Xian (Shaanxi Province) is a very old and planned city with more than 3,100 years of history and culture. It is also one of the ancient capitals of China.
The center is surrounded by a huge wall, forming a rectangle of 12km of perimeter surrounded by a moat, is the most preserved wall in China, with its proper repairs. In the center is located the “Bell Tower” and the “Drum Tower”. The city wall separating the center of the suburb was originally built in 1370 in the Ming Dynasty, but only took the current form with bricks in 1568. It has 12m high and its base 18m wide, as well as several watchtowers.
The “Bell Tower” is the heart of the city although it is not at the epicenter of the wall, it was built in 1384, rebuilt in 1582 and restored in 1739, obviously has a large bell, made of bronze. The architecture is typical Chinese and its green roof forms the largest and best preserved “Bell Tower” of all China.
The “Drum Tower”, a few meters from the Bell Tower, is a larger building and contains dozens of huge drums. Behind the Drum Tower was the famous Muslim Quarter of Hui minority. They are said to be descendants of 8th-century Arab soldiers. The streets were narrow and the grocery stores, restaurants and stalls sold typical Muslim things, such as sheep’s head to eat the brain.
I walked from the south gate of the wall (it is the main entrance) to the west gate and then to the north gate. The day was cloudy, better than fog, because visibility is better without that opaque sky that was bad for photos.
Xian also have its department stores with the famous brands in the center.
The next day, despite being Tuesday, I went to do a biking, for me it was a “Sunday”. And the day was sunny and clear skies, good for photos! The biking was on the top of the city wall, from the south gate I followed clockwise to the west and then to the north, where the railway is, passing through several watchtowers. I paid an expensive bike renting, considering local standards, $2.50 for a hundred minutes. From the north gate I walked to the “Bell Tower”, I would still pass dozens of times through the center.
Biking on the wall.
Xian soldiers in the city center. Bell Tower in the background.
My trip from Lanzhou to Xian was a string of delays, the bus delayed an hour, stopped to be repaired for another hour, had a detour on the way and a lot of traffic, and the road was stopped because of works, there were many trucks on the single narrow lane between the mountains. In the middle of the road appeared a lady selling food in styrofoam marmites brought in an aluminum tray, I do not know where it came from, but I ended up buying one and it was warm.
The forecast to arrive at 7pm was totally wrong and I arrived at 1:30 am at Flávio’s house, without remembering which condominium or floor it was. I was lucky to find a resident coming in and borrowed his cell phone to call. I was obviously fooled as to the length of the route, Chinese likes to cheat!
In the next two months I would devote myself to the studies of Mandarin and Cantonese in Xian. It was September 1st. 2006, my day of gravy, rest day and lots of rain. At least it was fresh, Xian is usually very hot, but the season was over. It was also the day to do my accounting, edit photos and update my blog.
The next day I met Regiane, a Brazilian from Ceará who was studying Chinese in Xian, she lived in the same condominium as Flávio. We had lunch all together.
The dinner was with American students at a supposed to be a Brazilian steakhouse. I was anxious, but it was a mistake, only the way of preparation was Brazilian, but the meats and other things had nothing to do with it. No picanha, fraldinha, contrafilé or filet mignon. I’d have to wait until the next year to kill the longing.
On Sunday I went to a Sunday service with the foreigners at Anita’s house, an American who grew up in Brazil, she loved Brazil and had a northeastern accent. The whole day was “smog”, glad it does not exist in Brazil, it was a sunny day but the sky was covered by a fog, taking all the liveliness of a clear sky.
I noticed that in China there is no squeegee and it is difficult to find beverage machines as in Japan or Taiwan.
