“You're all just pissing in the wind
And there ain't nothing like a friend
Who can tell you you're just pissing in the wind”
As if to emphasize the feeling of being deep in the wilds of untamed western China, Masayo and I had to get special permission – a document called “Aliens’ Travel Permit” – to go from Golmud north to the town of Dunhuang. If you go by train, there is backtracking involved but you need no permit. But if like us you want to take a godforsaken bus through the high desert, they want to know who you are.
Our document was valid for one day only, and outlined a specific route we would be able to take: To Dunhuang only, and only by the route that passed through the communities of Da Qaidam and Dangjinshankou.
And the bureaucratic hassle was worth it: this bus trip was a real excursion through another planet’s landscape. On worn-out but still-sturdy roads of varying but mostly acceptable quality, the little bus, with Masayo and I and several locals bouncing up and down in our seats, goes as high as 13,500 feet (4,100 meters) above sea level on its way through the Altun Mountains (a.k.a. Altyn-Tagh Mountains; in Chinese 阿尔金山).
Everything is white and brown – the dust and distant hills, the camels and sheep that wander the roads – or deep blue – the cold sunny sky and the large lakes visible from the grimy bus windows. It was obvious that Masayo and I were the only non-locals on the bus – when we had to stop for camels crossing the road or some equally arresting site, her and I would be all excited, leaving our seats and snapping photos. The other passengers didn’t seem to think anything at all of it, though. I don’t know how a group of camels strutting around outside can fail to be fascinating, but so it seemed to these hard-to-impress people.
We did indeed stop at Da Qaidam (大柴旦) , the biggest community on the route. Gargantuan-looking mountains in the distance were capped with vast sections of snow. I felt like we were traders on the Silk Road about 2,000 years ago. This was quite a different place than I’d ever planned on being, on this trip or in my life.
Bathroom adventures at Da Qaidam Bus Station
The story, for me, of the brief stop at the Da Qaidam Bus Station was an experience with the infamous toilets of western China. To use the bathroom, you had to walk a ways away from the station, pay a very small amount of money to an attendant, and continue through a gate to gender-separated concrete buildings in a dusty little field surrounded by a fence. I found the men’s and went in for a cheerful little pee.
The inside of the bathroom building consisted of almost nothing: a dirt floor and a raised concrete slab into which four square holes were cut. Underneath the holes was the ground outside, and there were four large piles of human waste as well as some empty drink cans and food wrappers tossed in for effect.
I wasn’t the only one there though; another guy was crouched over the last hole, doing his business and holding a cigarette, pants around his ankles. I was surprised to see him at first as we made the briefest of appraising eye contacts – there were no dividers. I stepped up to my own concrete hole and stood there, preparing to pee and looking glumly down at my messy target.
But I couldn’t go.
The guy wasn’t paying any attention to me, of course – he had tossed his cigarette butt aside and was lighting another – but I was so distracted by his presence that I just couldn’t quite get in the zone. I waited a couple minutes, gave up, zipped up, and walked out. Defeated, bladder still full.
I walked back to the bus area, like a sheepish pitcher exiting the mound and walking past his manager leaving the bases loaded. Masayo was sitting on a bench and I told her the story in ashamed but laughing tones. Then I noticed other guys lined up at a building just behind the bus, having their own pees. As it turns out, the money I paid and the building I walked all the way to was for Number Twos. Number Ones were ok anywhere, not worth paying for.
At this point I really started to wonder what the guy in the bathroom building had made of me.
But by this time I was so embarrassed and discombobulated I didn’t bother trying to use the wall like the others – I’d hold it until our next mid-desert pit stop. And that’s what we later did; the bus pulled onto the side of the road and disgorged all of us. The women had a little hut they could use, while we guys just walked into the desert and, despite the wind, marked our own individual little territories. Finally I got my relief.
Masayo in her bathroom hut had taken her time though – there was a dog inside, and it made her tentative in her own right. By the time she emerged, everyone else was already back on board and I didn’t know how to communicate with the driver. Paranoid that the bus would leave without us, I grabbed Masayo’s arm and pulled her over a little dirt hill placed there for discretion but blocking the bus from view. I bruised her knee as I dragged her hurriedly back to the bus. We made it, but she had a bloody little scrape to show for it. Sorry, Masayo. Bathroom trips are just haunted for us today.
After peaking at 13,500 feet, the bus wound around some rocky terrain, stopping occasionally for sheep or camels crossing the road. We could see large yurts, the white canvas portable living quarters of the Central Asian nomads who roamed the high desert. There were often patches of snow on the side of the road, until the bus began to descend lower as we neared Dunhuang. (The town of Dangjinshanwei, 当金山口, passed by almost unnoticed; it was hard to tell which collection of arid, sunbaked buildings it was or why it was notable enough to be mentioned on our Aliens’ Travel Permit.)
Diabetes report – Bus lunch
The stop in Da Qaidam offered a chance to buy lunch. We found some simple snacks at a small shop right next to where the bus had stopped – the junk-ish food we had been used to. Not the healthiest thing, but somehow appropriate for this rugged, Venusian voyage.
The thing about junk food is that it usually either has carbohydrate info on the packaging – easy to figure out even when it’s in an unknown language – or is fairly easy to guess at. On a bench outside the shop, waiting for the bus driver to summon us again, I took a discreet injection of insulin in my stomach and tucked into the snacky meal.
My blood sugar afterwards was a little high, and I’m not sure if that’s because of a poor insulin dose, the excitement of the day’s travel, or even something like the altitude’s effect on insulin or blood. So while I could have done better, it was a nice experience anyway and diabetes was a minor point on yet another experience of a lifetime.
The Dunhuang area
Suddenly as the bus turned a corner, Masayo and I saw huge sand dunes ahead. They rose up from the sides of the little two-lane road we were on, several stories high and the color that you imagine the Sahara to be: orange-brown, with shifting lines and a beautiful kind of harshness. Sand, and only sand.
The dunes were an indication that we were nearing Dunhuang (敦煌), which is known mostly for its sand dunes and the recently-excavated Mogao Caves on the edge of town. (It’s a nice linguistic coincidence that the English word “dune” is in the name of the city.)
When we got to Dunhuang we got our big bags from the compartment under the bus – and both were covered in dust that had drifted into the rickety old bus along the way. We found a hotel – typically Chinese, in that it was comfortable, affordable, and quiet, with a wire in the room for the internet. Some empty Coke bottles we had in our bags had shriveled up after passing up and down the different elevations of this part of China.
Now that’s a bus trip to remember!
What unique bus trips have you experienced?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.
“How to visit the Gobi Desert for free and keep insulin cool while you're climbing among the huge dunes. This is Dunhuang, a distant but remarkable place.”