I could get used to flying first class. The only reason I’m flying it this time is because regular tickets to Qinghai were sold out, so we had to buy first class there, and economy back. An annoying extra expense, but at seven a.m., bleary and drunk on exhaustion, I welcome the ample seats, the cloth napkins and real silverware. If we crashed, we’d be the first to go, but at least we’d have leg room on the way down.
Lesley’s old university classmates are waiting for us at the small Xining airport when we arrive. I smile, smile, the grinning, friendly American idiot, and we make our way to a waiting van. There’s an English-speaking tour guide for my benefit, named Helen. She bombards me with information about Xining and Qinghai Province, really interesting stuff that I’ll never retain.
We’re headed straight for Qinhai Lake, a vast saltwater lake and the largest lake in China. It’s roughly a two-hour drive, and there’s no way I can stay awake after rising at 5 am after four hours of sleep. The city of Xining flits by–“It’s developing very quickly,” Helen assures me. Buildings yield to fields and hemmed by mountains. There are trees, and green everywhere! I’m sleepy but happy. The dust and Soviet-era beige buildings of Beijing are wearing me down. The fresh air and mountains outside my window are soothing me…soothing…and I drift off.
We’ve wound up a grass-covered mountain for a better view of the lake. It stretches like the sea across the horizon, reflecting the cloudy white sky. We’re facing it at the top of a high hill, surrounded by green slopes running down to a meadow below. A few androgynous Tibetan monks are sitting cross-legged on the grass beside us, dressed in coarse, ruddy robes. Their heads are shaved.
We head back down the mountain, and set out on the flat road hemmed by yellow flax and green hills. We pass Tibetan sheep herders and their flocks, with the odd yak mixed in. They live in yak-skin tents, like teepees. What would it be like to spend your life on these plains, and wild green mountains–to rise at dawn to bleating sheep, to huddle in your tent, wrapped in yak skins for warmth in the frigid, bone-dry winters of west China?
I think that would be horrible, the frozen-winters part, but watching it flash past from our rented van-with-driver, I idealize it a little. The part about rising with the sun, watching it creep, creep and come spilling, crashing over those stark green grass hills. Spending your life in the wind, rain, spring, fields of flowers, all of it, you never leave it. You never go inside. How could you not feel cleansed, full, free from desire like Buddha?
Yeah so you’d probably mostly feel cold, and damp, and surely sheep get old after awhile.
We get back into Xining, we check into our four-star hotel, which is nice by any standards, and incredible by developing Chinese city standards. The bathroom’s a bit cramped, and there are no mirrors in the room itself…but there are two plush single beds with blankets white and soft as baby cheeks. I want to shower and sink into one, but we’ve gotta go, we’ve got to mingle and eat with Lesley’s classmates.
I’m not really hungry, having had stomach problems for about a week straight, and the peaceful room with its white bedding and more importantly, it’s nice white toilet, are alluring me. But I gamely, grimly take a seat at a large round table with a huge glass lazy susan in the middle. Dishes being arriving, and don’t stop. A dish is spaced every six inches around the lazy susan, and it’s spinning, spinning, and I am urged to eat. Lesley sits on my right, her only English-speaking classmate on my left. He murmurs descriptions of each dish as it approaches, and sometimes pauses the rotation for my convenience–I’m a little slow with the chopsticks.
It’s a halal restaurant, since one of the women present is Muslim and doesn’t eat pork. The food is incredible, light and vibrant and unlike any Chinese food I’ve had before. There’s a dish of lightly poached celery, shrimp, and walnuts in a barely-there sauce. There are wild Qinghai mushrooms, and delicate white fish. My beer glass is refilled by the classmate at intervals–Harbin beer, smuggled in, since the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol.
I’m a little self-conscious about taking sips, because I quickly observe that when almost anyone drinks, first he or she makes a toast, and clinks his or her glass on the table or with those in proximity. Is drinking without toasting bad form? I’m not sure, but I’m not about to raise my glass with a hearty English “cheers!” so I wait for the others’ clinks before I drink.
