Category Archives: Western China

Epic Summer Adventure Part 3: Tongren

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.

Blue sky! And real clouds!!

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.

Long-distance buses ftw!

Long-distance buses ftw!

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.


烩面, not as spicy as it looks.

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.

We were such optimistic fools.

We were such optimistic fools.

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?

Drinking Chinese beer out of plastic cups with tiny handles. Classy as fuck.

Drinking Chinese beer out of plastic cups with tiny handles. Classy as fuck.

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.


Case in point.

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.

Srsly impressed.

Srsly impressed.

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.

砂锅 Not your Mom's casserole.

砂锅 Not your Mom’s casserole.

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!


Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Travel, Uncategorized, Western China


Tags: , ,

Epic Summer Adventure Part 2: Qinghai Lake FTW!!

Qinghai Lake Guys

Meet the Qinghai Lake posse. Maybe you’re wondering how a couple American girls ended up at the largest lake in China (and a saltwater lake, to boot!) with a bunch of older Chinese men? Gather ’round, and I will share with you a tale of adventure on the inland seas. First, some facts:

Qinghai Lake

Elevation:3,205 m (10,515 feet)

Surface Area: 4,489 km2 (1,733 sq mi)

Known for: huge bike races and bird migrations

Amber and I were initially a little wary of making the journey from Xining to Qinghai Lake, after hearing someone at the hostel’s account of her time there: cold, drizzly, with lots and lots of fog. She could barely even see the lake. But looking to the skies and hoping for the best, Amber and I set out.

As was the case with most of our bus rides in Xining, I managed to get us lost on our way to the long-distance bus station to catch a ride over to the lake. We ended up taking a taxi, and the driver told us a billion reasons why it was a horrible day to go to the lake… but if we still wanted to go, he would take us for only 700RMB (over $100). Obviously, that wasn’t happening.

Literally just a few moments after we stepped out of the taxi at the bus station, a driver approached us and offered to take us to the lake immediately for 120RMB per person. Um… YES! I was afraid that we would have to spend all morning bargaining down to a decent price, but fate smiled upon us that day.

We walked over to his van and got in… and were greeted by six older Chinese guys. They were obviously professionals of some type, and they were now stuck with two twenty-something American girls. OK. This would be interesting.

Beginning our 2-ish hour journey to Qinghai Lake, we went through the normal topics of conversation (“Where are you from? Why are you in China? How can you speak Chinese so horribly?”) Suddenly, the guy sitting in the front with the driver, who seemed to be the other guys’ leader, turned back and asked “So, do you think you understand China?”

I didn’t even know how to answer the question, let alone imply that I understood this gigantic, mysterious, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately fascinating country. I eventually said no, of course, and that I would need to spend a lifetime here to even begin to understand. He seemed satisfied and turned back to talk to the driver. As to the other men’s identities, all I got from them was that they were coworkers on their way to Tibet on vacation, and that they were originally from Jilin in the northeast.

After a couple hours, we started seeing huge fields of rapeseed used for honey production.

Is this really China?

Is this really China? Amazingsauce.

We made a couple pit-stops along the way for a lunch break, photo opportunities, and so the guys could take pictures with a camel (no, really).

Such tourists.

Such tourists.

After much toil and legs cramping in the van, we finally made it! Behold, the largest lake (salty or otherwise) in China! And with mostly clear skies and perfect temperatures, we couldn’t have asked for a better day.

It's a lake!

It’s a lake!

Note the awesome desert in the background, and most importantly, how few people were mingling on the shore. Our driver took us to an “unofficial” beach at the lake, so admission was cheap and crowds were small. And, best part, with so few people, it was quite easy to sneak away and… skinny dip. The water was in fact salty, and all of the rocks were covered with goop (a more innocuous word for slime/industrial sludge/etc.) We bought some cool scarves that conveniently converted into beach towels and head coverings.

Seriously one of my favorite photos of all time.

Seriously one of my favorite photos of all time.

