“You’ve come at a bad time, actually.”
These were the first words I heard off the plane from my coworker who was living in the small capitol city of Xining that had, for the past month and a half, encouraged me to come out to the gorgeous province of Qinghai in order to view the Tibetan Plateau in it’s summer glory.
Day 1: Xining
When we disembarked in the windy capitol of Xining after a long flight out of Shanghai, my coworker greeted us with a smile and as we stepped away from the sliding glass doors he explained to me in simple terms that we were unwanted due to our passport.
The driver had an American the week before, the American was refused from all hotels because of the political kerfuffle in Chengdu, and he wasn’t sure if we would be able to stay in hotels either.
We were led away by a frantic Chinese man (my coworker’s brother in law) and four of us (three foreigners and one Chinese) stuffed ourselves into a small taxi as I was patiently explained precisely nothing about my trip and fear began to gnaw at me.
Before landing on the ground I was told that our trip was organized, our hotels (“all four star, I assure you!”) were booked, and I smiled for selfies with the taxi driver, with the brother in law, with just about everyone, as I realized exactly what I was getting into. My coworker, unphased by my growing anxiety told us it was time for dinner.
Over the course of a dinner our “already taken care of” hotels went from 4 star, to 3 star, to 2 star, to a farm stay, to maybe a car, to a tent. I had never been downgraded so quickly in my life.
We were whisked out of the 4.9 star hot pot restaurant to a closing mall because we needed to buy bedding because “some of the bedding might not be suitable” and I found myself 250RMB poorer with ugly bedding I would have never bought in my life.
Steve looked at me like I was crazy and we were dragged out of the mall as it closed.
“What is going on?” He kept asking, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood what was going on either enough to explain, we stood at a kebab stand for an hour listening to the same few words repeated over and over again.
Standing next to the brother-in-law using our exoticness to finally go from “friends” to “cool boyfriend” status and as it got later, I knew that tomorrow there was no hotel booked, there was nowhere to stay, and I would not be able to communicate enough with our driver in order to solve these problems.
Day 2. Xining
A wash of a day, the driver did not show up until 5:00PM, we went to a pretty public park. He could not find a Sichuan restaurant, he told us to meet him outside at 7:30am the next day. He did not know where we could sleep tomorrow and I organized a farm stay at the last minute.
Day 3. Qinghai Lake
We left early in the morning, as promised and set out in an old van towards the Qinghai Lake, which is a few hours outside Xining. The driver messaged me saying we were going to Chaka Lake (roughly 7 hours away) and for the first 3 hours of my day I had no idea where we were going or where we would end up. We had a stay booked at a small, and very sparse farm, that was on the south side of the lake.
Did the driver even know this much? Probably not. He would not communicate online or via my shabby. Chinese. The Qinghai accent is difficult to parse with my naive understanding of Mandarin and finally we rounded the south. side of the lake and stopped at Sand Island, a famous attraction around the area.
An unexplainable desert in the middle of the grasslands. He slid open the door and ushered us out, and said no more.
The desert was vast, spotted with jeeps, off-road vehicles, and the occasional horse and camel, we wandered around mostly alone. It was a cloudy day after all. Walking on sand was a difficult task, and the altitude made it even worse.
Desert Island was short lived and fifteen minutes later we turned around the corner of the lake and suddenly, as if we had stepped into a Monet painting, the entire countryside was covered in flowers.
The initial flower fields were covered in both tourists and those willing to take advantage of tourists, horses were led dutifully up and down the canola fields and we passed a few before settling on a large and dense field with flowers that stretched from the road to the shore. As with most Chinese tourist attractions I was immediately accosted by about five people trying to sell me everything from scarves to horses and we had to politely decline in English, and then in Chinese.
Tourist attraction begets tourist attraction.
At the mid point of the lake we were quickly, and tiredly hustled to a busy dock that we had seen from far away, (I probably should have mentioned we specifically told our driver and the person who hired a driver to stay away from tourist traps) and within a quick 15 minutes I was in a pretty enough tourist park at the docks
There was not much left that we had wanted to see, as our intent was mostly on nature, and the storm clouds were beginning to fall over the mountains, thunder starting. to stir somewhere distant and we walked past the tours and down to the lakeside, in hope to see the famous Qinghai lake, instead, we followed some monks down a side path and found that a majority of the interior of this park had gone abandoned, campgrounds overgrown, and restaurants laid bare, even as the park was flooded with people.
We made it to the farm as the storm rolled in.
The farm we had booked was not fifteen minutes from the actual tourist attraction in question, on a dirt road that was beset with yaks, horses, goats, sheep, just about every farm animal and their young were grazing on the dirt path, and then it abruptly ended, and we had made it.
