Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Back to Beijing, at last

A week after the prostration kora Alex finally left. We had talked about doing a kora around Bonri, a mountain holy to the Bon religion, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. However, Bonri was far away (near Bayi) and was in a military zone that was difficult for foreigners to get permits for (though it was supposedly easy to get into without a permit anyway). Also, Alex was short on time, I was sick and the weather was getting worse. I wanted to end my trip with one last adventure, but it wasn’t going to happen. I decided to just take the train out.
Lhasa’s train station was sleek and modern and felt out of place in the dusty, empty valley in occupied. I got my first taste of Chinese manners in a long time when I got on line to buy a ticket and a woman blatantly cut in front of me. Before I could say anything a Tibetan guard walked up and put his bullhorn in her face, yelling at her to get to the back of the line. I knew was going to miss Tibet.

The train was very clean and new. The scenery was pretty great for the first day, with plenty of rolling, snow covered hills and massive herds of yaks. Every time we passed a lake its significance would be described over the PA in Chinese and English. The English was grammatically alright but sounded incredibly corny- they said things like “the water’s tranquil visage will make your soul feel peaceful and clear.” It sounded better in Chinese.
The people sleeping in the bunks around me were all Chinese- once I had stepped on the train I had pretty much left Tibet. They were all on a business trip together and were very friendly, and even treated me to dinner in the train’s dining car. This was the flip side of Chinese manners. People could be shamelessly rude, but also extremely generous.
To get to the dining car we had to pass through the soft seat section. Only poorer people take seats on overnight trains. People in the sleeper section on this train were mostly Chinese, but the seated section seemed to have only Tibetans, many of them nomads. Before we went through one of the Chinese women said she wished she had a knife she could wear.
“Why?” I asked.
“In case they try to steal my purse or jewelry,” she said.
When we passed through the seat section of the train I attracted a lot of attention. Many of the Tibetan men wanted to shake my hand, and a lot of people said “hello!” or “tashi delek!” Some people offered me dried yak meat, tsampa and yak butter tea. It was extremely crowded, and the air stank of body odor and tsampa. A lot of kids had put down blankets between the cars of the train so they could sleep. The Chinese wanted to get out as fast as they could, but I lingered a bit to talk with a few Europeans who were in the seated section. I was a little jealous of them- you could meet Chinese people on almost any train in China, but only on this one could you sit with Tibetan nomads. On my way back to the sleeper section I played with a few Tibetan kids who had laid out some sheets to sleep on in between cars. They tried to pull me down, and I taught them how to do some Tae Kwon Do kicks.
The next day we arrived in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province and the first true Chinese city on the way from Tibet to China. Xining is still pretty high up, at an altitude of 2,200 meters, and has a relatively dry atmosphere compared to eastern China, but after being in Lhasa for so long the air felt humid and heavy. I had been to Xining before, in 2004, and thought it was pleasant and relatively easy to get around, for a Chinese city. This time it seemed to be much more sprawling, and there was a lot of construction. Maybe the train to Lhasa was helping the city’s economy, now that Qinghai was no longer a dead end in China’s rail system. Or maybe the city just felt larger compared to all the small towns I had been in over the last two months.
The day after arriving in Xining I got on another train, this time to Beijing. This train was much older and dirtier than the train out of Lhasa. I chatted a little bit with the two men who I was sharing a compartment with. They were from Xining, which has a small Tibetan population, and they talked a bit about how violent Tibetans were. “They only know the language of the knife,” one said, making a stabbing motion. “If they have an argument they don’t talk, they just pull out their knives.” I also chatted with two girls who were sitting in the neighboring compartment and who spoke a language I couldn’t recognize. They were both from the town of Xunhua in Qinghai, which I had passed through in 2004. One of them was a Salar. The Salar are a Muslim ethnic group that is centered around Xunhua and that has its own language. The other one was a Hui. Huis are also Muslim, but otherwise are identical to Han Chinese and do not have their own language. The Hui can be found all over China, in places as disparate as Beijing, Guangdong and Lhasa. While we were chatting I got them to teach me a few words of the Salar language.

Finally, in the afternoon of the next day, we arrived in Beijing. I was bored out of my mind by the time we got there, and sick of the endless muzak played on the train’s PA system. The the most amusing part of the ride was when the PA announced morning exercises. “Just because we are on a train and don’t have much space doesn’t mean we should neglect our health,” a recorded voice cheerfully told us. Stone-faced attendants, doubtless hating their jobs at that moment, stood in the middle of each car and led the exercises while the PA counted off with music that sounded like it had been lifted from a ‘70’s broadcast of Sesame Street in the background. The “exercise” consisted of things like rolling your head around and turning your body back and forth. Several people joined in, but I think most of the passengers thought it was pretty silly.
As we approached Beijing the endless, flat farms of central China turned into grey urban sprawl. When we got to the station and I got off the train I looked at the sky. In Lhasa it was deep blue. In Beijing it was grey, with the sun barely peeking through the mask of pollution.


Anonymous said...

Exactly, what is up with all that cutting? I wrote an LJ post once about how the Chinese had lived in a culture of not-enough for so long that they are used to pushing/cutting just to get a piece of the pie.


Aron said...

Hello from Colorado http://ayaco5.blogspot.com/

I really enjoyed reading some of your blog. I am planning a trip to Beijing in July. I'm raling through plenty of travel sites but was hoping if I could get some first hand advice from you. My wife and I have about 2 weeks in July to travel. So we plan to start in Beijing. There seems to be plenty to do in the city and some day trips to placed like Chengde Mountain Resort, Puning Temple and Putuo Zongcheng Temple, the Great Wall and much more. But could you recommend a country town that would be good to visit. We are pretty open to adventure. Actully we spent some time in Thailand a couple years ago, hiked through the junglle on our own. Eventully ran into a hill tribe near Burma. Lucky they took us in for a couple days. Anyhow, at some point we going to want to get off the beaten path and see some interesting/beutiful parts of China. Where would you recommend taken a semi short train ride to? Since we only have 2 weeks...

Is there anything that you would say to avoid in Beijing-such as a lame tourist trap. Someone told me to avoid the zoo? for example.

Thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it in advance.

By the way, what is the weather like in July there?

J said...

Re aron:
I don't know of many places to get a good "off the beaten track" experience near Beijing- it's a bit too developed. Chuandixia is supposed to be a pretty old-style village, though going there is hardly roughing it. If you're here for 2 weeks you can also try going to Xi'an or Datong in Shanxi, but to really get off the beaten track you'd have to go to Gansu, Sichuan or the southwest. Your best bet might be finding a less-travelled bit of the Great Wall- there are plenty of these though I've only been to a more touristed segment (Simatai). In Beijing avoid the zoo, but most everything else is worth a look. July will be very hot and muggy.