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Into a Tibetan Autonomous Zone

Xiàhé, China


Our train journey from Xi'an to Lanzhou was nothing like as comfortable as the trip to Xi'an. The train to Xi'an was a Z train which used to be the fastest, most luxurious trains in China, although they have been superseded by the D trains, whereas on the journey to Lanzhou we were on a K train which also used to be the fastest, most luxurious trains in China, but they were superseded by the Z trains. And it made quite a difference, both in the state of the train and in the people who got it. The people were too noisy; the bunks creaked noisily and the whole train sounded like it might fall apart; it was too hot; there wasn't really enough room on the bunk for my little valuables bag next to me, so I couldn't get comfy; it was too hot; there was a lot of smoking, which is allowed between carriages, even though the doors to the carriages are wide open; and a family on the bunks next to ours stayed up late noisily eating Macdonalds then noodles, obviously not really planning to sleep since they were up again at 4am to leave at an earlier station. I didn't really sleep.

Not really having properly prepared our plan for our arrival in Lanzhou, I had been texting John to ask him to look stuff up online for us. There are two bus stations in Lanzhou and John had assured us we could get a bus to Linxia, which was our next destination, from either one. Our final destination was Xiàhé but, as this is in a Tibetan autonomous prefecture, the Chinese authorities had made it quite difficult to get to: we had seen online that it is not possible to buy a ticket for the bus which goes directly to Xiàhé from Lanzhou, but it should be possible to get a bus from Linxia, so we had to get there first. Our guide book told us which bus to catch to each station, but not where we go from them so we just trusted John and went to the easiest to get to bus station: West Bus Station. Confidently, knowing that we weren't trying to do anything controversial like go to Xiàhé, I walked up to the ticket desk and said Linxia, but the response was lots of head shaking and waving. Seeing that I didn't understand, she very helpfully wrote it down in Chinese. This is quite a common response in China; it seems generally understood that not everyone speaks their language, but widely believed that everyone can read Chinese, after all people speaking different dialects and languages within China all write the same, and even people from outside China like Japanese, Korean, and some others, can understand most commonly used Chinese characters. At least I could make a guess at one possible response and checked what she had written again the characters for South Bus Station matching the characters in question among the unintelligible squiggles.

They weren't too far apart, so we opted to walk between stations, although the weight of Joanne's bag nearly caused her to mutiny and flag down a taxi. At the South Bus Station I tried again to get a ticket to Linxia, getting pretty much the same response but this time, rather than writing anything, the woman said passport copy in English, so we dug around in our luggage to retrieve our last remaining copies and I took them up to the desk. The woman shook her head and sighed a lot, waving me away again. Luckily there were some other lăowài [foreigners] in the bus station who were able to tell us that we need a copy of our Chinese visa as well as the passport copy, and that there was a copy shop just across the road. I decided to get three copies each instead of one, since I thought we might need another one to get to Xiàhé and you can never have too many copies of your passport when travelling. This time the woman looked like she was in total despair with me and said two. Lucky I'd got the extra ones, and this time she finally nodded, put the copies to the side, and wrote down a time before waving me away again with the money I had offered. One of the other lăowài, an Israeli, could speak Mandarin and was following much better. Apparently we weren't allowed to get our tickets until just before the bus left; the time she had written down was five minutes before the departure, which I thought was leaving it a bit fine, considering the pushy crowd at the desk, but it all went OK and we got on the bus.

The Israeli and his mother, it turned out his companion was, were wearing masks. It is very common to see orientals wearing masks in China (you are expected to every time you are ill and many people working with the public do as a precaution), but very unusual to see lăowài wearing them. On the bus he explained to the rest of us that a town near to where they had travelled from was under quarantine because of an epidemic of the black death. I told him that he needn't worry because it is no longer the 12th Century and it is now easily treatable with antibiotics. He retorted that it needed to be treated within 24 hours or it would be fatal, but I think he was just making that up and the masks were probably mostly for show.

Stepping off the bus at Linxia we were met by a bus driver who said we wouldn't be able to get tickets inside, but we could pay him directly to get to Xiàhé. He charged us 30 Yuan, which is a person mark-up for him of ten, but it was probably worth it, since there are reports of people having a lot of difficulty at the ticket desk, including being hounded by loads of taxi-driving touts. So there we were, right onto the next bus and heading into a sometimes-controlled Tibetan autonomous zone. The Israeli guy coached us all that we should have our story straight in case the police questioned us; that we should say we thought we were going to some other place and it was all a big mix up, but nobody else seemed particularly worried and we had read online that it was in fact open to foreigners again, although I was less sure of that having seen the hoops we had to jump through to get there; in retrospect it was just the authorities making it difficult, while being able to say it was open.

Xiàhé wasn't really what we were expecting. The guide book had described it as a mountain village or something similarly romantic sounding, so we were expecting something similar to the little mountain town in Nepal, or the rather larger town of Macleodganj in India. It was a much bigger town, looking like a scruffy frontier town and it was flat; OK, there were some hills around the town, but in no way were there mountains visible. It was a massive let-down; even Marty and Jochem had recommended it, saying that there was no need to go to Tibet proper when you could just go Xiàhé instead. If this was like Tibet, then it seemed to me you are better off going to India and Nepal for Tibetan culture. The one obvious similarity, though, was that it was very cold. We all agreed to meet later and go for food together before heading off in different directions to get accommodation. As soon we got to our room we changed into our thermals, which had been packed away unused since the trek in Nepal. Reitse from Friesland in the Netherlands had been unable to find his intended hostel and ended up in the same dorm room as us at the Oversees Tibetan Hostel. Joanne was not at all impressed with the hostel and neither was Reitse, so we went out to look at the other options but returned after deciding that not only was ours cheaper, but the toilets smelled less than any of the alternatives!

When we returned the Israeli guy from the bus had taken the last bed in our dorm and his mum had taken the room next door. Apparently he had been studying Mandarin for the last nine months somewhere quite near and his mum was over to visit him before he went off to Varanasi to study Hindi. Nice life! The two of them left and did not turn up at the agreed time for food, so the rest of us went across the road to a Tibetan restaurant. The momos were not at all up to the standard of those we had in Nepal, but Reitse and the American couple from the bus both enjoyed them. We also shared a yak hot pot, which was delicious, and some other yak meat dish. Here at least was one aspect of Tibetan culture not suppressed by the Chinese but, ironically, suppressed in their countries of exile: yak is close enough to a cow for it to be illegal to kill in India and Nepal, where buffalo had taken its place in food; in China they eat everything.

After our meal everyone else was going to bed, tired after a long day's travelling, but I wanted to go into Tara's Guesthouse next door to our hostel for a drink; it had received all the best reviews online (but had smelly toilets). It wasn't at all lively inside as I had hoped, the only other customers being robed monks, who talked incessantly on mobile phones whose ring volumes were all set far too high.



permalink written by  The Happy Couple on August 7, 2009 from Xiàhé, China
from the travel blog: Michael's Round-the-World honeymoon
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Travel along the Silk Road has long been one of life's great adventures. It is no lesser adventure today than in the past but as China is modernising fast, the real Silk Road will be lost to tourist "side shows".

permalink written by  Goa on May 4

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