Chanukah in Golog

Prayer flags and valley - view from the kora at the Dawu monastery

The title of this post, I think, effectively sums up the strangeness, randomness, and wild incongruity that has characterized this past week, especially my weekend trip to Golog prefecture. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as the week itself was full of minor strange occurrences.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wang told me to come to his office. I had been expecting a summons for a while, as I had demanded that my schedule, newly changed to include Saturday classes, be amended so as to actually comply with my contract and all previous agreements (e.g. no classes on Saturday). When I came to his office, I was optimistically expecting that another schedule change had taken place.

“Have you changed my schedule?” I asked Mr. Wang.

“No.”

“What about my Saturday classes?” I had agreed to teach the past Saturday as it was too late to change the schedule for the week, but with the caveat that I would not teach any other Saturday (unless the school was holding make-up classes for a vacation) to follow. I woke up Saturday with a fever, a nasty headache, and permanent 拉肚子 (diarrhea), for which I actually had to take breaks in class [rather than Montezuma, revenge of the Jewish God for working on the holy day?].

“You don’t have to go to them. Other teachers will cover them for you.”

“But can’t we just change the schedule? It’s only two classes.”

“No.”

Mr. Wang’s diverting of my Saturday classes to other teachers was a successful tactic on his part: it made me squeeze three classes worth of material into two for the classes I was missing on Saturdays (senior 2 12 and 13), and made me feel guilty for willfully ‘missing’ my classes. Hopefully, this arrangement won’t go on for long, or I may even agree to teach some Saturdays out of sheer guilt for shortchanging my best (class 12) class.

Tuesday afternoon was absolutely nuts, as it was the day I was to help the Ishi students with their college applications. With two other teachers, I spent the afternoon and evening at the Joy Luck restaurant (free wireless!) helping the kids work through the mind-numbing banalities of the Common Application, the financial aid forms, and a whole variety of supplements (Mt. Holyoke essay choices: 1) “What is the best mistake you have ever made?” 2) “If practice makes perfect, but there is no such thing as perfect, then what is the point in practicing?” A great reason NOT to have a contest among prospective students to select essay questions); I took breaks only to run back to school to teach the afternoon’s two classes. Finally, I got back to the restaurant at 6:30 or so to an explosion of paperwork, no students to be seen, and the teachers having a beer to relax. I did the same. I had forgotten how mindlessly stressful the college application process can be, especially if English is your third (or fourth) language. I’m glad I don’t have to do that again – at least for another year.

On Wednesday, I discovered that senior 2 class 11 – previously the horrors of the known world – had transformed themselves into a bunch of (relatively) sweet, good-natured kids. While this sudden transmogrification might have had something to do with my talk to the class’ 班主任 (head teacher) last week and her promise to give the class a thorough wringing-out, I was not expecting such an immediate and manifest change in their behavior and attitude in class. Of course, several students were still acting out in the back of the classroom, but the amount of insanity was the least I’ve seen since the beginning of the semester.

Wednesday was the first night of Chanukah, and (as it is a busy night for all) I scheduled a chanukah party for Thursday evening. I spent most of my free time this week buying and preparing the food for the fifteen-plus people who were promising to show up. I bought the vegetables for latkes on Tuesday, went shopping again Wednesday (twice) to pick up extras, spent hours on Wednesday evening grating potatoes and sweet potatoes, and woke up early on Thursday to make extra dishes.

The party went off surprisingly well, all things considered, thanks to last-minute help from Sarah (who made an excellent Dal), Nettie and Kim (who helped me bake the desserts while I was frying latkes). It made an interesting celebration: relatively normal foods (latkes, applesauce, dal, hummus appetizers, apple pie and brownies) and celebrations (candle-lighting, songs, gelt) but a group of people like I’ve never seen gathered around a hannukiyah before. As the honorary Only Jew of Xining, I felt obliged to try to explain everything to the group (which included rural Tibetan students, a missionary, and more) but made a mess of it and resorted to the “it’s not a very important holiday in the Jewish calendar” explanation. Regardless, the party was a lot of fun, especially because (like Thanksgiving) of its unlikeliness – who’d have thought Chanukah could be celebrated just like home in Xining?

