(Queenie with the Shepherd Children in Langmusi)
In one of the earlier eamils I sent, I said we didn't have a travel plan, well we made one. From Jiuzhaigou we decided to go to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, on bus! We will then fly to Beijing then go to Nanking and then end our trip in Shanghai, but not lets get on with the latest travelog!
Okay..so we have been travelling China now for three weeks and I can honestly say that I had my first "I hate China morning" on Friday. It all started at around 4:00am in the hotel in Jiuzhaigou when the temperature outside was about -5C and we realized that the cleaning lady had not closed the window and the room was also about -5C.....agghhhh....
....well after we warmed up and a little we had to wake up at 6:00am and leave the hotel at 7:ooam. We asked the hotel to find us a taxi but it was still dark outside and they could not find one so, in the bitter cold, we had to hike to the bus station......agghhhh....
.....we then got on the bus, of course we were the last ones to arrive, and after we got seated we realized we were surrounded by a bunch of chain smokers who initially respected my request not too smoke but afterwards just lit up anyway.....aggghhhh.....
.....after they had lit up I tried to open the bus window to get some air but I ripped my gloves.....aggghhhhh......
.....we then arrived in Songpan at about 10:30am where we were to spend the night before heading off to Gansu and the bus driver managed to tear the waist strap off my hiking bag....aggghhhh.....
.....we arrived at the hotel which was very dirty and did not have running water (we since discovered the whole town of Songpan does not have a continuous water supply). The hotel seemed like a prison with two uninterested girls running the place....agggghhhhh.....
.....we then discovered that every one in Songpan spits at an alarming rate and we had to play hopscotch to avoid the puddles of saliva that marked the street....agggghhhhh......
....and all this time we were really cold....aggghhhh....
...But then the sun came out, we found a place to have a hairwash, we had a wonderful walk through the town and started to enjoy the day at abuout 11:30am, and it has been pretty good since then. So what is there to say about Songpan?
It was once an important town that was used in some famous wars and battles (not famous enough for me to know). It still has the original wall and city gates. The people of Songpan are a diverse mixture of Han, Tibetan and Muslim. Really interesting. All the people (but most noticeably the kids) have the reddest and rosiest cheeks you have ever seen. In fact this is true for all the towns we have been in from Songpan up. It really looks unhealthy on them. The houses outside the city walls are all broken down wooden structures and the people still use firewood and coal to warm their homes and do their cooking. We actually saw a coal shop where you could buy a bag of coal. I forgot to find out how much a bag would cost! It generally wasn't a bad place but it is not the sort of place you wish to spend more than one day and a night in, and we didn't.
During the day we were sitting in a coffee shop in Songpan where they had the television on. The program on the TV was a variety contest were entrants were singing famous songs. The competion was in China but Queenie noticed that all the songs that were being sung were either from Taiwan or Hong Kong! She has been really surprised by the popularity of Taiwan music in China. Everywhere we go people are mostly listening to Taiwanese singers! In fact, one of the contestants on the show was even singing a Taiwanese folk song! really interesting.
In the evening we met an Englishman called Craig who was coming in the opposite direction (from Gansu into Sichuan) and he told us about the cold and how dangerous the roads were (he wasn't kidding). Craig also had many interesting stories about his travels around the world and especially about the "hygiene" in India (I will spare you the details). But we had a great time. Walking back to our hotels we were guessing the temperature. Craig figured it was about 2C, we found out the next day that it was about -8C (really cold).
That night neither Queenie and I could sleep! The electric blanket we were using was too hot and if we turned it off we were too cold. That is a real dilemma. Saturday dawned and we were to be up at 6:00am to take the 7:00am bus to Ruoergai (Zoige in Tibetan) and what a ride that was!
Firstly, you guessed it, it was freezing! We got on the bus with all these Tibetan people dressed in their traditional thickset cloaks and went off on another interesting bus journey (at least this bus driver cared about our lives). The first half-hour of the road was tarmac we then turned off onto a dirt track in the valley of two huge mountains (actually the dirt track is a road in the making). Of course in the valley we never saw the sun and so our feet felt like ice-blocks. During the bus journey in the valley the bus would continuously stop and people would get off and go to their homes. We couldn't see where they lived but I really felt for them! They live in such isolated places with so little warmth that it was just pitiful. I remember three of the people that got off. Two were kids who got off the bus, thinly dressed, shivering in the bitter cold and carrying a bag of clothes to a small store their parents ran where they would try to sell what they had bought. The second was a wrinkled, bent over old lady, heavily laden who got off the bus and headed down a small road with no home in sight. Queenie and I really wanted to weep after seeing this. This is the face of modern China!
