Hiking to a Sacred Lake
Trip Start Feb 03, 2008
33Trip End Aug 16, 2009
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In less than an hour we've come from the lush Yellow River valley edged by arid red mountains up to a wet, misty green forest.
Fir trees drip on us as we take the concrete stairs up-the Chinese version of a hiking path. A few red and yellow-topped trees intersperse the dark green of the firs; autumn has arrived on the mountain though the Yellow River valley below still feels like the last of summer.
The hike is short, less than an hour, but steep and our elevation must be pretty high because before we feel we should be, we're out of breath and panting. My heart pounds and we both strip off our sweaters and rain jackets despite the drizzle
Our destination is the Meng Da Tian Chi, a lake on top of the mountain that our guide book says is a sacred place for both the Tibetan Buddhists and the Salar Muslims.
We are visiting the lake as part of our trip through a section of Gansu and Qinghai provinces where these two religions and the minorities that embrace them are most prevalent.
These two cultures, both very exotic in the West are even fairly unknown within China itself. Before we came on the trip I asked my high school class, all ethnically part of the Han majority, about the minorities that I would visit on my vacation. They told me to watch out for offending people because if I did they might have a big knife and threaten me with it. That seemed to be the extent of their knowledge, which appalled me a little.
On our trip, we find most influence of the Muslims on the Gansu side, and in Xunhua village, near the lake. The Hui minority, as their religious group is called in China, are said to be the descendants of long-ago traders and travelers from Persia who traveled to the Middle Kingdom on the Silk Road
The area is home to the Muslim towns of Linxia, Gansu, and Xunhua. They are very foreign in feel to the rest of China. The architecture is even different in this part of the country. Most houses seem to be made of bricks formed with yellow mud and straw. The eaves of the houses tweak up at the very end like the feathery ears of an owl. In the villages our buses passed from Lanzhou, where our flight arrived, elaborate, gorgeous green and silver mosques stood in sharp contrast to the sheer red and yellow cliffs and long yellow grasslands of the local topography. Some of the mosques were an odd mixture of traditional Chinese architecture, similar to the styles in the Forbidden City and Middle Eastern style. These had thin, many-storied pagodas serving as their minarets, while others were more exotic, featuring slim minarets adorned with golden balls.
In the towns and villages we passed most of the men wore white crocheted caps. Women seemed to have three ways to cover their hair: either a small lavender cap on the crown of their head covered by a black or dark green lace headdress with earflaps that could be pinned under the chin, or a colorful scarf like we saw the girls in Egypt wearing, or a Nefertiti-esque lavender cap pinned at the side with two hair clips
It seemed like these might be designations for age or marital status, but unfortunately I couldn't understand the answer once I got up the nerve to ask a woman the difference. She understood my question, but as often happens to me in Chinese, I couldn't understand the answer.
Usually one of the highlights of any trip we take is the new kinds of food we experience. Well, this trip we were traveling just at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when devout believers fast during the daytime.
We were told by an English-speaking man on a bus that the food in the evening was spectacular, but perhaps he meant the food that people cooked at home. We had a hard time finding restaurants with customers, and we felt guilty asking the restaurants without customers to start the kitchen without us, especially when the food preparers and servers couldn't eat anything themselves. So we snacked in the daytime and ate some street food at night, including the best roast mutton kebabs we've ever encountered.
So we are a little hungry as we hike toward the sacred lake
Blissfully, the lake itself is nearly untouched. No souvenir stands, no temples. A closed lodge stands behind some trees and a pile of orange lifejackets on a boat ramp soak up the rain. A concrete path goes around the lake, but is submerged in one part, so we can only walk on one side of the lake. The rain and mist we began to notice at the bottom of the stairs increases its density to a thick fog over the lake. It reminds me of Southeast Alaska until an occasional occasional a breeze lifts the fog like an artist unveiling a statue and we glimpse autumnal trees and ultra clear water.
Along the path we find prayer offerings. Some are clearly Buddhist-strings of prayer flags printed with the image of Sakaymuni sitting crosslegged.
I don't know if the others are Buddhist or Muslim. At first I think they might be wild silkworm cocoons, because they are little bundles of fine, white gossamer. But then Dan notices some tied onto the branches instead of hanging naturally and we suppose that they must have been tied there as some sort of religious supplication
We take pictures of what we can see of the lake, but the fog's chill starts to seep into our flesh. We put our sweaters and raincoats back on but it's too late to warm up. We walk back down the stairs, refreshed and hungry.
This afternoon, we're going to the ethnic Tibetan town called Tongren.
What it cost:
Hotel for two: 80 RMB
Taxi to the Meng Da Tian Chi park: 70 RMB (we tipped, to round to 100 RMB)
Entrance ticket to Meng Da Tian Chi park: 50 RMB each
Bus from Linxia to Xunhua: 21 RMB each