24 Hours

24 Hours
Originally uploaded by paulbrockmann.

Ed note: I began this when I was stunned by the physical beauty and social warmth of Xiahe, but unable to take pictures so I wrote impressions. After that I found some ways to charge the battery, so you’ll also see the monastery and if time is short, feel free to skip the text.> Pictures paint a thousand words, and many of you have told me you love seeing the pictures but can’t find the time to read my text…which I know can be verbose. So I dearly wish I could offer more pictures of where I am as I draft this note (for posting later, after I get home…). HOWEVER, my camera battery is dead and the recharger is back in Nannning while I myself am at 9,000 feet in the mountains of southern Gansu Province, next door to the largest Tibetan monastery and temple outside Tibet in the world. And the 24 hours that brought me here from Ningxia were among the most interesting and lovely I’ve had here in China, so I’ll tell the story in words: I figure at least my Mom will read this (not that I’ll ever know, since she’s forgotten how to write letters and refuses to learn how to write e-mails….but I love you anyway, Mom) and maybe my brothers and sister in law. Thank goodness for family, huh? 🙂 It all started in Zhongwei, a town on the west-central edge of the tiny Ningxia Hui (Muslim) Autonomous Region, in north-central China. Zhongwei is that rarity, a small Chinese city that’s fairly laid back and rather pretty: so many cities are loud, crowded, hectic and overwhelming. It’s situated where the Tengger Desert of western Inner Mongolia comes up against the Yellow River: rolling red sand dunes like a movie set of the Arabian or Sahara desert, bumping against the irrigated green fields of corn and wheat in hues from green to gold. Desert and the Yellow River, two central defining geographic facts that underlie 6,000 or more years of Chinese history, and I’d spent two days at a tiny family-owned hostel set amongst the orchards, vineyards and vegetable fields the family cultivate to feed their guests and sell to the markets. (There are pictures of that, so we’ll fast forward.) I’ve left the bend in the river 7 miles and outside town where I’ve stayed for two days, and at 8:00 on Tuesday night I’m now back in Zhongwei, at the small park outside the train station where there are benches to set my pack down and enjoy the lovely early-evening weather, watch the sunset and enjoy the parade of people out enjoying the last sunshine. I’ve got a few more hours to pass, well into the dark and cold of night, before I can board my overnight bus for Lanzhou, capital of neighboring Gansu Province just south, from where I plan to launch myself via the 7:30 bus on the 6-hour drive up into the mountains to Xiahe, home of Labrang Monastery. I see, across the little canal that outlines the southern edge of this park, a group of — wonders never cease, since I’ve seen none (not even myself, there being no mirrors — or showers — where I’ve been staying) for four days now — Caucasians. Six of them, of whom three are wearing the same black felt cap that one sees in pictures of Mongolians: dead give away this is a tourist group that’s recently been in Inner Mongolia. After a few minutes I decide I’ll stroll over the bridge that’ll take me past the tables where they’re sitting with their bottles of beer, just to see if they’re friendly and interesting. Which they are. Five are recent graduates of the French Arts-et-Metiers program (high level national technical and graphic arts training, if I understand) and/or friends of said; one’s an incoming Dartmouth senior who met the other five just that afternoon. We drink, we talk…we are joined by an oldish, rather toothless man who’s delighted to use my translating service (and Taylor’s, who’s got a year of Dartmouth Chinese behind him and has evidently put it to good use in his six weeks in China since he does awfully well!) to find out more about all of us and to tell about his work in the switching yards of the train station, just next door. He’s from Shandong, and hopes to visit France some day: many questions about airfares, costs of living in France…I’m sorry to have to tell him that, the Euro being what it is, France is brutal right now and the US is a much better bargain. But we all agree to let him keep his dreams alive, and agree he simply must visit us if he comes to either France or the US. Having expected, at best, to spend three hours in an internet cafe and at worst to spend it cold and at loose ends sitting by the drum tower from which the bus departs, I feel I’ve been guided by an angel – to meet an interesting group and (always a pleasure) use some of my language skills to help folks learn a bit about each other. Thus occupied, the time flies by and I get to my bus with just about 15 minutes to spare, settle into the drivers-side front upper bunk on that classic Chinese mode of transport, the bus with three rows of bunk beds down the length for long distance travel. To paraphrase Tommy, “put in your earplugs, put on your eyeshades, you know where to put the sleeping pill…” Out like a light, only worries being: 1) will this prevent me from staying awake and alert from the 4:30 arrival in Lanzhou through the 7:30 departure for Xiahe, and 2) have I eaten or drunk anything that will necessitate significant use of the frankly horrifying comfort stations (hah!) to which one has access while on China’s highways and