An old Tibetan woman rushed out to greet us, and I rushed out to greet the small baby cows that were nearby.
We were shown a rather small room and every various heating device they had (a small heater that later would trip the circuit in our room) and finally, the luxurious windows, with two yaks grazing nearby, in from their day job as a tourist attraction.
Our driver took us to a nearby restaurant, only knowing we liked noodles. There were two beheaded goats that stared at me as we entered the small restaurant. The proprietor offered me a full roasted goat. I declined.
The entire staff watched us eat their noodles.
Day 4. Ghost Mountain, Chaka Lake
The. younger farmer, a man named Kubo stretched the limits of my Chinese in the morning as we ate farm fresh foods, and Tibetan traditional dough balls and milk tea and bread for breakfast reviewed our photos of the previous day with us and was interested in our photos of the abandoned resort.
He called his sister, who was fluent in English and told us of a nearby place called Ghost Mountain.
There was an abandoned house on top of a nearby mountain and we just had to take some back roads to get to the top of this mountain and we could explore the abandoned house and take in the view, we obviously agreed and our driver was given directions to Ghost Mountain.
After drinking milk and yogurt (both with copious amounts of sugar) we made a sad attempt at milking the cows and wished the baby cows goodbye on our way to Ghost Mountain.
Our drive to Chaka Lake was long and uneventful (with more noodles).
When you first come upon Chaka Lake you see what looks like to be some snowy basin of in the distance. Our driver convinced us to go to “Chaka Lake Number 1 Scenic Area” instead of Chaka Lake, why? “Same effect, and less people” and if there are less people at just Chaka Lake, then everyone in China is in Ulan, Qinghai.
Chaka Lake Number 1 Scenic Area is yet another tourist attraction, but it was not busy. The sun was strong and we arrived just after mid-day, eager to get into the water I found the first shoreline and took off my shoes and stepped into the lake, my foot descended only a few inches before it met hard, pointy salt.
I had read a review of the salt lake beforehand from another person who said the bottom of the lake was a bit rough, but it did not prepare me in the slightest for the reality.
Chaka Lake was perhaps as frustrating as it was painful.
The lake was recently reopened after tourism had decimated it, and then cleaned up and turned into a tourist trap. The rules were enforced as guards saw fit, and most of the time the rules were bent against me.
A guard fished me out of the lake, yelling at me that I wasn’t allowed, even as four Chinese aunties waded deeper in.
We returned to the same spot were were told was off limits, only to be allowed, and then elsewhere we were cautioned by guards to not do other things.
We left the park with some salt as a foot scrub to remember our painful time stepping on the Chaka salt flats only to speak with our driver who cheerfully told us we had nowhere to sleep tonight as foreigners were banned, and our original plan of visiting the mountains the next day was nixed.
He then cheerfully suggested we sleep in a tent.
I booked a hotel nearby as fast as humanly possible, for some reason, the American ban did not seem to apply when I called and did not balk at the 700RMB/night cost.
Day 5. Return to the Capitol
While we were not the only foreigners, we were certainly the most interesting foreigners in Ulan, the wait staff at the hotel restaurant watched us eat noodles (and finally something else, some dumplings), demanded we speak Chinese, and giggled madly when I told them to speak some English.
It seemed like they had hired the high school to staff the restaurant, which was sweet in some weird way.
There were some French men staying at hotel that. we caught sight of but did not speak to, and as the morning grew late we decided the best course of action would be to return to Xining.
The northern rim of the lake is mostly industrial and very Mongolian in flavor, we stopped at a local town for some noodles (more noodles) and noticed people wearing the traditional Mongolian Del as they turned to watch us eat.
There is a usual pervasive feeling in Shanghai of this Chinese mono culture, but in the countryside of Qinghai you had this strange mashup of Islam and Buddhism along with the pre-requisite Han Culture that came together in it’s usual hodge podge style.
We drank tea with the muslim owners of the local noodle restaurant and enjoyed their Lanzhou Noodles before setting off in search of some honey as a souvenir.
Honey was hard to find in the north.
Littered with industrial projects, there was a distinct lack of flower fields on the north side of the lake, it wasn’t until we turned to go southwards back towards the capitol that we began to run into flower fields again.
We stopped at a small honey farm that was among about five our six on the same flower field and purhased some raw honey.
I always think of how much money and how desirable having a true “farm to table” ingredient is and as I inspected the hives, watching a woman who wore no protective gear begin to pull trays of honey out of one hive I knew I could get no closer to see the entirety of the “farm to table” experience than buying honey from a roadside stand.
There is something exciting to me to see the entire process of something I will eat.
Qinghai is a land of vastly diverse people, landscapes, culture and expectations, but the noodles are comfortingly (and blandly) all the same. We spent our last night in the capitol of Xining, with no noodles.