As I sat on Bird Island waiting for the bus, it was just as well I didn’t know what was coming up next en route to Golmud. The journey – all 600 kilometres of it – was a roller-coaster. Most of the high points and fun bits came at the beginning, before descending briefly into farce, followed by a quick plunge into despair, and ending with an interminable chug into the station at the end.
That evening at Bird Island I was temporarily adopted by a 16 year-old Tibetan boy, who was well on his way to setting up a youth hostel for the night – he’d already taken in two Chinese hitchhikers when he found me. Then we met a group of well-to-do Chongqingers who were driving home from Lhasa and heading in my direction. In addition to driving me eighty kilometres back around the lake, they very kindly paid for my dinner and accommodation and wouldn’t hear of any attempt to do otherwise. I went to bed that night in Heimahe (‘Black Horse River’ a lovely name that completely belies reality) full of optimism and boundless faith in humanity.
The next morning, I strode out onto Heimahe’s main (and only) street and started looking for a ride to my next stop, Chaka. It seems that the sight of a foreign girl hitch-hiking in a remote place, far from inspiring curiosity or willingness-to-help, as I had hoped, rather inspires bemusement and mirth. I got frustrated as truck after truck left me in its dust, but after an hour two cars finally stopped. The drivers were Tibetan second-hand car dealers heading back to Lhasa with their latest purchases. The driver of the first car had his wife with him, a very pale, plump and beautiful Tibetan girl, so with a look that said ‘Don’t misbehave!’ he assigned me to his friend Ami’s van. (I later asked Ami if he was married too, “Yes, in Lhasa I’m married” came the reply – his emphasis.)
Half an hour down the road, we passed a long tailback of trucks that had been stopped by an accident that had blocked a tight bend. In our smaller vehicles we negotiated our way through the problem, and I do believe I smirked and waved at the same drivers who had passed me in Heimahe. Clearly, the potential for hubris was not uppermost in my mind.
Once in Chaka, I did what I needed to do (visiting a salt lake and nearby hotels), and started looking for an escape route. Like many of Qinghai’s minor towns, Chaka is essentially a truck stop and not an interesting place to spend more time than necessary. I had left my Tibetan friends dozing in a layby a little way outside Chaka, so I decided to head back out there to see if they were still there, as we were going the same way. I hailed what I thought was a taxi – a three-wheeled electrical tricycle – and set off. “How long have you had this thing?” I asked the driver, as we lurched in and out of potholes and across lanes with abandon. “Got it on Monday.” We trundled out to the layby, passing and amusing a group of actual taxi drivers en route. The Tibetans and their cars had gone, so there was nothing for it but to trundle back into town, this time to open laughter from Chaka’s taxi driving fraternity.
There were still buses to two destinations that afternoon, one of which was off limits to foreigners (thanks to nearby military bases), so my only option was to take the bus to Dulan, which is just like Chaka but without the salt lake. I arrived in Dulan in the early afternoon, and on learning that I’d have to wait until the following morning for a bus to Golmud I thought I might as well try to hitch again.
Hitchhiking is terribly dispiriting when it’s a hot day (38°C on the street) and everyone’s staring at you, I find, and after another fruitless and sweaty hour I decided to find a hotel, and discovered that Dulan doesn’t have any hotels that accept foreigners. For a moment I completely ran out of ideas and energy, and sat down on my backpack and stared morosely into space. My preferred strategy in times like this is to give up and go for cocktails, but that sadly wasn’t an option here.
I sat until a taxi stopped and the driver asked where I wanted to go. I explained to the driver that I was trying to get to Golmud, and he said “That’s miles away, it would cost hundreds of yuan – 600 at least.” I’d been willing to pay five hundred, and very, very quickly decided that it was worth it, and off we set, Mr Lin and I, into the sunset.
You can learn a lot about a person in four hours, especially when you’re driving along long, straight roads. Mr Lin is only a part-time taxi driver – he divides the remainder of his time between artisanal mining and hunting deer. Self-employed and with his wife and son living far away in Xining, he was able to drop everything and drive me to Golmud, have a night out with friends and drive back the following day. The road runs along the edge of the Qaidam Basin, and is so straight that the engineers had to thrown in the occasional corner every ten kilometres or so to keep drivers awake. We passed oases, prisons and camels, and by 8pm I was installed in my hotel room in Golmud Mansions.
The current edition of my guidebook describes Golmud as a desolate, windswept place. I can only imagine that the previous writer either had an easier journey than me or that they visited in winter, because I was positively charmed by the city, such was the relief of arriving there. It’s going to get an improved write-up in the new edition, but I think I shall recommend that travellers get the train.