Tag Archives: Gansu 陇

In Dunhuang, Buddhas in the Sands, and Cabins in the Trees

NOT a picture of the actual cave paintingDunhuang, our last stop in Gansu before we cross over into Xinjiang, is a desert oasis. A former Silk Road stop, it was also a sort of competition site for which wealthy Buddhist family could commission the best cave temple. The result was a spectacular array of caves As the Silk Road later shifted north a bit, traders on camels took a hot week’s detour to come here to this pilgrimage site. We came on the fast train, and we came for the milkshakes and coffee. Oh, and those stunning Buddhist carvings at the Mogao caves.

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This is the End

The end of the lineWe’re in Jiayuguan, at the end of the Ming- and Qing-Dynasty Great Wall, where this former fort and customs station once marked the limit of China proper.

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Journey to the Farther West – First Stop: Zhangye

Chinese MidwestWell, 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,

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Huang Journey Part the Fourth: Langmusi (highlight), Lanzhou (low, low, lowlight)

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

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Huang Journey Part III: Clogs (Yak in the arteries, Dutch in the monasteries)

Xiahe is Tibet, or at least the Amdo Region of the Tibetan world. Since the Qing Dynasty the northern third of the Tibetan Plateau has been separated into Qinghai Province, and the eastern edges carved off into Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces. Here, our Mandarin is less than useful with many people, but because people learn it in school, we are able to hold a conversation with Tibetan monks, who without fail are friendly and curious. They love a baby and a good mutton dumpling; these are things we have in common.

We visit the Labrang monastery, known as one of China’s loveliest, and the biggest Tibetan Buddhist religious site outside of Lhasa. And it is: golden roofs and and jade and crimson walls surrounding the most ornately-detailed temples. I nurse the baby on the steps of the Great Prayer Hall, supposedly one of the 6 holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism, and admire the colorfully painted, interlocked squares that decorate the columns. No surface is left unadorned. (It’s stunning.) We walk the sacred path around the monastery (called the kora), accompanied on our trek by stooped old women and men with no zippers on their pants, all who probably suffered many hours of car-sick bus rides and poor accomodations here in town in order to make the pilgrimage. I nurse the baby here, too. An ancient woman sees me sitting on the ground and brings me an empty ice cream carton to sit on. I accept it, and then she pulls aside the nursing cover I’m using for modesty and peers down my shirt, touches Owen’s cheek. I barely protest, I’m so surprised. She stands and stares at us for long minutes, smiling and saying things in Tibetan that we don’t understand. Then she gives the thumbs-up and continues on her way.

We don’t run into many foreigners out here, but when we do, they’re Dutch. Old, young, all Dutch. Why? Most of them are big fans of Tibet, Tibetans, Tibetan culture (although our location would make that a self-selecting survey sample), and therefore huge China haters. We get annoyed that every time we hear someone speaking English in a restaurant, in the hotel lobby, or out on the street, it’s another Dutch person telling a Tibetan person in the tourist industry that China is “bu hao,” not good.  We see a Dutch tour group actually start booing when their tour guide shows up, wearing an old olympics t-shirt that happens to have the word “Beijing” on it.

I am slightly surprised to see a monk on a cell phone getting out of a cab, tucking his maroon robes carefully around him as he exits. Nick reminds me that they’re not Amish.

The Han Chinese tourists are the ugly Americans of the Tibetan areas of China: they run up to monks, shoving long-lensed cameras in their faces and shouting, forcing women in traditional clothing to pose for pictures and generally being obnoxious. It’s like Tibetan safari, and for once we’re not the most annoying people around.

