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Trip 1 -- India, Nepal, and China

Part 3: China (28 Aug to 6 Sep 1997)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 8.4 Chinese yuan (CNY)

28 Aug-31 Aug

Jokhang; Potala Palace; Palha Lupuk; two mysterious white tickets; Hard Yak Cafe; Norbulingka Palace; Dreprung Monastery; Ramoche; Tsepak Lakhang; commiserating with other travelers...

The immigration official asked for my permit, and I explained that I had none: a travel agent was supposed to bring it. He appeared, but the official still questioned why I had no special entry stamp. I said that I knew nothing of this stamp and that I hadn't been required to obtain one when I was given my permit. Fortunately they were not going to send me back to Kathmandu. Another official said I should follow him into his office, and he would give me a permit. We sat down, I gave him $10 (which he tossed into his briefcase - obviously a simple bribe), and he stamped a blue rectangle in my passport in which he wrote something in Chinese.

The Korean and I left the airport accompanied by our new travel agent. We climbed into a station wagon in which family members of the travel agent also rode. Just outside the airport a sign in English read, "Welcome to Lhasa." How ironic that sounded! The 90-minute ride to Lhasa was beautiful - mostly barren mountains, and at one point we stopped to observe the large Buddhas painted on one of the mountain rocks. Not until we were in the immediate vicinity of Lhasa were there buildings; they began as one-story edifices and gradually grew as we entered Lhasa. As our driver left he said that because of increasing restrictions, I'd need a permit to visit anywhere outside of Lhasa.

There were no single rooms available at the Banak Shol, so the Korean and I were to be housed together for the first night - but later that afternoon he found another place to stay and I had the double to myself. In theory I was going to switch to a single room once one became available, but I asked the hotel management each day whether I should change and I was always told to stay where I was. The hotel entrance led to a courtyard from where I had to climb two steep flights (the staircases were more like ladders) to get to my room; the bathrooms were down the corridor. Far from glamorous, but the hotel had a friendly travelers' haven kind of feel to it. And besides, the five or so dollars a night were already included with my $150 Tibet permit. A bulletin board at the hotel's entrance was a communications center for travelers - people posted notices when they wanted to arrange planning meetings, trade travel guides, or share rides to the airport, the border, or the western part of Tibet. While I was there a particularly sarcastic notice appeared: "Going to Nepal! Two easy going guys looking for three cute girls (Japanese?) to share the slow ride down." Not many people showed up for that meeting.

How long I'd stay in Tibet depended on when the Potala Palace was open. I wanted to take the bus out to Golmud on Sunday, but seeing the Potala - the residence of the Dalai Lama until he fled into exile - was a priority. Guidebooks differed on when it was open (I had checked plenty in Kathmandu), so I made it my first stop in Lhasa. It wasn't open that Thursday afternoon, but I was assured that it would be open the following morning. So that afternoon I walked around the Barkhor Square area, where half the population of Tibet displays trinkets for sale, and eventually I toured the magnificent Jokhang temple. Here I had my first glimpses of Tibetan Buddhism, and I was extremely impressed: monks in purple robes chanted in quick rhythm; the rooms contained enormous ornate statues of various forms of Buddha and other deities; the place smelled sweetly of burning ghee.

When I left, I wandered around the city aimlessly for a while, and eventually I realized I'd better have dinner soon: from what I remembered the Chinese dined early. It was only 20:00, but it had been dark for quite some time, since all of China runs on Beijing time. I found a respectable-looking building that looked like a restaurant (for me the distinction between respectable-looking and not was determined by the presence or absence of a door - not necessarily a fair distinction, but more accurate than not) and went inside. It was a restaurant, and the staff spoke no English but were helpful, especially when I pulled out my Chinese take-out menu (courtesy of the Westside Cottage on Ninth Avenue). They studied my menu and, amid jubilant conversation, pointed to dishes that they could make. I'm not sure exactly what I asked for, but dinner ended up being pork with something-or-other and egg soup. I also asked for "Coca-Cola" - a universal request. It was very tasty, and I had my option to pay $10 or CNY 60. I chose the latter and tried to tip - they had been exceptionally helpful - but the tip was refused.

I arrived at the Potala just as it opened the next morning at 8:30, and I paid my foreigner's fee of CNY 45. (It could have been worse - I think it was CNY 80 on weekends.) I had barely begun to get used to the altitude, and as a result it took me 44 minutes to climb all the stairs to the top, including my frequent rest breaks. For another CNY 10 I bought a permit to climb to the roof, but there wasn't anything open up there. Still, the view of the city was amazing. When I had seen pictures of the Potala, with its magnificent magenta and white trapezoidal towers and gold-topped roof, it never dawned on me that it was in the middle of Tibet's capital. But as I looked out I saw the traffic passing below; directly across the street was a large public square; and at eye level, of course, were the mountains.

