My Ideal National Day Vacation

yaks at Huzhu Beishan

Before the beginning of the National Day vacation, I asked my students to write a journal entry about their ideal National Day vacation. If you could do anything, go anywhere, see any place, where would you go? What would you do?

Unfortunately, most of my students misinterpreted the assignment and wrote about their actual vacations. A typical passage reads something like “My ideal vacation was very boring. I stay at home every day and do my homework. One day, I went to the park with my parents. I study a lot for my tests.” For some reason, my students are having a lot of trouble grasping not just the form, but also the very idea of conditional or hypothetical sentences, the idea of possibility. Maybe it is an idea lost in translation, but I’ve been having the same problem repeatedly with every class and with every exercise (e.g. ‘my ideal girlfriend/boyfriend,’ etc).

Partly for my own amusement and partly to pick up my students’ slack, I’ve decided to write about my own ideal National Day vacation. In reality, none of the following actually occurred. I stayed at home in Xining; about the most exciting event of my vacation was the course that Sarah, Devin and I took to learn how to use photoshop. The course was extremely useful; the photos you will see in this entry are all products of what we learned. The photos are really well done – it looks like we actually went to the places that I describe and experienced the beautiful landscapes which make up the photos’ backgrounds. But alas, I spent the entire vacation at home in Xining. What follows is my account of my ideal National Day vacation.

Hiking at Huzhu Beishan...beautiful! too bad we weren't actually there...

My ideal National Day vacation would start the evening before National Day – the evening of September 30, also known as my birthday! After an exhausting day of teaching, I would arrive back at my apartment and friends (Brooke! Sarah! Devin! Caroline! Kim!) would quickly come over and surprise me with presents (e.g. a 23-second-pour glass of baijiu (for my 23rd birthday), some wine and cheese, a book in Chinese (杨家将) and a miniature cactus houseplant). We would drink a bit and nosh on some cheese before leaving to go out to a delicious hotpot dinner at 重庆龙. When we arrive at the restaurant, other friends would already be there to meet (surprise!) us. We would eat spectacular hotpot and drink COLD beer for quite a while before eventually decamping to Bill’s Bar, where we would meet up with the ETP students and others and have a great time for the rest of the night.

The next morning I would wake up feeling a bit sick (of course…23rd birthday with friends) and would eventually take a taxi with Brooke to the Lete hostel to meet friends for the trip to 互助北山国家森林公园 – Huzhu Beishan National Forest Park. We would cram into cars for the three-hour trip, which would take us across the heroic-looking Huzhu plain (backed by Lord of the Rings-esque mountains best described as ‘epic’), up and up and up the mountains past the snowline to a high pass and over the other side. The road would descend through an idyllic forested valley, then a steep cliffy gorge, and finally would climb up a narrow valley covered with a dense forest of spruce and birch, across a covered bridge spanning a clear (no trash!) fast-flowing river before ending at a funky artsy (fartsy?) hostel-hotel-restaurant place designed in the distinct neo-traditional-Tibetan-modernist-deconstructivist-cubist style.

epic scenery near Huzhu

the hostel

After arriving at the hostel (as I’ll call it from here on out), we would find ourselves in a spacious room (with an even more spacious bathroom attached) containing two double beds to be shared between Sarah, Devin, Caroline and I. We would then migrate to the restaurant area where a friend would break out an extraordinary sandwich feast (REAL cheese! homemade bread!) culminating in a cake (in a yogurt bucket) that she baked especially for my birthday! Life would be good.

Caroline at the hostel


yogurt-bucket birthday cake!

Then a group of Tibetans would sit down at a nearby table and begin a long, baijiu-soaked feast (mostly on massive chunks of stringy-looking mutton). After a couple of hours, a rotund and extravagantly mustachioed gentleman would start to sing traditional Tibetan folk songs in a pleasant (if booming) baritone voice. The rest of the table, by now heavily sloshed, would join in; soon they’d all be dancing. And soon after, the mustachioed man would come over to our table with the bottle of baijiu and would move slowly around the table, toasting with each person. The baijiu would make a second round, then a third. Then we would be invited up to dance and sing songs with the Tibetans. The singing and dancing would go on for hours, the heavy rain outside dampening our will to go anywhere else and, after returning to our rooms, lulling us quickly to sleep.

baijiu face!

