Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Summer 2013: Homeward Bound

To get back to Beijing from Jiayuguan, I took a train. Below is basically a play-by-play of that journey, which began on July 29, 2013 and ended the next day.

On the train, there were sets of four seats (two seats facing two other seats) and sets of six seats (three seats facing three other seats) with a small table in the middle. And there was no English. No English. Even I didn't speak English there. 


10:03 p.m. - I arrive at the Jiayuguan train station. 
10:05 p.m. - I see that my train is already running fifteen minutes late...flashbacks
11:03 p.m. - I board the train to find bedlem: people sprawled over seats, under seats, and smoking between train cars like crazy. 
11:07 p.m. - I find my seat and boot out some girl sitting in it. 
11:11 p.m. - The train departs. 
11:12 p.m. - I find myself sitting with a Uyghur family, one member of which I have booted out and away. They don't look excited to be sitting by me. 
11:18 p.m. - The man of the Uyghur family tries to speak to me; I don't understand. 
11:20 p.m. - The man of the Uyghur couple makes loud and what appear to be good-natured comments about how I don't understand; people nearby laugh; I smile and feel super uncomfortable for having had to boot the girl out of my seat. 
12:17 a.m. - The man of the Uyghur couple gets me to switch seats with his old lady mother, who is sitting nearby; I comply.
12:18 a.m. - More space is mine; I am now sitting on the aisle and can spread my legs out. 
12:20 a.m. - I begin experimenting with various sleeping positions with varying degrees of success. 
1:07 a.m. - The butt of the dude next to me encroaches on my seat and, in the process, my own butt, waking me. 
1:56 a.m. - The butt of the dude next to me encroaches on my seat again and, in the process, my own butt, waking me, again.  
2:28 a.m. - The butt of the dude next to me encroaches on my seat again and, in the process, my own butt, waking me, again. I consider violent retaliation.
3:34 a.m. - Some dude gets on the train and says I am in his seat. I probably am. I have no ticket to defend myself, having switched seats, and thus relocate to a standing position nearby. 
3:39 a.m. - The old lady with whom I switched seats is still in my seat, sleeping soundly, although her kids have been kicked out of theirs. I do not have the heart to boot her out. 
4:08 a.m. - Some smiling Chinese guy in a black wifebeater and with many tattoos gives me his seat. I guiltily sit. 
4:34 a.m. - My eyes, on their sixth day of having only one contact lens between them, start to ache mightily. 
4:48 a.m. - I get up, smile at the kind seat-sharer, and make my one and only bathroom trip of the twenty-two-hour train ride.
4:51 a.m. - I go stand near my occupied seat; the old lady is still sleeping with a happy smile on her face. I wonder how long I should let her stay; there are still fifteen hours to go. 
5:50 a.m. - I see an empty seat sort of near mine and sit. There are a bunch of old dudes snoozin' there. 
6:20 a.m. - The sun starts to rise, people start to get up and brush their teeth and pull their breakfasts together. 
6:42 a.m. - The old dudes around me start asking each other, "Where do you think this foreigner dude is from?" "I think he is French." "I think he is from Germany." 
6:43 a.m. - I smile and say, "I am an American." They nod. 
6:46 a.m. - The old dudes around me start asking each other, "How old do you think this foreigner dude is?" "I think he is twenty-five." "No, he is older."
6:47 a.m. - I smile and say, "I am twenty-seven." They nod, and one says, "Your beard makes you look thirty-five." 
6:56 a.m. - The old dudes bust out some sunflower seeds, start going to town on them, and insist that I indulge. So I do. I feel like one of the gang, not talking, just munching away, and am glad to be with them.  
7:04 a.m. - One of the old guys asks me if I have eaten; I say I've got an apple for later. He gets out and gives to me two plastic-wrapped eggs and a wrapped sausage that probably causes cancer, all of which I receive quite humbly. 
7:19 a.m. - A security guard shows up and yells at the entire train car (at least a hundred people) about something gross that's been placed in the garbage by someone. The old dudes and I exchanged amused grins. 
7:26 a.m. - The train stops, and some dude gets on and tells me that I am, of course, in his seat. I go, shrugging at the old guys. 
7:28 a.m. - Nearby, some other, younger dude comes and kicks the top half of the old lady, which was lying on his seat, out and away, so I join in and kick the bottom half of the old lady, which was lying on my seat, out and away. She goes. The whole Uyghur family that was originally in and around my seat - and that is going to Beijing - has been displaced. I wonder where they were supposed to be, if not here.
7:35 a.m. - The younger dude starts asking me curious questions. I see it is critical that I demonstrate that my command of Chinese is minimal. 
7:38 a.m. - The younger dude takes a picture with me on his phone. 
7:40 a.m. - A seven-year-old boy sitting across from us starts asking me curious questions. We all just laugh. 
7:50 a.m. - The boy and the young dude next to me start bantering; I gratefully zone out, out of the public's eye. 
9:35 a.m. - The old dudes who I was sitting next to earlier pass me two more eggs and some honey wheat crackers. 
9:59 a.m. - I hear the seven-year-old boy ask the young guy, "Why does the foreigner have a beard?"
11:16 a.m. - The seven-year-old is itching for attention and interaction, but his parents are sleeping and the young guy is clearly sick of playing. I pull out some paper and colored pens, and we draw for the next hour and a half. 
12:37 p.m. - Two wrapped sausages, a noodle pack, and an iced tea - my favorite - are passed to me by the old dudes, but they indicate clearly that these food items are not from them but from the guy who kicked me out of the seat by them. I smile; he smiles. 
2:14 p.m. - Another sausage hits me in the chest, but this one is from the seven-year-old boy and his family. 
3:02 p.m. - My legs feel like they are not there. 
3:37 p.m. - I get a text from James, who is also on a train (in a sleeper car, not sitting in a seat like I have been). He says his train trip has been "evanescent." 
4:22 p.m. - I get the headphones out. The seven-year-old looks at me curiously.
4:24 p.m. - The seven-year-old listens to the first Dr. Dre song he's ever heard. He says he likes it. 
4:42 p.m. - I can't feel my butt. 
5:15 p.m. - The young guy sitting next to me leaves and is replaces by some chick who looks my age. 
5:47 p.m. - The chick's head comes to rest on my shoulder, due to uncontrollable sleep or uncontrollable desire.
6:16 p.m. - The train jolts violently; the chick leans the other way; it seems like more and more people are smashing on the train at every stop.
7:52 p.m. - The train enters the city of Beijing.
8:11 p.m. - The train stops; we all pour off and wave good-bye. I will never see any of them again. But, I am back in Beijing, and all is well.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Summer 2013: Jiayuguan

