It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog, but I have an excuse: the last week or so of school was among the busiest I can remember, what with exams and grading and going-away parties and all. It’s a miracle everything actually got finished.
A quick recap of the final week of classes: my first classes of the week were “Jeopardy”-style review sessions for the final exams, which I held on Thursday and Friday. Despite my constant reminders to my classes, I turned up on Thursday afternoon to students asking “teacher, do we have an exam today?” and looking extremely surprised as I passed out the exam sheets.
On Thursday afternoon, I had to give four exams in a row and – as my exams were each one hour and my class periods are only 45 minutes long – I had to make some adjustments to the class times, for instance starting the first exam at 2 instead of at 2:20. Regardless of my numerous advance warnings, most of the students appeared at 2:20 and thus got only 45 minutes to do the exam. But despite this setback, few of the students appeared to care about the exam – or their grades – in any demonstrative fashion. Even right in front of the desk where I was standing, I saw students rapidly writing down random letters for the multiple choice answers, going as quickly as they could so they could leave as early as possible. When I graded the exams, I discovered that some students had even put down letters that weren’t a choice on the exam; for instance, where there was a question with answer choices labeled from a to d, some students wrote ‘e’ or even ‘g’.
And that was only the multiple choice. There were three other sections to the exam, all of which involved some kind of writing or reading. While grading, I discovered that almost half of my students skipped this section entirely because of the effort involved, consequently lowering the average grades of most classes into the 60’s or lower. The worst, as usual, was class 14; not only did a number of students sleep all the way through the exam, but several decided to skip the period entirely. As a result, the class average was a 50 – fifteen points lower than any of my other classes.
I spent the entire weekend grading almost four hundred of these exams, exams towards which my students had barely given five minutes of thought or effort (this is being generous). To be fair, a number of students had apparently studied, and consequently received excellent grades on the test. But the vast majority of students were left guessing the entire time, as they had not paid attention in class, didn’t do the homework, and failed to put an ounce of effort towards studying for the exam. As a result, there were very few students who received a 90 or above on the exam.
I spent a furious 48 hours grading all of my exams before a goodbye party for a friend who has to leave town. Natalie had come in from Hunan a couple of days before, and had spent some time exploring the city on her own because we were all so busy with work. But by Saturday afternoon, I was free; we all went ice-biking in People’s Park in the afternoon, sliding over the thick sheet of windswept ice in bikes equipped with sled-like (or ice-skate-like) runners that ran smoothly over the surface and allowed surprising turning capability. We slowly froze as we raced each other around the frozen lake, our fingers and toes turning to blocks of ice, before we finally left as it was getting dark and went out to a hotpot dinner to warm up. After some delicious hotpot, we went to the bar for the party, which was at once awesomely fun and extremely bittersweet.
The next day was relatively uneventful; I spent the day packing and taking care of errands, as we were to leave the following day. That evening, we went out for dinner and a drink for Emily’s birthday, which was also a bittersweet occasion due (again) to our friend’s impending departure. At least I got back home in time for a good night’s sleep, which was necessary given our travels which were scheduled to begin the next morning.
We had originally planned to travel to Chengdu via Darlag (to visit a girls’ school which is a potential post for next year) and Aba; however, the head of the girls’ school called me days before our departure to let me know that Darlag county had just closed to foreigners and would remain closed until March, maybe April. In addition, Sarah wanted to take her tiny pet turtles to Rebgong so Brooke’s roommate could care for them over vacation. So we adjusted our travel plans: we would go via Rebgong and Xiahe to Langmusi on the Gansu-Sichuan border, then to Zoige and Songpan before bussing directly to Chengdu. As there were a lot of steps to this journey – too many, in fact, for the number of days we had available – I called my monk friend in Xiahe to arrange a car to Langmusi. As his brother is a driver, I figured he’d be able to work something out and possibly even get us a deal. We finished working out these plans at the last minute, after wrangling for hours over possible routes across the frozen grasslands and mountains of Gansu and southern Qinghai.
After I said goodbye to Mr. Wang on Monday morning, I went with Kim for a last burrito and sesame-ball street food extravaganza at the Mo Jia Jie street market before going over to the Rebgong car place to get a car for me, Natalie and Sarah. When I arrived, there was a crowd of people waiting around the entrance to the parking lot – and no cars to be seen.
