Michael and I are back in our beloved hinterlands driving deep into the nomadic territories of Gansu province. Continuing my travels into the frontiers to witness a very special way of life change. In this part of the world at least the frontiers are often both the most dynamic and the most remote – change and the modern world’s goodies come swiftly but seem at times to miss entire landscapes and valleys.
Arriving to Lanzhou by flight we have little interest in remaining. Our destination is southwest to Linxia for the night, which will provide a stepping off point for our journey further south into the remote highlands in and around Maqu.
The province has long been a blend of Hui Muslims and Tibetans – trade and mountains are (like many of frontiers along the Tibetan plateau) an inevitable part of the vibrant history of the place. Linxia is seeped in dust but the speed of life is, what I’ve come to love in any lands that are slightly beyond the attentions of the masses – slow and ‘human’.
Hui ‘Halal’ restaurants line the streets, tidy shops somehow remain dust free and the colourful kerchiefs set off the slightly exotic featured women. The Hui have long mastered business dealings, operating as middlemen where few others would tread. Disciplined and unified the Hui offer up a tantalizing history of perseverance and toughness.
There is in Linxia a feeling of spartan efficiency and the sense that the people have learned to thrive and survive with less – the only hints of opulence and ostentation are the seemingly endless mosques, which erupt in every roadside town. Ornate and symmetrical they offer up a little bit of something borderless, and contrast to the lush greens and endless rolling mountains.
Michael and I spend the night in one of those bizarre hotel rooms that one often finds in China – cheap, clean, with very suspect ventilation and faucets. Restless to get out of the city and into the mountains we find a driver who will take us to Maqu into the beloved hinterlands.
Morning comes with the soft lush sounds of the Mosques’ call to prayer, and our driver, himself a local Hui Muslim, whisks us off in the famed and fabled ‘mien bao che’, a tiny van. We know now that the hills are coming and the start coming fast.