Central China: August 2015
Written by Jenn
Photographs by Jenn and Steve
Editing and Potograph Captions by Steve
August 24, 2014: Xiahe, China
Xiahe, China (or Tibet depending on who you talk to) is an amazing place. We have been here for 3 days now and what a different place from Beijing. Right from the start there were noticeable improvements – dryer and cooler and much smaller population-wise (sigh of relief). As we have been here a couple of days, there are many things about this place that have grown on me: the laid-back-ness of the Tibetans, the super cheap vegetarian “momo” (delicious carrot filled steamed dumplings). The Buddhist aspects: up early and to bed early, walking the kora and spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels, worn at the handles where thousands of hands have grasped them before, and also the openness of the surrounding countryside. Its quite the place!
On our first morning here, Mom and I (Steve was nursing a cold) set out to walk the 3km kora, or pilgrim path, surrounding the Labrang Monastery. Funny story for the books: About 15 minutes into our walk, we met a monk that wanted to walk and talk with us (we assumed to practice his English, which is common all over China). It was great – we got a personalized tour of the Monastery, had tea, hiked up a hill with a birds-eye view of the town, all the while being able to ask lots of questions about the very interesting Tibetan/Buddhist/Chinese religions and cultures. Some interesting things learned: 1. Tibetan/Chinese relations are not very friendly (as you might expect), and Tibetans are quick to tell you their opinions on the matter, 2. (Some) Tibetan monks are given an ‘allowance’ by the Chinese Government ‘for their studies’, but it is really to keep them quiet, and 3. The Labrang Monastery is only for the male Buddhists. Female Buddhist Nuns practice at the much smaller and less showy Nunnery outside the main monastery walls.
But, back to my story… After several hours of hanging out with the Monk and talking about both of our cultures, he invited us to supper, which we gladly accepted. I left to get Steve, and just when we were ready and heading out we were met by a distressed/confused Rita who had just returned from her first “Buddhist Monk trying to make a pass at her” situation. I must say I definitely did not see that coming, haha, just assumed that all monks were fairly serious about their religious vows and beliefs. So, people (of all religions) are people, and lesson learned: just because someone is a practicing monk does not mean that they may not have alterior motives. Makes for a good laugh at the end of the day though : ).
The next morning we all went on the official English tour of the Monastery so we could see the temples inside the Monastery (the Monk giving this tour was very professional). There were many temples and the insides were extremely intricate – paintings, statues, gold, incense, and colour everywhere seem to fight for the attention of your senses. All of the temples were beautiful and you can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the ancient religion of Buddhism when you are inside.
In the afternoon, we headed West by foot, straight up the mountain along yak/goat trails, up and up, until we got up to the highest Buddhist prayer flag stupa in the area. The views of the town and surrounding mountains was really worth the 2 hours of climbing. Beautiful indeed:) And so, Xiahe is definitely an amazing place so far. We’ve got a couple more days to explore around before Mom heads back to Shenzen (& Kenya) and Steve and I continue on our own travels.
August 28, 2015: Ganjia Grasslands, China
Another magnificent spot in a country that I initially mis-judged, but continue to be surprised and impressed by. After saying goodbye to Mom in Xiahe yesterday (sad yes, but also time for us to part ways for the sanity of the group), Steve and I hitchhiked the 48km NW through a beautiful mountain pass to the Ganjia Grasslands. We didn’t know if we would stop here or not (English information on any off-the-beaten-track Chinese areas is basically nonexistant), but when we got here it was a no-brainer: we had to take some time to check out the area. The 48km road from Xiahe goes over a pass, and, when you make it over the ridge you see a huge lush valley with green meadows, surrounded by mountains. The most stunning part of the scenery would have to be the gigantic stone cliffs rising out of the valley, with a small Tibetan village and Monastery at the base of it to top it off.
After we got dropped off in ‘town’ (more like a street with several shops), we started off towards the huge cliffs, along motorcycle trails in the lower hillside. Being that this was our first time camping in China, we were a bit leery about picking a spot where we wouldn’t be too obtrusive or noticeable to those passing by. We soon found a lovely spot hidden by hills, about 1 km from a water stream clean enough to drink (A huge bonus as most rivers/lakes in China are swimming with garbage and sewage, and are not at all appealing to drink from even if you have iodine tablets).