Today the weather was good and I have walked a lot! I hiked from the hotel to the top of Lan Shan mountain here in Lanzhou, at an altitude of 500m, the mountain was behind the train station as in Xining. I was going to take the cable car to the top but it was packed and the hike didn’t seem to difficult so I have decided to climb the mountain – it must have taken about 2 hs. I expected it to be more difficul, but it was a lot easier than Grouse Mountain in Canada or Villarrica Volcano in Chile, perhaps because I was already in better physical shape compared to my first few weeks of travel. From below, the mountain looked very high, and from the top it looked even higher! The buildings seemed low and small, the city looked like a mock-up and the tiny cars and trains seemed like toys.
At the top there was an amusement playground and restaurants, all empty. It also had a nine-hole golf course and a drive range to practice the shots, where I played fifty balls.
Today was a rainy and cold day in Xiahe. I was going to Lanzhou and then to Bingling Si, but as Bingling Si was before Lanzhou I decided to change my route. I actually had to go to the city of Linxia, I was hoping to sleep there or in Bingling Si, or even in Liujiaxia.
The bus left early, I was talking to Vanessa on the bus, she was going to Lanzhou, after spending 8 months in India and now she was at the end of her trip. She was in doubt whether she was going to Xinjiang or Beijing with the little time she had left. The big bus was empty, had only five people and no one else went up, rare thing in China, I thought it could be full on the way, but it didn’t happen. The trip lasted about 5 hours.
The driver dropped me off in the middle of the road in Linxia, about 2:30hs from Xiahe, glad there were taxi and bus. I took a bus to the old bus station, but it was disabled, I then went to a terminal where I took another bus to Lianhwa. The bus was climbing a mountain passing through inland villages, dirt road, something unusual around here, the streets and roads are almost all paved, there were more beautiful landscapes such as canyon, mountains and finally the Yellow River, which this time was green.
In Lianhwa, I negotiated a motorized boat for USD 14.80 one way to Bingling Si and back to Matou, where there was nowhere to stay, so only Liujiaxia or Lanzhou left to sleep.
Typical landscape on the way to Bingling Si.
Bingling Si is where there is a statue of giant sitting buddha of 27m carved on the slope of the mountain, it means “Ten Thousand Buddhas” in Tibetan. The boat ride along the Yellow River to the buddha is fantastic, the formation of the mountains was beautiful and unique. The place with the big buddha also had hundreds of other smaller buddhas, carved or painted on the walls of the mountain, was impressive for its beauty, it has 183 caves. The place located in a canyon has access only by boat during the months of June to October, when the river allows navigation. It was built over dynasties for over 1000 years, having begun around 420 AD in the Jin dynasty. In the region there were also some temples, I entered one that there was a buddha lying down.
The driver of Matou van, which was on the other side of the river, wanted to extort me charging RMB 4 to take me to Liujiaxia, it was about R$ 1 (USD 0.50), it was not expensive for me, but also it was not fair, because the other passengers were paying only RMB 1, after the discussion and another passenger intermediary in my favor, he charged me the fair price. When he left me in Liujiaxia, I was going to give an extra RMB 1, but the driver refused, we will never understand!
In Liujiaxia there was a hydroelectric power plant, after a half hour ride I was in doubt if I would sleep here but I decided to go to Lanzhou 2 hours drive away. On the bus to Lanzhou, the guy next to me was a high or middle school English teacher and he had a poor English, but at least he spoke some and wanted to practice, he was so excited. He praised me for the physical aspect. The first time I was praised by a man I found it strange then I got used to it, the Chinese had no intention or malice, it was part of their culture. It was also common to see heterosexual men walking down the street hugging, this would be inadmissible to Latin people. In that sense I was Latino, I don’t really like masculine touches or physical approximations.
The itinerary of the day was like this: bus in Xiahe, bus in Linxia, boat in Lianhwa, boat in Bingling Si, bus in Matou and bus in Liujiaxia to Lanzhou. Later I came to find out that “matou” means “pier” in Chinese, it was not a town’s name. The weather was good in Lianhwa, Bingling Si and Liujiaxia, unlike Xiahe. At night in Lanzhou looking for a hotel to stay I ve found that foreigner could not stay at anyone, I was turned down in some. The chinese-only hotels are pretty dirty. But what I stayed in, I don’t think they could have hosted me either. Since I was disguised as a Chinese man, I think they let me stay. Perhaps these hotels are of such low class that in order not to make a bad impression on foreigners, they were simply forbidden to non-Chinese.
