Visitors from afar

Dad above Labrang

I have to apologize to the multitudes who read this blog on two accounts. First, I realized a few days ago that I didn’t post on this blog last week. I realized this only after receiving numerous emails and calls from the New Yorker begging me for updates about life in Xining, as this blog has apparently become a must-read for all editors of the magazine (and I’m being modest…it’s currently featured on the websites of the BBC, the Times, and the Huffington Post, as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer which is – strangely enough, as the Times and BBC sites are accessible – banned in China. Apparently the constant stream of dismal news about Philly sports teams, sex scandals, corruption probes, and yet another spate of murders just depressed the shit out of someone in Beijing). But I have an excuse for missing last week, which brings me to my second apology. This concerns my current obsession with horribly pretentious blog post titles. I’m sorry; I’ve tried to stop but the titles keep pouring out of me like blood from my broken nose onto the asphalted surface of Kunlun Lu. However, I will not hold back; I will renew my efforts to stop the bleeding and save any semblance of self-respect (and of sufficient blood volume within my system).

But my excuse for not posting and my pretentious title both refer to the arrival of my dad (Walter Louis Crimm, b. 05-26-1956, 5’10”) and, later, Kailah Weiss-Weinberg (ViA’s volunteer in the shoddy-sounding town of Shangri-La, in which public transportation apparently consists of hiring unicorns and riding to your destination on fragrant mists redolent of roses and orange peels – see her blog here) in the great province of Qinghai. My dad stayed for 5 days (and Kailah is still here), but I will explain everything later after starting at (inappropriately enough) the beginning.

Rebgong valley

On the Monday immediately after my midterm (now two weeks ago), as many have seen from the gruesome pictures below (see last post), I broke my nose in a taxi accident. On Tuesday, my waiban Mr. Wang kindly took me to the hospital and spent most of the day with me figuring out where in 青海红十字医院 (Qinghai Red Cross Hospital) I needed to be and when. This was no small feat: the hospital complex is quite large and includes a building over 25 stories tall, which logically enough has some of the emergency departments on the upper floors which are served by slow, crowded elevators. Thankfully, I was not suffering from some kind of advanced abdominal evisceration or hemo-pneumo thorax or a ruptured spleen, or something of the like. My nose was simply broken.

We went up to the 20th floor and spent a while waiting in an office until a foreign doctor came in. “Your nose is broken,” he said in a slight Scandinavian accent.

“I know that,” I said. “It’s tilted pretty dramatically to the side.”

“I know you know,” he said. “Even if you knew, you needed to come up here so that a doctor could tell you what was wrong.”

“I know what is wrong,” I said, “but can you fix it for me?”

“No,” he said, “you have to go to the third floor of the 门诊 building this afternoon at 2:30. Then you can make an appointment to get it fixed. You probably won’t be able to get it fixed until Thursday because they’re busy.”

Slightly confused as to why I had to come see this foreign doctor just to learn something I already knew, I went back home with Mr. Wang before returning to the hospital (in the back of a cab driven by a frighteningly angry taxi driver) in the afternoon. Once there, I joined legions of Xiningren suffering from various ear, nose, or throat afflictions in a dark, chilly hallway outside the Ear-Nose-Throat clinic. Every so often, the clinic’s door would open to reveal sunlight and warmth, as well as the impatient-looking face of a nurse who would yell “下一个” (next!) before admitting one more person and shutting the door. After waiting in line for almost an hour, the door opened again and, following the nurse’s yell, I squeezed myself between others and jumped into the clinic.

The clinic was a bright and airy room which had some remarkably modern-looking equipment, considering the somewhat Medieval ambiance of the hallway outside. I walked around a partition and, to my extreme surprise, was greeted by a foreign doctor. Her distinguishing feature was her height; she was probably two meters tall, and her height clearly intimidated the Chinese female nurses and male patients who crowded nervously around her for directions and diagnoses, respectively.

The doctor was from England, and she examined my nose once again before pronouncing it broken. “I know,” I said, “but can you fix it?” “Yes!” she said. We’ll just give you local anesthesia and it will be finished within an hour or so. But first you need to “挂号” (register) and get the anesthesia from the pharmacy downstairs.

