9AM: No Alien Travel Permit–but I decide to get on a bus for western Qinghai anyway. As the puzzled policemen at the bus station had said emphatically the day before, I was “sure to not have problems.” Sure, that was before he’d called his superior, who’d told him that I was in fact strictly forbidden from engaging in such travel. But then again the bus ticket lady, who ought to know such things, didn’t bat an eye when I went back in and asked her for the next bus to Huatugou. And the other cops walking around inside the bus station’s waiting area don’t pay me any mind, either. (hey’re focused on more important things, scrutinizing the Tibetans in the room as if they might be about to suddenly all self-immolate at once. They’re also watchful of everyone’s chickens–specifically, whether any of them were dead, or in the process of becoming dead. Eastern China has just had another bird flu scare, and Qinghai is thought to be the place where the original outbreak originated. So, I sit next to the sign that says 花土沟 (my forbidden destination) and nonchalantly tell curious passers-by that 花土沟 is, indeed, where I am headed. Those charged with keeping western Qinghai’s secrets secret just keep looking at the Tibetans, and the chickens.
12PM: The bus ride to Huatugou is going to be a long one. But the scenery is great, and I have the best seat on the bus: right side, rearmost berth, upper bunk. This is the million-dollar seat on Chinese sleeper buses. Sure, it takes ten minutes to squeeze past everyone to get up to the front and out the door during rest stops (Chinese buses have no emergency exits). But the rearmost outboard bunks have something nobody else has: an open-able window. This means I am in control of the fresh air, which makes me second only to the bus driver in terms of power. And being on the right side, I have one more perk, something my rearmost/left-side compatriot doesn’t have: views out across the magnificent vistas of Qinghai Province, unmarred by passing trucks and triple-stacked power lines.
1PM: We are stopping for lunch, at a dusty pull-off before a big hill where two competing diners post their full menus in big red characters on signs above their entrances. Neither greasy spoon has a name; just a menu. Both are run by Hui Muslims, and the food options are Hui, Tibetan, or Sichuanese. These are the frontiersmen of China’s mid-West, the latter having arrived most recently, first building the roads, then plying them in overloaded tractor trailers headed for Golmud and Lhasa. It’s kind of ridiculous that we are stopping for lunch after just finally escaping the congestion of Xining for the open road. But the bus is filled with hearty-looking types, men who work on their feet and don’t like to miss a meal. After squeezing along with everyone else to the front of the bus and off it, I go into the first restaurant and order the beef noodles. The driver is in there. Between drags on his cigarette, he asks me where I’m going. Flower Dirt Ditch, I say. Business? He asks. No, I say. I’m going to Xinjiang. What business is there in Huatugou, anyway? He takes another drag on his cigarette and answers: oil. Also mines. It’s a desolate place, he says. But at least it’s not Xinjiang. All the workers are from Sichuan, Gansu. No local ethnic minorities to deal with.
3PM: Judging from my sudden headache and the sick-looking faces on everyone else, we are now at our cruising altitude, not quite all the way up on the Tibetan Plateau, but in the high grasslands surrounding Qinghai Lake that Mongolian tribes loyal to the Qing once favored. The Kunlun Mountains, snow-capped and splendid, are to the left.
6PM: We are at a checkpoint. A young man wearing a military uniform hops up on the bus and calls for everyone to get off. A few people dig around for their cigarettes and then start squeezing up to the front of the bus. Others feign sleep. The driver comes back, shaking the sleepers, telling them to get off. They grab their cigarettes and trudge slowly towards the front of the bus, too. The driver gets to me. I’m reaching for my shoes. No, he says. Stay on the bus. Then he draws my window curtain closed. There won’t be any problem, he says. I lay back in my bunk. After five seconds I’m bored so I peek out the curtain. It’s a checkpoint, alright. Everyone stands around on the side of the road, smoking and urinating, while the young soldier collects their IDs for scanning and registering.
7PM: We are in Delingha. I was really hoping we wouldn’t stop here, or at least not in the center of town. But that is exactly where we are when the bus suddenly veers up onto the curb, screaks against a lamp post, and halts. There are two reasons I have concerns about being seen here. The first is that Delingha is/was the center of China’s nuclear weapons research since the 1960s, and a big array of ICBM launch sites are located west of the town, in the direction I’m hoping to pass. The second is the Delingha Prison Farm, where tens of thousands of people were (and still are?) condemned to lives of forced labor in rocky fields watered annually by snowmelt from the nearby mountains. This city is most definitely off-limits to me. It’s not that I expect to get arrested for showing up here; it’s just that, if discovered, I may be put on the next bus leaving back in the direction I came from. That would be a waste. I look to the driver for my cue. He nods: it’s okay for me to get off.
I go into a restaurant with an ethnic Mongolian man that I’ve been chatting with, off and on, for some of the bus ride. We order our beef noodle dishes and he runs off to buy more cigarettes before his food comes. When our bowls arrive, he’s still not back, so I start digging into mine. A few minutes later he returns. He looks at me, concerned.
