The yellow walls of the Jade Buddha Temple stand on an intersection opposite a Starbucks, where a mustard or saffron-robed monk might be seen bustling by with a take-out coffee in hand.
The walls enclose a pristine temple, very recently refurbished and renovated.
The rooms enclosing the various massive statues are cool, their whirring fans creating a welcoming cool breeze, which sets the long satin and silk hangings trembling.
The temple houses a few very special Jade Buddhas from Burma.
The White Jade reclining Buddha lies languidly and met our eyes with a calm hooded gaze and a secret smile. The Green Jade Buddha sits alone in a private room and we almost missed it. No photographs are allowed to be taken of this Buddha. The smooth green jade is strangely life-like, and the Buddha’s face is extraordinarily smooth and beautiful. I had to pull myself away and out of the dimly lit room to eventually return back into the daylight dazzle.
There we were photographed, together with the two young trainee temple guides who had led us to the green jade Buddha, and also partially bamboozled us with their complexly phrased and mispronounced English.
We found the century-old Xujiahui Catholic Cathedral down a side street in Shanghai.
Once known as “the grandest church in the Far East.” It was established as a result of Xu Guangqi’s efforts to establish a Catholic presence in the area over 400 years ago. Its two steeples rose above some building work. In the nick-nack shop adjoining the cathedral we found and bought a few odds and sods.
I found a small white plastic madonna with a beautiful face to keep beside my bed – a mirror image of the sacred feminine statue I had also adored in the Jade Buddha temple.
Inside the church was sublime, still, silent and very warm. The fans stood still high up in the multi-dome ceiling. It is a church filled with long red banners which are startling against the white marble. Jesus’s gentle, very western, rather hippy-like presence gazes from a colourful collection of beautiful stained glass windows and banners.
We sat in the pews for a long moment where an occasional cool breeze found us, blowing in from the gardens in which we would later leave a number of lit candles for our beloveds.
We walked on from there happily clutching a new tote bag, filled with a collection of plastic Chinese Christian curiosities to treasure.
We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.
There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).
We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.
The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.
Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.
We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.
We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.
A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.
It’s raining in Shanghai. Outside the sun parasols have been transformed back into being rain umbrellas. The cool air is a huge relief, the roads awash with water that scooters splash through, their riders soaked to the skin or suddenly (miraculous), clothed from top to bottom in waterproof gear. We watch wet to the skin people passing by from behind the glass of our local patisserie.
We often set off to find a cool place to drink an icy drink, have a cappuccino and find a comfy corner to write in. The FFC has a number of bookstores or interior design shops which feature a coffee bar or juice bar and welcome patrons in to sip an icy drink and to sit for hours on old leather couches or at antique tables and chairs. The ambience is often artsy with booklined shelves and original paintings, soft lighting and muted music. We found Sinan Books early on and thereafter we discovered an interior design shop, filled with art deco furnishings in which we were served a particularly good cappuccino by a slim suave Shanghai man in a crisp white shirt. A slender and beautiful young Shanghai woman, wearing a long flowing skirt and sporting a moving snake plait of hair down her back joined us there with her entourage of admirers. They enjoyed a photo shoot in the stylish space, with her posing amongst all the art deco artefacts.
But today we took shelter in the patisserie after we had travelled to the Bund, early in the morning, on the metro. The Bund is downtown at the river’s edge. The sun beat down on us mercilessly. We hovered on the waters edge promenade, gazing across the Huangpu River. Large working river boats still ply their trade, and large ferries make tourist river crossings. We strolled along and took some pictures of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and other iconic buildings on the opposite bank. We decided that we would leave our crossing for another day, as the heat was excessive. We sought coolness like shade plants, clinging to the slightly cooler sides of the streets in the inner city. We stopped and admired the many art deco buildings, looking upwards at them. Many are in excellent condition and others, we were grateful to see, are being worked on behind bamboo scaffolding and shade cloth. The Bund was mainly tourist free, apart from small groups of Americans and Italians and larger trains of Chinese people under umbrellas following their leader bearing a flag aloft.
