The title of this post comes from the environmental protection slogans I see around town, which tell residents to protect the environment of their “大美青海” (Big Beautiful Qinghai) so it will always be that way. Sometimes I find the slogans amusing, as those who are behind the slogans’ existence are also currently behind an aggressive development campaign which is seeing Xining sprawling up it’s valley, massive new power lines and improved roads being built all over the province, and other such actions that are definitely contributing to Qinghai’s essential 美-ness. But I didn’t realize the full truth of slogan’s starting point (e.g. what we have to preserve) until this weekend’s trip to 兴海 (Xinghai, or Zigortan in Tibetan). I wasn’t really conscious of Qinghai’s full 大-ness or 美-ness until my bus rolled across the 日月山 Pass and onto the vast plateau grasslands.
Here is the main thing I learned this weekend. Qinghai is big (大) and beautiful （美). I could have just stayed at home and looked at the retouched photos on the posters.
But no, in reality, it was quite an amazing little trip. Last week, I had seen something about Xinghai on a website, which said the area was little-visited, especially by westerners, and remote – though not too remote for a weekend trip. I was pretty much obsessed for the rest of the week, even after I learned from wikipedia that Xinghai is best known for its 2009 Pneumonic Plague outbreak, during which the entire town was quarantined for over a month. Immediately after classes ended on Friday, I packed my bag, ran over to the bus station, and took the first bus for Xinghai.
When I had called for information, the lady at the bus station told me that the bus to Xinghai took four hours, 差不多. 差不多 means something like ‘about’ or ‘more or less,’ so – as we were leaving Xining around two pm, I was expecting to arrive in Xinghai at about six or six-thirty. We arrived at eight.
This was not entirely the bus driver’s fault, nor can the bus station attendant be blamed. Part of the delay was traffic, part was road construction. And part was absurd incidents like waiting for 45 minutes at the corner of Kunlun Lu and Jianguo Lu in Xining for the arrival of two of the bus attendants’ ‘friends,’ who were going to Xinghai and had evidently forgot to pack (and had forgotten the time of the bus). This, I guess, is to be expected on provincial buses, and I would not usually have been perturbed except for the extreme temperature of the bus interior. It was HOT. The windows did not open. This made the extra time in the bus feel literally hellish (not that Jews would know what that meant…). But it’s one of those weird psychological things that if I had expected to spend just over five hours in a bus, I wouldn’t have minded the extra time roasting in the bus/oven (which, in this case, would not have been extra) nearly as much. So next time I call the bus station, I’ll be sure to add an hour or so to their time estimates – and my expectations.
But regardless of the slow pace of travel, the bus ride was gorgeous. We went painfully slowly through the Xining valley before entering the Huang Shui gorge, a winding, forested, cliffy valley which somehow manages to hold almost all of Qinghai’s main transportation corridor. Then we went up the strangely named 药水 (medicine water) river valley to the 日月山 pass. From the pass, I thought we’d be dropping back into a valley. But after crossing the snowspeckled pass, there was no deep valley to be seen, only vast grasslands stretching gray-green towards snowy mountain ranges. From the summit of the pass, we barely had to descend before we were on the grasslands themselves, where distance seemed to lose all meaning. The Alaska factor (“I think that’s five miles away.” “No, probably more like 25.”) has a worthy rival in the Qinghai factor.
We drove across the grasslands, over a pass, through more grasslands and across some painfully slow sections where the road was under construction. After passing through the town of 共和 (which is capital of the amusingly named 海南 prefecture, a vast area of grasslands lying at 3000-4000 meters which is synonymous with the tropical island known as “China’s Hawaii”) and some more, even vaster grasslands, crossing another mountain range and descending into a broad, grassy valley, we finally turned off route 214 onto the smaller side road leading to 兴海. We drove through dusk, then a total darkness which held an amazing clarity; car lights and nomad cooking-fires were clearly visible from many kilometers away. And finally, we arrived in 兴海 itself, which was almost completely shut for the evening. The time was almost 8:00pm.
