The ill-fated journey to wild west Xining/Qinghai- or, how not to piss off a Chinese police officer.
The realization that we were about 1500 km off course hit him like a bolt of lightening. ‘What the f..k!’, were the first words out of G’s mouth, and a look of total disbelief crossed his face. ‘F..k!’ ‘F..K!?’ We sat in the room, and tried to figure out what to do. The choice was obvious- we needed to arrange a train trip from Xian to Xining, as soon as possible. We had both planned to stay in China a maximum of two months, so there was no point in wasting time. The next morning, we had the travel officer at the hotel arrange a couple of tickets for us on the next night’s train. This was going to basically be a 24 hour journey from Xian, the old capital of China over 2000 years ago, to Xining and the old Tibetan border.
We had accepted out fate, and did some quick thinking. We were back on track. Neither G or I spoke any Chinese, Gesar could get by talking in Tibetan, and I had very rudimentary Tibetan skills from living a year at Rimpoche’s monastery in Bir, in northern India. Underline rudimentary. The train turned out to be ok; we had a sleeping booth, which we had to share with another person, but it was clean and seemed quite comfy. The car was filling quite quickly with Chinese from all walks of life, most of them carrying these big jars which later we were to realize was for them to drink tea from, a seemingly constant process of re-filling the jar with hot water (readily available) and milking every last drop of flavor out of a few pinches of tea leaves. We pulled out of the station, one of those classic fabricated steel and glass aircraft hangar shaped monsters with the standard People’s Republic mural of the victorious Chinese people marching behind a young and virile Chairman Mao plastered on the waiting room wall.
Tally ho! Time for a beer! Which was readily available, and we settled down to stare at the Chinese man sitting opposite us. Gesar, with his unique ability to make friends with anybody anywhere, had this guy drinking beer with us in no time, and telling us his story in very broken English. Mr. Z as I will call him was from Taiwan, and was on his way to the Northwest wilderness called Tien Shan, where the Chinese government would let foreigners go as long as they were prepared to pay shitloads of money, and possibly have their permission cancelled at any time. He was in similar straights as us, unsure if he would get permission.
We got by with our international communication skills, mostly sign language, and explained that we were going to Tibet. He suggested in his own way that this might be a difficult prospect, but we were to be undaunted at this stage.
By the end of three hours we had both the railway guardsmen assigned to our carriage in our room drinking beer too and proceeding to get very drunk (sounds safe doesn’t it). But hey, this was China, and they ended up giving me and Gesar their communist party badges and various railway worker insignia, which I am sure they probably regretted later on.
The next day of travel was quite enlightening- here we were slicing across the Chinese countryside, and one could feel the ever present influence of the late great chairman. There were caves anywhere the countryside produced a bump, crops as far as the eye could see, and absolutely no free space to be seen. The predominant colors for me were three- the grey of all the concrete buildings ( since we didn’t see any older buildings- thanks to the destruction of 80% of anything historical during the cultural revolutions), the green of the rice fields, and the sweeping blue indigo of the sky.
G and I got to sample some of the culinary highlights of China Rail- one rather interesting dish later turned out to be snake, I was hoping the hand gestures meant eel, but then the chef smilingly showed us the snakes hanging from the ceiling…
Late the next day, we finally arrived at our destination- Xining. I will try to close my eyes now and paint you as vivid a picture as I can…Back in 1991, it was still very much a wild west town, many of the streets were unpaved, the locals an interesting mix of Han Chinese and blue-eyed Caucasian mix tribesmen that had obviously filtered down from the various steppes millennia ago. I heard later that a large percentage of the populace were ex-incarcerated criminals, social outcasts and political dissidents, whom after serving their time and receiving ‘re-education’, were forcibly sent to this outpost by the politburo in order to keep them as far away from the big cities, and causing any more trouble as possible. That meant that at night, when the natural light faded, the law often ceased to exist in obvious form.
