Thursday, May 06, 2004

I know that I have promised to update the blog, and that I have not done so upon returning from Qinghai province.. I could offer dozens of excuses, like the connection is slow, my time online is very limited, and such.. but the truth is that I have been recovering from several days at altitude running around all of the time. Xining where we were staying was over 8000 feet, and we just went up from there.

I have posted many new photos, with still more to come of these areas in a week or so.

We arrived in Xining on the first of May. About Xining, it is located approximately in the center of China. However it is considered part of western China. Think Wichita Kansas as a geographical comparison, as China is almost exactly the size of the US. Xining sits on the Tibetian Plateau, which marks perhaps the first difference between Wichita and Xining: the altitude. Xining is at about 8200 feet above sea level. We were greeted by wind that was again like that of Wichita, and along the road from the airport (in fact everywhere we looked) the people were growing wheat (like Wichita) and barley. The main difference here is that the wheat and barley are grown on the sides of steep mountains, which last I checked Wichita did not have.

That afternoon we visited the largest park where an annual tulip festival was being held. Xining claims to be the origin of tulips. Some of the varieties were certainly incredible. Of special note was the purple tulip, which was entirely new to me. While we were walking through the park, a photographer from the paper took our photos and told Andy (Mu) our guide that we would be in the paper the next day. From the park we went through a market area that specialized in animals for pets. As with everywhere else I have been here, we attracted at least as much attention as did the animals for sale. Something about a couple of tall white guys that seemed out of place to them. :)

A stroll through another market, the largest general market street (alleys) in town. Just about anything you want can be found in these markets in China, except for something that will fit me. :) After a dinner of local cuisine we called it a night.

The next morning, that of the 2nd of May, we awoke to snow and cold temps. Strange thing to see on the second of May, especially for a guy from Texas. Fortunately the wind had calmed down, so though it was cold, it was still bearable. This day after a traditional Chinese breakfast (not much different from the other meals) we headed out to Kumbum monastery, an ancient Tibetian Buddhist monastery. The monastery was built to remember and mark the birthplace of the first teacher of the first dali lama. Kumbum sits about a thousand feet above Xining (so over 9000 feet for those who are keeping track). The monastery dates back to the early 1300's which lead me to a thought that I could not shake throughout the tour: I was walking in buildings older than the US itself by a long shot.

The monastery is still in use, and serves as a university as well for at least medicine and astronomy. There is not much I can say to do justice to the place, and though the pictures do not provide a full view either, I defer to them. One thing I will add is that walking through the monastery, climbing the stairs and such, I felt every inch of the altitude.

Even here in what most would consider the back country of China we were occassionally greeted with "hello" or "how are you?" from visitors, and even one monk. In the original temple building, in front of the stupa that first marked the spot, as I walked out of the building I found several people running their hands on my jacket. Perhaps they mistook me for Buddha.. all of us fat guys must look alike to them :)

After leaving the monastery we headed out to the Tu village of Huzhu. The Tu are an ethnic minority here and live in what is called an "autonomous region." I suspect that this is similar to the Indian reservations in the US. We had a late lunch at the village, where we were toasted by the locals (which means that they serve you three cups of alcohol which you must drink three times for each toast) until we could not drink any more. The alcohol was potent if not tasty. The meal was of special note: chicken and peppers, large thick noodles, barley porridge, a barbeque dish that was most likely yak, and a wild vegetable collected in the mountains. This was the second such wild vegetable we had had by the point, the first from the previous night was near as I can tell lichens. This one I could not identify, which has been the norm so far with much of the food I have had on this trip.

That said, the food was delicious.

May 3rd:

We headed out to Qinghai lake, a large salt water lake which is considered holy by the Tibetian people. In one of the photos you can see the altitude (in meters). After a short stop to admire the lake, and to get lunch (definitely had yak this time as well as yak butter, along with mutton and an assortment of vegetables, fish soup, and more food than 12 people should eat. Nothing was left...)

From there we continued around the lake (or inland sea if you prefer) to Bird Island. This is a protected place where many birds come to lay eggs. Lots of birds..

From there we continued around the lake to the gold and silver grasslands, though these grasslands were to be white for us because of the snow. They get their name from the flowers that bloom there later in the year. This return trip to Xining was so far the most senic yet. First were ranges that are reminiscient of Wyoming or Montana, then mountains that would leave the Rockies in their shadow. The photos do not do justice to the mountains, and I fear that nothing could.