I walked back down to the interior and browsed. Some rooms contained (literally) hundreds of miniature terracotta figures. Most rooms contained Buddha statues at which the observant prayed and to which they offered money - I decided this was why the entrance fees were much lower for them, though it's probably not the real reason. Those rooms also contained the sweet burning ghee found everywhere in Tibet. But the most impressive rooms contained tombs of Dalai Lamas. The tombs were enormous and decorated with impressive amounts of gold. And in one room was a mandala; a sign said that the mandala was 12 meters in circumference but my guidebook said it was "over six metres in diameter." From this I deduced that pi is less than two in Tibet.

Climbing down to the street took much less effort than the trip up. Nearby was a telecommunications building where I called home (only about $2 a minute - half as expensive as Nepal!). Across from the Potala is the hill Chagpo Ri, on which sits a temple, Palha Lupuk. The temple is really a cave; Buddha pictures are carved into the rock. They are quite remarkable. Next door is another temple; it was less interesting in itself, but made more interesting by the ten-or-so-year-old who was practicing his chanting as people came in to worship.

From Chagpo Ri it was a short walk to Lhasa's main bus station, where I wanted to buy a ticket to Golmud. Finding the bus station was no problem; getting inside was another matter, since the only open entrance was the only one that looked as if it wouldn't be open. A sign listed the few places where buses went; there were not many, and I decided that the one called Gomo was probably the one I wanted. The biggest clue was not the name but the "mileage" (or should that have been "kilometrage"?), which was a much higher number than anything else. It would be a long trip - 1165 kilometers according to that sign. I copied down the Chinese characters for Gomo and wrote the date on which I wanted to travel - two days later. The lady who sold me the ticket wasn't particularly friendly, but she understood what I had written. I gave her my pen so she could write down what the fare should be. She wrote down two numbers: 314 and 1104. This was a no-brainer - I chose the former. (What could the other number have been?) I handed her the money and in return received a ticket that indicated the fare as CNY 304 - but there was no time written on it! I tried to convey that it would be useful to know when the bus left, but she had trouble understanding my problem. Eventually she got the idea, wrote down 7:30 on the ticket, and indicated the bus would leave at 8:00. She also gave me two white tickets that seemed to have nothing to do with the bus - I had no idea what their purpose was but figured I'd find out eventually.

North of the bus station on the same street was the Holiday Inn. At least, it used to be the Holiday Inn - it's now the Lhasa Hotel. A sign inside pointed to various rooms in the hotel, and underneath it read "New York 16756 km," with an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction. Although the hotel's name has changed, the Hard Yak Cafe is still there, and I tried the famed yak burger. It was ludicrously expensive - CNY 64 - but good; yak meat, I discovered, is sweeter and less dry than beef. The whole meal, including two Fantas and strudel, came to CNY 120.

Across from the hotel should have been the CITS office, where I wanted to reserve a train ticket to Beijing if I could. I saw no sign of such an office; indeed the whole block seemed to be under construction. I went into a couple of fully constructed buildings (one of which turned out to be a bowling center!) and no one knew anything of a CITS office. I eventually found a CITS truck, but the adjacent building was all but abandoned - a chalk-written sign said something about June and I understood nothing else. I went back into the Lhasa Hotel and tried a couple of travel agencies there, but it turned out to be impossible to reserve a train ticket in Lhasa.

Very close by was the Norbulingka Palace. I had to wait until the 15:30 opening time to visit the buildings, but the grounds were pleasant enough. The buildings, however, were impressive - the main building contained several rooms whose walls depicted various events in Tibetan history. A few other buildings were open; inside one was a collection of horse-drawn carriages used in the past. Outside this building I talked to a traveler from Ohio and his Chinese girlfriend - I showed her my bus ticket, hoping to find out if I'd bought a ticket to the correct destination. She looked at the destination on the ticket and said, 'I've never heard of this place.' I didn't ask her about the two mysterious white tickets. On the roof of a nearby building some Buddhists sang; I watched for a while and then left.

On the way back toward the hotel, I stopped at the square in front of the Potala. In its center stood a flagpole, at the top of which was a bright red Chinese flag. It seemed fitting how the flag's color clashed against the deep magenta of the Potala. At the southern end of the square was a fountain and a line of people who'd take a picture of you for a fee. I sat on the fence in front of the fountain and a few minutes later a kid selling nuts offered me some. I made it clear I didn't want any, but he persisted. I calmly declined. This went on for a few minutes. Didn't he get it? He kept poking me with the bowl of nuts, and I had no choice but to shove it back at him, sending a few nuts flying. He ran away and we both laughed - he more amused than I. Then two Chinese asked if I'd pose with them for pictures, and I agreed.

Dinner at the Tashi restaurant was cheap - CNY 21 for an enormous meal of steamed apple momos and vegetable bobis with cream cheese. It was much more than I wanted, but the menu looked interesting and both dishes seemed worth trying. Back at the Banak Shol I sat in the Kailash restaurant, where I sampled tasty banana-chocolate crepes and listened to more country music than I'd ever heard. The Kailash is a popular place for travelers, even those not staying at the Banak Shol; there are often people discussing their experiences and plans, looking for traveling companions, and passing the time in a city otherwise uneventful at night. On the short walk from the restaurant to my room - they were on the same floor - I happened to look up. The stars were magnificent and even the Milky Way shone in the kind of way that usually happens only in books and planetariums. When you live in Manhattan it's easy to forget what the natural night sky looks like.