We strolled about the big inner city, crossing roads sizzling in the heat, avoiding Starbucks and KFC’s before deciding to return to the FFC (now called “home”) on the Metro. We now know the number 10 line and alighted just next to the iaPM mall. Opening the glass swing doors from the metro station into the mall was like diving into a very cold, refreshing swimming pool and so we stayed there, moving past the icy glass and chrome windows showcasing Gucci, Stella McCarthy, Dolce & Gabbana and so on and so on. L and I deeply admire design and fashion, if only from afar and so we lingered long and rode the escalators up to the 5th floor. This time we were looking for curry, which we found in a Japanese format (Teriyaki chicken style) at Shirokuma Curry. We downed cold beers with it and made friends with chopsticks after an absence of days. The meal was wonderfully tasty and we enjoyed eating it on the top floor of the very modern and beautiful iaPM mall. It had been a day in which we had enjoyed the very modern side of Shanghai with its huge malls and awesome skyscrapers.
And then the rain came and instead of seeking shelter in our upstairs flat, we ducked into our patisserie, sipping iced mocha drinks and petting a sweet little Chinese former stray dog, called Mona, now owned by a very sophisticated Belgian lady who was sitting beside us.
Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.
When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.
Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.
On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.
We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.
Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.
The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.
The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.
The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.
In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…
Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”
Ah! The power of food!
We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.
But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.
We began our trip to Shanghai with a long train journey and a smooth transfer to the metro. Standing on the hot streets of Shanghai for the first time, we were approached and helped by a friendly lady who literally walked us to the front door of our Airbnb, in the Former French Concession (French Quarter).
There we met with our host Ian, who took us up 3 flights of very narrow ancient wooden stairs. After settling in we gathered around a table on the roof garden where we chatted and drank good German beer out of small wooden cups until after 1 in the morning. Ian, a neuroscientist, with his Salvador Dali moustache and Bretton Fisherman T-shirt, talked about his son Lucifer and life in the very authentic French Quarter, which, as he says, could still be the 1930’s in many ways.
We retired to our small room with its soft bed on the floor and view of Chinese life behind windows across the street.
In the morning we left early and descended the very steep stairs, viewing other tenants through open doors, eating noodles for breakfast from large bowls and washing over basins. Outside the narrow alleys are lined with parked scooters, bikes and there is washing hanging out. The gathering heat pushes up the alleys in waves to greet us.
We went down hungry after a deep cool sleep to a patisserie with counters of croissants and sourdough bread and sandwiches behind glass. We ordered cappuccinos which arrived with picture perfect foam and at just the right temperature. We sit at small tables, surrounded by more non-Chinese people than we have seen for seven months. Our neighbour is from somewhere else and he seems settled in Shanghai with his American partner and they have a cute little dog with them called Tequila. We move tables, like Goldilocks, till finally, we are most comfy next to a Swedish man and his daughter. We talk with him long enough to eat our almond croissants (sorry Olympia but you have moved to second place – the croissant is just as good – but, hey – its in Shanghai…) and we drink another cappuccino and share a Chelsea bun (it seems a man can just live on bread alone…). Eventually, we leave the coolness and seeing as how this patisserie is literally on the street right below our room, we know we will return tomorrow morning. Outside we bump (literally) into a man, very hot as he is dressed for the long cycle ride he has just done, and I am not sure how, but we are chatting. His home is the world, but right now we are talking on the pavement of a Shanghai street and he invites us on WeChat, and for a beer – sometime later.
