grey marble

September 15, 2009

A few days around Lanzhou

I'm back in Beijing, after catching an afternoon flight yesterday from Lanzhou. I spent a few days in and around the capital of Gansu after leaving my parents in Jiayuguan. They were en route to Xian and Guilin; I was trying to pack in a few more sights before returning to the country capital to help my friends with wedding errands.

I took the overnight train to Lanzhou, climbing into the top bunk in a hard sleeper cabin. I went to bed shortly after we left the station and woke an hour before arriving. It was probably the best night's sleep I had had since arriving in China.

In Lanzhou I walked across the square from the station to my hotel. It was early yet and none of the rooms in my price range were free. I debated what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to rest a day in Lanzhou; on the other I didn't want to waste time. I asked the travel desk how best to reach Xia He. The woman told me to go to the South bus station and not to waste time; there were few buses that left in the morning.

I took a taxi across town, chatting with the driver as we went. Situated in a valley carved by the Yellow River, the city has grown long and narrow along its banks. The driver dropped me at the station and studiously gave me my change. He cautioned me to take a large bus; it was safer.

At the station, an attendant told me the bus was leaving in half an hour and asked me where I was from. I told her and she said she needed a copy of my passport and visa. She directed me to a copy center across the street. I made my copies and raced back to the station. I handed the copies to her and she passed me a ticket. I boarded the bus and we were soon off.

There were but four of us departing the city. At the city limits a man with a basket of drinks boarded the bus and immediately got off. It wasn't worth him to try to sell us anything. We drove along the highway for a while and then turned onto smaller roads. At one village a man got on with a bunch of other passengers and began to tell the ticket seller what to do. We drove on, picking up passengers as they hailed the bus, finally leaving them all off near Linxia.

I fell into conversation with the passengers near me. When we reached the small Tibetan village of Xia He they suggested we find a hotel together. One of them had been before many years ago, but was taking his friend from Xinjiang to check it out. We found a respectable hotel and went to check in, but they couldn't take foreigners. They directed me to the Overseas Tibetan Hotel up the street.

Xia He is noted as the leading Tibetan monastery town outside of Lhasa. The Labrang Monastery is situated on the far side of town, which at its peak housed nearly 4000 monks. The days I visited, the monastery seemed ghostly.

After a bowl of noodles I walked to the monastery and began by circumnaviating the monastery, joining a line of pilgrims as we spun the over 1000 prayer wheels along the way. I met a Chinese woman traveling alone and we fell into walking with each other. After making the 3km walk around the complex, we went inside and took a tour of the main buildings of worship and study. She told me she had trouble understanding the monk's Tibetan-accented Chinese.

After the tour we climbed a nearby hill for an overview of the area. The sun had begun to set and the evening was getting cold. We walked back to town and explored some of the back alleys, stumbling upon a mosque that was teeming with children. My friend pulled out her camera and immediately the children went nuts. A man in a white skullcap threatened to beat them with a stick and they dutifully quieted down and lined up. A girl came out and gave them treats, sharing some with us.

For dinner we had soup noodles in a simple restaurant, and then I walked my friend back to her hotel. She had booked it without consulting a map and discovered when she arrived that it was far down an unlit street and then down an alleyway. She asked me if I would be ok getting back to my hotel; I assured her I would.

The next day I had planned to stay in the area, but a light rain began to fall. I decided that hiking around the grasslands would be no fun in the rain and so caught a bus to Linxia and then back to Lanzhou. I took a cab from the bus station to my hotel, and the cab driver asked me where I was from and then if I was married. He had married at 26 and already had a one-year-old. He was from Tien Shui, as was his wife. He had met her in the city where he had come to work. He said there were many people from Tien Shui, which was an area also noted for its sights. He told me eventually he wanted to go back to his village; already he had thought that his five years in the city were long.

At the hotel he wished me well and kept the small change from the fare. I had promised my Xia He friend that I would eat some of Lanzhou's famous noodles when I returned; she had rushed through the city and had missed out. I checked into the hotel and asked where I might find good noodles. The desk attendants fought over different restaurants and then one assured me that one across the street was among the best in town. I threw her a look but she seemed confident. I went and ordered a piping hot bowl.

The next morning I decided to sleep in. I had asked the travel desk how to reach Bingling Si, a set of Buddhist grottoes located on a bend in the river some 75km southwest of Lanzhou. He told me to go to the West bus station, but to leave early, around seven. At seven forty-five, I crawled out of bed and debated trying to make the trip. It seemed too late to try, then decided I had to try.

I took the 137 bus to the west station a instructed and found myself in a huge intersection. I asked where the station was for buses to Liujiaxia and was told different things depending on who I asked. One told me to go back a few stops and one told me to go forward. I hopped another city bus and went forward, asking a man on the bus where to catch the bus to Liujiaxia. He sighed then told me to take the bus forward and that he would tell me where to get off. There I could hail a passing bus as it left the city. He told me I would see the name of the destination writ large and I could just wave it down. I thanked the man and memorized the Chinese characters.

At the turnoff I watched the passing buses carefully, but none approached bearing my destination. I resolved to wait until 10 and then there wouldn't be time enough for the trip. just past nine thirty I saw it. A bus called Liujiaxia. It barely slowed for me to hop on as it rounded the bend.

The ride to Liujiaxia was uneventful. The bus wound its way through mountains and valleys and an hour or so later we were there. The bus let me off at a small storefront where tour to the caves originated. There were no other tourists and the woman tried to convince me to hire a car for the almost four-hour round trip to the caves for 200RMB. The fast boat would be 95RMB per person but needed at least five passengers. I said I would wait.

A few minutes later another bus arrived and four Chinese passengers got off. They were also looking to tour the area but had yet to determine what they were to do. I stepped out and let them suss out their options. They called me back in. They too had decided upon Bingling Si. One of them had bargained a van down to 300RMB for the five of us, from an original 500RMB price. The woman at the shop made a phone call and we were soon on our way.

The bus wound its way through valleys and up over passes. The road went from serviceable to bad, and near the grottoes gave way over to mud. The driver stopped on a mountainside and said we'd have to walk the rest of the way. We hopped out into the mud. Turning a corner, we saw the Yellow River and a stone forest of mountain behind. I caught my breath. One of my fellow passengers said it was more beautiful than she had imagined and I had to concur.

We walked down to the grottoes and toured the valley walls, first one side, and then across a bridge to the other. The large buddha that is the star was under renovation and the stairs leading up to grottoes beside the statue were closed for renovation. We were short on time and had to rush.

Back at the road leading up to the van we were told to wait. Workers had set charges to blow out some rocks up ahead. We said we were pressed for time and a man told us not to worry as an exposion rained rock up ahead. We walked on.

The van sped us back towards town. A rain had begun to fall, but the driver sped on with confidence around the winding mountain roads.

Back in Liujiaxia we caught the bus after the last bus back to Lanzhou. It was the overtime bus as they called it. One of my companions bought bags of dumplings which she shared with us for the ride. The large comfortable bus quickly made its way back towards the city, the sounds of the window wipers putting me to sleep in my seat.

Posted by eku at September 15, 2009 4:38 AM

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