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We decided boldly to leave the "Lonely Planet route" and choose a destination that was not mentioned there. We picked a small city called Daocheng. The empty, dirty streets and the freezing weather made us realise quickly why it wasn't mentioned in the guide. We stayed two nights to take advantage of our private bathroom with hot shower. The town was completely empty, because tourist season is really over due to the cold weather. We roamed the empty streets and spent the day with a local boy in an internet cafe. Oh yeah, the power frequently went off.
From Daocheng we caught a 12 hour bus to Shangri-La, we left early in the morning with no trace of sunlight, after, of course, the bus had been jacked with all the passengers aboard so that the brakes could be inspected 3 minutes before departure. The road to Shangri-La was terrible and we narrowly missed speeding oncoming trucks on a few occasions. Our bus driver was the quiet type and didn't honk his horn at a single blind corner, and there were many many blind corners. We arrived safely, and vowed never to take a bus through the mountains again. (Note: The mandatory insurance on this busride was about 10 times more expensive than other ones we'd taken, hahaha, didn't notice that until after arrival)
Shangri-La was not quite as ugly as Daocheng, but a close runner-up. Around a small Tibetan old town, has sprung a neon-lighted, kareoke singing, tacky souvenir selling paradise. The old town still had some life to it, and we saw the most tourists we had seen in weeks. The surrounding scenery definetely didn't live up to our expectations and the town is clearly a marketing ploy that has succeeded surprisingly well.
Tiger Leaping Gorge:
Another trek? Yann convinced me that we had to stop, since it was rated as a top site in Yunnan province. We arrived in the late afternoon and stayed at a guest house at the beginning of the trail through the gorge. The guesthouse came highly recommended, but we recieved a less than warm reception from the owner. When we left the next morning, she wouldn't tell us what time the bus left on our return, so that we would have to stay another night at her guesthouse. The trek was no harder than Emei Shan, our longest day was only 6 hours of hiking. We ate and slept in villages along the way, the food was nice and the beds were cheap. On the second day of trekking Yann started to experience some vertigo and kept calling me crazy if I approached the edge of the path within about 4 feet. He mainly clung to the side of the rocks and told me to "keep my eyes on the path".
On the last night in the gorge, I told Yann I was determined to make it back to the start to catch our bus, so that we didn't have to stay another night at the first guest house. We found out that the last bus left at 11:30 and we had a 25km hike along the highway through the gorge. We got up at 5:00 a.m. and walked the highway in the dark for over 2 hours (it took a long time for the sun to peak over the gorge). We crossed 3 trucks in 3 hours and we still had about 9km of walking left according to our map. We hailed a truck heading towards town and he brought us the rest of the way for 10Y. We made it to the guest house before 9 a.m. hahahahahaha!
Getting to Lijiang:
There is no bus station at Tiger Leaping Gorge, so you have to either wave down a bus that is going through to Lijiang or negotiate with a private mini-van driver. We opted to negotiate for a cheap price with a mini-van and were happy to find someone who would drive us the 3 hours to Lijiang for only 15Y each. We started with 5 people in the 8 person van, people waved us down from the side of the road until there were 9 people in the 8 person van, including one girl sitting on another girl's lap in the passenger's seat. Yann and I also had our back packs piled on top of us. When we finally got to Lijiang, Yann handed the driver's assistant 50Y which she promptly pocketed without giving us any change. Yann held his hand out and she grumbled giving him 10Y back. Of course, we were still missing 10Y from our negotiated price. What ensued was about a 15 minute show-down between me and the driver's assistant (possibly driver's wife) with Yann and the driver looking on. The driver didn't join the melee because he himself had repeated the 30Y price to us and new that we we're being ripped off. I stood with my food in the car using as much Chinese as I could, as well as some English and many hand signals. We ended up taking their license plate down and telling them we would call the police (which of course we wouldn't). If they had originally quoted us 40Y we would have paid, its difficult to accept it after you've negotiated a price and had them repeat it to you multiple times before departure. Next time we will have them write down the price and we will have the correct change, the balance of power lies with the person holding the cash...