I did some hotel comparison-shopping (e.g. bargaining) before settling on the 兴海饭店, a hotel at the main intersection whose kind receptionists let me have a single room with bathroom for Y60 a night – much less than the advertised rate. But the major selling point was that the hotel was officially “Foreigner-Oriented.”
I filled out the form that foreigners must fill out wherever they go in China, gave the receptionist my passport to look at, and paid the cost of the room and the cash deposit. Then the receptionist – telling me she’d be back soon – took my passport and ran (fast!) out the door.
“Where is she going? What is she doing with my passport?” I almost screamed at the other receptionist.
“Don’t worry, she’s just going to photocopy it. She’ll be back in a while; why don’t you take your stuff up to your room and relax?”
“I’ll wait right here.” I’ve heard lots of stories, and I’ve become nervous (rightfully, I would argue) about ‘lending’ my passport to others. But after about thirty minutes of waiting worriedly, the receptionist came back with my passport in one hand and photocopies in another. I thanked her, and went up to my surprisingly nice room, where (due to the unusually soft – for China – bed) I slept wonderfully.
The next morning, I went outside at around 8:30 am to find freezing temperatures, ice on the sidewalk, and still-shuttered storefronts. Does anyone ever do anything in this town? I wondered. But before long, stores and restaurants were opening and soon the main street was a hive of activity. I had some delicious yogurt at a Tibetan place, where the kind teenaged waiters told me that I could find a ride to the Tredzong (Serdzong) monastery simply by trolling around the main street and looking. Which I did. And before long, I was befriended by two pilgrims from 循化 who offered to share a car with me (and to do all the bargaining, since I – as a foreigner – am at an immediate, distinct, and insurmountable disadvantage).
We finally got a car, which they chartered for the round-trip ride (e.g. the driver would hang out with us at the monastery until we were ready to leave, or until 3 hours were up), and headed off into the grasslands. We quickly dropped into a deep, eroded river canyon, which would not have been out of place in the American southwest or Alaska, and switchbacked slowly to its bottom. We crossed the clearflowing river before ascending the valley of a tributary stream, passing nomads herding sheep and yaks above their dog-guarded white tents, until we were back on the grasslands again, now heading directly for the mountains looming in the distance, snowcovered summits gleaming in the morning light. We reached the edge of the plains, climbed over a low grassy pass, and descended into a steep river valley leading into the mountains. Up the river valley a few kilometers and finally the monastery appeared, golden rooftops gleaming, cliffs looming above, yaks grazing along the beautiful grassy valley which stretched upwards to the snowy peaks.
At the monastery’s entrance was a tiny village with a few restaurants and stores to serve pilgrims, where I got some pretty outstanding stares. My car-buddies had some noodles in the village before going up to the monastery, where they led me through the series of temples in (seeing as they were pilgrims) a surprisingly brusque, matter-of-fact, even businesslike manner. The monastery was interesting, though quiet – I didn’t see many monks, and we had to call a monk’s cell phone to unlock the doors of the main assembly hall (which the monks tried to hurry us out of as quickly as possible) – and, architecture- and art-wise, definitely not as spectacular as some of the others I’ve visited. But the pilgrims I saw, though few in number, made it feel like a special place through their extreme devotion. And nowhere was this more visible than on the kora.
I had read on a website that the monastery had a spectacular, mountain-encircling kora which took at least a few hours. But my car-buddies were finished; we had to return to Xinghai, they said, or else we’d have to pay the driver for the additional time. I really wanted to do the kora, and didn’t want to regret not doing it, so I decided to stay. I paid my full round-trip fare （Y43) to the driver, said goodbye to my friends (who probably thought I was crazy), and headed off up the valley, hoping I would find a ride back to town eventually.
The Tredzong monastery kora is possibly the most beautiful half-day hike I’ve ever been on. It ranks up there with hikes in Alaska and Baxter State Park (two of my favorite places) for beauty; there is truly never a dull moment along the hike, as the scenery is extremely varied and constantly changing. But what sets it apart is the unbelievable devotion of the pilgrims along the way. I met quite a few pilgrims, but was one of only four that I met along the trek who were not prostrating themselves all the way around the circuit.
