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August 30th, 2010
Beijing, China
Chris

Well, we’re leaving the mansion – or as I put it one day riding home from Jenny Lou’s, our ‘Temple of Leisure.’ Tomorrow we are finally off to Mongolia, sweet Internetless Mongolia. Because it’s a thirty hour train ride, we are going to lose out on either the departure time or the arrival time. It’s going to be a late night, or an early, early morning. Either way, we’re both fucking excited.

‘I can’t wait for this train, man,’ Mitch grinned over the table at a remarkably late breakfast.

‘Pity we weren’t travelling strenuously like back in Sichuan,’ I said. ‘Now we’re just going from lying on our backs reading, to… well, lying on our backs reading.’

It’s been almost thee weeks since we stumbled through the garage door to this castle: discovering the elevator, that has heavily supported and improved our laziness; the thirty five different kinds of chairs, one of which we’ve taken a custom for fighting over; a swimming pool, out of action for over half the time we were here, nonetheless still a free pool; the free food, mostly bread, which I must admit is not quite doing it for me anymore (although I will probably be screaming for it by the time we crawl out of Mongolia); free accommodation: the mansion; and most importantly of all, THE PIANO! It had been more than three months since I’d been able to play a piano in privacy. I think I’ve improved a little, convincing myself to learn at least one song a day. Turns out I only managed about one song every four days; still, that is more than I could say for back home, where I squandered my outrageously magnificent talent.

In our time here, dancing with bureaucracies, waiting in Mongolian embassy lines, finding banks, each opening a Chinese bank account, turning twenty-one, visiting the Forbidden City (not going in because there were too many Chinese tourists), buying books, looking at some of the bikes we want to ride the Americas on, hanging out with Nik, Glenn and Leila, scaling the Great Wall, bobsledding down it, we’ve learned a lot about Beijing: it’s big, it’s ugly and it’s shrouded in smog and traffic and we like living like kings. Early on we silently agreed that we’d find more enjoyment inside this house or in the back yard then we would in the stinkingly boring city centre.

We’re ready to leave. I think we’ve spent the perfect amount of time here. I will miss lying on my particular chair reading until four in the morning, lulled to sleep by the dog-sized cicadas and I will miss Nik’s adorably fourteen-year-old behaviour (‘MOOOOOOOOM, GOD!’)… and her piano.

It really feels like tomorrow is the begining of the third phase in our trip. The first being Singapore to China, the second being, well, China and the now, the third: the stretch to Europe, to the UK and on to our new home, London.

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August 21st, 2010
Beijing, China

I’m sitting in bed feeling sick and following the election results. It’s neck and neck at the moment. Labor better not manage to lose an election to the most unelectable man in Australia.

I voted (Green) at the Australian embassy earlier this week. It was a big grey building of brutal architecture and glass doors and token Aboriginal artwork and men wearing suits with ID cards hanging around their necks – basically what I imagine the entire city of Canberra to look like. I was actually there to do a tax return, but apparently they don’t do that anymore. It’s all done with computers these days. Or at least it’s supposed to be; when I tried using eTax in Korea last year it refused to verify my identity and I had to wait until I went back to Perth. The whiz-bang wonders of the modern age.

Labor’s on 70 and the coalition’s on 71. The pundits always claim the election will be tight, but I’m surprised it really turned out that way. Didn’t Labor win by like 30 seats last time?

I also went to the SOS International Clinic the same day, because although I was feeling fine I was convinced that my regular traveller’s diarrhea must be the result of an ongoing, waxing and waning infection. It was a huge sparkling modern facility where all the expats and diplomats go, and I certainly received the best standard of medical care I’ve ever had, at the low price of five hundred fucking dollars. Most of that goes on travel insurance, but Jesus. Anyway, after running some tests my Austrian doctor announced that I was perfectly healthy.

Four days later and I’m suffering from diarrhea again, this time with abdominal pain and nausea. This is fucking frustrating. Particularly so given that I’m living in an expat’s house and eating safe, familiar foods. If I really am just constantly picking up a string of separate infections, where did this one come from?

The Greens are doing quite well, with a swing of nearly 4%. That would suggest that many Australians would prefer to have a right-wing and a left-wing party in this country, rather than two right-wing parties. Hard to enjoy that, however, with the prospect of Prime Minister Tony Abbott dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles.

