Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What else could go wrong?

Plenty did. Thankfully we only suffered briefly.

I was off even further south to the town of Kangding, which lies at the confluence of two rivers, nestled between some magestic mountains. And yes, I had to find another van. This wasn't too much trouble, however there were seven of us crammed in, including luggage. Not good for the knees and back.

Twenty minutes in, disaster one hits. The Jeep in front of us flips over going around a downhill bend. Everyone managed to climb out, seemingly unharmed, though their proximity to the edge of the road and an uncertain fate down the side of the hill left them undoubtedly shaken. I didn't take any photos as I didn't think it appropriate. We stopped and so did several other cars. We flipped their jeep back over and were on our way. I don't know whether they were able to drive it.

A quick note about the roads: Basically, if it's not a major MAJOR highway, don't expect much. IF it's paved, it hasn't been repaired since Mao was alive. But more often than not, it's dirt and rocks. Gravel would be an upgrade. We're talking major pain in the ass, literally.

After the Jeep incident, our driver seemed to be a little more cautious. We were driving down the side of a mountain on dirt road with no guardrails. But we didn't get far. Remember the rain I told you about in my last post? It did a number on the road. A bit washed out and mud everywhere. And wouldn't you know it, two genius truck drivers going opposite directions got stuck in the same spot!

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And when I say stuck, I mean it's gonna take the People's Army to get them out. There was quite a lineup of cars, many of them vans like mine. Everyone got out of their vehicles and tried to determine what to do. Some started digging around the wheels. Some drivers tried to go between the two trucks but only slipped in the mud.

Finally a solution was decided upon. Since there was just enough space between the trucks to get the average car and van through, they would fill in the ruts so traffic could pass. Quickly, everyone began gathering rocks and sod from the nearby fields and patched in the holes.

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And it worked. A few cars through and it was our van's turn. And about 20 minutes after we stopped, we were back in the van and bouncing down the road.

I spent the next two nights in Kangding. It's a nice little town, but not much to do. I didn't even take any photos. I switched hostels after one night because the first was absolutely abysmal. Meanwhile I'm working up an awful cough I can't kick and my temperature is rising. I imagine it started with the polution, then the cold air just kicked it up a notch.

So, long story short, yesterday I took a REAL bus west to Litang. It was a 10-hour ordeal up and down mountains. We could have been in Colorado, if it hadn't been for the smattering of Tibetan houses--and the military checkpoint. They pulled the bus over, the boss came on, pointed me out and I had to get off. Pretty easy though. They took down my visa details and asked where I was going. Reason being, I believe, is that if I were to continue on this road, west of Litang, I would end up in Tibet. They don't want any foreigners going there without permission.

Later, at about 5,000 meters, we drove through a hell of a hail storm. The hail was tiny and it was cold enough that it didn't melt. The ground looked like it was covered in snow.

Litang is a cool little town. It reall is in the middle of nowhere. It's in a basin, surrounded by mountains. It's also at 4,000 meters (about 2.5 miles), so it's quite cold! There's a spectacular Tibetan lamasery (think monastery) in town, so monks on motorcyles are all over. And the people, especially the children, are quite friendly. A little boy attacked me last night and then wouldn't let go of another guy's leg.

I will wait until my time here is over and then post some great photos.

Now about that cough. I'm pretty convinced I've got bronchitis or something similar. So I went to the local pharmacist/doctor and told him what was going on with the help of my phrase book and some miming. He said I should take a normal pain killer/fever reducer, which I've got, but also gave me an interesting box that's all in Chinese, except the name of the drug in Pinyin: Si Ji Gan Mao Pian. With the help of Google, it looks like this is an herbal remedy, made from mulberry and crysanthemum. And apparently it treats the following: Bronchitis; Conjunctivitis; Cough; Headache; Laryngitis; Pharyngitis; Respiratory tract infection; Slight fever; Sore throat; Sore throat; Swelling of the throat; Dry mouth; Rhinorrhea; Sneezing; Thirst. So I'll give it a whirl. It only cost me 15 yuan ($2.25). If I'm not feeling better the day after tomorrow, I'm going back and demanding real drugs.

That's all for now. I'll be in town for a couple more nights (you never know when you'll get another soft bed; I'm enjoying it while it lasts!). After that, I'm heading south and into Yunnan province, home to a number of China's minority groups.

Wow, duct tape DOES fix everything!

After leaving Zhonglu, I spent one more night in Danba, enjoying a private room for a mere $3.50. The next morning, I was off to the Tagong Grasslands, which are perched up high in the mountains at about 2,600 meters.

