Saturday, June 02, 2012

Interlude in Xining

The bus from Choni to Lanzhou went through unexpectedly marvellous scenery. I'd thought it would go back the same way as I had come - on the good but boring road via Hezuo. However, I found that instead, the bus took a more direct but uncomfortable route northwards back to Lanzhou over some dirt roads that went over some high passes, into spectacular limestone gorges and also through some interesting Hui Muslim towns.

The first stop was in another grotty small town, known simply as "New Town" and which seemed to be predominantly Muslim. After that the tarmac road deteriorated into a rutted dirt track and the bus trundled along for mile after mile until it went over a high pass and into a limestone gorge similar in appearance to the countryside around Muli in Sichuan. This was the Lotus Mountain (Lianhu Shan) district, and it culminated in a small town called Yeliguan, which was surrounded by steep sided rock walls. The bus threaded along a narrow gorge from here, but I noticed that a tunnel was being bored through the mountain to improve access from Lanzhou to this town, which appeared to be being groomed as a tourism centre.

Emerging from the gorge, we rolled out into a flatter landscape dotted with small Muslim settlements, each with its own distinctive mosque. These Chinese-style mosques all had triple golden crescents jutting from their roofs. It was a straightforward drive back to Lanzhou from here - delayed only by a busy market clogging the road in one of the Muslim towns near Kangle.

Muslim market, Kangle, Gansu

Back in Lanzhou, I found the place quite overwhelming. It was noisy, pushy, crowded and very rough around the edges - quite unlike the more sophisticated and flashy cities of eastern China. Again, the Hui Muslim presence was very marked, and sometimes even made me forget I was in China. I checked into another grubby hotel near the station and bought a soft seat ticket to Xining for the next day.

Xining was a revelation after Lanzhou. Where Lanzhou was oppressive and congested, Xining was light and open. The air felt fresher and everything seemed quite green and new. In fact, it almost had the air of a midwestern US town - this was the Chinese frontier and the Han Chinese here had all moved from the east. The buildings were modern and not very Chinese, and the roads were wide and the traffic flowed freely - quite unlike the congestion and confusion of Lanzhou. I was a bit worried when the train whizzed through the city centre without stopping and continued into the no-man's land of the western suburbs. Then it was announced that the train would be terminating at Xining West station because the central station was being rebuilt. It had only taken a couple of hours or so to make the journey from Lanzhou.

Our train pulled in next to a long distance train that was marked as "Shanghai to Lhasa". The very idea made my mind boggle. Could Joseph Rock and his contemporaries ever have imagined there would ever be a rail link between Shanghai, the urbane "Paris of the Orient" on the Pacific, and the remote Lhasa, 'forbidden city" on the roof of the world in the Himalayas? I noted that the carriage opposite me was a hard seat. Who would ride a hard seat from Shanghai to Lhasa - and how long would that take?

Xining 西宁 Qinghai

Everything about Xining seemed to be positive. The people seemed open, friendly and down to earth. I had an honest taxi driver take me to the city centre, and I checked in to the wonderful Lete Hostel, situated on the 15th floor of a high rise just south of the town centre. The hostel was run very efficiently and affordably by a young Chinese woman who had worked in hotels in Switzerland. Something of the Swiss approach must have rubbed off - the hotel was clean and well organised and had a neat little bar-cafe where you could eat her home made pizza and drink a Qingdao beer for only 40 kuai. It was odd to be back among other laowai again. Even more odd was the fact that they all had laptops or iPads and spent all their time gazing at them and tapping on them. This is the "new normal" for travellers in the digital age, but it made it hard to start conversations and chat. When I did get talking to a few other guests, it appeared that most people at the hostel were using Xining as a staging post to get to Lhasa on the train. When I mentioned I was heading down to Amnye Machen nobody had ever heard of it.

I was worried about whether Ragya monastery would be another too-sensitive "closed to foreigners" area like Choni, but had no problem buying a bus ticket to nearby Dawu - apart from a bit of a jostle with the usual would-be queue jumpers. With a couple of days to kill before my departure for Ragya, I took a stroll around the "Muslim quarter" of Xining around the grand mosque. It was an interesting area with varying degrees of adherence to Islamic dress codes. Some young girls wore just a loose headscarf with flashy Chinese clothes, while others wore a veil that covered their mouth and a full length skirt that went right down to the ground. It was interesting to see that Muslim women dressing this way also attracted stares of bemusement and puzzlement from Han Chinese as well.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
And in this way I spent a whole afternoon just mooching round the area near the mosque, people watching, perusing the market and stuffing my face at one of the many great Qingzhen (Muslim) restaurants there.

Xining
This is the Dongguan Grand Mosque of Xining, supposedly dating from the 14th century, but mostly built in the 19th century and rebuit as late as the mid-20th century.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Xining Muslim market Xining Kids at the Xining market

Xining Any old iron?

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
I just love this picture of the little dumpling restaurant at the market which I used as a hide to tryand take candid pictures from the window.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
This was the only picture I was able to get from the cafe window. The guy then came in to the cafe for his lunch and gave me the evil eye.

Xining Chicken in the raw.

Xining Not sure what these are. Something red. Artichokes?

Xining Tea. Lots of it. No teabags.

Xining I always wonder where all this fresh fruit comes from in such an arid part of the world. Where DO they grow pineapples in Qinghai? Or are they imported from tropical Hainan?

Xining
This old guy knew how to get about. I could have used a bike like that after walking around Xining all day and getting blistered feet.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Street hawker. Business a bit quiet.

Xining
Bread - as used by the hostel woman to make pizza!

Xining
Headwear is a big part of being a Muslim, in China as elsewhere these days.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
One of the things about China is the way people just run their businesses on the path.

Xining 西宁 Qinghai
Ditto - metal bashing again.

Xining
Thinking of some corny line about chicks hanging out with a guy ...

Xining Muslim scholars heeding the call to midday prayers.

Xining Muslim men near the Grand Mosque at midday.

Xining A pretty typical Xining Muslim family.

2 comments:

Vladimir Menkov said...

"Could Joseph Rock and his contemporaries ever have imagined there would ever be a rail link between Shanghai ... and ... Lhasa...?"

I don't know what Rock's ideas on railways may have been, but as early as 1879 N.M. Prjevalsky, when crossing over the Tanggula Range (where today the highest station of the Qing-Zang Railway is), noted that comparatively gentle slopes of this range make railway construction over it feasible. (",,, a railway could be conveniently laid over the Tanggula" / "... через Тан-ла удобно могла бы пройти железная дорога", in his Travels from Zaisan to Tibet and on the Upper Yellow River, Chapter 11)

40 years later, Sun Yat-sen's plan for a national railway network called for both a Xi'an-Lanzhou-Xining-Lhasa and a Wuhan-Chongqing0-Chengdu-Lhasa routes.

Michael said...

Thanks Vladimir! Sorry for the late reply - all my comment notifications have been going in the spam filter.