Mr. Wang and I completed the requested errands before returning to the clinic, where the doctor lay me down on a bed for the anesthesia. “This might taste sort of bad,” she said, “and may impair your swallowing a bit. But just relax.”

I did, and she promptly squirted a malodorous liquid down my nostrils. I felt the liquid pool in my nostrils before overflowing down the back of my throat, which quickly turned numb. Within minutes, I was unable to swallow.

“You OK?” she asked as I started to cough up yellow and green phlegm. I tried to speak but could barely get a word out, as my throat started to spasm constantly. I felt like the walls of my throat were closing in and, after another minute or two, I would be completely unable to breathe. Fluid started draining continually out of my mouth.

“That was the first part,” she said as I gasped for air. “Now we’ll do the local anesthetic into the nose.” She pulled out a needle and filled it with a sinister-looking serum. “Lie down and relax,” she said before promptly jabbing the needle into my nose.

“This might sting a bit,” she said as sharp pains shot across my face. After a minute or so, she pulled out the needle and stuck it back into my nose, this time frighteningly close to my eyes. “You might want to close your eyes,” she said, “because the blood’s dripping into them from my shots.” I closed my eyes.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, the doctor repeatedly jabbed the needle into different parts of my nose (some of which I didn’t know I had) until my entire nose was thoroughly numb. After the needle ordeal, she sat me up and had me wait for a few minutes until my nose was number. Finally, she pronounced me ready and lay me back down on the bed.

“This may hurt a bit,” she said. “The anesthetic is just to take the edge off the pain, but you’ll definitely still feel it.”

“Great,” I thought as she put her fist against my nose and punched it. I heard something crack horribly close to my eyes. “Good,” she said, “it’s moving.”

She punched my nose again and pressed it hard to the right until I heard another crack. “It’s moving for sure,” she said, “but pretty slowly. But we’ll get it back to the right position.”

“Crack! Crack! for the next eternity or so, the doctor basically punched, pushed and prodded my nose until it went back to something approximating it’s normal position. In so doing, she caused my nose to swell up like a watermelon. “I think it’s in the right position,” she finally said, “but it’s so swollen I can’t tell. You’ll have to come back next week for a check. By the way, you can sit up now.”

I sat up and a wave of nausea immediately knocked me back down. “It’s OK,” she said. “That was a bit rough. Tomorrow morning you’ll look like someone beat you up.”

“Great,” I said. I felt like someone had beat me up. Mr. Wang led me slowly, unsteadily out of the building and into a cab. I went directly to Sarah and Devin’s where I spent the rest of the day watching movies and having large purple snakes of dried blood emit themselves from my nostrils.

The next morning, I had two black eyes and a still swollen and painful nose. But I was feeling significantly better than the day before, so I decided to go to Rebgong to recover. I got in a taxi and made it there without any incident.


My time in Rebgong was blissfully uneventful except for a certain drama surrounding Brooke’s apartment. Since it’s not my story to tell, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Brooke’s landlord had sold her apartment and Brooke had agreed to move out on Friday to make way for the new tenants. However, the owner of the apartment into which she was supposed to move that day – sixth floor, beautiful view over the golden roofs of the monastery – had decided that week he was unwilling to move out. Starting on Friday, Brooke would be homeless.

sheep above town

Over the course of the week, I witnessed several intense arguments in the courtyard below over Brooke’s housing arrangements. The man on the 6th floor was utterly unwilling to move out, even if offered another apartment. Another man was unwilling to rent to Brooke because she was a foreigner. Finally, a man came from out of the blue and offered his apartment to Brooke – with one catch: every ten days, his daughter would return home from school for five days at a time to live with her. Brooke took this offer just as the new occupants of her apartment (in violation of previous agreements) were moving their furniture into her rooms more than 24 hours before the agreed-upon time.

village above Rebgong with 雪山

But despite this drama, I had a nice time recuperating in Rebgong. I went on hikes, watched monks debating in the monastery, and worked on some lesson planning for the next month. On Friday, after three peaceful days of rest, I took a car from Rebgong to the airport to pick up dad.

on a hike above Rebgong

His plane was pretty late, so I ended up waiting in the airport for quite a while. But he finally got in and we took a taxi over to my apartment. We quickly unpacked, repacked, got some 煎饼 and spent 45 minutes trying to find a taxi on 五四西路 before heading back to Rebgong.