The following morning I rode to Dreprung Monastery by minibus ("Dreprung?" "Dreprung!"). The monastery sits at the top of a hill about 15 minutes off the main highway a few kilometers to the west of Lhasa. I paid the entrance fee (CNY 15) and realized I was still not used to the altitude - even the few steps on the way up to the main building gave me trouble. At Dreprung I really had the sense that I was in an active monastery - it was more isolated than the monasteries in the city, and it had an impressive view of the mountains. It used to be the world's largest monastery, and several colleges still functioned. It had a few interesting chapels, though nothing seemed particularly impressive; the many dogs that I had heard were dangerous and vicious instead lay asleep on the ground. I followed a group of several Chinese tourists around for a while and eventually took the bus down - a ride that cost only CNY 2 (as opposed to the CNY 3 for the trip from the city), perhaps at the whim of the conductor or perhaps because as a foreshadowing of the bus's breaking down as we approached the Potala. Another bus came eventually, and we all transferred. Something I had eaten disagreed with me, so I went back to the Banak Shol to rest for a while; then I visited Ramoche, a monastery near the city. It had a few statues, a huge prayer wheel, and a long loop of smaller prayer wheels, but it wasn't worth the CNY 20 admission. The chapel next door, Tsepak Lakhang, was much better - the statues were beautiful and looked new, and admission was free. I walked south, visiting Meru Nyingba (another interesting monastery, though I couldn't get more than a glimpse inside) and the Ani Sangkhung (the only nunnery in the area; I entered the courtyard and heard the nuns chanting but I didn't venture further, in order not to disturb them). To reach the latter I had to wend my way through narrow alleys that took me through residential streets. On the way out a few small children followed me; we shouted 'Hello!' and waved at each other until I reached the main street. Near the hotel I bought an assortment of cookies and drinks for the bus ride, as I had heard there weren't food stops.

I had dinner at the Tibet Special Food Restaurant. I don't know that the food was that special; I was the only one eating there at the time, and the place didn't look as clean from the inside as from the outside. Had I trusted the hygiene better I might have tried the fried lung; instead I had the fried onion and yak meat - much more of the former than the latter -, and my meal was accompanied by music far too obscene for me to consider including a sample of the lyrics here. I went back to the Kailash for more banana-chocolate crepes; this time I also had chocolate cake. Four of us, from four different countries (the others were from Tokyo, Belgium, and Berlin), started talking. The Japanese traveler had managed to sneak into Tibet by land from Chengdu - a very dangerous proposition these days, but he managed never to be questioned on the way. Three of us were in the financial business (though I am only temporarily). We all lamented the recent restrictions on travel into Tibet.

31 Aug-1 Sep
Bus: Lhasa to Golmud (8:00; 31m late; 33h 52m; CNY 304)
At 6:43 the next morning I began the long journey home - it would take more than a week. I took a taxi to the bus station (the walk wasn't so long but my feet were tired and Lhasa was eerily dark at that hour); the driver indicated that the meter wasn't working, and I probably should have protested, but I bargained his request of CNY 30 for the ride down to CNY 15 (still far too much). The bus station was bustling at that hour - when I had been there in the afternoon it had been nearly deserted. Those waiting consisted of Chinese civilians, a group of Chinese officers dressed alike, and four Westerners. I started talking to one of them; I never found out his name, but he was from California (although he had a European accent). He asked how much I had paid - he had paid CNY 500 for a sleeper bus. The others waiting with him at door 2 included the Chinese officers; this was obviously a very special bus. Still, CNY 500 seemed like a terribly high fare; I said, "I bet you're getting a full breakfast on your bus." He replied, "And naked women, too." I asked about the two mysterious white tickets; he had received them too, but didn't know what they were for - 'I suppose we'll find out eventually,' he said. I didn't think I should be on the same bus as he, since I had certainly not paid for a sleeper. I asked a few officers and eventually it was determined that I should go to door 1. Then I was directed (with a few others) to door 7. Then we were all directed to door 2. We shortly found out what was going on: they weren't going to run the bus I was supposed to be on, so they were cramming all of us - all of us who would fit, anyway - onto the sleeper. When they opened the door, we all pushed our way on, and I sat on a lower berth near the door at the front of the bus. People kept piling onto the bus, and at first I resisted all of the conductor's attempts to move me. I was quite happy where I was, at the front, where the ride would be least bumpy, and I didn't see myself as being in anyone else's way. But eventually he took me by the arm to the last remaining sleeper, a lower berth in the center at the back of the bus. He thought he was helping, though I had no desire to be all the way back there. Still, I was better off than nearly everyone else; because the other berths were arranged end to end, I was one of the few people who didn't have to remain horizontal for the whole ride. The Californian had a lower berth next to the window a row in front of me, so there was no place for him to put his feet down. The other two Westerners were a couple - possibly Irish - who were relegated to two upper berths. There were 42 berths and probably a few more passengers - not everyone in the queue made it onto the bus, and several people sat on the front-most berth (where I had been) and in the aisle. We left at 8:31.

