Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sasha, I can get into Blogger but not post, so you'll have to do one more. Don't worry, you'll get a lamb kebab out of all this.

I arrived in Xining this morning at 7 after a 17-hour bus ride. My Lonely Planet guidebook touted it as being 14-16 hours, possibly even 12, whereas someone who had made the trip just before told me it would be about 20. The guidebook singled out this ride as bumpy, uncomfortable and smoke-filled, but the gritty sleeper bus was luxurious compared to 15-hour rides in cramped seats over dirt roads. The roads were paved and while I had to sleep something that was a cross between a recliner and an ironing board (a recliner the shape of an ironing board, I suppose), it was nowhere near as bad as billed.

Of course, I slept for 6 hours after I got here after sleeping 9 pm to 6 am on the bus, so it clearly wasn't that comfortable. I also tipped the taxi driver 9 yuan on a 7-yuan taxi ride because I was so excited to get far, far away from the world of dirt roads, chanting monks and cell phone MP3 players that play the same Tibetan song over and over.

The bus ride itself was spectacular, as always. The bus made it as high as 16,000 feet and while the weather didn't get too cold, there was a dusting of snow, along with ice pellets that drilled the bus and an awe-inspiring lightning storm that took place on the endless grasslands.

Xining, or what I've seen of it anyway, is very nice. It's places like this that make China both fascinating and frightening. Xining is a city of 2 million people in a remote province in western China that you've never heard of, and I'd never heard of. Despite the horror of other mystery cities of large size, Xining is very, very pleasant. The air is clean, the sky is blue and the city is developed, clean but not too crowded. As a spectacular bonus, this very cool hostel is located next to an 8-lane rubberized track that seems to be a bequeathal of the Beijing Olympics. I ran a workout of 8 kilometre repeats at a cruising pace with a minute in between, and nearly keeled over after. Xining is at over 7,000 feet, so clearly the best way to adjust to altitude is to run first at 12,000 feet and then work your way down.

A lot of people started running with me on the track, but most were there to play soccer or were university students engaging in some bizarre jump rope contest or a 16-leg race. Still, when you look at China's medal in the women's Olympic marathon, the 20 km racewalk at the current World Championships or even the Cultural Revolution, this is clearly a country and a people with a lot of endurance.

Edit: after I wrote this, the Chinese women went out and nabbed three of the five top spots in the women's marathon at the World Championships, led by winner Xue Bai.

Lastly, notes on absurdity as I've traveled across China:

- I woke up this morning at 5:15 to a Britney Spears song from about a decade ago
- I saw two copies of a two-volume set of the entire works of Proust in the Foreign Languages Bookstore of Chengdu (funnier if you saw Little Miss Sunshine)
- You can buy Oreos pretty much everywhere here, but not a cold drink. Or soap.
- Everybody knows Barack Obama, sure, but the only other foreigner anybody has mentioned? Beethoven.
- I figured how to transliterate my name into Chinese. It uses three characters: hungry, earth and two. Better transliterations are solicited.

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