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In the Land of the Goloks

On my journey through northern Sichuan province, in west China, I had been told the town of Zoige was a “shithole”. Why I didn’t make plans to stay in Zoige immediately after hearing this, I don’t know, but it will be a policy I adopt going forward. Walking out of the admittedly rather shitty bus station, I came to the town’s main road – this was a sunny little town, brightly painted shops and busy simple restaurants. I sat in one and ordered some Mo Mos (Tibetan dumplings, the only Tibetan dish I knew the name of). Just from looking around, it was then instantly obvious that the people of Zoige, the Goloks, were fascinating, and I decided to stay. The Goloks wear the same clothes that Tibetan people all over this region wear, but they unquestionably take it to the next stylistic level. They wear the Tibetan knee length brown-green winter coat, white fur lining keeping out the cold, frequently slipping out of one sleeve or both, if the weather turns warm. The men then select one or more from the following accessories: black storm trooper boots, two to seven layers under their coat, big red sashes as belts, big stone necklaces, silver earrings, aviator sunglasses, 70s porn star moustaches. The whole effect varies between some WWII wilderness scout and 70s drug taking pop star.

The women frequently cover their faces with their bright headscarves, or wear other more ingenious face obscuring devices. Their long coats are full of complexity, strips of leopard fur, bright orange or blue sections – and their belts are like ornate, over large metal designs, with sections hanging down for a foot or so at the sides – very He Man (or perhaps She Ra).
A copy of the Rough Guide I had leafed through back in the previous town warned that Zoige can be “an intimidating place”. Certainly, after getting used to pale, slight Chinese men, these dark, tall, powerfully built Goloks, with their wild clothing and their heroic shoulder length black hair do look a bit, well, scary. Mao’s army is said to have suffered terribly when they entered Golok territory during their long march – this did not surprise me. These are some of the most assured people I have ever seen, which is what drew me to stay in the town. In the restaurant where I sat down and waited for Mo Mos, three women (one young, one old, one with a baby) stared at me, but not in that gormless Chinese way, they scrutinised me. They would return my smiles, eventually, turn to talk, then turn back and scrutinise me again. “He is tall, this one, good leg muscles”, perhaps one mused – “Mmm, no, I would break him in minutes”, decided the youngest.
Frequently in China, one feels either ignored or made into a superstar. These, however, were people that looked me in the eye – it was great to be among people so confident it was easy for them to welcome me. Often I would get a look somewhere between a not unfriendly, “What the hell are you doing here?” and an approving, “Hmm, most of the foreigners get scared off, you must be worth talking to”. They wanted to talk to me, I wanted very much to be able to talk to them, but of course it was impossible. I felt, for the first time in China, immense regret at not being able to speak any of the language. There was absolutely no sense of menace from anyone in Zoige during day or night – if the traveller is intimidated here, it is by their own choice. Two things to note: many people didn’t dress like this – probably the Chinese and Muslim populations; I’ve since been told that Golok really refers to nomadic Tibetans, so to call the people of Zoige Goloks could be, well, bollocks. However, it is more exciting to call them the Dr Who-esque Goloks, so I will continue to do so.

I left the restaurant and was immediately accosted by a student who spoke moderate English. He took me to a hotel, rather grotty, and told me we would go to see his school in a few hours time. But as five pm came, I was too tired and rather ill, inexplicably shivering. So after apologising, I sat in bed and decided I would just sit and read for a while.

As I sat in my room, the full depths of its grottiness dawned on me. The dirty white of the walls and sheets, cords for the electric blankets ending in frayed naked wires instead of plugs, in the small desk drawer some past occupant had left chewed bones and a brown rotten apple (well, I hoped it was an apple). As darkness fell, it suddenly struck me the room had no light bulb. Where the ceiling light should be wires dangled… I sat bemused – a light is not usually something you need to check for in hotel rooms. In the blue twilight, surrounded by grime and naked wires, the room suddenly seemed a fraud, the bare essentials maintained only so that I would agree to stay; later Goloks would burst in and eat my still warm limbs. They would clean everything up afterwards, perhaps only forgetting a few gnawed bones and my chewed heart left to rot in the desk drawer.

Hmm, what to do. The English speaking student had said the last lot of visiting foreigners had stayed in this room – had they managed without a light? I went down to reception – they showed me the light switch, outside my room, of course, lighting a neon circle around those previously spotted dangling wires. My faith in seeing the next dawn grew, so I went back in, pointed out the pile of chewed bones to the staff, finished the book and went out in the evening for a walk and dinner. Although Zoige has ample street lights, none of them were turned on, so my steps were lit only by the red and green from the traffic lights and the pale escaping glow from restaurant windows. I came to what must be the town’s disco street – a series of intimately small places with music and glass curtained fronts. In the blue light peeking out of one, a woman danced alone, slowly, her back to the window. I knew it would be fantastic to go in, I knew I would be welcomed and probably wouldn’t pay for a drink all night, but equally, knew I was ill enough that the touch of beer would be awful, let alone a touch of dancing. With one last look at the slow dancing woman, I turned away – and in fact went back to the hotel, as I found I couldn’t face the touch of food either.

The next morning, I woke up and soon realised my stomach illness had stepped up the fight. Three times that morning I blew brown liquid over different Zoige toilets – I booked a ticket for Langmusi and swallowed two Imodium tablets over lunch, preferring to avoid shitting myself over the four hour bus journey. Why didn’t I stay in Zoige? Firstly, it was too, too painful not being able to speak with these people. Secondly, there should be English speakers in Langmusi and so I could get a better diagnosis than simply making loud pooing sounds to a pharmacist.

Goodbye Mr Daniel..

I went back to the restaurant of my arrival and again ordered Mo Mos – well, that’s all the place served. Once again, the manager’s two eight year old daughters came out and talked to me, remembering my name from the previous day. Zoige is that kind of place – even the eight year olds take you seriously.

Daniel’s travels continue at No Place As Home:

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