Saturday, June 14, 2014

Of getting lost in Gansu

The mildly alliterative title will have to be taken as artistic license, though my mind did fade into a strange netherworld for a few days during my journey as will become clear soon enough...

It has been almost six months since my last blog post and so much has been happening in the mean time. Summer has come and gone in Cape Town and we are left with a hodge-podge of beautifully chill but sunny days where the blue sky looks to be photoshopped and rainy days where the mountain is hidden behind sheaths of cloud which race down the mountain, laughing at all umbrellas in their path.

Toady is a rainy one, but I am sat in my local cafe, O'ways, which serves wonderfully prepared Chinese teas and satisfyingly homely vegan food to a host of regulars who nod and smile as we see each other on sweltering Saturday mornings as well as the rain-soaked ones. Today I have a steaming pot of pu'er tea sitting on a candle and the egg-timer about to tell me that it has reached the perfect brew. Memories of sitting in a tea-house in Kunming, chatting with the owner for an entire day and tasting some of the most amazing pu'er teas I've ever been lucky enough to sample flood back.

I am now back in Cape Town after a considerable time in distant lands, and I will be away for another two weeks before racing headlong into teaching towards the end of July. To be honest while the travel has been as satisfying and inspiring as always, and the conference I was at in Beijing was productive and fascinating, I am very much looking forward to meeting the new first year cohorts whom I will be trying my best to get through the slings and arrows of MAM1000, renowned as perhaps the scariest course in the university, though in reality I know that every one of the 200 plus student in front of me will have the capacity to ace it given the right push. MAM1000 I have taught before but I will also be teaching honours string theory this year which is going to be a lot of work, but should also be very rewarding.

Before all this starts I will be taking off to Slovenia for a one week school and a one week conference on non-linear dynamics which looks like it's going to be utterly fascinating. On my way to the venue in Maribor, I will pass through Ljubljana which holds powerful and positive memories for me and an overnight stay there will allow for some important moments of reflection.

Right, I have gone way off topic, so back to the last month.

Back in 2008, just before the Olympics in Beijing, I went far West, into the heart of Northern China to one of the holiest mountains of the Daoist religion, Kong Tong Shan, just on the outskirts of the city of Pingliang in Gansu province to hunt for an eclipse. The ensuing, somewhat farcicle adventures were chronicled here.

I was rather fascinated by Gansu on that short trip and vowed to return some day to explore this province which is not, in general, on the tourist trail. The people, on my first trip there, I found to be quiet and reflective, and a lot calmer than their Eastern counterparts, the landscapes are desolate and dry, and the culture is a mix of Han Chinese with strong influences from the Western Muslim minorities and a history built in large part on the trade along the silk road.

This time I had a little longer to explore, and with only a handfull of city names in my head I booked a train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, a city known for its pollution, for the fact that it straddles the Yellow River and for its beef noodles.

The train ride from Beijing was 18 hours and so I booked myself into a hard sleeper, which means that you have one of 6 bunks in an open compartment with no barrier between you and the corridor where many a sociology major could happily pen their thesis on the comings and goings off the Chinese traveler.  The beds are thin and hard and just long enough that my feet poke into the aisle, but I tend to be able to drift in and out of sleep on these far from ideal mattresses.

The journey was a trial by fire, being thrown headlong into so many of the habits of this land which are both trying and fascinating for the foreigner. Within a few minutes of heading off, a middle-aged woman in my compartment had taken out her phone and started playing her music full volume. while in the UK, it is likely that nobody would say anything at first, everyone else in the cabin would roll their eyes at each other and make tutting motions until a consensus had been built that this wasn't on, at which point the bravest might, possibly, say something.

I searched around to make eye contact with the others in the near vicinity, waiting for the moment where we would all agree, by silent majority that this behaviour was not acceptable and someone would say anything, but nobody looked up from their games, or from staring out of the window, so I simply rolled my eyes to myself and tried to block out the music.

I took this lack of response to mean that nobody minded the music, and reprimanded myself for judging everybody by my particular yardstick of what I considered good behaviour. This same thing happened frequently on my journey, with people playing phone games, TV shows and music out loud to the train, bus, hotel lobby or restaurant, with nobody showing any sense of disapproval.

I asked several Chinese friends on getting back if my appraisal had been correct and the Chinese simply didn't think of this as rude behaviour, and was surprised by the response. It turns out that most people on the train would have been pained by the blasting music, thinking that the woman was very rude and, as is so often used as the excuse, or perhaps the blame, uneducated. However, it simply isn't in the Chinese culture (a term which means far more than does the term British culture - see On China, the best book I have ever read on the history of this country) to alter the hierarchy and poke ones head above to dictate what should and shouldn't be done. In this statement I am both misunderstanding and misrepresenting, but this is roughly the conclusion I have made from speaking with a good number of friends on this subject.

