Travel Journal: China (August-September 1999)

by Mischa Park-Doob

In my 2nd year of college at the University of Chicago (1998-1999), I studied 1st year Chinese. After the end of the school year, I continued at the 2nd year level in the 8 week Princeton in Beijing summer language program, held each year at Beijing Normal University. Although my classmates were mostly Americans, we were forbidden to speak any language other than Chinese for the duration of the program, and the lively neighborhood along Xin Jie Kou Wai street provided more than adequate immersion for learning the language. Immediately after the program's end, I embarked on a 23 day trip around southern and western China, documented below.

Click here for a map of China--the places I visited are in red
See my travel route
Go to China photos

August 21 (Sat), Beijing:
          I packed from 1:30 to 5:30 AM, when we had to board our shuttle to the airport. I really should have come home early and gone to bed since I had gotten no sleep the night before (due to studying all night for our final exam), but after our Friday evening farewell banquet all the teachers went out to the clubs near Bei Da
[Beijing University] ("the Moon Bar" and "Solutions") with the students, which was too much fun to miss. So I got back with barely enough time to finish packing.
          Then the four of us--Anne (not the one who went with me to Inner Mongolia), Gilbert (from Milwaukee!), Danny, and I flew to Guilin on a Xinhua Airlines 737. Because they seem to be a fledgling company, they gave each passenger a little present (an odd little plastic thing in a fake-leather sheath--an LED in the plastic glows green when you press the handle). After a stopover at Xi’an they gave us another meal and another present (a Xinhua T-shirt this time). In Guilin I bought my plane ticket to Kunming--having a Bei Shi Da
[Beijing Normal University] ID card is wonderful: the ticket was Y400 ($48) [$1 US ~ 8.3 Chinese yuan, also called Ren Min Bi], and my Lonely Planet guidebook listed the ticket as Y850, which means it had probably risen to at least Y900 by the time I bought mine. So my card lets me buy at less than 50% of the standard foreigner's cost. In comparison to the flight (just a couple hours), a train ticket is extremely difficult to buy without using CITS [the China International Travel Service] (who charges surtaxes), let alone finding a student ticket. So even if I had managed to get a hard-sleeper ticket for the ridiculously non-direct 29 hour ride (it only takes 31 hours by train from Beijing all the way to Guilin--about twice the distance from Kunming to Guilin!), I would have forked out almost Y300! That’s just one CSO [Chicago Symphony Orchestra] student rush ticket’s worth cheaper than my plane.
          Barely noticed Guilin, since we went right to the parking lot where buses leave for Yangshuo. No one would give us the real price, so we took forever to choose a bus, but finally we agreed on Y8 per person and at the same time met Pablo, a Spaniard who had recently graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Architecture. After boarding we noticed Chinese passengers being charged Y6, but when I pointed that out to the lady, she of course said that the extra was for our luggage--an excuse clearly fabricated on the spot, but there was no way to argue the point.
          I woke up for the last 30 minutes of the hour and a half trip to Yangshuo--here was truly amazing scenery: everything that makes people rave about this place became apparent as we approached town. Severely vertical and yet rounded limestone karst peaks, covered in greenery and little twisty trees (just like in Chinese landscape paintings), rose straight up from the bright green flat rice paddies where farmers walked their water buffalo. We got into town, registered at the Good Companion Holiday Inn (quite a nice place) for their Y20 beds (all the Y10 ones were taken here and elsewhere), and walked down Yangshuo’s main shopping street Xi Jie. This place is truly designed for foreigners--restaurants don’t always even have a Chinese menu, and hand painted T-shirts have cute things appealing to foreigners always being harassed by trinket sellers: "Hello banana!", "Hello CD music!". We ate dinner at the "under the Moon Cafe," which was a little expensive and had slow service, but it was nice for the four of us and Pablo to just sit and chill. Afterwards I left early and was asleep in my bed before 10 PM--it was amazing I stayed awake that long!

August 22 (Sun):
          Got up at 9:00 and ate breakfast alone at the youth hostel’s sidewalk tables, down the street from where we spent the night. I managed to convince the waitress to give me free tea with my pancake (banana) since everywhere else in China has free tea. Met a guy named Chris from Toronto, and eventually went and rented a bike (Y5 per day)--a good one with gears and traction treads. It turned out Chris and a couple American girls he just met were also going biking, but those girls ended up being awfully strange! They had no interest in being introduced to me, and said "excuse me, coming through!" as if I were just some obstacle and took off at full speed on their bikes--I followed but made no effort to go as fast. Leaving Yangshuo and going towards Moon Hill, the scenery was amazing--the road was surrounded by the region’s characteristic green lumpy hills, some pointier than others, and they all moved slowly past on both sides, some faster than others because of their different distances from the road.
          Eventually the girls stopped because one of them had messed up her bike chain, and a local farmer guy was helping her fix it. I found a dirt road leading off from the highway and went to chase butterflies--after taking a whole bunch of pictures that probably won’t be any good since my shutter speed was set a little low for using such close up 105 mm shots, I saw some people halfway up the side of the mountain next to me, and heard cows mooing up there too. Intrigued (how did cows get way up there??) I started looking for a path up the mountain, which I eventually found by following old piles of cow shit. It turned out the people, who had been yelling to each other in bizarre little high pitched voices, were children: a 14-or-so year old boy (although he said 17--ha!) and two 9 or 10 year old girls. I asked them if I could climb the mountain, and they said it was fine. They also wanted me to take their pictures--but were disappointed when I had to explain that I couldn’t just open up my camera and give them photos right after taking them. So I promised I would sent them in the mail. The two cows they had were the most athletic I’ve ever seen! This was hard climbing for me (especially because of having to avoid all the thorny plants) but thosecows (brown, one of them fully grown and the other still a youngin’) scrambled up without any trouble. About every minute or so, one of the kids would tell me to take their picture again, so that I probably took at least 30 pictures on the way up the mountain! Eventually we came out onto a flatter area full of long green juicy grass, and the cows started chowing down. After a while we went back down, leaving the cows to their grazing, and I got the kids address (I hope they wrote it correctly!). One of the girls wanted me to send a few American dollars with the pictures, but I said that wasn’t allowed. I got back on my bike (my little climbing excursion had taken three or four hours) and explored more of the area, saying hello to all the locals--no one seemed to mind me biking around their farms.
          Pretty soon I went back to the main road and biked over to Moon Hill. This place was a true tourist trap. After paying the Y8 admission ticket and extra Y1 bike watching fee, swarms of drink vendors start following you up the mountain. When you say you already have water, they say "but later you’ll need more! When you buy some, promise you’ll buy from me! OK? You have to promise!!" Luckily I met up with Anne just before starting the climb, which helped me find a reason to ignore the vendors (by talking with her). She was being followed by a woman named Amy who I at first thought was a regular tout bothering her to buy something. But she was actually being Anne’s travel guide for the afternoon, and was quite a nice person. The big attraction of Moon Hill is that the top has a big round hole in it, forming a natural arch. After a couple pictures (the sky was unfortunately kinda hazy), we went back down the hill (thank god going down was easier than climbing up! The lack of wind plus the stifling humidity were starting to cause complete incapacitation).
          I got invited to go with Anne and Amy back to Amy’s house, which was right on the river and surrounded by some of the best scenery so far. We sat down and watched a bunch of kids swimming and dunking each other--it would be great to come back here and swim sometime. Anne and I biked back
to Yangshuo by the time it was starting to get dark. The air over the highway was filled with millions of little insects who kept coating my forehead and going up my nose and into my eyes and mouth as we zoomed through them on our bikes.
          Hyeseung (from Pu Bei Ban
[acronym of the Chinese version of "Princeton in Beijing Summer Language Program"]) and her friend Dudley had just arrived in town, and we met up with them and the rest of the gang at Lisa’s Cafe (which had pretty dismal service on this particular visit), and after eating went to "Planet Yangshuo" and watched "Ed TV" on VCD ["video CD", low resolution movies on CD-ROM, somewhat lower quality than VHS tapes].

August 23 (Mon):
          Got up and met the gang for breakfast at the Mei You Cafe
[mei you means "has not", an odd name for a restaurant. Presumably it's meant to strike a chord with foreigners who constantly use this phrase when asked for money]. We decided to rent bikes and check out the dirt road next to the bridge you cross on the way to Moon Hill. My British roommates had recommended it (I moved from the Good Companion Holiday Inn to the "Yangshuo Youth Hostel" after the first night, and now had a young British couple for roommates). So Gilbert, Danny, Anne, Pablo, and I biked down, snapping pictures all the while. I think we must have looked pretty silly to all the nongcun'ers [nong cun = farm, village] going about their daily work. We decided to take ourbikes down this trail leading around a mountain, but right when we started I saw a cool butterfly and leaped off my bike to start chasing it and snap pictures. I got back on and followed them after a while, and found a pond with hundreds of ducks (and ducklings) in it, and a few locals tending water buffalo. One of the kids ran up and wanted me to take his picture, so I did (the ducks looked cool behind him), and afterwards he said, "yi kuai qian" ["(give me) 1 kuai (yuan)"] --so I said no and biked off quickly. . . there were several paths to choose from, so I didn't manage to find the bulk of my friends until dinner that night. But I found Anne (who had left us earlier to pursue her own photography interests), and right after I met up with her a whole gang of about six country boys of about our age came strolling along. It seemed most of them were pretty drunk, and they were extremely friendly and physical with us and each other. We all stood there and talked a lot, although their Chinese was very difficult to understand at times. We also took plenty of pictures and they want them too of course so Anne and I got their address.
          After a little more exploring, we biked back through all the bugs and met our friends for dinner at Mei You. Pablo had gone off with some Europeans he met but the rest of us stayed and went to Minnie Mao's to watch a movie. Their chocolate milkshake was better than Planet Yangshuo's, but still more like chocolate milk than anything else. Soon after the movie "A Simple Plan" started, a man I had briefly said hello to on the way in arrived and wanted me to come out and have a drink with him and his friends, and take pictures with them. I felt it would be impolite to refuse. . . . He was a boisterous young Taiwanese man (with a fair amount of money it seemed) and his friends were locals from Guilin. They were also sitting with a German couple, and the Taiwan ren kept giving us all more beer. We drank and chatted and joked for the entire length of the movie and more, until his friends were passing out in their chairs (they were little guys). They eventually left and I stayed and watched some Norwegian girls play Chinese chess, and chatted with a Guilin businessman about possible future renovation projects for Yangshuo's touristy business district. Once the beer had worn off by 2:00 am, I biked home. Not such a good idea to have stayed up this late, since Gilbert and I had arranged with Amy
[Anne's local guide from the day before] to go on a bike trip at 8:30 the next morning. Oh well. . . .