So, yeah, living in this house. It’s divine. It sits in a gated suburban community about forty minutes outside of Beijing, and it’s completely wonderful in every way. Glenn, his wife Leila, and their delightfully stereotypical teenage daughter Nicole have been incredibly welcoming, considering that we’re a pair of deadbeat backpackers who invited ourselves into their home. We have separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, AN ELEVATOR, a swimming pool and a thousand other things we never had any right to dream of. Glenn cooked us both steak dinners one night, and said “You boy are gonna be fucked when you leave here.” He’s right. We’re growing accustomed to a very high standard of living, coming directly after living like hobos for three and a half months.

Most wonderful, though, is simply having a home. People often talk about the things they miss from home when they’re travelling, and it’s usually food – vegemite, fish and chips, various little things you just can’t get overseas. But for both Chris and myself, the thing we missed most was freedom.

Travelling the world at whim, with nothing to tie you down, seems like the very definition of freedom. It’s not. When you’re travelling in a foreign country on a tourist visa there is an enormous amount of limits on the things you can do. You’re often confused, you depend upon the strangers around you for many things, you have to take public transport everwhere and you have to worry about securing every meal and every bed. I don’t miss Vegemite or Cadbury or Smiths. I miss going to the fridge to get something to eat. I miss getting in my car and driving wherever I want. I miss melting into a crowd. I miss doing pretty much whatever I want all the time.

So the best thing about living in Glenn’s house is being able to cook our own meals. Or at least it is for Chris, who can actually cook. For dinner tonight I had bread with a bit of ham and Kraft cheese on it, an uninspiring meal which I then burnt in the grill. “Iron Chef,” Chris commented.

Labor 73, coalition 74. I can’t imagine anyone other than the sneering, arrogant Joe Hockey that I would like to see in the Lodge less than I would Tony Abbott.

I don’t have any photos for you this update, because I haven’t taken any. We haven’t been into the city much. Nicole accuses us of being the worst tourists ever, but after nearly four straight months of being tourists, it’s nice to be shut-in slobs again. Besides, we have another ten days here, which is more than enough time to do the Great Wall and Forbidden City and all that jazz.

We did go in to extend our tourist visas at the Chinese Kafka Bureau. Not only did we need a certificate of temporary residence in Beijing – which neccesitated a trip to the police station – we also needed proof of funds to support the rest of our stay – in a Chinese bank. What the fuck kind of tourist opens up a bank account? Leila opened some up for us and transferred her own money in there, transferring it back out after we’d dropped our passports off. I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been if we were staying at a hostel. I really dislike the communist world. Anywhere they’re finicky about foreigners, in fact. Give me Europe and the Americas any day. My piss-weak immune system should be able to handle those places too.

Steve Fielding seems to have lost his seat. Good.

We also hunted down a bookstore, since we need to stock up on reading material for Mongolia and the Trans-Siberian. There don’t appear to be any second-hand bookstores in Beijing, which is a shame for the budget traveller, but we did manage to find one that had a lot of classic titles for around 30 yuan ($5) each. So I picked up Kidnapped and King Solomon’s Mines, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing (a very readable book, which motivated me to finish a short story I started writing way back in Seoul – and I also discovered this awesome website, so I’ll send it off to a few magazines). I also have Middlesex and am patiently waiting for Chris to finish reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Labor predicted 71, coalition predicted 74, 4 independents and 1 Green. At this rate Quentin Bryce might be able to put up a big “1” on the scorecard in Government House and tie with John Kerr.

From what I’ve seen of Beijing – a few shopping precincts Nic dragged us to, the walk between SOS and the Australian embassy, and the streets I see out the windows of taxis – it seems a more pleasant city than I imagined it to be. The smog can be quite appalling on a bad day, as bad as Seoul’s, but it’s also cyclical, and there are plenty of days with clear blue skies. It’s still a fairly ugly East Asian city of blocky apartment buildings, but hey, all East Asian cities look like that. And I have yet to see a child taking a shit on the sidewalk.

It reminds me of Seoul quite a lot, actually. The air smells exactly the same – hot and dusty and slightly gritty. That makes me nostalgic, not that I liked Seoul, but that it harks back to a time in my life that was very simple. Just as high school and university have the comforting stable goal of graduation, Seoul had the comforting stable goal of GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.

Well, this election’s going nowhere fast. I’m going to go brew up some more of the Oriental voodoo tea Leila insists will cure my illness, then watch By Any Means and maybe send that story off. Then I’ll go to sleep hoping that when I wake up, we’ll still have a Welsh turncoat for a Prime Minister rather than a smirking religious zealot.

August 15th, 2010
Beijing, China

Sleeping in a dorm turned out to be about as shit as I expected. Other people come and go all the time, and unless you’re a heavy sleeper you get constantly woken up throughout the night. And it’s not that much cheaper than the split cost of a shared room.