A note here about Chinese tour guides: from a Western perspective, nothing could be worse. Using megaphones to speak to groups as small as four or five people, the information conveyed about a particular site usually consists solely of dimensional measurements, dates, and long lists of materials used, categories of artwork present, and then whatever superlatives might or might not be justly be awarded.  Narrative and context are skipped, and to Westerners trying to learn more about the history of a particular place, this is extremely frustrating. It seems that to the Chinese, though, history is everywhere on and beneath the ground they walk on, and it’s long, complicated, and not particularly useful knowledge. The places that tourists come to visit are attractions because of the superlatives, and these superlatives are usually dimensional, categorical, or chronological: biggest Buddha, most Buddhas, best remaining example of this dynasty, 6th largest temple. In the West, we would still emphasize the special story behind a particular place, and want our tour guides to tell rich tales of of the whos and the whys and the hows. But in China, that’s not why you came here. You came here because this monastery is bigger than others; therefore, we will tell you exactly how many prayer wheels it has, and what the surface area of the biggest building is.

We climb the mountain behind the Labrang monastery for stellar views of town. It’s a hike: at 10,000 feet, I feel the altitude slowing me down. Still, we walk the ridge with mouths agape at the spreading valley below us, mountains ridging in all directions. (It reminds us of Telluride, Colorado, only Tibetan. And without the Patagonia store.) We reach the end of the ridge, where thousands of prayer flags whip and click in the wind. Owen seems to love the noise, and my mind wanders back to the conversation we had with the monk in Tongren. (Six years old, six years old.) As we descend the rocky path, we meet a family who lives in a house right along the kora. They want to chat. Everyone is wearing an amazing hat: incongruously, the older brother dons a US Marine Corps boonie cover; younger brother proudly sports a black hat (of religious significance: the Black Hats, or Karma Kagyu, belong to one of the four largest Tibetan Buddhist schools, and they walk the kora in the opposite direction); Owen wears a blue sun hat that makes him look ready to ride a camel. We snap a photo of everyone in their significant hats and are on our way.

At Nomad, the only restaurant in town worth visiting, we eat yak noodle soup, yak baked under a dome of chive-speckled dough, yak dumplings (called momo), yak stir fried with hot peppers, all of it washed down with cup after hot cup of yak milk tea.

We wake early the next day to the sounds of men demolishing the adjacent concrete-and-rebar building by hand, from the top down, with sledgehammers. This is slow, hot work, done one small falling chunk at a time. Frustratingly, an out-of-commission crane sits, unused, ten feet away from them. Perhaps their labor is cheaper than the cost of wrecking ball.

Ganjia grasslands: our first view of the endless, rolling (grassy, of course) plains. We get a tour of a middle-of-nowhere monastery, where the tour guide wears a red track suit in the scorching midday sun. We stop to explore a 2000-year-old Han dynasty village, with the old walls still intact.  After the unification of China, the Han emperors were among the earliest to look west and assert control of the valleys and mountain passes to Central Asia.  As they extended their control, they came in contact with other civilizations, and one result was the trans-Eurasian silk trade.  While Roman senators were bemoaning the outflow of vast sums of gold to pay for this new women’s fashion trend, the settlement here existed as an outpost of the empire on the other end of this trade imbalance. Our driver is not so impressed with what has been done with the place over the last 2,000 years. “The farmers wrecked everything inside the city. They moved inside the walls, and just knock down the old structures to suit themselves. And now they think they deserve to charge admission.” We arrive, and money passes hands yet again, from one civilization to another, as we pay the old white-haired farmer 20RMB to clamber up the walls.  The horseflies are vicious here at 11,000 feet.

On our way back from the grasslands, our driver hits a dog that suddenly jumps out into the road. This is not long after we have a conversation in which he tells us that dogs are expensive and precious commodities, and that most herders cannot afford them, and so herd their sheep themselves, sans dog. Several nomad bystanders start running up to the car, shouting and waving hands, but our driver has already hit the gas and we speed back to our hotel, passing every car on the road.