August 24 (Tues):
          Slept just a leetle too late. . . got up quick and went and found Gilbert still eating breakfast at the "Hard Seat Cafe". I had them whip me up a quick "yorguert Muesli", and soon me and Gilbert and guide Amy were on our way, biking west out of town on the road back towards Guilin (the opposite direction from Moon Hill). We turned off onto smaller roads that only bikes or motorcycles could use and passed lots of the same beautiful scenery. Eventually we came to a very old and poor looking town. In front were two important looking graves dating from the Qing dynasty; Amy said this town was about 1000 years old. We walked around the streets and it was very interesting to see how true country-folk in this part of China live. Everything was quiet, and the residents either sat still doing work of some sort (eg. shelling snails or peanuts) or walked around very slowly. This place was also apparently near where the Canadian girl we had heard about earlier had drowned in the river a week before. --She couldn't swim and walked too deep, after going in the water even when her guide had said it was dangerous, or so the story went. Amy was very nice--since I didn't have a hat, she thought I must be too hot and made another out of some tall weeds. Then she put on the weed hat and gave me her own straw hat. Eventually we came to Amy's mother's house, and rested a while while they cooked us lunch--very tasty! Afterwards we went on to Baisha and visited the market--lots of ducks and chickens being carried around upside down by their legs (some had accepted their fate and didn't seem the least bit distressed, while others flapped and complained wildly. There were also tanks with big fish built right into the ground, and canals carried water to and from them. Another section was dedicated to thousands of baby chickens and ducks which could be bought for less than Y1 each (an adult chicken went for around Y8). The variety of smells and sights and the number of people was overwhelming, so it was good that we had a guide. One very old man stopped Gilbert to shake his hand--Amy speculated that Gilbert was probably the first black person the man had ever seen (and probably the last, I thought--that guy didn't have much time left. . .). Pretty soon we went back to the main road and biked back to Yangshuo.
          That evening while the others took some cooking lessons (which I saw a little of--I think I could make some dumplings with the help of a Chinese cookbook--and Danny says he'll email the recipes they gave), I went sunset chasing on my bike, and got a couple mediocre shots. We met that night again at the Mei You cafe, and had our last night hanging out together.

August 25 (Wed):
          I had originally planned to get up really early and take sunrise pictures, but I didn't even make it to our planned 7:30 breakfast. But I still met with Hyeseung and Dudley at the Paris Cafe, and said bye to Anne and Danny (Gilbert and Pablo had already gone) --then me and Dudley and Hyeseung took a bus at 11:00 for Guilin, where I then struck off completely on my own, and got on a plane for Kunming. Once in Kunming, I shared a taxi with an American businessman (who paid my fare, yay!!) and bought a ticket for a Sept. 3rd flight from Kunming to Xi'an (only Y500 at student prices), then I jumped on a taxi and got a ticket for a sleeper bus to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna. Before my bus left, I ate some cheap food in a local Chinese joint--the owner came out and said in English, "Welcome you to enjoy our food!" or some such thing. . . and I chatted it up with a bunch of guys from Sichuan at the table next to mine. I don't know why I caused such a fuss--Kunming is a big city and this was right next to the bus station which has plenty of foreigners passing through. . . maybe it was my big bright red backpack. Then I boarded my bus, and had the whole back area to myself so I could stretch my big waiguo ren legs.
          Met some interesting folks on the bus-- A 17 year old Dai fellow
[Dai is an ethnic group related to Thai] and a couple rambunctious kids, --those kids (both around 9 years old, both boys, I think, though one of them was somewhat androgynous) each decided that hanging out with this strange tall fellow in back was more interesting than sleeping at their mother's side, so they ended up spending the next 22.5 hours right there (except for meals and bathroom breaks). They asked me all sorts of questions, like what the names of various animals and fruits are in English, and whether I was married, and what my name and all my family members' names are (it was funny to hear them try to pronounce them), and everyone's ages, and what jobs my parents have, and whether we have tigers and elephants in the United States. They also liked to play with my arm hair and tug at my stubble (I hadn't shaved since Friday), which greatly embarrassed their mothers.

August 26 (Thurs):
          Most of today was a continuation of yesterday. . . the bus kept bumping along all day, so much so that reading or playing chess or sleeping were all impossible. . . the roads were extremely curvy and in poor condition. Me, my two little companions, and a few half-eaten pomegranates they had bought on the way just kept bouncing around the big upper platform in the back. Luckily I had locked my bags to a bar (with my U-shaped bike lock) or they would have fallen down to the floor of the bus 5 feet below. We passed through some very hilly jungle areas and eventually stopped at a PSB checkpoint
[the Public Security Bureau is the name of the national police force]. The officer pointed out that my Visa was only valid until August 13th, and I had to explain that the validity date is for when you're allowed to enter--after you arrive you can stay for 90 days. It's ridiculous when the different ends of this country's sprawling bureaucracy can't comprehend each other.
          Eventually this bus went over a huge brown river (the Lancang, better known as the Mekong), and we had arrived in Jinghong. One of the kid's mothers wanted me to come with them in their taxi, but I had already told the 17 year old guy that I would go with him. We rode around on a bicycle-pulled cart to a hotel that only took Chinese lodgers--I explained to my friend that my book would tell me places I could go, so after fighting off some other bicycle cart drivers screaming "Hello!" in my face (not a greeting, but rather "come here and give me business!"), I walked to the CAAC/Yunnan airlines office and bought a ticket for Sunday to Lijiang (no student tickets though. . . too bad). Then I took a room at the Dai Building Hotel (nice bamboo houses on stilts) and shaved, and tried to call my friend from the bus, but there was no answer.

August 27 (Fri):
          A rotten day that ended well. Got up and took a shower and putzed around with just enough time to check out before the noon deadline (I had scouted out the place down the road, which had passable rooms for Y10). Then I knocked over my room's hot water thermos, breaking the glass flask inside, which resulted in the remaining hot water (along with little fragments of glass) flowing out some little holes in the bottom of the thermos. This was quite a tricky maneuver: it involved me trying to flip my towel down from the coat tree, tipping it over (the bamboo mat floor was not very level), causing it to collide lightly with the thermos, which tipped over gently (again due to the unstable floor) and landed very lightly, causing the glass interior to self-destruct noisily. The owner wasn't around, but the old guy left in charge (a jolly Dai fellow who spoke no English and perhaps 15 barely understandable words of Chinese) figured the glass ought to cost around Y25. That sounded about right to me too, so I paid him and shipped off.
          At the next guesthouse I found a key in my door, and no one has asked for money yet as I write this (I'm sure they'll want some before I leave tomorrow). I got some kai shui
[boiled water in a thermos] and washed my clothes under the hot noon sun, and putzed around some more--finally I was ready to go exploring at 3:00 pm. . . . Before I made it out the door I noticed the first drops of rain coming down. Luckily I had an umbrella, but it sucked since the weather had been great all day until then--I was just too lazy to get going! I had a little lunch at the Mei Mei Cafe, and went to rent a bike at the fancy schmancy Xishuangbanna Guesthouse Hotel--once I arrived the rain started barreling down madly and I abandoned the idea of biking. So I just walked all the way over to the Tropical Plant Research Institute Gardens and tried to enjoy myself as best I could. . . . Unfortunately it was so dark that my camera's shutter speed was probably too slow most of the time, but if any of those pictures come out the drops of water will probably look very nice. The gardens weren't all that special--the enormous lily pads near the entrance certainly were strong--it looked like people had tried to prove it by seeing how many plastic water bottles they could get to land on them. There were lots of flowers, but not that many different kinds in the nice renovated walkway sections. It turned out most of the garden, including the "tropical fruit", "rock garden", "nursery", "air plants flowers", and "rare and endangered tropical trees and plants" sections were all under construction, but I only noticed this detail on the provided "guide of map" after trying to find all these sections, although this exploring was certainly solitary and peaceful (and muddy, and wet. . .).
          At some point I must have accidentally left the garden's grounds, since all I found were a bunch of houses with squealing pigs. I suddenly arrived back on the road leading to the entrance to the gardens that I had already used once. Still raining. . . . I walked to the market on the north side of town and failed to find my Dai friend from the bus, but I opted not to try calling again since I had forgotten how to say his name, and the canker sore that had appeared as I left Yangshuo was really hurting, making it hard to talk or smile. But I made my way to the Forest Cafe and had a delicious hamburger (it's advertised as the place with the best hamburger in China--they weren't kidding!). I also met a solitary Swiss traveler named Werner and had a nice chat for the next couple hours. He was about 45 years old, had a big twisty mustache, and had been traveling for a long time. Some time earlier he had quit his job in Switzerland, and spent two months trekking in Nepal with others he met along the way, then spent another month in Tibet, and then had gone from Chengdu up to Xiahe and Xi'an and other towns, then back to Chengdu and down to Lijiang, Dali, Kunming (all during the last month) and had just arrived in Jinghong. He planned to spend another two or three weeks in China, then spend a couple months in Laos and Thailand before flying down and exploring New Zealand and Australia. I'm so jealous that he has all that time! I'm already leaving Jinghong on Sunday. . . . I'm definitely going about this the sort-of-wrong way, but I want to see a bunch of places so I have an idea of where to come back to later. Before we went home to sleep, he told me lots of amusing tales from hard-seat trains, and lots of stories of the people he had met in the last few months. I'm starting to think that after college I should not only spend some time abroad teaching English, but also spend at least 6 months dong the sort of leisurely trekking and drifting from place to place that Werner has made his life. He's an interesting fellow--doesn't take pictures or write a journal, and has no plans for the future. Back in my little room (no roommate again tonight), the frogs outside are doing an impressive job of drowning out the yelling coming from the shacks nearby.