The road was OK at first, but then it turned into a bumpy dirt road. I soon learned that the sign I had seen at the station was taken quite literally: "Not allowed to spit everywhere." True, I don't think anyone on the bus actually spat everywhere. Most people just spat in the aisle near their seats; the more courteous spat out the window. We made it for just over two hours before our first pit stop, and at the small town of Damxung (basically a row of single-story buildings about a tenth of a kilometer long) we stopped for snacks. I had plenty and decided not to buy anything. A little while later we stopped at Nagqu so that a tire could be changed, and here I suddenly felt the effects of the increasingly high altitude - I started to feel faint but managed to take in enough air to stay conscious. Eventually we were on our way, only to stop for 45 minutes, for no apparent reason, later in the afternoon. Shorter stops occurred periodically; at one point someone came onto the bus and swept away all the trash that had been thrown on the floor for the first 11 hours. The dinner stop was quite late, about 10:00, near Amdo. There the Californian and I had a tasty and very filling stir-fry for CNY 20 each - basically there were lots of ingredients on the counter and we each picked whatever we wanted. We showed our hostess one of the mysterious white tickets - maybe they were food vouchers. She smiled and handed it back without a word. The sky was magnificent. While others finished their meals the Californian and I marveled at how many stars we could see and how clearly they shone. Snow covered the tops of the mountains, and the mountain tops were not much higher than we were.

That night was a test of the utmost endurance. I tried to sleep but soon gave up; the ride was far too bumpy, and I don't think anyone slept. I tried to figure out when we'd reach the top of the Tangu-la, the highest pass we'd cross (at 5180 meters); by my calculations we would reach it by about 1:30 in the morning. The bus crawled up the mountain; it seemed as if we'd never get there. The air turned chilly; I put on a sweater and wrapped myself in my sheet, but there were not enough blankets for everyone. I clenched the metal bars in front of me in an attempt to absorb some of the bumps; my own shock-absorption technique far surpassed that of the bus. Finally we reached the top of the pass, and then I had to find another milestone to look forward to. I decided on dawn - only about six hours away. If I could make it until dawn, at least I could talk to my Californian friend again, and there might be life on the bus again. Was everyone just pretending to be asleep? Or could some people actually sleep? At least we kept on going - a stop during the night would have seemed an interminable delay. I started to run through songs from musicals in my mind, starting with my favorite at the time, the first-act finale from Closer Than Ever. How appropriate the lyrics were, especially during this ride:

I'm moving ahead
Not sure of the way
And yet there's a light
That I'm heading for
Now if someone had said to me a year ago
That I would take the trip I'm taking now
I would have said, "You're crazy -
I'll be better off right here"
But here I am, amazed to find
That I can turn and walk right through the door
And what is more
I wouldn't go back....

Another advantage to imagining this song was that it was relatively long for a musical theatre song - over six minutes, which meant that I'd only have to think through it about 55 times until the dawn. I ran through other songs, too, and then I started reviewing my trip and thinking about people. Part of the reason for my whole excursion through Asia was to give me time to think - time I rarely had at home. And that night I had plenty of time. The bus ride was awful, the bureaucracy was inexplicable, the terrain was inhospitable, the climate was cold - and yet, lonely and terrified, I was at more peace than I had been for quite some time. No one could find me there.

And at last dawn began to appear, sooner than I thought - I guess in places with no buildings the dawn is hard to miss. At 6:12 we made the first morning pit stop, and while the bus was stopped I was able to sleep for a few minutes. I stayed asleep as we started moving again, but soon awoke as I was catapulted into my ceiling when we went over a bump. An even worse bump a few minutes later caused everyone to gasp, and as the Irishman (or whatever he was) showed me later, it caused his watch to shatter when it crashed against the wall of the bus. I didn't end up talking to people much that morning, but now that it was light out, at least I could keep track of where we were by the kilometer markers that appeared periodically (not necessarily every kilometer).

Part of the road was under construction. Wherever there was construction, a sign directed the bus off the raised road onto the muddy earth, where the bus rocked precariously as we drove across the extremely rough terrain. Then there would be an incline as we drove back up to the road. At one point all the passengers had to get off the bus. The road in front of us had suffered a landslide, and though it was not high, it was too dangerous for us to remain aboard while the driver attempted to cross it. We watched as a road crew shoveled dirt onto the road in an attempt to make it level, and then the bus inched across, reversing direction once when it started to go downhill. Finally we were allowed back on.

At around 10:00 we made an unexplained stop for 45 minutes. No one got off the bus; eventually we discovered that it was a construction zone. A truck had been trying to get up the incline back up to the road, and we had to wait for it to be pulled up by another vehicle. This feat was attempted with simple rope, and after three or four tries the vehicle moved again without the rope snapping.

We made a lunch stop of about an hour, after which the road improved dramatically. We averaged 60 kilometers an hour for a while - three times as fast as while climbing to the Tangu-la! This speed was very good news indeed - I wanted to get to Golmud in time to check out the town briefly (very briefly) before catching an 18:18 train to Xining that evening. We were descending fast; the snow disappeared, and some vegetation started to appear again. The woman in the row in front of me irked me continuously - she had the habit of staring at me and then talking to her traveling companion and laughing. She also seemed to think that when she asked me questions in Chinese I'd be able to answer them. And I've never seen anyone spit so much.

