Sing a Song of Songpan

Well we’re slowly meandering south towards the ultimate goal of Chengdu, and a long overdue reunion with Marcus Barrows. The meandering has been deliberate though, as this part of China is stunning.

Back in Xiahe a tibetan monk gave us a tour of the monastery that he and 2000 others were part of. Beforehand I had envisioned these guys to be almost mute with religious purity and spiritual well-to-do. Not a bit of it. The monk started his tour with the following – “When you try to join this monastery you must take an exam. If you pass you can start your training to become a master. If you fail you must partake in hard work and manual labour. Or become a guide.” From then on in he told us how he liked to rush around the prayer wheels to save time, how he hated old pilgrims because they were too slow praying and that some pilgrims walk around a particular temple 10,000 times because it is deemed the magic number. It takes up to five months apparently. The whole place stunk of yak butter as that’s what all the lamps are made of, and there was a definite musk of holy worship too, with monks laying themsleves before their various idols and chanting the latest Buddhist hits.

Afterwards we headed to Langmusi, where good hiking had been promised by the Lonely Bible. And so there was. Our most epic hike to date occured largely by accident however, and mainly down to me. We walked up a river and came to clearing where we could go either left of right. The map we had was apparently drawn by an infant with less artistic skill than a potato, so I confidently asserted we go left. It turns out we should have gone right. We were aiming to scale God’s Mountain, a collosal 5000 metres above sea-level. However, after heaving our oxygen starved souls towards a peak we thought was God’s Mountain, we discovered the peak in question was absolutely miles away on the other sie of a gigantic horse-shoe shaped ridge. So we trekked the ridge for three and a half hours, sheer walls of skree on one side and stunning views of grasslands (and certain death) on the other. Eventually we conceded we’d never make it and took a descent down a gorge back home. Home and dry (well, sweaty) we drank to our misadventure with some singing locals and taught tthem all the wonders of Same Old Brand New You by A1.

Now, we’re in Songpan. |t’s been silly already but that will have to wait.

Pretty Much Tibet

Southern Gansu province, and it’s basically Tibet. And Tibetans are bad ass. The blokes wear masses of dressing gowns, maybe a couple of furs, a cowboy hat and some oversized novelty sunglasses. And they’re usually riding a motorbike. The fact that they pull this look off with deadly serious middle-distance stares makes them quite intimidating. The women on the other hand have three foot long pony-tails, multi-coloured dresses and more bangles than Prince. At the moment, we’re in Xiahe (again, a couple of accents missing there), which we reached by bus that took us through vast red mountains, vast green plains and a smattering of villages that time apparently, forgot. On the way the bus stopped so we could all get off and buy some yak yoghurt with sugar. Delicious.

Xiahe is famous for it’s monastery, which we’re about to go and visit, so the town is a crazy mix of red-gowned monks, dressing-gowned Tibetans, hat wearing muslims and us. Spinks has come up with some good nicknames for us that seem to be sticking unfortunately. Stin for G. And Chobbit for me – as in Chubby Hobbit. Excellent. Stin has also bought a new day bag in the shape of a child’s Mickey Mouse backpack. We have also acquired a new horn of plenty – huzzah!

Ten days until Marcus arrives in Chengdu – we better get our skates on.

Xining

There should be some accents on the two “i”s in Xining but that’s life. We caught a night bus to the capital of Qinghai province. It took us through a mountain pass 3600 metres up, in the midst of a Day After Tomorrow blizzard. Suddenly I realised we might be near the Himalayas. Boarding the bus in the desert town of Zhangye we had kitted ourselves out in flip-flops and shorts . Bad decision. The bus winded through sharp bends and curves, the driver overtaking lorries on hairpins as he simultaneously wiped the windscreen free of snow. Meanwhile an idiotic Chinese woman took flash photos out the windscreen, temporarily blinding everyone inside, including the driver. No matter, with some cheap whisky to see us through we made it to our destination (not before getting off at the wrong place and chasing the bus down upon realisation). To top off the most interesting bus journey of the trip so far, at the first pee stop, I was greeted with the sight of about 35 Chinese guys peeing in a line in field – like a primary school day out.

Next stop = somewhere south.

mountains and skating

Post-desert glow (mainly from sun burn) we boarded the bus to a town the Lonely Planet described as ‘like an airlifted nightmare from North Korea.’ The town in question was Jiyuguan. And it was actually great. Yes, the streets were broad and straight and lined with concrete blocks of bland, but as night fell, the place came alive. We ate gorgeous piles of lamb kebabs, played in some huge fountains and then partook in an outdoor roller disco. We made trains, crashed into unimpressed teenagers and I even got a kind of roller-date, escorting a Jiyuguan lady round the rink like a pro. Some of the blokes took notice and invited us for some beers. Turns out we had to pay for them all. At the next club they took us to they tried the same trick but we weren’t biting. It got quite awkward and then they left. We snuck home a different route in case we bumped into them. You have to watch for the roller-neds it seems.

