Yinchuan, Ningxia Province
Today while driving in the taxi from the train station to our hotel (about 7:30 AM) we saw a fairly large brass marching band dressed in white uniforms, fronted by a large red flag coming down a side street. There seems to be some kind of celebration going on, as we came across a large shopping center area and there are all kinds of banners and streamers, and at one point a round of firecrackers went off. I bought a number of shirts for $1.25 each in some stores that were having sales. That's a hard price to beat!
So we are off shortly to perhaps find a bite to eat from the food vendors around here and then our hotel claims to have a show in its nightclub at 10:00 we plan to check out. One other thing about today, was that after we got off the train, we decided to buy our next leg of train tickets right away in hopes of getting reserved seats. We were basically coerced into the front of the line (see the full story HERE in Tuesday Tales). So we got our tickets rather quickly without waiting in a very long line. The guy who put us in front obviously wanted us to then stay at his hotel in repayment for his expediting our ticket purchase, but we already had reservations somewhere else. To his credit, after I showed him the reservation, he didn't hound us any more and hailed a cab for us and sent us off to our hotel. And so here we are. Yinchuan is really a pleasant city. Very quiet. Lots of people bustling about. But they, and also the folks in Hohhot, are not real, for they do not honk; therefore they are not.
The only Westerner we've seen here, by the way, is a lady that rode on the same airplane as Erik from LA to Beijing. A lot of random things happen! ... Let me backtrack a little and explain. We took an overnight train from Hohhot to Yinchuan. But we bought tickets only earlier that day, and there were no reserved seats available. So we began our 9.5-hour train ride standing up and assumed we would be standing the entire time. Fortunately, right off I ended up standing next to a guy who had a tiny wooden stool next to his seat and I asked if I could use it (yes). Erik propped himself up in the doorframe of the little nook where people come to get hot water for their instant noodles that are sold onboard. But even more fortunately, a man came up to Erik and asked where he was from. "America." "Really! Which state?" "Colorado." "Really!! Which city?" "Near Boulder." "Really!!! I lived in Boulder for a year teaching Chinese culture at Horizons school and Broomfield High School." Eventually he came to reveal that he'd been to Nederland many times, he had a friend who lived there with whom he stayed several times. What are the odds of that? Meeting a Chinese guy on a train who's been to tiny Nederland? Well, he and Erik had a long conversation and the upshot was that he found us two seats to sit in for the remainder of the trip (his sister and another guy he knew were upgrading to sleepers soon). So only about 2 hours in we got seats to sit in the rest of the time.
Then exiting the train station in Yinchuan, we saw cement pillars next to the exit gate plastered with posters advertising "Ram Testicle" and "Ewe Placenta." ??? I guess one has to use their imagination. More randomness. This is a concept I find often associated with the markets in China ... often because I don't recognize the items and I can't read the Chinese characters on the signs. Here are some market shots, including tubs of live seafood (river food? seeing as how Ningxia is a landlocked province?), dried flowers, spices, and very healthy-looking produce. (I suppose I shouldn't mention how most peasant fertilize their fields ...)
We are back in the internet cafe we were in yesterday, after much walking around in a spiral honing ever closer in to our goal .... until we finally made it! Along the way we walked through a square with 5 or 6 games going on with little squares on the ground with yuan amounts written on them; the people were trying to roll little hoops to land around one of the tiles. A carnival game of sorts. Some people with a beach ball followed us around and kept talking to us in Chinese as if any moment we would turn to them and reply in Chinese and carry on from there. Here in the café there are about 100 computers and almost all of them are full, and most people are playing computer games and watching movies. Last year, every single time I wrote to you, the internet connection was excruciatingly slow. This year every place we've written to you from, including the cafe I wrote from in Jiaxian City, has high speed internet. That was a mighty quick upgrade across the entire country!
So today I think the activity of most note is that I rode an ostrich! And Erik did flips down a sand dune. We went to a place outside town called Sha Hu which is a big park with a lake and lots of sand. At first entrance into the park, it looks rather disappointing. The best thing was the rubber dinosaurs inhabiting a grass garden that we pretended were eating Erik. Oh, and a bunch of mega-sized water lilies.
But then you take a little speed boat to the sand island. There they have camel trains that will take you up to the top of the sand hill. Plus horse riding, ostrich riding, dune buggies, sand sledding and surfing, parasailing, ultralight planes, ziplines, jeeps, paddle boats, yachts, and a large sand sculpture park with lots of amazing sand "castles," some of which were actual castles, like Neauschwantzien (Erik's approximation of spelling, but referring to "that huge castle in Germany that they based the Disney castle on"). Very elaborate buildings, people, animals, communist imagery, all sorts; very impressive.