Despite our surprisingly quick progress, I was not allowed to rest easy. Approaching Golmud we were stopped at two checkpoints. At the first, I couldn't figure out what was being checked, but it might have had something to do with luggage. The second checkpoint was completely ludicrous. An officer had the driver get out and show him his license - as if, after 1100 kilometers, we were no longer to trust the man who had been taking us for so long. (Actually, there were two drivers. I think only one was responsible for the more destructive bumps.) And after those checkpoints the road suddenly deteriorated, and we had to take a detour off the road - and then a detour from the detour! It was because another bus had suffered a fate similar to the truck earlier, and the bus couldn't be pulled up. But this did not appear to be a construction zone; the road looked fine, and I couldn't figure out why we had to take a detour at all.

1 Sep

And if you find yourself in Golmud, you leave as quickly as possible...

At 18:30, after nearly 34 excruciating hours, we arrived in Golmud, a town described in Night Train to Turkistan as "the ghastliest place on earth." Lonely Planet's China guide says that "from here to hell is a local call." I didn't get to stay long enough to verify either claim, but the town seemed pretty dull. The buildings looked modern but uninteresting, and all the useful buildings (the bank, the post office, the train station) were spread out so far that getting around without a vehicle was nearly impossible. I didn't know how punctual Chinese trains were, but I decided to try to make the 18:18 - it seemed better to try than to resign myself to nearly a full day in Golmud. I took a taxi to the train station and understood enough to read the sign saying that the train that used to leave at 18:18 now left at 14:30. But I discovered there was another train - albeit a local - that would leave a couple of hours later. The ticket window wasn't open yet; meanwhile I brushed my teeth and tried to figure out how to ask for a ticket. By studying various signs, I figured out which characters stood for Xining and which characters signified the highest train fare - whatever class that was, I figured it would let me escape from the masses for a while. I wrote down all those characters and, when the ticket window opened, gave it to the vendor. She wrote down the price - CNY 111 - and gave me a ticket. When the train pulled in, I boarded a car with a few other people, and when another passenger showed me that I had boarded the wrong car, I moved to the correct one, which turned out to be a sleeper car. So now I knew the characters for "hard sleeper."
1 Sep-2 Sep
Train: #604, Golmud to Xining
(21h 30m; CNY 111)
The train ride seemed quite smooth, but so would any ride after that bus trip. Some officers about my age played cards on the berth across from me; eventually a woman kicked them off her berth, and I went to sleep. Sometime around noon the next day the train stopped for a long time; most people got off, but I didn't know why. Eventually they returned, each carrying one or two whole fried fish wrapped in newspaper. That was lunch. Two people offered me fish, but I declined. The officers resumed their card playing, and one of them occasionally asked me a question in Chinese. Then he'd talk laugh with his comrades - just like the woman on the bus. I managed to put an end to it. Very calmly, but rapidly, I said, "You know, it's very rude to speak to someone assuming he can understand you and then when you realize he can't to go back to talking to other people - I just don't understand it." He shut up. At one point a different officer sat down across from me and demanded my passport. I couldn't think of any reason why he needed to see it - he seemed more interested in examining my assortment of visas than in checking anything related to my existence in China. There was one friendly man on the train, who - for the most part - sat in the berth across from me (where the woman had slept). Sometimes he offered me food, and he pointed out when we passed Qinghai Lake.
2 Sep-3 Sep

Conniving my way into a hotel; Xining County Fair...

We arrived in Xining a half hour late. I wanted to find a decent restaurant quickly, as I had not had a real meal in about two days (though I had eaten some of my snacks). I also knew it would be important to find a hotel first - I didn't know what finding a hotel in China would be like. I walked along the road the train station is on, and discovered that Xining consisted almost exclusively of stores selling toilets, stores selling car parts, and buildings under construction. I didn't find a decent restaurant, and after a couple of kilometers I walked back, as I didn't find a cross street either. Near the train station I saw a telecommunications building, which I thought might have some information about where I could stay. But a sign inside made this an even more promising place: it listed numbers of people and rates for each one. It must have been a hotel!

Two people in China had taught me the universal signal for sleep: the conductor on the bus, who used it to try to force me into my sleeper berth, and the passenger on the train, who had made the signal to indicate that I had bought a sleeper ticket. It's pretty simple: you cock your head, hold both hands together (a pillow), put them under your ear, and close your eyes. So I walked up to the receptionist and made the signal in order to ask if this was a hotel. She shook her head.

I wasn't giving up that easily. I pointed to the sign above me and made the sleep signal again. She shook her head again, and then a man came out of her office. I repeated the motions for him, and he tried to show me outside. I asked, "Why?" He got a piece of paper and wrote down the names of two hotels where I could stay. Then he escorted me outside and tried to get me a taxi. But I wasn't going to leave. I followed him back in, made the motions again, and asked, "Is this a hotel?" He didn't understand any English but he nodded. I pointed to myself and then to the floor and said, "Can I stay here?" He shook his head. I asked again, "Why?" He pointed outside, and he went back into the office.

