When you live in China and schedule a trip that is considered “very local”, you know you are in for quite a unique experience. We learned firsthand what a very local Chinese trip entails when we followed the Silk Road through the Gansu Province of the country. Our destination-the acclaimed Rainbow Mountains. We were all excited to see God’s handiwork in this part of the country, but none of us had any idea what was in store for our weekend adventure.
Since this was our first local trip, I decided to use a tour guide to help schedule all the details. Being a local herself, some aspects of the trip she scheduled did not seem like a big deal. To us, foreigners who have been here a short time, they were monumental. For example, we found out a mere few days before our trip, we were scheduled to fly into Lanzhou City and take an overnight train to our destination. On paper, this sounds like a fun adventure. In reality, it was one train car lined up with dozens of beds, one on top of another. Many passengers shared the same car, there was no additional train car in which to go sit, and all the shared toilets were squatty pottys. When Brett referred to the picture our tour guide sent of of the sleeping car conditions as “a prison train”, I knew we were out. After all, we like adventure but perhaps not that much! So, we scheduled a car to drive us from one point to the next. This ended turning out to be a good decision since our flight was three hours delayed and we would have missed the train anyway.
The day of our trip arrived we drove to the airport to start our journey. Our first example of how local our trip would be was immediately presented when we attempted to check in. Our ticket counter was all the way at the end of the airport, tucked away among the last row of counters. The ticket agent’s English was almost nonexistent. However, we managed to check in and proceed to our gate. While waiting for our flight with dozens of locals, a departure delay was announced. They did not bother to give a new estimated time for departure, and talking to the ticket agent at the counter was useless. So, we all just sat and waited until a new announcement was made. I brought an entire bag of food, not sure when our next meal would be, or if it would be safe to eat. So, we dug into our first meal of choice, ramen noodles, and waited to depart, not sure exactly when that would be.
Three hours later we were finally on the plane, where all went smoothly, despite the fact that no one spoke English. Towards the end of the flight, we were surprised when the flight attendants stood up, and began leading the passengers in a series of exercises to help rejuvenate our tired muscles. It was comical to watch all the locals hit the muscles on their arms with closed fists, and do neck stretches in time with the flight attendants. Finally, we landed in Lanzhou City, and met our guide and driver. Simon, our guide, was very nice. A soft welcoming smile met us and hearing someone speak English was a huge comfort after our plane ride. Our driver, Mr. Qiu (or Chew), spoke no English and looked at us with rapt intrigue. However, we came to really like both of them. They made our trip more comforting in a way. Seeing the same faces and riding in the same car day after day was a welcome part of our unfamiliar trip. Once in the car, Simon told us we would have a 5 hour drive to our destination of Zhangye City. Since it was already close to 6:00 pm, Simon said we would stop for a quick dinner along the way. Little did we know, our quick dinner meant dining at a local rest stop buffet. We laughed at the realization that we most likely wouldn’t eat gas station food at home, but were hungry for a real meal and willing to trust Simon to keep us eating safely. While we were there, we quickly adopted a celebrity-like status. Locals openly staring, taking pictures, and even video taping our stop made the experience all the more memorable. We had no idea what we ate, but chose food that looked like it would be safe. Thankfully, we did not suffer any repercussions for our choices. Many hours later, we arrived at the hotel. Weary from travel, Simon checked us in and took us to our room. Again very local, the hotel was not non-smoking. The entire hotel, including our room, reeked of cigarette smoke. However, we cared very little since we were so tired. We did get a kick out of our red round leather bed that felt like a rock, but quickly fell asleep dreaming of the adventures of the day.
Our first full day in Zhengye was sunny and cool. We were told a breakfast buffet would be provided in the lobby of the hotel. Again, our meal consisted of mostly Chinese choices which was disappointing to our Americanized pallets. We would have given almost anything for some pancakes and bacon. Instead, we settled on rice, steamed buns, and a few other unrecognizable choices. Simon and Mr. Qiu arrived shortly after breakfast and we were off to our first point of interest. At least we thought we were off. Traffic was horrendous due to the Tomb Sweeping weekend. This is a national holiday in China where families gather together at local cemeteries to eat and honor their dead family members. It becomes an annual family reunion. Simon explained that most locals will buy fake paper money to burn as an offering for their ancestors so they will have wealth in death. They may also take animals such as sheep and sacrifice them as an offering, much with the same intention. We were quickly learning the Chinese are very faithful to traditions even as times change so quickly around them.
The topography of the Gansu Province is very mountainous and dry. A far cry from the green city of Shanghai. At this time of year, very little color can be found. Everything is dusty and sandy. The majority of the population in this area is very poor due to the lack of water, affecting the ability to grow crops. Along our drive, we saw many run down homes with entire families out working in the fields preparing for the planting season. The fact that they could grow anything in this desert environment truly surprised me. The area also holds a great deal of history dating back before the 4th century. The Silk Road was used primarily as a source of trade from East to West. Many travelled this treacherous route, and as a result shared different religions and cultures. Buddhist and Muslim religions dominate the area, but historical sites in the area mostly represent the region’s Buddhist past. Caves dug sporadically in the sandstone mountains were homes for travelers, or places of teaching and worship.