August 28 (Sat):
          Got up very early and packed up my stuff, the very nice lady who runs this place let me lock my big bag in a closet. . . . Then I went off and had some breakfast at the Mei Mei Cafe. I had originally planned to rent a bike and go to Ganlanba, but the ride is at least two hours and so I decided to just take a bus there and back, and then take another bus to Menghun, where according to the owner of Mei Mei, the Sunday market is really interesting.
          The ride to Ganlanba is pretty nice--a twisty road through thick tropical vegetation alongside the big brown Lancang (Mekong) River. At Ganlanba, unfortunately all the bikes were rented out already, so I would have been better off renting in Jinghong. There was one place that still had some, but the owner wanted 15 kuai even though I only wanted to use it for 4 hours, so I declined since it was cheaper to take motorcycle taxis anyway. But the back yard of this building was amazing: filled up with banana trees and all sorts of other plants, with huge spider webs and spiders as big as my hand. There were also some amazing butterflies with wings so big they only needed to be flapped about twice per second. From here I went walking down the road and found an old temple (after getting some directions from a couple young monks--every town in Xishuangbanna has oodles of little Buddhist monks in training walking around--usually from 7 to 14 years old or so, all wearing bright orange robes). Next to the temple was a path leading down to the Mekong. . . here the mosquitoes suddenly materialized out of the incredibly steamy air and ganged up on me, so for the first time in China, I used some repellent (good thing I had some "Ultrathon" left over from my trip to Costa Rica). The path continued down at a steep angle straight into the river--I think the water level was significantly higher than normal so there was no shore. I creeped down the mud slope very carefully, but nearly fell in the river when a stick I tried to use for support suddenly sprouted wings and flew away! After spending a while watching the vast expanse of mud peacefully flow by, I went back up the hill and chased some butterflies before returning to the road. I was so hot and sweaty that I called a taxi driver from her lunch to give me a ride--she was very pleased for my business, and after taking me to the Sarla Restaurant, promised to come back in time to take me other places after I had eaten lunch. In the restaurant, I met what seemed to be a high-ranking army officer from Beijing and his younger underlings. We chatted and he offered me a ride in his car to get to the big temple outside of town. So before we left I had to apologize to the motorcycle-taxi driver--I felt bad, since I would have been her main business for the day--she only got Y2 from me for the first little ride, after all.
          The temple had a Y20 entrance fee, but my officer friend being so special and all, we just drove through without having to pay! The temple was nice, and it was interesting to chat with all the little monks running around, but I was glad to have gotten in free. Along one side hallway outside the temple (which is supposed to be one of the best preserved examples of Dai architecture, and is about 700 years old) there were about 30 children sitting in little groups playing and yelling and chatting. They were all under the age of seven, were wearing normal clothes (not Buddhist robes), and there were no adults anywhere near. Outside the temple area were some Dai women selling fried fish and fruit. They sold me an entire fresh miniature pineapple for just Y1! They cut it into two sections, placing each one on the end of a stick--it was one of the best snacks I've ever eaten! After exploring the streets in the area and seeing the inside of a Dai home (they're all wood, on stilts), I took another taxi back into town and caught a bus back to Jinghong.
          Upon arrival, I jumped right back on another bus, this one bound for Menghun. The ride was almost three hours, and passed through lots of interesting dense vegetation as it wound over very steep roads. . . eventually it came to a very high plain with rice paddies, where I got off at Menghun and found the White Tower "hotel". The family running the place were some of the most relaxed people I've ever met. . . . The area was extremely quiet and peaceful. It's too bad the room and bed and pillow were some of the dampest I've ever had to sleep on. . . not really worth the Y10 I paid. I fell asleep (with some difficulty) to the sounds of falling rain and ma jiang tiles clicking in the room next door.

August 29 (Sun):
          Woke up before it was very light, and spent the early morning watching the frogs (some of them were huge!) in the cement-walled pools near the rooms. The walls around all the pools were lined with little red clusters of frog eggs that looked like bright red slugs, or perhaps little bits of styro-foam, from a distance. From high up the mountain, the low buzz of some strange musical instrument, coupled with muffled chanting, created a truly magical background to the misty town and utterly calm, motionless morning air.
          It turned out Eric (from Canada) and his traveling companion, two people I had met at the Dai Building Hotel my first night in Jinghong, had come here too. We ended up going down to the Sunday market at about the same time, and they managed to take a picture of me being mobbed by six or seven old women trying simultaneously to sell me their decorative hats! The market was quite interesting--many different minority groups were present, as seen by all the different kinds of clothing worn by the women and the different shades of skin color. Then again, the things being bought and sold weren't much different from those in the market of Baisha. After a while I left the market and climbed the hills behind the town, up past another Buddhist temple and school (with oodles more young monks in orange robes). I went up the muddy trail behind the temple's white stupa, past huge bamboo thickets, and got a nice view of the town and its big green valley. When I returned to the market to catch a bus back to Jinghong, the women with the special hats all came running up again--I offered to buy one for Y10, but the woman refused to go below Y20--she just kept pressing her products at me and saying the same er shee! over and over while holding up two fingers
[er shee was her version of er shi, "20" (literally "two tens") in Mandarin].
          Finally I got on a bus and had another bumpy ride, during which it rained extremely hard (something it's done at some point every day here in Xishuangbanna). Back in Jinghong, I ate a chocolate-peanut-sesame pancake at the Forest Cafe and a yoghurt with fruit (it's interesting: for ordering the same item, the Mei Mei Cafe gives you a big bowl of yoghurt with a fair amount of fruit in it, but the Forest Cafe gives you a big plate of fruit with some yoghurt poured on top). I went and retrieved my luggage from the guesthouse, and found the lao ban
[owner] had folded up the laundry I had left, and laid it neatly in the room with my backpack. She also refused to accept the standard Y1 for caring for luggage for a day! Took a cab to the airport, but argued quite a lot with the driver, who originally wanted Y30 for the 10 minute ride (preposterous!). He explained that there was a Y9 toll charge, so that if we used the meter he wouldn't make any cash. I turned on the meter anyway, and I saw him pay Y3 at the airport entrance, and when we stopped the meter read Y9. He claimed he would have to pay the Y3 toll twice more on his way out, which I think is bullshit (although not for sure--only in China might they actually make you pay three separate times in three separate booths within 30 ft of each other). So with Y9 of toll and Y9 of ride, it should have been Y18. He still demanded Y25, saying that other drivers would have charged 40. I gave him Y20, grabbed my bags and said goodbye, and surprisingly he didn't make a fuss--probably was afraid I would tell the police and put an end to his and the other drivers' little "operation". Unfortunately I had no time for police reports since my flight was about to leave--I dashed off to my gate (after paying yet another Y50 domestic airport tax! Yikes!). On the flight they gave us yet another present, this time a little shiny pendant on a chain with the Yunnan Airlines symbol on one side and fu [fortune] on the other. . . very cute, but I would have rather had an in-flight meal!
          Lijiang seemed to be experiencing similar weather conditions. . . . I wanted to catch the 8:00 pm Naxi Orchestra performance so I quickly managed to share a cab with three wealthy Chinese tourists from Beijing. . . unfortunately the Lijiang Hotel, described in LP
[Lonely Planet guide] as the best cheap option in town, was no longer offering anything less than a Y120 room! So I left on foot (in the pouring rain again), walked all the way across town in the wrong direction, missing the old town and actually arriving back at the hotel where the Chinese tourists had been dropped off. Already quarter to 8:00, I grabbed a cab for Y6 and made it to the old town and skillfully tracked down the First Bend Inn, a beautiful Naxi style building with the nicest Y25 quad rooms I've ever seen. Unfortunately I only had Y16 left after the airport, cabs, and room + key deposit, so I had to miss the Naxi orchestra for tonight. But I went and had a nice pizza at the Well Bistro with KC, another Canadian who arrived at the same time as me. I covet his camera lens, oh yes I do! --A Tamron aspherical with 28-300mm zoom! Had a nice shower for the first time in ages and settled down to sleep in my room, shared by a guy from Japan and a guy from Israel.