But instead of going toward the street I went into the hotel's courtyard. If it was indeed a hotel, it looked pretty nice. And it was near the train station - that was my primary reason for not wanting to stay elsewhere. A police officer approached me, and I mimed, "Is this a hotel?" Yes. "Can I stay here?" Yes. He escorted me inside, where he spoke with the hotel receptionist for a few minutes. He pointed to the sign, indicating which rate I'd be charged: CNY 80. I had to fill out a hotel registration form, which was all in Chinese. The man from the office helped somewhat - I took out my passport and he indicated what numbers I should write where. I left most of the form blank. He wrote on the form that I should pay CNY 80 - but as I was getting out money he added, "+ 50 = 130." It must have been a foreigners' tax. Oh well - I wasn't going to complain about that as long as I was allowed to stay there.

I was never given a key for my room; instead, I was given a pass that I had to show to the third-floor receptionist every time I wanted to enter. The room had a television and a very comfortable bed, and except for the strange-looking insect on the ceiling the room was very clean. There was a thermos of hot water and a travel kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, and various other things. The bathroom wasn't very clean, but it was adequate and private - a welcome relief after the Banak Shol and three days in transit.

Now for dinner. I walked back to the train station and took another road - the one perpendicular to the one I had taken before. This was much more promising. It took me through a public square in which small carnival games were set up (the Xining County Fair?) and then across a river. I passed a much nicer hotel and then came to a reasonable restaurant, where I had pork with scallions and egg soup. I walked around the city for a bit - it wasn't very exciting, but it seemed friendly: whole families were outside until rather late at night. Someone tried to sell me a fur coat, and then I stopped to watch people on the street play a game that seemed to be a cross between chess and checkers. Back in the hotel I planned the remaining nights of the trip. I didn't want to go through that whole hotel-finding experience again, and I was just as happy sleeping on a train as anywhere else. Looking at my Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable, I discovered that I could take overnight trains until I got to Beijing, stopping in Lanzhou, Yinchuan, and Hohhot, and I wouldn't have to stay in another hotel.

Early the next morning - so early that I had to get the hotel staff to let me into the courtyard so I could leave - I checked out. There was a different receptionist, to whom I gave my pass. I was about to leave when she handed me my CNY 50 deposit back. I nodded and said, "Thank you," as if I had been expecting it all along.

3 Sep
Train: #202, Xining to Lanzhou
(8:00; 3h 30m; CNY 25)
The train ride to Lanzhou was only 3 1/2 hours long and cost only CNY 25. On the train I talked with a man from Yinchuan Railway College, and once we arrived I bought my ticket to Yinchuan - CNY 111. Were all long-distance trains in China CNY 111?
3 Sep

A marvelous invention; video CD players; Cheng Zhi Peng...

Lanzhou had one of the best inventions I've ever seen: the traffic-light timer. Next to each traffic signal was a digital clock that counted down the seconds until the light changed from red to green or vice versa. I had seen such signals in Lhasa too, but they didn't work. In Lanzhou they worked, and they were remarkably efficient. Why they haven't been introduced in the United States mystifies me.

What I needed most was a bank - I had only about CNY 30 left. I found one bank, where I was directed to the Bank of China. And I visited five branches of the Bank of China before I was able to change money. The first didn't change money; the second had been torn down; the third was closed; the fourth directed me to the fifth, where I arrived at just after noon and was refused service until after the lunch break. Fortunately I had enough money to have lunch; for CNY 23 I had pork with scallions (how did it end up being pork with scallions so often?) and mixed rice. Then I went back to the bank.

Lanzhou didn't have much that was interesting, but it was a prosperous city. I checked out a couple of department stores and discovered that the big technological gizmo for sale was the video CD player. One building consisted almost entirely of about 200 video CD and video CD player stores, almost all devoid of customers. On the second floor of one store I bought some snacks (including a wolfberry drink - very tasty). And as I crossed one street I was cut off by a bicyclist, even though the traffic light timer indicated that I still had nine seconds to cross. I growled, "A little early" - was I re-entering Manhattan prematurely?

On a side street I stopped to watch two small boys play pool outside. Eventually the owner of this establishment came outside and had me sit down. His daughter came over to me and started practicing her written English; we wrote a few things to each other and somehow it was said that her father spoke Russian. We tried to speak, but his Russian was very broken and we couldn't understand each other very well. Then his son, Cheng Zhi Peng, spoke to me in English. We talked about universities for a while, and after his father and I exchanged the words "Do svidaniya" Zhi Peng took me to Lanzhou University, where he was a student. His classes had started the day before; he was studying computer communications and will graduate next year. We visited his dorm (building 8), where he and seven schoolmates share a single room. There was a table in the middle, and a few of us crowded around, talking about life, the United States, my attitude towards Tibet (I remained as noncommittal as possible), and various other things. They offered me tea. One student had been studying Japanese and we practiced it a little bit (mainly talking about how neither of us speaks Japanese very well). Zhi Peng and a friend took me for a quick dinner at a small restaurant, where we had a filling meal of beef, vegetables, rice, and soup. I asked Zhi Peng to write down the characters for "Hohhot" so that I'd be able to buy my next train ticket. Then they walked me to my train, coming aboard to make sure I was settled.