Our first stop was the Binggou Danxia Landform. Nominated by National Geographic Magazine as one of the world’s top ten magical geographic wonders, it did not disappoint. Towering sandstone peaks and expansive valleys were a wonder. We compared the landscape to the Grand Canyon in America. After climbing many, many stairs, and hiking the area, we drove to the nearest town for some hard earned lunch. Once again a very local meal, but we all enjoyed the spicy flavors and the company of Simon and Mr. Qui, who continued to stare at us with affectionate curiosity. Simon told us the drinking age in the province was whatever the parents decided, so we let Elijah have his first sip of beer. His scrunched up face told us he did not appreciate the bitter taste of the beverage, and we got a laugh out of his open display of disapproval. After lunch, we had a couple hours to kill before our next stop, so we took a little walk down the road. Cars and people who passed stared at us as if we were from another planet. One man even leaned out the passenger side of his car window to take a picture. After our walk, we did as the Chinese would do and took a nap. They sleep anytime, anywhere. See a park bench? Take a nap. See a couch in IKEA? Take a nap. If there is even a remotely flat surface, you will find a local sleeping on it. So we slept in the car, sliding door open and parked on the side of the road. Townspeople who walked by stared at the funny sight of four white people and two Chinese guys passed out in a van.
When we awoke from our rest, we headed down the road to the Danxia Landform or as we call it, the Rainbow Mountains. The view was stunning. Red, orange, and white stripes cut through the mountains in dramatic diagonal rows and stretched as far as the eye could see. Again, high peaks and low valleys made the sandstone forms all the more interesting. We marveled at this artistic design created by the hand of God until sunset lit the stripes in the mountains to a fiery red, gold and white.
Exhausted from all our hiking and climbing, we headed back to Zhengye for dinner. Simon took us to a restaurant serving beef noodle bowls which were famous for the region. Sitting amongst smoking Chinese diners, we were once again stared at as we comedically attempted to capture slippery noodles with our chopsticks. What we would have given for a fork! But, the flavorful noodles did not disappoint. Stomachs full, we headed back to the hotel and passed out, smokey room and all.
While the Rainbow Mountains were beautiful, Brett and I were a bit disappointed. A lot of looking at mountain after mountain gets a bit boring, and we had about enough Chinese immersion. However, our lack of enthusiasm quickly changed with our second day’s adventure. Simon and Mr. Qiu collected us from our hotel and took us to the Matisi Grottoes at the base of the snow covered Chilean Mountains. The view was stunning. Bright, bold colors adorned multiple grottoes carved in steep sandstone cliffs. We explored the grottoes with the bright blue sky above and marveled at the surrounding beauty of the area. A few Monks still live in the grottoes and sit peacefully as visitors come and go daily. We watched one monk as he leafed through a small prayer book. Worn, torn pages demonstrated many reads. We were reminded how lacking our time spent in the Word of God is. Our bibles are not torn, marred of worn out from overuse. A shameful thought, and a good reminder of pious devotion. We enjoyed exploring the grottoes with their many caves, passageways, and steep stairs. When we were done, we decided to go on a hike. A trail led us through a small unkept zoo, and along a hillside with grazing sheep. It looked like a postcard from Germany or the Pacific Northwest.
When were were all trekked out, we went back to Zhengye to see a bit of the city. The boys loved seeing a massive reclining Buddha statue that must have been as long as a football field. The temple that housed the Buddha was built in the Xia Period, about 900 years ago. We appreciated the fact that we were witnessing something so ancient, and of course had to stop to pose for more pictures with locals. From there, we went to an outdoor market, and then to dinner. This would prove to be our most local and adventurous meal yet. Simon ordered a number of dishes for us to try. As they came out, we sampled them. They were all very flavorful, however one dish made me stop short. There, sitting amongst noodles and pieces of beef were multiple chicken feet, and in the middle, a chicken head. No way was I going near any of that. But Simon explained that chicken feet contain collagen which gives you beautiful skin. I thought to myself that I would rather be ugly, but Brett and the boys each tried a chicken foot. Then the boys were feeling very adventurous and tried the chicken head. Trying not to gag, I took pictures and we headed back to the hotel.
Back at our smokey home base, the boys were excited to watch a movie. Brett wanted to go out to a local bar he found near the hotel, so we left the boys and headed out. As expected, little English was spoken by the bartenders. However, when there’s a will, there’s a way and we managed to order Jack Daniels. Just plain Jack Daniels. No ice (it may not be safe), and no Coke (it would probably be warm). As we sat there sipping our drinks, the employees turned on the large screen on the stage in front of us. I suppose since we were obviously Americans, they figured we would like the 2011 Country Music Awards. So, there we sat, in a bar, in China, watching a five year old broadcast of an American show. Quite comical. But it got even better when a singer got on the stage and started singing American songs in Chinese while the Country Music Awards played on overhead.
With the morning, came our time to leave. We had a three hour drive to another airport. This part of our trip took us through the Gobi Desert and gave us a quick view of the oldest, and westernmost part of the Great Wall of China. Again, the age of the structure and the fact that any of it remained standing was amazing. Simon and Mr. Qiu dropped us off at the airport and I welcomed the thought of going home. I had used enough squatty pottys to last me a lifetime. Of course again very little English was spoken and we found out after our flight had taken off that we had a layover in Xi’an. We weren’t sure if we had to switch planes, or when our next flight took off. So we did as we have learned to do, follow the crowds, look at signs, and hope for the best. It all worked out. We arrived home, breathed in the wonderful smog-filled air of Shanghai, and went directly to get a meal of burgers and fries.
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip. As with everything here, you take the good with the bad. The amazing sights we saw and things we did outweighed the local food, cigarette smoke and squatty pottys. Just taking the opportunity to explore our new home country and see what it has to offer is something we all think is important. As always, we laughed our way through ridiculous situations, and prayed we would return home safely. Although we took flights and explored a part of the country where the language barrier was a huge issue, we did it and survived. Exploring, experiencing new things, and family time are what we hope to accomplish throughout our 3 year journey in Shanghai. This trip offered us that opportunity and so much more! And hey, now that most of us have eaten every part of a chicken, we are basically locals. No turning back now. Onward to more adventure and excitement!