The next day Lesley and I rise at around 8–I hear Lesley get up first, around 7:30. At first it was a little funny sharing a room with a woman I know only from work, in a teacher-student context. We’ve swiftly been crossing over into friendship, but still it’s a leap to find myself confined in a small space…with stomach problems.
We drink instant coffee, sweet and good, which Lesley informs me is Malaysian. I’m on my bed, Lesley is across from me in a chair. She is sporty and glam, her hair slicked back under a baseball cap, in black spandex pants and a sequined black tank. We talk about travel, nice hotels. I know a bit about the former, she knows a lot about both. She’s stayed in five-star hotels in New York City, resorts in Macau. One night in a seven-star hotel in Dubai.
Suddenly Lesley exclaims, “My god, breakfast! It’s almost 9!”
We’re supposed to meet Helen and Lesley’s classmates at 9. I’m thinking we might skip breakfast, grab something for the road, but for all Lesley’s sudden alarm, she seems alright with having a leisurely perusal and ingestion of the breakfast buffet. There’s an assortment of Chinese and semi-Western food–mushroom noodles, stir-fries, and rice porridge. There are fried eggs, and insubstantial bread-like items. I opt for cornflakes, yogurt, and some litchis. There are a couple of stainless steel dispensers labeled “milk” and “hot milk.” The “milk” one is empty, so I gesture to a server that I’d like it refilled. She suggests the hot milk, instead. I shake my head, insistent. Hot milk, on cornflakes? I have standards. (Or at least until the following morning, when they’re out again and the breakfast is being shut down, so I don’t feel like being choosy.)
We sit by the window, gazing out on the grey city of Xining. It’s a small town compared with Beijing’s urban sprawl. We chat, about Wall Street mostly. We talk about the teachers–Lesley fills me in on the students’ perceptions of me and the other teachers.
“Do the teachers talk about me?” She asks, girlish in her curiosity.
“Hmm, yeah, I’m sure we have,” I reply.
“What do you say?”
“Uhh…I don’t know. Like how you’re a really good student and stuff.”
We also say how she dresses fit for the queen, how she’s the sort of glam housewife type.
But being with her here, in Qinghai, after talking to her, my perceptions have expanded; the stereotypes have fallen away a bit. She worked hard for her money in her twenties and early thirties, she’s told me. And she’s invested in some kind of mineral; the details are shaky, but the money’s coming in. It must be coming in, because there are Hermes scarves, Prada purses, and then there are worms. Yes, worms. But not just any worms.
Brett told me about these worms before, when a student invited him to a private dining house where he (Brett) was served a soup with a single worm floating within. The worm had a shoot of grass sticking out of one end, and the student told B. that the worm was incredibly expensive, valuable, capable of extraordinary healing powers, etc.
Well. Lesley bought some from a friend of a classmate who hunts them, a worm bounty hunter, and showed them to me in a plastic bag later that night. I stared into the mass of dried light brown caterpillars sprouting grass out their asses.
“I gave him 20, 000 yuan,” Lesley declared, throwing herself onto her bed with a bounce.
“Whaaa?” That’s more than I make in a month and a half of work.
“My husband says I spend money like a stupid,” she laughed.
“What do the worms do?”
“Mm, they are good for children and for older people. My son used to have a cough, and then I put these into soup I make at home. And now his cough is much better.”
“OK,” I say, dubious. His cough had better be gone at that price, I think. Your entire family should have immune systems of steel and near immortality, for 20, 000 yuan.
After the hotel breakfast we meet up with Helen and two of Lesley’s former classmates. We go to see Buddhist temples, nestled into the hills a fair drive from Xining, full of smoky incense and yak butter candles and golden Buddhas with serene smiles painted on their faces.
A young girl and her boyfriend are meandering from temple to temple like the rest of us, the girl clutching to her chest a tiny mangy kitten, yellowish white. At the entrance to a temple she kneels quickly, kitten and all. Its meows pierce the temple like needles.
A stream of history and information about each temple, the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, yak butter sculptures…I can’t remember it. I stare at these intricate carvings, which seem to be marble, but are carved by the monks from yak butter. They dip their fingers into icy water to keep the butter from melting. They make new sculptures every year. It must take hours.
