Since I went to Sanya for the ViA conference at the end of January, I’ve been traveling with Kailah Weiss-Weinberg, a fellow ViA vol posted at ETTI in Shangri-La. And if you have been reading my last few (excessively long) posts, you may know that we have had some interesting experiences during our travels in Yunnan, from watching people carrying washing machines on their backs at the Shaxi market to eating sixteen different parts of pig (prepared different ways) while celebrating Chunjie in Tacheng. But despite constituting our own definite 少数民族 (minority group) and being able to communicate with relative ease, we have not been practicing our English as we should. Thus when it came time for us to travel overland to Chengdu, a voyage which turned out to be – if spectacular – at times rather trying, our English often failed to measure up to the situation.
This blog post is named after one phrase of Kailah’s that did measure up to the situation and in fact encompassed the whole situation so thoroughly that no further encompassment could possibly be obtained. We were in Litang, a thoroughly Tibetan town in western Sichuan located at the breezy altitude of 4014 meters above sea level, when after being grievously overcharged for a simple dinner we decided to take a walk around town to release our frustration. It was dark, and though the stars were brilliantly spangled across the sky, they did not spangle themselves brilliantly enough to illuminate the surprisingly treacherous sidewalk along which we were casually strolling.
Every few meters, the sidewalk changed surfaces from tile to pavement, or dropped off a few feet to street level, or jumped up a stair or two, or there was a manhole or a random pit or something similar. And in addition to paying attention to these hazards, we also had to watch out for the occasional dark lumps sitting on the pavement, which were usually ragged-haired stray dogs or sharp-horned yaks hanging out and watching the world go by. Many times we would pass one of these blacker lumps faintly outlined against the black background and I would ask Kailah “do you think that might be alive?”
Anyway, after a few minutes dodging these bullets, Kailah narrowly missed dropping into black hole which, upon further inspection, was a narrow canal carrying a stewlike liquid (or solid?) that looked and smelled suspiciously like sewage. After we continued down the pavement for a few steps and the danger had been decidedly avoided, Kailah turned to me and, in a triumphant voice, proclaimed “the test has been thwarted!”
That pretty much said it all, not just for our perambulation that night but also for our entire voyage from Shangri-La to Chengdu through western Sichuan’s Ganzi prefecture, a massive area that is part of the traditional Tibetan region of Kham. Filled with magnificent mountains, massive grasslands, and deep river gorges (not to mention monasteries and small villages filled with beautiful traditional architecture), Ganzi is a spectacularly beautiful region in which to travel. But though the tourism brochure declares that “Travel in Ganzi is no longer a head ache like it used to be,” Ganzi’s spectacular scenery is only accessible through a series of painfully long, slow and bumpy bus trips along roads that range from terrible to unmentionable. Nevertheless, the trip is extremely rewarding and absolutely worthwhile – that is, if you have enough time to do it.
As we didn’t. We had originally planned to leave on February 8th and reach Chengdu on the 15th, in time for my flight out the following morning. But after returning to Shangri-La following Chunjie, we learned that the bus schedules northwards to Xiangcheng, our first stopover in Ganzi prefecture, were irregular at best.
“Meiyou,” said the bus station attendant when I went to inquire about buses on the day we got back. The phrase “meiyou,” meaning literally “not have,” is ubiquitous in modern China and is one I (and many others) find especially annoying. It might mean that they actually don’t have something, but it just as likely means they don’t want do deal with you or don’t have the patience to help waiguoren (foreigners) or simply don’t care. Basically, it means you’re getting brushed off.
“When are there buses?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“When will you know?”
“I don’t know. Right now, meiyou.”
This was an average interaction with the bus station people, which I had on average twice a day through the tenth (thank god, mostly by phone). By that time, our friend and fellow ViA vol Daniel had arrived in Shangri-La and we had been taking him around to see the sights and get a sense of the Western China experience, including hauling water from the public fountain to the apartment and using the public showers for the weekly washing. We had a great time hanging out together, but the entire time I was worrying whether or not I would be able to get out of Shangri-La. Every day I would call the bus station and would hear about how they had no tickets, and how they wouldn’t know about tomorrow’s bus until the afternoon before. We were running out of time.
