Saturday, May 19, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 6 - Xian to Lanzhou to Xiahe

After leaving the internet cafe, I just made it back in time to the hotel to wash the day's grime off my face and grab the bags.  Our driver dropped us off some ways from the station, and we had to schlepp about a quarter mile or so.  Once there, we put our bags through the x-ray machine, and then sat in the soft sleeper lounge.  Steve and I went to get a few bottles of water and a couple of beers for the train ride.  Almost as soon as we returned, we had to grab our stuff and join the chaos to get on to the train. 
We fought our way inside, and then, like a well oiled machine, my roommates and I put our bags up into the overhead.  I hopped up on the top bunk, and Deb would hand a bag to KY and then to me.  We'll be doing it in record time by the end of the trip.
About 15 minutes after boarding, the train started moving, and we cracked open our Tsingtaos to celebrate.  We chatted for a while, and around 11 or so, decided to turn in. 
At 6, the conductress was walking the passageway banging on doors to awaken everyone.  Unlike the last ride, where we had time to eat a small breakfast, there was none of that.  We arrived at Lanzhou at about 6:30, and did the reverse chaos to disembark.
James, our local guide was waiting for us with our driver for the next few days.  James is a Hui, one of the Chinese minority ethnic groups, and is a Muslim.  Originally from Urumqi, he's now a student at the Univerisity there in Lanzhou, studying tourism, and is soon to start a master's degree as well.  He's a smart, well spoken guy, and has been a great addition to the team.
We stopped briefly at the Gincheng Hotel, where some sort of medical supply convention was going on.  There were lots of demo models for surgical instruments and (at 6:45 AM) empty booths for others.
After a quick shower and some Chinese TV program about mermaid syndrome, we went downstairs for s Chinese breakfast (soup and some local bread).  Most of the restaurant was filled with what looked like the conference atendees, and a few military personnel of probably lower rank (assuming that because they only had one star on their shoulder). 
Breakfast done, we loaded up in the van and went to the Liujiaxia Dam, one of China's largest hydroelectric plants, where we caught a speedboat to Bingling Caves, or the Thousand Buddhas Caves.  While not really 1000 Buddhas, there were bunch of them.  There were a few more, but when the dam was constructed, the lower lying caves were flooded.  Apparently, the majority of the important works were saved, and moved up to the present level. 

The highlight of the complex is the 27 meter tall stucco and straw Buddha, constructed several hundred years ago.  It's an impressive sight. 
After a couple of hours at the caves, we took the boat back to the ferry landing where we re-boarded the van for a dusty, bumpy three hour ride to Linxia, which James described as "Little Mecca" because of the large Muslim presence there.  Judging from the many men wearing the short skullcaps, and the "Mosque on every corner" style neighborhoods.  It was interesting seeing the differences, as there were many in the Chinese style, as well as more Arabic or Turkish style mosques.
We stopped at an Islamic noodle place, that was our first real "adventure" in eating.  Walking in, we passed the kitchen, where a young man was hacking up pieces of mutton with a big cleaver.  We walked through to a private dining room where another waiter (or "Little Number Two" in Chinese) came in and wiped down the table with what could possibly be the dirtiest rag I've ever seen.  During this time, Steve had excused himself to go to the facilities, and came back with a pale, shocked look...more on why in a moment.
As we waited, we watched Little Number Two drop a bag of chopsticks on the floor we'd just crossed, and then put them back in the bag.  We chose ours from a different bowl, and ordered some boiling water to soak them in before use.
We ordered bowls of noodles, which arrived piping hot, and layered in deliciously spiced mutton.  With a scoop of hot pepper on top, it was perfect, and so much that I couldn't finish it.  I ate most of the noodles and meat, but didn't even consider sipping the broth, as I wasn't convinced that I would be able to survive it with several more hours in the van left to go. 
As we were leaving, I stopped to use the restroom, and Steve said, "Look behind the door..."  This I did, and I was disturbed to find half a sheep hanging there.  Not 10 feet from the squat toilet, which had a bucket full of food scraps right next to it.  Unsanitary?  One could call it that.  I understood then the look on Steve's face.
Back into the van, and on a much better road to go to our final destination, Xiahe.  As we drove, we gained elevation steadily, and wound our way up a valley that looked more like Bolivia than my previous conceptions of China.  The farther away from "civilization" we got, the bluer and clearer the skies became.

Arriving in Xiahe at about 4 PM, we checked into the Gangjian Longzhu Hotel.  Steve and I dumped our bags and went out for a wander. 
The town is basically on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at about 3000 meters, the elevation difference is noticeable.  Taking our bags up the steps to our 5th floor room resulted in a few minutes of gasping to get the breath back.  Despite that, it is a beautiful place, in a small valley surrounded by mountains and clean air.
Our foray out into the town took us off the main drag and up to the northern side of town.  We walked through the neighborhood, just taking pictures of people going about their daily business.  The best part were the cute rosy-cheeked children, who posed like movie stars for us as soon as they saw the cameras.  We would show them the back of the camera, and they'd just laugh and laugh. 
As we wound our way up the hill, we passed a couple of guys shoveling dirt onto a roof.  As we passed, they looked at us like they'd never seen our types before.  I asked one of them, "McDonald's?" and pointed up the hill.  They just laughed, and shook their heads.  We ended up on a place up above the town, and just stared at the scenery for a while.  After a few minutes, Steve decided to head down and give one of the guys a breather.  A couple of minutes later, he was hard at work, tossing shovelfuls of dirt with the younger man.  I went down and joined them, and as we headed back down the hill, they invited us into the home.

We got to meet the family, including the 85 year old toothless and wheezing patriarch.  He was a funny guy, and just grinned and laughed while talking with us.  After a couple of minutes, one of them came over to Steve and felt the hair on his arm.  Now, this is something I've heard of from others who have traveled in Tibet or Thailand, but never thought I'd see. Sure enough, they checked both of us out, pulling on the hair, and comparing our relative hirsuteness. 
Finally, we headed back down the hill, and I turned to Steve and said, "THAT is why I travel."  Those are the priceless experiences that you just don't get at home.
We stopped a few more times for more pictures, before ending up in an area where guys were doing a brisk trade in some sort of roots.  Still don't know what they are, but it looked sort of shady, so we didn't stick around.  We ended up at another Islamic restaurant where we played "Menu Roulette" and ended up with some delicious soup (again thinking that anything that is boiled, is probably safe) and mutton ribs.  The food was great, and the total with 2 beers was less than 10 dollars.  I'll say it's going to be difficult to get used to Japan style prices when we go back.   
After supper, we went to the internet cafe and met up with James who gave us some lessons on CounterStrike (CS, as the kids say).  Most of those lessons were learned at his hand (for some reason, he would choose the terrorist...).  But, by the end of it, we were holding our own. 
After an hour or so of that, we went back to the hotel where a more thorough inspection revealed scary sheets.  Thank goodness for the sleep sheet I brought along...
I slept well.  Steve, with no sheet, did not.
Tomorrow, adventures in Yak Butter!

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