After dinner (more yak, plus Eight Treasures tea made with dates, goji berries, lychees, rock sugar and green tea leaves), we go thangka shopping. Thangkas are cloth woven or painted depictions of various aspects of Buddhist teaching, used for their portability and durability by monks traipsing the highlands to teach about the Buddha. As Western worshippers of beauty not Buddha, we think they look pretty neat. In the shop with the most straight-talking owner, we watch as she pulls down dusty and dustier scrolls and unrolls them for our approval. They are dark and bright, dusty and pink and silver. We decide on a midnight-hued one with a sitting goddess painted in turquoise and gold. Owen gets hungry from all the bargaining, and as I feed him (on a rickety stool in the corner of the shop, surrounded by Tibetan knick-knacks), a Chinese tourist rushes up and stares down my shirt, asking, “Can I see?” I swat her hand away and yell, “No!”

As it turns out, we are lucky to even be in Xiahe, as it was closed to foreigners due to unrest just a few days before we arrived, and, we find out later, closes again 2 days after we leave. This place was the scene of big anti-Beijing riots in 2008, and the tension is still there, along with a new military barracks built down the road. All the Dutch probably don’t help things either. Right now the town is all construction and literal upheaval: backhoes and cinderblocks and mess everywhere. A giant building complex is going up directly opposite the monastery, with a large, conspicuous Chinese flag flapping over its neat concrete. Wonder what is to come for this place.

NEXT STOPS: BUSHWHACKING UP MOUNTAINS IN LANGMUSI, DOGDING SECONDHAND SMOKE IN LANZHOU

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Huang Journey Part II: Thangka [costs] Very Much

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

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Huang Journey Part I: Fresh Mountain (and Airport Bathroom) Air

The Hangzhou airport is so far out of town that it takes almost as long to get there by taxi as it does to get to Shanghai, 130 miles away, on the new bullet train. In keeping with Hangzhou’s up-and-coming-ness (and nationwide overinvestment and indebtedness by local governments), the airport is big, clean, overstaffed, and a total pain in the ass.  Owen is a small child who sits on Mom’s and Dad’s laps while jetsetting around the world.  In China, this means he still pays around 100USD for all his plane tickets.  Most of this money is taxes and government fees.  When Nick gives his unsolicited opinion to the airline company clerk that it’s a little ridiculous for an 18-pound wriggling Mom-parasite to pay that much when he won’t be taking up a seat or using any of the airplane services, the clerk is surprised that in other countries he can ride for free.  “But with his ticket, he can eat the food,” she says.

The men’s bathroom at the glistening airport is spot-clean.  This is a hard state to maintain in China, where the men don’t like to stand too close to the urinals and usually direct a good portion of their urine onto the floor. But this is a good habit, in a way, since here it provides jobs to rural migrants who presumably are valued more in this economy for wiping urine off the airport bathroom floor than for tilling the difficult land their ancestors settled down on a millenia ago.  The bathroom, although clean, is filled with the strong odor of tobacco, as if moments ago a crowd of pipe-smokers just walked out. This is funny, given that above every urinal is a big “Smoking Strictly Prohibited” sign.  These signs are repeated above the sinks.  Just as he is laughing to himself that human behavior is never altered by signage alone, Nick hears a small “pssh” emit from above the paper towel dispenser. It’s one of those automatic air fresheners. And then there it is, stronger than ever: the rich, aromatic smell of Grandpa’s pipe, filling the non-smoking bathroom. Is this a cruel form of torture? Or perhaps the airport administrators chose “leathery tobacco mist” as a strange way to console and comfort the addicted who find themselves stranded in this desert of prohibition. Or, perhaps it was chosen as a clever way to mask what everyone knows that everyone is going to do anyway: smoke.

A woman and a 3-month-old baby sit in front of us on the airplane. The baby cries mournfully for hours, and the woman keeps giving the child water from a baby bottle. The flight attendants repeatedly offer her “milk powder” (formula), but she says no, that she has some. Eventually, she mixes the baby a 14-ounce bottle of formula, which the child sucks down to the bottom and sleeps deeply. The baby has a bald ring around the back of her head, a common sight in China. I ask someone what it’s from, and he says it’s a calcium deficiency. Is it because the inexpensive formula isn’t of high enough quality, or that Chinese give their babies water from a young age? Formula is expensive, and in a nation where breastfeeding is in the minority, many people cannot afford to give their babies powdered milk every time they’re hungry or thirsty. I don’t know the answer, but we see babies every day with this bald ring.

