Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Misadventures in Transportation - Zhangye Edition

I awoke excited to be leaving Zhangye to make my way to Shanghai that afternoon.  I needed to escape the cold city where I couldn't communicate with anyone, and I was thrilled to meet up with a friend from the States in Shanghai - a familiar face that I had known for years, a person I could actually have a proper conversation with.  I packed my bag and went downstairs for breakfast, except that there was no one working in the breakfast area.  When I asked the staff, they just responded with, "no".  I went into the restaurant area anyway, which was strewn with dirty plates and ashtrays (despite the no smoking signs), and walked up to the small bar that served as the kitchen.  It was similarly filthy, full of containers of food sitting out, a couple of hot plates and dirty pans, one with a pile of oily mushrooms still sitting in it.  I cleaned out a pan as best I could and used it to make toast, finding a couple of hard boiled eggs that I ate with it.  No one at the hostel seemed to notice or care.

I checked out around noon, stowing my bag and catching a bus into town to visit the Temple of the Giant Buddha in a plan to kill some time until my flight that afternoon.  I had to wander a bit and ask for directions, but I eventually found the actual entrance, down a narrow, tree-lined street.  I entered the temple complex and walked straight up to the primary temple where the Buddha was housed, which truly was impressive - the clay figure nearly as long (I guessed) as the one I had seen in Bangkok.  Sadly, the room was very dark, so it was hard to take in all the details, especially of the figures directly behind and on either side of the Buddha.  The walls also had interesting paintings of Chinese figures, and the backside of the Buddha held other smaller images.

While there were other buildings in the complex, I breezed through them relatively quickly, one holding art, the other calligraphy.  I meandered slowly through the complex, filled with trees and small benches, settling onto one space for a bit to write until a man's loud spitting and talking eventually drove me away.  I left, making my way back out to the road to a cafe I had spotted earlier, knowing I had plenty of time before my flight.  I sat down in Cheng Bang Coffee, delighted that it was empty (no smoke!), that they had cappuccinos, and that they had a menu with photos on it!  I ordered some simple fried rice and a cappuccino, pulling out my laptop to write and even taking some time to FaceTime on their wifi.  I paid the bill and exchanged messages with my friend in Shanghai about logistics, then I caught the bus back to the hostel, still a pretty good way outside of the center of town.

It was then that it dawned on me.  I glanced at my flight info and had the horrifying realization that the flight left at 17:55.  Not 7:55.  And it was already 5:20.  After the slowest 10 minute bus ride in history, I dashed into the hostel to grab my bag, then wasted precious seconds trying to flag down a taxi until the hostel manager recruited a driver for me (for twice the normal rate).  I got in and we went, but traffic at 5:30 made the drive excruciatingly slow.  As we got closer, I offered up silent prayers for delays, slowly feeling hope slip away as we neared the airport.  It wasn't until we arrived though, at 6:10 and exactly 15 minutes after departure time, that I started to break down.  The doors of the tiny airport were locked.  The one flight of the day was gone.  I was stuck in the town I had wanted to leave the day before for an entire other day, and I only had myself to blame.  

To make things worse, my driver found the whole thing absolutely hilarious, pointing and laughing at me when we encountered an airport employee who confirmed that yes, the flight was long gone and no, there were no other flights.  I borrowed the phone of the employee, calling eLong to cancel the flights to collect any refund I could, and get information on flights the following day.  Thankfully, the eLong representative I spoke to was incredibly helpful, managing to get me partial refunds on both flights as last-minute cancellations, and giving me times and prices for options the following day.  Initially I just told my driver to take me to the train station, though I'm pretty sure he didn't understand what I actually said.  I eventually borrowed his phone to call eLong back and just rebook for the following day.  I estimated my losses at about $250, but the train would have arrived only a couple of hours prior to the flight, wasn't guaranteed to have seats, and probably wouldn't have been that cheap anyway.  I showed the driver a post-it note with the hostel name and address in Chinese just to confirm that I did want to go back there (again, pretty sure he had no idea I had even asked to go to the train station instead), and he managed to sideswipe a guardrail attempting to read it.  Lovely.

