Thursday, April 06, 2006

Yak butter and stocking caps

We've just returned from a week out in the wild west of China. Not the lawless wild west vibe of Phnom Penh, but rather the frontier-town vibe I imagine from watching too many old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. (And actually, ironically, when you look on the map it was more like the very middle of china than the west....but we'll push on with the analogy anyway....)

We were in Xiahe and Langmusi, tiny towns/villages in the southwest corner of Gansu province. It was a fantastic break from the city tour we had been doing and went a long way towards refreshing our travel energies. We were near enough to the mountains of the Sichuan province to pretend we were in the Alps or Rockies (as well as to get to try out ALL our winter gear, such as it was). We'd love to return someday in the summer time though to see the grasslands in all their glory.

These towns were both high (almost 10,000 feet) and we really felt it trying to breathe, especially climbing stairs. The altitude made is quite COLD and it was very evident that we were a little early for tourist season. Though that led to some discomfort (and many things being closed) it was wonderful to see both places as the only westerners in town.

Xiahe is a long thin town and home of the Labrang monastery, the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. The monastery once held 4000 monks but was devastated during the Cultural Revolution. It is back up to 1,200 monks and had a bustling liveliness about it. The monastery is surrounded by a 3 km path of Tibetan prayer wheels (a very popular destination for the various Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims) and also serves to divide Xiahe into the Chinese Han/Hui half and the Tibetan half.

Langmusi was much smaller, just a short main street with a couple of neighborhoods building off of it and two monasteries across the river from each other. This had a similar feel to some of our visits in Laos; pigs roaming the streets, a lot dirty in places, etc. However it also had the same friendly feel that those places did. While not quite as modern as Xiahe was it had tons of charm and a beautiful background.

The week was fairly packed: arrive in Lanzhou on the overnight train from Xi'an, cab to the bus station, ride 6 hours out to Xiahe (including being unexpectedly dumped at a crossroads 34 freezing km from town). Then a couple of days later, take the bus 2 hours to Hezhou, change to another bus 3 hours to Langmusi, stay for two days, then bus 3 hours back to Hezhou and then 8 (painful) hours back to Lanzhou. Instead of giving you a blow by blow travelogue, we thought we'd just share some of our observations and highlights from the trip:

-- One of the best parts of this trip for us was being surrounded by a riot of colors and a large diversity of clothing and ethnicities. After the homogeneity of more mainstream China, this was a nice change and felt really exotic. The Tibetan clothing was very colorful (especially the women's) and incredibly distinctive. I really wanted to buy one of the huge coats that they wore like coats or cloaks, but finally decided that a) getting it home would be an issue and b) I wouldn't really have anywhere to wear it.

-- We were really struck by the friendliness of the people. Like anywhere in the world, when you get out of cities into smaller towns you have more of a chance to connect with people. In addition, we found the Tibetans in particular to be very friendly open, and curious.

-- In Xiahe we stayed at the Tara Guesthouse, a cute family run place just next to the monastery complex. The rooms were basic, but charming and the family was incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, though the rooms had character, they had no heat. We did have a stove in ours, but we didn't feel comfortable using it as at worst we were afraid of carbon monoxide (think Admiral Byrd) and at best we didn't need to be breathing any more coal smoke than already consumed on the trip.

-- When we checked into the guesthouse in Xiahe, we were informed that there was hot water for showers from 8-10 at night. We appreciated the info, but it was cold enough that we didn't feel under a compulsion to take a shower. However when the owner found us the second night to tell us the water had been heated up, he seemed so disappointed that we weren't going to shower (maybe they heated it up just for us?) that we promised him we would take one the next night. Well, that next evening came even more frigid than the former and we cursed our big mouths.

They were so pleased as they told us the water was ready that we smiled and headed off to meet our fate. The showers were in a little room across an open courtyard from where we were staying. So we took off a couple of layers and then shivered/sprinted across to the shower room. We entered to a cloud of steam (which was a good sign) and started to reluctantly strip off our clothes. That reluctance deepened when we saw the shower: it was warm/hot water to be sure, but it was coming out of the shower head in one thin dribble. We jumped in and used it to splash ourselves up and do a quick soap up and rinse and then teeth chattering tried to dry ourselves with our not-so-plush little travel towels. Let me tell you: if I have EVER wished for a bath-sized Egyptian cotton plush towel it was then. We threw our now-damp clothes back on, thanked the guesthouse keepers, and sprinted back to our room and under the covers. Mission accomplished. Somehow the rest of our stay they could never quite locate us at shower time. Go figure...

-- We also set a new personal record on this swing by each wearing the EXACT same outfit everyday, both day AND night. Yes, it was cold enough that we were sleeping in socks, pants, fleeces and stocking caps.

-- Like in Luang Prabang (in Laos), the internet cafe in Xiahe was full of monks, though in red robes instead of orange ones. This led to a couple of strange situations. The first was just the disconnect of watching the young monks play shoot 'em up computer games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto. I guess they're just young guys like any other, but you still expected them to be saying a blessing of forgiveness or something. The other strange situation came from the general oddity we represented. Throughout the time we worked there, monks would come and either stand behind us or sit right next to us and just stare at our screens intently for minutes on end. We'd say, uh, hello? or ni-how? and they'd kind of acknowledge us and then go right back to staring at our screen. It did make us a little self conscious about what we had up there though (had to curb that porn habit a little....). In one instance Brian tried to play revolutionary by going to the CNN website but the monk quickly lost interest and scooted away. (ed. In a good samartian moment, I spent 30 minutes helping a monk set up a new email account that someone had sent him. In Spanish. Needless to say we quickly switched languages on that one.)

