Challenging Chinese menu choices – and terrific Tibetan beauty

I left Tibet three days ago, and have been in Dunhaung, in Gansu province, for 24 hours. This evening I decided it was time to sample the local cuisine.

Taking my guidebook’s advice, I headed for the Shahzhou covered night market, “the most atmospheric place to eat Dunhuang, where you can sit on deckchairs and drink babao tea”.

I grabbed a deckchair, and opened the menu. The first item stared back at me, uncompromisingly. “STIR UP A SHEEP’S HEAD”. Undeterred, I decided to read on.

The following page was no easier to decipher. “CRAM FOOD INTO ONE’S MOUTH PIT MEAT” was followed by “EXPLODES FRIED (COLD FOOD IN SAUCE) THE ASSES SKIN”, not to be confused with “EXPLODES FRIED THE SHEEP’S INTERNAL ORGANS”.

I skimmed past the “TINTIN OF SPECULATION”, and decided I didn’t fancy “THE PORK PESTERS A BOILED DUMPLING”. Delightful as the next three items sounded – “EGGPLANT BURNS FACE”, “HAIR BLOOD IS FLOURISHING” and “GARLIC FIRED THE BLOOD CLOT” – I didn’t feel any of them would quite hit the spot.

Ignoring the “ELEMENT STIRS THE NAKED CATS VEGETABLE”, I turned back to an earlier page, and selected the least threatening item on the menu, the “YANGBUO INQUISITOR”. Despite the scaly looking skin on the meat, it was surprisingly tasty. Let’s hope it doesn’t make too may inquiries of my digestive system.

These wonderfully off-the-mark translations are representative of a major challenge inherent in traveling in Western China. In a country with an internal market of 1.6 billion and a strong belief in their nation’s destiny, there is little desire or will to kow-tow to foreign tourists and their languages, even English. In India and Nepal, everyone at least understands English. In Tibet we had been cosseted by our English-speaking guides. In mainstream China, it is undoubtedly going to be different. It looks like a dictionary is going to be rather handy.

Terrific Tibetan beauty

My final two days in Tibet earlier this week were spent in Lhasa, the capital. They proved to be insightful, intriguing, and inspiring.

On reaching Lhasa, the excellent male Tibetan guide that had accompanied us from the Nepali border was replaced by a stunning young 20-year-old female Tibetan guide. It would be fair to say that none of the men in our party were immune to the our new guide’s considerable charms. She combined great beauty with an ability to slip easily between history and religious belief, between stories of kings and stories of Bodhisattvas (incarnations of the Buddha).

For Tibetans, there is little distinction between, for instance, the story of the king Songtsten Gampo who unified Tibet in the 7th century, and that of the flying Guru Rinpoche who spread Buddhism across the Himalayan region airborne on a lotus flower. Myth merges with reality in a delightful way.

We were privileged to have her as a guide – there are not many Tibetan guides left, and it is wonderful to see Lhasa with someone who lives this belief system. In one monastery, I overheard another guide (more reflective of the 80% Han Chinese population in Lhasa) quite deliberately point out that “Religious people believe…” and “Traditional Tibetan religion says that…”

We visited the amazing Potala Palace, home of Dalai Lamas through the ages, and the compact Jorkhang temple, a magnet for Tibetan pilgrims, before moving on to two monastic establishments which once rivalled anything in the world for religious devotion. Over 50 years ago, Drepung monastery held 10,000 practising monks while Sera had 7,000. Today they cannot hold more than 500 combined. The sight of huge 15-foot wide vats designed for cooking meals for thousands brings home the changes that have occurred here, as did the strong government presence. Nevertheless, the monasteries – and the Potala and Jorkhang – are fascinating places to visit.

As my 7 days in Tibet came to an end, I reflected on the fascinating experience of entering China through Tibet. The majesty of the landscape, snatched and insightful conversations with the wonderful people, and the sheer force of the ever-present beliefs all made it a hugely enlightening experience. I highly recommend it.

North by Northwest – across the Tibetan plateau by train

While 10 of our party returned south (from Lhasa to Kathmandu by plane), two of us boarded the train North into China from the imposingly monolithic new train station, which connects Tibet to the outside world like never before.

This incredible railway (which passes through a permafrost dotted with yaks and the occasional human) crosses 5000m passes as it wends across the barren plateau. It brings home the scale of investment that China has put into this region. The railway has forever changed the dynamics of Tibet, making the movement of people (in and out of the region) relatively simple. India may have benefited from the remarkable rail infrastructure left by colonial occupation, but with new railways like this, China is catching up – fast.

At 2am, I finally arrived in 3000m-high Golmud, one of the most isolated cities in China. I scurried through the freezing drizzle to my hotel. As sleepy Chinese girl rose from her camp-a-bed to check me in, the language issue hit me square between the eyes as I struggled to explain what I needed. Hmmmm… that dictionary….

I awoke the next morning; looking out of my window at a statue of a flying horse, adorned with the moniker “TOP TOURIST CITY IN CHINA”, against uniform grey skies. (Some places seem destined to be grey, at all times. Cowdenbeath, for instance. Actually I’ve never been to Cowdenbeath, but it strikes me that it might be a good twin for Golmud. Which is grey, grey, grey).

I gave Golmud a day, before deciding to move north by bus to meet the ancient Silk Route at Dunhuang. This decision meant another visit to the local Public Security Bureau, where I was required to get an “Alien Travel Permit” for 50 Yuan (about five pounds). Perversely, if I hadn’t had to purchase this, I would have never have known that the endlessly flat plateau was in fact pretty close to Lop Nur, which my guidebook tells me “happens to be China’s nuclear testing site.”

The bus journey was dominated by a loud static-ridden DVD of Chinese comedian-singers blaring from a small screen above the driver’s head. I still can’t decide if made the journey more or less bearable. It was hard to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Dunhuang (where I am currently) is the stepping off point for the incredible Mogao Caves full of carvings of Buddhas (the largest 35 metres high) and intricate wall paintings, some dating to the 5th century. I happily spent the entire day there today.

Tomorrow night I am venturing into the desert with Mr Lee and a Bactrian camel. Considering Mr Lee’s (very) limited English, I am looking forward to more interesting food choices.

After that I have decided to head west, along the Silk Route to Kashgar.
That’s all for now.

[Still no pictures I am afraid – as reported in The Telegraph
there’s still a ban on Blogger.com in China, so photos are difficult].

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, China '09

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