We were trying to decide how to descend the main sand dune down to where the ostriches were because I saw a guy down there riding one and I decided I MUST ride an ostrich. Erik said he was going to flip down the sand dune. I thought he was kidding. But no, he took a running start and did a lovely-formed flip off the edge of the dune. Then we raced each other down the dune. It's not running so much as leaping, leaping like gazelles. Very fun. My ostrich started out fast, but then nothing could make him move after that. The guy had to keep hitting it on the butt. Still, it was amusing.
Then we visited a place called the Xixia tombs, the remains of mausoleums of kings of a kingdom of Xia that existed in this area from about 900-1100, and was ultimately wiped out by everyone's favorite pal, Genghis Kahn. Not too much remains of the tombs but huge piles of dirt, they look like beehives. But once they were large pagodas with underground tunnels and were big complexes of buildings. Something rather different than anything else here, mostly just because of the severely eroded state of it. But it makes an interesting picture, these mounds of tan dirt against a backdrop of very convoluted mountains of muted green and brown.
Fortunately the tombs were not obscured by pollution. Parts of this area are completely covered in a haze of pollution. I have a very sore throat right now. I think that perhaps I'm not sick so much as just affected by the poor air. (At least, that's what I'm hoping!) Then we went to an old mosque (Ming dynasty) outside of town in a little impoverished village. Our taxi was the only car around. We were the only people hanging around the mosque except for about 3 old, crinkly men in their little white caps. The mosque was interesting because it didn't look like your traditional, stereotypical mosque, but rather like a Buddhist temple on the outside. It was nice being all alone inside of it, padding around the carpeted floors in our stocking feet. We climbed up into a tower on the mosque grounds and from there we could see two larger traditional-styled mosques off in the distance in the city, one of which was particularly huge with shining gold domes. We've moved on down the train tracks from Buddhist country to Muslim country.
Tonight we plan once again to see the show at our hotel. Last night we arrived just as it was ending. One of you said you hoped I got a picture of the monkey and the dog. Well, we didn't. So you'll just have to imagine. But I may never think of monkeys again without thinking of Takeshi, the Japanese volunteer in Dang Jia Shan village (where I carried out the ethnographic research that brought me to China in the first place). He went on an Earthwatch Japan project recently where they literally chased monkeys who had been radio-collared. The guy with the detector would pick up the ticking and radio in to the volunteers, who had a grid mapped of the research area, he'd shout "B-12" (for example) and they'd run over to B-12 on the grid. But no monkeys. Then they'd hear "F-8" on the radio and they'd run like the dickens over to F-8. No monkeys. For two weeks this went on, and the poor guy never saw a monkey! But chased them for two weeks. Oh, it just makes me smile even now. The ways he tells it, too, and just his mannerisms really remind me of my dad. Sometimes being around him breaks my heart just a little.
It's strange how the village really became a sort of home to me this time. Last time it was all just new and so interesting and a novelty. This time it was something I was already familiar with and after about a week it was something I knew ... not the experience of living there, of being those people and having their history, I can never know that kind of stuff. But at least geologically, landscape-wise, building-wise. I had originally thought that this time I would take a series of photographs of the area right around my yao for documentation purposes, so when I referred to it in my writings, I would be sure to be describing it correctly. But I never took those photos, because now it is cemented in my brain. I can recall every little detail – the pits in the rock platform beside the grinding mill, the way the mill stone is starting to erode, the mudbrick walls and their height relative to mine, the sticks and brambles next to the loo, the depth of the little drainage ditch running down the hillside, the weight of the wooden doors to the courtyard, the density of weeds growing inside the courtyard, the smell of the yao – slightly dank and musty but not really unpleasant, with the lingering smell of the cookstove, which hasn't been used in years but still carries the smell of burned sticks and stalks of corn, sorghum, millet, and assorted weeds and coal. But I wax on while we should get back to our hotel.
Perhaps we will learn some new useful phrases about UFOs on the TV before we leave! So cheerio amigo. Or pengyou [pung-yo], I should say ... Mandarin for "friend." Oh today, our taxi driver bought us a drink that tasted like liquid cereal, like wheaties or something. Not too yummy but gives one the feeling it's healthy! I leave you with these parting shots looking out from the tower on top of the mosque. Looking one direction we see the golden-tops mosques shimmering in the distance, and the other direction alleyways filled with loitering livestock. Funny dichotomy to see, standing in one spot.