To put the difficulty and pain of the continuous prostrations into perspective, let me describe the kora route, which circumambulates the cliff-like mountain lying directly above the monastery. From the monastery entrance, you walk up a flat but rocky valley, past a stupa, and across the edge of a stream on unstable stepping stones. Then, first on a dirt path, then on a newly flagstoned walkway with long flights of steps, you ascend slowly, then steeply to the top of a pass (which I later learned is almost 3900 meters high). The sharp ridgetop, extravagantly festooned with kaleidoscopic prayer flags, has spectacular views of the snowy mountains, the wide grassy valleys below, and the vast grassland plains of Xinghai beyond. Then you make a steep descent down vertiginous steps to a narrow valley, where the path is filled with sharp jagged rocks that undoubtedly would be painful when prostrating. The path finally smooths out and descends a broad and spectacularly beautiful grassy valley, split down the middle with a steep, forested river gorge, nomad camps dotting the nearby hills. After traversing the side of the valley, the cliffs close in above and below the path, which ascends to a narrow notch and then traverses a narrow grassy catwalk between a dark, deep, extremely narrow slot-canyon and dramatic limestone pinnacles and arches jutting above. The path is adorned with prayer flags, which are strung between massive old spruces which have suddenly appeared in the middle of this arid, steppe-like landscape. Finally, the gorge trends left, the cliffs above trend right, and you are on the open grasslands, passing nomad camps guarded by ferocious, barking, spittleflinging dogs; you pray that they are chained up and that the chain is secure.
Now on the newly flagstoned path, you begin the ascent of a second pass, lower but still difficult given the altitude. You pass a side path, which leads through a slot canyon and under a natural arch to some meditation caves, and climb the steepening walkway. Finally you reach the top of the pass, where the monastery is suddenly visible below. After a quick descent, you’ve finished the kora. Now do it again. And again. Prostrating after every third step.
By the time I finished the kora, I was plenty tired, and decided to find a ride back to Xinghai. I walked down to the monastery village, where I luckily came across a truck hauling lumber from Xinghai; at the driver’s seat was a kid who looked fresh out of 6th grade; the passengers were his younger brothers. They offered me a ride and, though slightly afraid for the drive to come, took a seat straddling the shift column.
After dumping off the lumber, the kid (as I thought of him) put the truck into low gear and, slowly but surely, with only a few stalls en route, climbed up and down the canyons, gorges, and grasslands, making our way back to Xinghai. I learned that the driver was 18, and had been driving for just under a year, since he’d graduated the local middle school. A couple of times, he had trouble coaxing the truck up the steeper gradients and we’d stall out, but by and large he was a remarkably good driver. We talked all the way back, and he kindly dropped me off in downtown Xinghai, right in front of the hotel.
I was walking down the street when I was accosted by the teenage waiter at the restaurant I had visited that morning for yogurt. “I’m not very hungry,” I said. “That’s OK,” he said, “just come in and let’s 玩儿 a bit.” “玩儿” (wanr) means something like ‘play’ in Chinese, but – like s’amuser in French – can also translate as ‘hang out,’ ‘have fun,’ ‘chill,’ or any number of other things. How could I refuse? I went into the restaurant.
As it happened, the teenage waiter was very busy, but he had enough time to exchange cell-phone numbers with me and supply me with a pot of milk tea. In his absence, his girlfriend sat down with me, and we started talking. She was from 祁连, a town in northern Qinghai I’m interested in visiting (beautiful mountains and forests, remote), and she had come to Xinghai to study to become a police officer. She would be graduating this year, she said, after which she’d get a job at the Xinghai police department. Then I met an older Tibetan couple drinking tea on the other side of the restaurant; I asked the man about his job and he laughed. “I don’t have a job,” he said. “I’m just 老百姓.” 老百姓 (laobaixing), which translates as ‘Old Hundred Names,’ means something like ‘common-folk’ in Chinese. The people I’ve met who identify themselves as 老百姓 seem somehow proud, even if resignedly so, in the appellation; recently, I’ve been starting to wonder more and more about the source of their pride. Is it not getting caught up in China’s dog-eat-dog, hyperspeed modernization? Is it pride in tradition? Or is it simply pride in simply being one of the boys, having no special (at first glance) identifying features or talents in a country where everyone seems to be racing to distinguish themselves, to take on status? Is it pride in ordinariness, or pride in simply having something or someone or a group of someones to identify with?
