April 2, 2007 - Zhong Wei, China
Sand in the Shoes
Lock Your Knees Young Man!
After a last minute tip off I found out that my 3-day weekend was starting earlier than I had expected.
I had planned on a early AM bus to Yinchuan - the capital of Ningxia - and then a bus 4-hours back southwest to Zhong Wei. A waste of time, but necessary. Or so I had thought. A train leaves every night from Guyuan to Zhongwei. At 1:37AM. Packing hurriedly I got myself to the train station by 1:15. Poking my way through the waiting room littered with families sleeping on bags of wheat, babies stretched out - split pants in full display - on boxes of apples and head after head draped in awkward fashion on chairs, strangers and anything else nearby.
The ticket window was eerily quiet. Prematurely I counted my blessings.
Tickets were available - and for the absurdly low price of 30 yuan I was on my way. Looking down at my ticket I realize it didn’t have a car number. Much less a seat number. Asking around I realized that the entire station was “mei zuo” - “no seat” tickets.
Great. 5 hours standing on a train in the middle of the night.
And that’s just what I did. I wedged myself in between a pile of bags stuffed in one of the cars washrooms, directly opposite the bathroom. Every few minutes the door would open and waft forth the lovely smell of a squat toilet used by 300 people. Then the former-occupee would shove, crawl and elbow their way out, making sure to step on as many people sleeping on the floor and gawk at the goofy foreigner trying to sleep standing up.
At some point during the night I jerked awake to find a crowd of no less than 5 people staring - open-mouthed - at me. I had somehow managed to doze off, standing.
Dusk was creeping over the short, squat hills and rooftops in Zhong Wei as I stumbled off the train. My sleep-deprived head guided me to a hotel where it took Herculean efforts to convince them to give me a room for 3 hours. I can only imagine what the desk staff thought of me and my short stay. The 3 hour nap and a bowl of noodles later I walked through town to Gao Miao - an impressively tall monastery - in the center of town.
The monastery itself was beautiful - a winding series of catwalks and steep sets of stairs between each level - and it was deserted save a few monks and a family dutifully lighting fake paper money at one of the altars. I wound my way from the ground upward, listening to the small bells hanging off the eaves softly ringing and feeling quite serene. My respect for the Buddhist faith was confirmed when a bald-headed monk quietly greeted me in one of the small side temples.
After we exchange greetings in wonderfully clear English he proceeded to gently ask me of my thoughts on Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He related his thoughts as well and referenced his reading of each faiths’ holy books - each time he came to a point he was careful to word it in a non-confrontational way, each time I prodded for more information he gracefully acquiesced. My past encounters with Buddhist monks in Thailand and in China has left me with a respect that no other religion seems worthy of. The intense desire to combine education - informing oneself - with faith in Buddhism makes people touting other religions shine with ignorance.
Top that off with the fact that this monastery had a basement dedicated to showing the “hell” of each religion with blacklight-lit animatronics? Brilliant.
After bungling which bus station I needed to go to - of course any fool would know its the chuan tou not duan tou - the 45 minute ride out to the edge of the Tengger Desert was as bouncy, potholed and dusty as I could have every hoped for. Our small bus shook and rattled as it made its way through smaller and smaller towns and finally outposts as we neared the desert.
The ground slowly shifted from the omnipresent yellow loess to a shifting orangish hue. Finally coming to a halt at the end of the road our trailing dust cloud overtook us - the sky turned a dull brown color for nearly a minute as we waited patiently for it to pass over - and there in front of me was a sea of dunes.
Each dune snaked seamlessly into the next, the only edges being the ridges slicing along and out of sight like weaving ribbons. I walked from the battered tarmac and stood - feeling rather small - at the base of the first dune, its base menacingly creeping towards me and the road. Resolving to make it to the top, each step was an effort in Sisyphusian nature, every step sliding down ankle deep in sand almost as far as stepping up.
By the top I was walking in a pirate-ish peg-legged gait, my shoes and pants overflowing with sand.
Sliding easily down into the next dune trough I watched as hundreds of black beetles scurried between holes and hundreds of small plants took tentative holds on the dune face - what had seemed a lifeless expanse was teeming with life.
And it went as far as the eye could see.
Tumbleweeds... and no comments. How 'bout livening things up?