Next up we headed south to Zhangye, a similar proposition to Jiyuguan but more Tibetan. We took another minibus into the hills where some hanging monasteries perched in some cliffs. After exploring the tunnels and temples we hit the hills. Five hours later we were faced with some massive waterfalls pouring off the mountains and a quickly diminishing amount of daylight. Scrabbling back to the ranch as the sun set was tricky but great fun.

A big shout out must go to the german bloke we met in Dun Huang at our campsite. Three days later, and heading to the hills near Zhangye in torrential rain he popped his head out of a taxi and got us a nice dry ride to the nearest guesthouse until the rain passed. Brilliant!

A second shout out to the Chinese biker gang who stayed with us in the hills. We had to gambei some truly atrotious beijou but they were good guys!

Dun Huang – Go There.

Apologies for the wealth of spelling errors in the previous post but the internet is glacial in speed and there’s no way to see half of what I’m writing. Hope you got the jist of it.

It’s been an unbelievable week. I’ll start with Dun Huang. It’s a rather large oasis town in northern Gansu province (if you really care about the geography, for us it really meant that it was a pain the arse to get to) that we caught another sleeper train to. Instantly the clear blue skies, vast open desert and total lack of humidity made me pretty happy. More was to follow – that day we climbed a sand dune. Not any old sand dune mind but one that sits 1700 metres above sea level. Now admittedly it could just be a tiny bump of a dune sitting on a very high plateau, but it wasn’t. It was massive. We began with bare feet but soon the sand became too scalding. Unfortuneately we had only brought our flip-flops which don’t fare too well in the old ‘keeping burny burny sand off the feet’ category. Once at the top we quickly surveyed our surroundings, sang the theme from Lawrence of Arabia and then hurtled down the other side. It was a neccessary yet excilerating sprint – video to follow.

That night we hit the banging neon streets of hip Dun Huang. We were invited to join a table of local students. They drank us under the table. I didn’t think it was possible for chinese people to drink so much but with every gambei (chin your drink) I realised we were in considerable trouble. When we got back to our camp site, we had a fair task locating our cabin in the dark. I think I was lost for about an hour.

Dawn, hangovers present and correct, we got a bus to the nearby Mogoa caves – which were too expensive but an impressive collection of huge buddhist carvings and coves – then headed back to pick up our camels for a wee janut into the desert with our ever-singing guide, Mr Li. I named my camel Fergie because of his lovely lady humps. Spinks named his Fred because he thought it was funny and G gifted his Henry, as it was bald. As dusk loomed we traipsed through an old cemetery (freaky) before scaling some dunes and taking in the sunset. Fergie wouldn’t stop pissing though. At one point he stopped for a leak that lasted an incredible five minutes, I swear I saw his humps deflate a little. That night we slept on the sand under the stars (very romantic, bar Spinks’s T-Rex snoring) with a belly full of noodles Mr Li had cooked for us. All in all, an incredible day!

Woop! Woop! It’s The Sound Of The Police.

We’re stuck in Langzhou for the afternoon, readying ourselves for the sleeper this evening. Langzhou holds the proud honour of being the most air polluted city in the world. Well done Langzhou! It also boasts an impressively angry police force. Elsewhere in China I’ve become used to people flouting police authourity. It’s different here. People were skipping in the queue at the train station. A pet peeve of mine but an accepted reality in No Line China. Not so in Langzhou. A cop with a microphone literally started beating people up until they removed themselves from the line, yelling obscenties in his mic so all could hear of his mighty wrath. It was awesome. Even women weren’t safe. At one point The Hulk screamed and pointed directly at me. Quivering I turned round to see that he was referring to a line-skipper behind me. In an instant the offender was ousted on the street by the scruff of his cheating little neck. As I said. It was awesome.

I think as you head west in China, people get angrier. We watched a traffic warden fight a bloke and steal his moped key because he’d stopped at a junction with his front wheel over the line. Bloody hell! Well, we’re off the desert now, where things should be a little more relaxed. Wish us luck.

The Man in Xi’an (and lymph-boy and the lizard).

