Archive for October, 2010

North Sichuan…into the hills…on horseback

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Amy from Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one that you may recall was going to write her master’s thesis on 19th century buttons and fastenings, suggested that we travel north from Chengdu to Songpan to participate in a horse trek.

“I did it for three days!” she bubbled from behind her tripod as we photographed a waterfall that spilled over the mountain trail.  “It’s really great and they provide the tents and they cook out on a campfire for you and everything.”

“Oh Emily!  I really want to do it!” Megan said, looking at the Songpan entry in Lonely Planet.  Megan had experience with horses, and I (to put it mildly) did not.  My single experience with a horse had been posing with a cowboy hat on the back of a miniature pony when I was three years old.  However, this was an adventure into the unknown, and I felt that if I was brave enough to ride the Chinese taxis, the Chinese horses had to be at least as trustworthy if not more so.  The buses were another thing altogether.  We arrived at the station at 5:45am before the doors opened, enveloped in a mass of people squatting beside their taped-up cardboard boxes and bags of potatoes.  We bought a plastic bag full of steamed baozi from a street vendor who seemed more than delighted at the sight of la wai so early in the morning.

Right away we spotted two blonds, nearly a head taller than everyone outside including ourselves, and a girl with Chinese features along side them but clearly dressed in American garb.  When the doors to the station opened, they were the first to muscle their way inside.  Everyone pressed against the single metal turnstyle, bottlenecking, old ladies pinching and people tugging at elbows–ours stuck out to block anyone who tried to pass us.  And they didn’t stop trying to pass us even as we put our bags through the x-ray machine, fingers needling their way through the center of us, gate guards hopelessly, unheeded, barking at the tangle of limbs and bags.  When we finally broke through, looking back, I detected traces of exhilarated grins between exasperated faces in the crowd.  Quite a fight for 6am…

We loaded onto the bus and fell back against our seats, preparing ourselves for more sleep.  That is, until we realized that the bus we were on felt almost completely disconnected from its wheels, the top bending and shaking and weaving with every turn in the highway.  Maybe sleep wasn’t in our futures after all…

Also, something worth mentioning about Chinese toilets is that if you have to pay for it, chances are you’re going to have to hold your breath the whole time.  This may seem non-sequiter, but trust me.  It isn’t.

We arrived in the dusty town of Songpan after 11 hours of driving, mostly through construction zones.  Mike came and picked us up and walked us to a tiny hostel, women running out of restaurants along the road to hand us their business cards and encourage us to come for dinner.  We checked into a hostel attached to an adjoining room where three European girls lay on their beds absorbed in books.  They were scheduled to go on the trek the next day too, and we arranged to meet at the nearby Emma’s Kitchen for pancakes before we had to meet at 9am.

I woke up in the middle of the night to intense stomach pain and congestion.  I leaned against a wall in the single bathroom and combined laundry room, waiting for the nausea to pass.  It didn’t.  I was late for breakfast and nearly abandoned the expedition to lay on the bed with a book as we’d found the three other girls in the first place.  But I made it, munched on some oatmeal, and watched our guides walk a team of horses down the center of the main drag, out in front of the business and the restaurant where we’d parked ourselves.  When we headed out of the restaurant to join the group, we discovered the three Western girls from the Chengdu bus station made our riding-party a group of 8 Western women and 8 Tibetan and Chinese men.  We found out these girls were all club-rugby players in Beijing, a comforting idea when headed into the woods with a group of strange men.

Our idyllic camping spot outside of Songpan.

It was about four hours over the mountains, beginning at 9am and arriving around 1, with a break.  My horse was cream colored, and didn’t seem to care about what I said or did to him in the slightest, but reacted quite strongly to the hisses and commands of the Tibetan man who rode his horse behind me.  Megan advice about how to ride a horse consisted of: “lean forward when the horse goes uphill and lean backward when it goes downhill”.  Not many down-hills occurred–the guides would have us dismount and follow them down the hill on foot, but I did a pretty solid job of following these instructions.  When the horses ran, however, I found myself wanting to cry and vomit all at once.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon at a wide green meadow beside a clear-water stream.  The men pitched a blue tarp over a stake, fanning it out into the sort of triangle a child would draw to represent their home.  They pitched single-size tents for all of us to share, two by two, and then left us to explore the meadow.  We did as much, the younger men guiding us down a hill into another meadow populated by quarter-sized toads and wildflowers.  We explored the source of a waterfall, one of the rugby players leaped into a freezing mountain spring that showed opalescent in the sun, flawed only by decomposing logs that had sunk to the bottom.