“What’s going on?” I asked a bystander.
“All of the cars are in Rebgong, because nobody wants to come to Xining right now,” he said, rolling his eyes.
As he said those words, a car drove up and was instantly mobbed by potential Rebgong-goers, who jammed their heads through the window to negotiate with the driver. Within a minute, the driver was off again, back to Rebgong.
This ritual was repeated over and over again as new cars pulled up, but I declined to participate; I was still waiting for Sarah and Natalie. After a while, they finally turned up, looking cold and completely turtle-less.
“Where are the turtles?” I asked.
“We gave them to Kim instead,” said Sarah.
Good idea; they might have frozen to death in Rebgong – or during the journey there.
A car soon pulled up, and the mob gathered to pounce, but I managed to get my head in the window first. The driver was charging 60 kuai per seat for the normally 50 kuai journey, but we agreed to pay the surcharge (he had a nice car, anyway) and hopped in. We were on our way.
We got to Rebgong in record time (under two hours!), mostly due to our driver’s penchant for passing vehicles on rollovers and around blind curves; preferably, it seemed, passing when a combination of the two were present. After arriving, we staggered to Brooke’s apartment, slightly shocked from the car ride, for a cup of milk tea. Our time in Rebgong was relatively uneventful; we went out to Dkar Tsampa for dinner and were (for the first time) disappointed, as the normally meat-free veggie momos were, strangely enough, filled with meat. We watched 功夫梦 and went to bed early.
The next morning, we hopped aboard the 8 am bus to Xiahe, and careened for a couple of hours through the snow-frosted grasslands before arriving around 10:30 to find the valley beautifully covered in a fresh blanket of snow. We were a little hungry, as we had (strangely) not stopped at the yogurt town for fresh grassland yak yogurt, so we had some tea and brunch at the Snowland Flower Garden Grassland tea house attached to the hostel. After brunch, I called up my friend to check about the car to Langmusi.
“I made arrangements two times,” he said, “because my brother is in Hezuo and can’t take you today. But he can take you tomorrow.”
“We need to go today,” I said.
“In that case, I have someone who can take you. I will tell him to meet you outside the monastery if you want. But if you want to go tomorrow, my brother can take you.”
“I’d love to go with your brother,” I said. “But we need to get to Langmusi today.”
“I will have him meet you at 12pm. But can you wait until tomorrow?”
This conversation went around in circles for about fifteen minutes until I told my friend that we absolutely needed to get to Langmusi today because my friend was late for a meeting and that we would meet the driver at the monastery entrance; in fact, I said, we were already waiting. That got things moving for real; in his hospitality, my friend didn’t want us to have to wait for even five minutes. Less than ten minutes later, we saw a man gesturing to us from a black car.
“Are you the car that Tashi [not real name] arranged for us to go to Langmusi? Are you Tashi’s friend?”
The driver gave a friendly grunt, which in Qinghai (or in this case, Gansu) means “Yes.”
“Are you Tashi’s relative? He said that his relative would be picking us up.”
“How much to Langmusi?”
That was the price that my friend and his brother had quoted to us, so I told everyone to pile their luggage in the trunk. I told the driver that Natalie and I would go into the monastery to drop off a gift for my friend at his house, and that he should wait for us with Sarah and Brooke as we’d be back in about ten minutes.
I dropped off some fruit for my friend and was going to take Natalie up to the stupa above the monastery for a view over the rooftops when I got a call from Brooke.
“The driver took us to the bus station,” she said.
“Why did he take you to the bus station?”
“I don’t know. He just stopped here and told us ‘we’re here’!”
My mind raced quickly. Was this the right driver? or just some guy who found foreigners on the street and wanted to make a buck?
“Take all the bags outside of the car right now,” I said. “I’ll call my friend and his brother, and make sure that this is the right guy. I’ll tell them to get the guy to meet us at the crossroads, and then we’ll come down to pick you up before we head off.”
I gave my friend a call, and Natalie and I rushed back to the crossroads, where we saw the same driver gesturing from the same black car. I called my friend.
“I think we got in the wrong car, but now the same wrong car is back again and gesturing at us to come with him.”
“Is it a black car?” he said.
“Then it’s him.”
