Friday, November 30, 2012

Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet

Sunrise on the train to Tibet.
Frozen shore of a lake in Tibet, didn't catch the name and can't find it on the map.
From a Colorado middle school, bought in Mongolia and read on the train to Tibet. But is it better than the movie?

Just in case.... the last 12hrs of the train is all above 10,000ft
In our awesome hotel room, post train, pre showers. 

We made it to Lhasa, Tibet this afternoon after a 44hr train from Chengdu. The train was the cleanest train we had been on in China, apparently doesn't even dump their sewage onto the tracks! (most of trains so far have, so, don't walk on the train tracks in Russia or China, just fyi).

The Chinese are obviously pretty proud of the Lhasa train, there were a series of special announcements about it made on board. They told us about going through the highest railroad pass at 5072m (16,640 ft), about how they can keep the permafrost from turning boggy in the summer, and about their environmental preservation. There are a lot of announcements on Chinese trains (from early morning until bedtime, hours of announcements, what are they saying?!?) but this was the first time anything has been in English.

After bedtime, but before lights out, a woman came in to my compartment to ask if I was a doctor (2 foreigners on the train, it was worth a shot I guess). I said I was a nurse and she said "lady sick". I got dressed and followed her down the car. The woman had some trouble breathing, but no nausea or pain at all. We had just recently crossed above 3000m so it was likely the altitude. The train medic arrived,  and after a quick assessment came to the same conclusion. He gave her some tiny little grains from a tiny little bottle (if you've ever taking traditional Chinese medicines you know the kind I'm talking about). It is still hard for me to think of traditional Chinese medications as rescue or emergency meds. I realize that is an arrogant western medical view.

I was worried about altitude sickness here. I had shortness of breath, headaches and nausea in La Paz, Bolivia last August, while taking a variety of western meds (and despite many cups of coca tea). In Chengdu, we couldn't find Diamox in Chinese pharmacies, and instead are taking Hong jing tian (rhodiola). So far we are feeling good.

Tonight we were told to take it easy, to speed acclimatization and avoid altitude sickness. I did have noodles with yak meat though. It was chewy.

- Bree

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chengdu, China, part 3: Pandas!

Post-breakfast nap.
Peacocks like watching pandas too.

Baby pandas! 

Red pandas are super friggin' awesome too!

No explanation needed. They're PANDAS!

- Matt and Bree

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chengdu, part 2 + Leshan Buddha

Green Ram Daoist Temple in Chengdu.
1 of 2 Green Ram statues at the Green Ram Temple.
Dharma Initiative.
Sums up most Chinese cities. Ancient sites surrounded by rapid growth.

After a frenetic Sunday at Chengdu's main shopping district (where I foolishly tried to buy pants in a country where even H&M maxes out at size 4) alongside a million other shoppers, we were seeking serenity. We found it at the aptly named Culture park, across the road from Chengdu's provincial hospital, and the university of traditional chinese medicine. Unlike people's park, here the line dancers' music was soothing, their moves graceful. We wandered the paths, then visited the Qing Yang (or Green Ram) Daoist Temple. There were subtle differences compared to the Buddhist temples we have seen. Most remarkable was the general sense of calm. The monks and nuns seemed joyful and the tourists more reverent. Even though it was in the middle of the city there were quiet corners surrounded by nature.

A poetic notice in the bathrooms at the Leshan giant Buddha.
Bree and Buddha.
The cliff walk down to the feet of the Buddha.
The statue's fingernails were larger than Bree's head.