Finally, on the 11th, the bus station said there would be a bus the following morning to Xiangcheng, so we bought tickets (and Daniel bought a ticket out of Shangri-La for the same time, as he was traveling back to Beijing) and – bright and early the next morning -boarded a packed bus bound for Xiangcheng.
Packed is an understatement. Every seat was taken and the entire aisle was full of luggage to the point that we had to literally climb to our seats. And soon after we left the station, we picked up a group of five or six people who, because there was no space in the aisle, had to stand at the front of the bus for the duration of the seven-hour ride.
Which, though long and bumpy, was spectacularly beautiful. The road, paved at first, went through thick pine forests and over a pass before plunging into a beautiful forested canyon lined by massive limestone cliffs. After a rest stop, the road turned to dirt and, narrowing, switchbacked up and up and up to a high pass and along ice slicks perched on precipitous mountainsides plunging thousands of feet below to distant canyons, no guardrails or anything separating us from vertigo-inducing peeks out of the bus windows down towards the silent emptiness below.
After what felt like years, we finally ended up back on a paved road and soon arrived in Xiangcheng, a sizable town of whitewashed houses and new yellow apartment blocks perched on a slope above a deep, narrow, intensely cultivated river valley. We had agreed to buy onward tickets to Litang when we arrived in Xiangcheng, so we immediately went into the bus station and, as the ticket window itself was closed, asked the woman behind the information desk when there would be a bus to Litang, a town 200 kilometers north that was our next stop.
“Meiyou buses to Litang.”
“But when do you have buses? There must be some.”
“Where do you have buses to?”
“But the buses to Kangding must pass Litang to get there. Can we take the bus to Litang?”
“Meiyou. Only buses to Kangding.”
By this point, I was starting to get exasperated. To get to Kangding, you must pass through Litang. I was simply proposing we take the bus to it’s advertised (on the board in the front of the bus) midway stop, but that suggestion was evidently too much for the bus station attendant. We decided to give up for the moment and go outside to try and find shared vans going to Litang.
After spending a while fruitlessly searching for shared vans, and unwilling to pay 700 kuai to rent a van ourselves, we returned to the bus station to find the ticket window open. I went to the information desk to try again.
“So could we buy a ticket for Litang on the bus to Kangding, as the bus goes by Litang?”
“No, there are only buses to Kangding.”
“But it must pass Litang. Can we buy tickets to Litang?”
“No. You can only buy tickets to Kangding.”
“Can we buy Kangding tickets and get off in Litang?”
“We only have buses to Kangding.”
At this point my frustration was nearing the breaking point, so I decided to try my luck with the ticket window. I turned around just in time to see the window gate smashing down. I turned back.
“Can we buy tickets now?”
“They are closed.”
We talked for a few minutes with some bystanders and learned that there were no more tickets for tomorrow’s bus to Kangding, let alone Litang. The ticket office had basically slammed their door shut in our faces; we could do nothing more. We decided to wake up extremely early the next morning and simply try to get on the bus however possible.
We spent the evening walking around the eerily deserted (half-abandoned, half under construction?) monastery which looms fortresslike over the modern town before having a questionable hotpot dinner and going to bed early. The next morning, we awoke at 5:15 to find the bus station ticket office open and the bus parking lot crowded with buses and passengers.
We repeatedly tried to get on each of the three buses headed for Kangding, but repeatedly were rebuffed by the drivers. We even tried to get the buses as they headed out of the station and down the street, but no luck – they wouldn’t even let us sit in the aisle! Finally, all the buses had left, the station had closed, and we were left sitting outside in the freezing cold. Only a few others were sitting along the sidewalk. Kailah went up to them to ask where they were going.
“Litang,” they said. “We have four people already, want to share a car?”
Yes. And after much delay, we left in a seven-person 面包车 (mianbao che, literally ‘bread-car’, named after it’s shape) at 7:30 after spending a couple of hours waiting in the cold and dark, through brilliantly starry, Xiangcheng morning.
Once it got bright, the ride was again incredibly beautiful. We crossed high passes and desolate stony plateaus, passed through wide grasslands and expansive valleys until, four hours later, we arrived in the surprisingly large town of Litang.
Everyone in Litang was incredibly friendly, from the monks in the monastery to the random people who said tashi delek to us on the street. We ate lunch at a small place run by three high-spirited women who were so friendly I almost didn’t mind finding two large chunks of hard plastic in my dumpling soup.