“But there’s a lot of black cars. Can you make sure it’s him? Could you talk to him?”
My friend talked with the driver and confirmed that despite our suspicions, he was actually the driver that had been arranged to take us to Langmusi. We hopped in the car, picked up a confused Sarah and Brooke at the bus station, and drove out of town. But while the one-a-day Xiahe to Langmusi buses go to Langmusi via Hezuo, we drove out of town in the opposite direction, towards the grasslands.
“Are you sure this is right?” I asked the driver. He gave me a grunted assent, and we continued along the road to the Sangke grasslands – a major tourist destination in the summer. “I hope he’s not just taking us to the grasslands,” I told the others, “as I don’t think this is the way to Langmusi.”
We continued up the road, passing through the vast, beautiful grasslands speckled with snow and surrounded by low rolling mountains. The road went from a two-lane paved road to a one-lane surface of sealed concrete, before narrowing even further to a barely-one-lane-can-vehicles-even-pass road surfaced in surprisingly smooth gravel. The road wound through vast icy grasslands, occasionally dotted with small shacks guarded by ferocious-looking dogs and before going up a narrow valley. All of a sudden, piles of frozen rocks appeared along the shoulders of the road, narrowing it even further. We drove along a narrow corridor of icy gravel between the rockpiles barely wide enough for our car.
Suddenly, we stopped. Ahead, another car was trying to pass a truck, which had climbed halfway up one of the rockpiles in an attempt to make room for the other vehicle. A few men had climbed out of the car to kick away at the rockpile and make room for the car to pass. The car’s rearview mirrors had been folded to allow easier passage and the car looked like it was close to passing the truck, but when I got out I saw that a pile of slippery, frozen gravel was blocking it’s path. We got out and pushed the car, while five or six men looked on from the warmth and comfort of the truck’s cab.
After a few minutes, we managed to push the car over the mound of gravel and get it on it’s way. Now it was our turn: the driver maneuvered the car into the narrow gap between the truck and the gravel pile, slowly working his way forward until he was stopped by the same mound of gravel. He put the car in reverse and slowly, in preparation for another try, backed up the car – directly into the side of the truck.
The rearview mirror shattered with a loud “crunch!” and fell in pieces to the ground. The driver calmly looked around, put the car into first gear, and powered his way over the hump of frozen gravel with barely any help from those of us pushing in the back.
After he had passed the truck, the driver stopped the car to assess the damage. The rearview mirror had pretty much disappeared, and there was a small dent in the front of the car, but the vehicle was otherwise miraculously undamaged. The driver calmly got back into the car, and off we went.
We continued through a snowy valley surrounded by peaks before climbing over a high pass and going down into a valley we only hoped would take us towards Langmusi. Settlements started to appear again, the small homes of herders at first, then villages and finally a town before we suddenly arrived at a junction with the main Lanzhou-Chengdu road. We turned right, and a sign soon advertised the fact that we were 120 kilometers from Langmusi: finally, I thought, we knew we were going to the right place.
But soon our driver started exhibiting some strange behavior. Despite the nearly-perfect road, he rarely accelerated over 60 kilometers per hour, preferring instead to cruise slowly through the grasslands. He slowed especially when he was talking on the phone. We went so slowly we were even passed by the massive cargo trucks that move so slowly that they are probably passed by bicyclists more often than they pass other vehicles. We drove along before the town of Luqu appeared – and, instead of following the sign to Langmusi, we took the turn-off into town.
We cruised the main street for a while before stopping in the middle of town for no apparent reason. After I went to the bathroom, we cruised back out of town the same way, traveling at barely 20 kph and stopping at nearly every house along the way in search of a mechanic. We stopped maybe ten times, maybe more, in search of someone to fix the rearview mirror – but apparently the driver didn’t find anyone suitable, so after negotiating a maze of cargo trucks that had blocked the main highway, we were on our way (albeit slowly) again.
We cruised slowly through the vast barren landscape, stopping occasionally at nomad resettlement towns to check out more repair shops, before we arrived at a crossroads in the middle of a vast, barren plain. The driver parked in the middle of the intersection, turned off the car, and got out.
What were we doing? why were we here? We asked the driver, but he just put his hands together as if he was praying and made a shallow bow. I went out to get a drink, through frosty winds laden with ice chunks which stung my cheeks and quickly froze me to the bone. I went back into the warmth of the car.
