May 1, 1999
A few weeks ago I returned to Los Angeles from a two month China trip. Enclosed are some disjointed notes. My trip covered a large swath of western China. Most of the notes are brief-- especially for the well traveled areas. I tried to add a little more detail about places off the beaten track… I apologize for my dodgy spelling/grammar in advance.
I arrived late in heavy snow. For once the city looked beautiful, but by the next morning the coal fueled grime had returned… I was awakened by the sound of thousands of "recruited" streetworkers breaking the ice and snow with pickaxes. This started at 5:30am and continued for several hours.
While the city was cleared of snow, all the roads to the mountains were impassible so my Tian Shan plans were nixed (this was early March). John's Information Cafe and the infamous Hongshan conference room were both closed (the rest of the Hongshan was open--but why pay 40 quai for an uncomfortable bed and horrific bathrooms).
I stayed at the Electric Power Hotel which I recommend.
Can't say I did much in Urumuchi. It was freezing and dirty. Mainly I hung out in Muslim markets and shopped for propaganda posters.
If you feel like splurging try the breakfast at the Holiday Inn. It is excellent (prepared by a friendly French chef). Several years ago I was one of the restaurant's first customers. Back then all the waitresses would nervously cluster around hanging on your every word. They always wore smiles, but looked terrified nonetheless. One of those waitresses who is now a manager told me she was indeed terrified. When the restaurant opened the kitchen was run by a German who would hit the girls with chopsticks and make them apologize for "mistakes" by writing apologies for each offense 3000 times over. The current French chef, an unusually thin man from Lyon, is considerably more laid back.
The bar at the Holiday Inn often sports a seedy pickup scene between foreign oil men and local working girls. During off hours the girls will challenge you to spirited games of Go (they always win).
ROAD TO KASHGAR
While this road is heavily touristed during the summer months, it is virtually devoid of Western and Japanese tourists in winter and early spring. The "hello factor" was almost 100%.
Korla and Aksu seemed markedly more Chinese than in the past (more bathroom tiled buildings, more blue-mirrored glass, more Mandarin signs).
The road (and the busses) were much improved from my previous trips.
One tip (to be followed anywhere you go in the world): Don't play 3 card monty.
As far as I could tell I was the only Western foreigner in Kashgar in early March… All the backpacker cafes were closed, most of the hotels were absolutely empty, and the PSB was nowhere to be seen---in short, March is a great time to visit. Studying the dusty Seman hotel guest book confirms that off-season visitors are few and far between.
Note the rail line from Urumuchi is expected to be finished by the end of the summer.
I was shocked by the changes since my last trips in 89 and 93. Large areas of the city have been made to look typically Han (with wide straight roads, ugly concrete buildings). The population also seems to have become more Han. A school teacher told me, "We Chinese are 40% of Kashgar. After the train comes, we will be 90%." The teacher went on to extol the virtues of the new Kashgar.
Many Kashgaris see the situation through a different lens. Several people told me, "When the train comes, Kashgar will be finished." Some talked darkly of bombings. Many also complained of new strict regulations which prohibit boys under the age of 18 from entering mosques. Young men deemed "too religious" are routinely hauled away to jail. Another source of resentment is a sort of class system that gives preference to Han businesses.
The center of the city and the outskirts retain the traditional Kashgari architecture, but signs of modernity are creeping in. For example, a number of the mudbrick homes I visited sported VCDs and elaborate stereo systems (The Braveheart VCD is a fav - the Kashgaris see the film as analogous to their situation). Pagers are common, but in general, only Chinese, own mobile phones.
Taxis are omnipresent. For long trips out of town the going rate is 1 quai per kilometer (if you get dropped off, you have to pay for the return mileage).
If you need help and are looking for a Kashgari who speaks English, go to the Seman Hotel II (across the square from the main Seman Hotel) and ask for Abdul Qayyum. Abdul is a completely stand-up guy who will help you with all sorts of problems. If you hang out with him, be sure to give my best to his family (his mother makes a mean noodle soup).
