Saturday, January 15, 2011

XINING - Rammed-earth temples and a bottle of AK-47 Russian Vodka

January 8-9, 2011
Eng: Xining, Qinghai, China
Chn: 西宁,青海省,中国
Written by Dan

   We are still in the western part of China so the sun does break the
horizon until 9am. Although it was 6:30am, it felt like night time and
we were ready for bed. In the dim light of the Bus Station we could
see that faces and dress code had changed drastically from the Muslim
white caps for men and lace head coverings for women. We were groggy
but we could tell that we had arrived at the frontier for travel to
and from Tibet. We expected to see foreign backpackers but all we saw
were Tibetan families in huge colorful robes, wooly hats and cowboy
boots. We later found out that most of the travelers in these areas
are Tibetans themselves making pilgrimages to the various holy

   Excited to learn more and follow some of these pilgrimages
ourselves, we remembered our need to drop off bags and rest, so we
hopped in a taxi and headed to the Sunshine Pagoda Youth Hostel.
We were originally planning on going to a hostel known as a
backpacker favorite and for its sister adventure travel operator. It
was opened and operated by Americans but we found out that it recently
closed because it's most recent guests were part of Fr** Tib*t and the
local gov't found them guilty by association and so deported its
owners. This should give you a glimpse of the increasing clampdown
against foreigner travel in and around the Tibetan region – so if
you're thinking of going, do it sooner than later.

   Anyway, we were perfectly happy with our final resting place. The
Sunshine Pagoda Hostel is located inside a complex of bars, coffee
shops and restaurants made to look like an ancient Chinese courtyard.
The interior of the hostel was full of wooden chairs and tables,
Tibetan handicrafts, and pictures of the owner's own travels through
out China. We woke up the owner, Lin Sai, at 7:00am on a Saturday
morning and were shown to our room – a windowless box with a big bed
and a TV. But it was so warm and there was a bed so we were happy.
While chatting we found out that Lin Sai grew up in Hangzhou and was
very familiar with Moganshan – we got instant cool points.
We took hot showers and hung our still-wet clothes from Dunhuang on
the radiator in the public bathroom. Dan took a nap and then the
biggest dump of his life. And finally at 10:00am, we decided it was
time to explore the city.

   In the common room we got out the map and started to plan. We knew
we wanted to hit the local coffee shop for another caffeine fix and to
see "Bei Shan Si Tu Lou Guan" which are the rammed-earth temple and
Buddhist caves on the mountain at the north border of the city. But
despite our planning, we got distracted between having some milk tea,
Dan going to patch the hole in the crotch of his pants, Em skyping
with her parents, and Dan trying to memorize all the street names. We
finally got on our way at noon but this turned out to be more than
enough time to see the city.

   On our way to Bei Shan (North Mountain), we stopped for some
awesome noodles with beef and veggies – the Chinese Muslim version of
Pasta Primavera but with chunks of beeeeeeeeeef. With full bellies we
sauntered through a construction materials market and past the train
tracks until we hit the Temple. We went up through the Buddhist temple
and found a set of REALLY steep steps behind it leading up to the
caves and a mysterious pagoda. We would have had the entire mountain
to ourselves to explore in quiet had it not been for Emily climbing up
the steps slowly on hands and knees due to her fear of heights – a
spectacle that attracted comments and eventual kidnapping by a pair of
Chinese men, one of whom looked like a cherub and clapped his hands,
jumped up and down and squealed every time he saw something he liked.

   In actuality, our kidnappers were very sweet guys who were
interested in our story and teaching us about the history as well as
the local flora of the mountain (unfortunately it was all in Chinese
so again we leave a historic Buddhist cave site not knowing much about
it). The only problem was that they wanted to take paths less
traveled. Dan, of course, liked the 'extreme off-road single track'
but Emily was forced to get back down on her hands and knees, or slide
on her butt every time she went extreme downhilling. 

   We finally arrived just below the mysterious pagoda only to be yelled at by a
lady up above to turn back – our kidnappers postulated many reasons
for the denial of access, among which were a secret army base and a
human psycho-rehabilitation research facility. Seeing this as an
opportunity to shake our partners in crime, Dan used Emily's fear of
heights as an excuse to part ways with the lovely Chinese men and took
a shortcut down the mountain. They accepted and we parted ways only to
meet them on the supposed shortcut 5 minutes later as they passed
Emily sliding down the dirt path an inch per minute. We were
embarrassed and merely exchanged awkward glances.

