Breathless in Hangzhou

Unlike in Tibet, you notice it almost right away: the thick squeeze of air all around you, the sauna-like soup of atmosphere condensing into your lungs. You exert yourself but a little bit, and you’re drenched in sweat, panting from the exertion. But this time, it’s not because of high altitude, it’s because of heat.

I’ve already been back in Hangzhou for over a week, and though it’s a wildly different place from Lhasa, I find myself still breathless. The quickened pace along the streets to get groceries and settle back into researching my thesis, the sense of sluggishness when I actually try to accomplish these things. Heat makes me turn into molasses.

Lhasa already feels as far away as the sun. My coffee packets that expanded to their breaking points due to altitude in Tibet have now shrunk back to normal size. My heart beats, sated, at a slower pace.

And yet, I breathe short breaths on opposite sides of China. It’s as though my lungs still remember Tibet, and that the thick heat of Hangzhou functions as a foil for my time on the road.

And late at night, as I lay in bed before my giant fan, I now watch prayer flags flutter in my window, neatly silhouetted by street lights outside. Yes, Lhasa is far away now, but in my room, I’m surrounded by it on all sides, and as I’m breathless once more, it feels closer than ever.

Railway to Lhasa

I’ve mentioned before how much I’d been looking forward to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in part because it is the world’s highest railway, and in part because I heard that the natural scenery is stunning. At last, the time came for the trip.

I boarded the train with other passengers, immediately noticing the oxygen valves over every bed in the hard sleeper compartment and by the windows.

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Of course I already knew this was coming and so basically just dorked out with other passengers until the conductors came by to both check that I had a Tibet travel permit and to give me a health waiver for the ride.

The waiver basically just reminds passengers that it’s entering very high altitude and that if there are any pre-existing conditions that make high altitude intolerable, then they should reconsider. We had to sign that we had read the information and that we were ready.

Man, was I ready.

Or so I thought until the train made it further out past Xining. We passed areas I had seen before, like Qinghai Lake. But once we got past that, we entered a giant wasteland that took my breath away.

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I have never seen such a vast expanse of unforgiving land, with no sign of human existence. Sprawling grasslands turned into hard brittle earth, and sharp mountains stabbed through the dirt as if challenging anyone to even dare to face them. I waited by the window for any sign of civilization, as the clouds got lower in the sky because of our ascent, and the sky pierced a shocking blue. After some hours, I saw salt mines, and eventually we reached an outpost city called Golmud.

In many past trips, I feel grand and capable of doing anything, but here, face to face with something truly wild and untamable, I feel smaller than an ant, and on that train ride, grateful for the walls of the train and the oxygen that pumped through my compartment as we slid through.

But when the night swallowed the earth and clouds cleared, I found myself leaning against the window, my hands cupped around my head to block out the glow of cell phone screens behind me.

Stars. Huge, glowing balls brighter than anything I’d ever seen. The finger of the Milky Way curled across the deep black sky, and the millions of constellations shone as if ringing deep, resonating with the wild. In Hangzhou I’m lucky if I even see a handful of stars (though I always crane my neck to check all the same). Out here in the barren wasteland of the Tibetan Plateau, the stars dominate the night sky.

As the sun rose the next day, every ribbon of water was illuminated silver in the pale morning light, and as I looked out once more, the earth still seemed flat, but the clouds were even lower, and at a height that looked no higher than your average hill, snow-capped mountains.

Welcome to Tibet.

 

I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter!

On my last day in Xining, I decided to visit the Kumbum Monastery, even though the Lonely Planet (rightfully) warns you that it’s very touristy and crowded. It holds a very important position in the “Yellow Hat” sect of Buddhism. But if I’m being honest, that’s not why I braved the crowds that sunny day. I went because of the butter sculptures.
See, my home state Minnesota often has bitter sculptures as part of its annual State Fair, and these are always equal parts bizarre and impressive. Usually they’re busts of famous people carved out of butter, and they’re put in a revolving case so that all visitors can admire them.

So, what could the Kumbum Monastery offer?