We walk on and the heat is crushing, but the pavements are deeply tree lined and the shade is thick, so we keep on walking. The air is full of the sound of cicadas filling the air all around us. We have two olive and basil rolls in our bag and a thermos of cold water. We pass old Chinese restaurants, piled high with bamboo steamers and big bowls and low tables, cheek by jowl with trendy juice bars and vegetarian restaurants and American style bars and European bistros. Eventually, we are sweating and although a tree deep park is nearby, we are lured in by a bookstore sign and as we step onto the dark wooden stairs of the classic French building, an icy wave of air-conditioning washes over us and so we go in. Inside is a world of books, a collection of English classics and those we studied as students, and although we make a snap decision to buy one, we can’t decide which one, and so we buy none. What book to buy from a beautiful Shanghai bookstore. Maybe something deeply South Africa, we spy a JM Coetzee, or maybe an old favourite – I see “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson … and I am nostalgic about another time, Lex finds a hardcover collection by Joan Didion, but perhaps something by an Asian writer, Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Isguro…? Instead we buy an icy fruit and veg drink for me and L sips an avocado milkshake – which is so delicious and I steal multiple sips because what is that lingering spicy something I can taste? And here I am writing at a table surrounded by books, under cold air-conditioning with no intention of leaving anytime soon.
Clary and her family and extended family run the Nirvana Hotel. Her husband is Tibetan and he, together with her young and beautiful daughter, and the Chinese and Tibetan staff, all add to the colour and interest that make Nirvana Hotel the special place that it is.
We enjoyed all of our meals at the hotel with Fiona, often joined by Clary and her husband. He comes and goes, in a yellow jacket, sometimes on a motorbike or in their 4×4 SUV. The feeling between the threesome is warm and loving, as their daughter switches easily between Dutch and English and Chinese and Tibetan. She arrived in her traditional Tibetan long skirt from school and paused to sip a spoon or two of sauce from her fathers’ bowl, whilst twirling his ponytail, hanging from beneath his leather hat, around her fingers.
I saw her another day, grinning and clinging to her mothers back, as Clary sped off to someplace on the motorbike.
Nirvana Hotel is like that – multicultural and multilingual and full of interesting people travelling through.
The next day L and I decided to revisit Labrang Monastery on our own. Fiona was staying in the backpackers and had many friends in the town.
The Monastery is huge, and there are tours on every day. We decided to find our own way and so we set off, walking some of the Kora, to begin with, and turned the wheels. After a while, we followed one of the paths into the centre of the monastery.
There are monks everywhere, walking singly or in groups. They stay behind huge wooden doors in ochre-coloured flats made from adobe walls. There are numerous large halls and temples. There are fascinating sculptures made from butter… there are places and sights seen within the walls that left us confused and yet peaceful about not knowing….
We were content with coming across groups of monks sitting outside in the sun together, some with cell phones out, some laughing, some within the confines of a temple doing a kind of martial art, with one blowing on a hornlike instrument. We stood silently and watched a pile of offerings being burnt, branches of a special tree, bought from stalls that were everywhere, carried strapped on the back of motorbikes, or in arms, or on backs, to be burnt together with soft silken white cloths and bouquet-like bunches of gathered strings of prayer flags. And all the while the incense rises.
At about 11 we began following monks. We had been told that at 11 every day the monks gather to chant – but we did not know where. Somewhere within the Monastery. We noted that the monks were appearing wearing their large spiral shell shaped yellow hats ( some new and golden, some faded and brown) and one or two older monks appeared with an instrument that looked like a metal scroll rolled up and they wore cloaks with very broad square shoulders. We followed them.
And there the monks were gathering, on the steps of the courtyard of a temple. We came in quietly and found a step to sit on in the shade. There were Chinese tourists next to us, who were standing up and posing in front of the gathering monks, flashing their cameras and getting really up close with the seated monks.
I am told that the monks sit out on the stairs to chant every day, no matter the weather. They shed their identical black boots and sit barefooted in their cloaks, even in freezing weather and snow.
We took a photograph or two from our seats and when the monks began chanting we could not resist recording a little. I was enthralled. Our Chinese neighbours told us that at 11.30 all the monks would pass into the temple beyond, which is what they did. Some monks came running, a little late, and just made it to their places on the stairs in time to shed their black boots. The boots remained scattered on the stairs when they all stood and moved into the temple. I wondered how easy it would be for each boot to be found by its rightful owner again.