Lijiang has a beautiful old town, that is (was) inhabited by the Naxis, another minority group in China. The town has narrow streets, crisscrossed with canals and bridges. Unfortunately it is absolutely overrun with tourists! Only 3 years ago (when our Lonely Planet was written), it was still described as a quiet refuge with a few Chinese souvenir stalls opening up but mostly Naxi shops lining the streets. The only Naxi salespeople we saw were walking around selling their products from baskets. Every single store front has been bought up and sells everything from Russian dolls to Yak horns.
On the first afternoon we wandered up to an old temple, with a great view of the old town. We were greeted by two friendly Taoist monks who led us into the temple and handed us incense to burn. We turned it down a few times, knowing that we would be charged for it, but they repeated eagerly, "free, free, this temple knows no money!" What a nice change! After our prayer with the incense, the English speaking monk sat us down, asked us our birth years and told me I was a teacher or a doctor, and told Yann he worked with computers. We played along and he continued "oh yes, Master knows, he can see it in your face, yes, yes Master sees". Master gave Yann a yellow prayer cloth and gave me the "hands of God" which "I must never never give to anyone" (a small jade pendant in the shape of hands) repeating; "this temples knows no money, oh yes, no money". He chanted for us a bit, and our families then we got up to leave, so he had us sign the guest book. We wrote our names, our home country and the things we would like him to pray for. The last column was the "donation" column, which curiously had very large sums of money written in. He told us it was "customary" to give 100Y so that our prayers would be answered, but 200Y was better. We told him our donation was between us and God. But he insisted "you must write in book, you must write in book!" By the way, the whole time this argument was going on, Yann, in protest, was adding more and more things to be prayed for. Eventually I took the pen and listed a donation of 5Y each. The priest went on with this act "Oh no no no no , nobody ever gives so little!". So we scratched out the 5Y, I handed him my hands of God, Yann handed him his cloth and we walked away perfectly content to not have spent 10Y.
It was impossible to find a cheap meal within the old city and Yann and I ended up wandering around for hours trying to find a market where we could buy food to make our own sandwiches at the hostel. We bought ourselves a 9Y bottle of wine at the supermarket to go with our sandwiches. The sandwiches were a grand success, the wine.... not so much. Yann is convinced that it was no alcohol in it, and judging by the speed at which we drunk it, I would tend to agree.
We eagerly boarded a bus to the very relaxed Dali, where we are now, along with all the drug-pushing old ladies; "hallo, hallo, you want to smoka the ganga?".
Litang was a very interesting town, to give more insight in why it was so interesting, we will give a few observations that we made about Litang and its people. The first, when we talked to a few locals in the conversation seemed to turn to what nations was friendly to them. As opposed to the rest of China (where when they talk about Americans, they hit their fists together), in Litang they say that they are friends with Americans, Nepalis and Indian (noting that about 100 000 tibetans fled to India when China 'liberated' Tibet from feudalism, indeed many locals seem to have been born in India and came back to China). The friendship with the Americans we guess comes from the fact that the CIA supported the Khampa rebellion against the Chinese (for two years). The Khampa rebellion came to an end when the Chinese shelled Litang and killed 200 monks. This might explain why the town seems rebellious against China. We hope this information is accurate since it is difficult to have information about the subject in China on the internet. Therefore if you are interested you can cut and paste information in the comment section of this entry. Also, check out tibet.org, we couldn't access it from here but it
seems to have some insight into Kham province.
And now your questions and our answers (our guesses, not facts) :
How do these people make a living? Nomads and monks?
Nomads heard yaks and probably sell excess furs and meat in local town markets. We definetely saw what we thought were nomads roaming around town, they are definetely distinct from the townies. Monks are not state funded (they are in Thailand), they get money mainly from donations as far as we can tell.
They seem to have no facial hair. What do they think of Yann's beard? The children especially?
Hair = manliness
Is there TV in the tents? What's on? reruns of Baywatch and Dallas?