August 30 (Mon):
          Got up lazily. . . as I was totally out of cash I headed off to the Bank of China to change another $150. The clerk spent about 5 minutes examining my three crisp and obviously authentic American Express traveler's cheques, staring at the water mark, the hologram, my countersignature, and every speck of dust in search of aberrations. Seeming unsatisfied, he then spent another 10 minutes typing numbers into his computer before stamping a million receipts and tossing the order to the other guy, who between yawns managed to count out 12 filthy, overused Y100 bills. Went to the "Blue Page" vegetarian restaurant, where I had the best breakfast I've ever had in China (of course, I never managed to eat breakfast in Beijing, what with classes starting at 7:30 and all. . .). It was called the "Dalai Lama's Breakfast #1" and consisted of a bowl with oats and oat flour with apple, banana, and mango chunks on top, plus a jar of extremely tasty homemade vanilla yoghurt that you could put in with the fruit and oats. It also came with a mug of flower tea, which had chunks of wood, flowers, mint leaves, and a weird brown mushy fruit with bright orange seeds inside.
          I bumped into KC again and we went walking around taking pictures of the streets and local residents (they usually didn't like pictures but at the market KC got some good shots while some old women were occupied with showing me the things they were selling). We climbed Lion Hill towards Wan Gu Lou, a big pagoda on the top. As we passed numerous family dogs locked in houses, their growling and barking tracked our progress up the narrow streets and moss covered steps. KC went back down for lunch, but I made it up to the pagoda (I needed to ask directions since I was too dumb to notice the signs--the woman I asked was very friendly, she even sent her 8 year old son to show me the way!). Since it cost Y10 to enter, I opted to just walk around outside the fence. I took the hard way back down--straight through all the bushes on the side of the hill. From here a whole district of very new looking buildings (of the traditional wooden Nahi style) was visible, but strangely deserted of humans--perhaps this is where all the new building is going on after a 7+ earthquake flattened half the city a couple years ago. I finally ended up in a part of the old town that had no tourist shops and no tourists. It was still the same stone streets and Nahi women walking around, but it was less polished and a more authentic glimpse of true city life in the old town. After being very lost for a while, I asked for directions to get back to the city center, got to the MCA guesthouse which had a fantastic internet connection, then rented a bike and headed out towards the nearby town of Baisha
[not the same as the one near Yangshuo].
          Because of a very tiny uphill grade, my bike felt like the axles were all gummed up or something. Baisha turned out to be a very sleepy, dilapidating town. . . . I went biking off towards the north (uphill again) and went right past Dr. Ho's "clinic" without seeing it or being greeted on the street by the Doctor. The street went on forever, without any sidestreets crossing it, and the houses became more and more crumbled. Eventually, it turned back into cornfields. I decided to keep going uphill towards Yu Long Xue Shan
[Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, located 9 miles north of Lijiang, elevation 18,360 ft], and eventually the terrain switched from corn to short grass and shrubbery, and the ground was carved up by small streams (most of them dry). Unfortunately, at the first non-dry stream, I learned exactly why Canon lenses have a reputation for having lousy lenscaps. I stupidly tried to cross by carrying my backpack + bike while my camera still swung freely from my neck, and a light nudge of my elbow against the side of my camera's lenscap popped it off, whereupon it dived into the stream and began floating away at alarming speed. So after one barely unsuccessful attempt at snatching it up, I dropped my bike (which ended up upside down in the mud under the water) and jumped into the stream--I managed to get the little bugger before it went down the nearby waterfall, but I was soaked halfway up my shins. Oh well, the landscape was beautiful and the sun came out, making the huge plane below stand out against the dark mountains. I walked my bike towards Yu Long Xue Shan for another hour or so past lots of pretty but unfriendly shrubs (they had extremely rigid branches and long thorns hiding behind the little orange and white berries), and eventually came to a paved road. I thought I'd bike up the road a ways towards the mountain, but a few local men with horses started yelling at me from a couple hundred meters away. I told them I was going up the road to take a look and then come back, but they didn't listen and just kept pointing my way and shaking their hands and heads and yelling "No!" and then gesticulating wildly for me to come down their way. Disgusted, I just went up the road anyway, found nothing very special, and came back. As I suspected they were demanding I pay them to go for a horse ride, and as they just kept screaming this at me I quickly biked onward. I kept getting closer and closer to the mountain, but the clouds around the top seemed to be getting thicker and thicker. They were moving quite fast, and it always looked like they were about to move away completely to reveal the peak, but somehow more clouds kept appearing where others had been. . . pretty soon I figured out it was because there was a big ring of clouds swirling around the top! Must have been the dragon's frosty breath or something. . . .
          So I began racing back towards Lijiang, since the Nahi orchestra performance was starting fairly soon, and went past an intersection with some more locals who rushed at me with filthy snails and cracked eggs, screaming "hello!!!" in screeching barks. . . as I zoomed away one man kept running after me screaming the same "hello!" while giggling--it was all a joke to him--too bad it prevented me from having a chance to chat with them at all. I decided to go back to Baisha and ask directions for Dr. Ho's clinic; when I found it I was surprised at what a shack it was, --it was all closed up, so I went back towards Lijiang, but as I left town I tried to shift gears and my bike chain jammed. I tugged at it for 10 minutes (while being eyed by two very curious and friendly local boys. . . it started to rain and they peered at my pathetic efforts from under their shirts held above their heads. Finally I got help from some guys in a truck who had a screwdriver to pry the chain out. So finally I was on my way again, but I was pissed off since I might not make it to the orchestra in time. But then (of course!) I saw that Lijiang, which had been visible from a huge distance before, was now blotted out by a thick wall of dark grey. I was very glad to have my emergency poncho, which kept my backpack and camera dry, but there was no hope for my limbs; I plunged into the oncoming wall of water at top gear and my lips stung from the barrage of huge raindrops. By the time I got to the outside of Lijiang, I was nothing but a big senseless high-speed blob covered in noisily flapping clear plastic. Of course, I was dumb enough to try to shift gears again, and the exact same thing happened as before. . . . I managed to get a taxi to drive me + bike to the center of town, and I made it to the orchestra after missing only 15 minutes.
          The performance was fascinating--all the members of the group were of Nahi descent, many of them nearly 90 years old. These oldest musicians only played in about 20% of the concert and spent the rest of the time sleeping peacefully in their chairs, looking the same as when awake except for the closed eyes. They had some of the coolest long pointy beards I've ever seen! Like the old women of Lijiang, they are the last to preserve the traditional way of life. In the city streets only 70+ year old women still wear the traditional blue clothing. If I came back in 10 years, I bet much of the traditional way of life I've been able to see will have disappeared. The orchestra played on original instruments, many of which were hundreds of years old. The music was from original Daoist texts of the Tang and Song dynasties--only in Lijiang does this music survive.
          Afterwards I bought their CD and talked for a while with Mr. Xuan Ke, Lijiang's famous intellectual and the president and spokesman for the orchestra. I returned my bike to the MCA Guesthouse (the guy luckily didn't try to charge me for the bike's less than ideal condition) and went to the Blue Page for dinner where I chatted with a couple orthodox Jewish guys (named Coby and Michael) from England who were thinking about taking the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Coby decided to go outside to ask about conditions, and we heard him chatting with another westerner. I heard the stranger say "Yangsu", KC's trademark mispronunciation of Yangshuo, so I jumped up and said hello. After the four of us chatted a while, KC and I went back to the First Bend Inn and I plunged into my wonderful soft dry bed.

August 31 (Tues):
          Got up in time to catch the 8:30 bus to Daju, where I planned to start the two-day trek through the gorge. I found the bus stop but no bus appeared to be going where I wanted. After asking about 10 different people who seemed to work there but knew nothing, I managed to learn that in fact the bus left at 8:00, not 8:30. Yet another time I shouldn't have relied on LP. I checked around for a bus to Qiaotou, but they left only at 7:10 or 7:50 or in the afternoon, so I had to completely abandon the idea of seeing the gorge and its cliffs and rushing Yangtze river (I still have to catch that plane to Xi'an on the 3rd). I was pretty pissed off, but it was probably for the best, since the head cold that started a day before (must have caught it from sleeping on that horrible wet bed during my last night in Xishuangbanna) was getting worse, not the best time for two days of high altitude trekking in rainy weather.
          I came back for lunch at the Well Bistro, and KC was there too--this was about the 5th time we had independently decided to go to the same place at the same time. I decided to go to Dali today since I was tired of Lijiang (though that was more because of my mood and recent difficulties than because of the town itself). It turned out he was going there too, so we went to the bus station together and took a 12:30 bus (after boarding the 12:00 bus but switching when someone finally noticed the bus didn't work). The scenery on the way was amazing, with the road way up at the top of the mountains, in the middle of puffy clouds, looking down on sunlit valleys many miles in the distance. My ears were not so fortunate as my eyes, however, as half of the passengers continuously hocked out goobers (making the loudest sound possible each time)--and the woman behind me spent the entire trip with her head against the window, moaning miserably. . . every 20 minutes or so she would stick her head out and wretch sonorously into the clear mountain air. All that, plus speakers continuously blasting the current most popular Chinese music, which consists of exactly three separate songs. After three and a half hours of driving we got dropped off on the highway next to old Dali, paid Y1 each to get a ride in a horse-drawn cart to the city wall, and walked up to the #4 guesthouse.
          The inside was beautiful--a courtyard of tropical trees and stone pathways, and a goldfish pond. Enticed by "free laundry", we paid for a night. But since this is China, the "free laundry" was a room of washing machines with no soap and no hot water, and only one of the six or so machines actually worked. To complicate things, this machine's spinner was broken, and the only working spinner was in a machine that no longer had any buttons or dials on it. But that wasn't exciting enough, so another washer (which I had already loaded accidentally even though it was out of order) gave gentle loving electrical shocks as I hand washed my clothes in its basin. Luckily they were never more than wee little shocks, since the wall outlets here are at 220 Volts. At least the staff here are extremely friendly and fun to joke with. My white Xinhua Airlines T-shirt had once again gained prominent green stains from where I sweated most the day before, so I just washed it with my dark clothes and managed to get the whole thing to turn puke green--problem solved!
          Went out and ate great spaghetti at the "Old Wooden House" cafe with KC, but as we walked around afterwards it started to rain (again!!). Back at the guesthouse, I took some NyQuil and drank a hot chocolate with brandy and went to sleep in my slightly damp bed, and the rain pounded down all night long.