byways. Fortune is guiding my steps because all is well and the bus is kind enough, on reaching Lanzhou, to just park and let us keep sleeping — so I get nearly a full eight hours, then hop a cab across this long thin provincial capital to the entire other side of town where buses depart for points south. Onto the bus: 1/3 euro tourists — seems I’ve made it back on the more beaten path, now…about which my ornery self has mixed feelings I’m ashamed to admit — and the rest that tapestry of folks that make up this northwest/central section of China: Hui Muslims in their white truncated fez-type caps (for men) or headscarves (often gorgeous fabrics) for women, and all, men and women alike, dressed rather somberly…a few Tibetans apparently on visit or pilgrimage up the mountain to Xiahe: long multi-strand braids down the backs of the women, prayer beads in the hands of the men, big rimmed caps on the heads of both…small town villagers or independent business men traveling to various town along the way, or women with bags of produce to sell in the markets, and of course many children peeking curious around the arms of their mothers to get a glimpse of what I’m reading (Ha-Li Po-De Yu Mo-Fa Shi…Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone…actually, let me say: trying to read, since in four months I’ve made it to page four). The ride is endlessly fascinating. Though Ningxia was created (in the late 1950s) as an autonomous region specifically for the Hui Muslim ethnic minority (one of several Islamic minorities in China, including the Uighur as well as Tajiks and Uzbeks I believe), only about 20% of them live in Ningxia itself. From what I can see looking out the bus windows, it certainly seems far more live in this southern section of Gansu: every town we pass through on this Wednesday morning is thronged with Hui in their distinctive headgear, buying parts of the lamb carcasses hung up by butchers by the side of the road; or purchasing the fruits and vegetables in colorful piles on the sidewalk. (Does anyone know if the week that included August 17 is an important Muslim festival week: the number of lambs being skinned and sold, the number of people going to market in the morning suggested either this was market day, or it’s a festival week.) And the mosques: I saw far more of them in four hours on this bus, than in seven hours on the train through Ningxia when I came up from Shaanxi to Zhongwei a few days earlier. This is where I regret the dead battery: I am eager to show you picture of minarets and mosques that blend the star and crescent, the domes and towers that I associate with Islam, with the ornate wood and tile carvings, the upturned corners and intricate painting that I associate with Chinese places of worship and important buildings. These minarets and mosques, often a truly beautiful blending of classical Chinese and Islamic aesthetics, are everywhere in the valleys and towns we pass through. Naturally, one third of the way up, the bus breaks down — bad. I’m in a “go with the flow” mood, having allowed the river to carry me rather wonderfully thus far on the trip, so I figure I’ll enjoy the scenery (beautiful valleys and mountains) and see what happens next. Nearly two hours later, after a few bee stings from the truck loaded with honeycombs that lumbered by leaving dust and angry bees in its wake…having watched many of the other Euro tourists thumb down (and probably pay for) private rides up the mountain in other cars…I begin to wonder whether a more active, directive attitude might have served me well. So I start flagging down cars, seeing as how the promised replacement bus has not yet appeared. Second van that passes has exactly five seats free, and I’ve been making friends with a Franco-Spanish group of four whom I’m reluctant to leave. The driver and his friend are escorting two friends from Beijing up the monastery for the weekend. They’ve both studied at the monastery though they’re not monks…and after depositing us at the hotel we intended to go to, where they are also staying, they invite us to join them for the afternoon’s activities. In the photo attached here — the only one taken before the battery died the first time — you see me and one of these guys, along with his teacher at the monastery. After we visited his teacher and were graciously greeted, we all headed up the beautiful grasslands higher up the valley where people pasture their yaks and sheep in the summer. They treated us to yak-butter tea (no, it wasn’t as yucky as I’d feared, though clearly a new taste sensation that will not grab America by storm any day soon) and steamed buns, and roast lamb for the carnivores among us. Then on down that valley, and up and over another valley to a very high mountain lake that is sacred to Tibetans, where we circumnambulated the lake in the chilly dusk air while marveling at our amazing good fortune: such gracious and warm people, who flat out refused to take any money for gas, or food, or drink, and showed such pleasure in hosting five foreigners whom they’d never met before. I sincerely hope they use the e-mail address I gave them, since I’d love to keep in touch with him…even if it means I have to learn how to type in Chinese — not a skill I’ve learned yet. So – with that, here come the actual photos of Labrang and Xiahe, Zhongwei, and Kongton, the Daoist Mtn I visited at the beginning. Sorry if that was boring.

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