Normally, negotiating for a reasonably cheap hotel room is a long, protracted process that can sometimes takes up to an hour.
On arrival to the bus station in Xining, though, I did not engage in this complex ritual. Instead, I found the nearest hotel, walked in, and asked the counter only one question, "Do your rooms have a shower?" "Yes." "I'll take one."
I had not taken a shower since I was in Chengdu, two and a half weeks before. Unfortunately the hot water only ran from 9 PM to midnight, so I went out and hit up the town for a bit.
Xining has the coolest food market in China, and I have seen many food markets in my long life. It's easily the largest that I've seen and the most haphazardly organized. There would be a guy selling popcorn, next to a guy selling ice cream, next to a guy selling soy sauce, next to a guy selling green raisins, next to a guy selling potstickers, next to a guy selling peaches (which were the most fucking incredible peaches I've ever eaten), next to a guy selling Michael Jordan T-shirts, next to a guy selling yak yogurt, next to a guy selling carrots, next to a guy selling tampons, next to a guy selling live chickens. The selection was even more mind-boggling considering that for the past two weeks, I had been sustaining myself on mostly yak meat and stale peanuts.
As expected, I hit the lamb kebabs hard. I probably paid for the primary school tuition a couple of the owners' kids. In fact, for the three days I was there, all I ever ate were lamb kebabs, ice cream, peaches, green raisins, and pork potstickers. I was in fucking heaven.
I was even happier after my shower. When I pulled off my socks before hopping in the shower, I saw that my feet were the same color as a hockey puck. But after 20 minutes with a bar of Irish Spring and a half a bottle of Pert Plus, I was a new man. Afterwards, I watched a HK soft-core porn on the hotel's private channel. It involved a ghost who liked to screw "bad" women. One of the lead characters names was translated as Big Busts, and she indeed had the largest breasts on any Asian female I'd ever seen.
The next day I went to Ta'er Si. My last Buddhist temple, I thought I would be going out with a bang. It's supposedly the most important Lamaist temple outside of Tibet. It was certainly the largest temple that I've visited. It was actually this sprawling complex of temples and apartments for the couple hundred resident monks. But in the end I was really disappointed.
One reason I was disappointed was the number of tourists there. I arrived in the early evening, stayed the night, and wandered around in the early morning, but even then there was an unpleasant number of Hong Kong and Japanese tourists, walking around with sun umbrellas and trying to figure out which way is clockwise. There were several expensive tourist stores insider selling stuff I saw in Kangding for three times the price. There was also a stand where you can get your picture taken in front of a temple while wearing "Tibetan" clothing (funny how I don't recall ever seeing any Tibetans wear these sort of clothes). That was to be expected since Ta'er Si is an easy 20 minutes from a provincial capital.
The night that I arrived, I walked around a bit. I chatted with a couple of monks about their lives. They study in the morning and in the evening and plan on doing so for the rest of their lives. One guy asked me if I had ever visited Indiana University, apparently because the Dalai Lama's older brother teaches there. I noticed that this was the first Lamaist temple (except for Yonghegong) that I've been to that didn't have any pictures of the Dalai Lama around. This probably had to do with the fact that Xining is much closer to Beijing's reign of terror.
Come nighttime, I was rather bored so I headed into the little town surrounding Ta'er Si. I found another arcade where I played more pirated Playstation games. I played Tombraider 3. The proprietor hung over my shoulder and felt free to yank the controller out of my hands every time I died and show me how to get past a certain obstacle.
The next morning I got a bunch of disgruntled looks as I walked through one prayer hall while the monks were in the middle of their prayers. It looked like my high school physics class with all the students goofing around while the teacher was rambling about something.
When I got back, I called up the Air China offices in Beijing. I was still on the waiting list. It was about July 15th at this point, so my visa was going to run out in two weeks, and I still didn't have a plane ticket out of the country. After one last dose of lamb kebabs, I went down to the train station to catch a sleeper to Xi'an. Xining has perhaps the best train station in all of China. Buying a ticket, normally an ulcer-inducer, was a cinch. They had short, fast moving, orderly ticket lines serviced by the politest ticket sellers I've met. Every other train station involves fighting for an hour with eight guys trying to cut in front of you, getting to the booth, screaming your destination at the bored ticket seller, and running into the "Mei you" problem.
Mei you means literally "have not." This phrase is commonly used by the service industry to avoid actually having to provide any service. For instance, if I were to queue up to buy a hard sleeper ticket to Beijing and was told, "Mei you," there are no less than seven distinct possibilities to what she means.
1) All of the hard sleepers for that night to Beijing are sold out.
2) All of the hard sleepers for the next three days to Beijing are sold out.
3) All tickets to Beijing are sold out.
4) This isn't the window to buy sleeper tickets.
5) This city does not have a train that goes to Beijing.
6) This is not a train station.
7) Beijing is not a city that exists.
You have to interrogate the seller to figure out what nuance she's using.
Another example, this is an actual exchange I had in Xining. I was walking around, when the need to use a public bathroom arose. I happened to be walking by a hospital so I walked up to the gate.
I went inside anyway, and of course there was a toilet inside.