On market day (you will stay for market day won't you?) be sure to check out the medicine men who hang out near the rug pavilion
A last note about Kashgar: as always there are interesting intrigues going on. At the Seman I met an Uzbek girl who was being held as collateral on a business deal (her brother-in-law had borrowed money from a Kashgari). This poor creature's husband had originally been left as the collateral, but when he realized that his brother had vanished with the money, he brought his wife in to take his place (without her consent of course). She was forced pay off the debt by prostituting herself to Pakistani traders. The total sum of the remaining debt: 2200 quai. She had been in Kashgar for 9 months and wasn't expected to survive the year it would take to pay the rest of the money. I helped her get to the border by paying off the moneylender. As she left she promised to "stab her husband in the eyes." Later, the Kashgari moneylender just laughed at me. "There are many sad stories," he said, would you like me to tell you another?"
ROAD TO HOTAN
The road to Hotan, in my opinion, is much more interesting than the northern Taklimakan road. Although the cities along the way have been thoroughly Chineseified, they retain a strong Uigher character; the desert is beautiful (if you are into nothingness); there isn't much bureaucracy to deal with; and everyone just seems really happy to meet you.
I particularly enjoyed hanging out Kargalik and Karakax. Both places seem to be very far away from anything and a good place to do Uigher type things. I learned to kill a goat with a pocket knife for example. Accommodation is simple but not uncomfortable.
Forget about bathing.
Arriving in Hotan was a real letdown after Karakax. I expected something that looked a bit more "out there". At first glance the city appeared to be yet another bathroom tiled military outpost, but after a few days of poking around, I began to come around - the secret...wandering outside the city limits.
1. The market-- busy and bustling every day of the week, but huge on Sundays.
2. Country roads… Just head out of the city in any direction along the dirt popular lined roads-- you're bound to have an adventure.
3. Schools. Poke your head in… the kids will drag you to class.
4. The airport (even if you're not flying). The military does live fire exercises around the airport. If you're lucky they'll let you fire an AK 47 or launch an anti-tank grenade. At the airport I also met a very lonely air traffic controller (there is only one plane per day). He loves reading/discussing Mark Twain. Look him up.
ROAD TO GOLMUD
The road to Golmud is rough and mainly boring. It's dusty and s l o w. Along the way you'll encounter over-friendly Uighurs, comically hostile Chinese officials, and some of the most stir-crazy with boredom truck drivers you'd ever want to meet. Bus service is scattered or nonexistent.. count on hitching and waiting.
My stops were Keriya-Niya-Qarqan-Qarkilik-Youshashan-Da Qaidam-Golmud. The journey took 8 days and it was remarkable only for its monotony. The thought that kept running through my head was, "How in the world do these poor bastards survive here?" Every day was play-it-by ear. When you are hitching it is often best to do as the truckdriver does. For example, if he sleeps in his truck, you sleep in his truck; if he says eat, eat. They usually know best. And don't complain, remember...if you are there it's by choice.
Once you leave Xinjiang the towns (if you can call them that), become particularly depressing. I began to think of them as open air prisons which is probably not far from the truth. There was lots of talk of a big gold mine and untold riches, but I saw no evidence of wealth anywhere.
The main problem besides finding a ride (the trucks that ply these routes are almost always full of rocks/dirt/metal/or people) is knowing exactly where you are. Most of these places seem to go by different names on different maps. Bring a compass.
Note: About 8 hours out of Youshashan you'll come to a fork in the road. Both roads go to Golmud. Although the more southerly fork appears to be more direct (going through Ganq), go north. The road to Ganq eventually vanishes into nothingness… and the one truck driver I met told me the people there had stolen his golden teeth. He was indeed missing quite a few.
Also once you get into the Altun Shan range it gets really really cold---like "spit and it freezes cold". Go prepared. Arriving in Golmud to a real bed and a clean room was almost a spiritual experience.
Many people knock Golmud, but I love it. In March it is cold and windblown. I had a friendly night of beer drinking with the PSB. When I asked about their Tibet ticket scam the English speaker said, "Well you know we have to make a living." He drove me back to the hotel in his spanking new SUV.
TRAIN TO XINING
The bus might be more interesting, but this a highly pleasant way to get to Xining. I slept most of the way.