We finally made it back, and my driver continued laughing at me, telling the entire staff of the hostel about how hilarious it was that I had made him drive all the way to the airport and missed my flight.  Thankfully I managed to find the only nice person who worked at the hostel, a person who seemed legitimately concerned and wanted to help, and he gave me a double room for the night for the price of the single I had been staying in (which was now occupied).  I nearly collapsed into the room, mentally drained from the previous few hours.  I did manage to find my way downstairs, thankfully meeting another foreigner - an Israeli girl who spoke a bit of Mandarin.  She was sharing some food with some locals and invited me to join, which I did for a while, until retreating to my room to rest.  I also heard from a fellow-traveler friend who had also misread her flight information and missed her flight.  She was "stuck" in paradise - Hawaii - but the cost to change her ticket - to Australia - was going to be astronomical.  Put in perspective, my situation felt a bit better!

The next morning, I ran into the same scenario with breakfast, when the lady on staff said, "no breakfast" when I inquired.  Through a translation app, I learned that the person who usually makes breakfast was "resting". Unbelievable.  Again, I made my own breakfast, 'borrowing' a pair of hard-boiled eggs and making a couple of pieces of plain toast on a pan.  I ran into the girl I had met the night before, hiding out in the common area, very disturbed because the driver had attempted to make a move on her inappropriately, and she was scared to stay there.  I had no idea what to do in that situation, but I urged her to tell the one kind member of the staff and to connect with friends as soon as she possibly could.

Thoroughly ready to leave, I checked out (again) at noon and caught a cab, negotiating a reasonable fare with the driver to get me to the airport.  Except only a few minutes into the drive, he stopped to pick up someone else!  And he went out of the way to take them to a destination!  I told him my rate had just gone down, he refused, so I got out of the taxi, not paying a cent.  I marched up to the next taxi, agreed on the lower fare immediately, and off we went without issue.  Somehow with all that drama, it still took less time to get to the airport than it had the previous day.

Nearly two hours early - there was NO WAY I was missing my flight this time - I settled in with an expensive cup of coffee and did some writing until the plane arrived.  Less than two hours later, we were in Xi'an.  I was actually too early to check into my next flight to Shanghai, but I waited it out, checking in, dropping my luggage, and settling in at a small restaurant.  I ordered a 'Chinese hamburger' (one of those pockets of flatbread with meat like I had tasted in the Muslim Quarter days prior), and a milkshake, as a Brazilian woman sat down and began complaining directly to me as she had trouble communicating with the waitress, "I speak English, French, and German, in addition to Spanish and Portuguese - five languages is enough!"  Yes, I thought, it can be incredibly frustrating.  But it is their country after all, and we're just visiting.  We have to take the frustrations in stride and enjoy it for what it is.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Beauty and Challenges in Zhangye

My decision to go to Zhangye was a risky one, I understood.  I knew nothing about the location itself, I had talked to no one who had been there and recommended it, and even the local Chinese I met didn't seem to be familiar with it at all.  I had seen photos of the Zhangye Danxia Landform on a few different lists of "unbelievable places that actually exist" - a range of small mountains with bright bands of colors - red and mustard yellow and even blue.  Being familiar with photo editing software capabilities, I was sure that the colors had been enhanced a bit, but even a more dull version of those photos seemed incredible.  I knew there was likely no reason for me to ever be in that part of the world again, so why not take a risk and try to see this incredible work of nature?  When I researched the location online, I also discovered there were some other amazing sights nearby - temples carved out of the sides of mountains - that could also make the visit worth it.  Unfortunately the reviews for the only hostel in town were dreadful, but I decided to take my chances.  