Sept. 1 (Wed):
          Slept a lot. . . dreamt that I was sitting in the bathroom at home staring at the tile wall and watching my arms levitate around me. As this didn't make much sense, I realized I was asleep and woke myself up--I found myself back in the States with family, playing video games and enjoying way more comforts than there actually ever are, but I suddenly became perplexed that I had no recollection of my 14 hour return flight from Seoul, so then I knew I was still dreaming and woke myself up again--of course I was still in China; naturally I hadn't left yet, because I was still in Beijing, accompanied by a vague selection of family members (I'm not really sure who, although I'm pretty certain Ian was there). We were sitting in a hotel room throwing blankets and pillows around. This seemed to make perfect sense, but pretty soon I woke up again, and was amazed to realize I still had nearly two weeks left of traveling, and that I was way down in the town of Dali in Yunnan province, nowhere near Beijing. This reality seemed to stick, so I got out of bed and spent the next three hours slowly eating breakfast (at the Sunshine Cafe), showering, gathering my things, and moving over to the #5 Guesthouse, where the beds are drier. At breakfast a portly Austrian with a foot-and-a-half-long grey and yellow beard came in, said a few very odd sentences to the owners (apparently he's a regular), introduced himself to me as Harry, and plopped himself down at my table (the plopping was hindered somewhat by the fact that the wicker chair's armrests spanned an inch or so less distance than his formidable rear). Our main topic of conversation ended up being about his difficult life in Guangzhou, where he had built a factory and worked--but couldn't stand the constantly air conditioned environment. This part of China seems to be pretty air-conditioned too, as well as damp, but whatever. Of course street vendor women managed to infiltrate the restaurant (as they have every time I've eaten here--they've even come into the guesthouses!) but Harry got them to go away by uttering a long, moo-like "Noooooooooooo" (it was more like "Nüüüüüüüüüüüü", or maybe "Nrrrrrrrrrrrr"). I was impressed--in this town I've usually had to tell them that I was eating now but promised to stop by when I was done, and then say goodbye five or six times before they finally left the table. I spent the next three or four hours back at the #5 Guesthouse writing about these last couple days. Meanwhile a New Zealander named Gavin moved into the same room--he's just spent the last month or so biking up from Thailand! His big plan is to keep biking (including up into Tibet and down into India) and make it to Amsterdam by his birthday in April.
          Then I went out and explored the city. . . the aggressive vendors pounced on me again--one that I had apparently met the night before and already given many excuses to, found me again and demanded I come inside her house to see some better things to buy. So I agreed to come sit awhile, and once there she pulled out all kinds of stuff from baskets that looked exactly like the artificially "old" stuff on the street. All the wood was really some special plastic (I could see bubbles in it), so I offered Y10 for a badly carved hinged Buddhist decoration--she said Y80 would be more like it, at which point I said "Didn't I tell you I'm not a good person to ask?" I was starting to feel really sad, since this city has way too many business women who're all selling the same stuff, and every last chunk of it is crap--even their best efforts to impress me produced nothing worth spending more than a buck on. I don't see how they could be making much money. As in Yangshuo, table after table of mysteriously identical "antiques" makes it very easy to tell that it's all crap.
          But then I found the marble shops! There is a huge marble mine nearby, so there are lots of cheap marble things to buy, of all colors, with fairly decent (machine) craftsmanship. I had to force myself not to buy things that were too heavy! I bargained pretty hard and got a bowl and a couple nice flower vases for about $10 total, but I probably paid too much (Y115) for the hand-carved marble Chinese Chess set (heavy!), but it's popular so I was lucky enough to get it down that far from the original Y180.
          Ate dinner at "Mr. China's Son Cultural Exchange Cafe", run by a 69 year old local who's written a book in English (called "Mr. China's Son") about his difficult life during the various communist cultural upheavals of the last 50 years. He'd also written up a very informative guide to Dali, and had a lot of original Bai cultural relics/tools with English descriptions hanging around his shop (he's of Bai descent).
          Next I went to Jim's Peace Cafe (where KC was staying)--Jim is part Tibetan and has a jug of his "Number 1 Special", which is a very tasty 80 proof concoction with ginseng and all kinds of other herbs that's supposed to give you "many power", in Jim's words (actually Jim usually spoke excellent Australian English). What I didn't know was that Jim had already had nine or so of his No. 1 Specials (about two and a half shots worth each), so I was quite surprised when he poured me a cup and a half into my single cup, sending the overflow all over my pants and foot! Harry the Austrian and Gavin the biker were there too, just as drunk (though this didn't alter Harry's behavior much); they were having a conversation about sharks in Australia--apparently, in the 60's Harry was an intrepid shark photographer in Australia. Eventually said goodbye to KC (who's leaving early tomorrow) and made it to bed.

Sept. 2 (Thurs):
          Got up a bit late, ate a long breakfast at Mr. China's Son Cafe, then packed up my stuff, locked it up at #5 Guesthouse, and went out shopping for some batik. Got reasonable prices for everything made in Dali, since the shopkeepers had done it themselves, but for the wall-hanging type colorful batik, prices were always too high, since the shopkeepers had bought it from Guizhuo province and wanted to make a big profit. Got to the remote MCA guest house, but their bikes demanded a ridiculous Y500 deposit, so I headed back in search of others. Then suddenly I saw a huge procession coming from outside of town: in the front were old men playing traditional instruments, they were followed by about 30 men walking along with straight faces, then came a fancy decorated carrier, followed by a whole bunch of women, some of whom had white cloth over their faces and were wailing for the dea one direction (uphill) and finally end, having no cross streets to get to the next one over. I finally finished riding/walking my bike up to the chairlift entrance, but was told that it had closed at 5:30 (it was now 5:45) --pretty damn annoying, since nowhere had I read that this particular ride was on the same short hours as the PSB and Bank of China. Went back down the long cobblestone downhill street, getting jostled badly because the bike renter had insisted on pumping the tires up rock hard. At last I had time for a nice dinner and chat at Mr. China's Son Cafe; the old man recognized me well since I had been there so much, and I bought his book, which he signed for me in English and Chinese. Then he even walked me to the bus stop and waited with me for a while--it was a nice way to leave town after being so annoyed before.
          Got to Xiaguan (and bonked my head badly on the bus's doorframe as I exited), and was immediately met by a woman who wanted me to ride her sleeper bus to Kunming. At the bus station she and several other bus touts tried all manner of tactics to win me over; perhaps I had a little too much fun examining each bus and letting them fight over me for a while. One left at 9:00 pm and others left at 10:00 pm, but they all claimed to arrive in Kunming by 6:00 am, which seemed OK since I heard that a new highway had been built--still I was nervous since LP lists the time as 11 hours. They offered Y50 tickets, much better than the original Y80 from Dali, but I managed to get on for Y45 since they all wanted my business but only one was willing to bargain down. I even had a special long bed in the back that I could fit in ("bed" makes it sound nice--while the back section may be long enough, this one and the one last time both had filthy cushions). The nervous thing was that, while I'd heard some buses now made the trip in five and a half hours, this wasn't a special new bus. --A lot of time went by, and at 9:30 it finally started moving but 30 seconds later it would stop. This happened over and over, until after midnight the bus finally left Xiaguan.

Sept. 3 (Fri):
          For all the weird sounds coming out of the engine, I was surprised when the bus actually did pull into Kunming at around 6:00 am. One of the passengers (who was a bit unfriendly since I was American--one of the first times I've encountered this) couldn't understand why I didn't jump out right away and go running off to the airport. My flight was at 8:10, so there was no hurry, but he was feeling very injured that I had been so worried before--I must think all Chinese want to deceive me. I tried to explain that I had been worried about unexpected road delays/accidents which had miraculously (as in, for the first time ever) not happened, but it was no use.
          After a quick ride to Kunming's very modern airport, I once again left the city right after arriving, having seen very little. Yunnan airlines once again failed to provide much food, but this time they gave us a high quality model plane with stand. I now realized that without a doubt it was a bad idea to have purchased this plane ticket in advance: it meant I had a deadline for my whole time in the province, which made it impossible to really see some of the best places, like Tiger Leaping Gorge and more of Xishuangbanna.
          At Xi'an, the woman on the shuttle offered a very nice sounding room for Y60, but I decided to go down to the Petroleum Hotel, as LP recommended. But I met a student of Xi'an's Jiaotong Daxue ["Transportation" University] who thought he could find me a nice cheap place to stay at his university--he got me there after we shared a cab and then he took off suddenly. But as I had worried, the place's cheapest for me was Y120. The Y18 bed I saw listed was off limits to foreigners, even one with a Bei Shi Da ID card. So I had to get another cab (and it was raining again!) and spend another Y14 to get over to the Petroleum Hotel, which ended up being full. . . but at least they called over to the Flats of Renmin Hotel and confirmed that they still had Y45 rooms available. Damned if I was going to take another cab, I grabbed my stuff and plunged into Xi'an's mass transit system, something I had never done much of in Beijing (apart from the subway and the 22 Lu bus). Got all the way up to the NW corner of town, and disembarked, but was almost sure I wasn't where I was supposed to be. But after walking down a road a ways, I saw the sign for "Mum's Home Cooking", so I knew I was on the right track (LP listed this restaurant as being nearby). The place turned out to be big and well-staffed (better be for Y45) and the room of four beds had air conditioning! After taking a shower I went out and rented a bike and had a great time biking across this enormous city--it's a lot like Beijing, with an organized grid of streets, but it seems a bit older, with less super-modern buildings and more signs of history like enormous city walls and various old-style buildings. I gradually circled in on the "Forest of Steles" Museum, and got in at the student price. I found this place truly interesting--all the huge tablets with ample English descriptions explaining what was engraved. You could meticulously examine the famous calligraphy style of each period, from the elegant, precise styles of the Tang dynasty (which look like today's pen-written Chinese when it's done carefully--what we learn in first year Chinese) to the wild, flowing cursive of the Ming dynasty. What I found strange was how many of the tablets weren't protected by Plexiglas. --every time one of the evil Chinese tour groups would pass, probing fingers would start feeling the engraving, especially where they saw people had felt before, and some of the steles were starting to show real damage.
          After the museum closed I found street vendors outside selling paintings about 10 times better than those in Yangshuo, and since they were the artists themselves, they were willing to sell at extremely low prices. Then as it got dark I leisurely biked back NW through the city, ate dinner in the Muslim quarter, meanwhile taking a roll of weird night pictures of Xi'an. . . finishing the night with a beer and a chat at "Dad's Home Cooking" restaurant.