Note: both the Golmud and Xining train station are prime examples of Russian-style Chinese architecture.
None of the guidebooks I consulted before my trip were up-to-date regarding Xining hotels. I couldn't even find most of the hotels mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Because I arrived in the middle of the freezing night, this was bad.
I ended up staying at the "The Xinjiang Railway Hotel". If you show up under similar circumstances, don't bother with the guidebooks, instead walk a few blocks to the east of the station and look for the hotel-like building on the north side of the street (no English sign) and beg for a room.
Xining has doubled or tripled in size since my last visit. I found almost nothing familiar so I quickly escaped to Kunbum. There are many buses direct to the monastery contrary to what the guidebooks say. To get them, just go by the sports stadium and get on a bus going to Taer (the Chinese name for Kunbum).
At the monastery you can stay in the simple Kunbum Monastery Motel. It's cheap and relatively clean. The bathrooms were stinky but much better than anything on the Xinjiang-Golmud road so I was happy.
Kunbum is best seen early in the morning or at night (before and after the Chinese tourists take over the place). Only at these times does it seem like a real monastery and not a Chinese Disneyland. Several monks are learning English and will be happy to show you around (they will find you). Despite the guidebook warnings that the monks are anti-photography, many will encourage you to take pictures inside the monasteries when you are hanging out one-on-one. I was told the anti-camera policy was mainly geared towards Chinese and foreign tour groups who don't show the place or the monks the proper respect.
May 12, 1999
My bus from Xining left the station at 11AM, but we didn't actually leave the city limits until 1PM (we ended up going to another bus station and changing busses). Even though we were on our way to a heavily Tibetan area most of the people on the bus were Han Chinese. Everyone seemed surprised when I told them I was going to Maduo. "Be careful," I was told, "Danger."
The road was relatively featureless, with low slung hills and endless plains (looks like the road from Golmud to Lhasa). We lunched in a place I couldn't find on the map-it was a typical Qinhai bus station without much of a town attached. After this place the there was very little in the way of human habitation.
It was very cold on the bus. My water bottle froze solid.
At around midnight the bus stopped and I was told we were at Maduo. It was pitch black and I was the only person to step off the crowded bus. As the driver pulled away I could hear several people laughing at me. I could hear the sounds of dogs barking, but I couldn't see them. I could hear yaks but I couldn't see them either. In fact, I couldn't see anything - it was like being in a cave. It was one of those travel moments when you wonder what the hell you are doing and what has gone wrong in your life such that you are in your present situation. I find the best thing to do at these moments is to just to laugh and start walking... so I did.
Eventually some starlight broke through the clouds and I could just make out some sort of settlement a few hundred meters down the road - Maduo. All the lights were off. I just knocked at the first place I came to. It, like almost every place in this one horse town, was a restaurant/truck stop.
I was led to a very cold room that was already occupied by two snoring drunken truck drivers. There was no electricity and the window next to my bed was broken. I slept with all my clothes on underneath three straw filled comforters. When I woke up I discovered my toothpaste had frozen rock solid. The bed (and breakfast) cost me 9 yuan (Breakfast was a spicy noodle soup). I shared the outhouse with a hairy pig.
The city is not really a city, just two rows of truck stops on either side of the road. I doubt more than 50 people live there. The best restaurant is the Muslim one. The friendliest place to sleep is the Tibetan house. The best place to buy stuff is the Chinese shop. There is no regularly scheduled bus and nobody (except truck drivers) stops here on purpose. The only way out of town is to hitch, but the local PSB guy doesn't allow hitching. This is how to escape (if you are going to Yushu).
1. Eat breakfast and hang out until 9 or 10 (before that it is too cold and nothing is happening anyway).
2. Walk out of town (South) and take the left fork in the road.
3. Keep walking until you can't see the town (and they can't see you).
4. Flag down any moving vehicle. Be prepared to wait and carry rocks for the wild dogs. You shouldn't pay more than 40 quai to get to Yushu. Most drivers will take you for the company.
Note: Most drivers who stop in town, stop to eat. If you want to risk negotiating with them in town, do it after they are finished their meal right before they hop on their trucks, otherwise the PSB guy will nix your plans.
