Things have been happening. And as always in China, these things have been happening at a pace breakneck enough that I haven’t had time to update the blog.
A week and a half ago, the big news was the successful (if hectic) conclusion to the semester and my trip to Xining for the new year. In the space of one morning, my students took an exam, packed up their bedrolls and jumped into cars for home. One first-year student, a natural organizer named Samir to whom we’ve given the epithet “Leader of Men,” organized a small bus for approximately twenty students from his area. Others returned home riding anything from buses to motorcycles. Yes, I saw several students on motorcycles. Frightening.
And yes, I already miss my students. Several students have been calling to check in on me and their voices are reminders of the number one reason I’m still here.
Now, however, I’m in the completely incongruous (to Qinghai) environment of Chengdu, the Sichuanese capital which is developed enough to feel like an entirely different planet. This feeling of foreignness is further heightened by how I arrived here – a wild and spectacular journey with friend/VIA co-vol Natalie through the amazing Ganzi 甘孜 དཀར་ཛེས Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of western Sichuan.
On paper, the journey was comprised of a sleeper-bus trip from Xining to Xiewu (near Yushu), followed by a simple hitch-and-bus jaunt through the towns of Sershul སེར་ཤུལ (Shiqu石渠), Manigango 马尼干戈, Ganzi 甘孜 དཀར་ཛེས and Kangding 康定 དར་མདོ before arriving in Chengdu. While this backdoor road trip into Sichuan initially seemed like a simple endeavor, we quickly learned that – like everything else in western China – things were about to get complicated.
For starters, we were traveling in early January, which is extreme low season for tourism (e.g. we were the only ones crazy enough to go). As such, most shops, restaurants and hotels were closed, and electricity was limited to approximately three hours in the evening (7-10pm-ish). There was no indoor heating anywhere except an anemic heater in Manigango’s nicest hotel. Many of the buses listed in Lonely Planet as running between the region’s towns were not in evidence, likely having not left the depot parking lot in Chengdu.
However, as it turns out the area is not simply a tourist showpiece and actually has local people as well (surprise, authorities!), and this low season for tourism was not low season for general travel and people-movement. In short, the dark depths of winter happens to be a season during which local people want to get somewhere. As such, transport was accomplished primarily by minivan (面包车), motorcycle, hitching, and four-legged animal.
Additionally, the region had received several inches of snowfall before our arrival, and this precipitatory (word?) weather pattern continued intermittently through our first few days of travel. This would not be a problem if these regions (or if China in general) had heard of the snowplow. I understand the lack of snowplows in China’s south; however in this high, harsh land where snow can fall at any time of year, it seems strange to me that snowplows remain unheard of. Consequently, a tiny snowfall can transform western Sichuan’s network of bumpy dirt tracks (more pothole than pavement) that pass for roads into switchbacking ribbons of mirrorlike black ice. Traversing these “highways”, which are nothing more than inclined skating rinks, can be an intensely frightening experience for all involved. And expensive – when the snow is “big” (e.g. fully covering the surface of the road), drivers may charge up to 200% of the normal price for any given journey.
And the road was, in some areas, under construction. And the beds were rock-hard. And the food was limited and questionable.
Despite these difficulties, our trip through western Sichuan turned out to be a pretty amazing experience. Unbelievable scenery, ranging from endless tentspeckled grasslands to soaringly craggy mountains to emerald lakes to luxuriantly dark and all-carpeting evergreen forests to pleasant agricultural valleys to awesomely forbidding gorges. A rich nomadic culture, yak-hair tents dotted over the frozen grasslands and wildhaired sheepskinclothed herders on their motorcycles populating the small towns. Massive and impressive monasteries of all sects protruding from the landscapes, filled with monks and pilgrims and activity and life, not historical monuments but living commemorations and celebrations of culture. Funky small towns where the nomads, farmers, shopkeepers and outsiders awkwardly coexist in each others’ necessary presence.
I’m not going to give a full narrative account of the journey, as such a project would occupy a volume equal in weight to a small panda. Instead, I’ll simply give the bullet-point account of the journey, listing highlights and memorable experiences to give readers vague but hopefully interesting glimpses into this adventure.
- Sershul Gonpa was our first destination, and after arriving we decided to go into town for some food. As it happens, we were quickly picked up by a nomad who had spent a couple of months learning English (which was pretty basic) and took us to a random second-floor restaurant which consisted of a huge kitchen and a dilapidated banquet room, complete with TV, huge round tables and posters of Korean soap opera stars, that looked as if it had not been used for generations. We ate there, massive bowls of meaty noodles, alone with our nomad friend and some of his buddies, as other people crowding the hallway filed into the more appealing restaurant/teahouse next door. But our friend and his friends (kids? relatives?) were very welcoming and kind despite the language barrier. After eating, we traveled the pilgrim-packed kora around the massive monastery for some awesome grassland views and some mangydog-infested-hillside relaxing (with constant questions/interrogations from locals).