On Friday, the Shida Fuzhong foreign teachers had their monthly meeting with Mr. Wang. The meeting was slightly confused, especially the initial part concerning the dates of the upcoming winter break. My notes read as follows:

Jan. 7 – last day of normal class. Exams before 7th? exams after 7th? must hold exams before classes end. International classes [what I teach] after 7th. No responsibilities after 7th. Week of review (no class). Must hold class during review week. Class after final exam if exams before review week? No resp. after review week (15th?). Vacation starts 20th. Maybe class the week after 14th. Extra class for International classes? New semester starts March 1, classes March 2. Extra class before March 1/after Jan. 15?

That pretty much sums it up; Mr. Wang threw a bunch of dates at us before telling us they were all unsure, unconfirmed, or outright wrong. I am more confused now than ever before about when our vacation actually is. Not to mention our exams, which might be coming up this month if only we knew anything about them.

The main other order of business for the meeting was Mr. Wang’s announcement that we would not be paid for missed classes regardless of the reason. This seemed like a (very) lightly veiled attack on my absence from weekend classes, but instead I asked him a hypothetical situation about going to the hospital after a car accident.

“If I was to get in a car accident and break my nose,” I said to Mr. Wang, “and then have to miss classes to go to the hospital to get my nose fixed and for checkups, would I get paid for those classes or would they be deducted from my salary?”

“You will not be paid for the classes missed while you were in the hospital,” said Mr. Wang. “It’s in your contract.”

While this is not actually in my contract, it was worth a try. I’m not going to fight with Mr. Wang about this, as I have bigger fish to fry – notably, getting the Saturday class fiasco fixed and working out the details of payment for my new Chinese tutor. Yes, that’s right – though this definitely is in my contract, I have not yet – apart from two (2) one and a half hour classes from Mr. Wang – received the three hours per week of Chinese tutoring that I was supposed to have started at the beginning of the semester. But things are looking up, as I’ve scheduled my first class for Friday!

My week was actually (all things considered) pretty ordinary, if abnormally busy. The same cannot be said for my weekend. All week, I had been thinking about how much I wanted to get out of town, and spent a lot of time deciding where I wanted to go for the weekend. On Friday, I got an email from a school I’d been trying to reach in Golog prefecture, a remote area nearly the size of Maine but with a population of only 130,000 (compare to Maine’s 1.5 million). The director of the school, who I’d contacted through connections via Xining as well as via Bowdoin, said they’d be able to host a volunteer teacher for a year, provided expenses were covered from outside. And (after a phone call) it became clear he was busy that weekend, I decided to visit Golog on my own (though not the town the school is located in) to check out the area, which is known as a wild-west kind of place. After finishing class at 4pm on Friday (which Ligaya thankfully came to see!), I jumped in a taxi to the bus station and hopped aboard the 5pm sleeper bus to Dawu.

Dawu valley

In case you don’t know much about sleeper buses, they are a marvelous invention which allows you to make long bus journeys overnight while lying down in the comfort of your own bunk, and without having to bother with such frivolities as sleep. The sleeper bus consists of three rows of two-layer bunkbeds (one row on each side of the bus and one in the middle) which are almost – but not quite – long enough for your hypothetical just-under-six-feet man to stretch out. Some bunks have guardrails along the edges to prevent you from falling to the floor, a fall of as much as five feet if you are on the top bunk, while some bunks are guardrail-free for the daredevils. The passengers on the bus are usually surprisingly quiet (given the penchant in this country for blasting music on late-night trains) as everyone realizes they want to sleep in order for the ride to seem shorter.

