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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Not for the faint of heart

[ed. note: I started looking online for maps and photos of the places Alan is describing, then thought: Hey, everyone else might be interested in that, too. Always one to share, I've included links where possible. Most come from Wikipedia and those entries usually have links to other sites as well. -- David]

This is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who despise sitting in cramped spaces for long amounts of time being surrounded by smokers and vomiting young girls. Welcome to bus travel in China.

I fear I have fallen behind a bit on my posts, so I will backtrack just a bit and then get on with the vomit. My last few days with the family from Taiwan were spent in Jiuzhaigou and on Emeishan. Suffice it to say, the scenery is breathtaking and well worth the visit despite the big crowds. The second day at Emeishan was the best, as we finally had blue skies, and the mountains spread out below us were endless. I took some very good pictures (well, I think so anyway, and if I could post a few of them now, you probably would, too--not to sound like an arrogant jerk or anything). The other nice thing about the second day at Emeishan was that, despite the long drives through winding mountain roads at times down to one lane and requiring decent waits, I never once feared for my life.

The same cannot be said of our first day near Jiuzhaigou. We were staying in a touristy Tibetan village about 15 KM from the park, and on the first day instead of going to Huanglong we went to Shenxianchi (Not sure on spelling there). [Couldn't find anything by that or variant spellings.--ed.] This was a nice decision in that there were very few people when we went, and so the hike was very peaceful. What was not so peaceful was the drive up the long mountain road strewn with rocks from recent landslides as a steady drizzle fell; and near the top, when a rock blew out the front tire, clouds descended so that there was little visibility.

After Emeishan, we returned to Chengdu and I went with the Taiwanese family to the airport. Then our tour guide drove me back to a hostel in the city. We walked around together for a bit, which gave me a chance to practice my Chinese a lot, and she introduced me to a local xiao chi area (snack food that really isn't snack food the way we think of it in the States) including a very spicy shui jiao (dumpling). Then I headed back to the hostel and sent off my last update ["Death Cab for Alan"--ed.].

The next day in Chengdu I walked around for awhile, then stopped and sat in the People's Park. There I wrote for a bit and was stared at by some kids and a young couple. As I walked through the park, I came across an old man playing that two-stringed instument the Chinese are famous for playing [I think Alan is referring to something in the huqin family.--ed.] and a woman singing an accompanying Chinese opera song. There was constant motion around as people fanned themselves in the 35 some odd degree heat (and brutal humidity--I had salty sweat stains in my shirt by the time the day was over). As I left the park, a man came up and asked if he could speak English with me. I said sure and we walked to one of the famous Taoist temples in Chengdu. I was speaking a lot of Chinese in order to help teach him English, and as we sat drinking tea I had a great feeling of comfort and a belief that this trip is going to go well. We said goodbye and I headed back towards the city, walking along the river.

An old man with no lower teeth waved me to sit next to him and he began talking as well. I was happy enough that I could understand him, and more happy when he could understand me. We talked for about 15 minutes. He complained that there were too many people in China and was very curious about what it was like back in the USA. I took a shot of him (and a few other people that day as well) so one of these days I'll be able to share faces of a few of the people I've met so far--and there have been some great ones!

After talking with him, I detoured across a bridge leading over the river and found myself in a very old part of town. The builldings were low and made of red brick, and as three-wheeled bikes rolled down the street, and as people walked home, and as women sold fruit in the orange light, it was easy to feel like the city was gone. I ate in a great restaurant, sort of by accident as the front was quite unassuming and there was just a woman sitting outside. I asked what they had, and I ended up eating a plate of veggies, kong-pau chicken, a bottle of beer, and a big bowl of white rice for 2.50 USD. I have the address if anyone is curious. Then I walked down an even older street, populated by old men and women who seemed untouched by city life. The sound of squeaking wheels was a constant in Chengdu, but especially here in the narrow lanes branching off the street. I took out my camera and took a shot. Then a woman came up to me and escorted me off the street and back out to a main thouroughfare, explaining they didn't want me taking pictures and that I shouldn't even be on the street in the first place. Strange, and a bit annoying, but I had a chance to joke with her and the people sitting on their low stools under their drying clothes, drinking tea, as I walked off into the sunset.

The following morning I got up bright and early to leave for Ruoergai. I was told by the girl in the hostel that maybe it would take about 8 hours. She was wrong.

The first sign that it might be a bad ride was the group of men sitting behind me. One was drinking beer. One--who looked a whole lot like an alcoholic Asian version of gameshow host Richard "Survey says...!" Dawson--was sticking his entire finger up first one nostril and then the other. The other was smoking a cigarette. In fact, it seemed everyone smoked during the drive, just never all together. As soon as one finished, another started.