singin' and dancin' with the Tibetans

beautiful morning, snowy mountains

The next morning we would wake up to blue skies and snow-covered mountains above the hostel. Caroline would muscle her way into the restaurant kitchen (crowded, soot-stained, woks lying over open coal-fed fires, massive hunks of yak and cow and sheep meat lying on all surfaces, blooddripping cow head hanging from the kitchen entrance) to cook up some delicious 鸡蛋西红柿 and veggies. After hanging out on the sundrenched patio for a bit we’d walk a ways upvalley to a beautiful (if cow dropping-filled) meadow where we’d drink beer and play frisbee, interrupted only by the passing herds of animals and by inquisitive art students from Gansu. Then we’d move to the nearby river, where we’d sun ourselves on the river rocks for a while, before taking a walk up the road leading upvalley alongside the clear-watered river. We’d hang out by a fake waterfall (dam?) for a while and watch Chinese tourists get into circular rafts for a short oarless and guideless float down the river, talking until the sun was low in the sky and finally returning to the hostel for an endless game of truth or dare that would last until far past ridiculous. We would ask the 老板 (boss) of the hostel if we could have a fire. “It’s 850 kuai, including singing and minority dancing,” he would say. “Without minority dancing?” we’d ask. “Then it’s 200 kuai, but most guests want the minority dancing.” From time to time I would wander outside to stare in awe at the extraordinarily vivid stars arcing across the sky, the milky way forming a shimmering lactic band seeming to hold back the inky nothingness beyond.

chillin in the river

scenery near the hostel

Chinese tourists getting ready to raft near the fake waterfall

rafting, Chinese-style: no guide! no oars or paddles! WHEE!

Caroline loves trees

Caroline also loves 小孩子

The next morning most of our friends would slowly trickle out in the direction of Xining, leaving me, Sarah and Devin. In the afternoon, we would hitchhike up the valley past several beautiful (fake and real) waterfalls to the end of the paved road. Then we would hike up a sidevalley past grazing yaks to a beautiful meadow in an island formed by a rapidly flowing braided stream. We would set up camp, cook a dinner of 方便面 and veggies, and jump into our sleeping bags for dramatic readings of Ulysses while watching the sun dip below the snowy ridges above, feeling (with the sun’s absence) the deep chill set in for the night, tracking the stars as they grow in intensity and brilliance until they become as vivid as the night before, if not more so for the deep cold which lies just outside our sleeping bags. (Why does cold always seem to make the stars seem closer and more intense?) After attempting to sleep outside, I would decide instead to move into the (2-person) tent with Devin and Sarah for the night, preferring the tent’s reliable warmth to the (contact lens-less) blurry view of the stars  I’d have if sleeping outside in the meadow.

nice valley for camping...too bad we didn't go

sunrise view over the snowy mountains

frost on the ground

frosty morning meadow

The next morning, we’d eventually break camp and decided to walk upvalley; rather than hike to 天池 (Heaven Lake), we’d attempt a traverse of the mountains along what my prefectural road map showed as an “other road” leading over a mountain pass above before descending to the plains above Huzhu. We would hike up the dirt road leading up the forested and increasingly steep and steep-sided valley; the road would occasionally pass small homesteads, but otherwise we’d be traveling through open forest and meadows peppered with yak dung. We’d occasionally meet some herders along the way who would stare in curiosity at the strange people with the massive backpacks, but our most common encounters would be with yaks of all colors and sizes. Several times we’d get into a yak jam, stuck behind a crowd of jostling quadripeds in a narrow spot in the valley before circulation would ease up again. After an hour or two we’d start to see the snow mountains ahead, looming above the narrow valley. After passing through a narrow gorge the valley would suddenly open up, the dense forest would give way to open alpine meadows, and a wide side valley would appear on the left. Herds of sheep and yaks would be grazing on the open valley floor, which would slope gradually, then steeply up to jagged snowcovered peaks. Two or three small houses would be clustered at the bottom of the valley above a swiftflowing stream; the houses would initially appear empty, but before long, two small children would wander out of a house and stare in wonder at us strange creatures. They would come over and we’d offer them some candy, which they would accept before wandering off. Then – surprise! – they would come back and offer us some candy as well! We’d take pictures and play around for a bit before setting off back up the main valley.

stream crossing on the hike


idyllic valley

cute kids...

showing the kids some photos

i could live in this valley

hikin' along at HZBS

We would travel upvalley towards the snowline along southfacing slopes; already the opposite slopes would hold snow. Passing through open flowering meadows where herds of yaks grazed contentedly, we’d nonetheless continue to climb upwards, and would start to feel our increasing altitude in our short breaths and more frequent breaks. Finally, we’d cross a small stream and begin a switchbacking ascent of a pass along a snowcovered yak trail. Surprisingly quickly, we would exchange the sunny open pastures for snowy, shadowed slopes and a sunfed warmth for a deeper chill. But we’d soon arrive at the top of the pass, where a marvelous view would open up below; the view would range far down the valley we’d traveled through, but also across the snowy high mountains into the distance, skimming the skyscraping peaks and, in the foreground, plunging into the deep valley into which we were going to descend. And descend we would, along a switchback path (this time on snowless southfacing slopes) towards a valley floor far below. Above would rise fantastic limestone formations; caves, pinnacles, arches, even kissing yaks frozen in stone. After reaching the valley floor we would walk downvalley below steep cliffs until the sun sank before the horizon and we would have to find a place to camp near a small shepherd’s cottage. After dark (and another meal of 方便面), the shepherd would wander over and talk with us in a 青海话 – Tuzu dialect mixture which was completely unintelligible. We offered him a small bottle of baijiu, which he accepted gratefully. And as night’s deepfreeze started to freeze away, we would retreat to the tent for some more Ulysses before falling asleep.