On the face of it, the sleeper bus seems like a brilliant idea. While I complained about the bunks’ length, they are actually quite comfortable, having significantly more padding than my bed in my apartment. And there are seatbelts in case you feel the need to buckle up while sleeping (noone does). The problem comes from the fact that these bunks are, in fact, on a bus which travels along narrow, bumpy, and extremely winding mountain highways at high elevations at nighttime. This is a problem for several reasons:

– The highways’ sharp curves and switchbacks, the rough pavement, and the road construction sites which appear at regular intervals all hamper even the faintest hopes of sleep for all but the heaviest sleepers (i.e. not me). With every switchback, you brace yourself to stop your body from flying off the bunk; with every bump, you rise vertically into the air a few meters or so (or so it feels) before crashing back down on the bunk. Attempting to sleep while the bus is moving is like attempting to sleep while getting beaten up – gradually and gently, I will concede, but being given a beating nonetheless.

– High elevations in Qinghai at night are quite cold. When we arrived in Dawu early Saturday morning, temperatures were hovering around -25 Celsius (or -13 Fahrenheit). The bus is heated by nothing other than body heat and the heat from the engine itself. While you are given a blanket, it is not very thick, and chances are you will be sleeping next to a frosted window. Bring layers.

– The bus driver turns on the cabin lights at random intervals, seriously hampering sleep of any kind.

Regardless of these faults, sleeper buses in general are an excellent invention, and allow you to get to your destination in class without having to pay for a hotel. As a great idea, they are of course nonexistent in America due to our hardworking lawyers – all except for the super luxury kind used by celebrities or bands. This is too bad, as despite my sarcasm the sleeper bus is actually quite a good way to get around Qinghai or any area without an adequate train system (read: USA).

I had been assigned the lower middle bunk in the front row, which (unlike other bunks) extends forward onto the engine cover, allowing the occupant theoretically unlimited legroom. The ticket-office lady probably gave me that bunk as soon as she saw that I was four to five inches taller than anyone else traveling on the bus. However, the legroom, theoretically unlimited, is often impeded by passengers trying to access the front of the bus to talk to the driver, or during stops when people are constantly moving in and out of the bus. When one comes in the sleeper bus, one must take off one’s shoes. So the legroom of the lower-middle-front bus frequently becomes a shoe-changing area, or even – as the only uncramped area of the entire bus – an area for general socialization. In addition, this bunk is one of the closest to the door and its frigid drafts, meaning that when the bus stops and the door opens, that passenger is one of the earliest to be cryogenically frozen. So despite the legroom, this bunk has several downsides.

But I had no choice in the matter, so off we went (slowly) into the sunset. I had taken the earlier of two sleeper buses (leaving at 5pm) as I had assumed that it had multiple advantages: not only would the earlier bus allow me to see some scenery before it got dark, but  it would also get me to Dawu earlier, thus giving me the whole day on Saturday to poke around. I quickly realized that the first advantage listed above was not going to be realized, as on the way out of Xining the bus stopped at two bus stations I had never heard of (including one quite convenient to me) and innumerable street corners. All told, we finally got out of Xining and into the countryside around 6:30, an hour and a half after we left the bus station (a journey of maybe 5-6 miles), by which time it was pitch black.

But one advantage of the lower-middle-front bunk was that I had a clear straight-shot view out of the windshield of the bus – the only window that did not immediately fog up once the bus started. I watched the brilliant stars above as the bus jolted and shook its way over a high pass (3820 meters, said the sign) and down into the deep valley of the Yellow River. We had just passed Guide (贵德) when the bus unexpectedly stopped by the roadside at a small town. I gratefully jumped out of the bus to go pee (the bus has no bathrooms) and approached the bus to reboard before I realized that all of the passengers had vacated the bus and that the bus doors were shut and locked.

“What is going on?” I asked another passenger who was standing nearby.

“We’ve stopped for dinner,” he said, pointing to a nearby restaurant. “The drivers need to eat.”

