Monday, November 23, 2009

Dunhuang, Microlighting and The Jedi Mind Trick

Upon arrival in Dunhuang, it was quite easy for us to find a nice hostel tucked into the trees beside the edge of the desert. And the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct about the town being convenient for foreigners. But, I started ahead of the real story...

Early in the morning, before our arrival, I questioned Tom about his visa status. I knew that China mostly grants one month tourist visas. He had been traveling from Beijing for a couple weeks before I flew into Cheng Du and we had already spent about two weeks together. So, I casually asked him while we were both half awake on the sleep-filled train, "When does your visa expire?" This question seemed to rouse his curiosity. He sat up and pulled his passport from his bag.

"It expired yesterday," was his reply. Both of us were slightly nervous about the implications of such a situation. The resolution was to first find accommodation and then find the passport/tourist office in Dunhuang as soon as possible.

When we arrived at the hostel, they would not give us a room because of the expired visa. Luckily, it was midday. We asked the man at the desk to call us a taxi to take us directly to the passport/visa office.

As the taxi pulled into the Dunhuang Police Station, I saw the expression on Tom's face change from inconvenience and disgust to one of uncertainty and slight terror. The Chinese Police are not the ideal type for understanding misunderstandings.

We walked into the lobby and there were three police officers lounging around in their socks, chain-smoking cigarettes, and watching the replays of the holiday celebration in Tiananmen Square from the day before. There were trucks with nuclear rockets and tanks in formation and millions cheering on the screen.

One of the men told us to sit down and wait. He made a phone call and then resumed his position on the sofa next to the massive ashtray. About fifteen minutes later a woman in a pantsuit arrived and escorted us to an adjacent office.

To make a long story short, Tom convinced me of a theory that I've maintained since childhood: the Jedi mind trick is not a fictitious invention.

At first, the woman said it would be no problem to get a month visa extension. It was printed out on the spot and pasted in his passport. Then she came to the subject of price. Tom's visa extension would be 160 yuan (approx. $26 U.S. dollars). She then proceeded to tell him that he was two days past his expiration date. Each day came with a 500 yuan penalty. Thus, she concluded that he owed her 1,160 yuan.

It was at this moment that I actually witnessed the Jedi mind trick for the first time in my adult life. Tom, being the master price negotiator that he his, proceeded to tell her that the day before was a holiday and that he had no way of obtaining his extension. Therefore, it should only be a one-day penalty. She agreed.

"You're right, it's only a one-day penalty," she repeated after Thomas.

"And I was on an overnight train, as well." Tom produced our post-midnight train stub from Shandan and presented it to her. "I could not do until now. So, there should be no penalty."

"Okay, there is no penalty," she again repeated the words from his mouth.

Tom paid her the 160 yuan and we walked out into the street.

As soon as we were around the corner I burst into belly-full laughter fits. Tom had gone from scared pale 60 minutes earlier to bartering with the woman about the price of his extension. And he had won.

He threw up his arms in a manner that spelled V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. I told him that we were going to get the most expensive western-style meal we could find and that it would be on him. There were no objections.

We spent three days in Dunhuang. It truly is a lovely town. The streets are tree-lined, well-paved, and the girls are slave to fashion (as in much larger cities around Asia).

We went micro lighting, which is quite possibly the single scariest thing I have ever done, yet also one of the most exhilarating. It's basically a boxcar with a fan that is tied to the bottom side of a hang glider. It takes off completely vertical and loves to wobble (the only thing holding you in is a car seatbelt).

We also saw The Old City, an ages-old dynasty fort that has been turned into a quasi-amusement park much in the same vein of Old Tucson (for those who are familiar).

All in all, Dunhuang was a lovely place. We met some nice Canadians at the hostel and even had a barbecue with some of the locals.

We exited by sleeper bus to Golmud. The next week needed to have us preparing our Tibet permits for the earliest possible departure (according to the sign mentioned earlier, October 9th).

Despite all of the excitement, we were getting antsy for Lhasa and, of course, Everest.

Link to short microlighting clip on Youtube:

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.

Good bye to Gunther and Yong Ha...

After returning to our hotel after the desert, Gunther and Yong Ha decided that they should start heading back to Beijing. Gunther's trip was running out of time (he never intended to go into Tibet). Yong Ha's girlfriend, an extremely patient girl who had been waiting for Yong Ha in Seoul while he traveled for an undetermined amount of time, had let him know that she had fallen ill. He told us that he had been traveling for eight-plus months and that he didn't know how much longer her patience would last. He was more than willing to give up Tibet in order to go and be with her. However, he told Tom and me that he would try to meet us in Kathmandu in two/three weeks time, if able.

So, it would be our last night together. The four of us had been traveling together for at least 12 days by this point (and encountered/endured situations that test the best in one's character). "Bonding" doesn't fully describe such times. It was clear that we would stay up as late as possible, drink beer, and play the last few hands of a marathon game of "shithead" that had begun the night we all met.

The night went as planned. A lot of laughs and Gunther being "shithead," "tete de merte" (French), "ddong muh ree" (Korean), until he gets a chance to redeem himself.

The next morning Tom and I said good-bye to Gunther and Yong Ha. We decided to continue our journey into the nether regions of Western China and wait for the Tibet suspension to end in a town called Golmud. Golmud is the last stop on the train before it heads into Tibet. The idea here being that we could avoid another 30+ hour train ride and see more of China while doing it.

It promised to be interesting, if nothing else.