The trip started out on a down note when I rushed to my gate at the airport only to discover that the flight would be delayed an hour due to weather issues in Zhangye.  When we arrived in my wildcard destination, it was freezing outside (okay, it was in the 50s, but a huge departure from the tropical climates I had been visiting), and it was raining steadily.  I bundled up as best I could and caught a taxi to the only hostel in town, a YHA property.  The hostel was well outside the center of town, and I was somewhat horrified when I saw how cold and dingy the lobby was, and how many random men were hanging around inside smoking despite two no smoking signs.  Through the assistance of a random guest - no one working at the hostel spoke a word of English - I was taken to see a dorm.  It looked awful - dirty cement floors and hard-as-rocks beds with half disintegrating mats on them.  The common bathrooms were even worse - they were absolutely disgusting, and the staff made some excuse about how they didn't have time to clean them.  The one single room in the property wasn't terrible, so despite it costing a bit more than I would like (they refused to bargain at all) and it not having heat, I took it for some solace.  I emerged later for some food, finding a spot where I got a hot pot meal, but they dumped so many chilis on top that I could hardly eat it!

I had spotted exactly one foreigner in the hostel, a guy named Xavi from Spain, who had arranged to go out to the Danxia Landform the following morning with some Chinese girls.  Thankfully, they were happy to include me, and I found myself awake and bundled in as many layers as I could manage around 5:15 the next morning, well before sunrise.  We piled into a van - four Chinese girls who worked together in Shenzehn (and thankfully spoke some English), a Chinese guy named Chang, Xavi, and myself.  We stopped along the way for some very fresh warm bread and juice boxes of apple juice and soy milk mixed together for a quick breakfast, arriving just as the sky was beginning to lighten up.  We then piled into one of the park shuttle buses to be taken out to a lookout point where a handful of people were already perched.  We made it just in time to see the sun peak from the horizon, flooding the sky with pink light.  We stayed up there looking out over the horizon until the sun had fully made its presence known, gazing out over the rock formations opposite as the bits of striped color that make it so unique began to slowly come into view.

We decided to visit a few other lookout points first and return to this one towards the end of our visit, when the sun was higher in the sky and could better illuminate the brilliant colors.  We hopped aboard the shuttle, taking it to the 'first' stop, which had a number of small paths and viewing platforms flowing out from the drop off point.  We made our way up to the various viewing platforms, the rounded orange and white hills opposite the sun beautifully illuminated with the low light, while those to the east remained dark.  The Chinese girls took endless photos, posing dozens of times, recruiting myself and Xavi to join in when we were nearby.

At the next stop, we crossed a small hill and climbed way up to the top of the highest viewpoint in the park, with a stunning view of the hills in every direction.  We passed poorly translated signs all along the path, adding some humor to the climb.

Our next stop was one of the most stunning to me, while very simple.  A very small set of stairs led up to a small platform opposite a large single section of rock with sort of individual folds like rocky pleats at the bottom, each clearly striped with color.

Finally we returned to our sunrise stop, taking in the beautiful colors and the wide landscape in front of us now that the sun was up higher and illuminating those sections of rock that had been hidden before.  We crossed the small barrier (after a local did the same) to take a few quick photos atop a small ridge overlooking the painted valley to the right and the more green areas to the far left.

After seeing each of the stops, we returned once more to stop one, where we could now better see the painted hills on the eastern side of the platform, getting glimpses of some of our other stops far in the background.

Finally we regrouped and made our way back to our driver, loading up the little van and making the long drive back to town, where we immediately all went to lunch, gathering around a circular table in a little dining room at a small restaurant.  As we chatted, awaiting our food, I suddenly looked over to Xavi, who had gone totally pale, eyes rolled back as if he was having a seizure or passed out.  I jumped up and held his head and shoulders and tried to talk to him, and he came to shortly thereafter, sweating and looking ill.  He had passed out and felt sick to his stomach, but he said nothing like that had ever happened to him before.  Edna and I got him a sprite and got him back to the hostel to rest, but the rest of us were concerned and a little freaked out, not knowing what had happened.  Lunch itself was good - there was a chicken dish with noodles that was quite spicy, a really delicious bacony dish, and amazing eggplant and tomato dish that tasted like a ratatouille, and some green veggies and other small dishes.  It was really nice to have the Chinese girls there to order!