Well anyway, after an eternity in this valley, and freezing to death we started to ascend a dangerous mountain road! But halfway up we met the sun and started to warm up. After about 15 minutes we finally reached the plateau, and what a sight it was! Snow covered fields filled with Yaks and Tibetan herdsman riding on their own yaks, horses or motorbikes! It was a sight to behold. As the journey went on the snow got less and more brown grass dressed the fields: but the yaks, Tibetan shepherds and the flat barren landscape with scattered Tibetan prayer flags, framed with snow covered mountains, never ended. I remember the first Shepherd we saw was a lady sitting in the snow all by herself, miles from anywhere, watching the yak herd. What an amazing life they lead!
On the road to Ruoergai we also saw these Tibetans kowtowing (bowing in worship) on the road. Later when we arrived in Langmusi we discovered that these Tibetans were kowtowing all the way to Lhasa! They would take 2 or 3 steps then kowtow, 2 or 3 steps then kowtow.....continuously.....it will take them 2-years or more to reach Tibet....what devotion! They believe that they will have a better next life if they do this.....but ahh, the agony.
After driving on the plateu for a few hours we finally arrived at Ruoergai....a sleepy Tibetan town with a population of about 70,000 according to one of the residents. Actually the town cannot hold more than a few thousand people but it seems that most of the population of Ruoergai county are shepherds and yak herders, living in tents, in the freezing cold! After arriving in Ruoergain we met a Canadian called Trevor who is still travelling with us (we had the same route). We have lost him once or twice but we always seemt to find him again!
Anyway, when we got to Ruoergai we immediately went to the Ruoergai hotel (at Craig's suggestion). This must be the central China Hilton. It was a MAGNIFICENT hotel with 24-hours of hot water, beautiful rooms and a wonderful reception, all for the grand price of RMB150 per night. We never wanted to leave. We could also phone anywhere in China for free! What a deal! If any of you ever land up in Ruoergai, this is the place to stay...no doubt.
The town of Ruoergai has an average annual temperature of 0.5C and the Ruoergai plateau on which it is situated is at elevations between 3500m and 3900m. The plateu is the home to a number of endangered animals. The town itself is laid back and we really had a good time just walking around and talking to a bunch of people on the road. That evening we had a meal with Trevor and learned of his travels through China (he has pretty much followed our route, or we have followed his). The temperature in Ruoergai was cold but the hotel was warm and we had a really good time there.
On Sunday, we were to board our third bus (to Langmusi) in as many days! We went early to buy the tickets and managed to get some but Trevor went too late and there were no tickets avaialable! We asked the bus driver if we could pay him directly and he told us that Trevor should go to a junction on the edge of the town. I told the cyclo rider the place but when we arrived at the junction, Trevor wasn't there, so we had lost him! At the junction the bus driver took out a bunch of small metal stools, put them out in the middle of the bus and then sold tickets to a bunch of people who could not but tickets at the station! The bus got really crammed and the driver pocketed a few extra yuan.
The bus from Ruoergai to Langmusi was mostly dirt road and it really got interesting when we went over a mountain. Coming down the other side I swear our wheels were millimeters from the edge! We saw an overturned truck on the road which really made it interesting! At any rate, we arrived in the dirty monastry town of Langmusi safetly 4-hours later. Once again we found a pretty decent hotel that was only RMB75 per night and it also had a heater.
That night, after walking through the town and eating dinner im a Muslim restaurant, we found a really cool Tibetan coffee shop where we met a bunch of really cool Tibetans. The owner of the coffee shop is A-Sun and he is only 26. He was telling me about the business and religious life in Langmusi. To start the business in Langmusi he had to pay the temple in his hometown, Gong-Ba which is 12km from Langmusi, RMB5000. After that he has to pay about RMB800 a month rent and it cost him around RMB30,000 to decorate the place. He also told me that the Langmusi Lama is a county vice-president. The Lama lives in Hezuo and only returns on weekends. The Langmusi Lama also owned the hotel we were staying in. So much for separating business, religion and politics (perhaps I know a little of that)...heh heh heh....A-Sun also told us that the Langmusi temple had been completely destroyed during te cultural revolution and was only rebuilt 20-years ago.