Since Danba is quite small and Tagong is like a speck of dust on the map, there is no bus service between the two cities. Sim informed me that it's quite common to simply go down to the bus station and find a van going where you need to go. Shady as it sounds, it's actually pretty legit, though technically illegal. There's a fixed price that all the guys follow between each town. And the vans--wow. They're all very tricked out and blast Tibetan pop music, often with accompanied video on the passenger visor.

My first van was without incident and took me a few hours south to Bamei, where the driver handed me off to a Tagong-bound van. That's when the fun began. The driver and his friend in the front, luggage in the back and me and two tibetan monks in the middle. About 15 minutes out of Bamei, tssss. Punctured tire.

Our driver quickly finds the hole and covers it with his finger. Sidekick searches through the van for some way to patch it. Obviously there's no spare A stick and some really crappy electrical tape are all he comes up with. Realizing this isn't going to get us through the next 50 minutes to Tagong, I come up with a solution. Bubble gum and duct tape. Yes, really. I just happened to have both on me (someone told me once to wrap some duct tape around a pen or marker so you have some with you).

From China

Gum chewed and duct tape applied, we were off. And I'll be damned if this quick fix didn't get us all the way to Tagong, through some terrifically shitty roads. But to cap it off, the jerkoff charged me the whole 15 yuan for the trip.


Tagong is basically a one-street town--actually I'd call it an outpost. It's surrounded by groups of yak hurders. Imagine an old wild-west film except the cowboys are all Tibetan. Unfortunately I didn't get a great shot of the town. Only this one that I took after a rain storm.

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Being small, there's not a lot to do except for some hiking in the nearby hills. But at 2,600 meters, my lungs didn't feel too up to it, especially since it seemed as though I as coming down with some sort of lung ailment (more on that, and the treatment, later).

To get a good view of the surrounding area, I opted for an hourlong horse ride. It was a bit silly but which one of you can say they've ridden a Tibetan horse among the mountains in Sichuan? My trusty steed was quite small actually. All the horses are about 2/3 the size of those we typically ride in America.

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And the views I enjoyed:

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From China

Other than that, I kept pretty quiet. I had yak pizza. Yak tastes like gamey beef. I don't recommend it. It rained a bunch and I was the only foreigner in town, as far as I could tell. And the next day, I had more moving to do.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chinese hospitality

Hey gang, I'm back. Sort of. This is my first time on the Internet in more than five days! How about that? Hell, the town I stayed in last night didn't even have Internet! This has been one of those weeks where it sucks that I'm traveling alone. Not because I've been lonely, but because it's too bad no one else was there to see the amazing stuff I've experienced. I've got several days of fun to fill you in on, and I'll start with one of the most unique experiences I've ever had.

Anyway, when we last saw our hero, he was staying at the amazing Sim's Cozy hostel in Chengdu, AKA smog central. Not only does Sim (Singaporean; his wife, Japanese) have a great hostel, he's also a top-notch guide and living Sichuan encyclopedia.

Lonely Planet, or as travelers know it, The Bible, is getting ready to put out its next edition of the China guide. The Sichuan province author just so happened to be staying at Sim's and just so happened to get to talking to Sim's wife about the research she needed to do in western Sichuan. Sim, always up for an adventure or road trip, said he'd hire a van and driver and go with her on a two-week excursion.

Long story short, I happened to talk to Sim the night before they were to leave, and he invited me to come with them, for the duration or just to the first stop, Danba. The bulk of two weeks in a small van didn't sound too appealing to me, so I opted to join them only for the 11.5-hour ride from hell to Danba. If you think you've been on a bad road, you have seen nothing. When's the last time it took you five-plus hours to cover 150 miles?

Ride over, we spent the first night in Danba proper. Dark when we arrived, this was the view I was greated with (did I mention that Danba is at about 2000 meters?) in the morning.

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I spent the first half of the next day with Sim and the LP writer, Carolyn. We visited a couple village in the area that are scattered across the sides of mountains. Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe this. The villages are populated by Tibetan familes and are known particularly for their watchtowers, which are about 800 years old.

We went to one, Zhonglu, for lunch. The van was missing one passenger when it left, however. This wasn't just my lunch site--it was my dinner and breakfast site as well (and the same over again--I couldn't stay here just one night!). A few shots of the paradise I enjoyed for 48 hours...

