Early Winter: October Break in Yushu

Not a bad place to pee: Sarah returning from a bathroom break among epic surroundings

The evening following my birthday celebration with friends in Xining, Devin, Sarah, Seigi and I jumped on the 6:30 sleeper bus to Yushu for an October holiday backpacking trip. Armed with what we thought was appropriate cold-weather gear, hummus, and three tubs of peanut butter, we were prepared to weather any storm, from tempests meteorological and physical to those difficulties peculiar to sleeper bus travel (necessary superpowers: the ability to sleep in positions which could only be described as cramped fetal, the capacity to hold your bladder indefinitely, the power to temporarily switch off, lightbulb-like, your sense of smell).

And after what turned out to be a surprisingly comfortable and pleasant bus ride, we arrived in Yushu the following morning at the civilized hour of 9:30 am. And it all would have been very civilized indeed if we had actually arrived in Yushu itself. Instead, we were dropped inside a random courtyard eight kilometers east of town and informed that the bus would be traveling no further.

Thankfully, the public buses were running and we caught a ride into the Gyanak Mani Wall area to have a bite to eat and ogle at the amazing mass of three billion carved stones. But upon arrival, we discovered that the pile was surrounded by tall blue sheetmetal construction fencing; cranes hovered vulturelike over the rockpile, picking up piles of stones and dropping them back into the pile. Walking around the perimeter of the site, I decided that reconstructing a (slightly) earthquake-damaged stonepile was not beyond the spirit of the site. There was something both hilarious and meditative about the activity  of taking apart a pile of rocks to put it together again – an activity at once Sisyphean, at once plainly Tibetan Buddhist, little different from the chanting of mantras or the circumambulating of monasteries and mountains.

After buying food and filling our camping stove’s gas canister at a gas station (the attendants, of course, snickering at our foolishness; why buy only one liter of gas?), we negotiated a ride to the 巴塘热水沟 Batang Hot Water Ditch trailhead. Known more poetically as a hot springs, this Ditch is about forty kilometers south of Yushu in the midst of a spectacularly beautiful mountain range. Avid readers of my blog (if such a species exists, aside from my protective Jewish mother and mildly curious father) might remember this place from my visit to Yushu in May, when I ended my week-long motorcycle-assisted backpacking trip with a soak in these curative waters. Now I had returned, in the colder but still beautiful month of October, to show some friends what I had dubbed Hot Water Ditch Paradise Valley.

As we left town, it began to snow lightly. By the time we reached the open Batang grasslands, a vast flat expanse from which high mountains rear up on all sides, it was snowing harder. We eventually arrived at the trailhead and, though it was snowing steadily now, but with the prospects of hot springs to encourage us, we began to hike up the trail.

On the trail

I had remembered from my last visit that the trail, after ascending a low hill, contoured along the side of a spectacularly beautiful valley about five hundred feet above a rushing river. And now, while the walk was still beautiful, we could barely see the mountains at all due to the rapidly falling snow. After a few hours on the trail, we arrived at the springs area and set up camp in a beautiful riverside meadow. And then immediately went for a soak. Which was wonderful beyond words; the falling snow hissing as it met the bubbling springwater, the clouds drifting through the valley, spectral mountains floating ethereally amidst them, alternatively in and out of view.

While in the springs, we completed some minor engineering projects that raised the water level and increased the temperature of a pool (so much so that the following afternoon, the temperature had reached a nearly unbearable heat). After soaking, we were melted; we cooked a quick dinner before returning to our sleeping bags, where, to the soft patter of snow falling on our tent, we could melt completely into hallucinatory, altitude-induced dreams.

The following morning, I woke up to complete silence and a soft, warm light permeating evenly through each wall of the tent. “The snow has stopped!” I thought, getting on my winter layers. As I did so, my arm, splayed outwards while entering into my down jacket, brushed the side of the tent.

“ka-WHOOSH” slabs of snow fall catastrophically down the tent wall with the deep downward force of lightning; then the instability metastasizes, the slabs of snow laying on the sharply tilted ends of the tent are the first to go, then those on the tent’s broadsides, collapsing in a grand descent, despite its minuteness, monumental in its grace, as are all avalanches, finally coming to rest in exploded chaotic form in a solid mound of snow ringing our tent. Though not viewed from the tent’s exterior, the sounds and changes of light from the interior were dramatic enough for me to obtain a clear image of what was happening. We were under a good bit of snow.

