May 16, 2009
From Lanzhou we traveled further south to Lanzhou, the first truly big Chinese city on our route.
We weren’t actually planning to spend any time in Lanzhou. Our plan was to get here and catch the first available bus south to a mountain village called Xiahe. Why Xiahe? It’s a village perched on some mountains, and it has a very important Tibetan Buddhist temple – the most important one outside of Tibet. It turns out that at one point in the past Tibet stretched much further east from its present-day borders, covering large portions of Sichuan and Yunan. If you look at a map, it kind of makes sense geographically – the Tibetan plateau drops off much further east than the official Tibetan border. And, correspondingly, today there are still a lot of Tibetan people living in these western parts of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Some people say that these regions are where you find the “real” Tibet, now that the bulk of Tibet has been overrun by Han Chinese.
Anyhow, that was the plan, but we hit a major wall. When we finally located the appropriate bus station for the ride to Xiahe, the ticket office refused to sell us tickets. How come? Because the police decided to disallow foreigners from traveling to Xiahe. In fact, foreigners, they said, are not allowed to go down that road at all, not to Xiahe and not to any of the other towns before and after. Why?? We never found out for sure, but we heard that Xiahe was one of the big centers for the protests that took place in February 2009, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising. We’re guessing that the authorities don’t have as much control over Xiahe as they do over Lhasa (where only authorized tour groups are allowed), so they decided to just lock all tourists out completely. Maybe it’s also the fact that the government makes mucho bucks from travel in Tibet but not much at all from travelers going to Xiahe, so they don’t care as much about shutting down tourism there.
Anyhow, we had to find an alternative, and we decided to take the train south to a place called Jiangyou. More on that next post. In the meantime, we had a day to kill in Lanzhou…
Hanging With Toni
At the bus station we met another guy who was sitting in the exact same predicament – he wanted to go to Xiahe but he couldn’t. His name was Toni, as Spanish guy. We talked over the possibilities and decided to take the train together. As things turned out, Toni and us ended up spending the next week or so together. He was a great travel companion.
Toni and Pnina taking a break on the street in Lanzhou:
Maybe part of the reason we all got along is that Toni’s an Engineer, like us 🙂 Before starting his trip he worked on some European satellite projects, focused on the radio communication. More interesting, when he was doing his graduate degree in the US years ago, he researched major storms, and at one point he got a chance to fly on a special airplane directly into a hurricane to take measurements! Wow! He said it was a propeller-driven plane, which I guess is better when you have intense winds to deal with, and yes it was a crazy ride.
Anyhow, we heard that Lanzhou has an English-language book store, so we decided to head there first. When we got there we found that it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for:
Yeah, most of the books were geared towards Chinese people learning English, which makes sense. Besides that they had a bunch of Shakespeare and other classics; good books, you’d have to say, but not exactly “light holiday reads”. Some of the books had the same text in English and Chinese on facing pages, which seems like a great way to learn a language.
From there we walked towards the river, and on the way we found a small produce market, so we stopped by. It’s always fun to observe local life this way.
The big attraction in Lanzhou is Baita Shan, a park and temple complex located on top of a hill on the other side of the Yellow River from downtown. We spent our remaining few hours there. From the top of the hill we had a great view of the city, which is actually not such a pretty city to look at. But there were a lot of families hanging out in the park, having picnics, playing with kids, etc. It was a nice atmosphere.
Looking at downtown Lanzhou from the top of Baita Shan park:
At the bottom there were statues for each of the 12 signs in the Chinese zodiac. Here’s Toni posing with a Rat, which he thinks is his sign, not sure though:
Kids playing a fishing game. It looked like so much fun, we wanted to join:
On the way up the hill we met a local guy, Randy, and his wife. We struck up a conversation, as much as we could with his limited English and our non-existent Chinese. He explained a bit of the significance of the temple. It’s amazing how many Chinese people went out of their way to try to help us:
A small section from a wall painting on the temple at the top of the hill. What we gathered, from Randy, is that peaches are the food of the gods, or something like that:
Another shop with tiny intricate drawings made on gourd shells. The owner of this shop won several prizes for his work, which doesn’t surprise us:
Two of the caretaker monks at the temple:
It’s funny finding knock-off products with misspelled names. It’s not like Adidas has any power to track down these shops and confiscate their products. They may as well spell it right.