I don’t know, but thought a lot about this on the (painfully slow) bus ride home. The driver had a unique driving method: he would aggressively pump the accelerator for about thirty seconds until we reached high speed, maybe 90 kilometers per hour, then slowly let the car slow down until we were not doing much better than the yaks slowly meandering along the roadside. Then, once we’d reached a rate of speed where the yaks might have lapped us in an 800-meter race, the driver would begin to pump the accelerator and the cycle would start all over again. Couple this with numerous stops and unexplainable waits, and the drive back felt interminably long. At least the bus windows opened, so I could get some air moving through the vehicle.
Probably the most unique stop on the trip was when, on the way downhill from the pass just above Xinghai, the driver parked the bus squarely in the middle of the single lane of northbound traffic on a steep downhill grade…and just below a blind curve. The attendant got out and ran to the back of the bus, opened the luggage flap, and took out a bucket and a spade. Then he ran up the embankment on the road’s uphill side, where the roadcut had exposed plentiful dirt. For about fifteen minutes, the bus attendant scraped away with the spade at the frozen roadside dirt, scooping it in bits and pieces into the bucket. At last, the bucket was filled, covered with a mini-tarp, and thrown back into the cargo hatch before the bus continued down the road.
I love these types of unexplainable ‘incidents’, or ‘events’ as they should probably be labeled, for their simultaneous apparent absurdity and utter banality. To us foreigners, Chinese and Tibetan culture seem amazingly, fully, exotically strange and esoteric. Part of this impression is due to our lack of language ability, while part is due to our romanticization of the ‘other’ cultures. But part is also due to our self-conscious removal from the other culture, and our unwillingness to ask about or search for the reasons that the other culture does things the way it does. Undoubtedly, an American bus ride would be unimaginably exotic for anyone (except me) who was aboard the Xinghai to Xining bus.
I’ve started another week at Shida Fuzhong, and my students seem to be getting worse-behaved (‘naughtier’, as they would say) by the week. In my Senior 2 #14 class today, I confiscated several expensive pieces of electronics, sent students out of the room, and yelled myself hoarse before finally taking the seven (out of 57) students who were even remotely paying attention outside to finish the class. It was a beautiful day, and we finished class in the pavilion in the campus garden. I apologized to the students for their classmates, saying that I wish we could do more in class, I wish I could make it more fun, but that their classmates’ behavior seriously limits what I can do. This is no exaggeration: most days, I can barely finish a sentence. I think (and hope) the students sincerely appreciated my apology, and – after talking again with class 14’s head teacher, can only hope that their behavior will improve.
And on that note, I have one success story: last Thursday, after an extremely difficult day of teaching, class 13 – the last of the day’s five classes – was showing the early signs of an unstable class period. In walks Mr. Wang, who walks to the back of the class and sits down. The class is instantly silent, and stays so for an entire 45-minute period. Miraculous. I’m still confused as to why they seem obedient to Chinese teachers and not to me, but I’m grateful for Mr. Wang’s interference nonetheless. Even better were his compliments after I went to his office after class to thank him; I think he gained a new respect for me from the class, and seems newly willing to help me get things done. He’s even going to be my Chinese tutor until he is able to find another, hopefully by the end of the month, and said that he’d let me know about the winter vacation dates (for sure) by this weekend. Our relationship has hit a new high point.
Anyway, that’s it for right now. Things are going well, although I wish I didn’t have such an extreme discipline problem in my classes. I feel like the only teacher around with this issue, but it’s probably (more than I think it is) a shared experience; that is, it’s probably just part of being a 外教 in Xining.