Once you leave Maduo you pass a glassy lake and the scenery finally starts to become Tibetan. The land is more contoured, large herds of yaks roam the land, and prayer flags dot the desolate landscape.
BAYAN HAR SHANKOU (name on Chinese maps - not the real name)
This town is greatthe first really Tibetan place you'll encounter. When I arrived I ran into a procession of monks who were carrying a young Lama to the monastery. It only got better from there… a beautiful little monastery. Lots of rug filled yurts... Tibetan dancing and music at night.
There are several Tibetan places to stay, but the PSB will force you to stay in the dumpy Chinese restaurant/truck stop. While this was annoying, the PSB was otherwise helpful. They found a mail truck for me and insisted I go to Yushu. Leaving this town, the scenery finally becomes mountainous.
ZHUBGXUGDIN (name on Chinese maps - not the real name)
Is another fairly wild Tibetan village on the plateau side of the mountains. Most of the people get around on yaks. I stayed in a tent a few kilometers outside of town. My memory of the place is clouded by the vast quantities of bai-ju I was forced to drink. Avoid the stuff (sorghum based fire water) if at all possible.
The March winds here are amazing-feels like knives. Bring WARM clothes.
Right out of town the road starts climbing (The path is not particularly steep or troublesome). Eventually you will cross a pass and see signs for Yushu (which is always pronounced Yishu). Soon after, you will rapidly descend into a river valley (about 100km long). The entire valley is wonderful and worth spending lots of time exploring. Along the valley to Yushu you will encounter several Tibetan mountain villages, each with it's own monastery. There are long lines of stupas, fantastic hanging bridges, and plenty of friendly Tibetans to guide you along the way. The most interesting town is called Xiewu. It's about halfway to Yushu. Note that if you were to travel direct from Maduo, the whole trip would take 6-9 hours depending on your vehicle.
Note: This is a great place to trek.
JIEGU (YUSHU on Chinese maps) (mainly pronounced YISHU)
Jiegu is a dusty rough and tumble Tibetan city. Compared to everything else on the road from Xining it's a metropolis, but compared to most cities in China it is tiny. If you arrive from the direction of Xiewu the first thing you'll see is the square with masses of Tibetans milling about (there are few cars, so everyone walks. There is not much to do, so people just hang out). The road branches into a 'V' shape. On the left branch you can find the Tibetan market, the bus station, and several guest houses. On the right branch you'll find a hotel, the post office and the PSB.
The main monastery is in the hills visible from just about everywhere in town. Some traditional homes sport small 2 or 3 monk monasteries Listen for the drums and the horns and poke your head in. Before you enter, check for dogs. I almost broke my neck as I fell down some stairs running from a dog when I entered one of these home monasteries unannounced.
The main Hotel is a run-down mess run by a couple of teenage girls. Avoid the bathrooms at all cost-better to just go in the hills. The Tibetan guest houses are a much better deal.
Throughout the town you will be accosted by beggars. Many of the young monk beggars are very aggressive. Legitimate monks suggested these kids just wear monks robes. Either way, you should be prepared - you will be touched and grabbed and they will try to steal anything you put down.
If you want to post letters here, you'll have to deal with some of the grumpiest postal workers anywhere. They are more likely to send your letter if you buy an airmail envelope from them. Also they will not send a letter without a local return address-just make one up. Be persistent and don't accept their hostility, eventually they will take your letter.
There is no real reason to go to the PSB, but they are a surprisingly friendly and helpful group of fellows (no English spoken) completely unlike most PSB officers I've encountered. They offered to give me permits that would get me down to Yunnan (for a small fee). I didn't ask about Lhasa, but the people at the bus station did offer me Lhasa tickets. Either of these options would have been great if I were going to those places, but I was headed to Serxu in Sichuan…
Getting to Sichuan looks easy enough on the map, but everyone in Yushu looked at me like I was going to Mars when I asked. There is no bus service from Yushu, but as always there is a way.
