For one, a vacation. Though I knew that last weekend would be a long one, the occasion being 清明节 (the Day of Clear Brightness/Bright Clearness, usually translated in English as Tomb-Sweeping Day), I was told that I’d have to teach that Saturday to make up classes. Which was fine, given I’d have a three-day weekend afterwards. But on Wednesday, I learned that my classes would have their monthly exams on Friday and Saturday. Which instantly transformed my thank-God three-day weekend into an AWESOME five-day holiday fiesta.
So I went to Rebgong with Sarah and Devin, as well as friends Kelly and Sandra who are visiting from Hangzhou. We wandered around town, went up to a hillside to relax and do work, and enjoyed the amazingly springlike weather. We also visited the first Western restaurant to open in Rebgong, whose future survival (due to its menu’s total spurning of local tastes [stringy/fatty chunks of yak, tsampa, etc]) I seriously doubt but ardently hope for.
The rest of the weekend consisted of hotpot dinners and of exploratory runs in Xining. I did a run behind 西山 (West Mountain) which took me past some frightening unchained dogs and along a dirt road which ran atop a narrow mountain ridge, beautiful views of Xining and the mountains beyond stretching outwards from my feet. I ran up 北山 (North Mountain) as well on a loop road which slowly switchbacked its way up the mountain’s surprisingly steep slopes. Beishan, which is over 2800 meters high, is quite a climb (almost 600 meters elevation gain) from Xining proper along grassy, lightly forested slopes, many dotted by recently planted conifers, part of Qinghai’s program to slow erosion and desertification. The mountain is strangely topped by a city park liberally festooned in faux-neoclassical follies, strangely marooned shiplike amidst the surrounding barley fields, isolated atop precipitous slopes, structures of crumbling pink and yellow plaster, seemingly decrepitly moldy and mildewing despite the extreme dryness of the climate, due to their emptiness and isolation, seemingly totally abandoned, relics from another age, though likely built within the past fifteen years. The views from what I’ve started thinking of as the Roman Ruins, though, are spectacular; the mountainside drops away from your feet, plunging into Xining city, where, from the banks of the dullyellow Huang Shui river, a dense thicket of mid-rise apartment and office towers rises as if imitating the birch forests that still cover parts of this valley. Construction sites, marked by birdlike cranes, dot the urban patchwork, which comes to an abrupt end less than a mile from where it started, where the mountains rise up again, first in the low hills of Nanshan and Xishan, and then in rolling undulations higherhigherhigher until the peaks of the Laji Shan range, reaching to over 4500 meters and liberally flecked in snow as if by a drunken Jackson Pollock, scrapes the sky with a majesty much to the detriment of the so-called ‘skyscrapers’ in the city below. The mountains form the boundary of the Xining region, as well as of the Huang Shui watershed; beyond lies the valley of the Yellow River, then the town of Guide, enclosed within its crumblingly ancient walls, then the land rises again and keeps on rising to the high pastures of Hainan and Golog prefectures, where the mountains are snowcovered the year round and herds of yaks and sheep, tended by longrobed wildhaired nomads, roam the vast, frigid, seemingly uninhabitable grasslands.
Qinghai is a big place, full of surprises. Which (among other reasons) is why I like living here so much.
I also got the chance to go running in Rebgong this weekend, something I’d been slightly nervous about. Xining isn’t exactly a worldly place, but it is a cosmopolitan haven of liberality compared to traditional, deeply Tibetan Rebgong. So when I put on my tight-fitting running clothes and strode out into the streets, looping around stray dogs as if they all had rabies (a distinct possibility), I expected to be harassed constantly.
Which, surprisingly, I was not. Well, I was, but in a positive way. I was expecting the constant stares and the occasional laughs, but not the cries of 厉害! (formidable, awesome) from the old men sitting outside corner stores, or the thumbs-ups from the robed, grizzled-faced women, their hair meticulously worked into 108 braids, or the laughs of surprise and wonder, rather than of taunting and jeering, from the children I met along the way. I ran randomly to the south along the main road out of town, eventually picking up a narrow winding road that crossed the river and led upwards to a small village where newborn calves grazed contentedly by a shining golden stupa. I ran up a river canyon along a narrow path, surprising a few sheep along the way, before turning back into town and more cries of encouragement from spectators – which, when I started my run, had been the last thing I was expecting. When running in Xining, I am often treated like some alien being from a never-before-heard-of planet, or a latter-day Mongol conqueror – in short, as an unknown threat. The majority of the reactions I get are defensive rather than friendly. But, surprisingly, in rural Rebgong I felt strangely welcomed while running; I was still a stranger, of course, but to some extent an accepted stranger, a distinction which makes all the difference.
The last unexpected event I will relate in this posting is the reason I had time today to write. Yesterday afternoon, I started feeling surprisingly uncomfortable as I taught class. I had to leave in the middle of my classes; I went home and immediately started to throw up. Which I did for the rest of the night. My first case of real food poisoning here in Xining is at hand.
Today, I felt so weak, exhausted and nauseous-headachy that I barely left the house, despite being scheduled for five classes (which I hope Mr. Wang got someone to cover). At least by this point I can keep down water, if nothing else. And, of course, I can’t go to tonight’s hotpot extravaganza. Not fun.
But these things pass, and before I know it all will be back to normal. Which, here in Xining, thankfully includes things blissfully unexpected.