The town of Jiayuguan isn’t much to write about, and so I will try to keep the post about it here short (maybe) and photo-based (definitely). The calling card of this 230,000-person city is that it used to be the westernmost post of various Chinese dynasties back in the day; further west, there was only desert and awesome, roaming bands of Central Asian warriors. Thus, it was a key point on the Silk Road in for the defense of old China. 

Of the four or five places I went, the most connected to this “last safehold” idea was the Jiayuguan Fort. This was absolutely the last fortification against the wildness of the wilderness. The fort lay between the Qilian Mountains to the south and the Black Mountains (not to be confused with the Black Hills) to the north, so anyone who wanted to come into Chinar from the west would have to deal with this fort. Also stated repeatedly on Wikipedia and in my Lonely Planet guide was the fact that “exiled criminals, poets, soldiers, and ministers” would be sent westward from here, into the desert, into exile, never to return – a fact that was at no point stated at the fort or in its museum.


Anyway, I went there. To the fort. There were plenty of crappy touristy things to do, and there was a lot of construction, but the fort remained. 
 
The fort's eastern construction:


The fort's western construction: 

 

A wall in the fort without any construction work: 
 
 

A breezeless day: 

 

A spirited performance at the fort: 

 

Either a) some ladies getting a second (or, perhaps, a third) opinion on some earrings b) an exhibit of mannequins being encroached upon by an Iowan:

 

Another constructionless wall: 

 

This is the road that lead out of the western gate of the fort, on which the aforementioned poets, ministers, soldiers, and criminals would have walked out to their impending deaths in the desert:


What the aforementioned soldiers, ministers, poets, and criminals would have seen were they to have looked over their shoulders one last time as they walked out to their impending deaths in the desert:


This here's the Great Wall of China, running muddily southward from the fort into the wilderness: 

 

The best picture I took at the fort, not just because it's the last picture about the fort, either. The reflection in my aviators is the western gate:

 

Similarly – sort of – was the Overhanging Great Wall. It was less cool and more normal. Originally built in 1539, restored in 1987, in honor of the Twins’ first World Series championship. What questions do you have? 