We stood as well and followed them into the dimly lit interior of the temple. No photographs were taken from that point onwards. We stood against a wall and observed a number of different ceremonies. At one time some monks, carrying large brass urns, moved along the rows of monks seated on very long low cushioned benches and filled each of their bowls with a milky drink.
Inside the temple was dim, with pillars and ceiling covered and hung with fabrics that were a multitude of colours. The deep low chanting from the seated men continued unabated, while visitors from the outside circled the inside of the temple. Some Tibetans, dressed in outfits of glossy brocade, carrying large candles set in big metal candlesticks, prostrated themselves, and then led a slow path to where we could see the glow of many candles lighting up large golden Buddhas. Up front, we also glimpsed altars, strung with white cloths and incense and other offerings.
After a long time, L and I left via a side door. We were feeling tired and a little overwhelmed, and as we had no offering to make we did not make the journey around to the front with the other adherents.
Outside it had started to turn chilly and we set off on the long walk home, stopping at a monastery shop to buy a couple of boxes of Labrang incense. A monk served us and we paid him on our phone using WeChat. We took a photograph of the interior, not including him, as he had quickly ducked behind a thick curtain hanging over a back door.
On the way back to the hotel we asked permission from two elderly Tibetans to take their photo. They were seated wearily on some steps in the monastery and they sat still and silent while L took their picture.
Back at Nirvana, we felt hungry and so ordered a large amount of food. This time we chose a selection from the Tibetan menu, including a fried mutton dish and a sizzling platter of yak meat. It was all delicious, and when we were replete we retired to our room and slept for most of the late afternoon.
After leaving the bus, we crossed the road and noted another Western woman and we fell into step with her. She was very friendly and lovely and chatted to us in her lilting Irish accent as we walked. Yes, she knew the hotel, Yes, she knew the town, very well as it happened and yes, she could speak some Tibetan (she said humbly).
On journeys, the chance encounter is never really by chance – and this meeting with Fiona became the one thing around which our visit to Xiahe would turn and revolve.
Nirvana Hotel was exactly as it had appeared on social media. Clary welcomed us on the street, she was coming to meet us, and she met us with the direct and open gaze which I associate with the Dutch. She is professional and friendly and very real, a combination that works extremely well within her immaculate and meticulous (her attention to detail is remarkable) hotel.
Our room was spotless, with the bed covered with my favourite crisp white linen. There was a narrow strip of fabric over the foot end which I immediately recognised from a table in the restaurant and decided that I had to find myself a meter or two. It turned out to be a particular fabric which is authentic and only to be found In the Xiahe region.
That is a word that we felt summed up the Nirvana Hotel – authentic.
We loved our bathroom and shower, in which we indulged in an abundance of hot water, before going downstairs to enjoy a meal at the restaurant. The menu features a wide range of meals, from the Chinese, Tibetan and Western traditions.
We met Fiona and she took us for a walk before we returned to enjoy a delicious spread of dishes, mostly from the Chinese selection.
We had noted the Labrang Monastery, on the right as we had turned left into the street leading to the Nirvana Hotel. Fiona, as it turned out, has a long history of visiting the Monastery over the last 15 years, and so she became our willing and very able guide and source of information regarding all things Tibetan.
The sun was going down as we set off from the hotel, but the streets of the town were still buzzing with people and traffic. The Tibetans are partial to motorbikes, having mostly swapped their traditional horses for them a number of years ago now. The long sleeves of their Tibetan coats, usually worn on only one sleeve, except when it is cold, have extra long sleeves which hang well over their hands, and conveniently act as a type of glove when riding their motorbikes.
I tried in vain to get a picture of whole Tibetan families riding, sometimes all four, on one motorbike. But photographs of the elusive Tibetans remained unobtainable yet again.
The vast majority of the monks in the Labrang Monastery are Tibetan, as are the vast majority of the people who attend the Monastery and who walk the Kora.