We raced on West, and eventually the music came to an end. Half hour speeches would echo from the train tannoy every now and then, lecturing us on the benefits of drinking milk. Both men and women would hack their phlegm loudly and dramatically and spit either into a corner of the compartment, or, if it was within easy reach, the bin, and smoke would waft through the cabin from those on their way to chain smoke in the spaces between the carriages.

The beginning of this journey may seem negative, but this was really a period of acclimatization for me, remembering those habits which I someone grew more accustomed to when I lived in Beijing and had to re-evaluate in terms of how I would deal with them. In the end one simply learns to live with them for, if you allowed them to bother you, you would be constantly on the offensive and constantly getting into confused arguments with those who didn't think that their habits had anything to do with you. I take this as a lesson in patience and a study into another culture and eventually the zen descends and I can live with these practices.

As night drew on and I drifted in and out of sleep, attempting to meditate on the snores of the men and women around me, I listened to podcast after podcast, which to be honest kept me sane through a lot of my time on this trip.

By 5am the cabin was abuzz again and I helped myself to a breakfast as it flew by on one of the trolleys, the woman pushing it shouting out the daily specials for anyone who happened not to have already been woken by the general buzz of those grunting at top volume on their phones and the tannoy advertisements for some other government-advised health practice.

Around six thirty I found myself in Lanzhou, bleary eyed and ready to explore after finding a hotel not far from the station. On this occasion I had booked in advance but in general I would simply turn up in a city and find somewhere to stay on the spot. I dumped my bags, had a shower and headed off down the street. The noise and smell of a street in China is something which makes me feel truly at home. I would never want, or indeed be able, to live in China again, though I am fascinated and enamoured by the country in many ways, but the pollution and general pace of life in Chinese cities is, I am sure, enough to knock decades off one's life. That said, walking through a Chinese city, exploring the dumpling stands and the noodle shops, marveling at the styles and smiling back at the stares, brings a certain calm detachment which I don't experience anywhere else.

I made my way towards the Yellow River and found myself in Lanzhou's Waterwheel Garden, still early enough in the morning to find old men practicing Tai Chi and women walking around backwards vigorously slapping their arms to promote both mental fitness and good circulation.

Image from

I found a tea garden in the park where I went for the next couple of days, sitting, reading and watching the world go by and drinking litres and litres of a combination of green tea, goji berries and miscellaneous herbs and fruits which seemed to be a local speciality and good, either for my period pains or possibly for renal problems - I could never quite figure this one out.

Lanzhou is also famed for its beef noodles, which can be found all over the city.  The noodles themselves are hand-pulled and thrown into a rich beef stock with chunks of meat, plenty of chilli, coriander and cabbage, and with a miscellany of fermented vegetables on the side. While nothing compared to Vietnamese Pho in terms of subtlety and fragrance, this is a hearty, very tasty dish which is a perfect way to satisfy a stomach fresh off an 18 hour train ride. The fact that the noodles are pulled in front of you, as the soup is boiling adds to the experience and the freshness of this very famous dish. (From Austin Guidry)

My days in Lanzhou were both a time to acclimatize, to get my Chinese back up to speed, which happened far quicker than I had imagined, and to plan the next part of my journey. I decided to head far West after this, to Dunhuang, perhaps the most famous part of Gansu province, with the Gobi desert at its feet and the Mogao grottos nearby.

Another overnight train ride took me a further 1000km away from Beijing and right to the most distant corner of Gansu, close to the intersection with Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces. (From
On the way I met a couple from Guizhou, who, on seeing that I had nothing planned and was just going to wing it as I arrived there, persuaded me to join the tour they were taking. Having been on one Chinese tour bus before, I was reticent, but also realised that this was probably going to be the most convenient and cheapest way to see the sights.

Arriving in Dunhuang we were picked up by a minibus with 20 or so rather bemused Chinese folk from all over the country, trying to figure out what I was doing there. To be honest I was also trying to figure out what I was doing there, but having traveled enough in China one realises that sometimes you just go along for the ride and don't ask too many questions. We started off by heading to the desert, and the famous Crescent Lake, built around a small oasis and with sand dunes hiding it from prying eyes. A short camel ride across the dunes took us up to see the views of the desert, stretching into the distance.