Here's how to do it:
First you have to get yourself back to Xiewu. To get there, you can:
a) Walk - it's a couple of hours
b) Take the bus. (not a bad option but it arrives too late in the day to be useful)
c) Wake up early (between 7-8am) and go to the square. On the road to Xiewu there will be a bunch of guys in vans and trucks waiting to take people to Xiewu. It should cost 7-10 yuan. Once you get to Xiewu go to the dirt road at the bridge (there's only one). Again guys will eventually show up there in vans and tractors (around 11-12am). It's an all-day journey to Serxu.
Remember to stock up on supplies. Yushu is the last major stop on the road in every direction.
This is a wonderful place. The hills are full of monasteries big and small. Everyone is friendly and they make good yak stews at both restaurants.
The tractor ride to Serxu is amazing - it's a dirt path that goes up some nice, steep, rolling hills. Along the way you pass lots of yak herders in brown tents. Eventually you'll get up past the snow line and cross a pass or two.
Note: This is the proper way to cross a pass when you are with a bunch of Tibetans.
1. Remove your hat.
2. Throw prayer slips out the window.
3. Shout for joy.
There are two major villages on the way to Serxu. Both are fantastically wild 100% Tibetan places. My mere presence caused near riots with people crowding and fighting to get a look at the hairy foreigner. Both places were over-run with feral dogs (literally hundreds of dogs) and seemed to be totally cut off from the outside world. There were no guest houses as far as I could tell, but everyone is happy to take you in. Just be prepared to be groped and prodded. Also be prepared to drink enormous quantities of yak butter tea.
Serxu is a quieter, gentler more urbane version of Yushu. It's high up on the plateau - cold and sort of empty looking. The hotel was decked out for Chinese big-wigs and was surprisingly comfortable. The bus station is about 200 yards east of the hotel on the other side of the street. This is the end of the line for the Sichuan buses so you can only go in one direction (towards Kanding). I bought a ticket to Maniganggo. The bus leaves early (5:30). Upon arriving I was shocked to find the rarest of all Chinese rarities - an almost empty bus. The complete passenger list was as follows:
his assistant (a.k.a. the bus troll)
two sleepy monks
an old man with bleeding gums
a baby yak (who threw up several times before we even got going)
Leaving Serxu you cross the plateau and quickly start climbing into some high mountains on a V E R Y bad road. I've traveled the Karakoram highway, the road from Manali to Leh, and the road from Chengdu to Lhasa, but this is the worst road (path) I've ever encountered. It was alternately covered with ice, rushing water, and large boulders. Steep deadly drop-offs were the norm. At times the road was just completely eaten away and the driver would make a new path… It was bad. The driver, always focused, did a fantastic job although he did not help calm my nerves. He tended to shut the engine off and coast (at high speed) whenever possible. Also he and his assistant drank beers the entire way.
This is not a place you want to stop. If you get off the bus, remember-I told you so.
Everyone in town basically works at the truck stop which is set in a pretty alpine valley. This is a nice place to go hiking. The truck stop/store/restaurant/hotel is a good place to stay although there is nothing in particular to do.
The next valley over is covered with pines. Then you descent into the Ganze valley. There you will see a very different type of architecture (large adobe structures painted with wide vertical stripes) and some impressive monasteries.
Note: The Ganze valley is much lower than Serxu. The temperature will probably rise dramatically. In my case there was a 50 degree (F) difference in temp from morning to night.
The most beautiful monastery is 40-60K north of Ganze (you pass it on the way in). It's near the smaller monastery you'll see on an island in the river.
Ganze is a big bustling prosperous Tibetan town. It's a good place to stock up on Tibetan goods (please don't buy any of the leopard skins for sale almost everywhere). If you arrive by bus, you'll be greeted by motorcycle rickshaws who will offer to take you to the hotel. The hotel is uphill and a fair distance from the bus station so this might be a good idea. The hotel is wildly overpriced, but it is the only place to stay (there were plenty of other hotels but they were all off-limits - the PSB has put the fear of god into the owners).
Ganze does lots of trade with India and some of the young people here have studied there and speak British accented English. Also you are closer to Mandalay than to Beijing - hence the curries.
I saw two knife fights, but I don't think that was normal.