We got up around 7.30, and left the hotel at 8.00. Our plane was scheduled to depart Chengdu at 10.30 that night, and we’d been told that the bus ride was usually six hours; a worst-case scenario of ten if it was raining. It was raining, but that still left us a margin of three hours, and we still had the umbrellas we’d bought in Lijiang, so we didn’t get too wet on the voyage down to the bus station.

Sitting next to us on the bus were a Canadian couple we’d met on the far more hellish bus ride the previous day, a brother and sister in their early twenties named Christopher and Erica. We chatted to them for a while as we took off out of Kangding and headed east towards the Chengdu Basin: out of crisp pine forests and grass-covered mountains, and down into steamy monsoonal valleys choked with green vegetation and wreathed in mist. And, since this was getting towards the more heavily settled parts of China, there was usually a chemical plant or a factory somewhere in the landscape.

The rain wasn’t that heavy, but it must have been going for several days – huge streams of water were pouring down from the embankments across the road, and the muddy river to our right was swollen and flowing very fast. There were a couple of traffic jams we got caught up in, but these soon resolved themselves.

At around 1.00, however, we came to a traffic jam that stood firm. We wandered on and off the bus to stretch our legs; I could see a line of cars backed up all the way down the valley, but assumed it would sort itself out eventually like the others had. The TV screens on the bus were already playing their third movie of the day: The Collector, a horrifically inappropriate R-rated splatterfest. I’d seen some questionable violent scenes in movies shown on Chinese buses before, but this was really beyond the pale. Severed fingers, intestines dragged out, stitched-up mouths, bear traps… just countless gory, graphic scenes.

“This is horrible,” Erica said.

“This is an R-rated movie,” Chris said. “On a public bus. There’s a little kid on this bus.”

“Can you imagine how outrageous it would be if this was shown on a bus in the West?” I said.

“Absolutely,” Christopher said. “People would get fired, there’d be lawsuits…”

“I just… it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so funny that they think this is okay.”

The joke was wearing off by the time the movie finished, since by then it was 3.00 and we’d been stuck in one place for two hours. The others went off to find some food; I wasn’t hungry, so I stayed on the bus to watch our bags. At this stage I was severely worried. Chris and I are normally the most flexible of travellers, but this mysterious hold-up had come on the one day we had a flight to catch. And I was getting worried by the increasing number of Chinese people travelling downstream through the bumper-to-bumper cars and buses, carrying all their luggage with them.

The others returned about half an hour later. “Dude,” Chris said. “We just talked to a guy who speaks English and he says the road is out and won’t be fixed today. A lot of people are walking to the next town to catch taxis.”

I looked out the window, at the flooded road and the rain and the raging river. “How far is it?”

“About five k’s.” He turned to the Canadians, who were talking to the only other Western guy on the bus, a Brit named Tom. “What are you guys doing?”

“I don’t know…” Christopher said. “I can just imagine us leaving and then the traffic starts moving.”

“We can always flag the bus down again if it passes,” I said. “It really doesn’t feel like this is going anywhere.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “And it’s already four o’clock.”

“Better get moving then,” I said.

At this stage I want you to imagine that it’s the end of an episode of 24. Doot! Doot! Doot! Doot!

The five of us tracked down the bus driver, got him to open the luggage compartment, and wrestled our bags out. Chris did most of the heavy lifting, getting his feet completely drenched in the ankle-deep flood running down the road.

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“I wouldn’t worry about it, dude,” he said. “Our feet are going to get wet anyway.”

“Actually it’s not so bad in front of the bus.”

“Oh. Damn.” (He was right, though.)

We pulled our packs onto our backs and prepared to set off. “Should we even try to get money back?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Christopher said. “If there’s one I’ve learned in Asia, it’s that there’s no refunds. Once you’ve paid for something, that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, too bad.”

“Alright then,” I said. “Let’s go.” With our backpacks and umbrellas, we joined the throng of Chinese travellers pushing their way down the road.

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Buses, cars and trucks were completely backed up in the right lane. Occasionally a motorcycle would come honking down the left lane, and we’d have to scurry out of the way. The only reason I could think of that cars and buses weren’t using the right lane was because they knew that there would be traffic backed up on the other side of whatever obstruction it was, and gridlocking both lanes would just prolong the problem. That might seem like common sense, but in Asia it’s an impressive display of foresight compared to, say, the Vietnamese.

“How long did this guy say it was?” I asked, as we waited for a woman to try and force her scooter through a narrow gap between two buses.

