Beijing, western railway station, 13:00. The huge station hall is overcrowded and messy. The result of thousands of chinese people pushing each other trying to make their way to their platform! Of course, we get lost. Until a young chinese guy speaking a little bit of english helps us find our way to our departure lounge, which is (no surprise there) as crowed as the rest of the station. Absolutely no place to sit anywhere, even on the floor! As we drop our backpacks, preparing to stand the remaining three hours before the train departure, two chinese ladies kindly make some room on a bench for Mariette. Next thing, they start speaking to us gingerly in mandarin. Misunderstanding, laughter… It’s awesome. We are very proud to manage to gabble a few words in chinese that they understand! 15:57, it’s time to go: the adventure starts!
In the train, from Beijing to Xining
Taking this train is like jumping in another world. So many different ethnic groups are there, a taste of the cosmopolitan chinese far west! Han chinese, northern nomads, tibetans in traditional costumes, muslims… No sight of westerners! Some wagons offer sleepers but as we are quite on the budget we choose simple and less comfortable sitters. Our neighbors are already quite noisy. They jabber loudly, play games, laugh… The kids run like crazy in the aisle, chasing each other. A real culture broth, as we say in french! In less than two hours, the whole wagon is reeking quite revoltingly from the mix of smells coming from unwashed bodies, feet, armpits, farts, various food, fresh or not, cigarette smoke and other things we can’t identify.
We hardly sleep during those 23 hours of train. Facing us, a wise old muslim man. Or at least he seems to be! Tall, with a beautiful grey beard, tanned skin and the little hat of his religion, he is making quite an impression on us, and we’d love to hear his story. Moreover, he’s able to sleep straight as a stick for hours, whereas we are struggling to find a comfortable position. Sometimes our bums are sore from the hard sits, sometimes it’s our spine whose complaining and other times we get itchy feet!
Anytime we start doing something is as if we were starting a show for the whole wagon. Everyone stares at us when we: read a book, write on our notebook, try to speak chinese (that must be really funny!), go for a pee or eat the same instant noodles than they do. It’s a bit embarrassing and funny at the same time!
In the morning, the train is 1500m high. The landscape is beautiful, hilly and dry. It offers a stunning contrast from the crazy cities we see on the way. We witness a real urban development madness : thousands of ugly 20 stories concrete buildings seem to grow like mushrooms, built by a forest of cranes. All those buildings stand there, grim and empty. Nobody lives there so why building so much? Plan for the future? Corruption? Economic strategy to keep the country in activity and cheat on the GDP? We will never know…
When we get to Xining (say Thinnin), 2275m, it’s too late to take the bus for Zadoi (say Dza-Do). We will sleep there tonight, rest a bit and leave for another 20 hours trip tomorrow. The city is ugly, dirty and chaotic. We are too tired to take any interest in it. We will only remember Xining as the place where we ate this delicious dish of pork mince cooked with garlic and fresh chives accompanied by roasted peanuts with chili and ginger…
From Xining to Zadoi : 20 hours of bus
In the morning, we are happy to discover that our bus has sleepers and comfy duvets to go with. Comfortably settled, we feel at first like two roman senators en route for a tour of the Empire! As we drive in direction of Zadoi, the landscape becomes more and more dramatic. A sense of immensity fills us like never before. We are now on the Tibetan plateau, a gigantic desert plain going as far as the eyes can see – and beyond! A few yack cattles tear the rare vegetation from the ground. Nomad camp sites dot the plain with white spots. Praying flags are holding on every mounds, like colorful butterflies waving their wings above a grey and yellow world.
