Sunday, July 08, 2007

Qinghai Travels, Part V: Close Encounters with Knife-Wielding Mongolians

When we returned to Xining I was still ill and needed a day to recover, and since we didn't arrive early enough for the day trip we had planned anyway it became a day of rest. The next day was set aside for Qinghai Lake (青海湖), probably the best known attraction of Qinghai Province. It is the largest lake in China and features blue, unpolluted water and the aptly named Bird Island, which has... lots of birds.

The lake is well outside of Xining with no public transportation, so despite knowing better we had to sign up for a Chinese tour group. This was the low point of the trip (disregarding the several days of bus riding) and I was only further turned off of tour groups. In a marathon of a day trip we spent 10 hours riding on the bus to spend a grand total of one hour at the lake. The distance was the main problem, but more irritating were the numerous stops at lame souvenir shops along the way. Before the lake we were also subjected to the Sun Moon Mountain, a hideously touristy Tibetan temple crawling with opportunists selling Chinese tourists the chance for a photo on a yak in a tacky minority costume. It was a big artificial yawn in comparison to the temples in use we had already seen. Referring to the Tibetan prayer flags covered in obviously Tibetan writing on the way in (it vaguely resembles Arabic), a man behind us on the bus asked a companion "is that writing Tibetan or English?" I would compare this to an American not being able to differentiate say, Chinese and Russian writing, after having had six years of compulsory Chinese study at school.

Having seen the ocean in my life the lake itself wasn't too thrilling, though it was indeed a very pretty lake. It was much too crowded with tourists, and the time was too short. Besides that it was far and away the most expensive day of the trip; Andrew even got in a protracted argument with a restaurant owner when he tried to shamelessly cheat us by charging 5 yuan each for tea. Before going to Qinghai every single Chinese friend asked us "are you going to Qinghai Lake? Qinghai Lake is very beautiful." When I replied yes but we were mostly interested in Yushu, they would nod blankly and say "oh," which is probably one reason Yushu was 100 times better: no one knows about it.

The last destination of the trip was Tongren (同仁), which stood out mostly for a reputation for distinctive Tibetan paintings known as Tangka. We were approached on the street by a young Mongolian man without a whole lot to do, and made a friend for the day who showed us around town and helped us. When we talked about the paintings he started telling us about how they were illegal but we could come back and buy them at night in the temples, and we had to clear up that we were buying new paintings for sale, and not antique hunting for the black market. True to our different personalities, Stephen went marching up hills by himself at the first temple, while me and Andrew relaxed in the shade talking to the Mongolian, whose Chinese name was Bateer. A Mongolian through and through, Bateer is in the habit of carrying a large knife on his belt at all times. When we finally saw Stephen again he shouted at us "that was flippin' awesome!" Apparently we had missed the best temple ever. But on the other hand, it was hot out.

Bateer took us to another temple complex where we could buy paintings. We were introduced to a monk artist and his entourage of apprentices, and soaked up the surroundings of his atmospheric workshop/home. I wasn't originally planning on buying a painting, but Stephen's enthusiasm caught on, and I finally broke down as I realized I would be returning to America with very little to show in terms of purchases. I asked the monk to explain the painting, but he would only say "it's too complicated," and in Chinese I was definitely going to take his word for it. Afterwards we had to be heading back to Zhangye, with Bateer (who was fond of us and still had nothing to do) hanging out on the bus until it was time for us to go. About two months later, that finally wraps up the story of the May holiday. I'll try to be a little more on the ball when I travel this summer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great writing. really enjoyed the Qinghai thread.

Thanks, Luke.