Our driver occasionally looked down the road which intersected the one along which we had been traveling, a road which (a sign said) went towards the town of Maqu. Were we waiting for someone from Maqu to come meet us? Was the rearview mirror going to be fixed? Or were we waiting in this cold intersection just for fun?
Suddenly, a car pulled up next to ours and several people got out. As they approached the car, I began to make them out; to my surprise, it was my friend from Xiahe and his driver brother! We all got out of the car to say hello.
Now it all came out: the car was actually my friend’s brother’s car, which our driver was borrowing for this trip. My friend’s brother wanted to check out the damage to the car, so we had been waiting for them to come from Maqu to meet us. After they checked out the car and I talked a bit with my friend, we said goodbye and went slowly on our way.
We went over some high passes, through vast grassy areas speckled with snow, before dropping into a valley below some imposing craggy mountains. We passed a sign that proclaimed for all to see (in Chinese, Tibetan and English) that Langmusi was four kilometers to the right. Then we passed the turn-off.
“Langmusi is over there!” said Natalie. “We need to go that way!”
The driver smiled and nodded, and we continued along our way. After a couple hundred meters, we slowed the car and stopped in front of four women who were prostrating themselves across the highway. The driver got out and went towards the prostrators.
The prostrators robotically stood up, bowed, prostrated across the road in slow, rhythmic movements. All of a sudden, a truck appeared, heavily loaded with cargo, coming around the curve and bearing down on the prostrated figures, who continued their movement across the road.
At the last second, the prostrators jumped up and ran back to the edge of the road just before the truck roared past. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief that we were not scraping four pancaked bodies off of the road. The driver went over to talk to them before coming back into the car, turning around and going back to the Langmusi crossroads where we turned up the narrow road to the town.
Finally we reached town, and we quickly paid our driver and jumped out of the car. We walked along the snowy main street, past some shuttered hotels and traveler’s cafes, and did some hotel comparison shopping before finding a small guesthouse on the second floor of a building along the main street. We got a four-bed room, complete with electric blankets, for 80 kuai per night. We dropped our stuff and went for a short exploration up into the beautiful village, wooden-shingled mud-whitewalled houses lining narrow alleyways with tiny streams trickling down the valley floor, occasionally spanned by ricketypicturesque wooden-planked bridges leading to courtyard houses and narrow paths winding between. We climbed a prayer-flagged hilltop for a view over the village before going to a warm travelers cafe for 拉面 and heading to a teahouse up a rickety staircase near the hotel.
The teahouse was warm and comfortable – everything we were looking for – and, despite its almost unusable (for women) bathroom, was a very comfortable place to hang out. Comfortable, that is, until a guy gestured to me to come into the back room.
I came with him through a door and entered a small room. The room was lined with benches, had a TV at the front, and had a sort of backroom-at-the-club- like atmosphere. The man showed me a DVD, on which was a picture of a naked woman in the grasslands, before quickly popping it into the DVD player.
All of a sudden, I was watching the naked woman in the grasslands on the big screen; the guy was giving me a creepy look and rubbing the front of his pants. I quickly excused myself and went back outside.
“That guy just took me into the back room to show me porn,” I said to the others. “Let’s play some more cards like nothing happened.” We played cards and finished our beers before quickly leaving to go back to the freezing cold hotel to go to bed.
And the hotel was freezing. There was no heat source anywhere in the place, not even a coal stove. We had electric blankets, but the air one inch away from the blankets was rather cold. So cold, in fact, that when we woke up the next morning my water bottle had frozen solid and my contact solution was slush. Natalie made the mistake of leaving her contacts on the TV away from her bed, with the result that the contacts and contact solution had frozen into a solid block of ice and she needed to wear her glasses for most of the day.
We went out to the traveler’s cafe for a delicious breakfast before heading out in the warming air to explore. We went through the beautiful village of wooden and mud homes, explored the monastery, and finally went up to a prayer-flag-bedecked gorge above town. At the bottom of the gorge was a warm river, which was bridged by some narrow planks; lining the gorge were several caves filled with wind horses and mani stones. It was a spectacularly beautiful place, a slot-canyon filled whose religious significance – though unknown to me – was evident; it imparted color and life, even a palpable spirituality, to the landscape itself.