It was about 9pm, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Nevertheless, in a country where the vast majority of people eat dinner around 6pm, the entire busload of passengers and the drivers were in the restaurant eating noodles. I approached the window and looked in, hoping that we would be on our way soon.

One of the restaurant’s 服务员 (waiters) saw me outside and opened the door. “Come in, come in!” she said. “Even if you’re not eating, don’t wait outside in the cold. Come sit by the stove.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “We’ll be on our way soon, and I’m enjoying the fresh air.”

“You won’t be leaving for at least another hour,” she said. “Come in and have some tea.”

Which I did. And she was right: only an hour and a half later, after all of the bus passengers had been waiting in the cold outside the locked doors of the bus for more than 30 minutes, did the drivers finally finish eating and, with stares of reluctance and annoyance, open the bus doors to let us back on so we could continue our journey.

The rest of the trip passed relatively uneventfully. I remember some bumpy spots in the road along the way, but not much more. All of a sudden, I woke up with a start. The bus had stopped in a dusty courtyard, dimly illuminated by sodium lights, and a cold wind blew through the open door. The bus driver had left his seat and had prepared himself a bed in the aisle immediately next to my bunk (and on top of my books). At the same time, most of the passengers were getting off the bus.

The bus driver’s elbows were in my face, so I decided it was as good a time as any to ask him what was happening. “What is happening?” I said.

“We’ve arrived in Dawu,” he said, “and those passengers are going home. If you don’t have anywhere to go, you can stay on the bus for a few hours to sleep.”

With that, he quickly fell asleep and began to emit boomingly sonorous snores that echoed throughout the bus. I checked my watch. It was 4:17am.

I decided to stay on the bus and sleep. Without the rocking and constant in-and-out traffic, my bunk was actually quite a comfortable bed, apart from the occasional door openings which let in drafts of -25 Celsius air.

I woke up again, and looked at my watch: 8:03. Might as well leave. I got off the bus and was greeted by a blast of icyfreezing wind. Welcome to Dawu. I quickly put on two additional layers and went out to the main street.

Early morning in Dawu. Not shown: -25 C cold

Which was deserted except for a few mangy stray dogs. Few people were in sight, and few shops were open. I decided to go in search of a hotel, and then – hopefully, things having opened by then – have a look around.

My breath seemed to crackle and pop in the thin, dry air. Dawu (also variously known as Tawo, Maqen, Maqin, and Golog Zhou) is located at an elevation of 3750 meters  (12,300 feet or so) and, consequently, early mornings are quite cold. I suddenly understood why all the streets were deserted; all the locals were being smart and staying indoors until the day warmed up. Warmed up is a relative term; I’ll stick to the positives and say that it was bright and sunny all day long.

Compared to tiny Xinghai, Dawu had a surprising dearth of hotels. I went into the first hotel I saw, where a surly-looking receptionist was waiting (lurking?) behind the counter.

“Do you have any rooms?”

“No.”

“Are you full, or is it that you just don’t take foreigners?”

“No.”

Needless to say, I left. I walked up the street and, after searching, found another hotel where I had a similar exchange with another similarly surly receptionist. After several more of these, I temporarily gave up and, as my hands and feet felt like decapitation would be in their near future, quickly ducked into a teahouse to warm up by a coalburning stove.

By the time I emerged, I was warm(er) and ready to go. Within minutes, I found another hotel, where the receptionist was distinctly unsurly and the rooms were surprisingly roomy. The owner even showed me the reservation book to verify that he wouldn’t bargain below 80元 per night for a room. Nevertheless, I decided to seek out a less expensive option, and left to walk around town.

