“Look up there,” The cabbie said, as we finally approached the city of Lanzhou. The ride from the airport had already taken about an hour and a half. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, straightened in my chair, and peered through a thick, hazy smog: ahead I saw a deep black liquid oozing underneath a bridge. “That,” said the cabbie, a proud Lanzhou native, “Is the Yellow River.”
As the car inched through traffic, I saw that my first assessment was unfair. While black dominated, I could still see blackish-greens, blackish-reds, blackish-browns, black-and -blues, and blackish-yellows. Decorations included cardboard boxes, scrap wood, and beer bottles, some of which were branded “Huanghe,” the Chinese name for Yellow River.
Lanzhou, like most Chinese cities, was crowded and bustling. Taxi and bus horns provided background music as our driver darted through narrow lanes, low visibility turns, and intersections blocked by buses. Crosswalks full of people were also no problem. He blasted the horn, slammed on the pedal, and closed his eyes. No one was directly injured by our car, I think.
From the window of our hotel room, on the 20th floor, we still could not see much. The pollution seems to hang over the city, creeping toward the ground as factories continue to develop. Greg and I are used to polluted air, having spent the last semester in Beijing. But, whereas in Beijing the pollution looks only like a grayish fog, in Lanzhou it is a darker, brownish hue. On the street, the pollution seems almost to close in on your lungs. Coughing and sneezing are hard to avoid.
Greg’s Lonely Planet guide provided just a few sites to see in Lanzhou, and suggested that it might serve only as a transfer point for the next destination. Accordingly, we spent just one night there, walking through winding back-alleys and making conversation with street vendors. Lanzhou cuisine, famous for its spicy meats and beef noodles, did not disappoint. We found a small restaurant; warm food and hot tea helped us forget that it wasn’t heated. We also had a chance to sample Huanghe beer, and as the owner brought it out I thought again of the bottles we had seen in the black water. After I took a sip, too, I wondered if maybe my drink hadn’t been fished directly out of the river.
During the wintertime, tickets for Xiahe are easy to come by. Summer marks the beginning of the tourist season in the tiny village, so Greg and I were two of a handful of foreigners on the bus, which had plenty of seats to spare. The locals, going back for business or the upcoming New Year, were mostly Tibetan, and while many speak good Mandarin, they spent a good portion of the bus ride singing along with the Tibetan music blasting through the speakers.
The four hour trip, through some rocky roads and hills topped with light snow, serves as an anti-pollutant. As you move away from Lanzhou, the sun becomes visible, the sky turns a healthy blue, and the smell of chemical gases fades. The alternative odor is at least more natural: cows, pigs, dogs, sheep, goats, and all of the wonderful things they do.
Despite the smells and noise, I found myself smiling on the bus. I knew as the driver maneuvered through roads perched on cliffs, passing signs warning of falling rocks, that we were entering a different part of China. It was apparent on the people’s faces, too. Greg and I sat in the back, making it easy to spot all of the Tibetans standing and craning their necks to get a better look at us.
At a stop between Lanzhou and Xiahe, carrying a walking stick, a tall, 50ish Tibetan man, with leathery creased skin and a whitish beard hopped on the bus, saw me in the back, and passed many available seats to take the one next to me. “Why are you going out to Xiahe?” he asked. “You have some business there?”
“No,” I said, “just traveling.”
“But it’s cold!” He said. “It’s cold!” He wrapped his wool blanket tightly around his shoulders. “You should come to Xiahe in the summertime,” he said. “It’s beautiful that time of year. And it’s not cold!”
“The cold is not too bad,” I said. “I just came from Harbin, which was much worse.”
“So what?” said the Tibetan, flashing a grin of brown, gold, yellow, crooked, and missing teeth. “It’s cold now! You won’t have fun. Don’t go to Xiahe now.”
“Well, I already bought tickets, and I’ll be able to see the town with fewer tourists,” I said. “It will still be a good time.”
The Tibetan man shook his head. “Really, you shouldn’t go now. It’s cold!”
I nodded. I suspected he wanted to me to say, “yes, you’re right! I’ll just get off at Xiahe, take another four hour bus ride to Lanzhou, and rearrange all my plans to come during the summer! Because you said it would be cold!” The Tibetan man looked at me, awaiting my reply. I said nothing. He leaned in, and in my ear he whispered a single word.
Then thankfully someone who knew him hopped on the bus, and the Tibetan man wished me well and went to sit with his friend. I found myself wondering if Xiahe might be cold this time of year.
When the bus arrived, I shook the sleep out of my eyes, threw my book in my bag, and went to the bathroom. As I walked in, a hand grabbed my shoulder. “5 mao,” she said. Though the fee amounted to about 7 cents, I did not like the idea of paying for a large pit of excrement.
My feelings changed when I saw a urinal mostly attached to the wall. A semblance of sanitation, an oasis, in a desert of filth. When I began peeing there, though, I discovered that, even in the desert, not all forms of liquid are welcome. I felt a light dripping on my shoe and looked down to see that the pipe between the urinal and the drain was not connected. It was the first time I had peed myself since kindergarten.
Deciding whether to carry my secret to the grave, I walked outside and followed the crowd onto the main road. Main road is a little misleading. It was the only road. With shops, restaurants, hotels, and government buildings on both sides, it runs from a famous Tibetan monastery on one end to a highway built around a small mountain range on the other. Two or three cabs drive up and down the street, and many of the locals drive old, beatup motorcycles or vans.
