Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer Adventure {Getting There}

Our family needed to get out of the city this summer. Throughout the spring months, I prayed for some kind of trip that would be refreshing to our minds, our bodies, our souls, and would be within China, within our budget, and within the realm of something our whole family could take part in and enjoy. We pursued a couple ideas, and then this opportunity to go to Qinghai province with another family who had lived there years ago began to take shape. In the end, it was beyond what we had expected and was an answer to all that we had asked for. I wrote a little each day during our travels, but without internet could not share any of our pictures or words. The next few posts are a compilation of our time and what we experienced along the way.

The Station

We gather together, our two families with 8 children between us, at the North Train Station, like chickens lining up outside the main gate, herding and clucking in groups under the few shade awnings, pecking away at the bits of food we have brought. Tibetan ladies, their skin tanned and leathered, stroll through the crowds, hawking beaded jewelry and silver bracelets. A woman next to us helps her aging father scoop watermelon from hand to mouth, then changes his shirt as he squats on the dirty pavement, pulling a spare from her worn rice bag that doubles as luggage. As the jewelry merchants pass by, she shoos them quietly away, pointing to her baba and then to her head in a twirling motion, he's crazy.

The man to our left discusses minority dialects with his neighbor. Some he finds more difficult to understand, some he can get by with in a conversation. The Chengdu Railway Station is a rainbow of minority groups, the dress alone as colorful as a spice market. This "gateway to the west" does not disappoint with the melting pot of people it brings together. In a country where what most outsiders see is a vast sea of homogeny, we are swimming in rich pool of uniqueness, a reminder that this land teems with a billion individual souls bearing a mark known only by their Creator. Do we see them that way?

The children are a natural magnet for conversation. The woman with her father hurries to give up her small section of the shaded bench so our two littlest ones can sit down. They sit for a moment, but prefer to join their brothers in racing back and forth across the vast lot where travelers going every direction are often tripped up by these little legs, mindless of everyone and everything but reaching the finish line first.

Boarding time. We wrestle our backpacks and food bags, filled with enough to hopefully get us through the 24 hour journey ahead, through lines and more lines, finally landing in our small cabin of 6 beds, stacked three high on each side, open to the narrow hall lined with ten more identical cabins holding 6 more people each. Like chickens packed in a crate, headed to who knows where and hoping we don't lose our heads on the way.

Through the Night

Children on the train are like the Eighth Wonder of the World. They scramble from bed to bed, swinging across the rails like monkeys making a playground of the iron trunks. Quinn is a foghorn, his lungs at full tilt as he bellows about passing trains, rivers and wooded mountains to any who will listen and more often those who will not. 

The evening light is glorious, spilling over the mountain ridges with blankets of golden twilight. My favorite time of day. I am certain, as I always am that we were made to drink and be restored by scenes like these. How can the way the light falls be such a means of love? A gift of grace? It seems almost silly, the amount of power packed into the way the evening falls, but it is there and I am full willing to accept it.

Faint smells of smoke waft down the corridor, a trail of tobacco and burnt embers from the restless men standing in the passageway at the tail end of our car. Even with the smoke and the narrow, hard beds, I am happy. We all are. This means of travel is full of its own challenges... and blessings. There is no roar of jet engines that leave my head and neck throbbing, no weary ache behind the eyes. Instead, we rock with the sway of the rolling cars beneath us and watch as the scenes slowly change from concrete to countryside, to green hills, to wooded mountains, and now the barren red mounds of earth and terraced grasslands.

I sleep fitfully, watching to keep the two next to me from rolling off the bed. The wheels screech too loud and a man trolls on his phone in the midnight hours, crinkling small wrappers as he crunches away on a snack, the sound in my ears like a megaphone and frustrating my efforts to think kindly on my fellow travelers.

The morning comes, a wonder again all on it's own, bathing the window and hall in a fresh wave of glory, and I relent of my hateful thoughts and sip nice and slow and grateful on a thermos of hot coffee, ready to start again.

On the Way Through Xining

Xining is full, as all large cities in China, with the mix of ever modernizing new means of consumerism, the construction everywhere, streets heavy with traffic, the buildings rising daily to sky heights and expanding further into the horizon. Our train stops here, dropping us off in this still somewhat of a throwback, "backwater" city clearly on the edge of what was previously known as China's Siberia, the place of exile-- Qinghai Province. Previous generations have no fond memory of this mountainous, barren earthed landscape on the outer edges of this great country, and we have only dipped our toes into it's easternmost border. There are still thousands upon thousands of miles stretching far into the west.

Our traveling companions (a family of 6 who lived in this region for about 7 years until the visas of all foreigners in that area were revoked in 2008) met confused responses from many older Chinese on their announcement of plans to move to the province from their home in England. "They have no meat there," some would say, it being what they remembered from the days when political offenders had been sent to the region for re-education.

Our ultimate destination is Tongren, a Tibetan town about 3 hours drive from Xining, but first we stop in the city to see a few old friends who previously lived in Tongren. They had been a small team of foreigners doing medical and language work. Some of these friends have since moved on, returning to their home countries after the visas were revoked 5 years ago, but a few have relocated to the larger city of Xining and continue to carry out their work there.

One family has opened a successful coffee roasting and cafe business, which began with the purchase of a small chestnut roaster while they lived in a Tibetan home in Tongren. Now it boasts several locations in Xining and Lhasa and is supplying beans to cafes all over China. We stop for a tour of their quaint factory and eat in their home, where their 5 children romp with ours, playing soccer in the street and eating plates of fresh melon and homemade cookies. They are clearly made for this work, speaking fluent Chinese, Tibetan, and Spanish, and making friendships and a home dripping with hospitality with an ease I can't comprehend.

The next day we lunch with a couple who work as doctors in the local Red Cross Hospital. They are Swiss, speaking German as their native language, conversing with us in English, but carry out their work in Chinese, so they often stop to ask one another terms, and the whole triangle of a brilliant mess in their brains is not only impressive, but absolutely entertaining to watch. The wife is an obstetrician who comes to lunch straight from a string of deliveries. Her face looks tense and drawn when she arrives and though she slips easily into conversation about family and recent events, I can tell she is troubled. When we ask, she tells us her last appointment was with a woman 36 weeks pregnant, who in recent weeks just learned that her baby has Spina Bifida. At the appointment today, the woman has made it clear her decision is to end the pregnancy. Our friend and her husband will talk with the mother again later in the afternoon, and it weighs on all our minds.

We sleep in a simple room at the Lete Hostel, where too many travelers hog the bathroom and we are serenaded to sleep by a man down the hall singing along with his headphones at the top of his lungs. But we all have our own bed and for tonight it is enough. Tomorrow, we head to Tongren.

1 comment:

  1. You are an artist painting vivid pictures with your words allowing me to see snippets of a world that I've never been too. I imagine it can be difficult to find the time to write all this down while caring for your sweet young family but it is appreciated :-)