 
 

 

Similarly – for real – was this other section of the Great Wall that was just sitting in the middle of nowhere. There was a hole in it so cars could drive to the other side. I climbed up on and over it. Compared to the Great Wall near Beijing, this section just seems to be a pile of mud. Not that great. But interesting. 



Nearby was a fake folk village of sorts. It was on a fairly cool section of a river and had a near bridge hanging over it, but other than that, it wasn’t enormously impressive. And it looked like a storm was about to descend. 


 

That last big ol’ spot near Jiayuguan – and the one that doesn’t fit in with the other tourist attractions in any way, shape, or form – was the July 1st Glacier, so named because of its discovery date (July 1, 1958)(if I discovered a glacier, it would be named “Reuben Thomas Haggar Glacier” for sure, not the day on which I discovered it…what modest people must have found it). My attendance at the glacier on the last day of my trip can be credited to the aforementioned James (who was there a few days prior, scoped it out, and provided excellent texting guidance) and the Chinese railway system, which had no tickets to Beijing on July 27th or 28th like I was hoping for. So I had some time to kill. 

I took a train ninety kilometers southwest of Jiayuguan and then some dude’s expensive tourist bus way, way into the Qilian Mountains – a four-hour expedition – with a bunch of other tourists, and then we were all turned loose on some trail further into the rockiness. And, to the glacier. 


 



And that was that. Three days was a bit much for Jiayuguan, but. I got a ticket home as soon as I could and enjoyed some parks ‘n’ thangs when I wasn’t giving the tourism industry tons of my money. No need to go back. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer 2013: Dunhuang

Dunhuang at first seemed to be full of cons, but it ended up being overwhelmed by pros. Initially, I couldn’t find jack. The bus station simply did not exist, at least where my Lonely Planet guide said it did. The hostel I hurried looked up and booked* was equally impossible to find. Every taxi driver seemed to think that honking at me and my backpacks would solicit business. All throughout my search for things during the first morning, rain threatened.

But, as I eventually began finding things, doing stuff, and meeting various people, the pros started to outweigh the cons, easily.

1. The hostel I landed for myself (and for two friends who were staying the next night) was sick. It was admittedly super hard to find, but after that: great atmosphere, solid location, nice staff, clean dorms and bathroom, other foreigners, computers, huge dog. Decent price of 50 RMB a night. I could go on. But I won’t. Thank you, Charley Johng’s Hostel, No. 11 Feng Qing Cheng, Dunhuang, China. Third floor  



2. Next to the hostel, there was an enormous spread of outdoor seating and an enormous spread of barbecued meat vendors. And a night market. I ate there twice; once, alone, and I spilled greasy lamb meat all over my shorts (that hadn’t been washed in two weeks anyway), and once with the friends to be mentioned later, and I didn’t spill anything when I was with them. Even the beans.


3. During the day, Dunhuang wasn’t much to look at. But at night, the city was cheesily but happily lit up by a vast assortment of lights. The pictures below will suffice, I hope.



 

 

 

4. I met (“met”?) a variety of people here, some planned but mostly unexpected. There was the dude out on some street with a little English who kept saying “I love America” and “I want…to…drink with you” at 11 p.m. one night. There were the two English wayfarers whom I met at the hostel and from whom I heard quite the stories**. There was obviously the super nice old lady who let me march unannounced into her guesthouse in the middle of the night and still offered me a bed. There was the taxi driver who said I spoke Chinese very well (I didn’t) and gave me his phone number so I could get to the Mogao Caves the next day, and then there was the other taxi driver who ultimately did take me to the Mogao Caves the next day, who showed me that he had a lot of hair on his stomach, and who asked if Americans had large penises. But the best were the people I planned to meet: James, one of the dudes I’d hiked with in Tian Shan the week before, and one of his cronies, J.J. It’d been a long few days roaming around solo, and I was quite blessed when those two dudes showed up to hang out, even though it was only for one afternoon.

 

5. Crescent Moon Lake and the sand dunes surrounding it were major positive aspects of Dunhuang. The city is sort of decorated with this desert theme…sort of…and this lake+sand complex is one of the reasons. Or the reason. It’s true that the tourism industry tried to completely destroy the beauty of this area with its money-making schemes***, but they couldn’t quite pull it off. The sand dunes were huge and windy and not that full of people; I climbed several and liked them all. Crescent Moon Lake was nice to look at and sit by. But the sand was better.