Matt poses in front of the giant Buddha.
We got a bus out to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha Statue. The bus turned out to be a minivan with only 4 other passengers, and we sat in the back seat. As we got outside of Chengdu we noticed the squeaking sound of styrofoam coming from behind us. At first we didn't think anything of it. The sound continued, and started getting more deliberate. We realized that in the space between our seat and the back door was a large styrofoam container with something trying to escape from inside. Though the top was securely taped, the creature within sounded like it was making some headway at clawing, pecking, biting or scraping its way out. The sound continued as we took turns guessing at what animal was contained inside, and was most likely going to be someone's dinner.  Since the Chinese are, shall we say, more adventurous eaters, it could have been anything. Even our local Ren Ren Le grocery store has live frogs, turtles, eels and goldfish, and a cabinet of dried seahorses and some animal's penis. We were rooting for the little guy, while hoping it wasn't something that would jump out and bite the nearest enemy (us). So, what doesn't squeak or whimper or cluck or quack, but can take a good chunk out of styrofoam and push a taped down lid so it creaks? What a great new road trip game!

We got to Leshan, and even though we were ticketed through to the Giant Buddha (and had paid 7Rmb extra. The driver dropped us at a bus station. I pointed to the ticket that clearly stated our destination (in characters) and he uninterestedly waved at the taxis and buses around us. I have noticed a pattern. If there are not enough people, or those people can't complain effectively enough, the buses just might not make it to the final destination.

The Giant Buddha looks out on what was once treacherous water, at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers. A monk named Haitong started the construction in 713, hoping that Buddha would calm the waters. Construction was completed in 803 (70 years after Haitong's death) and the river was indeed calmed and provided safe passage for shipping vessels. Pragmatists might argue that it was not Buddha, but all the rocks tossed into the river during the carving of Buddha that altered currents. To each his own I say.

- Matt & Bree

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hanging Coffins of the Bo People

One of the small villages we walked through on our way to the hanging coffins site.
The lush fields near the hanging coffins.
After walking past a few villages, the hanging coffins start dotting the cliffside.
Some of the coffins that still remain. The holes are where other coffins once rested on wooden stakes.
A nearby cave where ruins of Bo structures still remain. 
From the cave looking out on the surrounding fields.

In the nearby farmland, water buffalo await work.

Mysteries are sometimes more interesting to me than the actual truth. The mystery goes that the Bo, an indigenous group of people lived in the area from around 3000 years ago up until about 400 years ago and then vanished. They left behind cave paintings, stone structures and 280 or so coffins that sat on wooden stakes in the cliffs. Some of the coffins were hundreds of feet off the ground, the highest being over 420 feet up.

Over the years, the wooden stakes have rotted and many of the coffins have come crashing to the ground. Today only about 50 remain perched in their original location in the cliffside. Even within the past decade, another 16 coffins were discovered in the area. 

Why did the Bo 'bury' their dead high up on rocky cliffs? How did they manage to get them up there? And where did the Bo people go? The answers are pretty much known, but I kinda wish they weren't. It's much more intriguing not knowing. 

 - Matt

Sichuan Bamboo Sea

Matt among the ferns.                                 The countryside near the Bamboo Sea.
Cable car ride above part of the Bamboo Sea.

Pathway in the Bamboo Sea.

This photo is not fisheye or distorted, it just looks like that.
Bree on the cliffside steps.
Buddhist temple carved into the side of the cliff.

The view from above.
Sleeping Buddha.

When we arrived in Chengdu we still did not know what our future travel plans were. Tibet was uncertain, and we thought we might head south to finish out our 30-day China visa.

We found out that we had received permits to visit Tibet (yay!), and that we would be leaving Chengdu for Lhasa on the 28th. We decided to get out of town for a few days and see a bit of the countryside.

Even as we arrived at the bus station we were still unsure of our final destination. As we arrived at the bus station we saw that a direct bus to the Bamboo Sea in Southern Sichuan was leaving soon, so we got on it. Six and a half uneventful hours later we arrived in Changning. Apparently since there were only three of us going to the park proper (half hour outside of town, but where our tickets said we were going) the bus didn't feel like making the trip. The drivers were nice enough to secure a taxi (and pay for it) to the nearest hotel (of the cabbies choice) inside the park. We were extremely lucky was that there was a guy who spoke English (a rarity) on our bus who could explain to us what was happening. I think we would have figured it out, and accepted the cab ride eventually, but it was a rainy night in the middle of an intersection surrounded by pedicabs jostling for a look (at the white people). The hotel was, as expected, a little on the pricey side, our most expensive room yet at $48.  A busy resort in summer, we were its only guests that night. It was getting late (9:30 is really late around here) so we agreed to stay, and were thankful for a room at all.