Xining is definitely a different place; Hangzhou immediately feels a world away. We see the moon and stars for the first time since arriving in China, as we speed from the airport to our hostel late at night. Wake to the call to prayer around 5am, and soon after the small park below our window fills to the gills with people doing morning exercises: shouting, arm circles, stretching up against trees, high knees, tai chi, sword play, the whole shebang and then some. We head out early and walk the entire city, which is a small provincial capital at 8000 feet with Tibetan and Hui Muslim minority populations.

On our walk, we stop in a park by the river to listen to a folk concert put on by three old men, one of whom stops playing his instrument every 5 minutes to answer his cell phone, talks to the caller leisurely, then hangs up and starts picking away at his strings again, but not before he lights up a cigarette and smiles at a female onlooker. The band suffers badly when he’s not playing, but no one seems too concerned.

I use the scariest bathroom of my life, which is in a fancy shopping mall. It is pitch black in the stall. As I am finishing up and buttoning my shorts, I notice movement in the darkness to my left, and I realize (far too late) that the stall has two squat toilets in it with no divider, and I’ve just peed ten inches away from another woman without even realizing it.

In the late afternoon, after a day of pleasant wandering, we board a bus to Xunhua, bags of homemade Muslim breads in hand. I call the breads “lilywhites,” because they are small white discs with brown spots where the heat blistered their surfaces; their interiors are plain and the color of snow. They are delicious and simple and they tide us over for the three cramped hours it takes to get to Xunhua.

It’s cramped because the driver pulls out of the bus station and trolls the road at 10 miles per hour, his associate calling out the door the destination, and people walking by hop aboard. It’s unclear if they planned to get on the bus, or if they just decided on a whim to go. They pay the same rate we paid at the bus station, which forces us to wonder why they didn’t just buy a ticket in the first place. They sit in the aisle on tiny folding chairs that the driver’s assistant produces from under a seat. When we get to a traffic checkpoint (where police will check to see that the bus is not overcrowded and that everyone on board has a seat), the driver instructs the aisle-sitters to get off and walk 400 meters down the road. We meet them on the other side of the checkpoint, where they all re-board and resume their aisle-squatting. The people who sit in the aisles speak a dialect we cannot understand; Xunhua is the Salar Muslim autonomous region. It is the first time we have seen people who are not Han Chinese. They wear traditional clothing and have high altitude faces: brown, wind-whipped skin and high cheekbones. The mountains here are blue and red, rising in all directions and impressive to us city folk.

The bus driver tears down the road at breakneck speed, honking at everything that moves, including birds that fly in our path. The birds are smart: they get the hell out of the way.

We arrive in Xunhua to friendly, Central Asian-looking people and no other tourists at all. We eat lamb and noodles and Chinese celery at a family-run restaurant, drink warm, 1.5 yuan beer, and wake again to the call to prayer so early that even Owen is still sleeping. We sleep fitfully after that; everyone in town is waking up and honking their horns as if to announce, “Look, I have a car! Hey, the engine turns on!”

We drink packets of Nescafé for breakfast, along with plums from the market, which we wash thoroughly. The coffee is terrible: it is equal parts sugar, non-dairy creamer and instant coffee granules in one package, cheerily called “2+1” and tasting like a Frappucino that sat in a dumpster overnight. We drink it anyway. We have sights to see.

Nick goes out and tries to buy bus tickets to our next destination (Tongren). He is told to just show up at the appointed time: “There won’t be many people; no problem.” It’s not the kind of place where people get on buses all the time and go places.

NEXT STOPS: XUNHUA’S MENGDA NATURE RESERVE & HEAVENLY LAKE, TONGREN’S BUDDHIST TEMPLES

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