I geared up, put on my now completely inadequate running shoes, and stepped out of my tent into a world of white. The green meadows and verdant mountainsides of the day before had been transformed into a monochrome canvas of midwinter. The river crackled with that decreased energy but somehow increased solidity of rivers that are about to freeze, a kind of simultaneous limpidity and sharpness that accompanies the water’s phase change and foretells the river’s approaching hibernation.

After the tent was cleared of snow...

We all came prepared with plenty of warm clothing, but little expecting significant snowfall in arid Qinghai we had all brought variations of running shoes. Mine, despite the dryness of the snow, were quickly permeated with the cold and damp, not to mention with the snow itself, which came through the cracks in the meshing to melt, and then refreeze, in my socks. We couldn’t go anywhere without our feet getting wet and freezing, and in the blustery isolated cold that put us all at risk for hypothermia and even frostbite. We had to stay put; we were snowed in.

Using my sandals, which I had brought for the predicted clement weather (be wary of weather.com.cn predictions), I dug paths through the six to eight inches of snow, leading between our two tents, to the cooking area, to the river, and to places appropriately distant to relieve ourselves. Eventually, the others woke up, and after a warming and calorie-filled breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter we set about digging a path to the hot springs area.

Now our camp was across the river from the springs, and although the crossing was an easy one, across riverstones smoothed by eons of weathering, the pillows of snow and hidden bits of ice coating the rocks now made things a bit more difficult. We slowly carved our path through whitetopped boulders and snowladen shrubs down to the crossing, trying to avoid the patchwork of waterfilled potholes as we went. Finally reaching the crossing, we were met by a local man (who was camping with some nomads in a nearby meadow) who quickly jumped across the stones to the other side. Following him, we continued our Chaco-assisted path carving until we reached the geothermal area surrounding the springs, where the ground was warm enough that no snow had been able to accumulate. We blissfully melted into the springs as the snow continued to fall around us. If we were to be snowed in, I thought, this is not the worst of all possible places for such an entrapment.

crossing the river, Gollum-like, to the springs

Melting...

We spent the day soaking in the springs, playing cards in the tent, and ogling at the amount of snow we had received. Despite it being October 2nd, nordic skis would have unquestionably been the best way to get around the valley. That evening, we burrowed molelike deep within our sleeping bags and, surrounded by intense cold, slept fitfully until morning.

I awoke to a thin layer of high scudding clouds which, within an hour, yielded to an untarnished opalescent blue. Good weather was finally upon us, and as soon as we defrosted in the encompassing warmth of the sun we decided to take a little excursion upvalley, where I remembered spectacular needlesharp peaks poking skyward in all directions. With bluebird weather and the peaks covered in snow from top to bottom, the excursion, through snowcovered meadows once dotted with nomad tents but now abandoned to the rough play of the weather, was spectacular.

clear morning!

aww...

group pics...

and more...

We eventually realized that we needed to get going if we were going to ever return to our normal lives. After reluctantly returning to our campsite, we shouldered our packs and made our way down the trail. Or what used to be the trail; the melting snow had turned the once straightforward path into an eight-kilometer-long morass of slick, adhesive mud interspersed with quickmelting snow. Our shoes and pants, whatever their original colors, quickly adopted earthy shades from the constant splattering.

We walked out behind the nomad group who had camped nearby, who were carrying massive rolls of bedding on their sharply arched spines. About halfway down the trail, we came across a florid pink hat sitting by the trailside, apparently (due to its unblemished condition) recently deposited. We decided to try and take it to the nomads, who we surmised had probably lost it. But when we caught up, they waved to us not to give it to them – either it wasn’t theirs, or they didn’t want it.

Several minutes later, while walking behind the nomads, we saw one elderly lady take off her hat and fling it to the trailside. We look at each other in confusion, but continue on.

nomads crossing a stream. Later, it turned out they had an SUV.

Later, after we had returned to Xining, Gerald explained to us that discarding hats was a practice to discard one’s bad luck. If one has experienced an unlucky period, it is believed that this bad luck will be concentrated at a person’s head, where – after a visit to a monastery, power-place, or other sacred site – it can eventually be thrown away if one discards one’s hat. No wonder these hats were so vehemently cast off. Sarah took the florid hat we first found by the trailside; hopefully she won’t experience its accumulated bad luck.

After arriving at the trailhead, we decided to start walking down the seventeen kilometer hot springs road towards civilization. If we found a ride, we would take it. But during our three hours walking down the road, we only saw two cars going our direction, both unwilling or unable to take us (one car was filled to the brim with the nomads that we’d hiked with…it turned out they had a brand-new silvery white SUV). Eventually, exhausted, we camped at kilometer marker five by a rushing river on the edge of the grasslands. As darkness fell, two dogs watched our campsite from a nearby low bluff; though worried, I gave in to my tiredness and quickly fell asleep.