With complete silence and little else to do, we began sharing our talents and stories with one another.  The Chinese-American girl led us in an impromptu yoga class.  I sang the Habanera from Carmen.  One of the rugby players from Wyoming gave us an instructional speech on how to field-dress an elk.  The girl from Spain repeated, “The horses are over there,” in six different languages.

At night we gathered under the blue tarp to munch on soup ladled from a giant cast-iron pot by my horse-whisperer.  We drank tea made from plants that the men gathered from the brush around our camping site.  We sang songs for each other, them regaling us with folk songs, us harmonizing to old Backstreet Boys tunes.  They told us ghost stories about a vengeful woman who had drowned in the nearby lake and returned to lead the horses away and drown unsuspecting campers.  Surprisingly unsettling…nothing is scarier in all of literature than the ghost of an Asian lady.  But that is one horror-fan’s opinion.  The boy who told us that story, topped in a hat that said “WIPEOU!” ventured out to the tents of the girls who’d retired to bed early for some juvenile tent-shaking and terror tactics.  Later, when I excused myself to “use the bathroom” I rounded the back of the tent and surprised him, much to the mirth of the other girls.

Those “we’re not so different after all” moments are kind of awesome.  Especially in such concentrated doses.

We tromped back the next day over the same route, having sufficiently bonded with one another and our guides and not changed our clothes in about 48 hours.  As we arrived to the front of Emma’s Kitchen, our eyes watering with allergies and our pores filled with dust, the rain that had followed us all the way from Kunming returned.

Categories: Hiking

Chengdu and then the Blip

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

We arrived in Chengdu, hopping into a taxi and showing the young man behind the wheel the address in Chinese characters I’d slaved over at one of the Shangri-La hostels (I’d kicked a Scottish guy off the computer in order to do this…he’d just arrived from an exorbitant amount of time in Tibet).  He called the number at the bottom of my wrong-handed 6-year-old attempt in my notebook because one of said characters was slightly corrupted.  Nobody answered, but we took off anyway, heading into the city in sweeping loops of highway reminiscent of Paris or Brussels.  No one did end up answering the phone, but we made it down the alley to the Chengdu Mix Hostel without too much to-do.

And we promptly fell asleep.  After slamming loudly into a some of the metal lockers beside the door of our rooms to ensure that everyone was awake at 1:30am.

That day in Chengdu was all we were going to have before continuing South for more hiking, which had become the twist-tie theme of our trip.  We identified ourselves as trekkers after our experience in Tiger Leaping Gorge, hopefully climbing-off a year of cell-mutating milk teas and Uighyr noodles to make ourselves svelte and tan for the walk through Customs in the USA.  We spent the day philosophizing and reflecting on our year working in Zhuhai whilst drinking tea in the mosquito-ridden People’s park, pouring the steaming water into our palm-sized cups from a knee high thermos.

The next day we left the comfort and helpfulness of the mix hostel for the bus station, and sat upright in the back of the bus reading.  A Chinese tour guide described the scenery and a poorly-made copy of “Face-Off” starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta crackled on a screen at the front of the bus.

We de-bussed in Le Shan, which boasts the hulkiest Buddha in the world.  Hulky may be the wrong word.  We approached it through a surprisingly small crowd, and the sight actually demonstrated it to be a lithe and angular Buddha of South-east Asia rather than the chubby, prosperity implying Buddha of other parts of China.  It was built as a tribute, prayers offered to it so it would calm the three rivers that converge in that area to protect ships, much like the Temple of Isis built on the banks of the Nile.  The time passed slowly.  Once we’d seen the red cliffs, ventured into a few dark holes in the wall of shrines, picked our way down the uneven steps carved into the side of the cliff, we moved on to lunch.  It was much hotter here than it had been in Lijiang and Shangri La, and we were starting to feel harried, stared at, and uncomfortable.  We got our own version of Chinese comfort food: cheap beer and a dish of scrambled eggs with sliced tomatoes.

The Teddy-Bear hostel in E Mei was our next stop.  It presented itself as a comfortable place, built by a self-made Chinese small-businessman with excellent Western food.  Our bus had been tiny, rattling, full of crop sacks.  The proprietor’s advertisement that he would “pick us up” when we called actually meant he would ride his moped to meet us, then slowly roll along beside us as we heaved our bags down the half-constructed street.  When we arrived in our room, giant spiders on the walls, hard beds and grime kissing every surface, we wondered aloud how we were still duped after living in China so long.  We threw our stuff down, and spent the evening trying to dub a dating show that depicted a young woman trying to choose a date with random men in the audience, some overdressed in business suits, some affecting movie stars, some quite obviously in the closet.  The best episode was the girl who simply shook her head and left the show, rejecting every single one of them.