Best part: after our little dip in the lake, the driver noticed that my hair was wet. He asked me if we had gone swimming, and I said we had… without clothes on. No joke, he started bounding toward the water and suggested that we all go swimming together. Ummmmm maybe next time?

With exhaustion, dehydration, clouds, and serious elevation headaches coming on, we just made a quick stop at the South Mountain to get some panoramic views of the lake and listen to the sheep.

The sheep were thunderous.

The sheep were thunderous.

And on this mountain, the identities of our fellow Qinghai Lake tourists were revealed! I kept asking them what they did, and they kept answering me “zhongyiyuan.” I obvs didn’t have a clue what that meant, but after a quick dictionary search, I was dumbfounded. These men were in the People’s Congress. They were full-on, red-blooded Communists helping lead over 1.3 billion people. And we had just spent several hours with them at Qinghai Lake, letting them buy us lunch and taking photos with them and laughing at them trying to ride camels. Now I understood why their leader had seemingly been so unsure about us joining them in the van. But in the end, I think they decided we weren’t so bad after all. And they weren’t so bad after all. So maybe we had some important cultural exchange without me even realizing it? Who knows.

But all was not rainbows and unicorns. When we got back to the hostel in Xining, my eyes looked like this.

It burns! It buuuurns us!!

Too many pretty pollinating rapeseed flowers for me. Still, despite the allergies and generally yuck feeling from being above 10,000 feet, it was an amazing day. No hyperbole, this trip was getting better and better.

1 Comment

Posted by on October 2, 2013 in Travel, Western China


Tags: , ,

Epic Summer Adventure Part 1: Xining

First stop: Xining!

A lovely, riverside town

A rapidly-developing, riverside city

Here are some facts to get us started:

  • Capital of Qinghai province and biggest city on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
  • Population: 2 million
  • Elevation: 2300m (7500ft)

Before heading to Xining, I made a pit stop in Beijing to visit a friend.I left Tianjin the night before Amber, which ended up being somewhat disastrous. It landed me with the most expensive taxi ride EVAAAAAAA. 200 rmb, bitches. This is what happens when you miss the last subway north across the whole city and have to take an illegal taxi in a huge rainstorm, and the driver has no fucking idea where he’s going, and you, a foreigner, have to use Baidu Maps to tell him how to get to your friend’s place. Yeah… never doing that again.

The next day, I retraced my steps (but in the subway, thank goodness) to the Beijing West railroad station to meet Amber. Due to our characteristic procrastination in buying train tickets, we ended up having to buy not one, but TWO tickets to get to Xining! Oh boy.

The first tickets, hard sleepers to Xi’an, were glorious as always. I got some mad feels as we walked into the Xi’an train station… I had begun my foray into Chinese culture the year before in Xi’an, and it was strange to walk into the station at 4am and see the city wall again. Also, this girl’s hair was epic.

Hair converts to whip in times of crisis... or titillation.
Hair converts to whip in times of crisis… or titillation.

Our train from Xi’an to Xining was less thrilling. Despite my earlier vow to never buy hard seat tickets again (in case you forgot), there we were. The train ride began in optimism…

Foolish, foolish optimism
Foolish, foolish optimism

… and ended in blissful, metaphorical tears once we finally reached Xining and no longer had to climb over twenty people to get to the bathroom.



Despite my poor judgement in when to get off the bus and terrible directions from the hostel’s website, we eventually found our way to Lete Hostel. It was a decent place, for the record. Also, there was a spectacular supposedly Iranian restaurant down the road.

Srsly the best I had in China.
For serious the best Halal food I had in China.
The next day, we commenced the touristy tomfoolery… in jeans. And jackets! In the middle of summer!! It was gloriously cool. The fact that we got headaches all the time from the elevation was secondary.
We got some tasty drinks and cinnamon buns (YES!!!!) at Amdo Cafe…
I love caffeine and sugar combos.

I love caffeine and sugar combos.

