inbox(153) and frolicking around western china.

here is my overdue post about my adventures in the west! 🙂

two plane rides, two overnight train rides, endless hours on a bus, sketchy hotels, bad food, and six days later, i have finally returned to civilization! these past few days, i have been traveling around western china going from 兰州(lan zhou) in 甘肃(gan su) province to 敦煌(dun huang) to 西宁(xi ning) in 青海(qing hai) province then back to 上海(shang hai). not only were these the most western places i have ever been to in china, but it was also the first time i have seen desserts and endless mountain ranges in china. all of the places we went to were pretty rural and not nearly developed as shanghai so it was no surprise that there was no internet in the hotels or anywhere nearby besides some weird internet bars. so when i finally got to check my email, i found153 new unread messages. welcome back to reality.

immediately after getting off the plane at 兰州(lan zhou) on our first day, we headed to the railway station to take a 14 hour overnight trip to 敦煌(dun huang). i’ve taken overnight trains in china before but this was my first time taking it 硬卧(ying wo). that basically meant we were in this “room” with no door with three bunk beds on one side and three on the other. the top bunk was extremely cold from the AC while the bottom bunk was really hot. did i mention that ALL the lights in the train car shut off at 10pm? yeah, not the most fun night of my life but definitely an experience.

敦煌(dun huang) highlights: visited a real dessert in china and rode camels like they used to back when there was the silk road, went night market shopping and bought some dried apricots (a specialty there!- i also think i ate more apricots in my two day stay there than i have for the last five years haha), saw the natural sites at 雅丹(ya dan) rocks and 玉门关(yu men guan) where we accidentally climbed on to the rocks that we were not supposed to..woops.

after another long 14 hour overnight train ride, we finally made it back to 兰州(lan zhou) the next day. 兰州(lan zhou) is partly famous for having part of 黄河(huang he- the yellow river) run through it so our first stop was the waterwheel park that showed us how they used to bring water up from the river. afterwards, we visited the river itself, which turned out to be a lot narrower and dirtier than i thought, and  then the “mother of the yellow river” statue.

another thing that 兰州(lan zhou) is known for is their 兰州拉面(lan zhou la mian). it is basically beef noodle soup where the noodles are freshly made by pulling athe dough. for dinner on our one night there, we got to sample three different kinds of noodles that were each different widths. SO GOOD. it was pretty similar to pho and i still can’t decide which one i like better.

with another bowl of beef soup noodles the next day for breakfast and a quick half hour visit at the 甘肃博物馆(gan su bo wu guan- Gan Su museum), we were on the bus again heading towards 西宁(xi ning) in 青海(qing hai) province. the bus ride was really long and by the time we finally got there, it was dark. western china is nowhere near as developed as a place like shanghai so all of us were a little bit shocked when we pulled up to our hotel which turned out to down an alleyway that was in the middle of construction. yeah…kind of sketchy. the doors in our hotel didn’t lock and neither did the windows. did i mention there was MOLD on our bathroom walls? pretty gross but just another part of the experience i guess!

in the morning, we made our way by bus to 日月山(ri yue shan- sun moon mountain). western china is largely a high altitude area which means that the air is often drier and not as humid as somewhere like shanghai. but this mountain in particular was right in the middle of several other mountain ranges which meant that it was absolutely FREEZING. i came to china expecting 80s+ weather everyday and was totally unprepared for this 40 degree weather plus windchill plus rain. so not fun. sadly though i didn’t take that many pictures since my hands were so cold but it was so beautiful! i honestly don’t even want to think about how cold it must be there during the winter. luckily, there were people right outside the entrance renting us traditional Tibetan robes that we could wear that would 1) keep us sort of warm and 2) make us look really cool. taking a picture on a yak looks much better with a traditional Tibetan robe on.

in the one hour it took to drive to our destination in the afternoon, 青海湖(qing hai hu- qing hai lake), the weather turned from cold, dreary and miserable to hot, sunny and beautiful. and for the first time in my life, i got sunburnt! just a little though. must remember to put on more sunscreen! i think this lake is the biggest salt water lake in china- it used to be part of the ocean until the mountain ranges closed around it thus forming the lake. they took a lot of care in trying to protect the natural environment by putting up signs all over the grass including one informing us that the “grass is sleeping. please do not bother.” we walked around for a bit and then took a boat ride around the lake. i am still in shock at how blue the water was and how picture perfect the mountain ranges plus the clouds were. it was absolutely gorgeous.

by far one of the worst parts about traveling through western china is the actual traveling. in a place like beijing, most touristy places are, at most, maybe two hours away with traffic. but in western china, every thing is upwards of four hours by bus! even getting back from 青海湖(qing hai hu) to our hotel, which is in the same province, it took us FIVE hours. along the way, we did encounter this traffic jam that literally was a standstill. all of the cars just didn’t move for half an hour and drivers just started getting up and walking around. i don’t think i’ve ever encountered a traffic jam like that before. but the best part of all the long endless bus rides is catching up on sleep! there were definitely some days where the hours i spent sleeping on the bus were the same as the number of hours i had slept the night before.

the next morning, we visited our last site, 塔尔寺(ta er si), a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, before heading back to shanghai. it was completely overcrowded and literally just filled with tourists! i could barely hear our tourguide half the time which was disappointing because it seemed like it would have been a really interesting place to learn more about. luckily, our tickets came with this DVD/CD/VCD disk so maybe i’ll watch it some day and learn more….

and now, here i am, back in shanghai after spending an amazing six days in a part of china i never really knew existed. my parents are from the two biggest and busiest cities of china so i basically never travel to more rural areas so it was a completely new experience for me.

other random/funny/interesting encounterings from the trip:

  • on the first day in 敦煌(dun huang), we visited students at one of the local high schools. they told us that they went to school six days a week with an average of 13 hours of class per day. and that their “summer break” was only about five days since basically everybody had to take summer classes. talk about an intensive education system…
  • when we were shopping at the night market, we tried to make one of the stall owners guess where we were from. after basically guessing every province in china, he finally gave up and nearly had a heart attack when we told him we were from america. i feel like people in small places like 敦煌(dun huang) rarely meet people from outside the country.
  • at one of the shops outside the Buddhist monastery, i traded by five dollar US bill for 30 yuan because the shopkeeper was fascinated that we were from the states and could speak chinese so well. he then proceeded to put the five dollar bill on his big-bellied Buddha which i thought was really cute.
  • at the beginning of our tour of the Buddhist monastery, we were told that there were two rules that we should not break or else we would have bad luck: stepping on the door frame and using our pointer finger to point something out. stupidly enough, i broke each of these rules twice (on accident!) for now, my luck has still been okay…

sorry for the extremely long post! if you have read to this far, congratulations! you are awesome. 🙂 and as your prize, you get to look at this picture of this prettily decorated yak. yay!!!

aww look at how cute it is! 🙂

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