Sept. 4 (Sat):
          Got up pretty early, and the hotel's "free breakfast" was unfortunately nothing more than one crepe with honey on it. Biked to the train station, and boarded the 306 bus to get to the army of terracotta warriors. Getting there was quite an ordeal, since we had to get out of Xi'an first, and the bus was just too big to get through all those crowded market-lined streets easily. The site itself was somewhat disappointing--a big room full of statues, but only the front section has been excavated, and you can't get close to any of it, except at pit #2, where what you see in the glass boxes have been photographed and published extensively. Still, the 3-D perspective was nice, and I thought the long half-excavated rows were the most interesting, since you could see hundreds of half-shattered warriors and horses, half-buried in the pale dirt, like an entire army had been slaughtered and piled into these long mass graves. . . but of course they had originally been set up in fine battle formation 2000 years before.
          Well. . . got back to Xi'an after another hour and a half of bus hassle, and biked down to the Shanxi Lishi Bowuguan
[Shaanxi History Museum] which had a nice presentation of artifacts from the area, especially from the Zhou through the Tang dynasties, when the Xi'an area was China's capital. Next I went and climbed the Big Goose Pagoda, which was not particularly interesting. Then I started the ride back to the hotel, and my problems began. Somehow I decided north was west, and ended up curving onto a strangely endless street. . . 25 minutes later, I realized I had actually been heading south-east, exactly in the wrong direction. So now it was almost 6:00, and I needed to bike all the way from the SE corner to the NW corner of this city of 6 million, retrieve my luggage and train ticket, and make it to the train station for my 7:00 pm train. It was truly one of those "only Mischa. . ." moments. . . . Anyway, I biked like mad, cursed just how long it took to go past the expansive city walls [which enclose the center of downtown, the old Forbidden City of the Tang dynasty], and finally made it to my hotel at 6:40. They had some trouble finding my ticket, which turned out to actually be for 6:55 (of course!), and I was finally off to the station in a cab at 6:45. Got there at 6:52 and ran like crazy, but since only a maniac like me would be so late for the train, they had already taken my train number off the display, and finally arriving at the gate (with help) at 6:55, I was told that the train had just left! I wish Chinese buses were that punctual. . . and the annoying thing was that I would have made it if it had actually been a 7:00 departure as I had been told when I arranged for the ticket. Luckily, that was not the last train for Lanzhou, as I had been told. Soaked in sweat and ready to fall over, I must have triggered the radar of a friendly young Muslim guy (wearing the characteristic white skull-cap of the Hui Chinese), who approached and offered assistance. I showed him my ticket and said I had just missed my train, and he took me to the ticket purchase area (the path leading to it was well-hidden behind some foodstands and beneath a stairway), and helped me buy a hard-sleeper ticket for the next train at 9:40, which required just another Y50 (no problem!). Suddenly I had two and a half hours to calm down---I bought a giant bottle of ice-cold Pepsi and just sat on the sidewalk sucking it up. But the best thing about missing my train was that I had forgotten my long pants at Dad's Home Cooking, where I had left them to be washed. If I had caught my train, I would have been left with just one flimsy pair of shorts (I had already forgotten one pair of denim shorts in Dali). I managed to get a motorcycle-taxi to the north gate of the city wall (Y2), and a bus back to the hotel (I was astounded that I actually guessed correctly when to get off in the dark). Had the rest of my Pepsi with another cheapo dinner in a streetside restaurant, got my pants, and failed to catch the bus back to the train station (it turned out they stopped running at 8:00). --No problem, just grabbed another cab and strolled leisurely aboard my train.
          Before going to sleep, I had to force conversation with a fellow who prodded me repeatedly about how much I must love Chinese girls, how cheap they are if I wanted one, and how girls must be chasing me wherever I go. At least he shared his pomegranate with me.

Sept. 5 (Sun):
          Rolled into Lanzhou at 11:00 AM, got off into the sunshine and bought a map, then took a public bus into the city, walked down a street full of street stall food, ate a tasty lunch of shui jiao
[boiled dumplings] and something else very similar (shaped like rings), and found the CITS office, which had closed for lunch. Oh well. . . no need to arrange further train tickets now anyway--took a cab to the insurance agency, since supposedly foreigners in Gansu province have to buy Y30 of "insurance" before going anywhere by bus. They of course were also closed for lunch, but a couple helpful gentlemen (who seemed to work there but had no official authority) did some thinking and figured I no longer needed such insurance these days. They directed me to the bus stop to get to the west bus station, but just then the woman from the insurance agency came back from lunch and it turned out I did, in fact, still need to buy insurance. So I paid for it (took surprisingly little time), and bused over to the Qi Che Xi Zhan [west bus station], where I was mobbed by about eight separate drivers, most of whom were yelling "Labulang Si! Xiahe!" (my intended destination)--but I had read that there was only one direct bus (at 7:20 AM) to Xiahe, and in fact the clerk at the ticket window confirmed that those drivers were trying to trick me (at which point they evaporated from sight). --I'm not sure where I would have ended up by going with them. . . . So I bought a Y11.5 ticket to Linxia, which was around half-way to Xiahe. The bus left at 2:00, and most of the other passengers were Hui Muslim Chinese, with long beards and white skull-caps. The bus passed through lots of Muslim towns, where all the women had black veiled heads and many very old men with two-foot-long stringy white beards and white skull caps shuffled about or played chess in the streets. But the bus was crowded and extremely uncomfortable. Just as my rear end was about to fall off due to lack of circulation (we still hadn't reached Linxia), we came up to a bus that was headed for Hezuo by way of Xiahe, so I switched over. This bus was much more comfy, but unfortunately also more expensive, and I was asked for Y25. After some complaining I convinced them to let me ride for just Y20. Another three hours or so of beautiful scenery and I arrived at Xiahe just before 8:00, where I took a motor-tricycle for Y1 to the Tara guesthouse (Y15 beds). My room was shared by two friendly Israelis and a Japanese couple, plus a multilingual Canadian who left shortly after my arrival. Ate dinner at the Snowland Restaurant (which was full of friendly monks in purple-maroon robes--one of'em gave me a couple grapes as a present). The only complaint about my bed was that it was shorter than me and had a footboard--whatever, just had to sleep diagonally.

Sept. 6 (Mon):
          Got up very slowly today, ate breakfast at the Labrang Monastery Restaurant, and eventually showered and shaved. . . by then it was well past noon, so I decided to go out and explore, but first met a man calling himself "Lama", a local Tibetan guy who also speaks English and Chinese. He takes people for day-long tours to Ganjia grassland for a reasonable Y60, and he seems like an interesting guy. Like me, he spends a lot of time studying languages, and he wanted to know why more Americans aren't studying Tibetan. . . . After layering on the sunscreen I set out on the 3 km "pilgrim's way" around the monastery, which features over 1100 prayer wheels that walkers turn as they pass. Some people wear shoes on both hands and feet, as well as a padded apron, and they walk around the entire circle stopping every meter or so to face the prayer wheels and pray on their stomachs.
          Eventually the path circles up a hill behind the buildings of the Labrang Monastery--the monastery is enormous: walking from one end to the other on the main road takes almost 20 minutes. The fancier main buildings climb the slope and have magnificent roofs and awnings. Up here I found paths leading up the steep mountains that wall the back of the city, 20 or so tiny square white meditation huts (barely big enough for a person to sit inside) dotted the slope. I climbed up past these and quickly found myself at least 100 feet above the pilgrim's path, where more monks and farmers ambled quietly past. The slope was dizzyingly steep, but extremely easy to climb, since hard rock alternated with tough grass and tiny shrubs in a sort of step pattern. I went up very slowly, since Xiahe sits at 9500 feet and I was soon past 10,000. Eventually the mountain leveled off into a beautiful rounded peak covered in short grass and millions of purple, blue, and yellow wildflowers, and the city sounds faded away completely. From here, many more much higher meadows were visible, leading away from the city. I ambled across the bulging green mountaintops, eventually getting at least 1500 feet above the city, and got fantastic views of the entire valley. Large hawks soared by at my eye level, making strange cries that echoed and warped into even stranger shrieks as they dipped into valleys between mountains. The light and the background were perfect for portraits, and since no one else was around I took pictures of myself, using a combination of stiff shrubs and my camera case as a tripod. A tiny green grasshopper took a stroll across my camera and rested on the top, not seeming to mind me fiddling with the settings. By now the sun was getting low, but I was enjoying the quiet and utter solitude so much I couldn't leave, so I watched the sun set behind high distant mountains, hoping daylight would last long enough for me to climb back down. This worked for a while, but since there was no moon and the town was still hundreds of feet below, the steepening mountain started getting very dark. But I just kept creeping down, past a cluster of poles hung with cotton sheets printed with Tibetan scriptures. Soon, the sky was utterly black, darker than any sky I had ever seen in my life, with more stars visible than I had ever seen in my life. Since I of course had failed to bring up either one of the two flashlights I had brought on the trip, I eventually resorted to turning on my camera's red-eye reduction lamp for short periods, which worked surprisingly well. Finally I ended up at the top of the Tibetan village that makes up the western third of Xiahe. A guard dog a few feet below me suddenly snarled out of the darkness, voice dripping with murder, and I nearly pissed on myself, but luckily he was chained or he would have bitten my legs off. I walked quickly through the village towards the main road, and met a local who didn't speak Chinese, but seemed very interested in me giving him my camera. Luckily another guy named Daortch (or something) came out and very kindly led me to the main road.
          Before going to bed I stopped at the Labrang Monastery Restaurant, and chatted with my Israeli roommates (I've always been able to get on the good side of every Canadian or Israeli I've met on the road just by pointing to my Canadian or Jewish ancestry). At this hour, the restaurant had taken on a festive, rustic atmosphere of "rural merriment", much like what we imagine a peasant tavern in medieval times was like. The dusty walls, old wooden tables and rough-hewn long benches contributed perfectly. The effect lasted even after I returned to Tara Guesthouse, where the toilet is a hole in the floor of the foulest smelling room on earth, leading down to a genuine cesspool. But smell is an easy sense to overcome: within seconds of being enveloped in such a potent odor, my overloaded nostrils barely register it anymore. . . .