We crossed the river and followed a path which led up the narrow gorge. We passed some caves, but the star attraction now was the landscape itself: soaring cliffs of rock towered over the river, which suddenly disappeared underground; pinnacles stretched towards the sky and steep snowy slopes reached to distant peaks. We hiked for a while up the valley through beautifully warming sunshine before climbing up a grassy slope to a high pass. The views from the pass were stunning: cliffs and pinnacles and peaks jutting up all around, caves dotting the limestone precipices which plunged into deep valleys which emanated the kind of silence so profound that you can hear it; a silence so deep that it almost makes its own noise. We sat up on the pass for a while, admiring the views and letting the wind whip through our hair, before going back down the slippery grassy snowy slopes into the valley and down again through the gorge back into town.
We went for an early dinner at a Muslim restaurant before going to another teahouse – this one apparently free of porn – where we played cards for a while before bundling up for bed. The next morning was freezing cold, colder than it had been yet on our trip – and of course, it was the morning we had to wake up early to catch the bus to Zoige (pronounced Zor-gey, Chinese name 若尔盖 – a name which is used by nobody at all). The bus was scheduled (I use this term loosely) to leave at 7am from the crossroads at the center of town, so I went out at 6:40 to make sure it wouldn’t leave without us. I saw a bus idling on the street, so I ran towards it to make sure it wouldn’t leave.
But it wasn’t our bus; instead, it was the 7:20 to Hezuo. The bus drivers had made a fire out of cardboard boxes in the street, which we huddled around to stay warm. 7:00 passed, as did 7:20; the others came out to meet me, the bus left, and the fire went out (despite Natalie’s valiant efforts to collect more boxes). We waited in the freezing dark for what seemed like hours until the bus finally appeared. We hopped aboard and were on our way.
The bus ride was unbelievably cold. The bus had heat, which the driver used for all of five minutes before turning it off. A cold wind ran through the bus, which (I discovered) came from the back windows which did not quite fit the windowpanes, leaving a one-centimeter gap between the windows and the bus body through which cold air streamed. We shivered all the way to Zoige, which was only an hour and a half away through vast snowy grasslands, though the ride felt much longer due to the ambient temperature of the bus which was approximately equivalent to the nether regions of Pluto.
We finally arrived in Zoige, which is a medium-sized town strangely plopped down in the middle of some vast snowy grasslands, and bought our tickets for Songpan. After spending about a half hour wandering around and avoiding stray dogs, we jumped on the Songpan bus and headed off again into the grasslands.
The Songpan bus was much warmer, and we cruised comfortably through the vast snowy plains which stretched into the distance. The grasslands seemed to go on forever until suddenly, without warning, the plains abruptly ended and we dropped steeply into a lightly forested valley. We traveled through deep valleys lined with steep cliffs and spruce-clad hillsides until we arrived in Songpan after less than two and a half hours (despite the 2009 edition of Lonely Planet saying it would take six). We got out of the bus into warm sunshine.
We dropped our bags at a Youth Hotel (?) across from the bus station and went out for some fake 到手面 (for which we were overcharged; the fuwuyuan tacked on a mysterious 10 kuai surcharge halfway through the process of paying for the meal). After lunch, we spent some time exploring this very strange town. Songpan seems to be a huge tourist destination, as the entire town was done up in the ‘fake-old’ style; while the architecture was traditional-esque, it looked like the entire town had been built a few weeks ago except for some older houses remaining in the back alleys. Nevertheless, the walled town, set in a narrow valley, is a lively place, and we wandered around the markets before going to a riverside park to soak up the sun. We hung out for a while before being accosted and mobbed by a group of young kids, who questioned us so incessantly we finally got up and left. We wandered around some more and checked out some teahouses, many of which were evidently brothels, before stopping into one for some cards and some beer. We went over to another teahouse which promised us real milk tea, only to give us what we think was instant milk tea powder packets in water – despite the laoban’s insistence (at Natalie’s questioning) that he gave us “our own special tea, mixed with 红茶 and milk and boiled water.” We hung out some more before going back to the hotel to get some sleep before another early morning the following day.