Just below the entrance to Bei Shan

   Finally, down the mountain we hopped in a cab and headed to the Green House Coffee Shop in the 'International Quarter'. We sipped alcoholic coffee and ate pumpkin cheesecake while we read O Magazine in silence and watched a guy who looked exactly like Paul Janiczek (a
friend of the Moy's who accompanied them on China family reunion tour
2009). We jokingly wondered if Paul had actually stayed without telling anyone. Dan finally got to talk to 'Xining Paul' when he was referred to ask him about buying a Tibetan phrasebook. Xining Paul was useless but Emily says he was secretly comparing her to his own
Chinese girlfriend who was standing by his side.

   Anyway, we finally left and decided to walk off the sweets. Along the way, we felt a hankering for booze and stopped in numerous supermarkets to look for western hard liquor. Dan almost purchased an obviously Chinese rip off of Jack Daniels but eventually decided to
forgo the almost certain headache the following morning.

   Just before we returned to the hostel we stopped at a small corner shop and bought a bottle of AK-47 vodka and orange juice. We determined to have a bit of a pre-drink at the hostel before hitting up the bars and clubs in our little courtyard. As soon as we walked into the hostel, we were greeted by a group of guests and the owner Lin Sai who invited us to share in their spread of food, beer, red wine, and Chinese spirits. We gladly agreed and added our fancy vodka to the mix. We hadn't eaten dinner yet but weren't hungry either and so we joined in with the intention of moving on soon after. 

   But the people and the conversation were so intriguing, one of the guys was a
Tibetan (our first) doctor who had studied at Berkeley in the USA and was one of the curators of the Tibetan Medicine museum in Xining. Another guy was the owner of a bar in Lhasa, Tibet. The third was a guy we came to know as Leo who was just a traveling telecommunications worker who could work from anywhere via his laptop. There was also a
French guy who was studying Mandarin in Beijing and Lin Sai herself who eventually explained to us that she ran one of the first Chinese Outdoor Adventure clubs in Guangzhou and fell in love with Tibet so she opened a hostel here. 

   What started out as a few drinks turned into many and a mix of all the different liquors. Finally, Leo and Dan sipped down the last drops of the bottle of Vodka as we realized it
was midnight. We decided it was too late to go eat and we were too drunk to go out for more drinks so we just retired to bed. Dan, as always when he's drunk, stripped down to his boxers and wandered the halls of the hostel until he found a toilet and took another dump.

   We woke up the next morning feeling less than well and packed our bags as best we could. With our giant packs in tow, we dragged ourselves out to the common room to check some last emails and check out. While saying our final goodbyes, Lin Sai gave us some great tips
about Tongren, our next stop.

   Tongren is known for its artists who paint the intricate 'Thangka' which adorn the halls of Buddhist temples. This type of art began over 300 years ago and Tongren artists are considered the best in the trade. Their works get commissioned from temples and individuals all over the world. To give you an idea, a postcard size Thangka painting takes about 1 month to paint and costs at least 300rmb ($50 USD). Most of them are poster sized and can cost between 3,000rmb ($500 USD) and50,000rmb ($7,000 USD).

   Lin Sai told us about the rare opportunity of staying with a local Thangka artist who lives in a monastery known for producing the best Thangka artists in the area and possibly in the world. We obviously accepted and set out on our way to Tongren.

   Once outside, the pain of the alcohol hit bad and so we sat down for some warm porridge to sooth our bellies. After eating we were still uncomfortable so we decided to walk the 3km to the bus station with our 15kg (33lb) bags for some fresh air – we weren't ready to get
on a windy bus yet.

   At the bus station we were only able to get a ticket for later in the afternoon, so we stored our bags and checked out the Tibetan market. Wow! We were amazed by the plethora of Tibetan robes, bags, candle holders, cowboy boots, horse saddles, horse panniers (not
suitable for our upcoming bike trip), and giant belts with live bullets. After debating whether or not to buy just about everything, including a Tibetan Hanukah menorah with the requisite 9 candle holders, we barely made it to our bus and set off for the wild west
artistic cowboy town of Tongren…

Dan and his Menorah

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