 

 




6.  The highlight of Dunhuang! The thing that puts it on the map! The attraction that brings people from all around! It’s what Roger Maris is to North Dakota, Slipknot is to Iowa, and T-Duck is to Minnesota. One of the most famous sight-seeing destinations in western China: the Mogao Caves, full of Buddhist carvings. Some facts:
  • There is this big old canyon wall 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang, and in the canyon wall are hundreds of man-made caves.
  • The oldest cave is dated 366 A.D., and for hundreds of years, more and more were created by whoever felt devout enough in his or her Buddhist faith walk.
  • Inside each cave is some form of Buddhist art: statues, wall paintings, pillars, and various other carvings and figures.
  • The caves were quite popular when the Silk Road was in use, but after people quit walking it in the 1300's, the Mogao Caves also fell out of frequent use and were buried by sand and forgotten by time.
  • In 1899 the caves were rediscovered by a Chinese Taoist, but the governor of the province ordered him to reseal significant sections of the cave back up, an order which ultimately didn't stick.
  • In the early 20th century, many European explorers came and took tons of stuff – mostly manuscripts – from the caves by bribing the people in charge.
  • Throughout the 1900’s, more and more measures were taken to preserve the caves and their Buddhist contents.
  • There are similar but smaller caves all over that part of China.
  • You can’t take pictures inside the caves, even though James did.
  • Now each of the caves is protected by a locked door, which only designated tour guide people can open.  

Now you know. James, J.J., and I showed up there and went through the caves one hot Friday afternoon, understanding little but admiring everything. Most of the caves were similar; there was a statue or statues of some Buddhist figures at the rear of the cave, and the walls and ceiling were covered in paintings of other Buddhist scenery or symbolism, sometimes exquisite and varied in scenery, sometimes impressively repetitious. The caves were usually about the sizes that normal Midwestern American bedrooms come in. But with much less interior lighting.


There were two sweet exceptions to the fairly standard cave layout. One was a huge huge huge Buddha that just went up and up and up. We couldn’t really see the top because the cave was too narrow. The feet of this Buddha – which were the main things we could closely inspect – were at least three times as long as we were tall. The other exception was another, less-huge Buddha who was lying down and was covered in dust. Behind this lazy guy was a crowd of figures with boring expressions. This Buddha was my favorite. I didn’t note how big its feet were, though.  

 

There was also a museum with some interesting info to supplement what we’d seen in the caves. Pictured below is a page from the Christian Bible that was found in Central Asia and a display of how the Buddhist figures in the caves were actually put together.


 

That was Dunhuang. Nice enough place, and nicer still when you’ve got entertaining people to spend time with. But, not nice enough to stop me from getting on a bus for Jiayuguan – where the western end of the Great Wall lies – less than forty-eight hours after arriving. Toodles.


*I go into a building that said “Internet Café” in big, English letters. Inside were forty unoccupied computers and two occupied computers. I stood there for a moment. One of the computer users finally looked up and scampered over. I told him I wanted to use a computer by making keyboard-banging motions with my fingers and hands. He nodded, thought, and then said, “You…want…to do…what…on computer?” I said, “Internet. Wang shang,” and smiled. He nodded, thought, rushed over to the computer he’d been using, closed down whatever game he’d been playing, and offered me his seat. I hesitantly sat down while eyeing the other forty empty computers. He stood behind me, watching. I went onto hostelworld.com and quickly scouted out where I could stay that night; the hostel I had booked earlier was full. I found somewhere and was about to book, with my credit card, when I realized the kid was still standing there, watching everything over my shoulder. I thought about shooing him away but then figured he probably didn’t get up this morning and think, “Today…I’m going to steal some foreigner’s credit card number!” So I quickly typed in what I needed to type in, booked, sort of looked at that map to see where the hostel was, and then left, feeling awkward.

**The most noteworthy one, though inappropriate for younger readers (fortunately, I am sure there are none), went like this: these two dudes I met at the hostel were in Beijing a few weeks prior, and they had met Guy A, an English dude, and Guy B, an English dude, at a bar. In the course of discussion, Guy A talked about his girlfriend, who’d done a nursing placement in Vietnam a few months before. Guy B had also been in Vietnam during the same time period and talked about his partying escapades and women he’d slept with. In the course of discussion, it came to light that Guy B had slept with Guy A’s girlfriend in Vietnam, and then there these two English guys were, meeting awkwardly in Beijing. The two guys I was talking to were merciless. They also ran into Guy A again in Xi’an later, hundreds of kilometers away. And were merciless again. Small world.