Case in point- One day in China Gesar and I were walking down the street when we came across a large crowd surrounding three men who held a man between them. Whatever this man had done, we had no clue; but the crowd stood by and watched as one man systematically and methodically kidney punched this guy, much to the gruesome fascination of the crowd. It was torturous to watch, I couldn’t believe it was happening, and Gesar was absolutely horrified at the plight of this man, who now was bleeding from the mouth at every punch. ‘Where’s a policeman?’ G asked me. We frantically looked around, and saw one about half a block away directing traffic. We raced over to him and caught his attention, pointing at the man and the crowd down the street. He smugly ignored us, and turned his back… Gesar was really pissed off at this point, understandably so, and was making that quite clear by his loud upset and plaintive voice. But there was nothing we could do…we walked on down the street helpless and both feeling a little less than human…
Back to Xining. We found a hotel in the middle of town and proceeded to check in and get a room. I was in need of a bath, and so was G. As one would, I went into the bathroom and turned on the water- and nothing happened except this low resonant moan that emitted from the pipes….wtf.
Down to the reception desk go I, only to be told, sorry, the water and water heater will be turned on twice a day, once at 600-700 am, once more in the evening. Let me tell you that Xining at night is cold- is a good way northwest, and though the days are warm, the nights were freezing. In our four/five day stay there, G and I were never able to get a shower- the water had either already run out, or trickled out of the shower nozzle at beyond boiling point.
The next day, we started to explore town and carefully find a car company so as to try and hire a car. Wandering the sometimes unpaved streets, late in the day we found a car company and proceeded to arrange the hire of a car. Everything seemed ok, the employees were all smiles, so happily G and I went out on the streets to eat some street side bbq and drink some beer in the chill but energetic evening. The mix of races in Xining was interesting-here we were in China, but there were Mongolians, Chinese blue-eyed Muslims, Tibetans, all mixing together within a booming night market. A little tipsy, we returned to our prestigious accommodations to watch some twice-dubbed American movie with a voice track so confusing we kept ourselves entertained by making up our own dialogue. A knock on the door…..
There stood a Chinese police officer with the friendly hire car employee, not smiling now, and the manager of the hotel. Between the three of them, we managed to figure out that we were to report to the police office the next day first thing in the morning, where the police were very curious to find out why we wanted to get into Tibet…..
Things were not looking so good. Gesar and I started to figure out what the hell we were going to say to the police the next morning. It definitely couldn’t be the truth, and we were sober enough to realize that these policemen were going to check our contact in Tibet. We didn’t want to make trouble for them either. So here is the story Gesar came up with……as far as I remember!
Gesar was a son of a Tribal warlord who had fled the country in 1948 and gone to live in the US. On the death of his father, the son wished to reconnect with the rest of his relatives still living in China. The last known relative was now living in Tibet as an Chinese free land grant emigrant that had moved to Kham……. It was something along those lines, anyway. Lo and behold, in the middle of the story, Mr.Z from the train appears like a guardian angel/peaceful protector and starts to help with the translation into Chinese, completely going along with the story as Gesar told it.
I remember the face of the Chinese police officer as Gesar told his tale of being the long-lost son from America. You have to imagine in your minds eye that Gesar literally towered over your average Han Chinese policeman by a good couple of feet, and was built like a modern day sumo wrestler. The officers and the entire police station staff were spellbound and stunned to say the least. Gesar looked like ‘someone’. Just what kind of ‘someone’ and whether that kind of ‘someone was worthy of being let loose in Tibet they had no idea. I just agreed with whatever Gesar had finally come up with. The policeman dismissed us, and told us to come back later in the day, saying that he would now contact Gesar’s ‘relative’ in Tibet to confirm the story.
Like a lightening bolt, G and I raced down to the local telephone exchange, where we called the number of our contact. You can imagine this huge guy crammed into a tiny phone booth, speaking very american accented Tibetan, with a much smaller westerner milling around, occasionally interjecting his 20 cents worth. Basically the result of the conversation was- we weren’t sure. The feeling of panic that had slowly permeated the police station seemed to make our grasp on the subtleties of the Tibetan language unhinged. Rimpoche has let them know that we were coming- the main issue was, could they somehow persuade the police chief that the story was legit.
Back to the police station and we were told to come back tomorrow, and they would talk to us about our permit- the phone conversation had gone well. Trying to hide our obvious glee, we made it at least to the outside the Police station before we each broke into our rendition of James Brown’s goodfoot dance. That night it was more bbq, more beer, and a weird Jackie Chan movie- I think it was Cannonball run.