No TV but one lightbulb and radio powered by small solar panels.
What do the monks think of Baywatch?
No TV for nomads, but TV for monks. We've never seen an American TV show here, I wonder what 400 teenage boys would think about Baywatch? Hmmmmm .....
Or George W. Bush? Do they know he exists?
Haven't heard him mentioned, doubt the nomads know about him, probably don't care either.
We are now four days away from Litang, a town that sits at 4100m seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The minute the bus pulls in to town you can tell that you are not really in China anymore. We arrived exhausted and were blown away by the yak skin jackets, silver and
turquoise earrings, cowboy hats, sun-tanned skin and the "nihao" replaced by "tashi delek". Khampa Tibetans roam the town, they were a red scarf in their hair with yak bones decorating the scarf. They are known as Tibetan cowboys, and they staged a rebellion in 1959 andconsequently Litang was heavily bombed by the Chinese. Photos of the Dalai Lama are proudly displayed in many homes and buildings, including our hotel.
After having dinner, Yann and I noticed we had an admirer as we walked along the main street. After a few minutes the sixteen year old boy introduced himself as Bryeena (found out later it was Bruno) and told us he would show us to the internet bar. But first, did we want to go visit his school and meet "Teacher" his English teacher? Not having the heart to say no, we walked with him to the edge of town to his school where we were greeted by lots of excited kids, but we couldn't find "teacher". After helping Bruno set up an internet account at the cafe we were invited back to his place where we were greeted warmly by his mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother in their one-room home. We were fed boiled potatoes which we dipped in a bowl of salt, Tibetan flat bread and of course lots of butter tea. We happily excepted the
generous gifts and before we left we parted with our Mandarin-English phrasebook which we left for Bruno to help with his English. We also promised to meet him again at his school the next day to attend his English class. Heading back to the hotel we ran into a local guide and a tourist who told us about a nomad festival that we could visit, we agreed to meet the guide the next morning.
Bright and early the next day, 11 people crammed into a 7-person van and headed to what we were told was a nomad festival. We drove for about an hour down a deserted highway and then appeared hundred of tents camped along the highway. We parked the van and our guide
brought us first to visit the lama so that we could "ask him questions". We all entered the colourful tent and were greeted by a fairly young, fairly fat, monk wearing big sunglasses and a huge smile. We could ask him question through our guide, who didn't speak much English. The lama is the head monk of the Litang Monastery and had moved for 2 weeks, along with his 800 monks to the campsite along the highway, so that nomads can come once a year to pray with them. He asked us where we were from and was particularly interested in a German girl's cold sore. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, including me telling him that I liked beer, it was time for us to leave. The guide had the German girl kneel on the ground and the lama
proceeded to breathe on her face. We all thought he was curing her cold sore, but it turns out we would all recieve he same blessing before leaving the tent and visiting the camp.
The next few hours were a fury of photo taking, with monks and nomads following us everywhere, holding our hands and running away with our cameras to take photos of their friends. Every once in a while the monks would be called to prayer and 800 boys in crimson robes would bolt from every direction to the monastery tent and chant. In the early afternoon, we headed to a big black tent to find crowds of nomads throwing wood frantically onto a huge fire on which sats dozens of pots of melting yak butter. We all smiled eagerly and snapped away
at the men blowing on the fire and chanting, until all of a sudden they came running towards us with the pots of scalding butter in hand. As the crowd shouted for me to get out of the way, I just stood there, until someone from the crowd pulled me out of the line of butter. It turns out, this is a daily butter melting ceremony where they prepare over 1000kg of melted butter which is then drunk by the monks and nomads. As the butter is carried out of the tent, another set of young monks come running and carry smaller containers back to the prayer tent for the elder monks to drink. The back and forth running went on for most of the time we were there.
Yann and I ended the visit at the lama's tent where we offered a donation to the monastery (we had been told to do so), and in exchange were offered hunks of yak butter to eat, or even better a bowl of melted yak butter to drink. We left the campsite in awe of what we had just been through.