Fabric market in Dawu

When I came to Dawu, I wasn’t completely sure what was there. I had heard Golog was an interesting area, so I decided to visit – but it was not until now, having left the hotel with two days in front of me, that I realized I didn’t know what was out there. But while hotel-seeking, I had seen (from a distance) a riotous display of prayer flags on a hillside to the northeast of town; as I didn’t know what else was in town, I decided to make my way there. I walked down the main street, with its government buildings and strangely desolately empty public squares, until I reached a street going uphill towards the multicolored hillside. I took the street to its top, and suddenly found myself in an older Tibetan-style neighborhood of alleyways and brick-and-mud houses (as opposed to the main street’s white-tile architecture), all lorded over by a hillside which was literally smothered – I can think of no other appropriate verb – in prayer flags. Around Dawu, the hillsides were primarily green and gray. But on the hillside above this neighborhood, the mountain was scarlet and orange and pink and green and yellow and white and every color but that of the dusty grassland landscape which surrounded it.

Prayer flags smothering a hill in Dawu

At the base of the hillside was a small monastery, much of which was under construction. The place looked like it had been destroyed during the CR, and it was obvious that rebuilding was only just starting. Many of the chapels were in temporary corrugated sheet-metal buildings, which seemed insufficient to hold out the cold. The kora, though, had been completed, with numerous chapels holding massive prayer wheels along the base of the prayer-flagged hillside.

Dawu's monastery - and mountain of prayer flags

View of the valley from the monastery

at the monastery

Stray dogs roamed around the courtyard outside of the monastery. Wind whipped the dust into the air, stinging the eyes and throat. But a constant stream of pilgrims circled clockwise around the kora, turning the shimmering golden prayer wheels and reciting mantras in low breathy voices as they went. I joined the stream and started to circle clockwise around the monastery. But I had only gone a few hundred feet before I heard an amplified chanting coming from a courtyard a little ways in front of me. I walked towards the chanting, growing ever-louder and more intense, now accompanied by drums and cymbals, until I stood at the courtyard entrance.

A crowd was gathered around a platform, where a small group of monks was reciting sutras in throaty harmony. One monk, seated at the center, seemed to be the leader; whenever they stopped chanting, he would begin again and the others seemed to follow his lead. The audience members, mostly middle-aged to elderly men and women, sat in folding lawn chairs and on tiny stools, staring intently at the monks on the platform. All of a sudden the monks stopped chanting and the man at the center (who I was now sure was the leader) walked out and started preaching (or so it seemed). While I cannot understand Tibetan, I could tell that this man had immense charisma. Everyone was watching his every movement, watching his every facial expression, taking cues from him as a leader, as a guide. I myself could barely tear my eyes away.

After he finished preaching, he quietly sat down and the monks resumed chanting. I made my exit. I asked someone what was going on. “He’s a visiting rinpoche,” said a guy outside the courtyard, “who will be preaching for a few days. That’s why town is so busy and the hotels are full.”

Ah. The hotels could have told me that while I was freezing my buns off that morning.

Rinpoche speaking to a rapt audience, from above

stupas and Dawu valley

I walked up the hillside, past a temporary chapel, and along the kora path which led up a steep prayer-flag-festooned ridge. The views of the prayer flag hill, the mountains, and the valley were unbelievable. The ridge was crowded with pilgrims: old ladies, backs bent over from years of work; younger women, carrying infants on their backs; old men, cane-supported, slowly tottering up the steep hillside; children, running, weaving in and out of the strands of prayer flags, hiding under bundles of flags, playing and laughing all over the mountainside. I ascended alongside the pilgrims to the ridgetop, where there was another unbelievable view of the area. As it had warmed up to maybe 1-2 degrees Celsius, I decided to take a seat and do some lesson planning while I had the view for inspiration.

prayer flags on the kora

pilgrims on the kora

kora route

more flags

and more

After a little while, I got cold and decided to get moving. I descended along the kora route until I saw a small side valley to the left, which I followed uphill to a ridge. I climbed high above the kora on a grassy hillside, which had (of course) mind-blowing views. But just as I was preparing to sit down on the ridge and do a bit more work, the wind picked up dramatically. One moment it was calm; the next, the wind whipped around my shoulders and across my face, nearly pulling my hat off my head. I quickly took some pictures and descended.