As we started walking, the “HALLO!’s” began. While very few locals speak English, everyone can mispronounce “Hello,” and all take great pleasure in it. In traditional, straightforward Chinese style, passersby asked about our interests, nationality, race, age, occupation, political views, love life, earliest childhood memories, and where Greg had purchased his Kindle. They did not ask for our name.
The children in Xiahe were curious, too. They generally horse around with firecrackers on the sidewalk, playing games of chicken—each boy lights a firecracker, and hold it in his hand for as long as he dares. But this time, the rules seemed to change. The new game involved setting the firecracker closest to the foreigner.
After spending a few hours walking through town, we settled in at the Tara Guesthouse, which offers cheap, clean (except for washing facilities) and basic rooms right next to the Tibetan temple. During the winter, the $2.25 per person rooms are occupied mainly by monks. Don’t let that fool you. The place remained alive—probably too alive—well into the night. Many Tibetans begin as monks at just five years old, and teenage monks have the same sleeping habits as teenage non-monks, blasting music and playing card games just a few hours before their 6 AM prayer ritual.
Bargaining with Tibetans on the street in Xiahe can be frustrating. They’ll start out with a few words of excellent mandarin: “3 blankets for 10 Kuai! A special price, just for you. America is the best country in the world! You are devilishly handsome!” But a question like, “how are you?” will leave them scratching their heads.
Another frustrating aspect: the blankets didn’t look Tibetan. They were Tibetan— but not Tibetan. When I came home to the States, I wanted to be the conquering hero, the 21st century Marco Polo, bearing rugs and carpets of Eastern spirituality. And not spirituality on the inside, like the kind in meditation or reflection. Spirituality on the outside, like the kind sold on television, or the ones in Aladdin.
I had a hard time explaining this nuance to the vendor. It seemed almost as though he wanted me to appreciate the tradition, craftsmanship, and Buddhist symbolism in the rug. I didn’t see how any of that benefited me, and so we came to an impasse.
“Hello,” said a voice from behind. I turned, and met face to face with my dues ex machina—A monk who spoke English. “What seems to be the problem?” He said.
“He wants me to buy this rug, but I just don’t know if I’m interested,” I said. The monk inspected the carpet, running his hands along the edges.
Just as I had opened my mouth to tell him that my goal was superficial praise, he said, “Well, it’s real, if that’s your concern.” He paused. “And it’s high quality. I think it’d be a good buy, but how will you get it home?”
“I thought maybe I’d just fly on it.” He laughed. I was offended.
“My English name is Lucas,” the monk said, extending his hand. Shortly after, Greg came over, and we introduced ourselves.
“It’s been a long time since I had a chance to speak with foreigners,” Lucas told us as we walked along the town’s main road. He wanted to take us to his favorite restaurant. “I always like to talk with Americans,” he said. “Americans come here to appreciate the culture, not just to snatch things and jet off with them.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately not all of the visitors to this place are like that.”
The restaurant was authentic Tibetan. In general, the cuisine tends toward simplicity, high in carbs and fattening meats. I’m a picky eater, and while some of the peppers and hot sauces of Chinese cuisine rub me the wrong way, these more straightforward plates leave my mouth watering. I had some tough, oily yak meat over rice, and then a salty soup of chicken broth and thick, long noodles.
While I relished in one of life’s simpler pleasures, Greg took the opportunity to ask Lucas a few questions.
“In 2008, there were protests, here, right?” Greg asked.
“Yes,” Lucas said. “Yes there were. If you don’t mind, I would prefer not to talk about that,” he said. “It’s just a tough subject.”
And we left it at that.
“If you don’t mind my asking, when did you start being a monk?”
“Well, I was only thirteen,” Lucas said. He was now in his early twenties.
“Why did you make that decision? Or did your parents decide for you?”
“It was my decision. I knew it was what I wanted—to understand Buddhism and to understand myself.” Lucas explained that in his early years he went to public school. The teachers casually dismissed Tibetan culture as unimportant, focusing instead on Han Chinese history and tradition. Fed up, he had decided to leave school and go to the monastery, where he would study only in Tibetan.
“Where did you learn to speak such good English?” I asked Lucas.
“Well, a dutch woman used to live here, and she spoke excellent English. She taught me to read and write. I have a friend who lives here, and he learned his English in India. He’s my teacher now.”
Lucas studies English every day, during his spare time. He often rises before the sun, taking classes and studying straight until noon. After a simple lunch, he and his friends will separate to memorize and interpret holy texts. Standing on a platform before all of their colleagues, monks have one-on-one debates concerning the passages. Even to be admitted into the monastery, a candidate must take a series of exams that require memorizing entire holy books.
“I also like to memorize in English,” Lucas said. “Do either of you have any books or stories that you might be able to lend to me? Or maybe make a copy?”
Seizing the opportunity to make clear that I knew things, too, I scribbled down Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
“It’s a long poem,” Greg said, as I continued writing on to a second page. Lucas only smiled and put the poem in his pocket. It would probably take him about ten minutes to have it down cold.
After lingering for awhile, the three of us made our way out, Greg and I heading back to our room, Lucas to the monastery. We had arranged to meet up later that evening.
As he walked up the road, Lucas hunched and tugged on his thin robe to keep warm. He would not be able to tell stories about incredible travels, or bring home special souvenir furs. He would date supermodels, would not make headlines or six-figures. And right now he was shivering.
But as he turned back and waved, he wore an ear-to-ear smile. And his smile made me smile, too.