Dad in the Labrang monastery

more dad in monastery

We stayed over at the Huangnan Binguan and had a delicious dinner with Charlotte and Brooke before leaving the next morning for Xiahe/Labrang. We spent a couple of gloriously beautiful (but very cold) days in Labrang visiting the monastery, going on hikes, and seeing friends. It was an amazing time all around (though I won’t go into detail here) and I believe that my dad’s mind was sufficiently blown to call it a success. On Monday morning at 6:10 am (Cold! Dark!), we left to go back to Xining. Our bus was especially cold and slow; not only was the Laji Shan tunnel closed, but we took the local road ALL THE WAY back to Xining, pulling into every gas station along the way and in doing so severely testing my patience. That afternoon, unfortunately, I had to teach and – though my dad was watching and taking videos – my sleep-deprived mind was not really in the game and I felt like I did a shoddy job. Oh well…


view from the assembly hall roof

the river and stupa

view over Xiahe/Labrang

view over the monastery


On Tuesday, I managed to get excused from my two classes to go back to the hospital to get my nose checked. Thus I had the whole day free to spend with my dad before he left the following morning. We spent the day wandering around the various markets and neighborhoods of central Xining, buying food and souvenirs along the way and having a great time just watching the world of Xining go by. In addition to the fun of having my dad here, it was interesting in a more general sense to take an ‘outsider’ around the city that has become my home, a city which has become both increasingly familiar and comfortable

to me. Having a family member with me helped me see the city in new ways, and helped me find surprise and excitement in places that I had dismissed (or at least accepted) as ‘normal.’ And of course, beyond this it was simply good to have my dad here to visit, as I don’t really see my family much living out here in the boonies.

I saw my dad off on Wednesday morning before jumping back into the busy routine of life. The rest of the week was a blur of classes and meetings; the students I’ve been tutoring were taking the TOEFL that weekend, so I had them over for several practice tests and spent time meeting with other advisors to gear up for the college application process, which will begin almost immediately after the students return from Chongqing on Tuesday. There seems to be truly no rest for the weary, as the students have just over a month to complete and submit these applications. Luckily, we have a great team helping them out; we’ll all be congregating in Su Wen’s restaurant next weekend to bang out the Common App and the financial aid applications. If this last week was any indication, the next month will be extremely busy.

On Friday, Kailah arrived (very late, of course – no planes arrive in Xining on time) after an absurdly long journey from Shangri-La. We went to the bar and hung out for a while before going home and collapsing. On Saturday, we went over to Sarah and Devin’s for pancakes (!) made from a wholegrain mix (!) that Sarah had received in a package. Sarah, Kailah and I spent the day exploring the city while Devin hung out with his dad (who was also visiting) and sneakily bought Sarah two turtles. That night, we had a delicious hotpot dinner with Devin’s dad, his dad’s girlfriend, Ligaya, and Steve. We had a great evening which ended with a 青稞酒 – induced creation of 羊肉 sculptures on the plastic chandelier which hung majestically above our banquet-room table.

On Sunday, Sarah, Kailah and I went on a beautiful little hike outside of the Kumbum monastery, not far away from Xining in the town of Huangzhong. We took the monastery’s kora path about halfway around, passing prostrating pilgrims all the way, before hiking up a forested hillside to a grassy, breezy summit with hazy views of the snow mountains looming above. The mountains, though only ten or fifteen kilometers away, were strangely indistinct in the haze which seemed to cling to the landscape; we hypothesized that the haze came from farmers burning their fields, or perhaps from a factory in the distance, but came to no distinct conclusion. The haze was pretty much the only downside to the hike, as we walked along a beautiful grassy ridge towards the snowy peaks which, lost in the smoky air, were nothing more than blurred and indistinct shapes towering above the rolling hills along which we walked.

hike with Sarah and Kailah near the Kumbum

forest! trees! Kailah! Sarah!

forest and prayer flags

Kailah and Sarah walking along the ridgeline

I lied; the hike had one additional downside (or ‘adventure,’ one could say.) We hiked along the sharp ridge towards the snow mountains, passing shepherds grazing their flocks and fields of barley long ago harvested and burned. Though sunny, the landscape looked monotone, gray, wintery; nevertheless, the rumpled hills and patchwork fields were still remarkably beautiful. Until we crested the top of a high hill and, less than 100 meters away, saw a man stalking across a field with a gun in hand.