I wound up meeting the girls for dinner that evening as well, walking to a nearby spot with homemade noodles.  They made sure that nothing was too spicy for me, and it was all pretty tasty.  Unfortunately, both the girls and Xavi were leaving (he had recovered enough to catch his train and make it safely to his next destination), so I was back on my own in Zhangye.

Up early again, I ate breakfast at the hostel before meeting up with the hostel driver again, as well as two Chinese tourists who spoke very limited English, to venture out to Mati-Si.  After a long drive, we purchased tickets for the town itself and the famous grottos, driving through a beautiful green pine-covered valley, surrounded by tall hills, with prayer flags in pyramidal formations dotting the landscape.  Our first stop was a set of modern pagodas atop a small hill with a view of the famous north Mati-Si Grottos, our next stop.  Here, incredible temples had been carved directly into the soft stone.  First built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), there were a number of rooms formed out of the impressive wall of rock before us.

We first entered the Standing Buddha Hall, which was a huge open space with a tall golden Buddha standing in the center.  Behind the figure, a u-shaped hallway was lined with seated Buddhas that had been smashed (one side was restored).

Next was Mati Temple, a small room to the far right where there is said to be a horseshoe imprint of the holy horse of King Gesar, a hero of Tibet, which lends the space its name (it translates to "horseshoe").

Finally, we entered the most expansive section in terms of the tunnels leading through the rock.  We climbed up one level, looking out the windows in the rock, which stood in front of individual rooms of figures.  The window areas themselves were mostly covered in colorful prayer flags, lending a low, colorful, but muted light to the space.  We crawled up higher, through a steep stone staircase up to another level that was laid out similarly, then finally up to a central space with almost no natural light, but a sectioned off wall of icons, a monk standing watch to ensure no photos were taken.  We stepped into another small adjacent room down a flight of stairs with one image and a massive yellow candle, then we turned and followed the path back the way we had come.  First up, then down and down and down the steep stone steps through the narrow passageways.

Finally back outside, we loaded into the van and drove a bit further up into the dark green valley.  Apparently horseback riding had been an option, but it was more "be led down a short path" than actual riding, so we declined, taking a walk up to a pasture area, past small restaurants and guesthouses where locals spoke the regional dialect and even looked different from the typical Chinese population I had encountered.  The guy in our group couldn't understand what they were saying, and he was surprised when I told him that we didn't have different regional languages in the US, only accents.  As we walked back to the car, I couldn't help but notice a number of other small pagodas carved into the rock high above us.

We returned to the car, making one last stop closer to the entrance at a smaller set of temples carved into the rock.  It didn't take us too long to explore, though to get up to one required some basic rock climbing maneuvers to chimney up a small space with the aid of some hand holds and a strategically placed wooden plank and metal bar to actually reach the room, which was furnished relatively simply, with a Buddha image and some small paintings.  We walked through the other small rooms built into the stone, some with offerings of incense or red ribbons, then left the complex, pausing briefly to check out a number of small pagodas carved into the rock, some decorated with tiny Buddha figurines, before climbing back into the van to return to Zhangye.

The ride back was odd, as we picked up random people here and there and dropped them off.  We didn't return until after 3, and having not had lunch, we went straight to the same restaurant where we had eaten lunch the day before.  Thankfully, this time I could order by pointing to a photo of our lunch spread from the previous day, getting a pork and eggplant dish, supplanted by a 'fungi' dish and some greens.  Since we had such a late lunch, I stuck to yogurt and a Snickers bar for dinner, not wanting to attempt to order anywhere on my own.  I was tired of this city, of not being able to speak to anyone or understand anything, of being cold, of not being able to order food, and I couldn't wait to leave the following day.  Little did I know what misadventures awaited me.