the Tibetan plateau. But then I’d walked into the bus station, and something made me change my mind. Maybe it was seeing–and smelling–all those Tibetans again, as they confusedly milled about, squinting at the Chinese signage, wafting their Yak-butter body odors my way. Not that it’s their fault, but I’d always found being around Tibetans to be difficult. Or maybe–and more likely–it was just seeing that horribly drawn map up above the ticket counter. There it was, Qinghai Province, and so many place names that were now familiar: Xunhua, Tongren, Xiahe, Luqu, Langmusi, Maqu, Yushu, Madoi… but then there was was so much that was unexplored. My eyes were drawn to the left side of the map, where the place names were few and–although the map definitely wasn’t drawn to scale–definitely far between. Flower Dirt Ditch was the farthest out there. I asked: “Is there still another bus leaving today?”
“Yes of course,” said the ticket lady, as if it was stupid question. “This afternoon 5:30 good for ya?”
“That’s great!” I said. But then a flash of doubt came over me. “Are foreigners permitted to go through there?”
She looked at me like it was another stupid question. “No problem!”
“Actually, let me check.” She yelled the question to another ticket lady sitting next to her. The lady shook her head.
“No foreigners allowed!” My ticket lady said. Then she looked at me expectantly. C’mon, dude, you gonna buy a ticket?
I went to the police post next door. “Hi, can you guys let me know if Huatugou is open to foreigners?” Two policemen, one in uniform and the other in plain clothes, looked up from their desks. One spoke: “Huatugou, it’s open, sure! Of course it is! Why wouldn’t it be?”
I replied: “Well, I just wanted to make sure, so I don’t get pulled off the bus at a checkpoint. The ticket lady said it was closed.”
“But you’re just passing through, right? Just go!”
“Can you confirm for me?”
He made some phone calls, which were all extremely frustrating for him. His landline phone kept cutting out during calls, and every time he got through to somebody at one level of the Public Security bureaucracy or another, he was told to call somebody else. Then he would try to call that somebody else, and nobody would even answer the phone until his third or fourth attempt. But he was persistent. As I sat and waited, I noticed that the chair the plainclothes policeman was seated in was actually designed for securing a prisoner. The arms of the chair and its front legs featured metal clamps for securing an unlucky someone’s wrists and ankles.
Two destitute-looking Tibetans came into the station. Their jeans and wool jackets were filthy, as were their faces, which were also chapped and sunburned a deep red. They had jet-black hair, cut to shoulder-length, and bright yellow teeth. They asked to report that one of their wallets had just been stolen, lifted from one of their pockets while waiting in line to buy a bus ticket. They were hopeful that the closed-circuit footage of the ticket lines that was displayed in the police station, right behind where I was sitting, would help identify the thief.
The plain-clothes police officer waved them off. “Not here! Go report it at your hotel! They’ll call somebody.”
The Tibetan men both flashed brief looks of exasperation as it dawned that nobody was going to help them. But they kept their composure. Without another word they walked out the door.
Finally, the uniformed policeman got the right person on the line. “Huh?” He acted surprised. “What about passing through? Still no? He’s American. Definitely no? Okay. Hmmm. Okay. Thanks.”
He looked genuinely disappointed for me.
So, next I went to the Provincial Public Security Bureau. As the policeman explained to me after the phone call, at the PSB I could apply for an Alien Travel Permit, which would allow me to go all the way to Xinjiang, via Golmud and then Huatugou. But when I got to the PSB, the whole place was shut down. Then I remembered: today was the Dragon Boat Festival holiday.
I stood outside the closed-up building for a moment, pondering my next move. Then a cop on duty at the little station next door hollered at me to knock! on the locked doors. Somebody’ll be in there, she assured me. I knocked. Knock harder! she yelled. I knocked harder. She watched me knock for a while, and I watched her to see if she might just use her phone to call whoever would be inside, or perhaps do something, anything, slightly more helpful than keep yelling at me to keep knocking. She didn’t. And after a minute or two, she shrugged: it’s Dragon Boat Festival! she yelled. Come back tomorrow.
Out of luck and time for the day, I checked into one of the three “7 Days” chain hotels in the city, the same one I’d spent the night in before going to Tibet last year. The girls at the check-in counter were flirty but wouldn’t give me the advertised discount price because I hadn’t made a reservation online. I asked to use the available computer in the lobby. They both came out from behind the desk to help me use it. Together, the three of us then made the online reservation, for me, at the hotel we were currently standing in. Then the girls went back behind the counter and I checked in.
