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26 February 2011 @ 12:18 pm
Circumambulating Chengdu: Overland and Back (Part 1)  

Mountains on the way into Kangding.

Now that most of a week has passed since I returned from the Chengdu trip, and I'm sitting here on a brightly sunny Saturday morning with a mug of coffee combined with some walnut-flavored milk (whose package proclaims, "Every day happy many!", but is perhaps not the best flavor combo with coffee)--- I finally feel up to writing about the trip. When you see the pictures of the horrendous road conditions you will understand why even the thought of the trip makes me feel tired all over again. The order we went was: Shangri-la --> Xiangcheng --> Litang --> Kangding --> Chengdu (rest for a few days; see pandas; Jonas leaves) --> Panzhihua --> Lijiang --> Shangri-la.

I also did tweak my neck (er, it was tweaked) during all the hours spent bumping over bad road conditions. I'd been appropriating Jonas's ibuprofen (bu4-luo4-fen1 布洛芬)pills for days before I actually went to a pharmacy in Kangding. When I walked in there was no one to be seen, until a man wearing a motorcycle helmet walked out of the back room.
"What are you looking for?"
"um...Do you work here?"
"Yes. What seems to be the problem?" (at which point he took off the motorcycle helmet.)

The only fringe benefit of having a neck issue is that now I know how to say "herbal adhesive compress" (or whatever the hell it's called in English) in Chinese: tie2 贴 or gao1yao4 膏药。Motorcycle-pharmacist-man had asked me if I wanted a blabbity-blah (um, a what?!), which turned out to be the compresses. In addition to a 4-pack of those, and a pack of 布洛芬 tablets, he also offered me a small bottle of sketchy-looking red pills "that help your bones." When I dithered at the end over what to actually buy (US$2.25 for the compresses and that much again for the ibuprofen! expensive!) he asked whether I wanted the bone-helping pills. "要不要?They only cost 2.5 yuan [US$0.30]." Sure... why the hell not? And thus medicated, I began the last leg of the trip into Chengdu. Ironically it turned out to be the only section of the trip that was basically all paved.

Our trip to Xiangcheng started with not being able to buy tickets to go there. The attendants at the Shangrila bus station led us on for days, saying "there might be a bus tomorrow," "we don't know if there is a bus tomorrow," "check back tomorrow about a bus on the day after," etc. When we finally did buy a ticket to Xiangcheng, on the last day possible for Jonas to be able to make the trip on his shortened time frame, it turned out we got near to the last of the tickets. This is the inside of the bus: the luggage was piled so high in the aisleway that to get to our seats near the back we had to climb on armrests and other peoples' seats, avoid stepping on monks and nuns (who were sitting in ~10 of the seats), and basically try to catapult ourselves into and out of our seats when necessary:

Not only that, but just after leaving the SGL bus station the bus pulled over to the side of the road to let on ~8 additional people who then spent the next 7 bumpy hours sitting/standing in the front of the bus's aisleway and sitting on the engine block up next to the driver. We made only 1 rest stop that day; we must still have been in Yunnan, because this gentleman is smoking a home-made bong, and bongs are a Yunnan Specialty Product. (really!)

Unpaved bumpy dirt roads aside, when we scraped frost off the inside of the bus windows (repeatedly), the views were absolutely phenomenal, with almost the whole days' scenery being amazing mountains, river valleys thousands of meters below, and with nothing as bourgeouis as guardrails to block our view of bumpy-dirt-road to the precipitous drop below. It was incredibly precipitous. This was to be a theme for the majority of the trip to Chengdu. Mountain switchbacks, just some of many:

If the SGL bus station had stammered and delayed information and denied bus knowledge, they looked lik experts in the face of the Xiangcheng bust station's utter incompetence and reluctance to sell tickets. When we'd arrived there at 3 p.m. we found the ticket window closed. Circa 5 p.m. we walked in again to find that a group of Chinese tourists had managed to buy tickets....and just in time to see the ticket-selling window snap close again.
"Hey we want to buy tickets too."
"Sorry we are off work now. You'll have to come back tomorrow."
"But we want to go to Litang tomorrow."
"There aren't any buses to Litang."
"But there are buses to Kangding, and the Kangding buses pass through Litang."
"Those buses are sold out."