Late arrival in Xining after a long day of several hundred kilometers. This seems a good time to comment on the roads.. they are less than pleasant to use, often containing missing sections, pot holes, uneven surfaces, and just about every problem or defect you can imagine. So what might take us just a few hours in the states will take far longer here. Sitting now in the comfort of the house, it is easier to see this fact as part of the charm.

May 4th:

We headed out to Kanbula national forest, a journey of a few hundred kilometers. This trip was to be south and so the land was green and growing, not smothered in snow. At least this was true at the beginning of the trip. As we neared the forest, as we climbed in altitude, the snow returned. This trip was to be the most intense in many ways. The views were more spectacular, the Danxia landform (Stone "forest") was breathtaking, the dam on the Yellow river quite impressive, and the "road" to the forest... well though the experience is one that I would not trade for anything, the drive to the forest up the mountain "road" which we were told was built but five months earlier, raised my blood pressure off the charts. First the road is not complete. It has no guard rails, no safeguards. We got stuck in one spot and were moving towards the edge while the driver was gunning the engine. Another part of the road was so narrow and ran along the top of a ridge that was so narrow and steep that you could not see the mountain sides on either side of the vehicle. We drove over or around rockslides, construction areas, snow falls, yaks, sheep, and people. I almost get the same nervous adrenaline surge just writing about it now. To give you an idea of just how steep these mountains are in places, I suspect that one could base jump off the side of the mountains, the same mountains that the Tibetian people are farming.

When we reached the top of the road, near as we can estimate we were at 14-14.5K feet. And there was another village there.. Truly amazing. The forest was interesting an the Danxia landform impressive. I will again let the photos speak for me of these.

After coming down off the mountain, we stopped at the Yellow river and walked along its shores (and occassionally in the river accidentally) This really seemed strange at the time to be on the banks of a river about which I had read so much, one which has played a role in the histories, and the philosophy of China. This was a great moment.

From there we found a local restaurant that the guide and driver believed was good enough and safe enough for us. Another wonderful meal of notable variety: mutton (with chili sauce), fish (we let Summer have all of the heads), mushrooms (the chinese have great mushrooms of many varieties), vegetables, barbeque yak..

Back to Xining where we did a little shopping (I picked up a couple of decorative knives, and we found Summer an outfit at an incredible price.) Women you do not want to know the prices on the clothes, it would bring tears to your eyes...

We met with a friend of Summer's, Traci, who was also visiting the town (and her boyfriend). Watched a small band, then a talen show, then a few singers. Turning in around 11 we called it a day.

May 5th:

Flew in to Beijing, found the hotel for my father who was to fly out to the states the next day, then went to the train station and bought tickets for Summer and I to Tianjin. After this we went to Silk Alley, where the sellers are very aggressive, and convinced that a large size shirt will fit me. For the record, it won't. Interesting place, and it was strangely comforting to see other westerners again. The alley is quite near many of the embassies, including the US embassy.

For dinner we went to Schindler's Tavern. Doesn't sound Chinese? Good reason for that: it's German. The food was excellent and the Weizen Dunkle was great (dark wheat beer). Following dinner we dropped off Dad at the hotel, went to the train station, pushed and shoved our way onto the train (A scotsman greeted me with "nothing like being crushed in China") then an hour and a half ride back to Tianjin. A cab back to Dad's house and I was once again in something which somewhat resembles a western environment. At least the bed was more comfortable and I do not have to worry about the quality of the facilities.

May 6th:

I spent the day resting. In the evening I caught a cab, gave him the cell phone to talk to Sumnmer who told him where to take me. This was an experience. After much confusion as to the destination (which I myself did not know) I found Summer and her friend Stoneman (I think that this was the result of a bad translation of the name "mason"). They showed me around Tea City, a bunch of tea shops in the same building. Then off to dinner at a local place with interesting food, but of course the food as been consistenly interesting. Back to Stoneman's place for a bit. This is a small room in an older building with no lights in the stairways and only crude facilities. After watching some videos of the Backstreet boys (The chinese like them... dunno why.. ) we called it a night.

Today I have tried to take it easy still and rest so thus far nothing of note.

I hope all is well with everyone back home.

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