towards the pass (which is up at the top of the photo)

Yak trail up the pass

hikin up the pass

getting there


snowy trail to the top

Devin and Sarah photoshopped onto the slightly precarious snowslopes

at the top!

awesome limestone formations on the other side of the pass

walking downvalley

The next morning we would walk further down the valley until it opened up into a wide plain. We would pass through fields of barley (already harvested) and potatoes (being harvested; the fields were crowded with people pulling potatoes out of the ground and putting them into sacks) and through several small villages, the omnipresence of potatoes drawing our thoughts towards some deliciously fresh and spicy 农家土豆片. We would eventually make our way into a small town, where we’d find a small restaurant where we would order just what we were dreaming about – along with some eggplant and noodles. A group of older men would sit down across from us, ordering themselves some massive hunks of mutton and staring at us, muttering to themselves in the incomprehensible local dialect. One of the men would wander innocently up to the counter and, after an inner debate, buy a bottle of baijiu. After the other table took a shot, the men would come over with the traditional 3-shot round and toast each of us. And again. And again. Finally I would tell them that we had to drive back to Xining and we would make our escape.

valley scenery

After walking a bit more down the road, we would come across a minibus heading to Huzhu, which we’d gratefully board. In Huzhu, we’d quickly catch the express to Xining, and we would soon be home. We would relax for a night at home before waking up early the next morning to catch a car to Rebgong.

We’d share the car with a renowned thangka painter who would live in the Wutun Si village, and we’d talk intermittently along the beautiful drive until we arrived. We’d drop our bags at Brooke’s apartment and go explore the town and the monastery for a while. In the evening, we would have dinner at the awesome Dkar Tsampa restaurant with Brooke, Charlotte, and the awesomely hilarious Sybil, the restaurant’s owner, who moved to Rebgong from Hong Kong. We’d have some amazing food and good (for China) wine before going back to Brooke’s and crashing comfortably for the night. The following morning we’d walk around Rebgong and go for a stroll into the countryside and hang out for a bit in the glorious sunshine in the courtyard. By this time, I’ve learned that I don’t have to be back at school until the following Monday, and have decided that I’d like to go to Xiahe/Labrang for a couple of days. Devin and Sarah would head back to Xining, and I’d search around the bus station area for a while, looking for a van/car/minibus to Xiahe. Nothing – so I’d go back to Brooke’s and hang out in the courtyard with Brooke, taking care of a friend’s dog (which unfortunately has something against monks) and making friends with the cute Tibetan kids who play in the courtyard all day long.

Yellow River near 尖扎 on the way to Rebgong

chillin' in Rebgong. Or at least we wish we were...

The next morning I’d get up for the 8am bus to Xiahe. The bus would travel through some remarkable scenery, first descending to Bao’an through a dusty deserty valley, then ascending another valley lined with American-southwest-reminiscent intricately carved redrock pillars and sandstone towers, then up a steep forested canyon lined with prayer flags, shepherds herding flocks of sheep along the narrow road carved into the cliffs, before climbing to a meadowy pass and breaking out into vast, sweeping open grasslands speckled with yaks and sheep. On a slope overlooking the grasslands we’d stop in a small monastery town, where women holding vats of fresh yogurt would come up to the bus and sell us the creamy 酸奶 through the windows. Then we’d be off again, passing the monastery and climbing to a higher pass where, once crossed, an immeasureably vast grassland would spread out before us. The bus would slowly trundle across the vast sea of grass, passing through a couple of small villages and herders’ camps before climbing to a final pass via a series of switchbacks (which induced many of the Tibetans aboard the bus to vomiting) and descending rapidly to Xiahe.

Hostel in Xiahe

After disembarking from the bus, I’d walk through the (medium-rise) Chinese side of town towards the monastery, looking for the hostel recommended to me by a friend. I would quickly find it – the Red Rock hostel, a beautiful traditional-style building with beds for 30元/night – and after getting rid of my stuff, I’d go out to explore the monastery. The Labrang monastery would be massive, citylike, a warren of narrow alleyways lined by low whitewalled buildings pierced at regular intervals by intricately carved wooden doors. The low-rise landscape would be punctuated by the imposing temple buildings, each housing flamboyantly colored vivid murals and thangkas and massive gilded statues shimmering in the flickering light cast by yak-butter candles, photos of important lamas and mountains of offerings on the altars, stupas covered in glimmering jewels which flicker faintly in the sacred ill-lit gloom. Each temple would have its own small kora (circumambulation route) along which an endless flow of pilgrims would be walking, prostrating, hobbling, moving in any way possible. And surrounding it all would be the main kora route itself, a three-kilometer prayer-wheel-lined path with clockwise-circling pilgrims circling clockwise infinitely. And the pilgrims themselves! They would be seemingly innumerable, clothes vividly colored, waist-knives shimmering sharp, hair curly (men) or intricately braided (women), faces awed, devotion palpable. I could watch the kora‘s stream of humanity meditatively, for days, without boredom.

