After two days in Xining and the Qinghai Lake area (definitely enough time), Amber and I departed for Tongren. The facts…
Tongren county 同仁县, Longwu town 隆务镇
Population: 21,000 (34% Tibetan)
Elevation: 2500 m (8200 ft)
The bus took around 4 hours and passed through some pretty stunning territory. So far, this part of China was a whole different kind of beauty.
Strangely, the bus had assigned seats, so Amber ended up sitting next to a monk. After he asked for a picture of her on his phone, we figured it was alright for him to return the favor.
Since Amber and I were trying to play this trip as loosey-goosey as possible (minus my Excel spreadsheet that was really just a guideline, I promise), we hadn’t made any hostel reservations in Tongren. When we showed up, we just walked around town in search of a hostel mentioned in a copy of Lonely Planet we had wrangled up in Xining. Unfortunately, the hostel looked like it had been shut down for the past year, so our prolonged search for a place to sleep began.
As is the norm throughout China, only certain hotels are allowed by the government to have foreigners, so the first two places we checked out told us they didn’t have room–I guess a face-saving way to tell us they weren’t allowed to let us stay there. The next couple of hotels were redonk expensive (over 200RMB per night), and we were tired of walking all around town. I looked up another hotel on my phone, called Holiday Inn, and gave them a call. They said they had a double room available for 120RMB per night–shazam!
But in the end, it was too good to be true. When we showed up, she told me that the rate was in fact 200 per night (foreigner rate, obviously). I was somewhat flattered that she didn’t automatically assume I was a foreigner on the phone, but more of me was peeved over the sudden price jump. In any case, we were done carrying our backpacks all around town.
With nothing to do for the rest of the day, we got some tasty noodles that I had never seen before.
Full of noodles, we stopped at the next-door convenience store for some beer, but were so intrigued by “barley wine” that we gave it a go instead. Little did we know that this was a horrible mistake, and that we would take a sip, grimace, take another sip just to make sure, then dump it all out.
Anyway, over the course of the day, we went back to our hotel, left again for dinner, fruitlessly searched for a bar listed in Baidu Maps, bought some beers at an outdoor BBQ place, and sat outside at a plastic table. Eventually, lo and behold, two foreign women came walking toward us!
Tongren is a small town, and needless to say, seeing other foreigners was a rare thing indeed. We invited them to sit with us, and before we knew it, we had Traveling Buddies. They were sisters from California, going from Sichuan northward through Qinghai and Gansu in the opposite direction we were. But they were looking to go to a temple the next day, so why not do it together?
While sitting there, drinking, and chatting, I happened to “look around” on Amber’s WeChat, an uber popular instant messaging program used in China. I started talking to a Chinese guy (in Chinese) who was within 1km of us and convinced him to come by and say hi. He ended up driving up in a nice SUV, got out, and seemed slightly disappointed that the one who had been typing to him in Chinese for the past hour was me and not Amber Still, we talked for a bit, and surprise! When he left, he sneaked away to the BBQ owner and paid our bill. Thanks, guy!
The next day, the four of us finally did touristy things like go to Wutun Monastery. We had heard rumint of a bus out to the monastery, but quite frankly, a taxi was easier and only a little more expensive. It was a cool, drizzly day, and there wasn’t much happening there.
However, the cool thing wasn’t really the temple–it was the monk and civilian artists in and around the temple. These guys were making tangka, gorgeous Tibetan paintings MADE OF GOLD.
According to the monks we talked to, tangka take MONTHS to paint, and these guys work for 8 or 10 hours a day. The gold-colored paint they use is 94% gold, while the green paint is only 76% gold. A tiny tangka will put you back at least 300RMB. Easy to see why!
After we walked all the way back to town along a muddy dirt road and almost went deaf from every car passing us that insisted on honking right next to us, we got some delicious lunches of Chinese “casserole,” as the signs said.
The rest of the day was chill, as we went to a tea house for some tea and brews, got ripped off (pretty standard), and watched some Chinese dramas in our hotel room while making up our own dialogue. Another decent travel day, with some spontaneous travel companions!