Buses headed towards Kanding leave very early. A few miles out of town you'll hit a roadblock and there the bus will be stopped. The authorities at this roadblock are unpleasant and caused lots of problems for the Tibetan passengers on the bus. I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, but from my perspective it looked like good old fashioned harassment/bribery. Many people had to unload/unpack. Although I got some suspicious looks and my bag got poked, I was passed over.
From Ganze all the way to Luhou you will can see the devastating effects of large scale logging. Sometimes, when the bus is high on a hill you can see clear-cutting as far as the eye can see. Only a thin strip of trees along the roadway remains.
May 18, 1999
I arrived in Luhuo at around noon. It's a logging/industrial town with none of the charm of Ganze (it's much more Han in character). I wanted to leave for Barkam as quickly as possible, but I soon discovered that people in Luhuo rarely travel to Barkam. The next bus was nine days away and the lowest price I could get for a car was an outrageous 2400 quai.
I decided to try to hitch so I went to a bridge where the road left the town and waited. Groups of young boys surrounded me to practice their English skills (Hello! Hello! Fuck you!). Groups of old men surrounded me and pulled on my beard. Groups of young girls surrounded me and giggled. After several unfruitful hours of waiting, being mocked, and getting sunburned, I was about to give up. Not a single car passed going in my direction. Just when I was ready to break, a wealthy Tibetan invited me to his home to eat. He and his daughter had been watching me quietly for over an hour.
His wife cooked us a big dinner and he promised to help. He said he would drive me as far as was possible and then I could walk from there. The next day we departed in his truck. Very quickly I learned why people in Luhou don't travel to Barkam - the road which on the map looks like any other road, is just a logging path. The snow melt had eaten away large sections of this path and at times it just vanished. The truck overheated about every 20 minutes and we kept having to find river water to cool everything down. We also sprung a major oil leak. As access to the engine was through my seat I was covered with oil almost immediately. We went as far as we could (about 2 hours) and then he dropped me off and wished me luck. He told me I was lucky not to have taken another car, because they would have just robbed me anyway. This was a nice bit of advice to ponder as I began walking in the forest.
I walked all day, through the forest and over a pass onto the plateau. Then I descended into another forest where I met some loggers who offered to take me to the next town... a place called Serba. The road began to improve and soon we began passing lots of small settlements.
Serba is a dream village although when approaching you might feel as if you are in a nightmare. Dead dogs hung by the neck are posted on trees in a large circle around the village. This is supposed to scare away the packs of vicious dogs that roam the forest.
The village itself is a collection of giant stone homes clustered in an idyllic valley. There is no guest house, but the owner of the restaurant will let you sleep on the table. At night everyone in town will come around to check you out. Singing is encouraged, even insisted upon. After being sung a song about a man who goes to look for his horse in the mountains, a large Tibetan demanded I sing a song in return. Not being much of a singer all I could offer was the theme song to Gilligan's Island. I tried to explain it as follows "This is the song of a man who finds himself on an island far from the world he knew before. Luckily is not alone, his friends make the stay bearable. They create paradise on the island."
The road from Serba to Markam is dark and shaded. There are many side roads so always be sure you know where you're going when you get to a fork in the road (there are many). It is easy to get lost.
There are many logging lodges (almost always friendly)… eventually the road improves, becomes paved, and you'll see a steady stream of trucks going your way. None of these lodges requires any of the usual PSB paperwork. All are dirt cheap. Plan on sharing a room. At night these lodges fill up with loggers who sit around telling stories, drinking beer, and watching videos. At night you will share a room. The lodges are made of wood and straw but often use coal stoves for heat (fueled by burning lumps of coal) and candles for light. The drivers also always smoke in bed. Before going to sleep always memorize the exits in case of fire which is a very real possibility.
The closer you get to Markam, the bigger the river and the bigger the Tibetan homes. Once you get within 40km of Markam you'll pass an area with 10 story high stone towers. The entire area is dramatic and worth exploring.