No guns in this picture!

Kailah and Sarah chillin in the countryside, gun-free

“I wonder what he’s doing?” Kailah said. “It’s hard to get a gun in China.” As she finished her sentence, another gun-toting man appeared on the other side of the field. “Oh.” I heard Sarah say. “Shit.”

The men stalked through the field as if looking for something, but were looking up and moving steadily the entire time, giving little thought to the noise they were making or their lack of camouflage. Were they hunting? Participating in an army exercise? Whatever they were doing, they seemed to be moving in our direction.

We stood on the hilltop frantically deciding which way we were to hike off the ridge; which way we were to escape the men with guns who, all the while, were steadily approaching our position. We decided to descend a steep ridge towards a farmer burning his field. As we did, the men with guns hopped astride a motorcycle and, after encircling the hilltop, descended a dirt track into the valley through which we had planned to travel.

Sarah standing heroically on the ridge, having vanquished the gun-toting bandits (and rescued the virgin princess)

We quickly revised our plans and, after hiking along a low ridge, descended steeply into a valley where a small village was visible below. The descent was eventful, as Kailah’s shoes had almost zero traction on the loose sand of the steep trail; she repeatedly fell down and ended up scooting down a large chunk of the hillside on her but. We made it down and wandered into the village where, as usual, we quickly became the center of attention. To our untutored eyes, the village seemed to be a mix of Tibetans and Muslims, with perhaps some Tu mixed in (and, of course, at present there were three members of the rare 老外 minzu mixed in). We wandered down through the village to percussive calls of “hello!” from small children and old ladies alike; the road then turned down a narrow valley and descended more steeply, past sheets of ice unmelted in the shadows of the gorge, towards a broader, more open plain below. We crossed a small river, passing a structure that looked as if it was constructed by Andy Goldsworthy (in the middle of the countryside) and entered a town, where we were again greeted by gangs of kids eager to talk with the foreigners. We strolled through town, passing numerous 青稞酒 shops, old men sitting outside to soak up the weak sunshine of late autumn, children biking careening along the narrow road curving through town between the mudbrick walls of courtyard homes, before the road spit us out again in the midst of fields. A massive factory, smokestacks and towers belching fumes and noise, lay across vast fields which, months ago, were full of barley and potatoes. We strolled along trying to ignore the factory in the distance until we suddenly found ourselves on the main Xining-Guide-Golog road. We waited for a little while until a van stopped for us.

looking out over the countryside

Kailah: "my shoes have no tread! I can't stay up! It must be the altitude!"

Sarah: "Silly Kailah. This is flat compared to Colorado."

small town in the Huangzhon countryside

A bit of Andy Goldsworthy in rural Huangzhong county


“Going to Xining?” asked the driver.

“Sure” we said. “How much?”

“Five kuai apiece,” he said. Five kuai apiece for an almost hourlong ride. This was less expensive than the bus. We hopped inside and, after a quick trip, were back in town. We went to the curry restaurant in 国际村 for dinner before returning home and quickly falling asleep.

All in all, it’s been a good couple of weeks with numerous visitors (Kailah, Dad, a short visit from Caroline, Devin’s family) and lots of fun little trips. Though I did have a vacation recently, I feel like I’ve been busy the entire time nonetheless. I’ve also been having the occasional continuing discipline problems in class, especially now in Senior 2 class 11 which really seems to be sliding downhill. But this post is a relatively happy one, so I’ll leave the complaining about my students and about the school (and believe me, there’s plenty of that to be done) for another time.

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2 Responses to Visitors from afar

  1. walt says:

    As the Dad, aforementioned, it was in fact, as posted, a very good time, though the province could use a bit of heat (not guns). Also not noted by the very astute observer, is that Xining, the backwater mentioned above, has more tower cranes currently than Philadelphia over the past decade. Jonas, you need to do a Xining update so your esteemed readers can get a sense of you home base. Dad

  2. Kailah says:

    A fine post with the exception that ol’ Shangri-la is in Yunnan Province (not Qinghai). And with your comparatively low altitude have an increase in oxygen! Unlike the previous commentor (and visitor), I found Qinghai’s existence of indoor-heating a welcome change from the unheated (3,300 m) Shangri-la.

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