yaks on the kora

view of the area from above the kora

and another view of the valley

more flags

I continued along the kora route to where I had began, when I suddenly realized it was already 4:30. I decided to continue my hotel-shopping, and went back into town. I had similarly bad luck at several establishments, so I finally went back to the 80元 per night place that I had been that morning. I had not only avoided registering that morning because of the price; there was something else about the hotel that seemed strange to me. It was not until I walked until my room and tried to turn on the lights that I realized what was unusual: the hotel was not finished; it was still under construction. My room’s electrical system was half-installed, while the lightbulbs had not yet been put in their sockets.

I got the hotel’s owner to buy lightbulbs for my room, where I shivered uncontrollably due to the lack of heat. But just in time (for avoiding hypothermia), I discovered that my bed had an electric blanket. I quickly switched the blanket on ‘high’ and, in the fetal position, snuggled as close to this meager source of warmth as I could for some lesson planning and, finally, some sleep.

Dawu valley at sunset

Thanks to the blanket, I slept beautifully and woke up the following morning to the usual – bitter cold and cloudless skies. I got up, packed my bags, and went to the bus station. I wasn’t ready to go back to Xining; rather, I had heard that in Lajia, a town about an hour from Dawu along the Xining road, there was a large and beautiful monastery complex located along the Yellow River. I decided to make my way there, so I went into the bus station to ask the attendant if it was possible to jump aboard the sleeper bus at Lajia.

“If I go to Lajia today,” I asked, “can I get the 5pm bus which goes to Xining from there?”

“Sure you can,” she said, “but you won’t be able to get to Lajia.”

“I can’t take the buses going to Xining? They pass right through the town.”

“No. They are full.”

I went outside, confused about what to do, and was immediately accosted by drivers plying the Dawu to Lajia route; I could rent a car for 100元, or wait for others and have a seat for 30元. So much for ‘no way to get to Lajia;’ I opted for the latter option, and after about 20 minutes was called forward by a driver who said (in a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese) that he had two other passengers in the car, both of whom were buying things and would be back in just a minute so we could be on our way.

I pestered the poor driver every five minutes about the other passengers. After an hour, I began to think that the so-called ‘other passengers’ were figments of his imagination, devices to get me into his car.

“I’m going to leave right now,” I said, “and find another way to Lajia unless the other passengers show up within the next five minutes.”

To his credit, the driver had some impressive hustle, and within five minutes came up with two other passengers who wanted to go to Lajia. And finally, off we went.

The road went through vast grassy valleys, narrow gorges, and over a high pass before dropping into another gorge, crossing a lower pass, and dropping steeply into the valley of the Yellow River. Below, the town and monastery were visible, buildings scattered along the riverbanks at the valley bottom. The road dropped quickly into town.

黄河 (Yellow River) at Lajia

I had a bite to eat and took a walk towards the monastery. It was much warmer in Lajia (only 3100 meters!) and I quickly overheated in my many layers – a strangely pleasant feeling after the constant cold of Dawu. I soon reached the monastery, which was nestled in a small side valley under stupendous sandstone rock formations comparable to pictures I’ve seen of the national parks of the American southwest. The monastery itself was beautiful, and felt alive – all of the assembly halls were full of monks, most of whom were young (under 20), and new chapels were under construction on the hillside. Nevertheless, a reminder of the monastery’s former size was evident in the ruined temple buildings, now only crumbling walls of mud, which sat on the hillside above the complex.

Lajia monastery main assembly hall

sweet sandstone formations above the monastery

in the monastery

monastery and river valley

The place resembled Labrang, only smaller and with better scenery. The monks and pilgrims were extremely friendly as I visited the temples and walked the beautiful kora, which led up into the jumble of redrock pinnacles above the monastery. At the kora’s midway point, I decided to climb up a hillside above the monastery to do some more lesson planning. I reached a grassy ridgetop and sat down.

on the Lajia monastery kora

Then it hit me: this was a perfect place to do Chanukah. Spectacular views, remoteness, spiritual aura…what more could one want? The only thing missing was a lack of daylight, but as for that I was out of luck; come nighttime, I would be on the sleeper to Xining, and candlelighting on the sleeper would not be the best idea. I took out the hannukiyah and candles and had a go.