We spent the afternoon wandering around town, through a park filled with stupas and the traditional stone houses in the old town and finally up to the monastery above town, which is still under reconstruction but will soon have some spectacular temples and is encircled by a well-worn, constantly used kora below a stupa-topped dirt wall. We wandered around the complex for a while until we ended up at a breezy terrace overlooking Litang and the vast grasslands and mountains beyond.
We hung out for a while before suddenly, a short wiry monk came directly for us. We exchanged greetings before soon, after it was clear he did not speak English and we didn’t speak Tibetan, he gestured us to come inside the nearby temple. We followed him until he opened a narrow wooden door and led us into his room.
Smelling faintly of yak butter, the monk’s room was small enough to be half-filled by his single bed. The walls were covered by photographs of famous lamas and Tibetan landmarks, shimmering slightly in the glare cast off by the single bare lightbulb hovering over our heads. Next to his bed were jugs containing tea, oil, vinegar, tsampa, and butter, as well as a hotplate, pot, and frying pan. A small cat meowed from next to his bed, quietly, as if not to displease the faces staring down beatifically from the photographs above.
We had a long semi-miming conversation with the monk, both of us speaking in tongues the others could not understand, before we eventually caught a Chinese word.
“照相机？He wants to use a camera? OK.”
What proceeded was nothing less than a full-on monk photo shoot. First, we took pictures together. Then he sat down and asked Kailah to take a picture of him in the lotus position. Then he spent five minutes meticulously arranging a set of flowerlike paper fans and a bottle of Coca-Cola in front of him until they were in perfect position, and then asked us to take pictures of him in that position. Finally, we decided to leave. After making it clear that we really had to go, that we couldn’t take any more pictures, we were finally allowed to leave (after taking a few more pictures for good measure). We went around the monastery kora and back down to town, where (after spending some time hanging out in the hotel) we were charged 49 kuai for two simple dishes: stirfried tomatoes and cabbage, and gongbao chicken.
“Forty-nine kuai?” we said to the woman who was serving us, who owned the restaurant with her husband (who was in the kitchen). “That’s ridiculous! So expensive!”
“Chicken is very expensive right now,” she said, a beatific smile never leaving her face. “And Litang is very high. Vegetables have to be brought here from far away.”
“But we live in very high places too,” I said. “It’s never this expensive where we live.”
“But it’s Chunjie,” she said, “and things are especially expensive.”
Over the past week or so, we had heard a lot of people blame a lack of something, or an extra expense, or a surprising inconvenience or problem that we had not anticipated, or really anything at all that didn’t go smoothly (e.g. everything) on the Chunjie holiday. No vegetables? It’s because of Chunjie. No buses until next week? Chunjie is the problem. Taxi fare more expensive? Chunjie is the culprit. No food at the restaurant? No wireless at the hostel? No way to do anything at all? Chunjie.
And as may be deduced from the previous paragraph, both Kailah and I were sick and tired of this excuse. So we went for sheer anger, disregarding any degree of ‘face’ we might have previously had. We yelled that they were cheating us because we were foreigners, that we lived in western China and knew the prices and were just cheap, that they were liars and frauds and that we would tell everyone we knew – and we knew a lot of people, mind you – to never ever go to their restaurant. We paid the 49 kuai and left in a huff. Which is when Kailah almost fell into a sewage pit but, after not doing so, thwarted the test.
From which point we thwarted test after test until pretty much everything, including the absurdly long bus rides and nasty bus station attendants, had been so thoroughly thwarted that no more thwarting could possibly be done. As such, we left the next morning on a bus for Kangding, which was apparently seven hours away via national highway 318, the long route from Shanghai to the Nepali border at Dram.
But in all of my experience on national highways, I have never seen one so simultaneously beautiful and in such terrible condition. The simple term ‘highway’ is far too optimistic to use when describing this major artery; substituting ‘dirt track’ or ‘yak trail’ might give you a slightly more accurate picture of the road eastwards from Litang.