That night we also met a Shepherd who currently owns over 50 yak and more than 100 sheep. Apparently when the price is good one yak is worth RMB3000 and a sheep about RMB300. When the price is bad the yak is worth only RMB1200. He also told us about the difficulties of living on the plateau in winter and the cold. This guy has given up shepherding and is helping his wife run the Lama's hotel. He allows other shepherds and herders to use his land in return for them looking after his sheep and yaks. Oh, yes, the guy also owns 3 horses and he reckons that a horse is way easier to ride than a yak. I wonder? Our friendly shepherd had also been in Lhasa for four years. When I asked him what he had done there he just said had fun! Actually, I found out later that when the Tibetans do a pilgramage to Lhasa they will have to kowtow for at least 2-hours each day!
Day 2 saw us eating breakfast in another Muslim restaurant! You might wonder why this is well, the truth is that the Muslims are just so much cleaner (I kid you not). Now, I can understand why people do not want to shower when they have to carry the water from the river, then boil it and then afterwards freeze until you can get warm again! This I can understand. What I couldn't understand was why were the Muslims, who live in the same conditions as the other, just so darn spanking clean? It was an amazing contrast! At any rate, in Langmusi our staple diet was lamb noodles and mantou (a Chinese bread).
After breakfast we went to the Langmusi temple and hung out with some Tibetan Buddhist monks. We actually in the end never landed up going inside the temple but it was really cool talking to the monks. Apparently they are obliged to pray for 4 to 5 hours each morning. They then take a break for lunch (see video below), have lessons in the afternoon and do some self study. After that they do more prayers from 5:00pm to 9:00pm. This is their everyday routine! As I said, what a life. Some of the monks were as young as 12 years old.
We met some monks who had lived in the monastry for 20-years or more. How they did this if the temple was only rebuilt 20 years ago I do not know but it is what they told us. watching the lessons were also quite interesting! One person who was standing would shout out a question to someone sitting on the ground. The person on the ground would then shout out the answer.
We did try to find out about their beliefs but all they said is "We believe in Buddha, you believe in Jesus." They also thought that to gain membership into the Church a person had to pay lots of money. I told them that in all the Churches I had been in it was free. They were duly surprised, perhaps they thought I was lying!
Now the coolest part of our trip to Langmusi happened in the afternoon! Queenie and I went for a walk accross a small hill that was covered in snow. We got to the other side where there was a road and a frozen stream to cross where we met 3 shepherd children. They invited us back to their tent where we met their mother. It was great. The mother welcomed us in and she made us tea and then they set about making us Zhong Ba, the staple Tibetan food! Well, out of politeness I had to eat it. To be honest (and polite) I will say it was not that good but I still ate half of it and they were thrilled.
We also watched the kids chasing stray yaks around the campsite! These kids are half my height and run toward the yaks head on, without fear, shouting and throwing stones. A fully grown yak is huge, I was inclined to run the other way, but what can you do when a yak is about to trample your tent and all your earthly belongings? They told us that they had just walked five days from their previous pasture area to Langmusi to see out the winter! After seeing their life first hand I can honestly say that I appreciate mine more and more. At the end of our visit we took some pictures and the kids asked if we could mail them to their school where the could collect them. It was really cute.
That night we again hungout with A-Sun and the shepherds and this time I dragged Trevor along (who we found again earlier in the day). That evening there were a bunch of Tibetan youths hanging out in the coffee shop and they all just broke out into spontaneous Tibetan dancing. It was another great evening!
I suppose the last observation to make about Langmusi where the beggars and the way they are treated. For the first time since I left Shenzhen I was troubled by beggars! On the first night at least seven beggars came into the restaurant we were eating in to ask for money. The most amazing thing was that all the local people gave them one yuan. This happened regularly! Also, the restaurant owners always allowed the beggars to sit at a table and eat any left overs! It was an interesting sight. Of course I was also targeted and in the beginning resisted giving out money but after a while I started to give them a bit as I was shamed by the locals who have no money.
So far Langmusi has been one of the best places I have visited: watching the Buddhist monks eat in Muslim restaurants on modern cell phones and racing motorbikes up and down the road and as we say in South Africa "popping wheelies" was interesting. The warmth of the country folk and their generosity and openess to all was a pleasant departure from many of my experiences in China.
Tuesday saw us leaving Langmusi for Xiahe (where I am now) but that journery and this part of the trip is another story and I will send it to you all soon. Until then, all of you take good care of yourselves. Sadly, we only have 16 days left on the road, but we will make the most of it!