The day was not over yet though, we still had a meeting with Bruno at his school. We arrived at the gate, and were greeted by "teacher", a 21 year-old Tibetan with long black hair and Western clothing. He brought us to the small rundown classroom where 20 eager students poured in. The class he teaches is actually an after school class, that he teaches to the poor kids from town, including some nomad children, those who can't afford to pay for an English teacher. The kids are absolutely wonderful, so dedicated, they come to this class at 4:30 after having been at school since 7 a.m. and furiously take notes and shout out English sentences. What we didn't know about our invitation to the class, is that we had actually been enrolled as guest teachers. We nervously gave a lesson, I tought them fruits and Yann taught them sports. Then we taught them the word 'favorite'. At the end of class "teacher" asked each student at a time, what their
favorite fruit, or sport was, Bruno (the oldest boy in the class) would shout out "my favorite sport is basketball", whether or not the question was about fruits or sports, and whether or not he had been addressed. After class, we treated "teacher" to dinner and heard about his dreams to become a movie star so that he could bring the money back to Litang to all the poor students. We promised to send him some English videos, so that his students could watch them. Bruno followed us back to our hotel room where we eventually had to kick him out so
that we could go to bed.
We left Litang reluctantly the next morning, to head south to Shangri-la, although I felt that we were already there.
We met another British couple on the way here and we are now together in a nice dorm room. Yann and I were keen to try our first cup of butter tea, which you saw me trying in the photo. It is somewhat awful, tastes like a cup of melted butter with about a pinch of tea and a spoonful of sour milk. We invited every foreigner in our hotel to come share our tea with us, but we still didn't manage to empty the pot.
The atmosphere in Kanding was very relaxed so we stayed a couple of days even though there weren't too many sites to visit. Seeing the young monks at the monastery was a nice experience, we saw that most of them are little kids or teenagers that just want to goof-off like the other kids. It seems like a difficult life and most of them are placed there by their parents when they are very young.
The next part of our journey brought us to Litang, an absolutely wonderful place, you will hear more about it once we get a chance to absorb everything that we have experienced in the past three days...
Today we celebrated our one month anniversary of being on the road. We had a pot of yak butter tea and "special Tibetan cheese".
Yann and Em's highlight of the month : Horse trekking
Thank you to everyone who has been reading and sending us encouragement. We can't respond to comments right now due to the Chinese firewalls but please keep sending them!
The horses were of course calm and followed each other in a line up the small trails, when they slowed down our guides would yell something out in Chinese and they would speed up a little bit. They were always well behaved except when one of them would try to pass another in line. This was a nasty affair that usually involved horses biting at each other. In my case, it involved me and my horse running high speed through a bunch of trees with branches flying at my face. This was great amusement for those not involved.
The first hour or so of our ride was giddy excitement with alot of laughter at the constant farting of our horses. My horse had an particular affinity to the backside of Yann's horse and I endured three days of farting in my direction (it made me laugh the whole time, although sometimes I had to keep the laughter inside to avoid embarassment, I was thinking about Yann's horses feelings). We climbed six hours the first day to 3400m where our fourth guide was waiting with our food cooking over the campfire. The ride to the campsite was through valleys and streams and over mountains on small trails. We passed countless yaks grazing on the mountains. I went a little yak happy with my camera and have spent the past day organizing my collection of 50 yak photos (don't worry you will see them all!).
We spent the evening at the campfire eating our vegetarian cuisine which was pretty decent and playing cards and laughing it up with Gary and Naomi, who are absolutely hilarious (I have this theory that everything is funnier with a British accent). The guides chain smoked by the fire and were excited to learn that someone had brought them some fire water. One guide seemed to like me alot and asked Yann if we were married. When Yann said no, he spent the rest of the night cuddled up beside me. My bike accident proved useful as my red cheek was a great hit. Tibetan women have big red cheeks and he pointed at my cheeks saying "good, like Tibetan".
