"There was no good reason to go to Yulin and it took 10 hours to get there."
Since reading it I've always liked this line, which opens one of the chapters of Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. I believe the foreigners who get the most out of living in China are those who secretly get a kick out of the hassles, frustrations, and absurdities of living on the other side of the world. With this attitude in mind, I opted for a less comfortable but less predictable travel experience during this past May holiday. The first week in May is a national labor holiday in China, and through careful diplomacy me and travel companions Stephen and Andrew turned that into a 9-day trip through Qinghai (pronounced "ching-hi"), a neighboring province. I had never had any intention of visiting Qinghai, which is known for being a hostile home for Chinese prisoners sentenced to manual labor, when it is known at all. It is one of the poorest provinces in the country and perhaps 75% of its population lives in Xining, the capital and only large city.
What drew me to Qinghai the most was a small town of about 40,000 called Yushu. Yushu (玉树, "jade tree") is the Chinese name, but it is culturally and historically a Tibetan town with the name Jyekundo. It took 17 hours to get there (actually 29 if I include the initial trip to Xining), but we had a moderately good reason to go there. It is not in the guide books, but I stumbled upon a thread at Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree travel message boards which describes Qinghai as underrated, and a great place to see mountainous scenery and Tibetan culture. It's separation from the Tibetan Autonomous Region is somewhat arbitrary, and outside of Xining the area was and continues to be part of the Tibetan cultural sphere.
The first stage of the journey was getting to Xining, which due to my teaching schedule involved taking an overnight bus. Overnight buses are normally sleeper buses, but unfortunately only buses with seats were available to Xining, so we spent the first 12 hours of the trip sitting upright until 6am, enjoying the increasingly snowy scenery and the only genuinely humorous Chinese movie I have seen so far.
The next bus to Yushu wasn't until 4pm, so we bought tickets and took a walk around Xining. During a tense moment they were initially reluctant to sell us tickets at all because we were foreigners; we knew the area was closed to foreigners in the past, but has been open for some years now. There was some issue about coming into contact with dirt and bugs that we didn't quite understand at the time, but after a couple of phone calls and long glances they were satisfied that we didn't spend our days digging trenches with roll-up sleeves.
Xining is cleaner and more pleasant than our provincial capital, Lanzhou, but other than it's ethnic mix of Han Chinese, Tibetans, and Hui, isn't particularly noteworthy. We also used our time to visit Ta'er Si, an important Tibetan Buddhist temple complex outside of the city that we had hoped to see.
Ta'er Si was worth the visit, but was heavily touristed and didn't have as good an atmosphere as other temples we would see. We were alarmed to see a monk carrying an automatic weapon in one small temple, until we realized it was a toy to keep birds away. As we climbed one of the encircling hills to get a view over the area, we struck up conversation with an old Tibetan man. By "we" I mean Andrew, whose Chinese is considerably better than mine or Stephen's and is a good conversationalist. The many interesting conversations we got into during the trip would have had less depth or been non-existent without him.
The old man was performing the self-prostrations which are part of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. This involves kneeling on the ground and spreading forward until you're flat on your stomach, and then spreading your arms in an arc which marks the spot for your next prostration. It's a slow process which seems to cover fairly long distances and lengths of time. According to Stephen, who was the only one who knew much of anything about Tibetan Buddhism, it is to atone for one's sins. He had a thick cake of dirt on his forehead as he talked to us. He seemed to like Americans, remarking that Americans look after the Tibetan people. This was a fresh change from the usual bland "America is very developed" that I get.
Back at the bus station in Xining, boarding the bus was to be a heart-wrenching experience - despite our assumption, the bus was not a sleeper. That meant for the 17+ hours to Yushu we sat upright and awake, on a road that would sadden a civil engineer's heart to see. We were in the very front as well, but along with the extra leg room we were treated to a front-row view of the death-defying turns along the precipitous mountain roads. It was stressful at times. And thus we spent two nights in a row sitting on bus seats, and Chinese bus seats at that. It would be 60 straight hours before I slept, a record-breaking streak for me. For better or worse I took pride in "eating bitter" (吃苦 chīkǔ), a Chinese phrase for enduring hardship.
We did make it all the way to Yushu on that bus, which can't be said for the majority of the passengers. Around 20 of our fellow riders were migrant workers that had been organized by an untrustworthy-looking man in a cap and glasses who spoke in heavy dialect. In the early dawn hours of the next morning, perhaps 14 hours into the journey, we came to a small settlement that acted as a police checkpoint. After waiting a couple of hours (I believe the policemen were asleep) our bus was inspected and everyone (besides us and an obviously Tibetan family) was asked to get off. Things took a turn for the worst for the migrant workers, and after some meek protesting and a policeman declaring several times "I don't care," they were not allowed back on the bus, and we left without them.
This place was very much in the middle of nowhere, with nothing for miles upon miles upon miles. It reminded me of a Hollywood set for a Old Western ghost town. The buildings were empty and a good proportion of the inhabitants were large, vicious dogs on chains, one of which nearly frightened me to death when it lunged at me in my half-asleep stupor before I had noticed the chain. I had to wonder what on earth the motley crew of workers was going to do now. The bus was now mostly empty, carrying just the three of us, four Tibetans, and the boss of the workers, who was not about to hang around to see what happened to them. From what Andrew understood the reason the workers were not allowed to go to Yushu had to do with the same insect issue that nearly prevented us from buying tickets, and at the bus station had told us outsiders were not allowed in without proper documentation, which they obviously lacked.
As we made the final approach to Yushu, my lack of sleep was overpowered by increasing excitement, as the empty stretches of land and undulating mountains slowly became populated by Tibetans on motorcycles, Tibetans herding yaks, Tibetan prayer flags, Tibetans in colorful outfits, and yet more yaks. Nearly as satisfying was the lack of tour buses or huge groups of Chinese in matching red hats being led by a megaphone-touting tour guide. After a long trip, we had arrived.