Tibetans with a gut feeling lured to the Spartan spa

Driving hour after hour through the empty vistas of western China, any excuse to stop for a drink is most welcome. So when a weather-beaten sign pointed down a stony valley track and promised "Medicinal Water Spring 4km", it seemed considerably more enticing than the average motorway service- station. The only worry was whether anyone would be there; five hours' drive from Qinghai province's capital, Xining, and with no buildings nor other vehicles to be seen, the scope for attracting passing customers seemed perhaps limited.

How wrong we were. After rounding the last bend, the concrete and metal entrance gate to Qilisi Spring came into view, looking out of place by the side of a brook, nestling in a valley between mist-topped craggy hills. On one side was a terrace of Spartan one-room dwellings. And huddled around wood-burning stoves in each room, or perched on the kang heated brick beds, were families and groups of Tibetans, mostly in traditional dress or maroon monks' habits. No one was doing very much, other than recover from the morning's over-consumption. For here were a group of visitors who approach their drinking very seriously indeed.

Taking the waters Tibetan style is no idle business. That day there were about 60 "patients" in residence at this rural spa. We were guided through the gate, past more dilapidated buildings, and up a path where smoke from damp burning leaves wafted up through prayer flags. Through a wooden archway was a pit in the ground, within which three metal pipes gushed water. Gathered around, plastic water bottles in hand, were some of that day's residents. Damzun, 40, was typical: this was his 21st day at Qilisi, and every day during his stay he had drunk from the spring - and drunk and drunk. Around 45 pints of water a day, in fact.

Damzun was from neighbouring Gansu province, and had come to Qilisi because stomach problems were stopping him eating. He would go home the next day, a cured man, he said. One 23-year-old Tibetan man from southern Qinghai, knocking back another couple of pints, said he had heard about the spring last year when in hospital for his stomach. The water is said to contain more than 40 chemical elements, and emerges from the ground a pale yellow colour and tasting rather like flat soda-water. Drinking large quantities from the spring, it is believed by Tibetans and other Qinghai residents, can help cure stomach disorders, loss of appetite, restore the sense of taste, and ease digestion of wine and meat. Shacks near by provide rudimentary restaurants - whose optimistic owners presumably believe in the curative powers of the waters.

Legend has it that the Qilisi spring was discovered more than 1,000 years ago by a sturdy black cow, and a Tibetan Buddhist temple was built here after the 17th century, dedicated to the God of Medicine. A short pamphlet introducing Qilisi suggests a stay of between 21 and 36 days, and many people seem to. Most visitors that day were ethnic Tibetans, including several monks, and several people had travelled up to hundreds of miles from the Tibetan regions of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. Everyone cited stomach problems as the reason for their journey. Indeed, behind the spring pipes was a small prayer alter to Sanjimala, described by one of the Tibetans as the "God of the Stomach". The pamphlet promised: "When patients first come, they are all very thin and pallid, and supported by their worried relatives. But when they go home, they look much ruddier in complexion, and very happy."

Water is free, and the rooms in which groups of visitors usually sleep cost 5 yuan (40p) a night. As health spas around the world go, this one is excellent value, although with an average intake of 45 pints per day per person, I can't vouch for the latrines. But Minhe County government, within whose jurisdiction the spring lies, harbours rather more ambitious plans for this quiet backwater. According to the pamphlet, published in 1989, a proposed medical clinic and bathhouse will be just the beginning. The spring water will be used to produce "champagne and fruit juice", temples will be renovated, gardens landscaped, pavilions constructed, and modern recreation facilities offered, including an electronic games hall and dodgem cars. "Under the leadership of the Communist Party and with the deepening of opening up and reform, we believe this place will be a comparatively ideal tourist resort," it said. Somewhere along the line, this proposal fortunately seems to have been lost in someone's in- tray.