“About five k’s,” Chris replied. “Unless he got his English wrong and meant fifty. Outta the way, lady! I got a plane to catch!” He grinned. “I always wanted to say that.”

We walked further down the river of cars, with the real river roaring away to our right. Every ten metres or so a new tributary of rainwater run-off would be cascading down from the vegetation to our left, running across the road and emptying into the river. We were surrounded by other Chinese people who’d given up on vehicle travel, carrying suitcases and backpacks and cardboard boxes and huge bags of rice. With every passing hour it had become clear that this was more than just a minor hold-up; it was big.

“This must be what it feels like to be in a disaster movie,” Chris said. “Like War of the Worlds. Just a mass exodus of people. I feel like a refugee.”

“Whatever this is, it better be good,” I said. “If it’s a bunch of people standing there staring at an easily fixable problem I’m going to be very angry.”

Turned out it was bit more serious than that.

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A landslide had come down and not only blocked the road, but washed it away. The right lane was completely gone, and while the concrete of the left lane was still there, it didn’t look like there was much supporting it. The response to this disaster appeared to be in the preliminary stages of stringing warning tape around the area. I did not get the impression this would be repaired anytime soon.

“Wow,” Erica said.

“There is no way that’s getting fixed today,” Chris said.

“So, leaving the bus,” I said. “Definitely the right decision.”

The string of rag-tag refugees were traversing the landslide by climbing up the embankment to the left: a steep, muddy, slippery trail. Some of the people climbing up it were elderly, and some were wearing high heels, so we had to stand in line for a while before tackling it ourselves. It was much muddier than I expected, but there was enough bamboo and foliage to grab onto for support. “I really hope I don’t fall over,” I said. When you’re carrying 15 kilos on your back, this is harder than it sounds.

I was first in line, and when I reached the top a Chinese man gave me a hand in scrambling up the last part. The trail at the top of the embankment was ankle-deep in sloppy mud. My shoes and jeans were coated with it in seconds. I gave Erica a hand up, and then took photos of our hilarious situation while we waited for the others.

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Most people probably wouldn’t take photos at a time like this, but I’m eternally aware of the need to provide photos for this blog. Professional pride.

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It sounds miserable, but it was actually hilarious. Definitely one of those days where travel problems create much more interesting stories. And we were all feeling elated, because leaving the bus had definitely proven to be the best move, and we now had a real chance of making it to Chengdu that night.

We descended down the muddy trail without any mishaps, and washed our feet off in the rainwater ditch before continuing along the road. The other side was pretty much the same as the first, but with blocked traffic on the other side of the road. “Man, our bus is going to be there all night,” Christopher said.

“What are the people going to do?” I asked.

“Sleep on it, I guess,” Chris said.

“Man, fuck that,” I said. “Definitely the right decision. The best case scenario we could have hoped for would have been going back to Kangding. We definitely would have missed the flight.”

“What time is it?”

I looked at my watch. “Nearly five. I wonder if they’ll let us on the plane covered in mud?”

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the next town, or the outskirts of it: a couple of buildings and a whole bunch of cars with people clamouring to claim them. As usual, a Chinese entrepreneur found us first and asked us through gesturing if we wanted a car.

“How much should we offer?” I asked.

“Anything,” Chris said.

“I think about a hundred for each of us?”

“That sounds good,” Tom said.

He ended up asking for 150 each, for a ride all the way to Chengdu, and we didn’t bother to bargain him down. “Alright, let’s go,” Christopher said. The man directed us to sit on a bench outside a ramshackle building while he went to secure a vehicle. I took a leak off in the bushes, and then realised there was a convenience store right across the road from us. The shelves were almost bare – contributing to that feeling of being in a disaster movie – but I bought and ate a packet of plain biscuits, since all I’d had to eat all day was a packet of peanuts.

I returned to the group just as our Chinese benefactor was proposing that we ride to Chengdu in a pick-up truck. “What?” Tom said. “There is no way we’re riding in that in the rain.”

“It’s a four-door,” I said. “We should be able to squeeze in.”

“What about our bags?” Christopher said.

“Does he have a cover for the tray?” Chris asked.

“I think we should barter him down to 100, for a pick-up truck,” Tom said.

There was a bit of plastic sheeting. Chris and one of the Chinese guys packed our bags into the tray, covered them as best as they could, and then we squeezed into the car. Christopher sat in the front, while Chris, Tom, Erica and myself squeezed into the back, which was a pretty tight fit. It was then that the Chinese men decided they wanted payment up-front. What followed was the kind of frustrating language barrier negotiation that anybody who has travelled in the third world will be familiar with. We were trying to offer half now, half later, using the Canadians’ Mandarin phrasebook, but they were having a lot of trouble understanding that and arguing amongst themselves.