3 Sep-4 Sep
Train: #204, Lanzhou to Yinchuan
(22:30; 8h 42m; CNY 111)
Shortly into the trip a very large officer asked for my passport. He asked where I was from. I replied, "United States." Exactly the same exchange occurred three more times. What was unclear? Eventually he left.
4 Sep

Wandering into farmland; not much to do...

The next day was one of the most boring I've ever spent. Across from the train station in Yinchuan a street looked as if it went somewhere interesting, but after I passed the Yinchuan Railway Hotel there wasn't much. I took a right turn and soon I was in rural China. Farmers of both sexes tended to various crops; the only traffic was bicycles. A few residents stared at me, particularly the youngest children. After a couple of kilometers the road curved around, leading me back to the station. I spent most of the day reading: first my China guide, and then I finished Annapurna. I realized that because I've been making a living proofreading, my reading speed has decreased considerably. For lunch I went to the Yinchuan Railway Hotel, hoping that even though the prices would be high, there might be an English menu. Instead I found that the prices were high, there was no English menu, and the staff were remarkably rude. I had shrimp with cashews, lamb smothered in oil, and two giant shrimp. Repeatedly the staff offered me a fork (the ultimate insult), and they had the habit of giving me food and saying "Please," as if I didn't notice the food or wasn't going to eat it. Then they hovered over me until midway through the meal, and even when they left they watched me from afar. After lunch I walked to the other side of the train station, found nothing interesting, went back to the station, and resumed my reading. For dinner I tried a Muslim restaurant near the station, or at least it seemed from the outside to be a Muslim restaurant. The food was quite Chinese. I was given a room by myself and had some egg soup and a dish of lamb falling off the bone. Then, back to the station; I watched the Yinchuan County Fair for a while and heard "Memory" (from Cats) played over the loudspeaker - now and forever, everywhere, indeed! Then the 44 from Lanzhou arrived (19 minutes late), and I was off to Hohhot.

4 Sep-5 Sep
Train: #44, Yinchuan to Hohhot
(21:40; 10h 11m; CNY 109)
I faced no interrogation by officials and slept quite peacefully.
5 Sep

Museum of cultural relics; tempting delicacies; immersed in jujube juice...

Hohhot really surprised me. My imagination of Inner Mongolia didn't include high-rise buildings, glitzy department stores, and wide avenues - but that's largely what it was. And the Mongolian language fascinated me - each word consisted of one long vertical squiggle. I bought my ticket to Beijing, and this was the only place where there was a problem: the lady at the first ticket window didn't understand what I wanted. (What had happened to my infallible Chinese characters? "Beijing, hard sleeper" should have been easy by now!) At a second ticket window I was given a ticket for only CNY 91. As I left the train station, vendors tried to sell me food and maps of the city. I walked up a long avenue and came to a large square where officers were doing calisthenics. I turned and came to a bustling Muslim market, near which was a large green mosque. Eventually I wound up at a museum of cultural relics. It presented various eras and peoples in Inner Mongolian history, describing each with words and actual relics. By the time I left I could figure out which word meant "Mongolia" in Mongolian - but I never had any idea how to write it.

My primary concern in Hohhot was to find a decent restaurant where I could try the area's most famous delicacy, bear's paws. I decided my best chances of finding a nice restaurant with an English menu would be in a hotel, so I had lunch at the Zhoujun Hotel. Indeed, there was an English menu, but despite mentioning many other delicacies it did not mention bear's paws. I stayed anyway and sampled the camel's paws (the next best thing, right?). In hypothetical future meals I might have tried the snake, bullfrog, and camel's hump; I could not bring myself to try the ox penis. The camel's paws were pretty good, but they were slimy and sometimes hard to chew, and they got boring quickly.

Back outside I walked around the city some more, stopping atop an overpass to gaze out across the city. Hohhot was huge, prosperous, and clean. There were five-star convention hotels and well-stocked department stores. I wandered back toward the train station and found a supermarket, where I bought some jujube juice - or at least I thought it was. It turned out to be jujube juice concentrate, and once I had opened it I couldn't close it securely. I tried adding some to half a bottle of water, and I tried adding water to it, and I tried all sorts of things, but it was always too sweet, and eventually I gave up and had to throw it all away. There wasn't much else to do in the city, so I waited at the station until my train.

5 Sep-6 Sep
Train: #90, Hohhot to Beijing
(18:38; 11h 26m; CNY 91)
When I got on the train I was horrified to discover that I had a soft-seat ticket, not a sleeper. The hard sleeper cars must have been all reserved before I bought my ticket, and that must have been why the fare seemed so cheap. My car was horribly crowded. The seats were virtually perpendicular and did not permit reclining, so only those with window seats (which, sadly, did not include me) were able to lean on something and thus sleep. An officer came over to me and asked me something in Chinese; I indicated that I didn't understand. Of course he wanted my passport, but he wasn't going to get it that easily. Eventually he left.