Sept. 7 (Tues):
          My plan had been to get up early and climb the mountains where I had come down the night before. This I did, but I was so slow getting there that by the time I was halfway up the slope above the town it was already noon, and the sun was beating down, and really huge scary flies and bees kept appearing out of the grass to buzz around my head, so I went back down and met some kids in the Tibetan village. They always started by asking if I had any pens, and when I said no they asked for money. When they figured out that wasn't going to work they finally started chatting, but I still had to keep an eye on them or they might have made off with my bicycle. I headed back for lunch, passing many old toothless men who gestured for money. I had planned to take the tour of the monastery, but I hadn't quite found the ticket office, so I ended up eating lunch with Lama and then heading out into the city with him for some shopping. Prices were not especially good, but I bought a pair of enormous ground stone lens sunglasses cheap from a friend of Lama's. Lama invited me for a Y1.5 bowl of niu rou mian
[Beef + la mian ("lo mein") noodles, the canonical lunch of northern China], and later a wealthy tourist ("Oh, but I would prefer it in silver. . .") came into one of the shops, but ran away when the shopkeeper started yelling "Hello! Hello!!" in her face to try to interest her in the items he was holding. This sales tactic is such a common Chinese phenomenon, and one that foreign customers unanimously despise, so I advised him to use a soft voice and say things like "Would you like to see something else?" and "How about this?" (I wrote them down for him, with translations), for which he thanked me heartily.
          By now it was almost 5:00, but I decided to see if the monastery was still giving tours anyway. I walked into what I thought might be some kind of main entrance, but it turned out to be a small campus for resident student monks. As I passed by a doorway, five or so monks spotted me from inside and enthusiastically beckoned me to enter their living quarters. They gave me hot water and some very questionable bread that they pulled out of a desk drawer. Only one of them really spoke Chinese (named Ammelikh), but that was enough, and we chatted for a long time. Eventually they brought in bowls of boiled potato, beef, and noodles, and offered me a bowl. But it turned out to be Ammelikh's only dinner! When I offered to share he explained that he couldn't, since I was not a Buddhist monk. Eventually they admitted that the real reason was that they're not allowed to be close to the "influences of a woman", and as I must have had contact of some kind or other he therefore couldn't share food with me--this gave us all a good laugh. Ammelikh kept referring to me as his "little brother", and said that I should sleep next to him on his bed that night, since that was their custom for visiting friends--very sweet and all but I explained that I had already paid for the night at the Tara Guesthouse, and they might wonder if I didn't show up for the night. I got out my camera and we took lots of pictures--group shots, pairs, goofy poses, etc., which I promised to send them. Afterwards me and Ammelikh went out for a stroll, and he seemed genuinely sad that I was going so soon. We bumped into Lama, who told me he had another group ready to go to Ganjia tomorrow, and I planned to go too. I gave Ammelikh my address and we had a bite to eat at the Snowland Restaurant. I had already eaten his dinner once, so I tried to treat him for this meal, but he wouldn't let me and made it clear he was going to treat me, so I ordered a rice porridge--tasty and only Y2--I wasn't very hungry anyway. We just sat there and he didn't say much, but eventually it was time to go to sleep so we left and said goodbye.

Sept. 8 (Wed):
          I planned to quick see the main inner rooms of the monastery before leaving for Ganjia grassland, but I once again failed to find the ticket office. --In fact, there didn't seem to be much of anyone around at all; I guess it was too early. Still, it was cool to walk around the ghostly Tibetan architecture, hearing chanting coming from some chamber far away. Eventually a huge mob of Chinese and European tourists appeared, so I left and met up with Ori (Israeli), Mark (Australian), Michael and Kristen (German), and Michel (French/German), who were all coming to Ganjia. We hopped into Lama's rented van and went high into the mountains, eventually finding the lush grassland, sitting high at 3435 meters
[11,270 ft] (according to Lama). Here the grass was longer and the flowers even more plentiful than in the meadows above Xiahe. After 45 minutes or so we drove down the valley to a flat pasture and saw horses, yaks, and the distant tents of the Tibetan nomads living there. Another short drive brought us to more beautiful grassland, but this was completely different--the grass was long and dry, and the ground springy, and there were no flowers. We saw nomads moving from one site to another (a common summer activity), with all their belongings carried on the backs of their yaks. In the distance sheer cliffs jutted out vertically, and the tops had more grass--we could see two white specks up above the cliffs, two more tents. Below the cliffs was a small village. We followed a river past it up to a gorge in the cliff, where there were sacred Buddhist caves for meditation. We clambered through one for a while, but it got very muddy and narrow (and started going down rather than forward), so we turned back for lunch, which we ate in a tent by the river.
          Next we drove to an ancient "octagonal" Tibetan village, supposedly inhabited for around 3000 years. It had tall city walls made of mud, and the inhabitants were friendly (towards cameras too) and didn't ask for money (though we did each have to buy a Y5 entry ticket as we left). There was also a school, where kids sat in classrooms singing, and others sat outside practicing Chinese and Tibetan with sharp stones in the dirt. Everything seemed normal, except there were no teachers in sight! Unless perhaps they were the men who greeted us near the school. One of the men wanted his picture taken with me since I'm American, and gave me his address to send it to him. (not again!) --I guess my nationality raises my status around here, since many Tibetans are strongly pro-American, especially when the Chinese government is busy stirring up anti-American sentiment.
          The drive back was exciting and dangerous, first because the little teeny Chinese-made van had to repeatedly ford little streams that crossed the road, second because sometimes the road became very irregular, making the van precariously close to tipping over--and third because we suddenly started passing truck after truck of the Chinese military, many towing trailers holding light artillery. Eventually we saw that they had set up training right in the field where we had visited the yaks and horses, and at least 20 artillery units had their canons arching over the field in the direction of the Tibetan nomads' tents--for target practice, perhaps? In any case, lots of Tibetan locals hung around behind the big guns, and Lama was nervous, making sure the driver kept going without stopping, since it looked rather bad for a local Tibetan guide to be taking Western camera-toting tourists through Chinese military training grounds (but we had no choice--this was the road back to Xiahe).
          Back at Tara Guesthouse, I had a nice shower, ate some food, and said bye to Lama and Mark + Ori (the two Germans and the French guy had actually moved into the same room as me the day before). Packed my things and went to bed early to be ready for tomorrow's 6:30 bus back to Lanzhou.

Sept. 9 (Thurs):
[At my cousin Jonathan's memorial service in 1995, my uncle James gave a eulogy that included a story about a conversation he had once had with Jonathan and Daniel, about what they would all be doing on the date "nine, nine, ninety-nine". At the time, I never imagined I would be traveling alone through northwest China, on the opposite side of the globe! I wonder what we'll all be up to on the date "ten, ten, ten"]
          This late in the year it's very dark still at 6:00 AM (but being so far west and north it gets dark here at night almost an hour later than in Yangshuo). I met up with Marvin, a Canadian I had chatted with on occasion in the days before, and we took the bus together. Marvin was very chatty during the ride, making numerous comments about the scenery, but I wasn't feeling too well so I tried my best to ignore him. Marvin is the portrait of a vulnerable clueless foreigner: around 50 years old with grey hair, kinda chubby, speaks no Chinese and has a certain air of naivete, and indeed he did share many stories of ways he'd been swindled. At the same time, he's an extremely intelligent, caring person and well worth knowing. The trip to Lanzhou was incredibly fast--only four and a half hours instead of the eight or nine that LP predicts. We boarded bus 127 to the train station, and I tried to buy Marvin a hard sleeper ticket for Chengdu, but they were booked out till the 13th (not surprising--travel agents are about the only way to get hard sleeper tickets on short notice). At the same time I got myself a hard seat ticket for the 2:17 train to Zhongwei (a six hour ride). We were fiendishly hungry by then, and Marvin treated me to lunch at a local Chinese joint, after which we said goodbye. . . . I tried to call the Zhongwei travel service to set up a desert trip for tomorrow, but I couldn't get the phone to work and it was time to board my train.
          The car was surprisingly empty, with only one-third of the seats filled, and this "hard seat" train had really quite soft seats. There would be no unwanted excitement on this ride, nothing like Werner's ride to Chengdu where the woman's baby peed on his backpack (part of the story he told me back in Jinghong). The train went through the barren shrub/sand mountainous landscape that lines the Huang He
[Yellow River] in this part of China, and as night fully set in we arrived at Zhongwei, and it was raining again! I had to disappoint the taxi drivers since I was planning to stay at the Tie Lu Binguan [Railroad Hotel], but at least they were nice enough to point to it, about 80 feet away. Checked in for a bed in a triple for Y15, and there was even a TV!
          Went out for a bite to eat, and found myself in a huge construction area sitting between the railroad station and the rest of town. I actually felt a little unsafe with so few people around and all the shadows behind piles of dirt and bricks. But soon I came into an area where work was still being done, and passed by a tiny Chinese-style steamroller (it was about my height) that was ineffectively trying to press flat the mud. I strolled down the main street and back, looking for a place to check my email. The people I asked in computer stores gave either very vague directions or simply said "there isn't any internet here". I walked back towards my room, and waited for someone in the restaurants to notice me and make a friendly overture. A man came out of Wen Jia Jiaozi Wang
["Warm House of the Dumpling King" (!)] and made exciting slurping sounds while shoveling his hands towards his face, an invitation for me to enter his restaurant and eat shui jiao, which I gladly accepted. I had a bunch of chicken shui jiao and a Y2.5 bottle of Xi Liang Pijiu ["Western Chill" Beer] and the owners were very friendly and boasted of their rock bottom prices, and encouraged me to come back the next day. Once again, locals expressing warm hospitality had fixed my bad mood--this is one of the best things about traveling in China. I went back to my room and didn't watch TV, but just dropped to sleep, no longer bothered (due to constant exposure) by the blaring sounds of the tone-deaf Karaoke singers across the street.

