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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Longwu Si Monastery - Tongren, China
CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30
Longwu Si Monastery, Tongren, Qinghai Province, May 14, 2003


May 13. TONGREN (Qinghai Province) It hadn't been the most restful night of sleep so we didn't manage to get to the bus station very early.  When we arrived around 11:00 we were lucky to find a bus to Tongren leaving at 11:30.  It gave us enough time to buy some snacks for the road and get through the SARS screening.  We hoped to bypass the screening but they would had to have been blind to miss the only foreigners in the station.  The bio hazard storm troopers approached us with their form (name, gender, age, address, going from where to where) and an ear thermometer.  We took one look at that thermometer and some of the colorful characters in the station and started to object.  They were wiping the thermometer with a cotton ball but we were skeptical.  I pulled out a packet of alcohol pads that I had bought in Japan and they recognized the characters on the package and began to nod in understanding.  We were quite an attraction in the station, drawing all sorts of bystanders to watch us have our temperature taken.

With our health approved we located our bus.  The driver opened up the small trunk and let us squeeze our backpacks into the space.  It wasn't a full-sized bus but was bigger than a minibus.  We only had six fellow passengers so the driver rearranged seats so that we were both in the same row which turned out to be in front of the door - a good spot! 

 The bus pulled out on time and we only picked up a few other passengers as the bus passed through town.  When we reached the outskirts of the city area the bus was stopped and we all had to get off so they could disinfect the inside of the bus.  A little guy decked out in bio hazard gear boarded the bus with his little sprayer and swooshed his Clorox mix across the floor.  When we boarded the bus the smell was evident but soon went away.  They were using mix of 1 part bleach to 99 parts water so it wasn't too strong to breathe.  A little farther up the road the bus was stopped again and our driver passed over the sheet of passengers to the authorities.  There was a little back and forth but then we were on our way again.

The road to Tongren passed through many small towns and gradually gained altitude.  The small towns and their fields gave way to snow capped mountains.  Just on the verge of snowline you could see steam coming off of the plants in the little village fields.  We were up and over the pass in no time.  It was a Tibetan pass covered in prayer flags and many of villages we passed seemed to be populated with Tibetans. 

As we came down from the pass and started to enter a village area there was another checkpoint area.  The bus pulled over at a table of biohazard clad people.   We stood outside the bus along with the rest of the passengers but were eventually waived over to the table.  They motioned for our passports but clearly had no idea how to read them.  The little sprayer guy was curious and tried to grab Rob's passport to look at it but Rob pulled back.  These medical people were doing their best to protect themselves by wearing rubber gloves but from the look of the gloves they didn't change them and evidence of everything they had touched that day remained. After struggling for a few minutes I motioned that I could fill out their form and they all seemed relieved and thanked me.  It looked like our bus driver was trying to act in our interest as well because they didn't bother to take our temperature.

Back aboard our newly disinfected bus we were hopeful that we wouldn't have to go through that again but were wrong.  A women in the front seat knew one official when we passed another checkpoint so they waived us through.  But, as we got close to Tongren there was another checkpoint where we had to disembark the bus.  Some biggywig was trying to make himself look important and picked us out immediately. They couldn't make any sense of our passports either and kept trying to ask us questions which we didn't understand.  Finally they just handed us thermometers.  We obediently put them under our arms and the bus waited until the official was satisfied.  At least at this checkpoint we weren't the only people who had their temperature taken.  One Chinese passenger had to do it as well.

Tongren was only another 15km up the road and we could see the buildings sticking up out of the brown hills.  The scenery along the entire trip was striking.  The summer would have been more green but the brown cliffs and sporadic clusters of trees gave the area a very barren and remote feeling. Even the homes in the villages were made of brick and mud and blended into the landscape. The many Buddhist temples and pagodas along the route were easy to spot against the earthy background.  Tongren, however, had numerous modern buildings that distinguished it from the smaller villages.  But none of the buildings were more than 4-5 stories high. 

When we arrived at the bus station we had to go through another temperature check and form filling out session.  It was becoming ridiculous at this point.  Finally free of all the SARS checks we were eager to check into a hotel and get something to eat.  It had been a five hour ride and we had eaten very little all day.  We passed by the ticket booth to buy our tickets to Xiahe for the next morning but were told that the next bus left in two days.  So, we were spending an extra day in Tongren.  Things could be worse.

The first hotel we went to was LP's only suggestion, the Huangnan Binguan. It was nothing special but we thought it was the only option for foreigners.  It took some effort to communicate that we wanted to see the rooms first.  The doubles were pretty grimy.  The carpet is always a mess in the hotels but these rooms had filthy headboards as well.  We weren't thrilled but went with it anyway.