“Whoa, dude! Don’t eat the vegetables here.”
“At this altitude? Water doesn’t boil hot enough. Ingredients don’t cook through.”
I look at my half-finished bowl of beef noodles. I’ve already eaten most of the veggies. “Well, too late now.”
“Yeah. And you’re going all the way to Huatugou, tomorrow?”
“Ooh, well you might be puking and pooping real bad. In about an hour.”
“I’ll be alright.”
He stares at me, not convinced in the least that I will anything close to alright. Sleeper buses are not alright places to have diarrhea.
I try again: “Well, I’ll keep an extra pair of underwear in my bunk with me.”
He seems reassured. “That might help.”
9PM: We’re back on the bus and headed out of town. There’s a new passenger in the bunk next to mine. He’s a stocky teenager headed out to the family business, a mechanic shop out at one of those crossroads truck stops in the high-altitude deserts west of here. He is beside himself:
“Waaaaaaah?! An American right here, next to ME, on this bus? Do you like Delingha? You know it’s so backward here. Not like America! Do you play basketball? You must be so good. I play, but definitely not as well as you Americans do! I’ve never seen an American before. You’re actually the first foreigner I’ve ever talked to! I never imagined I would ever speak to an American. And on this bus! This area is closed to foreigners, that’s why I never see them. Look! Over there, that’s my village. The government built those houses for us. They’re all in the Mongolian style. Not much by your standards, I know. Behind our village is where the prison farm is. Before, this place was just all Mongolians. That was when my parents were children. Then they built the farm, and this place became Han-ified. It’s a Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous District, but the Han are now the majority. Do you have mountains like this in America?”
14 June. 5AM: It’s beginning to get light outside. I wake up and look out. We’re stopped. Where are we? In some kind of town, apparently. But it’s straight out of one of those post-apocalypse movies: half of all the squat, concrete buildings I can see are reduced nearly to rubble, and the wind whips wisps of sand across the single street even as snaking sand dunes encroach upon the rubbled buildings. There are no vehicles except for our bus. We’re apparently here to deliver a package–the driver is outside, pulling a large box out while another man, not one of our passengers, watches. The passengers are getting off to relieve themselves. I go with them, and we clamber over some rubble, seeking a bit of shelter from the sandy wind while we do our business. I hear shouts behind me. Looking back, I see soldiers running past, first a couple, and then what looks to be about a platoon. I keep squatting, hoping my bare rear end doesn’t give me away as a foreigner.
Safe back on the bus, I see the name of the place as we roll out: 冷湖镇, Cold Lake Town. It takes me a long time, looking at my map, to find the place, because it is so far off my anticipated route. Detour. I assume it was because of the package. I take one last look out the back window and see the platoon still out there, doing their morning run, boots plodding and faces grimacing in the howling wind. As I settle in for the long ride across the vast desert, I wonder what the heck those soldiers are out here for. Another one of Western Qinghai’s secrets.
10AM: We arrive, finally, in Flower Dirt Ditch. The approach featured arrays of oil derricks stretching endlessly in every direction. This is an oil town, first built up with the discovery of the Qaidam Basin’s reserves in 1958. Just about all the “townspeople” here are oil workers, and they can be seen walking in large groups to and from their shifts, or hustling to the big mess halls (one is for workers, one for mid-level managers) at set times throughout the day. It’s a friendly place, although I’m not allowed to get a room at any of the several hotels in order to take a shower. I go to the Public Security Bureau to ask about this, and two flirty police ladies on duty there invite me to sit down for some tea. “Someone’ll be by shortly,” one says, “He’ll take you around to find a place. Now come sit! What’s an American like you doing out here, so far from home? And all by yourself?” “American men are brave,” says the other. I engage them, a little warily, but with the best smile I can force after spending 24 hours on a bus: “And where are you ladies from?” One is from Lanzhou, the other a place in Shandong, and they’ve both been out here, in the middle of a vast, high-altitude desert, for three years.
4PM: I hopped a shared taxi to the next town west, after receiving information that I might be able to get to Xinjiang on an earlier bus from there. Name of the place: Shimiankuang. Some kind of mining town. I realize what this name means after I see the sign for it: 石棉矿. It’s a mine, alright. An asbestos mine. The town itself is just a couple shops, a hotel, and a big ornate government building. The mine is elsewhere. I ask a shop owner: who the heck works here? People from Sichuan, he says. (Sichuan, with its millions of impoverished and their willingness to leave home, has representation just about anywhere in China, and in many rough parts of the world, where there’s tough work to be done.) The locals–a small number of ethnic Mongolians are native to this area–refuse to work there, the shop owner says, preferring to live off their meager government subsidies.
6PM: Back on a bus, one that will chase the setting sun west as we race down through the Altun Mountains to Xinjiang.