- We had to travel from Sershul Gonpa to the county town, where everything (nearly) was closed and we stayed in an unheated double (nighttime temps below -20C) in a drafty courtyard outbuilding where drifting snow had made the pit toilets (and especially their edges) particularly treacherous.
- We traveled from Sershul to Manigango in a private car holding six people. The driver offered us the rate of 120/person if we agreed to sit four to the backseat (the monk, of course, took the front). The ride turned out to be an icy, bumpy five hours over three 4500-meter passes. I have passed more comfortable hours at the dentist’s office.
- The staff of the Manigango Pani Jiudian is an affable, fun-loving bunch. Our night there (in a heated room, after the owner transferred us free of charge from the cheap unheated dorm we’d paid for) included teaching English to the owner’s wife, who had picked up an impressive level after studying for only two months in Chengdu; joking around with the owner of the hotel and his friends; miming with a young woman, a hotel employee who was deaf, mute and largely illiterate (not to mention not being able to speak standard sign language and having a young child) – a series of communications which eventually revealed her love of dancing and prompted a long dance-off between her and Natalie in the hotel restaurant as the staff looked on. Which was when we were transferred from the 25 kuai unheated dorm to the 80 kuai heated double at no charge by the owner. Nice work Natty.
- We spent a truly unbelievable morning at Yilhun Lhatso (also called Xinluhai 新路海 or Yulong Lacuo 玉龙拉措 in Chinese), a spectacularly emerald lake surrounded by skyscraping glaciertopped peaks. Rich evergreen forests and dark granite walls rise up from the lakeside towards the heights above. When we visited, nobody else was there, so we wandered around the lakeshore, in utter peace, to our heart’s content (or at least until we had to return to our waiting driver so as to be inside the two-hour agreement). Pictures soon to be available everywhere, as they will be winning grand prizes in pretty much every photo contest anywhere.
- To get from Manigango to Rongbatsa, near Ganzi, we waited for a car with which to hitch for the 2-hour trip. The drivers were asking such high prices that we resolved to stay (if necessary) until the bus from Sershul passed through at 5pm; however, around 2:30 the temperature dropped drastically and a violent snowstorm moved in, quickly sapping our will to remain at the exposed road intersection. We paid some cash and got in a car.
- We arrived at the Dargye Monastery and tried to express our wish to go to the Rinpoche guesthouse we’d read about in Lonely Planet, but to no avail. Though the guesthouse was described in the book, complete with vague locational details (“o’er the hill and through the woods”-style), its Tibetan/Chinese names were not listed. Consequently, we were attempting to ask directions to a place whose name we didn’t know – an exercise in futility. However, the monks alternately pointed us towards a place called Dala Gong, which I hadn’t heard of before, but we decided to try out. An old man took us halfway around the monastery kora before pointing us along a track that wound its way into the barren snowcovered fields beyond, telling us that Dala Gong (whatever that was) lay ahead. We wandered, seemingly at random, through the barren expanse before spotting a fortresslike monastery compound ahead. Some monks waves us over and invited us in for tea. We walked through a stableyard and past several fidgety horses, up a steep set of creakily wooden stairs and into a classic monastery-building-roof complex – several rooms set around a small courtyard decorated with simple murals of protector deities. We went in for tea, and soon learned that we could also stay here. It was later afternoon, the tea was warm, and the surroundings were beautiful – the hotsprings were a ten-minute walk away, visible from the roof – so, we said, why not?