Markam is the type of city many people imagine they'll find in China when they know nothing of China - exotic, colorful and fun. The city has at least doubled in size since my last visit in 1992 but even the addition of blue glass and white tiled buildings doesn't diminish the charm of this place. Despite its growth Markam is still relatively compact and easy to cover by foot. You'll find few cars, lots of cyclos, and a good mix of Tibetans, Han, Muslims, and a smattering other minorities. In the surrounding hills (20 minutes walking in either direction) you'll find fantastic examples of large scale Tibetan stone architecture. There are no sites as such, but you'll not run out of things to see.
There are two major hotels (both over-priced but comfortable), and a couple of trucker-type guest houses.
In a city the size of Markam, you would think you could change money, but it is indeed impossible. I tried everywhere. Most people have never even seen western money and wouldn't know what to do with it if they had it.
Note the bookstore is a fantastic source for propaganda posters.
Four different companies run buses in and out of Markam. If the city you want to go to is connected by road - you can probably get there. Busses leave for Lanzhou (2 days), Chengdu (2 days), Kunming (5 days), Hongyuan (1 day), Zoige (1 day), Kanding (2 days), Litang (2 days) and probably lots of other places. You must show travelers insurance or else you will be forced to pay double or triple.
I was headed to Hongyuan - I went by minibus.
The road to Hongyuan rises rapidly. A few hours out of Barkam the trees thin out, you'll cross a pass, and be back on the Tibetan plateau. The temperature will drop dramatically. I have done this trip 4 times during various months and each time we have run into a snowstorm. This trip was no exception. On the mountain there were near blizzard conditions (the hole in the roof of the bus meant that it the blizzard was also inside the bus). The snow stopped as quickly as it started and a few hours later we were in strong (but cold) sunshine.
This is one of my favorite out-there villages. It is a Tibetan cowboy town with rows of pool tables in the streets and guys on horses with guns strapped to their backs wandering around. You will be the center of attention wherever you go.
Several big Tibetan schools are located here and many of the students will offer to take you to their grasslands. If you get the offer - go.
To get to the guest house walk out of the bus station and turn right. It's at the road junction near the school.
This city is even wilder than Hongyuan. Everyone rides around on horseback or on motorcycle. If you want to see/hang out with horseman, this is the place. The city is very small (you can basically see everything from where the bus stops). The guest house is across the square. Use the bathroom at your own risk.
Zoige has grown up in the last few years. The first time I visited, it looked much like Hongyuan does today, but now someone is pumping money into the place. The long lines of wooden yellow stalls are being replaced by white-tiled, blue glassed concrete stores. Local youths fool around on PCs and the cops drive dark windowed SUVs. Still some things stay the same. The government guest house is there as it always, falling apart piece by piece and slowly being covered by layers of soot and filth. Long lines of Tibetans visit the monastery every day (the monastery is newly constructed)… and the PLA marches up and down the streets harassing whoever gets in their way.
The PSB office is interesting if only for its Stalin poster.
The lonely planet mentions a new hotel but it was shuttered when I was there (April).
While there is no official money exchange, the guys in the post office will eagerly change dollars (at a terrible rate).
Note: there are two bus stations. Guide books sometimes refer to the main station, but neither station is the main station (or maybe they both are). If you can't find a bus going your way at one station, just try the other.
Hitching is easy here.
The minibus from Zoige to Lamusi is almost always an experience. Count on getting up close and personal with lots of Tibetans.
Lamusi is one of the most fun monastery towns in China, don't miss it. Probably the most unusual aspect of the town is the casual way in which monks do sky burials. I was allowed to follow and watch. Unlike the other burial I attended this one almost jolly. The man was a drunk one monk told me. Not a good man.
Much has been written about Xiahe elsewhere so I won't waste your time, but note that if the lovely Tara guesthouse mentioned in the LP is full, you should try the "Tibetan guesthouse" a few doors down. It is equally Tibetan and equally comfortable. The Tara was in the process of adding showers when I was there. They should be done by now.
Also if at all possible visit Xiahe on a festival day. This is probably the best place in the PRC to see unfettered Tibetan religious displays.
From Xiahe I continued on to Linxia, Lanzhou, and then to Beijing. But those places probably won't interest the intrepid folk on this list so I'll shut up now.