As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures inside, but let me tell you, these monks put butter art onto a whole new level. First of all, the sculptures are not just images of people, but are whole intricate religious scenes. Second of all, they are colored so that they almost looked like actual statues made from concrete or marble, and not the kind that melted in the sun or was destroyed every year to make a new one.

Third of all, they are extremely intricate.

Imagine if you will, a dragon with every individual scale, a lotus flower with millions of tiny, needle-like petals, a monk with a string of beads around his neck, or the folds in the flowing robes, or the tiles in the buildings, or the billowing clouds around the entire scene. I was more than stunned as I stood there staring at all the details. Wave after wave of Chinese tourist group lapped me as they admired it and then moved on. I kept looking, searching perhaps for the chink in the armor, proof that this was indeed nothing but butter and was transient.

What can I say? We Minnesotans have met our match.

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 5

The route on the last day was a bit ambitious. I wanted to go along the north side to make a full circuit, but also wanted to make it back to Xining that night if possible. In total, about 6-7 hours of driving.

I stood on the side of the road, extended my hand, and within two seconds, a car pulled over. A family of Tibetans with bolts of cloth in their backseat smiled at me. The son sat curled up in a blanket by the cloth and started making room for me and my bag. I told them the name of the next town and they said they could take me. Later in the car, I asked where they were heading.

“Oh, we’re going to Xining.”

So that was that.

It turns out that they were on a road trip from Lhasa to sell some Tibetan cloth in Xining. They liked to take the scenic drive around the lake, and they liked to take their time.

“We’re going to stop at this temple for a bit,” the father (whom I’ll call Abba because I think that’s what his son was calling him) said.

We pulled over at what looked like a slightly more run-down temple with wind-beaten prayer flags and clouds of incense wafting to the sky. Abba bought some seed-like materials for his son to pour onto an incense altar, and then they visited a monk who blessed three candles for them and led them to the steps up the hill.

We climbed the steps and reached what I thought was the top, only for the three of them to squeeze into a crevice in the rock wall and begin climbing into the belly of the mountain. They clutched their candles, and by that feeble light we groped our ways along rocks and ladders until we reached the true altar within: a smaller one flanked by candles and images of monks. The family said some mantras and set their candles down before we headed back down to walk a circuit of the temple.

Back in the car, I gave the son a Minnesota postcard which had the Northern Lights in glossy colors on it.

“Is it always like this?” He said as Abba began to drive once more.

“Sometimes,” I said. “In the North.”

He pinned the postcard onto his headrest and admired it for a long time. After that, we became friends, and he regaled me with stories about cars and explosions and guns and…did I mention he was twelve? As if you couldn’t tell.

During our day, we stopped along the road to admire some flowers in a field, to sit by the side of the road to eat watermelon, and to walk around the fields. The son bought a plastic gun and ran around with whoops and hollers. I managed to make a glorious face-plant in the flowers when I tripped over some string. Abba showed me his Stetson cowboy hat and recorded me reading the English instructions.

It’s funny because in a way they were still being nomads, even though they were in a car. They had a large tent and cooking supplies in their trunk, and they told me that however far they drove in a day was wherever they pitched their tent. They had a destination, but the road wound and wound as it pleased.

As we stopped by a field of yaks and watched as Abba’s son chased them around as if they were a flock of pigeons, I had to admit that it can be fun to be a nomad, even if only for a few days. This was the reason for my Kora of sorts around the lake, and I could feel the holiness of meeting other people and sharing the road with them surround me.
But as I texted some friends to let them know I was safe and as I plotted for some future fun back in Hangzhou, I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a home, too. And that sometimes, that is the dim candlelight that leads you through the dark.

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Around Qinghai Lake: Sunrise Interlude

I hadn’t used the tent, sleeping bag, or sleeping bag I’d brought all the way from Hangzhou yet, and it was time to remedy this. I made my way into Heimahe, a small town along Qinghai Lake, with the intention of staying in a tent for the night, being close to nature.