Naomi, Gary, Yann and I shared a tent together. Each of us had a thin summer sleeping bag, two blankets and a yak's hair jacket. We went to bed wearing every single piece of clothing that we had brought (minus our boots), including toques, gloves, two pairs of socks etc... It was the coldest night I have ever attempted to sleep through. I thought our attempt at sleep was brave, but the guides were heroic. When I woke up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, they were all huddled together in their thin jackets with various horse saddles and a few rain coats strewn on top of them lying beside of the dying embers of the fire.
At the first sound of a morning fire (about 5 a.m.) we were out of the tent and thawing in front of the fire along with our guides who had visibly had a rougher night than we had. At 6 a.m. it was -10 C. We had a long breakfast with fresh fried bread made by the guides (they even made the dough fresh that morning). It was quite lovely. We then mounted back on our horses for the journey to "Ice Mountain".
The trip was amazing, mainly because we passed through very tiny traditional Tibetan villages and breathtaking scenery. We had snowy mountain peaks surrounding us and we passed to my great excitement lots more yaks. We had a few scary moments in the morning as the trails were narrow and icy and the horses fought for their position. But whenever we got on a straight flat road the horses would take off as fast as they could, which was a pretty crazy experience for new riders. The two Chinese people who were on the trek with us that day found it so exciting that they tried to get their horses to run for the next 12 hours of riding, including when we were on the sides of cliffs. This unfortunately caused me to swear quite a bit.
The arrival at Ice Mountain (for which we had paid a 10Y "admission fee") consisted of climbing up to the top of a peak and the guide pointing away at the distance and proclaiming "ice mountain, take picture now" before he turned around and headed back down the mountain. It didn't matter though, because everything was spectacular (and we had forgotten that we had paid an admission fee). At this point we were at 4500m and our poor horses seemed exhausted. We walked down the mountain to give the horses a rest and headed back to our campsite. The night was warmer, so we got a little bit more sleep, but we were still up early to warm up by the fire.
The ride back to Songpan on the third day was again peaceful and beautiful, although it was clear that our guides wanted to get home. We heard alot of "hallo hallo faster faster", especially when getting ready in the morning and when we wanted to stop for a bathroom break. We stopped at a Tibetan village for about an hour that day and explored the few pagodas and watched the elders spin the hundreds of prayer wheels and saw young boys training to be monks reciting their prayers. After the village we rode on quietly taking in the last of the quiet scenery and the stunning blue of the sky. The quiet was occasionally interrupted by me getting mad at the Chinese couple who were again trying to get their horses to race with mine.
We felt proud to have made it through the cold and to have seen such an isolated part of the country (and I personally felt proud not to have fallen off my horse). As we entered Songpan (which had once appeared so small) it now seemed overwhelming. It turns out, we are among the last people to do the trek this year. In the summer they have about 20-30 people depart every day. We were told that when we arrived there were only 5 foreigners in town (including the 4 of us). So we dealt with the cold and avoided the crowds, it worked well for us.
Before getting here we were in Chengdu, we stayed a little bit longer than we expected. The day we arrived, after conquering Emei Shan we "treated" ourselves to western food from the hotel restaurant. I had a pizza and Yann had a burger. The first week we arrived here Yann and I made a wager on who would be the first to poo their pants. Well the bet has been settled, and I had the luck of having a single piece of tissue paper left at the time. So we extended our stay a little bit to rest. Being the brilliant person that I am I had spicy BBQ the two nights right after the incident, it was only after three days of stomach cramps that I finally stuck to bread and water (with the insistance of Yann the dictator), it worked like a charm.
We visited the famous pandas in Chengdu and they were really amazing. We got there bright and early to see the feeding. Apparently this is the only time the pandas do anything. We waited as a keeper tried to wake up a big panda with an apple on a stick. He would wave it infront of the panda's nose and as the panda would open his eyes he would pull the stick away to try to get him to wake up. The panda couldn't really be bothered. This went on for about 10 minutes as we all watched on. Suddenly the panda had a burst of energy, got up, turned his back to us and proceeded to scratch his bum on a post for the next 10 minutes. Then he went back to bed. I love pandas!