Before I finished the blessings, the candles had been blown out by the light but constant breeze. I relighted them and began again. After two more tries, the candles were finally fully lit, though I had to protect them with a free hand as they burned down. I shielded the candles with one hand and stared out at the landscape.

Chanukah in Lajia, like most of those events and situations I’ve imported from home to the plateaus of Qinghai, was all the more beautiful and meaningful for its unlikeliness. How many Jews have celebrated Chanukah in Golog? How many Jews have ever even been to Golog? But regardless of the incongruity and unfamiliarity of the place, the culture, and even the time of day, celebrating Chanukah on a hillside above a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the yellow river, icechoked, winding sinuously below, threading its way into the distance between ochre and gold-colored hills dappled with grazing sheep and yaks – celebrating Chanukah in Lajia somehow just felt right. Sometimes, we need more incongruities and strangeness in our lives. American culture and the American way of life thrives on predictability, schedules, timetables, rigidity; it is based on an element of conformity which is shocking when contrasted with our much-valued political liberty and personal freedom. Here in Lajia, in Qinghai, in China, this rigidity transforms into a fluid and almost Daoist unpredictability, a random current with which one must flow. If you don’t move with this unpredictability, you will inevitably make yourself crazy with impatience and frustration. But the unpredictability can be liberating as well, as it provides the opportunities for chance encounters, unexpected experiences, and incongruously unique events that, because of their very incongruity, are that much more meaningful. So where does the freedom of being truly lie? Is it in the rigidity of American timetables or the flowing unpredictability of life here in Qinghai?

Chanukah at Lajia!

Suddenly, I felt the warmth against my hand become an unbearable heat. I quickly moved my hand away and looked down to find a gradually mushrooming ball of fire consuming the grass around the hannukiyah. The hannukiyah, which held nothing more than six birthday candles, had started a mini grassland fire which was quickly spreading through the bone-dry grasses and tumbleweed.

I rapidly took action, stomping on the fire until it was thoroughly out, then pouring my precious boiled water over the burned area until I was sure there was no chance of it reigniting. In doing so, I had also inadvertently blown out the candles themselves. But I figured that at this point, keeping the candles unlit was probably for the best, considering the combustibility of the surrounding landscape. I put the hannukiyah away and did some lesson planning instead.

view from the Chanukah spot

The sun dipped towards the ridges to the west, the Yellow River, speckled with massive chunks of ice broken off from the frozen grasslands upstream, glistened in the softening light. I realized that it was past 5pm, and the bus I wanted to take had already left Dawu. I hurried down the hillside towards the monastery, where I finished the kora in the company of three friendly monks before going out the roadside next to the monastery to wait.

All things considered, it was a pretty scenic spot to wait. On one side, the whitewashed walls of the monastery rose up towards the redrock pinnacles above; on the other, the yellow river churned, ice-filled and powerful, beneath the bridge leading back to town. I stepped onto the bridge to take a few pictures, but quickly went back to my waiting spot; if I missed the bus, I would not make it to school the next day.

The woman in the Dawu bus station had told me that the bus would arrive in Lajia around 6 or 6:30pm. Six o’clock passed, and the sun dipped below the mountains; six thirty, and the deepening gloom and sharpening chill of the night spread out over the valley, but still no bus was in sight. I put on layers to ward off the chill as I continued to wait.

But the wait – though long – was far less boring than it sounds, as I constantly had companions. Monks, students, children, old ladies; all types of people crossing the bridge were constantly stopping to talk to me. There was a certain rhythm to their questioning, and I almost came to anticipate which questions would be asked before they were actually given voice. But one young guy about my age talked with me for longer; he questioned me on what I was doing in Golog, how I liked Xining and Qinghai, what I thought about a variety of topics. We talked until it was pitch black before he asked why I was waiting here.