-- One of our favorite moments in Xiahe occurred when we met a young monk, (a student at the prestigious philosophy college, the biggest of the monastery's 6 colleges) started a conversation with us and then invited us back into his dorm room. The students live seven to a room, each with a bed and bookcase of their own. The rooms are basic, but comfortable, and the monks have put up posters (mostly religious, but this dorm included small pics of Shaq and Jordan) to decorate. It was really cool to talk to him and find out more about the lives of these young monks.

-- Our primary eating establishment in Xiahe was the Nomad Cafe (our other sojourns having all ended in failure). This third floor restaurant was the local hangout of choice and by mid-afternoon, the window tables were packed with monks and Tibetan pilgrims drinking tea and looking down on the comings and goings below.

-- The Nomad was also where we were exposed to the highs and lows of Tibetan tea. The best: Tibetan black tea, which appeared to be a mug full of sticks, twigs, rock sugar crystals, dried berries, weird seed looking things, and other unidentifiable objects that none-the-less created a deceptively tasty brew. We spent several afternoons nursing these. The worst: Tibetan yak butter tea. What is yak butter tea? You might expect it to be a Tibetan tea with a tasty and refined dollop of yak butter placed inside. WRONG. What it would be more or less is a mug full of melted yak butter. Gag. Even Brian couldn't finish it. (ed. The taste was still in my mouth four days later)

-- Speaking of yak butter, it featured prominently at the monastery as well. The candles burning in honor at each of the temples are made of yak butter and give off a very strong and distinctive odor. I don't know that Crate and Barrel will be featuring them any time soon. More spectacularly, however, were the yak butter sculptures created for the recent New Years festivities. Now Brian and I consider ourselves to be relative butter sculpture connoisseurs being veterans of several trips to the Minnesota State Fair's dairy building with its butter carvings of the dairy princesses. However those are like finger paintings compared to Michaelangelo. These yak butter sculptures were intricately and delicately carved with unbelievably vibrant colors (though still that distinctive odor.....). Very cool.

-- I have to say that on this trip I have become quite the pro at the squat toilet. I can handle them all: porcelain, trench, ditch, hole, etc. (unlike my husband, who through some incredible combination of will power, mind-body cooperation, luck, and being a guy has only used one twice in 4+ months!!), and I have been able to manage even the ones in pretty distressing condition. However between Xiahe and Langmusi I had three episodes of 'hitting the wall'. This is where you approach not even the toilet but just the room/bldg where the toilet is (and in 2 of the 3 cases, it didn't look bad at all) and you just stop short, struck by a solid wall of stench and before you are even aware of what's happening your stomach has turned inside out and you retch and turn around and decide, you know, I don't really need to go to the bathroom that badly...... (ed. one of these locales is where I learned how to do #1 from the door frame. Even my horrible sense of smell was bowled over in that instance)

-- Langmusi was a wonderful place for us to visit and lived up to all our expectations and hopes in all ways except one (see below). It was nestled up against snow dusted mountains on one side, high grassland hills on another, and a red butte you'd swear was in Arizona on the third side. Really incredibly picturesque. After 3 weeks in big cities and fighting with pollution, etc. It was just fantastic for the two of us to get to spend a few days hiking around out in the hills and mountains and forests and streams. Very healing for the soul.

-- The one bummer in Langmusi was the fact that Leshas, home of the yak burger (as well as a number of good solid comfort western foods) was closed for remodeling. After having held out that yak burger to ourselves as a carrot through a number of less fun moments, we were seriously bummed. Guess we'll just have to go back in tourist season sometime...

-- We really liked the Chinese train system, despite the occasional horror story in hard sleeper. (That is, as long as we were able to avoid hard seat overnight journeys). Otherwise it has been convenient and (especially in the case of the soft sleeper) comfortable. The buses, on the other hand, have been a little bit more of a challenge. In Laos the buses were very old with large holes and more people and livestock than you know what to do with. In China it hasn't so much been that the buses are rickety, but just that we have been stuffed in with more people than you think can fit, two-thirds of whom are chain smoking unfiltered Chinese cigarettes. That can make for some very long bus-rides, especially over windy, bumpy roads.

I have more random tales, but this has gotten too long already. We'll add more stories in a general China/SE Asia roundup blog later...

Off to the Yunnan province!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Before you left on your trip, you guys planned this out, right?

Brian: "Hey, on our next trip let's go somewhere that's freezing, way up in the mountains in frickin' China so it's hard to breathe."
Becca: "Yeah, then let's hang around lots of smokers that burn coal for heat. And I'd like to stay in an unheated hotel, if at all possible."
Brian: "Better yet,let's stop showering so we can smell like the locals."
Becca: "Sure! And I've always wanted to learn to squat over pit toilets so putrid I get physically ill."
Brian: "Since this will be such a romantic trip, how about we sleep fully clothed"
Becca: "Yeah, that will keep me from getting pregnant so I can make sure Lincoln was wrong."
Brian: "Hey, that gives me an idea for a great April Fools joke. Anyway, I've always felt like wearing clean clothes was overrated, so let's just wear the same thing every day."
Becca: "Sure, honey, sounds like fun. Will there be Yak butter involved?"
Brian: "Everywhere you look. To eat, to drink, even to sculpt."
Becca: "When do we leave?"