The Kora, we were to discover, was the ‘walk’ that Fiona was to take us on that evening. The Kora is a 3,6 km circular walk that runs along the outside perimeter of the monastery. We set off, walking clockwise, beginning with a long row of prayer wheels. The prayer wheels are beautifully and brightly painted and they are large and heavy. Most of the walkers spin them with vigour, and as I reached for them I was met with them spinning heavily and forcefully and at first, I withdrew my hand, afraid of them hammering into my fingers.
The walkers also walk speedily, no languid strolling whilst doing the Kora. After hearing that many of the walkers walk the Kora twice a day, once at dawn and once at dusk I could understand why. Many of the walkers are old, some very old, and there are also a lot of folk prostrating themselves along the way. We came upon these figures, laid out in front of us along the path and, not sure how to react, we picked our way respectfully around them, quite in awe of their commitment and dedication.
As the sun went down the path fell into darkness and I began to stumble and gripped L’s arm on the uneven earthen path. In the gloom, I would feel a group of monks or even a single monk approaching us from behind. They walk briskly and they mutter as they walk, their string of prayer beads hanging in a loop from one hand and passing, bead by bead, rapidly between two fingers. I can’t say I could hear the rustling of their thick woven robes. Or the footfalls of their often trainer-clad feet – but they passed me by like some kind of wind, and they had no smell and yet there was something – a clinging of incense perhaps or just that marvellous wild Tibetan thing…
That took me by surprise. I think it was Fiona who said it, but I certainly thought it – if I had suspected that I would experience the nearly 4000 monks who live and work at Labrang to somehow be walking on air, in any way – those thoughts soon changed. The monks are very manly, skirts and all, some almost having the air of rough and ready street fighters. They are very distant beings though, for the most part, they hardly meet your eyes and they refuse to be photographed, which is why, out of respect, most of our monk photographs feature them from the back, and in the distance.
As we walked the Kora that first time, many monks moved past us out of the moonlight, setting the prayer wheels into a lumbering and rapid turning before striding on. We paused at a place where we could look down onto a large group of monks gathered in a courtyard below. We rested our hands against the cool terracotta tiles along the top of the wall. There was a full moon already riding high and casting its silver light over the Tibetan hills in the distance, competing with some strips of red and blue and yellow neon on some far-flung buildings.
We stood in silence and we could hear the monks debating together below us, with some clapping and some laughter and some lunging towards each other and then some running around the perimeter of the courtyard by one or two young ones, with their habits billowing and blowing around them.
We ended our Kora walk at the place where we started, admittedly having softly chatted for most of the way, which we continued to do over supper, but there was so much to learn and we just couldn’t wait to find out as much as we could.
We were early for the bus. We had left the school and taken a taxi across town for nearly an hour, but we still arrived early. The queue to the ticket counter was long, and the signage was all only in Chinese, but we used our app and in the end, we found ourselves in possession of two tickets to Xiàhé (known as Labrang in Tibetan).
There was a station cafeteria, Chinese style, but even so, it felt familiar to any other station café around the world. Not quite a greasy spoon, but a beef noodle shop, with the same dim interior and large space of empty plastic-covered tables and maroon velveteen covered chairs as found elsewhere.
There was a wooden archway covered with artificial flowers leading to a section next to the window, and we sat there with two large steaming bowls of noodles, with platters of sliced beef and savoury and sour plates of various pickles on the side.
From there I surveyed the other customers and began to note the travellers walking back from the bus station where they had disembarked from buses.
They walked by in groups and I began to note the Tibetan people amongst them, distinctive by their clothing, the women in their long dark skirts, red sashes and thin long plaits. I observed a group of young men, all with gold rings glowing in their ears, at a table near us. Their tussled hair and wild air caught my attention and my eye, and when they caught mine they smiled, broadly and easily between long drags on their cigarettes.
Lex pulled out his camera then and tried to unobtrusively snap them for me – not very successfully – and over the next few days we would see many Tibetan men and women, and their quality, which I cannot name in other way but as a certain wild untamedness, remained elusive.
The bus ride was quite long but immensely enjoyable. Across the aisle, a young Tibetan couple flirted with each other. His hand, with its large yellow gold ring, was constantly touching hers. Her hand fingered his heavy brocade jacket, which was casually worn on one arm, leaving the other arm free, with the empty sleeve wound around his waist and secured with a dashing leather, silver knob studded belt.
