I hope things are well in sunny SA. I'm back from holiday, sitting in what in SA would be a very crummy restaurant, but is par for the course here. The price more than makes up for it. A whole meal here is R4: a big bowl of meat and bread broth, pickled garlic and something like a Marmite drink.
The holidays were very erm interesting. I tried to keep a journal, but it petered out. Nonetheless, here it is. Excuse the editorializing.
2005/02/08 Day One: Lanzhou
90km drive south from airport, through typical north-China eroded-earth landscape. Saw stars, 1st time in months. Lanzhou has a massive illuminated bridge over the yellow river. Everything is illuminated in China. Very colourful city, compared with Xi'an. Booked into "Friendship Hotel" with typical Chinese "friendship" by a very sour woman who only smiled at the very end when I wished her a happy new year. Walked a few hundred meters down the road for street food. Ended up in a tent listening to the drunk village idiot telling me repeatedly that he can't speak English. They don't give you the room key here so I had to get the man to unlock the door. Somehow people seem more friendly here, or at least less offensive.
The city itself seems more compact than Xi'an, and more familiar to my Western sense of how a city should feel, much like Kunming did. Xi'an is built on a grid: roads either north/south, east/west. Lanzhou has curves, following a narrow valley.
2005/02/08 Tuesday: Lanzhou to Linxia
Lonely Planet says west bus station, but it's really the south one, to go to Linxia.
Got going at around 12 without incident.
Fucking idiot 250 grabbed my cigarette from my hand, threw it away. Smoking at a petrol station in China does not make any friends. (There's a world of anger in this memory. Best forgotten. "250" is a swearword in Chinese, pronounced "are bye woo". Have fun with that.)
Craziness: car and bus drivers in mad rush for passenger. As I stopped at the hotel, 3 cars surrounded the taxi to offer lifts outa here. Dump of a place, by the way. I mean the town. The hotel's okay.
Next stop was a sleepy little town on the banks of the Yellow River, called Xunhua. Very quiet, very sleepy, and very very backward.
2005/02/12 Saturday: Xining
Weird night with a half-Mongolian and a Xi'anren. Eating lunch in a bad Chinese place, including frozen salmon.
Made it to the lake. Most godforsaken place I've ever hitchhiked from.
Addendum, written at snowed-under Xining airport, edited today:
For a good time: start up FS. Find Xining, China, Caojiapu Airport. Set season to winter, visibility I'd guess around 500m. As I'm writing this they're clearing the runway of snow - with an aircraft, going up and down at full throttle and full brakes.
(Well, the first plane of the day just took off: the 8:00 to Chengdu, leaving at 11:25. No big explosion at the end of the runway, so we might be okay. My plane's only at 14:00. The snow outside is now 2 inches thick.)
Take off west, following the valley around 30km. You might see some buildings and a fork in the river. The bigger river is the Yellow River. Imagine the ridges to the north are dotted with caves and the occasional Tibetan Pagoda. Also walkways carved in the eroded sandstone cliffs, with wooden bridges spanning little gulleys. Now look out for the cable car going up to a lone pagoda overlooking the rapidly exploding city of Xining - the most western Chinese city where the actual Chinese are a majority. Rest of the province is Tibetan and Muslim.
Xining city, in the words of one traveller (me), is the place where Stalin stopped to take a crap: industrial wasteland. In fact, it looks a lot like Stalingrad in the movie Enemy at the gates.
Keep flying west, but you can now set visibility to 100km, with beautiful blue skies and wispy clouds. Around 100km from Xining lies China's largest lake, Qinghaihu.
You'll have to clear some mountains. I suggest the DC3, or a Porter.
It's winter. The grasslands around the lake are yellow. Looks like the Karoo. Only, check your MSL. The lake is frozen, all 360km of it. To the east rise the Sunmoon mountains, snowcapped, but dark. Hence the name I guess.
People are driving around on the lake with motorbikes. Here and there you might think you're seeing Tibetan yurts (tents in Russian), but those are really lame imitation bungalows for Chinese tourists in summer. Not many cars around. Imagine trying to hitchhike back to Xining from a desolate Summer resort. Well, I did, but found - when they dropped me off at the first large town with a bus-stop - that nothing is free here and I had to pay for my lift. The friendly old grinning man in the passenger seat suddenly turned into this barely recognizable money-grabbing ogre, like Bilbo wanting to hold the ring.
Observations about the Chinese: they're good at maths, but they can't count. This can be seen by the amount of people they fit into a bus and a restaurant.
In some ways they're very intelligent. I'm sure they're very good programmers, for example. But they're thick as bricks when it comes to plain old common sense. Many cases in point: Xining is snowed under half the year. Snow melts and amazingly turns into ice. People have difficulty walking on ice. Why then go and tile the most sloping bits of pavement - and only those bits - with the most slippery tiles known to man? This is a theme in most cities, it seems.
Why are cold drinks and eating with your hands considered unhealthy to the point of rudeness, yet spitting anywhere and letting your (nappy-less) baby take a dump on the bus-floor is A-OK? And the sound preceding the spit is not offensive either, whether in class, bus or plane.
Priorities, too. All the dumpy little hotels/hostels I stayed at had TV sets with at least 36 channels, yet not a single piece of working plumbing was to be found, except if you count the large uncovered drain in the middle of the floor as plumbing.
Queues. You get a slip of paper at the bank with a number on it, and wait. They read the numbers. Sounds sound so far. Consider this: nrs 178 through 192 all left because they were in a hurry. You are nr 193. They call 178. No one comes forth. They call 178 again. This takes a minute. There are no customers in the bank. They call 179. They wait. You walk up to a window. They look at your number. They point. They laugh. They say something about foreigners. They tell you to wait, in English, like this: please waiting a moment. They call 179 again. You wish the Chinese economy would forcibly collapse and fall on this bank. They call 180. You get the drift.
Here's how it works: intervention causes loss of face. If people skank you, and you point it out to them they smile. Caught out. Oh well, better luck next time. If people try to steal your camera in the bakery (true story) and you turn around finding them holding it and grab it back, they smile at you. Oh well, better luck next time. If people walk casually to the front of the check-out line and you point and swear a bit, they smile and walk away, as if to say, yes, Oh well, better luck next time.
Of course only foreigners and 1 in 10 Chinese would do anything when being skanked anyway. Shit, that's still a mighty lot of Chinese, but they're Taiwanese and New Yorkers.
I think this should inform Western economic contact with China. Skanking is simply accepted business practice: what do you mean I'm cheating you, that's what I'm supposed to do. Crazy Westerner. I sadly do not believe in honest goodwill from the Chinese. Everything is "guanxi" - influence, special treatment, relationship, call it what you will. The daily exposure to this money-grabbing culture leaves one feeling bitter.
God help the tourists coming to Beijing 2008 Olympics, and God help China with all the sour and bitter comments you're gonna hear afterwards from the West.
This trip has done nothing to change my perception that the Chinese are the most unfriendly, unhelpful and inconsiderate people on Earth. They have no imagination and can only imitate (badly) things they see on TV. My racist ass is gonna burn in hell for this, but even hell would have better company than this place.
Well, that's it. Hopefully, when I send this, there will be some pics attached.
p.s. It's not as negative as I make it sound. I find I need to get rid of negative stuff by writing it. I get rid of positive stuff by smiling.