Around Qinghai Lake: Part 1

I’d only been standing on the side of the road for two minutes when a car pulled over to pick me up. A new record perhaps when it comes to hitchhiking, but then again I’d been told about the incredible hospitality of Tibetans.

“Where are you going?” the driver said. I told him Qinghai Lake. He nodded and told me to get in.

Another Tibetan guy was in the car, apparently also hitchhiking his way to work that day.

“You can get off with me,” he said.

We drove toward the sand dunes along the eastern side of the lake, and he got off to hitch another ride the rest of the way. Within a couple of minutes, another car full of Tibetans pulled over and we squashed our ways in, my face mashed against my backpack. I couldn’t move my head to peek out of the window, but knew we were surrounded by sand dunes and various roadside attractions. It’s fairly common in China for natural scenery to be turned into a kind of amusement park, and the dunes were no exception: go-karts, sleds, club music. A party in the dunes, for a fee.

“We’re here,” the guy told the driver. We got off and he walked to one of the stalls where he greeted his coworkers and motioned for me to put my stuff down.

“A bus will come by here in about an hour. Until then, you can just entertain yourself.”
He handed me a sled and pointed to the dune. “Free of charge. Just have fun.”

I stood there for a minute just to process the fact that an hour ago I was eating breakfast and was now about to sled down a sand dune.

Then I flailed up the dune with the plastic sled, bobbing along to the pop music and watching the vendors prepare for the tourists who would come and pay for this.
What can I say? The wind in my face, the queer feeling of sand in my boots as the sled made the first tracks of the day in the dune, and the knowledge that I would have done exactly none of this had I just biked or taken a bus filled me with a grand sense of optimism.

This was going to be a good trip.

Sandstorm

For our final adventure together before parting ways, Maeva and I decided to rent a jeep to take us rolling around in gigantic sand dunes.  The sand dunes, known for being extremely tall, are in the Badain Jaran Desert on the edge of Inner Mongolia.  And, coming from someone who actually hadn’t seen a desert before, they were pretty awesome.
Our jeep driver, a calm Mongolian, drove the jeep through the powdery sand and over peaks and bumps with the jaded air of one who’s played a video game long enough to memorize every level.  He said he’d been working in the company for four years.  He also said it wasn’t interesting anymore.  And his hand easily adjusted the gears as we shrieked and whooped at the cliff of sand below us.  (Don’t worry, mom, I was wearing my seat-belt).
It was like live-action Mario Kart.  The sky so blue, it didn’t look real.  The jeep fumbling and revving through sand around steep bends.  The lunacy of seeing road signs sticking out of the sand.  We stopped on the edge of sand dunes to get pictures.  We made sand angels.  We rolled down dunes.  We gripped the handles in the jeep over bumpy roads, grateful to have eaten a light breakfast.
And the dunes went ever on and on...
And the dunes went ever on and on…
The desert felt so unreal to me, partly because it’s such a strange one.  There are lakes in the desert.  LAKES.  We swam in one of them (to the amusement of our guide).  There are towering dunes that look unimpressive and puny from a distance.  There are tracks from jeeps in lines, definite roads created from wear.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
I kept thinking ‘This is a desert.  This is a deadly place.  FEEL THE POWER.”  But instead, I raised my hands in the air as we went for another roller coaster ride. Then the jeep stopped.  We got out and our guide said we could go climb what was allegedly “the biggest dune.”  I wore my hat, a scarf and effectively looked like Zorro.  Maeva wrapped her head in a scarf for a more Lawrence of Arabia look.  And we began the climb.
The thing with sand, we realized, is that it’s really hard to climb.  You take a step up, and your foot sinks in and drags back almost to where you’re started.  It sifts beneath you and tires you much faster than packed dirt might.  We were panting within 10 minutes, gasping in 20.
“Right now, I hate the desert so much…” Maeva said as we rested, still a fine distance from the top.
Behind us, I could see our trail of footsteps leading up and up.  The jeep disappeared behind the dune.  It was just the two of us.
Gone without a trace (almost...)
Gone without a trace (almost…)
Something I learned is that there’s a certain silence to the desert I’ve never experienced before.  No birds, no rustle of trees, no animals pawing around.  If anything happens in the desert, you know a long time in advance because even the scrape of a branch against sand is deafening.  And everything leaves a mark, even tiny rain droplets from the night before, impressed in the earth.  The desert has an excellent short-term memory.
In the silence, I felt a brief horror for what it would be like to be marooned here.  Sand, which seems so much worse than snow.
Once we made it to the top, we collapsed on the ridge and panted.  There were clouds rumbling in the distance, so we paused not much longer to say “Yay!” before heading back.  And we stepped with an elephant’s stride, the sand easily bending with us to take us away from its peaks and into its belly.  The sandstorm never came for us, though we were still covered in sand anyway.  In the course of the night, our footsteps would probably disappear from wind, and all traces of us would be gone.
But all traces of the desert stayed with us as we got in our yurt, shaking sand from our shoes, hair, clothes, everything.  And if that means anything, well it means you can always take the desert with you.  Until laundry day.