“Their fingers are sometimes destroyed from the ice water,” Helen says.
Outside another temple an old women, middle aged men, a little girl, are spread out, palms down in prayer. They have a rhythm, like people doing pushups. They have smooth pads attached to their hands, which allow them to collapse to their knees, then put their hands on the ground and slide out in one smooth motion, then pull back and back to their knees, stand, say a prayer, then back down again.
The old woman fingers what looks like a rosary in between sets.
Helen explains, “They have to say one hundred thousand prayers. Each time she says one hundred, she counts one bead.”
I can’t stop looking at them, sliding back and forward, smoothing the stones with their sliding hands.
Helen laughs. “You cannot understand why they would pray so many times.”
“No…I just…think it’s interesting.”
I feel a little sorry for the girl, no more than four. Her kneeling and prostrating is uneven, erratic. She gets bored and lingers, watching her grandmother, the passersby.
“Well, at least it’s good exercise, right?” Helen laughs.
I’m glad to leave the temples. Too much incense, too much information about a religion I don’t understand. Helen told me before that Lesley, upon coming here the first time, saw the statue of the Buddha and wept. She felt peace, the pieces fell into place. I’m glad for her, I’m glad to make this pilgrimage with her.
I don’t weep, though. I feel something almost like depression as we troop from one temple to another…all these people cupping their hands before the serene and eerie statues, the crumpled quai at the altars. For them this is known, this is comforting and true, but for me it feels…like nothing. I have no feeling.
I prefer the mountains, winding around these narrow roads at concerning speeds, our driver brazen and confident, chain smoking. I doze, my eyes flutter open then snap awake: a winding gurgling river with lush green grass, dark green tree-covered mountains jutting up, yellow rape flowers in perfect squares, like a yellow quilt spread on the grass.
We go up, up, over a dam and past the reservoir of water on the other side, grazing horses, cows, higher and higher. There are rams, sheep, and yaks grazing, we hug the mountain and there is no guardrail. The sky is spitting rain, the mountains are bathed in clean mist.
The towns are low-lying, squat and brown with tiled roofs and sunrooms, huddled in dirt, impossibly poor. But the view!
We climb a rise to get a view of a snow-covered peak in the distance, beyond fields of yellow. It’s nearly obscured in mist, and rain is moving in. It’s windy and chill, like October.
We are descending, retreating, yielding to the wild wind and rain. There are stragglers coming up–we’ve got to see the view, must get to the top–but they are hesitating, unsure. Our retreat feels like a warning; their umbrellas are blowing inside out.
When we get to the bottom our driver is munching fried potatoes. He cheerily thrusts them in our faces and urges us to eat. I take a round slice with my fingers and take a bite. Mmm, it’s crunchy and creamy and greasy and doused in a tingly red spice mixture. Delicious. We huddle into the van and he orders more for us, and dishes of unsweetened yak yogurt, with a jar of raw sugar for sprinkling. There is a skin like the kind that accumulates on pudding on the yogurt’s surface, and I peel it back with my spoon.
“Why are you not eating that?” Lesley asks. “If you don’t want it, give it to me!”
At dinner that night, we meet another of Lesley’s classmates, who comes armed with a bottle of Great Wall red, and a Qinghai barley liquor. We drink as the classes are clinked, always with the toasts, and I’m urged to eat. More mushrooms, delicious and woodsy and mingled with hunks of tender garlic. There’s a dish of barley tossed with finely diced green onions, nutty and crunchy.
The barley liquor burns. The classmate offers me more, but I opt for wine. He said something to Lesley in Chinese.
“He says you’re a little girl,” Lesley said.
The more barley liquor and red wine we drank, the more he wanted to talk politics; there were toasts made about America and China uniting in commerce and friendship. As if a shy American girl smiling at a table of old friends in the far reaches of China, quietly eating mushrooms and drinking bad wine, meant progress was being made, alliances forged.
“Whatever, I don’t care about politics, we are friends!” Lesley laughed her triumphant laugh and I smiled at Helen across the table, and was glad too.