Saturday, April 13, 2013

Travel adventures in China

It was the beginning of National Day Festival in China. I had seven days off from the university where I was teaching English, so I wanted to get out of Wuhan to see what the rest of China looked like. In the month since I arrived, I had been so busy that I hadn't even gotten out to the countryside.

Yesterday morning Erica, my fellow teacher, and I boarded train for the first leg of our journey to Xiahe. There are five basic ways to travel by train in China: standing, hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. I think they're pretty self-explanatory. The only tickets left when I got to the station with my traveling companion were hard seat which would have made for a hellish two day trip. It doesn't get much more hard core than wooden benches divided by an aisle filled with standing riders who fall asleep leaning on you and knock you in the head with their bags. Luckily, a couple of our students had insisted on coming along to help us since this was our first time taking the train. They negotiated with the conductor and got him to agree to upgrade us to hard sleeper a few stops down the line. Everything in China is open to negotiation: prices, goods, laws. Being a foreigner sometimes works for you and sometimes against you, but this time it worked in our favor and an hour later, we were granted bunks in the hard sleeper car. The sleeper car has an aisle down one side and has rows of bunks stacked three high down the other side. I was so tired that I climbed onto my bunk and was quickly lulled to sleep by the rocking movement and the clickety-clack of the wheels.

When I woke later in the afternoon, the heat was stifling. I took off my shoes and socks and rolled my jeans up to my knees and finally fell asleep, waking every time the train stopped because the breeze stopped blowing. When I woke up, I had a headache so I climbed down and moved to the window. I folded down a jump seat and Erica took the one on the other side of the little table. We passed the remaining daylight hours watching the mountains and rivers and tiny farmer's huts go by. The mountains grew steeper and steeper and the air cooler and cooler. I had to put on a sweatshirt to combat the chill that had entered the air. Little villages dotted the cliffs. Even in the darkness, you could see the occasional glimmers of the little brown clay huts. Their lights reflected on the river that ran beside the track.

I've been living on noodles and nuts and the three liters of water that I brought in my pack. They don't sell food on the train. You bring instant noodles and the stewards bring around hot water. It's not bad once you get used to it, but I'll be glad to get to Lanzhou and have some more variety.

We spent the second day on the train looking out the window and reading our guide books. I tied my hair back with a  bandanna. For all the comfort of train travel, it would be just a little more comfortable if there was a shower available. The closest thing I had to a bath in the 24 hours we spent on the train was a couple of rinsings with some wet ones that I am ever so thankful I thought to bring.

We arrived at Lanzhou early in the morning and met up with the rest of our party. From there, we had to take a bus through the mountains to reach Xiahe. That bus ride was one of those never-going-to-forget-this-as-long-as-I-live type adventures. Perhaps the closest thing to a near-death experience as I've ever had. It began with seven hours on a bus that broke down ever two hours and made hairpin turns on two wheels over narrow mountain roads, and then we left the road altogether. We bumped and thumped down gravel pits and over giant potholes without the driver so much as touching his brakes. He hit one bump so hard that a suitcase fell on one guy's head and nearly cracked his skull. There was blood everywhere and I couldn't help thinking that if that had happened in America, there would have been a lawsuit. Instead, the guy wiped away the blood, held a handkerchief to his head and went back to his conversation with the woman next to him. We slept leaning on each others' shoulders as we bounced closer to our destination.

We all survived the ride, though, and now arrived in the small hidden village of Xiahe. The people here are mostly ethnically Tibetan and they still wear traditional Tibetan clothes. The streets are full of Buddhist monks and as we walk through town we pass rows of Buddhist prayer wheels. It's altogether different from bustling Wuhan. As I stood on the hill overlooking the town this morning with my clothes filthy from three days of travel and my hair matted and tangled, I realized that the destination was all the sweeter because of the challenge of getting here.

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