The passenger who had the seat next to me solved the space problem by putting newspaper under a row of seats and then crawling in and sleeping on top of it. A young Chinese man who spoke English sat across from me and asked if he could borrow something to read. I lent him Annapurna, but eventually we started talking instead. He was a computer programmer, but he was going to quit his job and go into the business of selling computers. He was also fond of music, especially passionate music - that gave us much to discuss. Before we parted, I remembered to ask one important question of him: what were those mysterious white tickets? I showed them to him.

He laughed. "They're insurance."

Insurance! How appropriate.

6 Sep

A buffet breakfast; begging for information...

Finally we arrived in Beijing, early in the morning. I remembered that breakfasts served in Chinese hotels were quite good, so it was my goal to find a decent buffet. From the station I walked toward what seemed like a business district, but from the sun I could tell I was heading away from the center of the city, so I reversed direction. I found one hotel that looked promising. As I approached a rickshaw driver offered a ride and I said, "I don't need a ride." Then a man offered me a cheaper hotel and I said, "I don't need a hotel." But the hotel's restaurant did not have a buffet, so I left. On the way out I was offered the same ride and cheaper hotel, and I shouted as I walked away, "I don't need a ride or a hotel. I told you that already." What was so hard to understand?

Nearby there was a subway station, and I took the subway two stops to Qianmen Gate. I thought there would be a hotel near there, but found none, so I walked south and eventually ended up at the Dong Fang Hotel. I asked the receptionist if there was a restaurant and received no answer, so I walked off to search on my own. There was a restaurant, with a decent buffet of dumplings, sausage, vegetables, and almost tasteless orange juice, for CNY 26. Back in the lobby I asked the receptionist if there was a bus to the airport (I had heard that there was). She pointed outside, where I was shown a taxi. Not what I wanted at all! I asked her again, and, annoyed, she showed me a map and pointed out the route to the airport building (no, that's not the same as the airport) where I could get the bus. And with a little pleading she even told me the name of the street it was on. Frustrated, she wrote the Chinese characters for "airport building" so that I could find the bus. As I left the hotel one of the taxi drivers cursed at me. I shouted back, "The same to you." Premature New York, indeed!

The airport building was easy to find. I bought a ticket for CNY 16 and was told the bus would leave at 10:00; it actually left at 9:40. The airport was crowded, partially because of a group from People to People - the organization with which my mother and I had come to Beijing two years prior. But checking in was a simple affair, and not surprisingly, there were no passport problems with my leaving China. Our gate - Gate 22 - was a smoke-filled room downstairs, which made getting on the plane even more enjoyable.

6 Sep
Air: Air France #129, Beijing to Paris De Gaulle
(12:30; 10h 3m)
On the flight to Paris I watched the movie Fools Rush In. In Paris a bizarre people-moving contraption - sort of a bus that could elevate - brought us from the plane to the terminal.
6 Sep
Air: Air France #8, Paris De Gaulle to New York JFK
(18:55; 7h 1m)
And on the flight to New York I slept through the movie Fools Rush In.
6 Sep
New York (USA)

Obsessions with clothing...

At Kennedy Airport I sped through to customs - how nice to have no luggage! The customs official asked, "That's all you have?"


"How long have you been away?"

"Thirty-three days."

"Do you have a change of clothes in there?"

"Yes. Three."

"You did your laundry while you were away?"


He looked at my arrival card. "You were in India and Nepal?"


"You could do your laundry in India and Nepal?"


He seemed skeptical. "Okay. Go ahead."

Ah, the American obsession with clothing! I certainly hadn't missed it. I thought it amusing that I received this interrogation about my dressing habits and not a word about the fact that I had indicated that I had brought food into the country. (I still had some cookies from Lhasa.) I waited about 25 minutes for a bus to the subway. During that time, four buses connecting all the terminals came by, but none that went to the subway. Do that many people make inter-terminal connections?

6 Sep
Subway: A line, Howard Beach-JFK Airport to 42 St-Times Square
(52m; $1.50)
The last person I met was a man in his 20s from Los Angeles. We met on the subway; he was trying to find his way to a hotel in Manhattan. He didn't know the name or location of the hotel but thought it contained the word Washington. He had a phone number for a friend in Manhattan but not for the hotel. I thought maybe he needed to get to Washington Square Park, and I told him the train ride would be about 50 minutes to get there. He was flabbergasted - he thought the ride would be only a few minutes! He explained that the trip was completely spontaneous and he really wished he'd planned it better, so as to have an idea where he was going. Halfway through Brooklyn he thought it would be better to get off and take a taxi. This, of course, prompted a large discussion as various New Yorkers suggested the safest and most convenient stations where he could easily get a taxi to take him cheaply to his destination, wherever that may have been. We decided West 4th Street was his best bet.Back in my building in Hell's Kitchen, I was happy to discover that my apartment had not been robbed even though I had left it for a month. I called my parents and they suggested that I would probably enjoy a bagel for breakfast the following morning. I said I might even have one that night - my trusty diner on Ninth Avenue was open all the time. I'm not usually a fan of diner food, but it seemed like what I wanted and needed.But I decided to sleep instead. The next morning, I walked to the Westway Diner and had the deluxe bagel and lox platter. It was delicious.