“I’m waiting for the 卧铺 (sleeper) bus to Xining,” I said.

“You have a while to wait. It usually doesn’t come until at least 7:30,” he said.

I silently cursed the Dawu bus station attendant. “Well, it looks like I’ll be waiting here until then.”

“You can come up the hill to our school instead,” he said. “It’s a special school, and I’ll show you around.”

As the night was rapidly becoming freezing, I quickly agreed to his suggestion and together we walked up the hill towards the school. As we went, he gave me a rundown on the school: it was boys-only (there was a similar girls’ school across town), it had 700-800 students, mostly monks, the teachers were mostly monks, except in the summer when foreign volunteers came to teach English. Last year, he said, more than thirty students from Harvard had come to volunteer and to study the local culture. Thirty foreigners in Golog! The place must have been completely overwhelmed.

As soon as we entered the school gate, I could tell it was a uniquely special place. The school had an air of well-kept (and well-funded) cleanliness and order about it, a feeling uncommon in any Chinese school, much less one in rural Golog. The classrooms were heated and comfortable, as were the (only) two-men-per-room dorms; the student took me into his dorm room and his roommate gave me a cup of milk tea (nothing beats Tibetan hospitality). I wanted to stay longer, but by now it was about 7:15 and I wanted to be completely sure I wouldn’t miss the bus. My friend took me out to the roadside, where a couple of other people were awaiting the bus, before returning to campus for the evening class period. I waited in the bitter cold, constantly scanning the horizon for the headlights of the sleeper bus.

Inside the school's dormitory

Much better than waiting for the bus outside

Finally, the bus pulled in around 7:45 and we quickly hopped aboard. I got a top bunk at the very back of the bus, and within minutes it became apparent why it was one of the few unoccupied bunks on the bus: because of their location at the rear of the bus, the back bunks magnify each small bump, dip and crack in the roadbed, magically transforming them into hills, valleys, and yawning crevasses, each of which nearly jolts the bus off the road and throws passengers upwards towards the ceiling. Needless to say, sleep was not happening tonight.

The dinner break heading back to Xining lasted for almost two hours, during which I took advantage of the immobility of the bus to catch up on sleep. Finally, we got moving again and I stayed awake for nearly the entire duration of the ride back to Xining. After a long downhill, we pulled into a gas station and the bus driver again turned off the bus, prepared a bed in the aisle, and went to sleep. It was 4am. Because of the dark and the thick frost on the windows, I couldn’t discern where we were. Rather than make an effort to see if we had arrived, I decided to simply fall asleep.

I awoke to find the motor running again. After warming up the bus, the driver coaxed the vehicle forward out of the gas station and onto the street. We continued for about two minutes before pulling into the Xining bus station. We had been in Xining the entire time. I could have gone home and slept in a bed, but instead stayed on the sleeper bus parked in a gas station around the corner from a bus or taxis that could have taken me home in 15 minutes. Arghh.

Regardless, the trip was an unbelievable (and unbelievably crazy) experience; while teaching on Monday after the bus ride felt like a chore, it was far and away worth it to make the trek down to Golog. I feel like I’ve learned enough here that, when I hop aboard a sleeper bus to one of the random corners of the province, I can patiently and calmly expect the wildly unexpected. Indeed, sometimes I have to write about my experiences in this blog before I can realize how unusual, random, or incongruous they may be. Just when life in Xining starts to feel predictable and normal, you invariably have one of those crazy experiences that reminds you that you’re in one of the random backwards barbarian idiosyncratically podunk distantly wild warmly insane and mindblowingly spectacular far-off ends of China.

6am: welcome to Xining!

 

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One Response to Chanukah in Golog

  1. walt says:

    you captured the adventure and write with grace and power……..love Da

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