A week on the road with Chengdu’s finest

There are two major holidays on the Chinese calendar. One of them is Spring festival, the traditional Chinese new year. The other is National holiday week, which recently took place at the beginning of October to celebrate the founding of the PRC in 1949.

I had been invited by a friend to take part in a road trip, in remote Northwestern China, far from the crowds. The final destination was Qinghai Lake, China’s largest, located over 10,000 feet above sea level in Qinghai province, not far below Mongolia. It would take us four days just to reach the lake, traveling from our home in Chengdu through mountainous northern Sichuan and neighboring Gansu, the country’s poorest province.

This region of China “formerly marked the outer limits of ancient China,” I read in my guide book, separating various dynasties in the east from the feared barbarians to the west. It is best known for its role as part of the Silk Road, which is responsible, amongst other things, for the introduction of Buddhism and Islam to the country. I was as eager to see some blue above my head as to glimpse a less developed, non-Han (the dominant ethnic group, to which I belong) piece of the country.

I got plenty of both, but the experience was combined, for better and for worse, with doing so at the whim of a large group of Chinese in “travel mode.” Given that we only had one week, it’s probably unrealistic to have carried hope of gaining much first-hand insight into China’s Tibetan and other ethnic minority cultures, but as it were we followed a cookie cutter itinerary in which such opportunities were even more limited. Our tourist stops often felt like elongated photo shoots, and we tended to eat dinner then retire early at hotels, rather than explore.

I spent most of the time staring out of the window of a little “Xiali 2000”, the name given to what is in all respects a Toyota Corolla, renamed to suit Chinese regulatory demands. I tried to absorb as much cleansing scenery as I could, given that the following months will be filled largely with concrete and smog. This proved to be a surprisingly difficult task, as I had to constantly tune out the domestic drama being played out by my fellow passengers. A family road trip is a family road trip, and this particular one’s steady stream of bickering and flare-ups was painfully enduring. Perhaps thankfully, it was all in Chengdu hua, a dialect of Sichuan hua, which is itself a vaguely intelligible dialect of Mandarin Chinese. I allowed the dull cacophony, mixed with Chinese bubblegum pop and muzak from the car speakers, to provide a soundtrack to long hours of thought and reading, as the idyllic slideshow ran before my eyes.

I’d gone into the trip with visions of misty Buddhist mountains and lush, untouched greenery. Tragically, I found, a large portion of Sichuan’s northern mountain terrain has been entirely deforested; occasionally, I would see patches of recently planted saplings. Sichuan is a large province; it’s population of 100 million is equal to five Australias, and it used to be far greater, but for the recent separation of Chongqing, a city that lays debatable claim to being the world’s largest (around 31 million, though this includes surrounding areas). In previous times, what is now Western Sichuan was part of Tibet, and it wasn’t long before we started to reach predominantly Tibetan areas.

In Gansu, we finally found ourselves some unrazed mountain forest, tinged yellow and red in Autumn, followed by long, rolling stretches of grassy steppe. Herds of sheep, goats and yaks became common sight, as well as the white tent homes of the Tibetan nomads who keep them, chimneys puffing away in the morning. Gansu is also home to China’s largest minority, the Hui, thought to be descendants of Arab and Persian traders who arrived during the Tang dynasty. They are Hanafi school Sunnis (described as the oldest and most progressive sect), like all Muslims in the country, and the men wear square white hats. Their delectable flat noodles, made with great skill by hand, are readily available in stalls throughout Chinese cities. We drove by some marvelous Chinese-style mosques, green and domed, some with long, narrow minarets, their upturned eaves displaying clear pagoda influence. Gansu is noticeably poorer than Sichuan. Outside of the cities, people live in simple earth and mud homes and there are little signs of the rampant development taking place elsewhere.

If Gansu is China’s forgotten land of Muslims, then Qinghai is its Siberia: it has housed several prison camps for political dissidents, and up until the 18th century, was part of Tibet. There, the landscape’s transitions increased in beauty and variety, quickly moving from grey mountains to waves of hills and arid plains, and occasionally ascending into thick fog as we wound along steep mountainside. The journey was highlighted by the occasional Tibetan temple, tucked away from the winding mountainside road, gold roof shining brilliantly, or when slowing down for the passage of domestic horses or omnipresent yaks, the most essential animal to the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle. Signs painted on to small town building fences read: “Please allow your child to go to school” and “Obey the rule of law.” Qinghai also provided the most breathtaking scenery of the trip, beautiful enough even to allow for rare periods of humbled silence within the car, whilst we dutifully snapped postcard shots of reflective lakes and immense mountain faces.

There is a sort of casual indifference to the demeanor of Tibetans, Hui, Dongqiang and other non-Han people throughout Gansu and Qinghai. After decades of struggle to maintain their ways within the hegemonic will of modernizing Communist China, and amidst current waves of Han migration to the cities, it seems, at least at face value, that they’ve reached a level of comfortable coexistence. Recently, the government has taken on a pro-diversity line, with colorfully dressed minority entertainers provide a sort of pretty stage show narrative of a unified China that embraces its over-fifty recognized minority groups. My group, unsurprisingly, displayed an utter lack of interest in such cultures, but proceeded to line up for their snapshots before historic jewels such as Ta’er Si monastery (one of the six most sacred monasteries of the Dalai Lama’s Yellow-hat sect of Tibetan buddhism) with an air of vaguely curious, middle-class duty.

Perhaps the clearest impression that my thirteen-strong party imparted upon me is this: Chinese can be really, remarkably loud. I have quickly come to realize that in the Chinatowns and suburbs of Australia and the United States, I’d only encountered a non-representational slice of the country, whose quiet, sometimes shy manner couldn’t be more unlike my group. They sounded at times like rowdy sailors; always animatedly sounding off on various topics, with witty banter thrown across the dinner table amidst a woozy stream of snake poison-strong shots shared by a few of us men. I understood almost none of it, but entertained them as the lone foreigner with my efforts at non-verbal humor.

