I am writing this blog on my iPod Touch, sitting in a Tibetan restaurant in a dingy town called Gangcha, which lies on the Northern side of Qinghai lake about 180 km from Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai. As I take alternate bites of yak milk yogurt sweetened with local honey and yak meat dumplings, washed down with occasional sips of salty yak milk tea, I can’t help but think on the vast difference of my experiences in these past six days compared to the ten weeks of my luxurious summer interning at the Consulate in Shanghai. I cannot fathom a more disparate contrast from sipping mojitos by the Shanghai Portman Ritz Carlton’s rooftop pool one day, to camping in the cold on a vast mountain plain surrounded by yaks, sheep, and horses while surviving on a diet of trail mix the next day. But I get ahead of myself.
August 6 was the last day of my internship, which I greeted happily, not because I didn’t like my experience, but because I was pleased at completing a fun and meaningful internship and anxious to go on to do other fun and meaningful things, such as go see Andy in Qinghai, and following that go back to DC to see friends and family and start my last year of grad school.
Aside from my three weeks motorcycling around Yunan in May, I had only seen Andy one other time this summer, when he came to surprise me in Shanghai at the end of June. He was there only for the weekend, and had to return to biking immediately. I wanted to visit him in Chengdu later in July, but money, time, and work commitments precluded that possibility. Thus the last chance I’d have to see Andy before his return to the states in October would be to visit him on the Tibetan plateau after I finished my internship.
That in itself was fine with me. In addition to wanting to see Andy, I was excited about going to Qinghai, a place I had never been but which I have heard is very beautiful this time of year. Andy’s pictures on his website certainly corroborate this fact, and I was more than happy at the prospect of experiencing a new place first hand. However, as Andy and I began planning my visit, several factors filled me with trepidation, and for about two seconds I contemplated calling Andy with tearful apologies telling him I was not going to go visit him in Qinghai and that I would see him back in the States in three months time.
What was so awful that I would forgo visiting my boyfriend, who I’ve seen for a grand total of 20 some days this entire year?
The first cause for concern was getting to Qinghai. After looking at flight prices, I decided that if I wanted to be able to pay rent when I got back home, I’d have to take the train, which would be a 32 hour ordeal one way. Not ideal, but certainly not horrible as Andy and I had frequently taken a 24 hour train to see each other when I lived in Shenzhen and he lived in Beijing. But there was yet another catch. Buying train tickets in China is notoriously difficult, and with the Shanghai Expo going on, train tickets to and out of Shanghai is even more difficult than normal. You can only purchase tickets ten days in advance and they can get sold out in a matter of minutes. I recruited the consulate’s inhouse travel service to help me purchase a sleeper ticket (hard sleeper or soft sleeper, it didn’t matter, as long as I had a bed!). However, she failed me miserably. Long story short, the only train ticket available was a hard seat ticket. I know that won’t mean anything to most of my readers, but a hard seat ticket on a Chinese train is the kiss of death. You are basically on a hard bench sitting at a 90 degree angle, in an overcrowded car with little to no ventilation and one bathroom for fifty people, most of whom are hygenically challenged. Worse, the train company also sells standing tickets, so you can’t even navigate the aisles to get to the bathroom without a concerted effort due to the masses of people standing in the aisles, and when you get back someone is inevitably sitting in your seat and you have to shoo them out. All in all, a hard seat is an instument of torture. Especially when the train ride is 32 hours long. But it was the only option I had to see Andy.
But that wasn’t the only cause for concern. As Andy only has a month left to get back to Beijing before his visa expires, it wasn’t possible for him to take off a few days of riding to spend time with me. The only solution? I would have to ride with them. I could not afford to buy another motorcycle and ditch it at the end like I had done in Yunan, so this time I would actually be using my own legs to pedal with them on a borrowed fold-up bicycle, like the kind I have in DC. Here lay the other cause for concern. How would my out-of-shape body on a crappy small bicycle be able to keep up with two boys on professional touring bikes who have been biking around china for eleven months? Granted, Andy’s dad and his dad’s girlfriend would be joining at the same time (We arranged it so that I would pick them up from the Xining airport they day I arrived, and we would travel together to the small town Andy was in the next day) and they would also have some disadvantages when it came to biking (jet lag, unaccustomed to the food, altitude issues), but I still felt massively under-prepared and that I would be the weakest link slowing everyone down.
Yet there was more cause for concern: Qinghai is a big province, and there are vast stretches where there are no people, no places to eat, and no places to stay. Therefore, camping is a necesity, and I would have to be prepared to camp regularly without bathing for days, without regular hot meals, and this on top of being tired and sweaty from biking all day.
It gets worse. We’d be camping in the cold, possibly in close to freezing temperatures. On the Tibetan plateau it is comfortably cool in the day time, miserably cold at night. Worse for me since I can’t stand the cold, probably due to my subtropical blood. I also have no fondness for camping unless s’mores and bonfires are involved, and I detest being unclean… This whole trip was not shaping up to be my cup of tea.
But it doesn’t stop there! Several days before departing Andy’s mom sent me a very concerned email asking if I would be able to find dog whistles ( the kind that repels dogs not attracts them) in Shanghai, saying she was concerned about Andy’s blog post describing the dangers of wild dogs. I hadn’t read the blog in question and thought she was overeacting as mothers are wont to do, and replied that I would look, but was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to find any in stores. I then read Andy’s blog describing how they had been attacked by mastiffs and had to carry large sticks on their person to defend themselves from dog attacks while they were biking. On top of the 32 hour train ride, the camping, the uncleanliness, the cold, and the exhaustion, I now had to worry about being mauled by ferocious dogs, worse ferocious rabid dogs. Rabies treatment requires a ton of shots, and I hate needles! So I went to work that day, petitioning two of my coworkers to search Taobao, the Chinese eBay, for ultra sonic dog repellants and use their account to buy me two. Luckily, Taobao had it (there is a saying that if you can’t find what you want on Taobao, it doesn’t exist) and they were delivered the day before I was scheduled to leave.
As you can imagine, the whole trip sounded daunting, uncomfortable, dangerous, and unfun. However, I knew in my heart that I just simply could NOT see Andy, so I had no choice but to go on this crazy adventure. I also know that I am a woman of substance that can withstand anything, and that the trip would only be as bad as I made it, or as good as I made it. So I decided to go for the good. With lots of goodluck wishes, a giant folding bike in one arm, a backpack of cold weather camping gear, and a bag full of food and water, I made my way onto the train to begin my Qinghai biking adventure.