An extra day, and Kumbum monastery- or, believe it or not…
The next morning we headed back to the Police station, to be told we had to wait an extra day whilst the wheels of Chinese Bureaucracy turned… whatever. We had somehow heard about Kumbum monastery, a Gelupgpa monastery founded by Tsokhapa 1357, a mere 30 kms away and hours bus ride from the city. We had a day to kill, and it was definitely worth the road trip. Or was it…..
Ok, this was my first real Tibetan gonpa (monastery) anywhere near Tibet, so I was excited. G and I were part of a busload of people headed out that way, crammed together with mostly tibetan looking types, food, chickens, assorted supplies, and what we thought were a few monks. Down a dusty and bumpy road we went, and as we wound our way down this valley I couldn’t help but notice how much the lan had deteriorated. There were a lot less crops being raised, and what was growing was of a much poorer quality than I had seen on the way west. We were definitely getting closer to the arid Tibetan border. Regardless, I felt quite good to actually be getting somewhere remotely Tibetan.
We arrived at the monastery and proceeded to have a look around. This would be a great opportunity for us to brush up our Tibetan skills, and also see one of the most important sites in Tibetan history. Something felt strange- I didn’t quite know what it was, but the energy was nothing like I was used to in the other Tibetan monasteries I had been to and stayed at. It was not peaceful, it felt…dead. We saw a couple of monks, and G headed over to have a chat. They avoided us, even though Gesar obviously caught the attention of one of them. Weird. Undaunted, we continued on, and had a look in one of the massive shrine rooms and got another shock- the place was literally covered in inches of dust, a brief look inside disclosed one beat up drum lying on its side, practice tables stacked loosely and lying about on the floor, dust and crap everywhere. How could that be? Outside the main entrance, Tibetans were still engaged in prostration activity, continuing a tradition that had gone on for centuries, and was evidenced by the literal hollowing out of the flag stones about the length of an average human, where practitioners had done countless offerings of their bodies. A look at Gesar’s face showed me he was just as confused as I was.
Seeing another ‘monk’, he chased after him and this time really pursued to talk. The ‘monk’ mumbled something is Chinese- he obviously didn’t understand a word that Gesar was saying. I don’t remember exactly how we found out, I think it was from a Christian missionary we met on the bus back to Xining later that day, but there were no real monks at Kumbum- the were all mostly retired army soldiers who were there to give the ignorant tourists the feeling that they were having a ‘Tibetan experience’. The buildings we saw had been stripped bare of any semblance of religious meaning and trappings- unkempt, beaten up, paint peeling off walls. It was an empty shell, a dead body, and our first wake up call to the real plight of Buddhism in China at that time.
And now, for the grand finale…or, end of act one.
We were up bright and early the next day and at the Police station waiting for out answer, which of course took all morning. The officer that had been treating with us the last few days seemed friendly enough, had asked more questions than a game show host, and was seemingly convinced by out story. ‘You have 80% permission; I just wait for my boss.’ Ok, so wait we did. I consumed best part of my fingernails to pass the time, G with his usual patience vibrating on the seat next to me. Finally, the phone rang, and the officer held a terse conversation with the person on the other end. The phone went down- he looked at us. ‘Well, my boss says ok you go.’ Broad smiles shared by me and G. ‘But…I say no.’ The look on this guy’s face said it all- it was a complete power trip.
We were both totally stunned- all that time we had spent, the phone calls, the stress. This guy knew he was totally screwing us.
G says to me, ‘let’s get out of here’. But my Irish blood got the better of me and I decided to give this guy piece of my mind, for what it was worth.
I don’t know what I was thinking, but I get up in this officer’s face, and eyeball him as close as I could get, channeling my best Scorsese Italian mobster wise guy face and say, ‘you x%&$#’ asshole, I wont forget you.’ He just recoiled, stunned and completely not understanding a word of what I had just said but definitely understanding my anger, as G and I stormed out.
It’s amazing how quickly you can get things done when you need to move. We were on that night’s train back to Xian, I was ready to put plan two into operation. Rimpoche had said it was going to be tough- he was right. And guess who is on the same train, in the same sleeping booth? You guessed it; Mr. Z They hadn’t given him permission to go to the wild north either. We commiserated over a few more beers and watched the countryside roll by. G was talking of just quitting and getting the hell out of China. I knew how he felt. I felt violated myself. But I remembered my instructions from Rimpoche- no matter what, get him to Shechen. So it was time for plan two…..