I walked through a town full of motels and roadside restaurants, remembering what the nice police officer told me about finding a place to sleep. I found a place that rented out yurts to travelers and asked them if I could pitch the tent nearby, and how much that would cost for the land.

“Aiya…a woman traveling by herself…” the guy said. “you can stay here for free. Just please don’t venture out alone into the grasslands. If it’ll keep you safe, just stay here, free.”

I moved the tent next to his car and another tent, thinking that it wasn’t really roughing it, when he mentioned that they might be having a party that night and would be loud. I decided to keep looking.

At dinner, I mentioned my tent to the restaurant owner and that I might be staying with her neighbors.

“Aiya…I don’t really know my neighbors that well, but we’re really safe here. You can pitch your tent in our backyard, free. If you have any doubt at all about the other place then just come here.”

They had a four year old daughter playing with silly putty and a couple young girls taking selfies in the corner. A family. Bingo. I pitched my tent.

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I will admit that where I put my tent is far from the idyllic campsite I’d imagined. It’s wedged between yurts specifically rented out to tourists and it has four walls in the backyard. But as I’ve come to realize during this trip in Qinghai, I have definitely become more of a city person, and when all the lights go out, I feel a dread that didn’t exist before. Perhaps that’s because once you get away from the city in Qinghai, you stand face to face with the wild unknown, and when you ask where you’re going, the question echoes and bounces along the plains for a very long time. It’s easy to bury doubt in a city, with lights and events and fast-paced steps. Out here, it burrows in deep.

And so when I got up the next morning, crawling out of my tent onto linoleum floor and joining the crowds as they went toward the designated “sunrise spot” by the lake, when I stood in front of that black expanse while flanked by Chinese tourists snapping photos and proclaiming “it’s coming!” when the sun crested the horizon, when I watched that mysterious flaming ball roll into the sky as I was elbowed by other people — it was a comfort, it was safe to be enveloped in noise.

But when I stood there by the waves as the crowds receded, when I listened as the birds reclaimed their perches, when the water lapped closer to my feet and when the animals grazed in the field behind me in the booming silence — it was a revelation to be standing still in the world.

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Around Qinghai Lake: Part 4

“Do you ride horses?” The Tibetan driver in my next ride said. A fairly common question around Tibet I guess, where many people still ride horses in the wild.

“Not really,” I said. “I did it once for four hours and WOW it really hurt.”

He laughed.
“Have you ever ridden a bike around the lake?” I asked. A fairly common question for the area, considering how many people do it.

“Yes. Once.”

“And?”

“Same as your horse experience. Ouch.”

 

Around Qinghai Lake: Part 3

Once again, I hardly needed to wait before the next car came. This time, a non-Tibetan.

“Oh, you’re going to the lake?” He said. “I can take you on my way to work!” He showed me his police badge. “I’m a police officer, so you can trust me.”

I quickly found out that he was part of the Hui Minority (those who follow Islam) in China. I also discovered that he was in no hurry to get to work.

“Want to pull over to look at the flowers?” He said. I got off and pranced through the field of rapeseed flowers that grew along the base of the mountains.

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We got back in his car and he ambled his way through the crowd of cyclists on the lake. (And man was I feeling smug for not joining in the bike struggle amid the traffic!)

“The Tibetans here,” he said, “They’ll want to overcharge you for things so you’d better be ready to haggle. Also, make you sleep in a crowded place. Don’t go off in the middle of nowhere. And don’t put up your tent near a group of guys. Find the married couple or the family.”

I nodded to all of this, half wondering where the mistrust came from, half grateful for this concern.

Eventually he pulled over at a scenic spot. “How about you go for a walk for a while? Take your time. Enjoy the scenery!”

I said that I would. He got into his car and was about to drive off when he poked his head out. “And if you need anything or any help at all, you just say the word! I or one of my colleagues will come and we can even pitch a tent next to you if you’d feel safer! Don’t be shy!”

I thanked him again and I really meant it. Then, as soon as we’d met, we parted ways.
I’m not sure if I give off an air of needing help or if people just want to talk to me. Either way, it’s nice to have numbers to call.