Soon, a thick cloud rises. Dust ? Huge low cloud ? No ! We are stuck in the middle of a sand storm ! We can’t see more than three meters ahead ! It’s at that exact time that a bad headache decides to ram our brains. Night is falling, but we cannot sleep. Our heads are in a vice, our necks hopelessly painful, and our noses assailed by the sand that infiltrates in the bus. But the worst is not the pain. The worst is that we remember the speech from the doctor of the French embassy :
- « Altitude sickness ? Well it’s not too bad. Most often it’s only headaches and vomit. But in certain cases if you go up too quickly, the lungs can fill up with water and then you must go down quickly ! Sometimes too, air goes up in your brain, and POF ! Exactly like when you open a Champagne bottle. Edema, coma, death. »
Well, we’re now completely paranoid, constantly afraid to die, or to find the other one dead on his bed. Very joyful! The bus is driving through passes up to 4700m, and we spent only one day of acclimation at more than 2000m. Madness !
The next morning, plains let place to mountainous landscapes. The road twists between high rocky peaks covered by a rich carpet of bright green grass. A deep blue sky overlooks the scene. Then, suddenly just after a turn, it appears. Majestic, turquoise in an ocher bed: the Mekong river. It has been the fruit of our imagination since so long. Subject of fantasy and wildest dreams. And we finally see it ! Dear thread that will lead our steps… Here it’s not called Mekong yet : it’s called Za Qu (say Dza-Tchoo).
Zadoi, dusty and messy town. There are beautiful facades painted in traditional patterns, trash everywhere, dogs and yacks in the streets. We have to face the sessions of « white watching » and to accept being photographed with the locals who all want a picture with those two strange strangers. As far as we know, the last ones who have been there before us were Luciano Lepre and the guide Pieter Neele three years ago. And apparently, the last female westerner they saw came 10 years ago !
We find a hotel where we hope to find some rest. It’s gloomy, glaucous and over expensive. Luciano told us about a decent hotel, but it seems that it was in that knocked down building over there… So we had to find another place to stay, which is very easy in Zadoi: there is only two hotels, one expensive and dirty and the other one dirty and expensive. We spend a few days in town to acclimate ourselves to the altitude. We stroll during long hours along the banks of the Mekong river to contemplate the breathtaking views it has to offer. Such colors! Such a light!
And slowly, slowly, the jackhammer in our head reduce his pace… Anytime we go through the City, children run after us shouting « Hello, hello! » then disappear in a swirl of laughter. Then come the teenagers with their hipster-gangster look and their smartphones , who all want a picture with us. As for the adults, they are more reserved but as curious as the others. All of them are beautiful! Women, men, children… They have a mysterious strength in their gazes and their faces, sculpted by mountain air, are brightened by 24 carats smiles!
One afternoon, as we walk to a monastery called Rili which overlooks the valley, we are lucky to witness an incredible scene: on the paved coutyard of the temple is organized a competition of traditional dance and tibetan singing. The crowd is wearing its most beautiful garments. The dances are wonderful and the music is bewitching!! We are truly overwhelmed!
One more step toward the source
On the morrow, our headaches are faint enough for us to decide it’s time to go looking for a guide to help us get to the source of the Mekong river. We have a name and a picture that Pieter Neele sent us. That’s all. So here we are, asking everyone in the street, showing the picture, gesturing that we are looking for this man, with bad chinese sentences and a few tibetan words…
At last, we meet an impish-looking guy who made us understand that he knows our man very well. Suspicious, he asks what we want exactly with that man. And now, he starts asking us money! 1000 CNY (140€) to walk 3kms and show us where our guide lives. He’s mad!! We’ll give him a hundred and it’s already bloody expensive! Now he looks very happy, proving that we’ve been well scammed. But he is our only link to our guide till now so we’ve got no much choice. He brings us home to drink a few cups of tea and eat some tibetan biscuits his wife made. He’s not so mischievous after all and has 4 adorable children who made us forgive him his robbery. All the neighbors start showing up to see the two strangers. Our man is proud as a king. What a notoriety!
Finally, after numerous cups of tea and a large collection of pictures taken by the neighbors, he leads us in front of a house. Here we finally meet the man on our picture, who will lead us all the way to remote Zaxiqiwa, the sacred source of the Mekong river!!
See you soon for episode 2!!
M. & Mme Shoes