The seat in front of us was taken by a maroon-robed monk, no doubt on his way to Labrang Monastery in Xia He. His head of short black stubble was just visible to me above his seat. His cell phone rang frequently and he talked softly to a young Tibetan man who sat beside him, in a language which I soon recognised as not being Chinese.
The bus was comfortable, the road dual carriageway and pretty empty of other vehicles. The scenery was welcomingly green and treed and rural, and I felt myself relaxing into it after the months of being in the intense city atmosphere of Lanzhou. At first, the villages we passed through showed abundant signs of Islam, with the hills and valleys dotted with multiple minarets and spires rising from many golden and dazzling white and glowing emerald domed mosques.
After a while, the presence of Buddhism was more strongly felt as we began to note more and more temples and tangled streamers of prayer flags flying haphazardly up the mountainsides.
The road separated eventually and became a single road and we began encountering more trucks and animals and random stops along the road, to drop off and pick up passengers in what appeared to us to be the middle of nowhere.
It was a long bus trip from Xian to see the Terracotta Army. We had made sure that we had boarded the right bus – and not the ‘blue bus’ which is apparently a tourist rip off. We took the bus the locals take, with it stopping to drop people off at work stops along the way.
It was raining outside and the bus windows were misted up. Inside the bus, we bought tickets from a bus conductor who spoke no English, and we sort of listened to her when she stood in her uniform and talked for a long time into her headpiece microphone.
A swipe across the glass window revealed just how many terracotta army businesses there are along the way – the soldiers stand still and silent on the pavement, sustaining many families, restaurants and businesses.
We arrived eventually, to no rain, and the place where the bus stopped was a wide parking lot with no obvious ‘enter here to see the army’ buildings.
Thereafter there was a lot of walking. There were food stalls everywhere, and there were also stalls selling full animal pelts and strips of fur to make collars, which were all hung up on wire fences.
We walked past them all in search of entry tickets, or indeed the place where they were sold. Eventually, we found the building, after a detour to dump our rucksack which L had been labouring under.
We followed a path with others which wound through some just budding trees and finally came upon the huge structures which house the three main pits containing the clay army.
There were groups of foreigners on tour here and there. We heard German and English and some Scandinavian language – it was the first time we had seen so many foreigners for months!
We moved into the buildings and were relieved to see that our timing was good. There were relativity few people inside and we could easily approach the rails and gaze down into the archaeological dig – the pits containing the clay figures.
It was also easy for us to get close to the metal statues recovered from the pits which now stand boxed and glowing behind glass in their dim chambers.
We moved to the rail, after waiting for a minute or two for a gap to open up.
And there the soldiers stood beneath us, made from clay, their wooden bows and other weapons having long since disintegrated, leaving them clutching air in their clenched fists.
I was surprised by the feelings and emotions that stirred in me as I gazed down at them.
I had read the story around them of course and knew a little of their history. The army is a relatively recent discovery, and the massive pits under huge dome roofs containing them are still working archaeological digs.
And so they felt different from any other historical site I have ever seen. I felt moved to tears as I stood and stared at all those thousands of ancient motionless clay soldiers.
On the bus back to Xian I noticed again the hundreds of replicas lining the road outside various businesses. I myself had only bought two small fridge magnet soldiers as reminders of the real thing.
The real soldiers were never made to be works of art – but with the belief that they would, in fact, come alive one day, and live to fight for their creator…
I wondered if that was why they had stirred such emotion in me.
Made from dust, as they are, they have, in some small way, achieved the goal of living forever after all.
I wondered if, in looking at them, we look at ourselves. They stand as clay men, created as they were to one day live, waiting to have life breathed into them.
They wait in rows, sealed in, wearing the individual faces given to them by one or other of the 700 000 workers who made them. Only a few body and head moulds were made, but all the faces were allowed to be created differently.
