Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shandan, Western China

The morning that saw Gunther and Yong Ha return east also saw Tom and I getting on a bus to Shandan. This was the next stop on our path that would eventually lead to Golmud. When we booked the ticket, I understood that it was only a 200km journey. This was one of the shorter distances I had covered at once in China and I expected it to be rather uneventful.

200km is only 126 miles. Even in a bus going a conservative 60km/h it shouldn't take more than three and half hours. This bus ride was about to challenge everything I thought I understood about distance equalling rate times time.

First of all, I believed that a cross-country bus with approx. 30 seats wouldn't be able, or willing, to transport more than 40 people. This was my first misconception. After the aisles and the steps at the front door were properly covered with bodies, we set off.

The road was dirt most of the way. Vertical. Winding. Desert mountains. Cliffsides just inches away from the tires. Sheep in the road.

Six hours later, we arrived in Shandan. Tom and I had flirted with the idea of going into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Shandan looked like what my imagination told me either of those two places would look like. It was mostly dirt and dust. Cars filled the streets, cars that appeared to have been magically lifted from the science fiction magazines of the forties and fifties. There were a lot of buildings, but most were vacant, hollow, ghost-like. Again, the men in the street seemed to have been standing/sitting there for decades. They were withered, wind-beaten, and smiling at us with no teeth.

We immediately took a taxi to the train station in search of the earliest train to the next "town." Luckily, there was a post-midnight train to Dunhuang. Dunhuang, according to the Lonely Planet, was "tourist" friendly. We bought the tickets and hiked the 4km back into town (the taxi having deserted us).

Instinct told us to find the restaurant with the most patrons and go in prepared to point and smile as charmingly as possible. We ate noodles with some meat-such substance and pantomimed that we would like to find an internet room. One woman amazingly understood what we wanted and pointed us in the right direction down the road. We had eight hours to kill.

A few blocks from the internet room, we were accosted by a high school English teacher and his apparently "star" student (her English was more discernible than his). She was sweet, if not disastrously naive. She confided in me that she wanted to study journalism in university. I decided it was best not to point out why being a journalist in China may not be the most desirable position for a girl with such potential. Then, once she found out that we were headed to Lhasa, she very proudly boasted that her brother was a soldier living in Lhasa. Again, I decided not to try to explain that he was undoubtedly suppressing religion and culture. She was painfully sweet and thoughtful. She showed us to the internet room, arranged for us to pay for the time we wanted (eight hours), and even sat with us while we checked our email to make sure that we were able to use the computers properly.

I mostly streamed movies and drank Sprite for the duration of the afternoon/evening. I watched "Bronson," an ultra-violent film loosely based on the story of Britain's most violent convict. The performance by the lead actor, Tom Hardy, was astounding. He will be a rather big name in years to come. I also watched "District 9" which I believe is the best science fiction movie I've seen since "Primer."


It was the big holiday. 60 years of Chinese communism. The shouts and fireworks from the town square could be heard. Hordes of cheers. I asked Tom if he wanted to go and check it out. His answer was a stout, "not a chance."

By 11:30 p.m. when Tom and I were hiking our way back to the train station, the streets were deserted and quiet. We passed by the town square which was completely covered in celebration debris. I bought a big bottle of beer upon entering the station. As I drank it on the platform waiting for the train, I stared at the stars blanketing the sky. Little did I know that the skies were only to get more and more inspiring as my journey continued.

I also looked at the few silhouettes of people standing in the late-night/early morning dust on the platform as the train arrived. We piled into our car and promptly fell asleep among the Chinese sprawled all over the seats in various states of undress.

We would be in Dunhuang by the late morning and onto another stage of spelunking the depths of the Chinese West.

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