Useless, infuriatingly useless. But we did find out from the Chinese tourists that their bus to Kangding left at 6 a.m. the next morning. So after an evening of drinking panda-themed beer and eating rather strange hotpot, and of going to a strangely half-under-construction, basically-deserted monastery, we stayed in a hole of a hotel and were out at the bus station by 5:30 a.m. the next morning to try to get a seat on the bus. Or the 3 buses all going to Kangding, as turned out to be the case. Except that we couldn't figure out, in the mass of milling people, who the drivers of the buses were. So we rushed around, enquiring, and Jonas and I taking turns to go into the bus station and make further futile inquiries into buying tickets. Finally, when it was almost 6 a.m., we went out to the street to see if we could hop onto the buses there and sit in the aisleways for the duration of the trip. All 3 buses pulled out in sequence, drove past us with Tib.-pop music already thumping, and left us standing there in the dark early morning cold with only the glow of villages in the valley below and a few rooster crows. Thankfully we did manage to take a shared van to Litang later in the morning, at 7:30 a.m., ironically leaving from the the hotel where we'd spent the night, and for almost 2x the price as the bus would've cost.

Rest stop on the way to Litang:

Litang is up at the mere altitude of ~4015 m (13,164') and surrounded by vast grasslands and snow mountains. After our very bumpy 5 hr van ride, we arrived around noon. Rumor had been that it was difficult to buy tickets in Litang, but it turned out to be a very straightforward interaction: Hello we want to go to Kangding tomorrow. Oh okay the bus leaves at 6:30 a.m. and costs 85 yuan. Yes we would like 2 tickets. Thank you.

The town itself is a big town but not yet a city, and rather quiet (low on people and open shops) in the still-continuing Chinese New Year / Losar holidays. There were many many monks and yaks wandering the streets along with some dogs and pigs. We were the only foreigners in the town (that we saw, at least,) and everyone we saw on the streets offered an enthusiastic "Tashi-delek!" We declined to stay at the "Authorized Hotel for Foreigners," instead checking into the comfortable Potala Inn before setting out for lunch. Settling into a noodle shop run by 3 friendly young women sitting at a table making dumplings, I told them, to their amusement and Jonas's embarrasment, that he would like to sleep (perhaps with them?) vs. to eat dumplings---shui4 jiao4 vs. shui2 jiao3--and that I wanted noodle soup with fried egg. Jonas's dumpling soup turned out to have the added, ahem, bonus containing 2 large chunks of plastic, not dissimilar to either coal or legos. My soup was plastic-free.

Litang has the most white stupas of anywhere I have seen. There are a fair number at the White Stupa Park 白塔公园,and many many more at the large monastery just above town. After going to the park and wandering around the town's back streets for awhile, we headed up to the monastery. It, too, seemed under-renovation. All the same, a beautiful place and with a view out over the grasslands and town and to the mountains beyond. While there we were approached by an enthustiastic young monk who vigourously invited us back to his quarters. He spoke little Chinese and we speak no Tibetan, so this exchange contained a lot of gestures. His quarters were comprised of a small room with a couch/bed, an electric hotplate stove / table, small cat, posters of famous lamas and of Lhasa covering the walls, and small pots of staple foods like oil, butter, and tsampa. The monk was very curious about everything we had in our bag, from notebooks to a pack of hairties, and when he started parading around the room in Jonas's head lamp I pulled out my camera and asked to take a picture. This quickly turned into a monkly photo shoot: first of each of us with him, then of him positioned on his couch-bed beneath the poster of Lhasa. First just him, then, with much preparation, together with a large bottle of Coca Cola and two paper fans--in multiple poses--and then, again, with a robe draped across his lap. At this point we said we needed to go.

View from the monastery (see all the stupas?!?):

And in the monk's quarters:

You can read about how in Litang we also got massively, horrendously overcharged for our dinner, and how then I proceeded to almost fall into an open sewer but was saved by stumbling over a yak. Okay not the bit about the yak... but find it all in Jonas's fine blog post, "The Test Has Been Thwarted," which, though I proclaimed it rather proudly after NOT falling into the sewer, really is a phrase that refers to our trip as a whole: thwarting one test after another after another.

More later! In the next installment: precarious roads, mind-blowing mountains, and pandas---among other things. ;-) Stay tuned!

Current Location: inside on a sunny day
Current Mood: soresore