I needn’t have worried; the dogs didn’t bother us and we eventually work to a crystalline morning. After wandering the five miles down through the grasslands, past the incongruously located Yushu airport (where the two daily flights land amidst grazing yaks) and to the main Batang road, we immediately found a ride in a flatbed truck. While Sarah and Devin sat inside, Seigi and I enjoyed a beautiful but frigid ride on the bed of the truck back to Yushu.

On the truck flatbed

Prior to arriving, I thought that procuring tickets for our return trip to Xining would be easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s always when you least expect it that the real adventure begins.

As we deemed it more efficient for one person to make the long trip to the remotely located new bus station for tickets, I hailed a taxi and told the driver my destination.

“I won’t take you there,” he said.

“Why?”

“There’s a traffic jam.”

“Is there anywhere I can buy tickets in town?”

“I don’t know.”

With that, he drove off, showering me in a cloud of the town’s ubiquitous construction-induced dust.

I hailed another taxi, and the driver told me the same thing. After several more tries, I was ready to give up, until I met taxi driver number five.

“There’s a ticket office on the edge of town,” he said. “I’ll take you there for four kuai.”

Deal. Off we went into a random area of town and, as he said, there was a ticket office, located in a tent on a deserted dead-end road. I walked in and asked for four tickets for that afternoon.

Meiyou,” he said. “We sold out yesterday.”

“Are there any extra buses?” I asked

“I don’t know, you have to go to the bus station to see.”

“Can you call them to check?”

“No.”

So now I was stuck having to go to the bus station. I ran up the street for about a kilometer until I reached a bridge; crossing, I found the number two city bus, which I knew led to the station, idling and ready to go. I jumped aboard.

Leaving, we quickly found ourselves in the traffic jam of which the city’s taxi drivers were so afraid. Two or three kilometers long and created by a mixture of construction vehicles backing into the roadway and an absurd road surface made up primarily of potholes and bottomless mud, it took about 45 minutes to pass through. I asked a woman about it and she heaved a deep sigh. “It’s been like this ever since this summer,” she said. “The traffic starts every morning around nine and doesn’t let up until the evening. Us locals can’t even get anywhere anymore.”

But eventually, we were through the traffic jam and cruising freely through the countryside. We came to the bus station at which we had arrived several days before and, jumping off the bus, I approached the ticket station to find a woman waving her hand in my face.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Where are you going?”

“Xining.”

“This isn’t the Xining bus station. If you want buses to Xining, you have to go four kilometers farther down the road,” she said, pointing away from town.

I run back down to the road and flag down a van, which takes me down the valley through beautiful countryside without any sign of a bus station. Just when I think we’re about to reach the Yangtze river crossing, or maybe go all the way back to Xining, we arrive outside a large walled courtyard amid barley fields whose sign advertises it as the Yushu bus station. I enter the courtyard to find nearly forty sleeper buses lined up and ready to go. At last, I think.

I go into the office and ask to buy tickets, but the attendant says they’ve sold out. I ask about extra buses, and the attendant says there are none. Just as I am about to give up in despair, a man leans over my shoulder. “Are you going to Xining?” he screams directly into my ear.

As I massage my assaulted earlobe and contemplate how many years of hearing I’ve lost, the ticket office man gestures over my shoulder. “We don’t have any buses,” he says, “but he” – pointing to the man who just yelled at me – “does.”

I follow the ear-screamer out into the courtyard to find that he is the head ticketer for a score of somehow unofficial buses that nevertheless resemble exactly the official ones. I had taken such a bus in May, and everything had worked out fine; I even recognized some of the bus drivers and ticket takers from my earlier visit. So I bought four tickets for the 3:30 bus and called the others to proclaim my victory. After an hour or so, they arrived and we whiled away the rest of the afternoon until the departure time playing hearts under the scrutiny of curious local onlookers.

All together in the back of the sleeper bus

The return bus was not as calm as the outward journey, with our position on the top level of bunks at the back of the bus resulting in maximum bumpiness – which was compacted by steadily falling snow at the higher altitudes. But we eventually arrived in Xining, where at 6:00 in the morning the driver started to blast Chinese techno – starting in the middle of a song – from speakers immediately over our heads at an earsplitting volume. Welcome home.

Now I am back in Rebgong, after a couple of days getting things done in Xining and seeing friends. It’s good to be back, and I’ll be starting to teach the first-years this week – which more than triples my teaching schedule. I’m excited to be back at it, though, rested after a great (if unexpectedly intense) October holiday.

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