Updates from China
25.06.2010 - 13.07.2010 33 °C
long time no news. But over the next hour and a half I'll be trying to describe roughly one-and-a-half month travel through China and Japan.
So, where was I? Ah, Songpan. Yes, long time ago indeed. Songpan is not much of a happening place, but we were only using it as our hub to go to the Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong national parks in Sichuan. We managed to visit both national parks and they were both of extraordinary beauty. In the picture section you can find a picture of each of the parks. The crystal clear water, the amazing colors, the extreme natural beauty were well worth the trip up north from Chengdu. I've never seen such things in my life before (and probably will not see again). Huanglong is basically one long walk down amazingly colorful pools formed by calcite deposits. Jiuzhaigou is known for its dozens of blue, green and turquoise-colored lakes. Both are well worth a visit anytime you might be anywhere as near as Beijing.
Also, in the pictures section, you can find a picture of the Tibetan welcome. This term requires some explanation. It's not all as colorful and happy as it seems on the photo (you do agree with me, right, it looks colorful and happy?). To be able to visit both parks mentioned above, we decided to hire a taxi driver recommended by us by the restaurant owner in Songpan. She is recommended in the Lonely Planet, so we thought it was kind of a sure bet to ask her for some help. We thought wrong.... The taxi wasn't really a taxi. It was more like a luxury car. Good start, you'd say. Indeed. So far, so good!
We drove to Huanglong, visited the park and wanted to get some food before getting back into the car around 17h00. The driver said he knew a restaurant on the way and surprisingly enough he knew the owner of the restaurant pretty well. Needless to say that the bill turned out to be way higher than expected. Anyway, back in the car, we found out that we were not just Tomas, Alex, myself and the driver. A somewhat underdressed lady had joined us in the car. Squeezed in between Tomas and Alex (I was living the rich life in the leather passenger seat and having my doubts about the mysterious girl that was sitting not too far form me and I could smell the perfume of) she didn't say a word and stared at (or played games on or whatever Chinese girls do with their phone) her phone for the complete journey to Jiuzhaigou.
When we arrived there, the driver did not know the way to the hostel.... Hmmm, thought that the restaurant owner (Sarah) would have explained this, but apparently not. Well, probably she did, but he had other plans with us. I like people that show initiative, but there's a time and place for everything. And when you're tired after a long day in a national park and just arrived in Juizhaigiou, it's just not the right time, nor the right place. Anyway, we saw some party going on, we suspected a traditional wedding. The driver stopped and instead of leading us to the party, he more or less forced us in the building on the opposite side of the road. We were still convinced of the good intentions of the driver and followed him.
What a welcome! The guy left in the picture welcomed us with a friendly smile, some Tibetan rituals and some prayers. We asked him whether his place was the hostel that we were supposed to spend the night in, but he started teaching us prayers, which, of course, we had to repeat a couple of times. After all, what harm could be done by saying some additional prayers. Some things in life you just can't do enough, praying is one of them, at least, according to the welcoming stranger. We had to follow him upstairs to a room where food was waiting for us.
Hmmm, strange. First of all, how did he know we were coming (maybe the driver made a few phone calls on the way. He did indeed. Little did we know who he was calling and what the purpose of these phone calls was.). Secondly, we just had an overpriced meal at on of the driver's good friends' restaurant. We hardly ate, and had a few 'local beers'. Then we did some local dancing and singing with the friendly guy and his supposed brother and sisters. They were 6 or 7 in total. Something must have gone wrong with the implementation of birth control regulations for Tibetans I think.
I'm deviating from the story. So, we're dancing and singing and we get a bit tired. We wanted to go to the hostel. Mr. driver didn't think so. He wanted to stay. We were wondering why. We found out soon enough. The friendly welcoming guy asked us whether we enjoyed our food. We replied that we hardly ate anything as we already had dinner (pointing at the driver with a smile, implying that he had done us a huge favor). The friendly welcoming guy asked us whether we enjoyed our drinks. We replied that it was okay. The friendly welcoming guy asked us whether we enjoyed the dancing and singing. He should have known by the enthusiasm that we put into it, that we were not really in a party mood. Then the friendly welcoming guy asked us whether we wanted to pay 10 euros each.