But sleep was not so easy; around midnight, there was a huge commotion in the hall and the TV in the room next door started blasting soap operas at top volume. A women started shrieking in ecstasy and loud thumps emanated from the direction of the bed. This continued for hours, and the TV was not off until we woke up at 6:30 the next morning to catch the bus for Chengdu.
The bus ride to Chengdu was long but (for the most part) incredibly beautiful. The road runs along the deep gorge of the Min river through some spectacularly steep and craggy mountains. We stopped at a dusty restaurant near Maoxian county so the driver could wolf down some disgusting-looking food before continuing through the gorge into the county of 文川 – the epicenter of the destructive 2008 earthquake.
The county town had recently been rebuilt, but as we continued evidence of the earthquake’s destruction became more and more visible. Huge rock landslides littered the valley with debris; landslide dams blocked the river, leaving villages deep underwater; the road ran up and around and under huge blocks of rock which perched precariously above the road, blocked only flimsy-looking metal fences. Huge brown signs pointed out destroyed bridges, flooded villages, and the old highway (which was almost completely buried by rubble) as if they were historic sites. The destruction was a reminder for me of Yushu, which (according to many reports) is still nothing more than a pile of rubble dotted by the tents in which residents are currently living and braving the cold winter winds.
We passed out of the mountains via some very long tunnels and onto the Sichuan plain. We exited the highway near the town of 都江堰, famous for a 4000-year-old irrigation project that made the Sichuan basin arable, and entered the tollbooth to pay the highway toll. The gate went up, and we drifted slowly out of the booth. We heard the driver shifting gears angrily in the front of the bus, but we continued to drift slowly, unable to accelerate. We pulled over to the side of the road and the driver turned out the bus. We all got out while they poked around at the bus’ insides.
Soon, the driver came out and started talking on his cell phone. We hung out for a while in the pleasantly warm air, enjoying the sensation of being warm after a few freezing days. After maybe 45 minutes, a young guy pulled up on a bike, quickly followed by a few other men. They poked around the engine for 15 minutes or so, the bystanders providing an incessant commentary, until they instructed the driver to turn the bus on again and, after piling back onto the bus, we were off again.
Despite the presence of an expressway all the way into Chengdu, we took the surface road for the final 48 kilometers into the city – which took well over an hour due to traffic. We crawled through fields of cabbages which eventually turned into towns strangely made up entirely of factories producing doors and gates, and the finally office blocks and apartment buildings of Chengdu rose up around us. We finally crawled into the Chadianzi bus station and got off the bus; after all the delays, it was an eight-hour trip from Songpan: we were two hours later than expected. We went out of the station to try to get a taxi.
Which wasn’t possible. Even though we found a few empty taxis, they were unwilling to take us anywhere near our destination. Apparently the taxis in Chengdu work on some kind of zone system which only allows them to roam within a certain area. Instead, we called Devin (who had already arrived at the hostel) and learned that we could take bus 86 to the hostel’s vicinity. After waiting for a while, we finally boarded the bus and were off.
The last sentence seems to imply that the bus moved at some respectable speed, but in fact the opposite was the case due to the horrendous traffic we encountered pretty much all the way from the bus station to the hostel’s neighborhood. We finally got off the bus and, after walking for twenty minutes or so, at last arrived at Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel (老沈青年旅舍) – an extremely amazingly awesome hostel which has a bar, cafe, and beautifully done-up rooms which have all of the tiny details just right (towel racks! curtains surrounding the bunk beds for privacy! separate bathroom/shower! lockers that open from two sides! adjustable heat!). It was about 4pm – more than nine hours after we had left Songpan.
We took showers and had a couple of beers before going out for Indian food (mediocre and expensive, but delicious and exotic for us nonetheless). We came back to the hostel and watched a movie before passing out.
All in all, our journey was a great adventure full of unexpected moments – which is pretty much what seems to happen whenever you go somewhere in China. I’m currently relaxing in the hostel and looking forward to exploring the city and going running (which hasn’t really been possible recently) in the riverside park over the next few days. But that was a long post, so I’m going to stop now and leave stuff for later. I’ll be around Chengdu until the 19th, when we leave for Sanya in the evening. The things I have to do in Chengdu are:
1. meet with an organization to work out a post for next year
2. go skiing at Xiling Xueshan
3. relax: go running, find a piano to play, and eat hotpot.
That’s about it for now. More adventures to come.