… then set out to explore the Muslim Quarter. Seriously awesome stuff, with tons of fresh fruit, bakeries, rock candy, whole slabs of cow laying around, and chickens being butchered right before your eyes. Did I mention that the bird flu began out here? Hm.
Mmm, bread wheels!

Mmm, bread wheels!

Hawt chicks

Hawt chicks

While I felt somewhat like a nuisance there, the Dongguan Mosque was a really unique experience. I know the rest of China also has Muslim communities, but it was refreshing to see such a large, tightly-knit group.
Campy tourist photo

Campy tourist photo

Another market down the road was mostly food items, where we were thankfully introduced to one of the best things in the world 麻辣汤 (hot/spicy soup thing). It’s basically the same thing as 麻辣香锅, which I have previously praised, but it’s possibly… even better? Hard to say. It’s more soupy, has noodles, and is so, so good. Don’t be alarmed, this photo is the pre-mixed version. And it’s not nearly as spicy as it looks.



Being the adventure-fiends we were, Amber and I decided to go check out the South Mountain park in town, because trees. After living in Tianjin for nine months, we were very ready for some nature. Despite getting on the wrong bus again (I was having a hard time deciphering Xining’s bus system, for some reason), we finally found the park and climbed up a bunch of stairs to… something quite unexpected.

Taipei? Is that you?

Taipei? And Shanghai?? Shangpei.

The miniature Asian city park was obvs in disrepair, but the other miniature reincarnations of famous natural sites were better preserved. We tried climbing one of the rock formations, but a legion of guards with megaphones yelled us down.

Pre-climbing and getting yelled at.

Pre-climbing and getting yelled at.

We also watched a couple of monks play basketball, got hopelessly lost, and ran out of breath a lot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Exhausted, we half-heartedly attempted to go out with some Swiss guys to the bar, but ended up just listening to a girl spurn a clueless boy’s advances in the hostel before we called it a night.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Travel, Western China


Tags: , ,

The End: Western-ish China Expedition

So… I’m in Canada now.

What everyone in Vancouver does constantly.

What everyone in Vancouver does constantly.

I left China back in July, after a mostly fantastic ten months in the Middle Kingdom. It was an immensely difficult decision to leave. At one point, I was sitting in the back of a long-distance bus in Gansu, hitting my head against the window and making pros and cons lists about staying in China or following my plants to study in Vancouver. Obviously, I opted for Vancouver, and while some parts of the city are very Chinesey, it’s still not the same. I’m currently experiencing some nostalgia and decided to finally write the last serious of posts to describe my epic final days in China.

This is what happened, for all the other visual kids out there:

Thanks, G-maps.

Thanks, G-maps.

The original plan for summer vaca was quite different. My friend Amber (whose name mystically changes in every blog post) and I planned out an amazing month-long expedition to 新疆 Xinjiang province, waaaaaay out in westernmost China, until we realized a few things.

  1. Xinjiang is really fucking far away. Like, TWO DAYS TRAIN far away.
  2. Xinjiang is also really fucking huge. Once you spend TWO FULL DAYS on a train, you have to spend even more days on trains and buses to get around the province.
  3. Trains and buses to get around a province that’s almost as large as ALASKA is not a cheap task. We had a budget, and Xinjiang wasn’t working with it.

Long story short, we spent an entire evening planning our Xinjiang trip, only to discover it was too expensive. So we shamelessly stole a travel plan from another blog (which I can’t remember now! Sorry.. but they just stole it from Lonely Planet, so it’s all good).

In true Kirsten-fashion, I made an Excel spreadsheet of our schedule, probable costs, and details about how to get between towns. In my defense, I had to get back to Beijing to catch my flight home, so my excessive planning was somewhat necessary. Necessary, but ultimately fruitless, as Mother Nature had different plans for half of our trip, as you’ll see.

To re-experience the majesty of western-ish China with me, click below!

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Travel, Western China


Tags: ,