BootsnAll Travel Network

Something New Every Day

Exiting the train station in Lanzhou, I had only one thought on my mind, and that was how crappy I felt. I pushed this thought aside however, and managed to concentrate on the new task at hand. We needed to get to the bus station to head to our actual destination, Xiahe, and the next bus was leaving in about 15 minutes. Luckily, Chris and I had used our brains for once in Xi’an the night before, and had the girl at our hostel write down a key phrase for us in Chinese: south bus station. We quickly found a taxi driver and showed her the card, and she nodded, agreed on a price and we set off for the station. We arrived just as the bus was about to leave, and though there were touts trying to sell us tickets on that bus, we couldn’t think fast enough and walked past them inside the station. We both knew that we needed a bathroom and some water at the very least before our bus ride, and after easily buying tickets for the next bus an hour later, we took care of some basic needs while we waited to depart. Much to our dismay, we saw as we boarded the bus, there was very little leg room on our seats as well, and our legs ached just looking at them. Tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep on the bus, and mostly stared out the window at the rapidly changing landscapes outside.

Our legs already bothering us from our train ride the night before, Chris and I needed to get up and stretch periodically on our 6 hour trip, much to the dislike of the bus driver. We managed to squeeze in some brisk walks on our two bathroom breaks, but by the time we arrived in Xiahe in the early afternoon, we looked and felt terrible. Though the bus station in Xiahe was only a kilometer or so away from the main part of town and we needed the exercise, we couldn’t muster the energy to walk the length of the street, so we found a shabby taxi to take us the short drive to our guesthouse. On arrival, we found a gracious owner and comfortabable Tibetan beds, which beckoned at us with their big covers. As much as I wanted to sleep, we also hadn’t eaten a normal meal in almost 24 hours, and having snacked on junk and the odd piece of fruit, we needed to eat, so we headed for a popular restaurant across the street. We chose a seat by the window, and after ordering, it was there we were finally able to take stock of our surroundings. Xiahe was a small Tibetan town, red and dusty, surrounded by beautiful hills and clear blue skies, something we hadn’t seen since our arrival in China. On the street below a small market buzzed, and Tibetans walked along the walls of the monastery and kids chased each other through the stalls. The locals wore big brown Tibetan wraps, brown fedoras and bright belts and riding boots. Their piercing dark eyes and bright red cheeks instantly separated them from the majority Han Chinese, and I longed to see their clothing up close. After a quick hot meal, I gave in to my body finally and settled in for nap, which came easily for once, and Chris went to take care of some emailing.

I awoke to sun still streaming through the windows at 6pm, an oddity quickly explained as we read that all of China is on one time zone, so in the Western provinces the sun does not set until much later in the evening than the East. Not feeling 100% but much better than earlier, I found Chris and we walked through the town to find out about activities there and just look around. On one end of the town sat a massive monastery, which was obvious with the many monks in bright red walking through town. We headed towards the hostel and cafe neighboring ours, and talked to the owner about possibly hikes and activities in the area. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small handwritten note on notebook paper, advertising transport to a horse festival two days from now. We asked the owner of the hotel about it, and he explained that local tribes hold this festival every year, and it shouldn’t be missed. Not really knowing if it was worth the price but intrigued, we signed up for the transport bus and continued on through town. There were many shops and things along the streets, and as we made our way around and then back to our hostel, I watched the people pass us with curiousity. So vastly different was this area than Beijing or Xi’an, and it was just nice to people watch and absorb it in. We headed back for our hot showers, available in the evening hours, and then ate an uninspiring meal at a local restaurant. Though it was only early evening, the air became chilly and we both were tired, and exiting the restaurant, the streets had cleared of people and we headed home to try and catch up on some much needed rest.

The following morning, I awoke with a cold, due probably to exhaustion and eating crap food for a few days. Xiahe is also high in elevation, and though I wasn’t totally aware of it, the air was a bit thinner and might have contributed to my cough a bit. We headed out after breakfast to visit the Labrang monastery, and paid for our ticket for an English tour which was just starting. It was difficult to understand the monk and with too many people in the group, we didn’t learn much in those two hours, but basically looked around the large monastery grounds on our own. The monastery is surrounded by vast walls and lined with prayer wheels, 1174 of them, which the faithful turn every day. While the monastery was set in a beautiful setting and some of the information we gleamed was interesting, both Chris and I began to tire of visiting religious sights, especially when we saw the monks walking around with new cell phones while the poor gave them food and prayed at their feet. Certainly there are many many things which I don’t understand about the Buddhism religion, but I couldn’t wrap my head around this as we walked through the grounds. It turned into a gorgeous day however, and following lunch, Chris decided to hike up into the hills, while I opted to sit on our roof and read, as my cold and general feelings of unwell didn’t put me in the mood for hiking. He returned a few hours later, and we enjoyed some dinner at a small Tibetan restaurant, which served us fried bread stuffed with yak meat, yak dumplings and stir fried yak and potatoes. It was far too much food for us to eat, at an insanely cheap price, and we gave some away to some young girls asking for money. The sun was finally setting, and we hurried back for hot water and bed. Our bus to the horse festival was leaving at 4:30am, and we wanted to be rested for whatever that would bring.

