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Drinking tea in Gansu

Sino-Immersions' tour assistants and researchers spend a lot of their time exploring far away and interesting places through-out China in their never-ending quest to understand more about this massive nation and its wonderful people. Sam Shriver recently accompanied our Immersed in China's Iconic Beauty tour and then set off on a 32 hour train-ride across northern China. He writes about his experiences below. Every so often we hope to bring you some of these long form essays for your enjoyment! Great piece Sam!


Drinking tea with monks

Traveling Across China and Back in Time—Headed West from Modern Han China to the Rural Tibetan and Muslim Autonomous Regions of Gansu Province

Forty-five minutes has passed on the T204 train out of Shanghai. If I were on the North East corridor Amtrak train from Washington D.C., my hometown, to New York City, I wouldn’t even have enough time to write this piece. But today I’m crossing two-thirds of China, headed west, and I’ve got another 32 hours to go. My destination is Gansu (甘肃) province.

Since my first trip to China over 10 years ago, I’ve regularly had to explain why the country has become a second home to me. While bereft of the eloquence you might hope for from a young, aspiring writer on the move, here’s my line: “I go because it’s so different.”

Earlier iterations of my response included the importance of understanding the world’s largest population and soon-to-be largest economy. It went something like this: “See, wanting to know what’s going on in the global economy is synonymous with asking about China, and, to understand China, it’s as important to understand her history as it is to know what it’s like to live in some of the world’s most (over)populated cities. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve learned and experienced.”

Since I graduated from college three years ago, I’ve simplified my response. I’m fascinated with China because it is a completely different world. The language feels alien, 4 times as many people as in the U.S. operate in perpetual yet organized chaos, and the food is eclectic and delicious.

The train has picked up to its max speed of 140km/hr, which I gathered from the number written on the outside of my long green and yellow train car. We’re out of Shanghai now, a gargantuan city of 25 million people (that’s a couple more million than Australia—the whole thing), but it will be a while before the scenery gets better.

Railway station

This isn’t my first overnight trip on a Chinese train. I spent my 2008-2009 school year studying and traveling around China with School Year Abroad (SYA). I was 16 at the time, completing my junior year of high school with 50 other students from all over the United States. I lived with a host family, who turned out to be some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met. The day I arrived at their house in Beijing, my host parents and their son, Wenhao (文昊) sat me down for a welcome feast. I would soon learn that every night would be a feast of homemade dumplings, meat pancakes, steamed fish or some other mouth-watering dish. But I’ll never forget the first day. My host mother turned to me and, speaking slowly so I could understand, gestured at herself and said, “Jiao wo ma” (叫我吗), call me mom. Then, in the same breath, she pointed at my host father and said, “Jiao ta ba” (叫他爸), call him dad. He nodded.

A conductor comes by to swap my ticket for a card that I place on the small table next to my bed. We’ll swap back upon my arrival. She’s the same conductor that checked my ticket as I boarded, which caused her to do a double-take from my face to the ticket and then back to my face. “You’re going all the way to Gansu!?” On board, she inquires into my reasoning.

“Why didn’t you just fly?”

“Because that’s not how the Chinese travel. Plus, trains are more fun,” I reply.

At this point, like every other Chinese person with every Chinese-speaking foreigner, she’s impressed that I can continue the conversation in Mandarin.

“Why are you going all the way to Gansu, and why not Xinjiang?” She is the first of about eight people that will recommend that I change my ticket and continue on to Xinjiang, the enormous western-most province of China. Gansu is a very poor province, but I think her real reason is that she’s from Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. My knowledge of Xinjiang extends from reading the news about the Uyghur protests, to a great Ürümqi band I saw in Beijing. Both make me curious, but I’m excited for Gansu. I’m especially eager to see the Muslim and Tibetan autonomous regions in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time in Han China, the ethnicity that comprises about 92% of the population, but the other 8% of the country is made up of an additional 55 unique ethnicities. There’s a lot to see.

Hours pass like minutes on the train. At half way, I already feel like I could start over. If I could take a train around the entire world, I would. I read, write, sleep, eat, and stare out of a window. At one point, I fantasized about staying on and trying to get a job with the kitchen staff. They were a fun crew that took an interest in me after I intentionally sat close to them in the dining car on their break.

“Where are you from?” One of the chefs is speaking to me in an accent that I’m not familiar with. He’s a big man with a low voice who bursts into a big jovial chuckle after everything he says. His easygoing nature eases the anxiety of having my Chinese judged.

“The U.S.,” I respond confidently.

I’m literally saying “the beautiful country”, the name for the United States in Chinese. I always wonder how Chinese people really hear words that sound strange to us when directly translated. It’s a very literal language, making it a fun challenge to figure out what things mean sometimes (I stress sometimes, because other times it’s just very hard). I remember first hearing the term “jing shen bing xue” (精神病学), which literally means “the study of the sickness of the spirit.” Can you guess what it means? Survey says… Psychiatry.

