adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Adventures in Gansu, part 1: Xi'an to Xiahe

(previously: Yungang grottoes)

Upon hearing that everyone in class was leaving on a school trip to Chengdu in Sichuan province and that class would be canceled from Wednesday until next week, we decided we couldn't let the opportunity go - when again would we have so much time during school to do travelling? I thought Gansu province would be interesting, but didn't think much about it. As we went to register for the HSK, I noticed a railway ticket selling booth and enquired for fun about same-day sleepers to Lanzhou - like that would ever happen! Surprisingly enough, the ticket seller did not wave me off with a typical disdainful "meiyou", but informed me there were two top bunks available. We snapped up the sleepers then and there. And so, having arrived in Xi'an only two days before, we headed to the railway station for more traveling.

The Xi'an railway station is a rather grand place, just outside of the city walls.

Conditions in hard sleeper were surprisingly nice. I had been expecting the worst when I found out the train was not an air conditioned one, but it was rather modern inside, and it turned out to be a bit cold during the night as we went up to Gansu. Hard sleeper is divided into compartments of three beds on each side, on each side there is a bottom, middle, and top bunk. The top bunk is the cheapest since it's the most difficult to get in and out of, but at least you get the bed all for yourself (if you're sitting in bottom, you're expected to let people from upper bunks sit on your bed and chat with you before going to bed). Since the end station of the train was not Lanzhou, I was a bit worried that we would oversleep, but it turns out that you give your tickets to an attendant, who will come by later to wake you up for your stop. The bunk was a bit cramped, but it was soft and I had one of the best night's sleep I had since getting to China.

Hard sleeper is the way to go for comfortable and affordable long-distance travel in China. If you don't want to lie around in bed, there are little fold-out seats along the windows (like the one I'm sitting on in the pic).

The attendant woke us up a bit before getting to Lanzhou, and we sat around looking out the window a bit. The scenery was different from anything we'd seen before - the train was going through a valley, and all around mountains rose steeply out of the arid land.

A little farm nestled in the valleys.

After arriving in Lanzhou, we promptly got a taxi to the south bus station(which is inexplicably located on the northwestern side of town). We didn’t have much time in Lanzhou, but my first impressions were that it didn’t feel as polluted as I expected (Lanzhou is China’s most polluted city) and that the streets were pretty hard to navigate. Lanzhou is located in a valley(like most cities in Gansu), so while the mountain views are rather nice, the roads are very confusing (unlike the square N-S-E-W grids of Xi’an and Beijing). On the way to the bus station, I noticed shiny mosque domes and minarets poking out of the cityscape and plenty of little places selling 牛肉面(niuroumian, beef noodles, a specialty of Lanzhou and NW China in general).

A view on the west side of Lanzhou.

Mosque minaret in Lanzhou I snapped from the taxi.

The taxi driver stopped a fair distance away from the bus station. As he pointed it out for us, a man in a worn-out 1970s era sports coat opened the door and tried to sell us bus tickets to Hezuo(a major transportation hub in SW Gansu). We walked down to the bus station, shadowed by the guy from earlier – and then we realized why the taxi driver had stopped so far back! A less careful taxi driver had pulled right up to the bus station, and at least 6 or 7 guys( all dressed similarly to the guy who was bothering us) literally jumped on the taxi, pounding on the windshield and doors and yelling out the names of various bus destinations. Alas, it’s moments like these that I always forget to take pictures of.

Inside the bus station, the situation was not much better – some guy standing next to the ticket window was trying to convince me to go with him even as I was handing over the money for our bus tickets to Xiahe, which had seemed interesting as we looked over our guidebook on the train.

Before we got on the bus, we bought some bites from a street vendor – I'm not exactly sure what this one is called, but it’s bread filled with all sorts of spicy pickled vegetables. There’s also one filled with meat.

The four hour bus ride to Xiahe gave us the opportunity to see some of the amazing scenery of Gansu. Terraced farms were carved into the sides of the mountains - a truly amazing sight if you've never seen it before. Terraced farming didn't lose its novelty for me throughout the entire trip - I was still snapping pics of it as we headed back to Xi'an!

Terraced farms on the arid terrain around Lanzhou.

Not exactly sure what this was, but it was impressive.

About halfway to Xiahe, we passed through Linxia and several other towns, noticing that the majority of the population were Hui (Chinese Muslims), recognizable by the white caps and hijaabs(head scarves). Although the term Hui can refer to several different Chinese Muslim groups, the majority by far are the group that lives in Northwestern China. Many westerners seem to think the only difference between the Hui and Han Chinese is their religion, but actually, the Hui have been a separate people with their own culture and history ever since they converted to Islam over a thousand years ago.

Passing through a little town around Linxia.

The mosques around here are built in Middle Eastern style, as opposed to other parts of China, where they are nearly indistinguishable from Chinese temples.

Glittering mosque domes in the farmlands. My picture doesn't do the scene justice.

As we approached Xiahe, the arid land gave way to mountainsides lush with vegetation. My ears had been popping slightly as I swallowed, and there was a puff of air as we opened a water bottle that had been closed since Lanzhou. As we ascended into the mountains, I noticed the road signs were written in both Tibetan, Chinese, and romanization of the Tibetan (not pinyin!)

Mountains near Xiahe (through the bus windows, alas).

Tibetan roadsign.

All of this was only a little glimpse of what would await us in Xiahe – come back in a few days if you want to find out!

Comments appreciated!

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Great pixs of the town and especially a good looking pix of you. I am surprised by the muslim culture influence. Was the city closed to any middle eastern? I tried to figure out the chinese name of the town, may be I should look up on the map. Keep the pixs coming! Love, mom


Pranvit, it i good to know you are back in China for a time. I am Ray Kaighn. I work with your Dad up in Utah. I had dinner at your home a couple of years ago. I also understand you are quite srious with a young lady from Sweden. Good for you. She seems like a very nice lady and you both look good together. Take care over there and "stay out of trouble, boy.!!! (Just kidding) Thank you so much for your comments and pictures. You describe where you are very well.



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