Our plan was to climb E Mei Shan, a three day hike up and down the mountain.  We would stay in Buddhist monasteries with nothing but what we could bring in our daypacks.  Our brochures advertised the fact that we could see Macaque monkeys along the trail, and urged us not to make them angry (because they were liable to attack).  This sounded like a riot, frankly, and Yunnan had so whet our appetite for treks and “roughing it” that we were too arrogant to really be dubious.

At midnight the computer lab was clear and I checked my e-mail.  As I did there was a rattling at the chain that held the front door closed.  A skinny figure pushed the door open, squeezing his lanky body beneath the chain and through the tiny slit between glass doors.  “Don’t worry!  I’m not a criminal!” A British accent slurred in my direction.

“So,” he said, sitting beside me at another computer, “what’re you doin…”

“Talking to my boyfriend,” I said quickly.

“Oooooh ok,” he waved his fingers in the air.  “I was just actually at this bar…” he said “…I’m a little drunk.”

“Yeah, you are,” I said, laughing.  I went on to ask him what he’d been up to in E Mei Shan.  He’d apparently hiked to the top of the mountain in two days and took a bus down to the bottom the next day rather than walking back.  Lonely Planet, it seems, had overshot.  Not surprising, as they had suggested that Tiger Leaping Gorge may take five days when in reality it took two, and could’ve taken one if we’d left when the sun had just peeked over the mountains rather than at noon.

We left our big packs at the hostel and brought our day packs along, crossing streets and parking lots, grumbling at the extra five or six RMB we’d had to pay for water and the Snickers bars we’d become addicted to.  It was like the water bottles inside of an airport (that is, except for the Lijiang airport which only had water coolers with no available cups).  When we finally found the entrance to the trail we’d already been walking around on the slick ground for about an hour.

The walk began with serenity, thick, lush trees and shrubs overshadowed us and there were an abundant number of places to stop and get snacks, though we abstained.  The trail was mostly paved, often a series of staircases leading up the slopes of rolling foothills covered in long stocks of bamboo.  The few people we saw smiled or waved at us.  Children said hello to us then ran away.  After about two hours of hiking, we stopped to rest on a rock and munch our apples.  An older woman in a long skirt and sweater approached us, hunched over, a haphazardly toothed grin taking up what seemed like a quarter of her body mass.  She came up to us, asking us questions, the ubiquitous where are you from, then suddenly began speaking to us in a dialect we could barely make out.  We told her we didn’t understand her.  She laughed and continued to talk and gesture.  We did the same for awhile until she finally walked away.  We left the stones, feeling warmer and more connected to humanity than we had from behind the TV set or computer screen the night before, our conversation deepening.

The stairs became grueling soon afterward, and as we descended into the area that was advertised as having the legendary monkeys, the density of people increased exponentially.  As did the tables of trinkets.  As did the grills full of searing chicken feet.  As did porters charging people to be carried, sitting on poles, up and down the stairs.  As did older women baring their teeth and waving sticks at us that we could buy to fight off the monkeys.  As did the middle aged men shouting HELLO with rubber grins.  As I pushed my way up the narrow staircase, trying not to look into the  jeering faces, I could here Megan’s shouts of frustration behind me, “BU YAO BU YAO!!!”

When we reached a plateau we realized we had to, had to get out of here.  We briefly argued the relative merit of finishing the hike to say we’d done it vs. preserving our sanity by ditching.  “You know what?”  I finally said, “We’re on vacation and nobody is having fun.  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We took the cable car back to the bottom and took a winding bus through the hills back to the town.  And there we waited for another full day, hot, smelly, and with a couple of pollution-induced colds hiding in our room between getting ripped off by shop-owners and the hotel owners.  Sometimes, it just gets to be too much…

Categories: Uncategorized

Transit and Respite

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Many days of a trip are often lost to the act of traveling itself and the day we left Shangri La was one of those.  We were scheduled to leave the Lijiang airport that evening at twenty minutes after midnight.  We took a bus out of Shangri La, squeezing in next to a man with exceptionally long legs squashed up against the seat in front of him.  We motioned to him to see if he would let us switch with him and sit by the window and he nodded in agreement (a mutually beneficial switch, but still left Megan and I rubbing our hands together like minor Dickensian villains).  He turned out to be the lone man in a pack full of women who had brought a full picnic onto the bus including a container of pepper-pickled chicken feet.  When one of the other women’s noses crinkled in disgust at the snack choice, they dangled it dripping in front of her with their chopsticks and laughed.  Megan and I read our books until the twisting roads became too much for maintaining equilibrium.