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And the scenery was only the half of it. The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Walking through the twisting roads and paths of the village, everyone greeted me with a smile and hello! (or ni hao! or tashi dele--Tibetan).

These guys invited me to join them during their break from making a stone path for some yak butter tea--quite salty. And being at about 6,000 feet, I could feel the thing air, but these guys could run circles around me, smoking cigarettes the whole time.

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And the children were very energetic.

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But most of all, I'll remember my hosts at the village guesthouse. The proprietor was the only person in the village who spoke any English, other than "hello" or "tea." And to say he "spoke" English is generous...but he was as great a host as you can ask for. His wife is an excellent cook. Every meal was like a buffet. One dinner featured 10 different dishes. Here was my lunch on my last day. Yes, this was just for me!

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And it was all served up by a beautiful young Tibetan girl. These three were more than generous, always making sure I had a seat and that I had enough food for a small family. Here's a photo of my hosts, the women wearing their traditional headwear...I think the woman on the right didn't want her photo taken.

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I could have stayed much longer than two nights. But I had places to be. My next destination was Tagong Grasslands. A preview of what's to come in my next couple posts:

Wow, duct tape DOES fix everything!
What do you do when there's no bus service, plus America saves the day and goes to the Wild West.

What else could go wrong?
Another exciting bus-less journey with plenty of mayhem along the way.

Monday, September 22, 2008

heading out of town

tomorrow morning, I'm heading out west to visit some smaller towns and villages. I will get a ride to my first stop with the owner of the hostel, sim. He's going on a trip out west and offered me a ride. I'll be out west for about a week. No updates until I get back to Chengdu, unfortunately. But I will have perhaps the best update yet once I get back.

Friday, September 19, 2008


OK, so when we last left off, I was in Shanghai, writing a half-assed update because I had crap for computer access. I can finally give a proper update of some exciting things I've seen in the last week, complete with plenty of photos!


Shanghai... Well, for starters, it's a lot different from Beijing. It's China's financial capital. Lots of modern buildings on one side of town, just across the river from some great old architecture. I prefer Hong Kong, however...

Looking across the Huangpu River at Pudong, the financial district. The odd-looking tower is the Pearl tower, which I believe is the tallest structure in China.

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Now if I turn around, here is what you see...

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Now, back around again. Just a little further south from the Pearl tower, you can see China's two tallest buildings.

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The one that looks kinda like a bottle opener is the Shanghai World Finance Center. I went up to the observation deck, which is on the floor just over the big hole. It has a glass floor, so you can look down on the rest of the building.

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Terracotta Warriors

From Shanghai, I hopped a train west to Xian. I'll give the rundown on the trains later. I wasn't so much interested in Xian, as it's a big city of 7 million. It does have a cool wall that encloses the city center. The big reason to visit Xian is to see the Terracotta Warriors. They're more than 2,000 years old, but were only unearthed in the 70s. The first emperor of China, Qin, ordered them built as an extension of his tomb so that he would have protection in the afterlife. Excavation is slow and ongoing, but there are plenty of soldiers on display. Each soldier's face is unique.

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From China

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I spent only one night in Xian, as I'm eager to get started on the "real" part of my trip. I intend to spend a lot of time in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, which are in southwest China, near Tibet. There is a lot to see in these provinces, including many small minority towns. I'm in Chengdu right now, which is another rather large city, but it's a good launching point for seeing other areas.

As far as my safety, given that this year's earthquake was here in Sichuan, I won't be going too near the affected area. I probably will be heading to the west and south of Sichuan. The owner at the hostel (Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel--big plug! Perhaps the best hostel I've ever stayed in!) here said he could give me a lot of recommendations for some cool things to see. I'll leave the details for later, but it sounds like I could have a lot of fun in the next couple weeks.

Meanwhile in Chengdu...


The main giant panda breeding center is here in Chengdu. Only about 1,000 giant pandas remain in the wild, so their work here is very important. We got to see pandas of all ages doing what they do best--eating bamboo and sleeping. It was quite cool; I'd never seen a panda before. I saw pandas as young as one month old, but we're not allowed to take photos of them since their eyes are underdeveloped and camera flashes would harm them.

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From China

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In the coming weeks, I'll likely be heading into more rural areas. My internet access will be sporadic, but I promise to update when I can, with plenty of photos. I'm very excited about the possibilities.

And now a quick note about pollution. Perhaps the best days I've had in China were in Beijing, which has been called the most polluted city in the world. But due to the Olympics, several restrictions on factories and cars were in place that made the air much cleaner. I had some great blue sky days.