They had us fill out special forms for foreign guests and as soon as they saw we were American they started making phone calls.  The women at the counter spoke no English but they managed to explain that they wanted to know where we had staying in Xining. We gave them the name and phone number but we knew that the hotel we stayed at was now operating under a different name and we had no idea what it was.  The whole situation was becoming a real struggle.  Finally they materialized a barely English speaking woman that explained to us that all foreigners arriving in Tongren had to go to the hospital.  This raised major red flags in our minds.  It was all the more curious that our nationality had seemed to trigger the whole discussion.  

Greg Jordan had told us that his group at work had to go to the hospital in Xining for blood tests and x-rays.  He had to stick his finger in a hole and they pricked it for a blood sample.  When we looked in the hole afterwards he saw dirty gloves and it looked like they weren't using new needles on each person.  We weren't about to contract TB or AIDS just so they could verify if we had SARS!

We left the hotel and walked back to the bus station hoping there might still be buses back to Xining.  There weren't.  Buses were still arriving but none were leaving to go anywhere.  Even the minibuses were planning to stay the night before returning to Xining.  So, we sat in the bus station and just tried to evaluate our situation.  Sitting there all night was an unlikely one so we finally decided to try another hotel.

The first hotel we came to was the China Telecom Hotel.  Odd owner for a hotel but it looked fairly new and clean.  We went into the lobby and got a quote for a double without difficult but were puzzled when the woman started pointing at a white slip of paper attached to her foreigner entry book.  It was entirely in Chinese so we didn't know what to make of it.  Fortunately, some young Tibetan women sitting in the lobby came to our aid.  They spoke pretty good English and explained that we needed a certificate from the hospital showing that our temperature had been taken before we could check into the hotel.  That was a useful piece of information that the previous hotel didn't explain and we got too panicked to ask.  We could deal with going to the hospital to get our temperature taken if that is all that they needed to do.

The Tibetan women called a taxi friend of theirs to take us to the hospital but we arrived at closed doors.  Back at the hotel we used our sign language to explain that it was closed.  She made a phone call and said it was open.  We pointed down the hill and said "closed" by crossing our arms.  She pointed behind the hotel and said "open" by opening her arms.  She then wrote down the address on a piece of paper to give to our taxi.

The hospital was only a few blocks away and was dead except for a few people.  I showed one man the characters for certificate and he took us down to his office.  He asked us to sit down, said the name of our hotel in Chinese.  We nodded and he picked up the phone.  After he put the phone down he motioned to us that we could leave.  We didn't have any certificate so we both made a gesture of putting a thermometer under our arms.  He shook his head and pointed to the phone.  Apparently a phone call to our hotel would be good enough and when we arrived back at the hotel the woman nodded and checked us in.

The rooms were much better than the first hotel so we began to feel that our seemingly unlucky day had actually turned into a pretty good day.  When we were sitting in the bus station all sorts of panicked thoughts went through our heads and were ready to fly out of China from Xining if it meant we were going to be asked to take blood tests!

Our hotel room was clean and for the first time in China our shower had a separate floor and rim to keep the water inside instead of just spilling straight onto the tile floor of the bathroom.  And, the bathroom was very clean, along with the rest of the room.  It felt good after four nights in fairly grungy accommodations.

Just as we were starting to unpack we had a knock at the door.  It was one of the young girls we had met in the hotel lobby accompanied by a friend we didn't recognize.  Her "English" name was Viva and when we briefly chatted with her earlier she mentioned that she knew some good local Thangka painters.  The area was known for its skilled Tibetan artists so we took her up on her offer to introduce us to her friend the next day.  She didn't strike us as the wheeling and dealing type so we figured there was no harm in looking.  If we didn't like any of the thangkas brought by her friend she said she would go with us to buy one in the nearby Sangkeshan village, where many painters lived.

It was getting late at this point and we still had hardly eaten anything all day so we asked Viva if she or her friend could recommend a restaurant that served good Tibetan dumplings.  They walked us down the street to the Tibetan side of town that was full of life compared to our hotel area.  We could see discos, bar, and little restaurants up and down the streets.  Viva kept popping into the restaurants until she came out and said she found one that would prepare some dumplings for us but it would take about 15 minutes.  We'd waited that long to eat that another 15 minutes wouldn't kill us.  

They saw us get seated and then had to go home.  There didn't seem to be any other tourists in town and the local people in the restaurant kept looking over at us and smiling.  Occasionally someone would speak to us.  Our standard answer anytime people started talking was "Meiguo" assuming that they probably wanted to know where we were from.  After that we could only shrug and smile back.

Two little boys were playing behind the counter next to where we were sitting and kept popping up to look at us.  Rob snapped his fingers and pointed to them and eventually got them both going doing the same thing back at him.  It was a tireless exchange until our dumplings arrived.  

The dumplings were all meat.  We weren't really specific when we'd asked for the dumplings and after we'd watched them roll and stuff them in the kitchen while we waited I wasn't going to turn them away.  We couldn't tell what kind of meat was in the stuffing but is was possibly mutton.  They were tasty but very fatty.  We'd ordered 20 but only could stuff away 19.