They stand there, being stared at by millions, on the bucket list of many – with some still waiting, hidden in their pits, to be uncovered, together with their chariots and horses ( I spotted one, with only the rump and back legs emerging from the wall of clay) to be pieced together, restored and returned to their rows.
We will be forever grateful that we visited the terracotta army when we did – just at the beginning of Spring. We have heard stories of the crowds experienced there during the summer months.
There was a lone military type Chinese man pacing backwards and forwards along one side of the main pit – but still, we felt that we could have reached out and touched the soldiers if we had dared. They felt very accessible to us.
I was sorry that there were no archaeologists working in the glassed off section behind the pit where apparently workers may be observed putting together the armless, legless, headless clay soldiers who are moved there – supported and sometimes covered, between desks and other archaeological paraphernalia.
Still – I was sorry to leave and walk the long path back to collect our bag – this time nibbling on a spicy Chinese kebab bought from a food stall.
The soldiers stayed with me for a long time – I think of them still.
We had our first ride on a Chinese bullet train when we went away to Xi’an for a weekend. We knew we were travelling at speed because the speed appeared in red letters on a digital screen in the carriage at regular intervals.
I sat facing, with my long legs a little cramped as we swept in and out of tunnels. I suppose the train travels fast and straight and cannot manage the curves and gentle ascents and descents of the hills we saw around us.
The view through the windows alternated between darkness and dry terraces, a few scattered low houses, and after the outskirts of the city, there were more and more half-built concrete blocks of apartments.
We were travelling together with our Indian friend to join him in celebrating the Holi Festival. Xi‘an boasts an Indian Restaurant – it looked like it could be fun.
Ganesha (special to him and special to us – the Elephant God – remover of obstacles) had already helped us out by making a bus stop for us early that morning – we were the only passengers he stopped for – and thus ensured that we made our early morning train.
Now, after our arrival at the unbelievably confusing station, followed by a mind-blowing underground tube network (thanks dear Chinese speaking and reading friend…) we surfaced onto the streets of Xi ‘an and made our way to the restaurant.
It was raining a little but little Ganesha statues led us up a stairway to another large marble Ganesha statue against the wall.
We were also following the music, which we had heard from a long way off. It sounded like an Indian soundtrack from a Bollywood movie. Our Indian friend had been excited for weeks and as he bounded up the stairs we followed.
It was drizzling slightly but there were a few Indian men and Chinese women and men with faces already smeared with paint, dancing in front of a large printed screen which was standing in the open courtyard, depicting scenes from a previous Holi Festival.
A tray was prepared with burning incense sticks and other bowls, including one containing a red paste which was offered to Ganesha (his curled trunk was touched with a finger that left a red print) and we were invited forward to receive a red dot gently printed at the place of the third eye between our eyebrows – and then the party could begin.
Our friend could not be contained and swept up by his enthusiasm and energy we all joined in, sliding about on the damp tiles which soon turned into a multitude of vibrant colours as the powder paint, piled high on platters, began to be thrown about.
L and I were not spared and our hair and faces were soon turned to an assortment of exotic colours.
Many photos were taken, and later we saw that everyone had been photobombed by a collection of pretty Chinese girls ( and we were glad of it).
We were hungry and soon tired of the dancing and were ready for the promised Indian meal. We had surrendered our black coats and other clothing to the rain and they had been painted by the powders that had fallen upon us.
We went inside and queued in front of the fragrant aromas of the buffet. We left colourful fingerprints on our plates (even though we had washed our hands – the paint was hard to remove…) We went ahead and ate the delicious meal mostly with our fingers, tearing up the naan bread and dipping and scooping the chunks into bowls of chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, a delectable array of curried vegetable dishes and gently fried pakora bits and pieces.
We washed it all down with Tiger beer to the accompaniment of Bollywood images and a soundtrack played on a huge flat screen. Occasionally the stage was taken by young Chinese women, all veiled and dressed in belts of shiny coins and colourful chiffon, who danced for us with graceful arms and expressive hands.