late afternoon view over the massive monastery complex

a college inside the Labrang monastery

Inside Labrang

I would climb up the mountain above the monastery on the outer kora, a more athletic circumambulation which attracts a higher percentage of foreign tourists to pilgrims than the inner kora. I would sit on a hilltop looking out over the glimmering monastery roofs and the vast grassy valley beyond. I’d talk desultorily with some foreigners about life in Xining and slowly, gradually, get a facewarming sunburn. Then I’d descend back to town and write for a while in my journal, pilgrims often looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing and to examine the strangely formed script I’d be scrawling into my book.

view over part of the monastery from the outer kora

and view over the rest of the monstery, looking towards the Han part of town

I would meet a monk, randomly, walking along an alleyway; he would invite me into his home for tea and tsampa. We would talk for hours in Chinese (“I’m sorry, I can’t speak Amdo!”), he about his hometown, his eight months in the ETP program at Shida, and his life as a monk; me about America and my life in Xining. We would meet up the following day for lunch, after which he’d overgenerously give me a present – a beautiful mani stone – and take me on a short trip out to the beautiful grasslands beyond town. Halfway to the grasslands, the driver would get out of the car and my monk friend would take the wheel, driving slowly, carefully along the narrow road. After a slightly harrowing trip, we’d relax in the grasslands for a while and take some photos before returning to Xiahe. We’d exchange contact information and – in great guanxi debt and deep gratitude towards his friendliness and generosity – I’d promise to return with some materials to help him study English and maybe a present from the Big City (Xining).

grasslands near Xiahe


I would take a short hike up the mountain above town before rain forced me back to the hostel, where I’d warm myself by the fire and talk with the other laowai and Chinese tourists staying there (some of whom would have biked from Beijing and Istanbul, and would have amazing stories to tell). I’d go to bed early to the sound of falling rain.

The following morning, I’d get up at 5am to board the 6:10 bus to Xining. I’d go to the station, but the ticket office wouldn’t open until 6, leaving me to stand outside in the rain. Once the ticket office was open, I would learn that the seats had sold out two days ago (there’s only ONE bus a day!), but that I’d be able to take the bus anyway – I’d just have to sit on a tiny folding stool in the aisle. The bus would be packed – including the aisle, which would be jammed with people sitting on the folding stools which would lurch perilously as the bus went around the road’s hairpin curves. We would ascend from Xiahe into the grasslands, which would be covered in snow from the night’s storm. We’d switchback our way through the monochromatic landscape, and many of the Tibetans sitting in the seats (and in the aisle) would scream to the attendant for barfbags before vomiting into the (frighteningly flimsy) plastic receptacles. We would stop in the grassland village, where I’d quickly get off the bus to buy a huge vat of fresh yak yogurt for my apartment. Then we’d continue, descending past the snowline to Bao’an where the bus would stop at a short offroad detour where the driver would get out a pickaxe and whale away at the uneven road surface, leveling it to a degree passable by the bus. We’d continue until reaching the town of Jianzha 尖扎 ordered (along with all of the aisle-seat passengers) off the bus and onto another (local) bus which – after many stops – would take us to Xining, (miraculously) safe and sound. The perfect end to a perfect vacation.

snowy monastery village (yogurt!) in the grasslands

snowy grasslands in the distance

Bus driver pickaxing away at the road to make it passable for our ride

Our ride

This would be my ideal vacation: hanging out with a big group of friends, going on a backpacking trip with a smaller group, relaxing in Rebgong with a few others, and finally traveling to and exploring the Labrang area by myself, having time to myself to write, decompress, do my own thing, go at my own pace. This would be my ideal October vacation; if only the photoshopped pictures above depicted reality…

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2 Responses to My Ideal National Day Vacation

  1. walt says:

    your lack of reality and inability to dream brought you there and keep you going. Someday, perhaps, you will not have to stay home, and will see the world.

    You write beautifully. Da

  2. Kailah says:

    Wow!! Amazing pics, landscapes, and descriptions. Sooooo good to see you all again! Some of the architecture is the same as here in Zhongdian. No snow yet though.
    But hey, since it didn’t “really” happen, guess we’ll have to go do some of that stuff when I visit at end of November. 🙂

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