***ATVs, sandboarding (more like wakeboarding and less like waterboarding), camel rides, etc. There were so many camels. There were also wickedly bright orange booties that could be rented to keep the sand out of yo’ shoes. I didn’t indulge.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summer 2013: Between Urumqi and Dunhuang

And that’s just when things got ugly. 

I thought they wouldn’t! I thought everything was going to be fine, because my last day in Urumqi – or, what I thought would be my last day – started off nicely. I perused through the Urumqi Autonomous Region Museum and learned lots about the scads of ethnic minorities – Uygurs, Hui, Xibe, Khalkhas, Tajik, Russian, Tartar, Daur, Uzbek, and Manchu folks – in Xinjiang, what they made, wore, lived in, and believed, and about some incredibly old burial grounds and cemeteries that had been discovered in the more desolate parts of Xinjiang, and the four mummies that had been discovered there: the Lou Lan Beauty, a soldier named Zhang Xiong, a 3800-year-old lady from Xiaohe, and a man and woman from Qiemo from 800 B.C., and about some cool paintings from the Xinjiang region…although I could only look. And that was all good. And then I meandered on down to People’s Park and sat in the shade and wrote and read and watched old people dance. Can China add to its extensive list of exports its park culture? It’s sweet, chill, and always happenin’, even on a Tuesday afternoon.     
 
And that was all good. So was the chuanr I had before getting to the train station around 7 p.m. to catch my 8:59 p.m. train to Liuyuan. All good.     
 
But. As I mentioned, things got ugly. And it was at this point that that happened.   
 
I tried to enter the station through what I thought was the correct gate, but…no, no. I was motioned over to a huge, stagnant line that had queued behind a big paper sign that bore the train’s number (K1352…a number I’ll never forget). So I went to wait in that line. At 7:45 p.m. On Tuesday. 
 
 
At 8:15 or so, a guard lady came plowing through the substantial crowd yelling something into her microphone thing. And the substantial crowd reacted. Everyone got up, looked around bewilderedly, and became generally unrestful. Some people left. Some people stayed. More people kept joining the line, though, having been turned away at the correct gate.   
 
I have no idea what the guard lady said. I don’t now. I never will. But whatever she said must have explained why, by the time the K1352 train was supposed to leave, all of its passengers were still sitting on the ground or on their bags outside the train station.   
 
8:59 p.m. passed. 9:00 passed. 10:00 passed. I didn’t really know what to do. I obviously wasn’t going to leave, as I had nowhere to go. I thought about inquiring with the guard lady. But she didn’t look very approachable, and she’d already gotten swarmed when she’d made her inflammatory announcement. I considered calling any one of many Chinese-speaking friends in Beijing. But pride kept me in check. 
 
 
I finally decided to ask, in my terrible Chinese, the two young dudes behind me what the problem was. I asked them if they knew why we hadn’t left yet. This was probably the smartest thing I could have done, it turns out. The older of the two dudes told me that he knew, so I asked, “Well…what is it?” He said something that I didn’t understand. Then we chit-chatted for a bit, as people do in lines and when they don’t really speak the same language. But after “chatting” a bit – or looking at each other in confusion – they let me sit on one of their duffle bags, and I showed them my China Lonely Planet, and then we were friends.   
 
The younger dude – probably somewhere in the 16-19 age range – was super skinny, had really emo hair, smiled often, spoke Mandarin that was impossible to understand (or maybe it was just me)(probably it was just me), and was a curious, happy young boy. He grabbed my copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and leafed through it for a while; I doubt he understood a word of it (which was only slightly worse than I was doing with it…sorry, Nasty). The older of the two was very reserved, composed, and seemed to know what was going on. He seemed to have a quiet confidence, one that I felt I could trust. 

At 11:00 p.m. the guards suddenly and fervently shoved everyone into the straightest line I have ever seen in China. “Zou le!” said the old dude, and we smashed into the queue. Everyone rushed through the K1352 checkpoint, through security, up the stairs, and into the waiting hall, where…we waited another twelve hours for the K1352 train to leave. 

We didn’t get seats in the waiting hall, so we sat on those dudes’ bags, or wandered around. I found an unoccupied bench on the first floor around 4:30 a.m., but around 5:00 a.m. the station started bustling again, so no sleep was had. Most people threw down some newspapers or blankets (Why did they have blankets? Maybe they expected to have to sleep at the train station.) on the floor and just sprawled out anywhere they could. It was sort of hilarious walking around watching/looking at everyone who was conked out. They looked dead. 
 