Today Laetitia, Vanessa and I returned to the monastery of Labrang, since yesterday we could not know everything.
Labrang is a true monastery city, smaller only than Llasa, one of the six largest monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect, larger than Xining’s Kumbum, with several Tibetan temples and full of monks in red robes and some with yellow hats. It was founded in 1709 by monk E’Ang Zongzhe, who became the first generation of the “Living Buddha” or “Jiemuyang”. It was the scene of battles and atrocities between Tibetans and Muslims in the 1920s, later with the Cultural Revolution, monks were persecuted and the monastery closed, re-opened only in 1980. It’s a city within another city.
A tour around here is certainly something worthwhile, especially when you don’t have Tibet on the script. There is no separation or wall between the monastery and the city, the place is very beautiful with its architecture and typical colors. There was a large white stupa, a pagoda, several red-earth brick buildings, some with a golden roof, but what caught my attention most was the first building early in the monastery. In fact it was as if it were a giant rosary, while the monks prayed, walked clockwise around the building and spinning a kind of drum called “prayer wheels”, there were hundreds of these drums lined up around the building, I had no patience to count how many there were.
We joined a group that had an English guide to enter to some temples. The monks dropped their black-skinned shoes at the entrance to the temples, which were piled up, I don’t know how they could distinguish their peers, for they were all the same, perhaps by smell. Inside the temples the guide gave some explanations about Buddha and the various incarnations and schools, while the monks practiced their prayers in a half-light environment.
I climbed one of the temples from where it had the view of Labrang, on the roof of the temple there was a golden stupa with a Buddha inside.
In the afternoon I went with Oriane to the mosque and the old part of town. The mosque was entirely made of Chinese architecture, only the crescent moon erected on the roof and the minaret demeaned the religion.
In the evening at the restaurant we found out there were two menus with different prices, one for locals and another for westerners. In fact I realized because yesterday I had eaten noodles in that same restaurant alone, and today I have found the price more expensive, the menu was differentiated by color. Yesterday I was confused with a local Chinese, but today I was with the foreigners and not to create confusion I ended up paying the price of the menu for foreigners. The Chinese are full of tricks to deceive tourists, this is one of the things that most annoy tourists, apart from the lack of hygiene and politeness.
I took a copy of Lanzhou’s missing pages from Laetitia’s Lonely Planet, although being in French helped a lot, after all I understood a little. This guide is the backpacker’s bible. Without knowing, I ended up not knowing the other part of town where there was the temple and sect of the Red Hats.
From Xining to Xiahe, I took a mini bus for 6h15m full of Tibetans and entitled to the burping show by the Tibetan lady who sat next to me. Halfway through the tight bus stopped to pick up passengers who were sitting on stools in the middle of the corridor.
The way to Xiahe was very beautiful, again between dry and green mountains, rivers and lakes. It may seem repetitive the description, but I guarantee that the scenery is not the same as the previous ones, each has a particular beauty.
Xiahe is an inland city in Gansu Province south of Lanzhou, tipycally Tibetan and population of 150,000 people. Here Tibetan is the spoken language and the writing is different as well. There were many westerners tourists around here, as well as other minorities, such as the Huis and Salars, who are Muslims, I could not see the difference between these two ethnic groups, which by the way are different from the Hans, despite being low and with “pulled” eyes. The Tibetans, on the other hand, are the majority, about 70% of the population, and very different from the Huis, Hans, Salars or Uighurs, they were taller, darker and well-protruded nose, in addition to “pulled” eyes.
