Straddling Gansu and Qinghai

Not so welcome in the west

By Susan

I’m really happy to be out here in mainly Muslim and Tibetan towns and villages as the Olympics gets started in Beijing. With all it’s welcomes and its ‘One World One Dream’ demands Beijing now seems a bit fake and showy. The Chinese government certainly didn’t welcome us to some of the places we wanted to visit in this part of China.

Our main intention when coming out here was to chill out in Xiahe; a mainly Tibetan town in the south west of Gansu Province with a very important Tibetan monastery, the Labrang Monastery.

It was only when I phoned up to book accommodation in Xiahe that I found out that ‘waiguoren’ (foreigners) are not allowed to visit at the moment. Interestingly, we couldn’t use the hotel phone to call Xiahe, one of the receptionists used a mobile phone instead. We tried to call two hostels in Xiahe without success on a normal phone. We also called the town of Tongren, which worked fine, so we think the government blocked phonecalls to Xiahe.

By this time we were already in Lanzhou so we visited a few other interesting places in the area instead. From Lanzhou we took a bus through some stunning red mountain and windy river scenery to Linxia – We needed to give two copies of our passport and visa before they let us on the bus (more government restrictions). Linxia is a mainly Muslim town which gets a mediocre write-up in the Lonely Planet but is well worth a visit. It’s full of mosques and very interesting shops selling everything from saddles to tea leaves to woks to various limbs of meat.

We met a lovely American guy called Drew on the bus to Linxia and he gave us some good advice about the place. Drew is opening a cafe in Linxia in the near future and it will be called ‘The Red Park Cafe’. If anyone’s coming this way then check it out because I reckon he’ll do good coffee – something that’s hard to come by in these parts.

From Linxia we had another gorgeous bus ride to Xunhua and from there to Tongren. Both of these towns are made up of mainly Muslim and Tibetan people with some Han Chinese too. Xunhua is right beside a mountain lake that’s sacred to both the Muslims and Tibetans in the area. Tongren is a town where many highly respected Tibetan artists live and work.

From Tongren we made our way to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. That’s where we watched the opening ceremony of the Olymics. We started watching it in the town square but to be honest there wasn’t much atmosphere and people seemed a bit more interested in us ‘waiguoren’, so we headed back to our hotel room so I could get a good look at the Irish team! I’ve been reading the blog by the Economist’s correspondant in Beijing and she provides an interesting analysis of the opening ceremony I reckon. I’ve also been enjoying Alex Thomsons’s witty reports for Channel 4 news.

We had another interesting experience with Chinese hospitality when we tried to visit Takster, the village where the Dalai Lama was born which is situated about 40km from Xining. I was a bit nervous about going there when we weren’t allowed to visit Xiahe, but nobody had told us we couldn’t, so we gave it a go. The police were there when we arrived and wouldn’t let us into the village. They took our passport and visa details and then followed us out of the village (just to make sure we didn’t try to cause any trouble). The did let us have a glimpse of the house where the Dalai Lama was born, which I thought was kind of them in the circumstances. It’s a simple-looking mud house but has a beautiful temple-like structure built onto the roof. The village itself was tiny and poor-looking and we didn’t see anybody except a very old lady looking at what was going on with the foreigners.

It’s been an interesting week or two but it’s a long way from ‘One World One Dream’.

Man zo, go slow

By Pete

Susan taught me some new Chinese vocabulary a little while back. I knew how to say goodbye already but I wanted to be able to say the equivalent of seeya later, cheerio, ta ta, all the best, mind the trams, toodaloo, tschuss, take it easy and so on.

In China they say “man zo”. Chinese is a tonal language. You say the “man” bit almost normally except that you bend it down a bit. The “zo” bit you stretch out some – you bend it right down low pretty quickly and then you bend it back up nice and slow. “Man zo” means “go slow”.

Man zo. Go slow. I like that a lot.

I’ve been saying “man zo” to people at pretty much every available opportunity. I admit that it may be starting to wear a bit thin but I’m going to persevere with it in the hope that one day it might take effect. It doesn’t seem to make too much of a difference just yet – everyone’s still rushing about frantically – but you never know… In any case it usually gets a smile at least.

Not being able to go to Xiahe meant that we had to “go slow” a bit. Instead of getting a direct bus from Lanzhou to Xiahe and basing ourselves there we had to take local buses from one valley town to the next. These buses were often slow and bumpy but they afforded us some very impressive views of the countryside and gave us a chance to see some of the rural life in this part of the country.

One of the reasons the buses were slow was because of the traffic. We’re not talking about a regular traffic jam here though. The roads were mostly full of a mix of cycles (some with 2 wheels some with 3, some with umbrellas some without, some with 1 person some with 2 or 3), innovative tractors of all types, motorbikes, people, people hidden under bundles, livestock and carts of various types. In some stretches of road people were also threshing their wheat (at least I think that’s what it’s called). Wheat was laid out on the road and being raked and dried and beaten and swept and gathered etc. I guess the road provides a good, hard, hot surface for this kind of work. As vehicles approached, they’d beep their horns so that the people doing the work could get out of the way and then they’d just drive straight over – maybe that’s just part of the process.

We managed to watch a bit of TV in some of the towns we visited. We have a favourite show. You don’t really need to understand any Chinese to watch it. People try (and mostly fail) to make their way over an obstacle course. It’s strangely mesmerising especially after a tiring and hot day – and it made for a nice change from the rose tinted Chinese news broadcasts and strange period dramas on the other channels (this was before the Olympics started).

It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to see everything we wanted to. I can’t really see how restrictions like this are going to help China but hey what would I know… In any case we’ve been having a really interesting time – it’s not all been easy but it’s certainly been interesting.

Note: We’ve bought a relatively cheap voice recorder (dictaphone) to tide us over now that we’ve lost our field recorder. It’s better than nothing.


  1. I admire your perseverence! Thanks for all the travelling tips – I’ll pass them on to some friends who are going overland to India, through China and hopefully Tibet.

  2. I noticed your article, though it’s not long. The American guy, Drew, has already opened his caffe for 3 months, and I used to be one of the guests with a friend. He used to have visit my home for times.
    Oliver, an English teacher

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