The place was filled with many Western people, and there were a number of very attractive young Indians who held their own private party at a smoky table over a shared hookah and much beer, and danced in the aisles with a beautiful freedom and abandon that made us all smile.
We tried to wash more of the paint off in the bathroom, but the majority of that work was left for our hotel room, where I caused the glass box wet room in our hotel to be decorated with a splattering of pink and green dots against the white enamel.
Lex followed and added his own selection of colours to our bathroom.
We washed it all away but as I dried my grey hair later I realized that I still had a swathe of pink running through a large section of it. L’s beard was still a little pink on one side, but we shrugged and got dressed because we had plans for the evening.
The next day we would leave Xi ‘an and catch a late train back to Lanzhou. We arrived at the station at close to midnight and joined a long queue of weary travellers all waiting for a taxi. Our exhausted group of foreigners lagged at the tail of it and prepared to wait – until – suddenly we were waved to the front by some station official. We were confused, but we did not hesitate and followed his lead as he guided us to the very front of the queue – I don’t think any of us looked to left or right – I made no eye contact with anyone, but I swear I could feel the love…..
We were bundled into a waiting taxi and whisked off.
Now, you see, this is the way China often treats its foreigners – like royalty – or perhaps it was simply Ganesha again – finishing off what he had started the previous day… and seeing us happily home!
China is celebrating three days of public holiday. It is New Year.
We left home five days ago and have travelled for three. We have been in the school for two days only, and we are already on holiday!
We have not, however, been doing nothing!
The journey from our home in Knysna to Lanzhou was long and extremely exhausting.
We started with a drive from Knysna, then a plane from George to Joburg, followed by a plane to Beijing and another to Lanzhou.
As with all journeys time become irrelevant, the lights inside the Air China aeroplane during the Joburg Beijing leg changing from pale pink to pale blue to pale lemon. Our dozing was interspersed with meals served by a number of beautiful Chinese people, with the ‘sort of scary if you think about it’ sound of the engines, punctuated by South African voices asking for Bloody Mary cocktails (greeted with a confused Chinese frown) and raucous laughter from another group of 4 from SA who all wore t-shirts saying ‘The 4 Musketeers’
Oh, how we are going to miss you all…
Lex and I joined a very elderly smiling Chinese man at the back of the plane occasionally. He was doing a kind of Tai Chi, having stepped over the sleeping young man in his aisle seat with extreme agility, by making use of the armrests of the seats.
Our stretches were not nearly as good as his, but he smiled at us never the less and beckoned to us once to show us a small beautiful island through the back window. I missed it – how fast the plane flies- but Lex glimpsed it. I imagined a little green jewel in a wide blue sea, seen through some wispy white clouds.
Later we changed planes, and the red-eye from Beijing was filled with Chinese businessmen. It was early morning, but I was past all that, having gained 6 hours somewhere en route.
At baggage collection in Beijing, I was vague and dreamy. It did not help that, whilst waiting there, I seemed to be surrounded by a cloud of the most entrancing creatures that I had ever seen. All Chinese – they were a host of beings, some in long pink coats with pink fur encircling faces fringed with glossy black hair, and others in very long puffy black jackets and platform trainers, and there were those with Miss Kitty rucksacks worn over extraordinary camo jackets and others wearing round spectacles and all of them were topped with shiny sleek black hair. Some of these wonderful beings had little creatures in tow, with the sweetest faces and sticking out ponytails and little high voices calling out.
I needed sleep.
And my suitcase never arrived in Beijing. And Lex’s suitcase never arrived in Lanzhou. We were clothes-less!
I had done my best to find my case in Beijing. Lex stood in a queue(!) to get our bags through customs for our next flight, while I ran, yes ran, between him and the hopeless carousel with someones’ unclaimed pink metallic case slowly and sadly circling. Mine never appeared!
I tried again later, passing each time past a very tired (eventually he was actually slumped over and sleeping) guard guy until I gave up.
Lex’s bag arrived yesterday at the school. I still await mine. I wear his clothes. Perhaps it’s for the best. He might not have so easily worn mine.