Now, 10 euros is a lot of money in China. At that time, we didn't know much about Tibetan culture, so maybe for them it was less. We were pretty sure that also for Tibetans, this amount of money that the friendly welcoming guy was asking for, was a fortune. And what did he ask it for? To cut a way too long story short, we ended up paying a third of the money they asked for (you can negotiate everything in China, even the price for a Tibetan welcome) and got in the car. But the story does not end here. We still needed to get to the hostel and we were still depending on the taxi driver to drive us there. We were still accompanied by the girl. The girl that I had not seen smile since the moment I saw her first in the taxi. After a long search, some agitated comments from our side, some phone calls to Sarah (at least he claimed he was calling her), some fake almost-burst-out-in-tears impressions from the driver, we got to the hostel. We checked in. Safe! Tomas and Alex almost threatened to call the police by the time we had to pay for the taxi, but by that time I was already worrying about the Holland vs. Slovenia match. We all got ready for the game and were happy that Holland won.
After the game was finished, we heard some voices outside our room. Turned out to be the taxi driver and the girl. They checked into the room next door. Interesting? Indeed! Especially when 5 minutes later we hear the driver again. Talking to a guy standing half naked in the doorway of the room opposite our room. Then a girl walks out.... Driver turns to me and says: "Just have sex." Without replying to the driver, half realizing why our traveling partner did not have a single smile on her face, I closed the door, went to sleep, and I hoped that I'd wake up and all the above was just a dream..... Now have a look at that Tibetan welcome picture again, you'll be looking at it from a whole different perspective.
Anyway, the national parks were nice. Very nice!
We went back to Chengdu, to go and visit the Grand Buddha in Leshan the day after. The Buddha was Grand and pretty impressive. On to Mt. Emei, one of the four most holy places for Buddhists in China. Little did we know that this mountain was pretty steep, there were way to many stairs to climb and that the extreme temperature would not make things easier. The joking monkeys (see picture) on the way up were quite funny when they stole Alex' bottle of water and threw it in the river, not even seeming to be interested in the content. Anyway, there was a nice monastery halfway where we could spend the night. Hold on, did I just say 'nice' monastery. Sorry, that's what we thought it would be. Turned out to be kind of an overpriced, run down accommodation. The very unfriendly staff knew full well that they were the only accommodation available within reasonable distance. They could basically treat us disrespectful, give a room that was occupied by dead insects that I've never seen before alive, and charge a price that we didn't pay anywhere else in China. The only thing we could do was say 'thank you' in Chinese and go to sleep. Second day we continued our ascend to the top of the mountain. More steps, more sweat and a misty view over the valleys. Back down by bus and some well deserved luxury in the hostel there.
Back to Leshan to start our trip on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. But not before we went for a traditional hot pot meal (see picture) with some Americans we met on the mountain a few days earlier. One of 'em spoke Chinese and did the ordering part. Hot pot restaurants are common in Sichuan (and the rest of China). The hot pot is in the middle of the table with some kind of soup and everyone dips all sorts of vegetables and meat in there, a bit like fondue. We were pretty intrigued by the cow stomach and the goose intestines. Trust me, it sounds worse than they taste. Some karaoke afterwards and we were ready for the big trip towards Yunnan.
Now, there's something you need to know (and we should've known before we undertook this part of our trip) about the buses in China: think twice (or more) before you start a trip that solely consists of bus connections. The word 'connections' has quite a different meaning in Chinese by the way. You basically take your trip day by day and hope to find a bus that will take you where you need to go when you need to go there. It was a memorable trip, with lots of difficulties in the bus stations (only reservations possible for the day you show up at the ticket office), some bumpy rides, some big cliffs that the bus drivers seemed not to be impressed by and quite some delays here and there. However, I've seen some of best views in my life there (see pictures, I've got many, many more). The mountains and the different colors green in perfect contrast with the beautiful cloudy blue skies were worth every nuisance mentioned above. Alex and Tomas had to convince me to undertake the trip and we did have difficult frustrating moments, but even despite the altitude (and that therefore not only the views, but also every step we took was breathtaking) I don't regret a single second.
Destination of the trip was Shangri-La, located in the northern part of the Yunnan province. A beautiful town, friendly people, good food, scenic cycling around the lake and just a nice place for strolling around and walk up the hills around the old town centre, visit some temples and relax.
Next stop: Tiger Leaping Gorge. But that's probably gonna be for next time. We're about to take a train back to Tokyo now to spend the last two days we have in Japan in its capital.
Also, next time I'll dedicate some words to how buses let us down again and made us take an 18 hour train. Also, next time, I'll tell you something about our time in Yangshou along the magnificent Li River with its karst mountain scenery.
Talk to you soon (I hope). Until then, enjoy your summer, wherever you may be spending it.