I filled the rest of the afternoon with a hike in the hills north of town, where I met some Tibetan monks at a chintzy-looking temple and a retired law professor out gathering wild onions. and a stroll. But the most entertaining person I met was at the corner store next to the hotel. I went there before bed to buy some water and snacks for the morning. There were two old men in the shop, which was so small that perhaps only four people total could fit inside it. One of the old men, evidently the owner, stood next to a drawer of cash. The other, evidently his friend, sat in a chair next to him and sipped a little cup of Qingkejiu, a highland barley liquor popular in these parts.
I asked whether the shop had any of the rough, almost-home-made yogurt that one can sometimes find in bigger towns on the Tibetan plateau. The two old men, acting shocked to have heard their own language coming out of my mouth, then became intensely interested in this foreigner in their shop. I told them my travel plans. After about 5 minutes of conversation the friend in the chair insisted I sit down with him. Slurring his words, he asked his friend, the Boss, to get a paper cup out for me as well. Initially the Boss didn’t think it was such a good idea. “I can’t have the two of you sitting here drinking liquor,” he said. “You’ll scare away the customers!”
“Bah,” said the friend. “I’m your good luck! And if an AMERICAN sits here with me, your luck will be even better!”
“Okay, okay,” said the Boss, grimacing. “Keep it down. You ARE good luck. That’s why I have you sit in my shop, to bring in good business. But don’t talk so loud!”
“Yup, just give me a little more of that barley liquor,” said the friend. “That is, if you want me to bring you luck.”
“Okay, okay. But Shh! If customers out there know I’ve got an ornery alcoholic sitting in here, you won’t be good luck at all!”
“Relax, Boss. You want good luck or not? I’ve never failed you!”
Another grimace from the Boss. “Okay, it’s true, you haven’t. But c’mon, please, keep it down!”
Another chair was brought out, leaving no room for any customers to even come all the way into the store, and I sat down with the Boss’s friend, the half-drunk man of fortune. What ensued was an hour-long discussion–actually carried out mostly by the Boss and his friend, with nods and shakes the head from me–that started with a simple premise: I was American and they were Chinese, and together we were sitting in a shop. Additional details were then noted: for example, I also drank Qingkejiu. Questions were asked: there was another foreigner living in this city, either American or Dutch, and did I know him? Eventually a particular line of reasoning emerged and developed, and the excited conversation lept by bounds of barley liquor-fueled logic to an incredible moment of enlightenment, followed by triumphant toasts to the common humanity of all the world’s peoples. The man of fortune, shortly after proclaiming this undeniable truth, then stood up and, empty cup in hand, declared that “You know what? Even Japanese people are good at heart!” He did pause to reconsider for a moment. Then: “At least the average Japanese, anyway!” Then he looked at me, raised his glass, realized it was empty, had the Boss re-fill it, looked back at me, and shouted: “Peoples of the world, we’re all the same! Now drink! Drink! Finish your glass!”
I did. More toasts followed. Then Boss, who’d also been caught up in the excitement, became concerned. His friend had gotten way too loud. Now here he was shouting blasphemies, toasting the Japanese and all. How could that be good for business? He had let his good-luck friend get too drunk, and now he was probably no luck left in him at all. “Okay, okay, SHUT UP!” he shouted. The friend looked at him, shocked. The Boss grimaced and whispered: “You’re too damn loud!”
Just then a customer walked up off the street. “SEE,” whispered back the friend, “I AM good luck when I drink.”
The customer looked around at the scene before him: a tiny shop, a nervous old guy punching the arm of a drunk old guy and telling him to shut up, and–quick double take here–a foreigner, sitting in front of counter and drinking barley liquor. The customer looked back at the Boss. The Boss smiled. The customer held up a couple paper bills, pointed at a brand of cigarettes displayed on the shelf behind the Boss, and asked for one box. The Boss obliged. The cash changed hands. The customer walked off.
Silence lingered in the shop. Then: “SEE, WHEN I’M NOISY I BRING EVEN MORE LUCK FOR YOU, YOU STUPID EGG.” The Boss reached to smack his friend. “AND MY FOREIGN FRIEND HERE NEEDS MORE BARLEY WINE.”
The boss grimaced. “Maybe having the two of you is good luck.” Then he poured three glasses, and we all raised a toast.