It was freezing at 4:30am, in the hills of Xiahe, and I piled on my only warm clothes and hiking boots with wool socks. SItting on the bus shivering was a far cry from the hot sun that had been streaming down yesterday on the roof, and it was pitch black outside. The small bus filled with tourists, and we sat back for the 2 hour ride to the festival. The sun was just starting to come up and the landscapes became clearer outside every minute. The surrounding hills were surrounded at their bases with mist, and small Tibetan houses and tents dotted the valleys, with herds of yaks and sheep surrounding them. Unable to sleep now, our eyes were peeled out the window at these new sights. As we approached the horse festival, we began to pass many people on motorbikes, and quite a few on horseback as well, trotting along the winding roads. We rounded another corner, and saw some smoke in the distance with what looked like hundreds of people streaming towards the smoke, on horses and bikes, on the back of trucks and on foot. The bus pulled over, and got out, giddy with anticipation. Everywhere we looked was something to be photographed, and as we walked along the grass towards the crowd, we were observed by the local people as much as we looked at them. WHile most were in traditional dress, many wore sunglasses, or leather jackets or motorcycle helmets. It seemed hundreds of people just kept streaming in from all sides of this enormous valley, all ages and huge groups of families and men on horseback.

We finally arrived at the main gathering, and while we had no clue what was going on, there was obviously some sort of ceremony happening, with tons of white paper being thrown into a large fire set on top of some kind of altar. Cheering and hooping and hollaring followed for the next hour, and movements of people in various directions confused us, but we just watched with interest, taking photos of everything and everyone we could without being totally rude and intrusive. The women didn’t seem to like having their photos taken, but the men didn’t mind really, and many wanted to see their photos on our cameras, which made them giggle like little kids. We were as much an attraction, and often we took photos with the people at their request, even if it was on our camera, just so they could see the photo. Suddenly after about an hour, people started moving away from the altar area, and across the valley. They were going a far way in the distance, and we looked helplessly on as everyone got on their bikes and horses and in trucks and headed to another gathering place. We decided we needed to try and get a ride over, but with our non-existant Tibetan, this might have been difficult. Chris finally just waved at someone on a motorbike, pointed at the empty back seat, back at me, and then smiled. The man shrugged and nodded, and I climbed on the back. I barely had time to get my feet up as we set off, and I hoped urgently that Chris would be able to also find a ride. After a hard 10 minute ride across the field, I alighted and thanked my driver, who shrugged nonchalantly and set off, presumably to find his friends. I searched the various arriving bikes, and finally spotted Chris’s blond hair as his driver raced towards me. We lined up along what turned out to be a racecourse with at least a thousand other spectators, and waited. The locals around us looked as us in curiously, and smiled shyly, but had no qualms about staring at us. The staring grew astronomically as an Australian woman with lilac dyed hair from our bus arrived, and heads turned and whispers back and forth. I mused that they might be wondering if it was real, but then they probably just thought it was strange, which in that surrounding, it certainly was.

We positioned ourselves in a decent spot for photos, and waited. Finally, there was a bustling in the crowd, and all heads turned towards the left. The race had apparently started, quite a distance away as we couldn’t see the starting line, and everyone struggled for a view of the riders as they approached. It was over as quickly as it started, as the first boy crossed the finish line, then the next and all the rest. I still didnt’ really know what we were witnessing, but it meant alot to the people of the area, as they rushed towards the riders and whooped and hollared. After what was congratulations all around, people started moving back to the first meeting spot, and we were a bit unlucky and couldn’t find a ride back right away and started to walk. A pick up truck full of tourists passed us and we quickly waved them to stop, and we clambered on board for a very bumpy ride back. There was a ceremony with blessings by monks and singing and chatting, none of it we could understand but watched with everyone else. As soon as the ceremony was over, everyone started to leave the way they came, and puzzled, we thought maybe there was something else happening, so we tried to find another ride in the direction everyone seemed to be going. We finally found a small minibus, and climbed aboard with a bunch of locals. A man on board tried to get money from us for the ride, and as we rode along the access road, we noticed that there didn’t seem to be another gathering anywhere ahead, just everyone disappearing around the bends of the hills towards home. SHit, we were on a bus headed back towards town. So we quickly had them stop the bus, and had to walk all the way back to our bus, which was the last one there waiting for us and other stragglers. It was close to noon now, and the sun was shining brightly and hot, so we peeled off our many layers for our warm bus ride back to Xiahe.

When we arrived back in town, we headed straight for the bus station to book tickets for the following day to Langmusi. Feeling exhilerated from our wonderful morning, we walked through the pleasant small town, looking for souvenirs and some food for the bus the next day. We found a small bookstore, and in the one English book, we learned about the horse festival we had just witnessed. Set in the Sangke grasslands, one 13 year old boy from each tribe of the surrounding area was chosen to compete in the race, where a win would mean much pride and luck for his tribe for that year. We read through the book a bit more to understand the culture in the area we were in, and then kept strolling through town. We took care of some email business and packing for the next day, and had an early dinner at the cafe that sold us the tickets for the festival, as a sort of reward for our experience I suppose. Dejectedly, we knew we had an early bus the next day, so after dinner we set out for home, taking time to stare at the stars overhead, a welcome sight.

, , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *