Someone call Professor Oak, because I’ve officially caught them all.
I had already traveled through most of China in the late 1990s, but Qinghai was the last one – the one place I had never been.
I finally made the trip last week, and just to celebrate the occasion, the gods of travel decided to make it plenty hard to get here. I took an early morning flight from Hailar to Beijing, and then after seven hours of waiting was told that all flights were grounded due to bad weather. That’s bad enough, but what followed was chaos as hundreds of pissed off and exhausted passengers tried to get refunds or rerouted. There were tears, there were fist fights, and there was precious little order, but by 11:00 or so, I was on a bus to a hotel where I could at least get a snack and sleep for four hours before my 6:30 flight to Xining.
Xining itself is another world. There are very large Tibetan and Muslim populations that give the city a very different flavor. The first thing I did on my 4k walk from the airport bus to the conference hotel was to have a homemade yak yogurt, which was delicious. The second thing I did was realize that a 4k walk with a backpack feels very different at 2,200 meters.
So just like last time, I gave my paper (on milk – see, this blog has total internal continuity!) and just like last time, everyone was very generous. The students were especially sweet. On the day I arrived, while I was wandering around for hours eating yak yoghurt and wondering why I was so winded by a gentle incline, two of them were waiting for me in the hotel lobby. They cheerfully accepted my panicked apologies, and then we went for a nice lunch.
After the conference, Renmin University Professor Zhang Jijia and two of his students invited me to join them on an overnight excursion to Qinghai Lake. Well, I wasn’t saying no to that.
We drove up to Kumbum Monastery (塔尔寺), about 45 minutes out of the city, and from there straight up into the mountains — and mind you, we started at 2,200 meters. The top was this pass at 3,800 meters, which is a big difference to absorb in a few hours.
I felt fine when we got to the lake, but another group that met us at dinner informed they were experiencing a 50% puke rate.
Undeterred, we pressed on, driving through stunning country, that changed from steep, green hills covered in livestock, to semi-arid scrub that was also covered in livestock, albeit ones that looked somehow sadder. By about 10 that evening, we reached our lodgings and went to sleep, but not before setting our alarms for 5 am to see the sunrise.
Of course, I was the only one who did get up, and yes the sun did rise (you’re welcome, everyone). Moreover, I got to commune with this baby yak.
Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. As we drove around the lake, I started feeling off, and after driving two hours through semi-desert to reach the Chaka salt lake, it was getting bad. The lake itself is stunningly beautiful, stark white under a blazing sun. Walking around with hundreds of people covered up in wraps and wading around in water, I felt like I had somehow been transported to the Ganges. I ate lunch, which immediately returned with a vengeance.
But this was all a prelude. The trip down was hell. The headache got worse as we descended, and by the time I reached Xining, I wanted to cry. I waved a quick goodbye to the group and went to my hotel, where I went straight to bed–salt, sweat and all.
So what have I learned from this trip?
Surprisingly, quite a lot about yaks, which is knowledge that I hope someday to put to good use. I also learned that gas contents of any closed container expand at altitude. Closed backpack becomes a balloon. Tube of toothpaste – balloon. Human intestines – oh you’d better believe it.
Yes, yes, but what about the food?
Honestly, I can’t say that it was memorable. We had some nice lamb sticks at what we were told was the best place in the city (the long line confirmed that we were told correctly), but you can get these anywhere, and honestly, I think the guy on the campus at Hulunbeier University does a better job. There was one place that did very nice beef noodles – the official dish of the entire Northwest – including a mixed noodles (拌面) that was unusually good.
But no, my favorite part was – get ready – the yoghurt. Xining had something you really don’t see much anymore, private farmers who come and sell milk and yoghurt on a street corner. Since I am here to learn about milk, I visited ten or so different ones on different corners and asked the usual questions about their cows, where they sell, and so forth. And in such a case you really have to buy something – it’s just good manners – so I ended up doing something like a daily pub crawl, but with yoghurt. Absolutely no hardship involved – the stuff was delicious. I think the altitude might concentrate the fat content, or maybe they just used better cultures, but really – yum.