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Chengdu and then the Blip

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…

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