“He’s going to Gansu.” I turn to see the conductor from earlier walking into the dining car, smiling at the scene.

“What!” exclaims the chef, “You should go to Ürümqi. It’s beautiful there, especially at this time when there are no tourists!” The chef interrupts his comment to momentarily burst into laughter. “I’ll be home in 24 hours,” he continues, “then I can go out and walk around. It’s going to be beautiful out.” 24 hours for him means 12 hours left for me, and I’m two-thirds of the way through the trip. The train staff make the trip three times in a row, almost non-stop. They work on the train for a week straight, and then get a week off. It’s actually not a bad schedule, but this is their last leg, and they’re excited to get home.

As we pass through another station, I see the two big characters that are on the side of every engine car: 和谐. Together they mean harmony and, as the central pillar of Chinese society, they carry a lot of weight. I think back to my old sound bites about why it’s so important to understand China’s history. From the conversations I have had with Chinese people, from cab drivers to CEOs, the narrative here is a nation emerging from hundreds of years of being mistreated by western superpowers. Since the first Opium War at the beginning of the 19th century, when the British navy stormed into Guangdong to retrieve their seized opium, many Western powers have exploited China for one reason or another. A visit to the Shanghai Communist Party museum in XinTiandi completes the story. In a nutshell, the permanent exhibition illustrates China’s emergence from the influences and various occupations of “the West”, most recently the unequivocally barbaric Japanese invasion. Their victory is symbolized and embodied by the military leaders of the time, most prominently by Mao Zedong, whose mausoleum sits in the middle of Tiananmen Square. If you learned about Mao in school, you probably remember hearing that his political experiments to centralize power resulted in more deaths than any other authoritarian leader, ever. But he is extolled by the Chinese for founding modern China, and setting the tone for what a strong centralized communist power is capable of, namely keeping the peace among the world’s largest population while protecting China from the outside world.

Getting off the train in Gansu was like going back to Mao-era China. There were as many people in the street as there were cars. It was dirty and alive, something a first-timer to Beijing might comment. But Lanzhou (兰州), the capital of Gansu, is more like Beijing 20 years ago (I’ve only seen pictures). Beijing has since undergone a massive overhaul of modernization (which I’ve seen in person). Western China has industrialized at light-speed too, by western standards, but it still has a long way to go.

Gansu's natural beauty

Gansu’s rural areas, by contrast, are beautiful. On a map, it’s a slender and long

province. In the north, JiaYuGuan (嘉峪关) is home to the western end of the Great Wall, and DunHuang (敦煌) has an entire mountain full of Buddhist cave drawings over 1000 years old. One sculpture within the mountain is five stories high. Northern Gansu is worth seeing, to be sure, but I was most taken by the Tibetan and Muslim autonomous regions in the south. There was either a mosque or a temple every kilometer, with the backdrop of stunning mountain ranges clad in perennial snow. I must have seen over a hundred mosques, and almost as many Buddhist temples. It felt like a trippy clash of cultures. Gansu looks exactly like its location, half way in between Shanghai and Kazakhstan. Hearing Chinese people of the Hui (回) ethnicity speaking Mandarin followed by Arabic was a full-blown sensory overload.

On two separate occasions, I was invited to chat and drink tea with Tibetan Buddhist monks. Both were fascinating experiences, for the topic of conversation and the opportunity to use Mandarin as a common second language. The first monk’s Mandarin was out of practice, so we sat there sipping tea, exchanging a sentence here and there. I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life (perhaps a little too aggressive). He responded by writing down a word in Tibetan, that the monk from the second conversation helped me translate as “dao li” (道理), which means reason. It’s an interesting word in Chinese because the first character, 道, is the same dao as Daoism, and literally means “the way.” So I’m to find a reason to live? Or stop looking for a reason and just go with the flow? I’m left to wonder.

The second conversation lasted longer because the monk’s Mandarin was almost perfect. I asked him when he started training to become a monk.


“What’s it like living here?”

“Simple.” He talked about getting to meet visitors from all over the world, and I couldn’t resist from asking, “what do you think of Trump?”

“He’s a businessman, right?” I’m a little surprised he reads the news, or, for that matter, gets the news. He’s never left his hometown where the monastery is located. I wonder what kind of image he has of me and where I come from.

He explains that it would be hard for Trump to be a leader if his priority is profit. “A leader’s priority should be making sure the people are clothed and fed.” Simple.

I continue to dig: “What do you think of China, the United States, of what’s going on in the world today?”

“There are good people here, and there are bad people here. The same goes for your home, there are good and bad. We don’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow. So we pray.”

If only Monks ran the world.

Sam in Gansu

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