Sept. 10 (Fri):
          Woke up in the early morning to hear rain barreling down. . . which pissed me off since I was planning to go out into the desert today, and so I had bad dreams for the rest of the morning, about suddenly being in Mr. Zintel's Spanish class in high school and finding I was only able to speak Chinese. When I got up at 7:30 it was still raining, but not that hard. So much for seeing blue sky over the sand dunes.
          The next project was to find the Zhongwei travel service, but I ended up walking 15 minutes too far because of looking at my map wrong. When I finally did arrive at the right place on the fourth floor of the county government building, there was no travel agency to be found, and no one in the building had heard of it, which I found odd since it must have just moved within the last 8 months or so. But luckily a woman from the travel agency found me outside the building, said she had heard I was having trouble finding them, and led me to their new offices in the city center, not far from my hotel. I guess word travels fast in this town when a big tall lao wai walks around lost on the streets. . . I think I'm the only foreigner in town at the moment (or at least it seems that way). I arranged with them to get a sleeper ticket for Datong leaving tonight at 8:00, and then we discussed the prospects for a day-trip in the desert, riding camels and seeing the crumbling remains of some Ming dynasty Great Wall amid the dunes. Since I was alone, it was going to cost Y245, and as it was still raining, I was going to get very wet (she said I couldn't use an umbrella while riding the camel since it freaks them out!). After some deliberation I decided just to get over to Shapotou (10 km away) on my own, where you can see the Huang He and sand dunes, and can walk right into the desert. I spent the next hour looking for a minibus to Shapotou, but ended up taking a motor-tricycle taxi for Y20 instead.
          Got there at about 12:30, and it was still overcast, but not raining much. I skipped the Y15 door price for the platform over the river and just took some pictures through the fence. There was also a door and a Y5 fee for entering the Tenger Desert. I thought it was kind of silly to have a door frame leading into a vast desert, so I took my taxi driver's advice and just walked down the road a few hundred meters (out of sight of the commercial center), where I cut over and just walked right into the desert. The dunes closest to the railroad were covered in a grid of squares made out of straw, which keeps the sand from blowing onto the tracks. Once in the desert proper, I was glad for the clouds, which made the weather quite comfortable, and for the rain, which had firmed up all the sand and made it very easy to walk (besides preventing sand from blowing in my face). Over the next three hours I walked further and further, aimlessly climbing the tallest dunes and watching the desert extend over the horizon. Mysterious purple-flowered trees stood in little groves at random intervals, surrounded by nothing but brown sand, and what looked like rabbit tracks went criss-crossing in all directions.
          At about 4:00 I came back to the river and found a bus leaving for Zhongwei. The driver and friends were in a tree harvesting walnuts, and he gave me one and showed me how to get at the tasty center, meanwhile domesticated camels walked by and a PSB officer sat in the bus playing with the gear shift and honking the horn. The bus was about the most filthy thing I've ever ridden in--the floor appeared to be made out of sunflower seed shells until the attendant swept them out the door. During the ride, a batty old woman came in and put her baskets of fruit on my feet before nearly sitting in my lap. It wasn't just me who found her a little weird--the PSB officers smirked and whispered to each other when she got off the bus. Back in Zhongwei, I retrieved my ticket from the travel service--it was expensive since they had chosen to buy me a bottom bunk ticket. I complained that it should have been obvious from our previous conversation that I would want the cheapest berth, but whatever. Had a nice dinner at Wen Jia Jiaozi Wang, retrieved my luggage from the hotel, and sat down in the train station. An attendant came up to me and started speaking very fast Chinese of a variety I hadn't encountered before--it was kind of odd that he assumed I would understand, but there was no way I could get what he was saying except that I think he was offering some boiled water. Next the person next to me asked my nationality and then (the first time it's happened) started directly criticizing the U.S. government and asking me what I thought of the embassy bombing in Belgrade. I said that I thought it had been an accident, since I could think of no possible benefit that purposefully bombing the Chinese embassy would bring to the U.S. This he used against me, since I was taking the same stance as my inherently evil government and president. So I repeatedly asked him what possible benefit doing this on purpose had brought to the U.S. government and people, and he never gave a direct answer, but said that (a) the journalists called it a vicious, purposeful act, and they were in Kosovo and always report what they see, and (b) it's what his government said, and he always believes everything his government says. I prodded him that the journalists were not in the airplane or in Washington where the evil order was given, so how did they know whether it was an accident or not? --but this didn't get me anywhere. Luckily it was time to board the train. . . . It's scary that a fifth of the world's population is trained, or at least expected to be trained, to swallow its government's propaganda without question, but I guess that's one of the reasons Chinese society is so stable (at least for the Han Chinese majority, and at least on the surface).
          On the train, the fellows sitting across from my bunk were very friendly, and we talked for hours about travel, foreign study, and the intricacies of Chinese and Western languages. . . thankfully politics and war never came up.

Sept. 11 (Sat):
          Rolled into Datong on the same train line that took me back from Nei Menggu
[Inner Mongolia] seven weeks ago. As expected, about ten different taxi drivers surrounded me the moment I came out of the station; they wielded maps of the area and pointed to Yungang Caves while screaming "hello!" and "Yungang Caves!" repeatedly. This was certainly my planned destination, but I kept telling them I was going by public bus. The crowd followed me to the left luggage counter, where the two attendants turned out to be extremely friendly, asking how I was and gladly giving advice about evening trains for Beijing. I left the counter and the drivers continued grabbing and pulling me in conflicting directions. . . most of the drivers were offering Y20 for Yungang caves, but then they started dropping. I figured it was worth it for Y10, but after getting in the taxi and trying to confirm the price, the driver said "Well, come on, there's no way I could take you there for that!", so I promptly got out--so much for him.
          About three drivers followed me to the ticket office, where I bought a hard seat ticket for Beijing leaving at 10:30 that night. I kept telling them that I was going to take a bus, but one very persistent and pretty friendly guy started inventing trips involving both the Caves and the Hanging Monastery, which got my attention since a taxi was the only way I would have time to see both. We agreed on Y100 (the monastery is two hours away each way) and I got in his silly looking little green put-put van. Of course, when confirming the price he said it would be Y130 if I actually wanted to get back to Datong. . . . I convinced him to go for Y115, and off we went. Datong is a filthy shithole of a city, at least by appearance. Piles of coal line the streets, sometimes coating buildings as if it were used as the building material. On the highway while following a coal truck, wisps of black coal dust wafted across the road exactly the way snow does in the winter in the Midwest. The caves luckily had a student ticket for Y10, but I only had an hour since we needed to get to the monastery before dark. Many of the carved caves were quite spectacular, though I don't think I would have wanted to make a special trip out from Beijing just to see them--it was nice as a stop on the way back east. I especially liked the Buddha in Cave 3--the light shining in at a downward angle from a high window created ideal ambient lighting for viewing the enormous carved statue. Next came the long, uncomfortable drive to the monastery--the sky was kinda grey. . . I'm not sure it ever really gets blue here. My cab driver practiced his small set of English phrases with me, but sadly made little improvement. . . at least he made a jolly companion on the road.
          The monastery was much closer to the ground than I had imagined by the word "hanging". . . it was pretty cool how it's built into the side of a vertical cliff, but it's a pretty small structure. The ticket of Y26, along with the expensive long ride, made for kind of a sour moment, but I enjoyed myself anyway. An hour later as night fell we drove back to the train station in Datong in silence, and I paid him (no new tricks this time) and promised to look him up next time I was in town. Hadn't eaten anything all day, so I started looking around the station for a cheap dumpling joint. Sure enough, I spotted a telltale doorway with dirty plastic hanging flaps, hiding among the large moonlight-covered ritzy restaurants. As always, the owners were jovial and excited to have me enter, and for Y8 I got an enormous plate of chao tudou si
[diced potatoes fried in spicy sauce] and a bowl of shui jiao. A bunch of police entered and asked where I was from, and I said the U.S., but quickly added "Chicago, Gong Niu Dui! ["The Bulls"] Michael Jordan!" Then they started saying "didn't he die of AIDS?" and actually seemed to be talking about Michael Jackson. . . and I got very confused since as far as I knew neither of these people have AIDS or are dead. Whatever, it was soon time to board my train, which ended up being a true hard seat. None of the puffy orange seats I got to sit on from Lanzhou to Zhongwei--this was stark vertical olive green boards for backrests and paper-thin padding on the seat. Of course, this was a seven and a half hour ride for Y30, and that other had been a six hour ride for Y45. Along with the rest of the passengers, I quickly put myself into a near-unconscious trance that is the standard for these hard-seat night trains--it's amazing how little my brain wandered in the next seven hours. The six people in my booth took turns leaning and sort of dozing on the tiny table in the middle (about three people at a time can do this). I tried to stay upright as much as possible, since when I'm hunched forward my stomach somehow slowly fills with air, making me have to get up and burp.

Sept. 12 (Sun):
          Once in Beijing, my trip felt like it was over--I was back home again! I went right into the subway, got out at Qianmen, and had a bowl of zhou
[rice porridge], a dou jiang [sweet soymilk drink], and a you tiao [long crispy fried pastry] for breakfast, and went and bought some more shirts. It was interesting to find I was much better at bargaining after my three weeks on the road--I smiled and laughed and smoothly slashed their prices by two-thirds. . . . Another subway ride and a trip up Xin Jie Kou Wai on the 22 Lu bus and I was back on the Bei Shi Da campus. Dropped off my mountain of film at the Kodak center just outside Dong Mer [the east gate of the university], checked into Di Er Gongyu [the "Number 2" foreign students building], took a shower, and went to lunch with Ferris who had been looking after most of my stuff while I was gone--he was living in Xin Song Gongyu room 415--my room for the first 4 weeks of Princeton in Beijing (he was my roommate for about the last 10 days of that). Then he ended up insisting on paying for all of our light meal--what a nice guy! Then I spent a couple hours down in Xin Jie Kou [referring to the shopping district] getting one last $1.50 haircut and head massage, and browsing a bookstore. In the evening, Xie came by with her son Li Lingfeng, and brought my flute and Discman that she had been looking after for me, along with some gifts for folks in the U.S. Then she took me to dinner at the university's Youyi Canting ["Friendship Cafe"], ordering a huge mountain of food--it was a great meal and I had a wonderful time chatting with her and her adorable son, who seemed much less shy towards me than when I first met him two and a half months ago. With all these people buying me food I must have spent less than $10 total on food over the last five or six days! Plopped into bed at 9:30. . . .

Sept. 13 (Mon):
          Got up at 5:30 to pack, and at 8:30 went over to pick up an enormous bag of all those developed pictures. Then Xie came to lend help (again!) and help get my stuff out to a taxi. I was running late (of course!), and suddenly I was off to the airport without enough chance to properly say goodbye. The entire flight back to Chicago was entirely uneventful.

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