When we got to Lijiang we hit a curb.  We knew the airport was far out of town, had seen it on the bus from Dali, had waited for several minutes afterward in a tremendous downpour as the bus arrived at the station in the city.  Lonely Planet told us that there was a shuttle to the airport, we just didn’t know where.

When we arrived at the bus station, the two of us walked to a counter.  I stood, trying not to gesticulate, and said…”fei ji che” which actually just means airplane and the measure word for vehicle (but not airplane).  She looked at me in puzzlement, as we’d become frustratingly accustomed to.  I regathered my wits and am confident that I asked if we could buy airport shuttle tickets.  She only shrugged and shook her head.  We sighed…time to do what we’d been planning anyway.  Go into the city and wait there until it was time to go out to catch our midnight flight.

Around now, the afternoon was still awash with steamy heat of direct sunlight on concrete that had been soaking up exorbitant amounts of rain.  We had been here before, however, and knew how to get into town–in Dali they had told us Bus 8 would take us to the old city and all we’d have to do was walk to our hostel on the other side.  The rain had been slick on the old city cobble stones, and I’d weaved my way with high-knees and tractionless flip-flops through the crowds of Chinese tourists elbowing one another to take pictures off of the arched bridges.  This time I wasn’t slipping, but the driver of Bus 11 did the infuriating thing that we were beginning to see more and more: the arm waving, head-shaking NO and assumption that he knew our plan.  He pointed us across the street to a double decker bus that was waiting to take off.

I vibrated in anger as the two of us climbed to the empty second deck.  Tourist videos and Pepsi commercials smiled from the telescreens in the front of the bus.

This bus took a route to the old city that was only 5 minutes in length, as opposed to the 20 minute ride of a few days before, complete with smoking old men and school children that surrounded me until their heads were practically in my armpits.  One of the most frustrating things about my aversion to Chinese strangers telling me what to do lines up perfectly with my aversion to my mother telling me what to do: usually they’re totally right.

Once there, though, we encountered far less helpful people: a building that stood at the entrance of the Lijiang old city, with familiar girls rushing forward to offer the addresses of guesthouses and people posing next to a Disneyland-scaped mountain covered in pansies and water-wheels, was constructed almost like an American parody of ancient China.  It advertised help for tourists, but when we got there, the attendant had no idea where to send us for bus tickets.  He pointed to the right, vaguely, saying, “I think it’s that way.”


At this point, our backpacks were weighing heavily.  There’s a temptation, when one is traveling, to consider transit days as days of rest and only consider sight-seeing as an activity that counts as “something.”  This effect is a complete mental-trick, untrue to the degree of being the complete opposite of accurate.  We were hot, lugging big backpacks on our backs and our hiking day-packs on front.  We walked past the old city, past KFC and its imitators, cheap clothing shops, and walked into a hotel with a character I recognized.  We’d been told that the bus stop was near the “Blue Sky” hotel and to the left, a block down through tree-lined streets.

Nothing seemed familiar though.  The attendant at the “Blue Sky Hotel” gave us nothing but a strident “I don’t know.”

Then we found the airport booking office.  Saved.

Now, at the risk of sounding ageist, I would like to say that with some exceptions, twenty-something women were by far the friendliest and most helpful people on this trip.  They treated Megan and I like equals, but also like people to be impressed–like the cool girls in junior high that you hope notice your awesome haircut or new shoes.  For this reason, I am not completely disgusted that shows like Gossip Girl exist and are played all over the world.

Two such young ladies helped us, writing the address of the bus stop on a piece of paper in characters and admonishing us not to pay more than 7 RMB for a taxi.  Then they waved us away, pleased with our mastery of “good bye” and “thank you” (“You say thank you’ very well,” an older man had laughed at us as we struggled to make ourselves understood), and attempting a few English phrases of our own.  We left happily, and spent the next few hours before the journey camping out in KFC and taking turns shopping for souvenirs.  We left Lijiang at about 10pm from a tiny back lot that we never…neeeever would’ve found alone.


Categories: Transit