The next sign the drive might not be so good came after we entered the mountains. We came to a stop on a turn in the road. Ahead was a line of parked cars with people milling about the narrow shoulder of the road. There was a steep drop off down to a rushing river and a smoking factory (itlooked like something straight out of a Charles Dickens book, transplanted to the middle of towering mountains). We waited for about a half hour before it was our side's turn to move. It took more than two hours to go the next, say, 40 km. Things seemed better after that for a while, besides the kamikaze passing maneuvers made by our driver. The scenery was stunning: mountains so tall that when I looked straight up out the window the tops were still not seen. We passed small Tibetan villages and gardens of sunflowers and corn. Then we were down in the valley driving next to the river and all seemed right. Almost idyllic, in fact, except for the piles of gravel and white rock lying everywhere (and the mining operations and incomplete building projects).

Then things got hairy again. The road was no longer paved and the little girl across the aisle vomited for the second and third time (but at least it was mostly liquid and didn't stink. It didn't flow over to my feet, either). The river [I assume Alan means the water here, not the vomit.--ed.] was not more than two feet away from my window it seemed. I could have spit in it as we drove. After that scare, things were OK again until we started climbing back up. The road was bumpy, at best, and just wide enough for two cars. It was raining and there was more evidence of recent landslides. As we passed one vehicle, I realized that if I had been sitting next to a door, and I took a step out of that door, I would have fallen about 2000 feet to my untimely, if scenic, demise. Then it was dark and I was thankful.

I was sitting next to a monk during this, dressed in his red robes. At each stop, I asked how long we still had, and at each answer, I cringed. We finally arrived into muddy Ruoergai at 9:30 at night. All told, I covered maybe 400 miles as a crow flies in the same time I could have flown from Hong Kong to Detroit. On the bright side, as we drove into town, where temperatures were in the low fifties F and I was wearing shorts and sandals, there was a large firework display going on out over one of the low grass covered hills that led out into the vast expanses of grassland I would drive through today.

The occasion, as I was to find out today, was a festival in honor of food. Meiyanjie, I think--something to do with lamb. Anyway, this morning almost the entire town was in a center square. Ruoergai is a Tibetan village, and so the people were dressed accordingly. Women in colorful robes and headscarves, their cheeks bright red. Men in dirty black suits with frayed collars and too-long sleeves, or in dark robes with a bright-colored sash. Men in aviator glasses and cowboy hats. There were monks as well, and some men carrying swords and knives. Another great day for people taking pictures. I find that as soon as you take one, and show the subject their image on the display, it is not hard to find others willing to stand still and stare into the camera, some with uncomfortable smiles, some with proud looks, and some--especially kids, with pure joy.

The best pics today were of a female dancer in a beautiful outfit with a baby blue hat winking into the camera as she walked by--truly spur of moment--and of a woman with her young child. As I was the only white person in town during the festival (or at least, actually at the festival itself) I drew quite a bit of attention and stares. At one point, later, I was on the main street with a group of around ten Tibetan men listening as I spoke with another man, and we tried to figure out where I should send a copy of a picture that I had taken. They were also interested in America, in how much a flight cost, and how much it would cost to travel across America as I am doing in China now. I deflected that one as best I could.

Then it was on to Langmusi. This was supposed to be a three-four hour drive, but turned into five and a half, almost six, after accounting for the late start (I think it is mandatory to depart at least 15 minutes later than advertised) and several unexpected stops to load the bus with more people than could fit. The drive itself, while not terrifying, was not pleasant as the road was unpaved almost the entire way, and muddy. There were potholes, and at times small lakes to cross. On the bright side, the scenery was again beyond description, with clouds laying shadows on the hills and wildflower strewn grasslands. The sky was blue and full of white fluffy clouds which made it all the more wonderful. In fact, at one point, I saw the wallpaper screen they have on Windows machines, the one with the sloping grass-covered hill...quite amazing, really.

So now I am here and will stay tomorrow...cannot stand for another bus. It seems like a great town, smoke filling the air as the sun went down. A lot more tourists, both Chinese and foreign, are here as well. On Monday I will head to Xiahe and meet a friend of my Taiwanese friends, a woman who will apparently be able to help me quite a bit with tickets and information about things (and she is picking me up at Xiahe to drive me to Lanzhou, saving me a bus ride: yeah!).

So I guess that is about as much as I can say for now about what is going on. Will probably write more from Lanzhou, which is in Gansu Province, before I start the journey west on the northern part of the Silk Road. As my girlfriend is calling early tomorrow morning (which really might be the best thing of all) [might be???--ed.] I should be off to bed now.


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Anonymous Mom said...

I bet you're really proud (justly so) of your ability to communicate. Are you finding that your tones are improving?
A special thanks to David, too, for the geography links and the occasional editorial comment.

11:25 PM  

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