The bamboo sea was more spectacular than expected, and save for a few mini buses of Chinese tourists we were alone most of the time. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm skeptical that you can ever be truly alone in China. Even when you're on a deserted mountain path you come around the corner and there is an old lady with a table of food or trinkets waiting for you.

As we came off one of the trails, a little later than we had hoped, (delayed by good time-lapse conditions) a bus pulled into the parking lot. We recognized the characters for the town of Yibin, our desired destination. According to the guidebook we had missed the last bus at noon, so we felt pretty lucky. Once in Yibin, we were pretty sure we had missed the bus to Luobiao, the town closest to the Bo Hanging Coffins, but the guidebook said we could get to Gongxian and then find another bus there. I showed the ticket lady the characters for Luobiao on a whim, and she sold us tickets for a bus leaving in half an hour. Again, pretty pleased with our good fortune, we actually enjoyed the 4 hour bus ride farther south. All the buses have movies playing constantly, if you're lucky you see them from the beginning, but sometimes it doesn't really matter. They seem to play a Kungfu movie, followed by a rom-com, with some music videos interspersed. When we arrived in Luobiao, the driver pointed across the street to a guesthouse/hotel. The place was clean and friendly and the girl at the desk made the effort to draw a double bed, then two little twin beds to find out our preference. There was no heat, but the ever-present electric heating mattress pad, big white comforter and kettle made it comfortable. The next day we walked to the Hanging coffins (see next post), through some even smaller towns (Luobiao is one main street, but it has a fork in the road). We finally got to see terraced rice paddies and gardens and old farmhouses.

The attendant at the hanging coffins scenic area office was a old lady who was cooking when we arrived. She opened up the village police station to sell us the ticket, then ambled next door to open up the museum. We were definitely the only tourists to come by in a while and, judging by the reaction of the people we saw along the way, one of a few foreigners they had seen.

We walked back to town, and tempted as we were by offers of a ride, we just couldn't see both of us fitting on the back of a motorcycle wearing our backpack (lame, I know). When we got to the empty lot that was the bus station a bus was idling. We asked if he was headed back to Yibin, and he didn't say yes, but he also didn't say no. He indicated we could buy a ticket from him, and that he would leave in 10 minutes. We figured we had no other option so we got on. After an hour he apologized, and kicked everyone off the bus sending us to another bus parked in front of ours. Another two hours later this new bus stops in a good sized town and kicks everyone off again. We soon establish we are not in Yibin and cross the street to get directions at a hotel. This town definitely doesn't get many foreigners, people stop in their tracks, mouth agape and snap pictures of us with their cell phones. We hadn't showered in a couple days, but didn't look that bad.

The desk clerk at the hotel confirms this is not Yibin, but can't even use charades to help us figure out how to get there. We have noticed that the less familiar people are with foreigners, the less adept they are at charades and miming and pictionary to get their message across. It's a learned skill I guess. We leave the hotel, starting to feel a little concerned about how to get a bus out of this mystery town, when one pulls up outside the hotel, bearing the characters for Yibin we are glad we memorized. Almost too easy. This bus takes us to the the wrong bus station in Yibin, but a city bus and some more Chinese character matching gets us to the northern station. We had missed the last bus to the Giant Buddha at Leshan, and decide not to push our luck trying to find lodging in Yibin, but catch a bus back to Chengdu.

The bus let's us off on a highway. Literally. It stops in the outer lane of a 4 lane highway (no shoulder) and lets everyone out. It's obviously not the first time as there is a line of taxis that pull up immediately. We get in a cab, hoping we are actually in Chengdu, and head to what feels at this point, like home.

We are a little worried that we used up some serious travel karma the past couple days. Things just kept working out. That is why we changed our blog subtitle from "traveling" to "stumbling".

- Bree