The road was partially paved, but so potholed and rutted and frost-heaved that barely any pavement was evident. The pavement that existed between the piles of dirt and gravel was so uneven that travel would actually been smoother had the pavement been ripped up and exchanged for a gravel or dirt surface. The scenery, however, was stunning. The bus started off trundling across vast rolling grasslands, shining silvery in the early morning light, before ascending to a 4700-meter pass and finally plunging into the slotlike gorge of the Yalong river, a valley so deep and narrow that even at midday the powerful sun failed to reach the canyon floor. After passing through the improbable town of Yajiang, clinging to impossible slopes above the surging river, we climbed up and up and up again on increasingly narrow roads which barely allowed two vehicles passage. At several points, our bus faced massive oil trucks along the narrow roadway, which meant that we had to take the outside lane and, our bus leaning perilously over a three-thousand foot drop, creep along at an imperceptible pace, the two vehicles only centimeters apart, until the obstacle had been passed and we could continue along our way. If the oil trucks had so much as tapped the side of our bus, or if our bus had tapped the side of the truck (easily possible considering the bumpy road surface), we would have likely gone hurtling downwards into the void below. On this trip, I learned that I am extremely afraid of heights in one specific situation: while in a moving passenger vehicle.
After a few more perilous high passes, many with spectacular view of the massive Gongga Shan (7556 meters, 24,790 feet) looming monolithically over the puny 5000 meter mountains in the foreground, and after finally finding a good road and passing the Kangding Airport strangely marooned at 4200 meters in the middle of a barren grassland area, we plunged down through spectacular alpine scenery to the city of Kangding where we were greeted by a mob of taxi and hotel touts who physically blocked our exit from the bus station. It was nearly 4 pm; the bus ride had taken almost nine and a half hours.
Exhausted, we walked around for a while until we finally found a guesthouse in which to stay the night. We decided to take an afternoon bus the next day in order to have time to explore Kangding.
Which was a good choice. We spent the following morning hiking up 跑马山 (Running Horse Mountain), a steep hill which looms above the city. From the summit we had spectacular views of the valley and the surrounding snow mountains, scenery which has been made inordinately famous in China due to the “康定情歌” (Kangding Love Song), a famous popular song which celebrates the natural landscape of the region.
Which is undeniably spectacular, but has also made Kangding a city of somewhat awkward layout. The city is set along a steep river (almost more of a creek) which tumbles down along a deep, narrow canyon between five and six thousand meter peaks. The city, located at 2616 meters, seems at the bottom of a slot canyon, with peaks that tower three thousand meters above in all directions. Due to this geography, Kangding is a narrow strip of surprisingly tall buildings stretched along the narrow valley floor, a situation which in strange ways makes its streetscapes comparable with (of all places) Hong Kong.
We enjoyed our morning in Kangding and wished we had more time to hang out in the city, but had to catch an afternoon bus to Chengdu. Our bus left the station eerily empty – only five passengers! – and stayed that way for the duration of the (again) insanely scenic drive.
The road went down into a deep canyon, and, passing the famous Long March town of Luding, climbed up again towards the distant peaks before passing through a long tunnel. While our entry into the tunnel was accompanied by bright sunshine, our exit – on the opposite side of the mountain – was greeted with snow and dense fog. The road descended a steeply forested canyon, past thick junglelike forests and bamboo thickets, and finally through several depressing industrial towns before we passed onto the expressway and made a beeline for Chengdu.
One anecdote from the bus ride: in one of the small industrial towns through which we passed, we had to stop at a tollgate. We stopped and the toll attendant asked the bus driver for money – strange, considering buses are supposed to pass by for free.
“Don’t you see the sign on the front of the bus?” our driver screamed. “I don’t have to pay.”
“The sign wasn’t visible,” she said. “It was behind the other sign, it was blocked.”
“The sign was clearly visible,” he said. “Do you want me to make it bigger so you can see it?”
“You should make it visible when you pass through,” she said.
“How big do I need to make it?” screamed the driver. And the driver and toll attendant quickly began to scream in each others’ faces, the one arguing that the sign wasn’t visible, the other arguing that she should get her eyesight examined. Nasty insults were hurled in both directions, a crowd started to gather to calm them both down (there were other vehicles waiting behind us) or maybe just to spectate. Finally, after five or ten minutes of red-faced arguing, after the tollgate had been up and down several times, the driver drove off in a huff, cursing the toll attendant under his breath.
This was a fine welcome to eastern Sichuan, where I am currently in Sim’s Hostel (again) in Chengdu. I will fly to Beijing to meet my mom later this morning. But for now, the test has been thwarted.