One of the few other men in the majority-female group was a rotund fellow who I came to think of as “El Generalissimo”, given his predilection for startlingly loud, theatrical shouting, reminiscent of a certain Venezuelan leader. He stayed in the same business clothes for the duration of the trip, and his voice similarly remained unchanged, a single volume baritone utilized across a spectrum of roared dinner jokes and thunderous argumentation over our myriad navigation problems.

“Cook my mountain mushrooms, (wench)!” he bellowed at Qinghai Lake, thrusting a plastic bag towards the subdued Tibetan restaurant owner with hands stretched, in order to display the little black tasties.

From what followed, I can only assume that she declined, as the General’s wife and another crewmember soon begun washing and preparing the mushrooms themselves. I had to give it to the fixed-volume General though: his mountain mushrooms were indeed delicious, given the limited beef, cabbage and potato diet afforded at such altitudes.

My favorite accommodation was to be found in Xia He, a small town housing a handful of colorfully dressed minorities. We were greeted in warm fashion by a troika of young Tibetan women, who hung a white silk scarf around each of us, lei-style, then offered us a cup of qing ke jiu, a barley liquor, as they sang in their fascinating, clipped tongue. We stayed in a series of tent-covered rooms which encircled a central prayer flag pillar, and I managed to learn a little Amdo dialect Tibetan from the staff. The written form is an attractive, pointed script of Sanskrit origin, and I was eager to copy a little. But when I asked them to write down the characters for “Nice to meet you,” I was told that they couldn’t.

“The only place to learn to write Tibetan is in the monastery,” a woman explained.

When we finally reached Qinghai Lake, it did not disappoint. I’ve never been to Lake Michigan, but I imagine it’s similar: a massive body of water stretching as far as the horizon in lovely shades of azure through to greenish blue. At its center is Bird Island, whose colonies of rare cormorants and cranes had, alas, already flown south for the winter. Even here, high on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by all manner of Tibetan religious and cultural objects, great effort had been made to provide symbolic gestures of Chinese national unity. A giant statue of “Yingying”, one of the five Beijing Olympic mascots, had been erected nearby. A youthful orange panda-meets-traditional Tibetan antelope who could pass as a mutated teletubby, her child-like face beamed benevolently across the lake, yet to be worn down by the harsh plateau winds.

We were rushing around the lake, for reasons unbeknownst to me. The landscape nearby had turned into sculpted golden sand dunes, similar to those which a friend had gushed about riding down on sand boards in neighboring Xinjiang province, an activity that appealed deeply to my inner ten year old. The team had other ideas though.

“Why are we in such a rush?” I finally asked.

“We don’t have much time,” my friend excitedly explained. “We’re going to a nuclear testing site!”

I am unsure of the motivations for visiting a place such as the aptly named Nuclear City, but was curious as to what we might see: enormous craters, three-headed yaks…hopefully no bombed-out temples. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who you talk to, the site offered little noticeable sign of nuclear detonation, and we drove back to the city of Xining in the dark.

It was only during the return journey that we struck weather difficulties. Our little car that could, having courageously plowed across much mountainous terrain on the way up, became bogged along a muddy, unpaved road. Just as we dragged it out, one of the ladies snapped a perfect “Happy sign” picture–it is identical to the peace sign, and is flashed by everyone from children to the middle-aged here–with a group of Tibetan nomadic women who were traveling on foot. The crew spent the next ten minutes forcing them to partake in an impromptu “Me with the exotic natives” photoshoot, the sort you imagine tour group Americans taking on trips to indigenous lands. The Tibetans obliged with seemingly unlimited patience, and we gave them some fruit in return. Just down the road, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction stopped us, claiming he’d had to cross a patch of water four-feet high. We turned back.

That evening, already behind schedule, we found the road to be closed due to the weather, forcing us to take a detour down another rocky, unpaved side route. Its closure was indicated by an easy-to-miss solitary wooden sign, its characters scrawled in red paint. If I were home, I would have found it extremely suspicious, and figured it was a concern worth raising.

“Are there any bandits around here?” I asked. I’d been told earlier of the dangers involved in crossing into Tibet through the robber-infested mountain passes of Western Sichuan.

“Yes, but not as many as in Qinghai or Gansu,” my friend reassured me. “They usually do not kill you. They just want your money,” he advised, adding that some wield AK47s, carried over the border from Russia.

A little while later, after successfully completing one detour, we were forced to make another. Having reached a tunnel, we found it to be temporarily closed, marked even more sketchily by some witches hats and another makeshift wooden sign. With little pause, we detoured onto a dark, unpaved track, and my imagination kicked into gear.

“Does anybody know kung fu?” I asked.

Having safely made it home to Chengdu, we stopped for our final dinner, and my friend and I entertained the group with a couple of multi-lingual love songs. The English one was “Yellow” by Coldplay, whilst the other was a well-known folk song called “Kangding Qingge”, taught to me by his father, concerning a pair of lovers from nearby Kangding, in Western Sichuan.

“He loves her for two reasons,” my roommate had translated. “The first is…because she’s a good person. The other reason is that she is good at housework.”

“Fair enough,” I thought, before returning to my apartment, where I did some housework.

PS: In case you bump into any Amdo region Tibetan speakers (there are at least three Tibetan dialects), “Day moe” is “How are you?” and “Chiu re na nga heng ge ga ge” is “Nice to meet you.”

“Yes,” I can cheerfully share, is “O’le,” which sounds almost identical to the phrase commonly associated with men in sombreros.

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