We are spending two nights here; I need a day to just be alone, do nothing, and recover from the past month and a half of intimate travel balancing the mom and the boyfriend. Besides walking the 2km to get water supplies for the day I have basically spent the entire day sleeping, napping, and staring at the top of the tent – it has been glorious. Steve is out and about exploring, so I’m sure he’ll have lots of great photos of the area.
August 31, 2015: Xining, China
And so, our Gansu and Qinghai Province section of the trip is coming to a close. I have really enjoyed the open countryside and the friendliness of the Tibetan people, and feel like there is so much more to explore here before we go…
After two nights of successful camping in the Ganjia Grasslands we hiked back to the highway, stocked up and ate lunch (vegetables and ice cream!), and then started hitching to our next destination, Tongren. The road was pretty quiet, but after about 30 minutes of walking and four cars stopping (out of the 5 that passed us), we scored a ride most of the way to Tongren with two Tibetan characters. The drive was unexpectedly stunning, with a 3600m pass, snow-capped mountains (the first I’ve seen in China), and lastly these crazy red Mars-looking rock mountains as we approached Tongren.
After being dropped off at the T-junction where the road to Tongren split, we walked for a half hour with a Tibetan girl that was stoked to have someone to practice English with (she ran ~400m uphill in heels to catch up to us to do so). We then peeled off the main road along a path followign a river bed into the dramatic red mountain scenery. After about another hour of walking (and another character encounter: an old man smoking through a goat thigh bone pipe talking in Chinese to us like we could understand), we found a lovely terraced side of the mountain to park for the night (score- abundance of Chinese terracing for crops = lots of flat camping spots). And so it was another successful day as we slowly learn to navigate hitchhiking and camping in China.
The next morning we took off for Tongren, walking most of the 14km and grabbing a ride as we got closer to town. We found the hotel listed in the lonely planet guide, and successfully bartered for a discount rate as you are supposed to do at hotels in China (we got a price of 120RMB (~$25) down from the original price of 168RMB (~32)-what a deal!). We got a swanky room, which we immediately stunk up while cleaning up from three nights on the road…
The next morning consisted of a long run (with much blatant staring and a couple offers for a ride home – maybe they thought I was lost). Foreign tourists (especially running ones) are apparently not a common sight here. After packing we headed out of town and started hitching with our potential destinations written out in Chinese to help potential rides know where we wanted to go. Writing in Chinese characters (feels like I am writing in code when I copy the characters) worked great and made it much easier for people to figure out what we were doing. Right away someone in a swanky Audi pulled over and gave us a ride to the next major town, following a route along the yellow river (though it is more turquoise looking – beautiful though). They were so so friendly – offering us drinks and calling an English-speaking friend to see if they could help us out at all – so kind!
They dropped us off at a town called Jainca, where we spotted a nice park along the river and decided to chill there while planning our next step… find a place to camp or keep hitching? Just when we sat down in a lovely shaded area, a police officer stumbled across us and started making small talk (he spoke some basic English). After a couple of minutes he decided that we needed to have our passports checked at the main police station in town. Steve seemed to be okay with everything and was able to act friendly enough with the police officer, but I was slightly less impressed and did not really trust what we were going to have to do (and not wanting to hike out of the park again with our giant packs after we had found such a lovely spot). But, we didn’t really have a choice and we had to go back to the police station at the entrance of the town (which we had clearly walked through a half hour earlier, waving to the police as we walking in, without issue). They checked our passports, then the original officer insisted that we needed to go with him to the central police office so they could check the passports as well. Great. So off we go in the back of a Chinese police van in a Chinese city we do not know… a little bit nerve-wracking if you’ve ever dealt with corrupt police before… but, everything turned out fine – through the whole thing was ‘Chinese bureaucracy’ strange – they checked our passports on the computer system then drove us back to the main entrance by the park. At this point I was pretty ticked off on getting the run around by a local officer with nothing better to do, so we decided not to camp in the area and to continue hitchhiking towards Xining instead. One quick pick-up and ride later we made it to the next town and hiked up a river until we found a spot to park for the night, police-interruption free.
The next morning we hitched again to get to Xining, this time being picked up by a group of Muslim Chinese all squeezed into a van (also our first ride to ask for money). And so, we made it from Xiahe to Tongren to Xining all hitchhiking and mostly camping – a cheap, feasible, and independent way to travel in rural China. A great way to travel if you want to meet locals and discover hidden gems not described in the guide books. We are sleeping in Xining tonight, then take off bright and early for Xi’an by trian tomorrow for the next part of the China adventure : ) .