At 6 a.m. the guards came by and ushered many ticket holders onto their trains. We stayed put, though; it wasn’t our train that was leaving. But we did relocate to some seats. At 8 a.m. I was trying to put one of my contacts back in, and it ripped in half. Sweet. At 10 a.m. I had reached the conclusion that I should just eat my 112 RMB ticket to Liuyuan and go get one to Beijing. But, as I was contemplating this move, the older dude nudged me and again said, “Zou le!” and the guards let us through to board our train. We left at 11 a.m… On Wednesday. Fourteen hours late. 
 
I had a hard seat on the train, and I’d heard horror stories from David Emmert about such seats, but no one was really sitting by. Maybe there weren’t as many people because of the extremely tardy departure time. So I spread out and tried to sleep. The older dude came from wherever he was supposed to be sitting – too many people there, he said – and sat across from me with the same sleeping and spreading out agenda. Good, quiet company. 
 
The train ride from Urumqi to Liuyuan lasted another eleven hours and was largely uneventful. Reading and sleeping and looking out the window at the increasingly barren landscape going by. At long last, around 9:45 p.m. the train started slowing, a guard dude came by yelling, “Liuyuan! Liuyuan!” and the older dude slapped me on the back and said, “Zou le!” one final time. I smiled, told him as best I could that I’d really appreciated his help, and climbed down from the train. I hope blessings are heaped high upon the heads of those two guys; I wouldn’t have known at all what to do without them. 
 
The interior of Liuyuan Station was barren. The city was actually 130 kilometers north of my actual destination – Dunhuang – where I had a hostel booked. Although there were frequent buses that ran between the two, I figured they’d be done running for the night and that I’d just have to find a hotel somewhere in Liuyuan and go to Dunhuang in the morning. 
 
Wrong. Upon exiting the station, I was attacked by people who wanted to help me and get paid by me. “Dunhuang! Dunhuang! Taxi!” they bellowed. I smiled and shook my head, hoping to stick to my plan. “Forty! Forty kuai!” one dude barked. Hmm! I could live with that, to go 130 kilometers. So I crammed into this dude’s taxi – a real one – with three Chinese university students, and we sped through the night to Dunhuang. 
 
Ninety minutes later I directed the driver in a language that I didn’t really know to an address I wasn’t really sure about in a city I’d never been to. In the middle of the night. Sweet. I got out on some dimly lit, unmarked street, and I realized I’d spent all of ten minutes that day, July 24, not in some sort of transportation structure (train station, train, taxi). What a waste of time. 
 
I tramped around in the dark for about fifteen minutes. I passed a garden villa, and then a sketchy-looking building marked “Accommodation” in English (it looked like a bomb shelter), and then a shop where I bought some snacks. I was where I thought the hostel was, but I saw nothing. So I called the hostel; the receptionist didn’t speak English. I told him I was going to get a taxi, and did, and the receptionist told the taxi driver where to go. The taxi driver promptly did a u-turn and drove for some twenty-eight seconds, back to the bomb shelter that was marked “Accommodation,” and pointed me inside. Sigh. 
 
I went in. No one was there. I went further. Some sleepy-looking old dude emerged with his arms spread out wide, as if to say, “What are you doing here? What do you want?” What could I possibly want in such a place, with my bags and my travel-weary face and my Lonely Planet book in hand? I said, “Nihao…is this Dunhuang International Youth Hostel?” He waved his arms around. “Zhe ge shi fandian ma?” He waved his hands around again. “You fangzi ma?” More waving. No talking. We stood there looking at each other. Then he walked to the door and pointed across the street to an equally cruddy-looking establishment. I left, annoyed. 
 
I entered the equally cruddy-looking establishment. Immediately an old, old woman – she looked like the grandma from “The Wedding Singer” – jumped up from where she’d been waiting for a foreigner to arrive. “Zhe ge difang shi bing guan man?” I asked tentatively. “Ni yao fangzi ma?” she replied brightly. Yep, I do. I do want a room. Thank you for understanding. 
 
She led my tired, weary body upstairs to some super ghetto room. The walls and door were blankets; the bed was some 2x4’s and blankets, but it was comfortable enough. “How much?” “Thirty kuai.” Done. I feel violently onto the bed and thought no further.