So, Xi’an was nice to us.  The Seven Sages hostel, apparently in the top ten in the world, is unbeleivable.  If you ever end up here, head there.  We didn’t do a particularly large amount of things.  Spinks decided he didn’t want to see the Terracotta Army, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world and probably the most important archaelogical find of the last 60 years, because it was probably a big tourist trap.  I’m still dumbfounded.  But seeing as G and I had already been we didn’t mind too much and alternatively cycled to the muslim quarter and haggled relentlessly for novelty items.  A Mona Lisa silk moo-moo?  Check.  An embroidered pink purse for Spinks?  Yes. 

Xi’an food wasn’t good to me however.  I’m pretty ill, but I’ve been here before (and I think I’ll be here a few more times on this trip) and pretty confident things in the bowel region will impreove soon.  They better.  We’re about to catch a night bus to Langzhou and then another one to Dun Huang (the trains were all booked up).  Pretty sure toilets won’t be readily accessible.  Yay.

Oh and we went clubbing last night.  Spinks danced in a cage and everyone loved it.  I went up (with the additional prob of a luminous light-sabre) and everyone ignored me.  Pretty depressing really.  A bloke in a miltary outfit and a hard-hat told us to stop being silly. 

Crouching Lizard, Hidden Hernia – Pingyao and Beyond.

So we split up for the first time in this trip. G decided he had a hernia, and to intents and purposes it looked very much like a hernia. So off he scooted to Xi’an where a half-decent hospital awaited. The half-decent doctor informed him it was an inflamed lymph and nothing a few pills couldn’t sort out. Now this wouldn’t be such a big deal for the young hypocondriact (bad spelling I’m sure) but he missed out seriously on the wee adventure spinky and I embarked on. Taking three buses, two taxis and a sweaty hour long hike up a mountian (mostly lost) we eventually discovered the mountain village of Lijiashan. This village is unusual in the most part because everyone lives in caves. Apart from the fifty or so locals and a couple of (admittedly terrible) painters it was just us two. We stayed in a tiny courtyard guesthouse (5 quid for a night with all meals free), I taught the wife english for the evening and for the most part we just gawped at the surroundings. It was pretty incredible. The cave houses were terraced up to eight or nine levels high and sat snugly next to equally terraced fields of crops (no idea how anything grew up there it was so dry). Anyway we got back to Pingyao today and are catching the night train to Xi’an to meet lymph boy and grab a long-haul slow-train to Dun Huang. Go West as the pet shop boys (or was it someone else) sang. A special mention must go out to the chinese bloke in the bus home today who talked to me extensively about his favourite parts of the Jason Bourne franchise. At least I think that’s what he was saying.

Trip News Flash!

So Qindao was a bit of a wash-out. It was raining and the beaches were cordoned off, but the typhoon never really materialised. This meant that we were dissapointed on all counts – everyone needs to witness a natural disaster at some point in their life. Regardless, we found Beer Street and drank plenty of beer (80 p a jug in some places), got lost in a forest and caught the bullet train to Beijing. Ah, Beijing. So big. So bloody big. And busy apparently. We phoned at least ten hostels but all were jam packed so it was up to Alex and his ever-expanding network of international contacts. We ended up sleeping on the floor of a friend of a friend for two nights. Her name was Rebecca, she took us out for an epic club-based jaunt, we cycled in the hutongs, gawped at the Forbidden City (apart from Spinks who reckoned it wasn’t grand enough – idiot) and took in the Bird’s Nest stadium. I’ve never seen Spinks so excited. His architecture boner was horrendous. While he explained in great excitement about the tree-points and structural symmetry of the great venue, we plotted our next stop – Pingyao.

It wasn’t easy getting here. First of all the tail-end of the typhoon caught up with us in Beijing. This meant we trapsed around the capital in sheets of rain and bolts of lightning. After eventually securing our train tickets we boarded our carriage after hours of fighhting through the packed ranks of passengers, only to be confronted with a carriage that would’ve been less busy if it had been used as a set in Enemy of the Gates. Sweating like sponges, we literally wrestled our way to our seats (spinks started laughing hysterically with the stress which was quite worrying) and remained fixed to the spot for fifteen un-air conditioned hours. Terrible doesn’t cover it. To cope, we drank plenty of whisky and performed some impromptu renditions of Robbie Williams songs to entertain the masses. The smiles were short-lived.

So now, in Pingyao, we seem to be a little stranded as all buses and trains are booked up. Oh, and G has a hernia (apparently). Wish us luck.

typhoon lagoon

Spinks is sleeping again. This time on a sofa in the
Mingtown hostel in Shanghai. He and G had a big one
last night (playing perudo in clubs, dancing with girls
only to later find out that they’re prostitutes and slowly
moving away) while I stayed in and packed my life away
once again. We’ve booked an overnight bus to Qingdao
amd I’ve just found out there’s a massive typhoon waiting
to intercept us upon arrival. yay.