The town was very small, the smallest I’ve been here in China so far, it was possible to know the city in an hour on foot. There was only one avenue that cut through the city along 4km, whose Daxia River ran parallel. It was surrounded by mountains too, but quite different from Lanzhou or Xining.
It was a tremendous cold, I had no clothes suitable for the weather, because I expected to travel only to Xinjiang, I spent a cold and I got a flu on this day. But since I was disguised as Chinese, without embarrassment, I was scarred anywhere.
I arranged to meet Laetitia and Oriane, the two French women I met in Xining. Laetitia was blonde and taller than me, I think she was 24, and she was going to Lao to do volunteer work. Oriane was also a blonde in her forties, she laughed at everything and would go to do volunteer work in Cambodia.
In the afternoon I went to Labrang Monastery with Laetitia, close to the hotel where I stayed, the Oversea Tibetan Hotel, which by the way I sneaked and used the bathroom of the private rooms, since the doors were open, instead of using the shared bathroom that belonged to the shared room. Remember that here some hotels reserve some rooms for backpackers, and the shared bathroom comes along with the package.
In the evening we went to have dinner, Laetitia, Oriane, Vanessa a french brunette and curly hair and an Englishman, I was bothered by their cigarettes, Europeans smoke as much as the Chinese. I ate “tsamba”, a typical Tibetan food, bad by the way, it was made of ground barley ground in flour, one can eat adding tea and/or sugar and butter, I did not finish this meal and alone I went to another restaurant to eat a good pasta. Tibetan tea is medium salty and oily. Feeling cold I borrowed Laetitia’s blanket.
I took a tour to the largest lake in China, Qinghai Hu, 150km from Xining, of cold and saltwater, with an area of 4600km², 360km of circumference and altitude of 3,200m, twenty-three rivers flowing into this lake, which gave the impression of being a sea. It has a rock islet called bird island, where thousands of birds of various species make their nests.
In the van there were only Chinese people. I was disguised as one, just as long as I didn’t open my mouth. But soon everyone started talking, asking and answering where they were from, so I talked about my Sino-Taiwanese-Brazilian origins.
The first stop was at a place where they sold Chinese medicine stuff, nothing could be more boring. The second stop, on Mount Sun and Moon, where it had a stupa at the top of the hill, quite green and there was a white yak (the hairy cow) to photograph or mount it. The third stop was a useless place to buy dried meat. Chinese tour is always a steal!
The lake, though gigantic, didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t pay for a ticket, I chose to sleep in the van. An aggressive Tibetan monk kept insisting on money, banging on the glass of the van, and wanted money at any cost, of course I didn’t give anything, who told him to follow monastic life?
Then we passed some dunes, and finally a pasture, no big deal. This tour was pretty boring. Back in the city in Xining, I visited the Grand Mosque, built in 1380 A.D., Chinese architecture occupied a large block.
I was alone in the hotel of Y36 (USD 4.60), I had gotten a cold so I decided to sleep more. Today dawned good and warm. I left at lunch time for the Monastery of Kumbum, or “Taer Si” in Chinese, although interesting, I did not need to paid the expensive entrance (USD 10), if I did not enter into the temples of the complex, there was nothing so impressive, I was just interested in taking pictures of the buildings outside. But as it was my first visit to Tibetan temples, in the final balance I liked. Right at the entrance there was a sequence of eight white stupas. Stupa is a type of Buddhist mausoleum in the shape of a tower, having various formats, generally conoidal, as if it were an inverted funnel.
Kumbum in Tibetan means “100,000 buddha images”. It is a complex with nine Tibetan Buddhist temples. There is another Kumbum in the city of Gyantse in Tibet. The one I visited is 25km from Xining, this region belonged to the province of Amdo, which belonged to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is also called Lamaism. It was in this region where the current Dalai Lama lived and where Tsongkhapa was born in 1357, the founder of the Sect of Yellow Hats, or “Gelugpa” in Tibetan. Kumbum was founded in 1583 in honor of Tsongkhapa. Before 1958, there were 3,600 monks in Kumbum, currently there are only 400, due to persecutions and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. Kumbum currently receives many tourists and pilgrims, mainly Tibetans and Mongols.