The site is very touristy indeed, but still impressive and the Crescent Lake feels like so many other sites in China, recently rebuilt and without the authenticity of a Roman or Norman ruin. I think that again my perspective of seeing many partially-destroyed but real historical sites through my life colour my view of such reconstructions and I feel that I have to remove my prejudice somewhat when I come across such Chinese versions of historical accuracy. I can see positives to both attitudes but do find myself less moved by a newly reconstructed model of an historical piece of architecture.
After a few hours in the desert we were fully dessicated, utterly shaken by the camel rides, and ready to move on. The bus took us next to the Mogao caves, a series of hundreds of grottos built into the side of a small mountain and each one holding the Buddhist iconography, statuary and relics of families who have, over the centuries made their offerings to Buddha for a happier, richer and more peaceful life. Unfortunately photography is prohibited within the caves but there are plenty of impressive pictures to be found here.

At this point my Chinese was stretched to breaking point as the two hour tour, in which we visited some two dozen caves, was led by a Chinese guide. Right now I am fluent in basic Chinese but there is a sharp cutoff whereby anything with specialised vocabulary tends to be beyond me. I got the general idea of the use of the caves as family-owned places of worship, but the details were sadly lost on me. In contrast to the Crescent Lake, the Mogao Caves have been very well preserved in their original form, and the enormous statues and incredibly detailed illustrations are spectacular, even without the benefit of knowing the significance of every image or the meaning of the particular hand configurations which one Buddha might have over another.

We stayed in Dunhuang overnight and then next morning started on a six hour minibus trip to Jiayuguan. This was the beginning of some of the physically hardest few days I've ever had and, as we started off on our journey and my body started shaking and waves of nausea started overcoming me, it was clear that I was coming down with something. I was sat in the front seat of the bus, my knees up against the dashboard and completely unable to move, trying to stave off the cramps of being stuck in such a confined space while attempting not to let anything escape from any orifice of my body. Six hours later, unable to eat, and white as a sheet, though thankfully having not embarrassed myself with any unexpected eruptions, we arrived into Jiayuguan. I was shaken from the stress of having to concentrate on every part of my body throughout the journey, and as everyone else started off on the way to the Jiayuguan fort, I slipped away and tried to find a hotel. I hadn't been able to eat since the night before when the Chinese couple I'd met on the train had taken me for the Dunhuang speciality of donkey meat noodles and lamb kebabs.

During the meal the night before we had gone to a number of random restaurants to sample different dishes. At each restaurant the husband had insisted on paying. I had protested, pleading to be able to at least pay at the next place. He of course had agreed, and then reneged on the promise as soon as it came to pay the bill, physically pushing my wallet away. In the last restaurant I got up as the pile of kebabs diminished and headed to the counter to pay the bill. He rushed up, just as I had given the money to check the bill and looked alarmingly at the amount, embarrassed that it was the largest bill of the evening. As we went back to the table, the mood changed and I realised that in trying to be fair, I had really made an enormous faux pas. In attempting equality, I had managed to humiliate this man in front of his wife, and in front of the owners of the restaurant. I have always seen the game played whereby everyone tries to pay the bill after a meal in any restaurant in China, and have often played along, but I realised, all too late on this occasion that it really wasn't a game, and that as a traveler in this man's country, I really should have graciously accepted his payment for everything. The dour look on his face, in contrast to his previous constant shouts of 'gan bei' and beaming smile of being in the company of a foreigner in such a distant place, was enough to make me understand quite how serious a mistake I had made.

On leaving the restaurant he leapt across the street to one of the many stands with vast mounds of the local dried fruit on sale and bought me two enormous bags of apricots and figs, smiling as he handed them to me, showing that with this gift, all was restored and again we could be friends.

Though I have been coming to China for almost a decade now I still find myself in these embarrassing situations, still unable to know quite how to play the game, or indeed whether I should be playing the game at all or not. Thankfully on this occasion the balance was restored with the gift of dried fruit, but I am sure that I have done things which have humiliated others with a simple action or word that I have unknowlingly let slip. I'm sure that I will be coming back to China for years to come and am certain that I will learn new lessons each time I do.

Right, for now that will have to do, as I find myself quickly descending into delirium in Jiayuguan and without a hotel to stay in. I shall continue this as soon as possible and recall the tales of being stuck, unable to eat or get out of bed in the middle of the middle of China, of walking around in a daze in the fort by the Westernmost edge of the Great Wall, of the surreal landforms at Danxia near Zhangye and of my subsequent thoughts as I returned to Beijing.


Shoaib said...

I am visiting your blog after quite a long time and I have to say that was a long but fascinating read, Jon. You really carried us along through the highs and the (mostly stomach-induced) lows of your journey. Thanks for throwing some very interesting insights on the Chinese culture into the mix. I'll Look forward to the next episode.


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