Zhangye immediately impressed me with the feeling of a turning point in my trip to China. Much more, than I could realise on that very same day. I would realise that only many weeks later . That night sitting in the restaurants next to the park , i was only thinking that for the first time in my life i had asked for a beer on my own. Yes i had never liked the idea to drink alone , not even one beer, not even when I was an exchange student in Birmingham, it looked funny not to share with friends as if i would turn into an alcoholic any time. But that night in Zhangye to the 12 years old boy sent by his parents to take my order (the chinese would send their kids ahead to foreigners hoping they would have learnt some english in school) , i did not hesitate. I needed to chill out and relax. Trying to trick me into feeling at ease.
Out at dinner, even in a country you do not remotely speak its language, you can figure out what is going on, you can figure out the subjects. But here when evening falls, people look a little more familiar, the children running in the square at night , the young couples at the first date or workers making fun of their bosses all laughing together. One can guess here in this restaurant they are asking you what you want to order. In a bus stuck in the snow, people could say anything. In the afternoon , walking throughout town to find a hotel all these clerks could be saying anything. You can wonder whether they are saying you have to get off until the next curve or take your stuff and hitchhike down to town.
I had spent the best part of that day looking for a hotel and moving luggage around, after arriving from Xining. Although my hotel had been booked from the hostel in Xining, the woman at reception assailed me with a downpour of words to express that I could not stay there. Somehow I tried to channel all my frustration and sense of unfairness tried to erupt in a english list of complaints and claims, which failed to make any impression on the chinese virago. Then a long quest with my luggage on started , going through unexplainable refusal after the other until I settled for the smoke smelling second place I had visited, where of course the lift to my room six floors above would be out of order. I must have looked quite exhausted and forlorn because the girl at the reception held my fingertips probably to confort me.
It was just before night and i walked into Zhangye, the tower bell and the little market next to the park were taking shapes under my eyes. Zhangye was maybe another of rapidly sprouting highrise cities but it still had the lightheadedness of an easy going town.
The beer ran down through my stiffened muscles, then i recalled the morning bus ride from Xining, that looked already so far away. The bus cut the mountains and brought me back to the Hexi corridor, that road made by two mountains chain that accompanied the travellers, monks and merchants along to Jiayuguan to the western gate of Jiayugan. Xining and its high rises had been fast swallowed up into the mountains, we cut through slow gentle slopes and eventually climbed to high passes covered in snow. The bus had to stop twice to negotiate the slippery road. We passed by tents, farmers, herders, young boys happily braving the wind. Qinghai earth has a deep voice. It is brown, here and there covered by a thin duvet of grass. It seems capable to absorb everything, every farmer, every yak treading its soil. It is like the skin of an old farmer that has seen so many suns and moons , whose skin is brown and wrinkles are sticking up onto each other to fix its expression, whose eyes are a thin slit but are gleaming from deep inside. There is a beauty buried inside these mountains and this land.
The waiter boy has a solidarity look and hands over the sichuan style long beans and eggplants. Sichuan pepper is shaped like a flower, it numbs tongue and mouth but it does not paralyze them , it lets you taste the persistent tingling , the blood rushing below and a slight memory of flowers from a field. I wonder whether there are other things like this in the life numbing and awakening at the same time.