Back in Xining, I went to the Beishan Si, which means “Temple of the Northern Mountain,” a 1,400-year-old Taoist temple built on the mountainside, I had to climb hundreds of steps of a staircase, the temple was already closed, but I could enjoy the view of the city.
Ho was separated and she had a daughter. In this country it’s still shameful to admit separation, especially when you’re a woman. Divorces and separations are an epidemic that has been reaching any race, it is one of the great evils of modern life. She walked me to the nearby airport. There were only Chinese people at the airport and on the plane, they carried many boxes of the famous fruits of Xinjiang, they were as noisy as Brazilians or Italians. The flight between Ürümqi and Lanzhou was delayed by an hour and a half.
I arrived at night in downtown, it was cold and the Lonely Planet guide book was missing a few pages from Lanzhou. Without a map, I was also completely disoriented. I paid dearly for a map I bought in a hotel, almost useless because it was all in Chinese.
I had seen a college address on a website, glad it was close to where the airport bus stopped, but there foreigners could not stay. I ended up staying in the accommodation of a college employee, there was a guy who was a doorman in one of the buildings and let me stay in his bed, because there was another bed in the lobby, I was surprised he didn’t charge me anything. At first it was kind of difficult to communicate, Yan could not understand my accent, he thought I was speaking another language other than Mandarin, but in the end he got used to it. My accent is Southern, because of my origins. I didn’t expect to find such a nice Chinese, there was another nice guy also in the room who was a janitor and educated.
Here you can not distinguish very well the social class (like in Brazil), everyone has at least high school degree and dress the same (riches and poor), and all have the “pulled” eyes, there are a lot of people and a lot of competition too. Only peasants dressed differently, making it easy to identify them.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province with a population of 3.5 million, Tibetan influence and surrounded by mountains. The famous Yellow River (Huang He) despite the color being muddy, crosses the city before traveling another 1,500km to its final destination in Qindao. Located geometrically right in the center of the Central Empire, Gansu is a province northwest of China, bordering Xinjiang. Here it was also part of the Silk Road and part of the Great Wall was here.
The next day Yan gave me some indication of how to go to the tourist sites, wrote some sentences in Chinese in my notebook to show to the Chinese, in case I needed help since I was illiterate here. He gave me his phone number in case of emergency and as a good patriot gave me a pin of Mao Zedong, without knowing the true story of this genocidal.
It was an adventure, with the missing pages of Lonely Planet, everything got harder (* as you realized already, this trip was before the creation of wi-fi, smartphones and google maps). In doubt between going to Xining, Xiahe or touring first in Lanzhou, I decided to go to Xining first. Lanzhou, Xining and Xiahe form a triangle, with Xining west of Lanzhou and Xiahe south of Lanzhou.
I went to the train station, there were thousands of Chinese and an endless queue, so I gave up and took a bus to Xining. I saw a foreigner and I followed him, he was with a Chinese guide, who helped me to buy a ticket to Xining for Y36 (USD 4.60), the bus station was close to the railway. But the driver implied that I was a foreigner and I had to exchange my ticket for another one with mandatory insurance for foreigners for Y53 (USD 6.80).
The road to Xining was beautiful, it was even colder than Lanzhou and drizzled. On the bus, a young Chinese man seeing that I was writing in a language other than his, started a conversation. The young man had never been to Xining and was going out to try to make a living as an apprentice mechanic, he had a contact in the city.
The bus stopped at a bus station and soon bought a local map to guide me, I took a bus to the other bus station next to the railway, on the other side of town, then I have found a hotel. The main buses and trains all left from here, the place was strategic.