- The next morning, I awoke to Natalie asking if I had any water. She had taken a decongestant the evening before, with the result that she had become extremely dehydrated during the night. She had drunk all of our water and had searched for more during the night, but – as it turns out – the monks had locked the kitchen room, which was filled with carafes of water. To compensate, she ate snow from the ladder going up to the roof, snow which had seen the passage of many feet since it fell a few days ago. During the night, she said, she was so desperate she did this twice. I went into guide mode and force-fed her water and a bit of tsampa (all the food available) until she went back to sleep. I ran down to the hotsprings (which I simply wanted to see at this point; I knew we would be in evacuation mode later that day and hotsprings were not part of the equation for a dehydrated person) which were large and beautiful. On the walk back, I had one of those instantaneous realizations, so common in this part of the world where I live (and in this instance induced by the blue-sky cloudless nature of the day, as well as the fact that I was also quite dehydrated myself) that I was in one of the more spectacularly beautiful places I’d ever been. A snowcovered plain stretched out from my feet, rising gradually from downvalley to the promontory on which I stood, and giving me the feeling of being a king surveying my proprietary domain. And what a domain; above the village-dotted plain, occasional monasteries with glittering golden roofs scattered starlike through the expanse; above all this rose the magnificent Chola range, a wall of nearly 6000-meter spires that resembled a steroidal Teton range. Forgetting the problems of the morning, Natalie’s illness, the lack of hotsprings time, the upcoming evacuation to Ganzi, etc. etc. whatever, I suddenly and with no forethought whatsoever had an indescribably perfect moment, a moment which was profoundly actualizing, reinforcing, and live-giving in that cliched Nietzsche-ubermensch manner. Who needs God or really much of anything else when you’ve got this moment, this here and now, in Ganzi.
- Back to reality: I carried Natalie’s backpack as we stumbled the kilometer or two back to the road together. We eventually got in a car full of friendly young (our age) government officials on their day off, and rode to Ganzi singing songs together.
- By the afternoon, Natalie was feeling better so we went out to explore the town. Ganzi is a large and extremely lively trading town in yet another spectacular location below the Chola mountains. It seemed like nothing other than a larger, higher Rebgong, with bustling street markets, a similarly important monastery and beautiful old Tibetan quarter (except – sorry Rebbers – Ganzi’s location was a bit more magnificent. Don’t feel bad, you’re doing quite fine for yourself really.) The Tibetan quarter had beautiful old wood-framed houses, themselves framed by winding snowy lanes that angled crazily upwards towards the impressively impregnable monastery citadel above. We admired some views and embarked on the truly beautiful kora, nearly all of which offers magnificent panoramas over town and snowy fields to the high craggy peaks beyond. Really an amazing mini-journey to encapsulate the larger one we were on.
- Ganzi has really good potato baozi at a Tibetan restaurant just down from the bus station. Try them.
- The next day, I awoke around 5:45 for our 6:30 bus to find that Natalie had been up since 3:45am rocking out to Justin Bieber and other classics. We got on the bus with the resolve to sleep, but the driver and the road (and the bus) had apparently already made a contract that nobody on this bus would sleep during the duration. The road over the first pass was truly awful and remained so all the way to Luhuo – a distance of just over 100km that took us nearly four hour to traverse. At one point, we had to get out of the bus and walk several hundred meters as the vehicle negotiated a massive lake that had formed in an ice-walled canyon that stretched the width of the road – a canyon/lake combo that had already swallowed an entire China Post truck. Fortunately the rest of the road was better, but our driver was slow, and the expected 9-hour jaunt ended up taking 11.5 hours – even with an abbreviated lunch stop.
- We stayed in a nice hostel in Kangding (although the one we wanted to stay in was closed) and passed a pleasant evening at hotpot with friend Carver, a student from Xining who was studying in town. The next day, we got on the bus to Chengdu around midday and, other than an absurdly obnoxious Fuzhou revue/talent show item assaulting our ears and minds for six hours, arrived in Chengdu without incident.
- When you go into the Erlangshan tunnel between Ya’an and Luding, always bet your friend that the weather on the far side is the opposite of what you’ve just come from. You will win.
Chengdu = major culture shock. As I’m finally finishing this post, conference has already wrapped up and most people have departed. Conference was relatively uneventful, though it was good to see/meet people. Notable items from conference include the opportunity to stay at the incomparable Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel for nearly a week, attempting to find and finally climbing at a strangely-located but friendly rooftop bouldering gym with Seigi, exploring the city and bookstores/music stores throughout, eating delicious Indian food, and many more items. Tonight, I jump on a 30-hour sleeper train to Beijing with Kailah (departure time: 11:57pm). It should be yet another one of those ridiculous yet somehow fulfilling experiences, as we are now in the heart of the Chunjie travel madness (train station ticket offices around town are stacking lines fifty people deep).
Sometimes, it’s hard for me to remember I’m still in the same country. Chengdu is light-years away from Ganzi or Rebgong in terms of development, living standards and expectations. But it wouldn’t be China without these jarring incongruities and intensely experienced inequalities. As it is, I’m appreciative of the chance to live in a truly amazing part of the world – and to travel and experience and live amidst what it offers. This appreciation is not something I actualize or feel constantly; that would simply be exhausting and require me to ditch any degree of quotidian perspective I have left. But occasionally, I have that moment of insight and depth that forces me to stop in my tracks, look around, and appreciate what an unusually amazing life I have.