But if Beijing is usually the worst, I am scared of what that would be like. Xian and even more so Chengdu are horribly polluted. It may very well be a bright sunny day out but I can't tell because the entire sky is white/gray and visibility is typically less than a mile. It's absolutely disgusting. Blowing your nose can produce all colors of goodies. So if not for the people and the scenery, the fresh air is another reason to get out of urban China.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quick update

just a few quick things. No photos for now as hostel comps are crap and net cafe wanted to see my passport. So it's update by iPod. Leaving shanghai today for Xian. Shanghai is cool but it's just another big city. Interesting contrast of oldand new on opposite sides of the huangpu river. One side is old wall street style columned buildings and the other is dozens of skyscrapers including the tallest in china. Lots of beggars and street hawkers here, which is a major difference from Beijing.

Overnight train to Xian tonight. That's him to the terracotta army. Google it if you don't know what that is as iPod can't copy and paste links. May ormay not stay in Xian. It's a city of several million and I'm ready to get to the smaller cities and towns and rural areas. So it may be 48 hours before I have net access or a real bed, tho the train isn't so bad. So when you next hear from me I'll either be in Xian or Chengdu in the Sichuan province. And I'll get some photos up soon thereafter.

Friday, September 12, 2008

St. Louis of the East

Qingdao is proud of its beer. It's everywhere. Walking down the street, people call "TsingTao PiJiu" my way, letting me know they've got beer; nevermind their food. They do beer differently here than in Beijing. Rather than tall bottles, every restaurant has kegs stacked outside (not refrigerated). You can even get it take away in plastics bags--they sell it by weight. I visited the brewery yesterday, which had a nice little museum that explained the century-long history of TsingTao, all the way from its German roots.

Other than the beer, QingDao is just kind of a typical big city. The beaches leave a little to be desired, and the haze/smog is ridiculous until late in the day when it finally burns off. There is a great fresh food market just down the street from where I'm staying...lots of fresh fish, crabs and shellfish. Fresh baked goods and tons of fruit and veg. And the smells... well, it's a unique combination of good and bad. One food specialty of Qingdao is barbecue skewers. Restaurants set up a little grill out front and cook up skewers of seafood and pork with delicious seasonings.

I'm off to Shanghai in a couple hours on an overnight train. Something like 18 hours! It's my understanding that Shanghai has perhaps topped Hong Kong as Asia's top city. Construction is everywhere and it's very modern and metropolitan. So I'll get in, see the sights and get out. More to come, from Shanghai!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One week down

With my first week in China marked, here are a few things I've noticed so far.

In the US, we highly value personal space. It's totally different in the world's largest country. If you're a people-phobe, you wouldn't fare too well here. Subways and buses can be quite crowded, even when it's not rush hour. Even lining up for anything can be a problem, with a queue more often looking like a mob. Think you're next up to buy a ticket? Think again--someone probably will try to budge in front of you. And if you're trying to take a photo, do it fast, because somebody is about to walk through it.

Cleanliness is of the utmost importance. But at the same time it's not. Someone is always cleaning something, sweeping the street, picking up garbage or emptying rubbish bins. But at the same time, no one hesitates to hock a loogie on the floor of a restaurant or subway station.

I've really enjoyed strolling through the hutongs, the narrow streets and alleys that crisscross Beijing's center. They're often not fully paved and you can see right into people's homes.

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They're also home to some great food. I've eaten in some real shitholes here. Imagine a room about as big as your bedroom. Probably smaller. Throw in a few tables, a tiny kitchen and a guy sleeping in the corner and you've got a great Beijing restaurant. And if it looks like the US health inspector would rather burn the place down than give them a list of things to fix, all the better.

As you might expect in a communist state, police are everywhere. But they're usually either in totally pointless locations or too busy texting to noticing anything amiss.

Yesterday, I visisted the Summer Palace, just on the edge of central Beijing. It's a decent-sized complex set on a lake, so I was thrilled when it was actually a sunny day. We had a ton of rain in the last several days and it seems to have cleared out a lot of the crap in the air (which, by the way, has ravaged my nose and lungs).

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You could actually see more than one kilometer away:

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Today, I'm hopping a train to Qingdao, which is about 800 or so kms south of Beijing, on the coast. It was formerly occupied by Germans, who introduced TsingTao beer. Turns out there's a major international beer festival that starts next week. I don't know that I'll have enough to do in the area to keep me occupied until then, so I might have to give it a miss.