Xining was the part I had at my Lonely Planet, here it was where I first saw Tibetans, I made a point of recording some photos, scenes of Buddhist monks in red robes walking along side Hui Chinese (who are Muslims), head covered with white beret. Tibetan women are of larger size than the Hans, with their colorful robes, long skirts and a pair of long braids, reminded me of the “cholitas” of Bolivia, only the hat was different, the resemblance was incredible.
Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, with Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur influence, and surrounded by mountains, with a population of 2.1 million. It was also part of the old Silk Road. Qinghai Province, pronounced “tinrrai”, meaning “Blue Sea”, has the largest lake in China. It is to the west, bordering Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu and Sichuan. Like Tibet and Xinjiang, Qinghai was not part of ancient China, was incorporated into the Chinese empire 200 years ago and was definitively controlled by the Hans Chinese from 1949, when the Communist army defeated the Muslims. It is a province full of prisons and labor camps, where criminals and opponents of the political regime are sent, about 400,000 people are in these prisons, almost 10% of the population of the province.
In the evening I went to the evening market to dine with a Danish hippie with strange ideas and two French blonde women, Oriane and Laetitia.
In the evening I went to Ürümqi, back to He’s parents’ house and I went to dinner at the night market. The house was at my disposal, but it was agreed to pay an amount equivalent to that of a hostel, a RMB 25 or USD 3 per night.
The next day I didn’t do anything interesting. I bought an airfare to anywhere between Ürümqi and Xian, I decided to go to Lanzhou impromptu, but I would have to wait four days because the flights were sold out and I paid dearly for it, USD 180.
I slept all the afternoon I was feeling weak, I was starting to get a flu, I had a little fever and my bowel decided to misbehave due to last night’s fish that wasn’t fresh.
On Sunday it was the day 40th since I began my adventure through Asia.
I arranged to meet with Cassandre and Sébastien at Ürümqi railway station, they came from Kashgar. They stayed with me tonight, the next morning they went to Heavenly Lake. I recommended Mr. Rashit’s tents to stay, and I asked Cassandre to deliver some photos to Kul Joen. As I knew Ürümqi well, I took them for a city-tour and took the opportunity to know two more places that I had not yet gone. We went to Erdaoqiao, Mount Yamalik and two night markets (Jia He Yuen and Wu Yi), the latter was quite large, occupying several blocks. When it was already dark we went to a park where there was a movie playing on a huge big screen in an open air, there were hundreds of Chinese.
I finally found deodorant in Carrefour, besides expensive there was only the Adidas roll-on or the Nivea spray, even so it was rare to find, the Chinese of any ethnicity do not have the habit of using perfumes. Even seeing black people here was easier! Here at Carrefour you can buy live frog, because it is part of the local cuisine. Well, at least I managed to find dental floss, another rare thing in this country!
Anywhere in the countryside of China, where westerners are rarely present, children shouted “hello.” Just as the Asians are like aliens in some cities in the Brazil’s countryside, white people are like aliens here.
In the next two boring days I rolled up until the date of my flight. I updated a little more of my blog going to cyber-cafes. In China the cyber-cafes look like a smokehouse, it’s horrible, 90% of men smoke, 100% of which are drivers, and do not respect whether they are in a restaurant, bus or any other enclosed environment. The non-smoking signs is more like adornments, similar to pictures.
Hotmail and MSN didn’t work in this country for days. Maybe it has to do with the violation of correspondence and spying mainly from non-Chinese websites. I was searching on sites what was attractions and accommodation in Lanzhou. With my diarrhea, I took the opportunity to rest.
One day I would go to the zoo, but I changed my mind, it was very complicated, getting there at the gate of the zoo it had to take a bus from the zoo, because the entrance was not there, but elsewhere. As I was feeling weak and sleepy I sat somewhere on the sidewalk and dozed a little in the shade. And in the other day I went to Erdaoqiao again to buy some little bags, a Brazilian friend who was in Xian had ordered.