Day 4's itinerary entailed traveling from Lanzhou to Xining, a city on the eastern edge of Qinghai province, about 300km away. After a quickie breakfast, we climbed onto the bus, and settled down for the drive. It took about 4 hours.
We went straight to the Ta'er Monastery, which is a Tibetan monastery. More info on this site courtesy of chinatrekking:
Lying about 25km southeast from Xining, Ta'er Si , known as Kumbum Monastery in Tibetan, is acknowledged to be one of the six most important monasteries along with the Ganden, Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa, the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse and the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe. Although not nearly as attractive as Labrang, and rather swamped by local tourists, Ta'er Si is nevertheless a good introduction for outsiders to Tibetan culture. Both as the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect , and as the former home of the current Dalai Lama, the monastery attracts droves of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery.
We've been to Tibet, so it all looked very familiar. The colorful monasteries and pagodas, the dimly lit interiors perfumed with yak oil lamps, the long elaborate silk tapestries (thangkas), and the monks in safron robes. There was more of a Chinese influence in the buildings though, some of the monastery roofs had distinct Chinese features.
After that, back on the bus for the next leg of our journey: shopping! *groan-moan-no* We were told in advance that there would be 4 shopping points in the tour, and apparently this was the first one.
Those of you who've been to China on arranged tours know that there are usually a few typical shopping points: chinese medicine, jade, silk and pearls. Oh and tea, don't forget tea. This was a jade one.
K and I had absolutely no interest in jade-shopping. I mean, we like that jade's pretty and green, and we enjoy looking at elaborate pieces in museums, but that's where it ends. We had no interest in buying any.
We trooped into the shop, given 'VIP' badges, showed into the 'VIP' room, and offered cups of tea that were filled to 1/3 (they must have run out of tea with all the customers they'd fleec... ahem, entertained).
A guy came in with a tray of 6 jade pieces, and proceeded to give us an intro on 'good' jade vs 'not-so-good' jade. Several loud yawns from the audience. The guy summed us up real quick. He tucked the tray aside, and courteously said, "Oh there's no need to buy anything, have some tea, and our boss would just like a minute to chat with you."
In comes the boss, a young man in his mid to late twenties, who claimed he was a Burmese Chinese, his father was a Kuomintang member, his family had a jade mine in Burma, he'd been to Taiwan many times, he really likes it and yadda yadda. Man, he was good! He put everyone at ease just chatting about Taiwan-related stuff. He also established that he was an expert on jade.
Anyway, I won't bore you with too many details. Suffice to say, the 'boss' managed to get on friendly terms with several members of our tour group. And ca-ching! One lady bought something ~big~ and even left her personal number and address to him.
I have to say, these Chinese shops have really got the tourists' numbers. The method they used for our Taiwanese tour group was very specific and effective. Wonder what methods they'd use for other nationalities...
We lavishly applauded the shoppers in our midst, because with their generous contribution, we were finally let out of the shop. Phew.
We first entered Xining to go to the shopping point, and my first impression of the city was: it's kinda rundown. Shops were small and dirty. Roads were narrow and cracked. It was dusty and unkempt. There were a lot of Tibetans around, mixing with the Hans and Uighurs.
Our bus also took us round and round a residential area of empty houses. And our tour guide actually tried talking us into investing in a house there! Huh? I'm not sure whether the round-and-round thing was to try and dizzy us up before the shopping trip, or the house-selling was actually serious.
At the time, I was not impressed with Xining and couldn't wait to get out of there.
But the next morning, we left the city via another way, and what a difference! Clean, nice parks, tall buildings, large roads... Why the heck didn't we stay around here instead of the dingy side of town!