After Qingdao, it's on to Shangai for a few days, which is about 1000 kms further south. And after that, I'll be heading west.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Great Wall of China

We've heard about the Great Wall since we were little kids. What is there to say? There are several sections open for tourists near Beijing. I went to the section at Mutianyu. They Beijing haze permeates everything...

I'll begin with proof that I was there and move on to more interesting photos.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Crossing the street in Beijing

To see all of Beijing, you certainly can't just stay on one block. But proper crossings at controlled intersections are found about only once every kilometer. And other stripe-marked crossings may as well not be there. So your only choice is to take part in human frogger.

Step one: Don't show your fear; the drivers can smell it. If you hesitate, you can see them thinking, "Look at that silly foreigner trying to cross the street! I bet it takes him 10 minutes." You have to take a breath and go for it. If you can find some other people to cross with, this also helps. Especially if they're old ladies.

Step two: Begin your crossing. Look for a slow-moving bus or a gap larger than 20 feet to begin your crossing. Step out into the street quickly and confidently. Make your way for the center line, which the drivers hopefully will observe.

Step three: Complete the crossing. Hopefully you will be presented with an equally oportunistic time to cross through the other flow of traffic. Any gap greater than 10 feet will do here; just mad dash for the curb. With any luck, you've made it to the other side and can continue on your journey. If not, this isn't Frogger and you don't get three lives. Game over.

In other news...

--Tried to get a look at the Olympics facilities yesterday. With the opening ceremony of the paralympics tonight, it was difficult. A highway separated me from the Bird's Nest, so all I got was a long-distance photo. And unfortunately tickets to tonight's event are sold out, so I won't be going. Good riddance, though--security seems ultra-tight.

--Checked out the "snack street" market last night. A Canadian named Sarah and I played the point-and-eat game. Some of the foods were easily identifiable, such as skewered grapes dipped in caramelized sugar and fried banana cakes. Others were not. Several skewers we tried seemed to be just different shapes of tofu, in other words, rubber on a stick. We didn't try the scorpions, chicken hearts or seahorses. Sorry. If you want to know what they're like, plan your own trip to China.

--Going to the Great Wall on Monday.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Day one

Spent my first day walking. And walking. And walking. I saw Tiananment Square, then headed north through the Forbidden City and into Jingshan Park, where I was treated to a phenomonal panorama of the city.

Tiananmen Square was built by Mao as a testament to the strength of the country. The buildings surrounding it are definitely soviet-influenced. It's currently softened with several displays to the Olympic Games.

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And of course there's the famous Mao portrait.

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The Forbidden City was home to the emporers of two of the most powerful dynasties, the Ming and Qing. Some of the buildings were built as early as 1420.

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And finally a great view from Jingshan Park, looking back over the Forbidden City and on toward Tiananmen. As you can see, yes it is hazy in Beijing.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The foreigner has landed

Of all the places I ever thought I'd visit, Beijing usually wasn't one of them. But am I glad I came. It's nuts. It's hazy. It's awesome. I've only been here for about five hours and seen just a couple things, but I'm excited for the next six days. I wouldn't know exactly what to compare the city to. It's sprawling and loud and busy.

I took a bus to stop by Tiananmen Square this evening, only to learn that the sun sets at seven here. That's what you get when the whole country's on one time zone and you're in the eastern part of it. But that round trip on the bus only cost me 30 cents. Tack on a 60-cent bowl of noodles, that I enjoyed at a table shared with locals in a small restaurant and I've had a cheap night.

Olympic fever is still here--signs and billboards are EVERYWHERE. The official signage has been modifed to reflect the upcoming Paralympics, and a huge welcoming committee was on hand at the airport for the athletes.

The place where I am staying is in what you would call the "real" part of town. It's not overly touristy by any stretch. Nearly no whities around except the ones I'm staying with. Shop--some no bigger than a closet--line the streets. The area has a lot of character.

So, I'll take some photos tomorrow. Tiananmen and the Forbidden City I think are on my agenda. But most importantly, I'm here, I'm safe and I'm impressed.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Zai jian, USA

I leave Omaha in about nine hours. Omaha-Denver-Vancouver-Beijing. Feeling the nerves much more than I did when I went to NZ, but I'm ridiculously excited, because I'm going to see and experience things that most people only dream of. Sometime in the next week, I'll visit the Great Wall. I'll walk around the Forbidden City. I'm going to see the terra cotta warriors. And that's only in China.

I'll keep you updated with plenty of photos and thoughts.