“Jesus, it’s pretty simple,” I said. I could feel my inner Jack Bauer screaming “Damn it, we don’t have time for this!”

“I think their language breeds confusion,” Tom said. “All the tones and dialects…”

Eventually they figured it out, and our driver – an old man in a shabby suit who did not seem like he should be driving a pick-up truck – took us off down the road. “Yes,” I said. “Yes! We’re going to make this!”

“I don’t think we’re even halfway to Chengdu,” Chris said. “I think we’ll make it, but it’s gonna be tight.”

Chris was proved right when we passed a sign saying it was 15 k’s to Ya’an. According to the map in our Lonely Planet, Ya’an was perhaps a third of the way to Chengdu. And this wasn’t on a highway – it was on the same tiny two-lane road carved into the side of a foggy, rainy mountain, with the same minor landslides and hold-ups. At one point we had to wait to pass an earthmover that was shovelling dirt from another landslide into the ravine, and in the back of my mind I was worrying that we might come to another major disaster – a bridge out, or another section of the road washed away. If that happened, we were screwed.

Nonetheless, we were making decent time, and could probably reach Chengdu in a mere two hours. It really says something about the last four months of my life that I think a two hour drive crammed into a backseat with three other people is nothing. Back home I used to think the three hour drive to Collie in the back of my Dad’s air-conditioned car was a long haul. Try twelve hours in a Chinese sleeper bus, kid.

The time, therefore, passed fairly quickly, as we chatted to our companions and worried about our driver’s ability to keep us alive, as he often swerved too close to the curb or did some very dangerous overtaking. As we were passing through a built-up area, approaching a freeway on-ramp, the traffic suddenly slowed and became a mass of backed-up trucks again.

“Oh no,” we all said. “Oh no.

A random Chinese truck driver stuck his head in the window and started talking to our driver. We tried to communicate with him and figure out what was going on, but that was fruitless as usual. He insisted on writing what he was saying in Chinese and showing it to Christopher, who kept shrugging and making it clear that he couldn’t read Chinese. Obviously.

We got out of the ute and stretched our legs while we tried to determine what was happening. Erica went up to a bunch of Chinese tourists taking photographs of statues on a hill and returned with a woman who spoke some English. “Can you ask him what’s going on?” we asked her. “We don’t speak Chinese.”

They talked to each other for… quite a while. This is a common problem in China: simple questions seem to take a long time to get an answer for. Eventually she turned to us and said “Where you from?”

“Canada,” Erica said, while the rest of us tried to restrain ourselves from slamming our foreheads against the roof of the ute.

“Piss-up in a brewery,” I muttered.

There was no ultimate answer to our question other than “something.” We wandered around a bit trying to find someone else and determine whether there was another route to Chengdu. Our driver, who knew full well that we wanted to go to the airport and therefore had a plane to catch, seemed content to sit on the curb smoking and waiting.

“Fuck,” Chris said. “I don’t think we’re going to make this.”

“We might,” I said. I didn’t know why, but I felt fairly confident. It was now 6.30, but for some reason I was still full of hope.

And – praise be to Saint Christopher – the trucks suddenly started firing up their engines, and the traffic started moving again. We piled back into the car and took off, this time on a four-lane freeway that was rushing us towards Chengdu. “Yessss!” Chris said. “Now we’re gonna make it!”

“Unless this guy crashes and kills us,” I said, as he almost clipped the median strip.

“Thank you so much, by the way, for letting us go to the airport first,” Chris said.

“I think it’s actually on the way,” Christopher said.

“Excellent.”

We passed the rest of the voyage talking about Canada and Australia and London and our previous travels, and eventually arrived at outskirts of the airport just before eight o’clock. Mitch and Chris: 10; Time: 0. We bade farewell to the comrades we’d made through our shared ordeals, and were shuffled off into another cab to be taken to the terminal building.

“Oh my God,” Chris said. “I am so relieved. I can’t remember the last time I felt this good.”

We were deposited out front of the terminal at about 8.15, exactly when we were supposed to arrive. We breezed in through the gates, found our check-in desk, changed out of our muddy shoes right there in the terminal, and gave the agent our bags. We’d made it.

There’s something I like about waiting around in an airport. I know I’ve said I prefer to travel overland, but there’s also something nice about planes and airports. A hub of transport, with people leaving and arriving from places all over the world. A lot of stories flowing past you.

I wouldn’t mind a job that required me to fly a lot. I’d probably get sick of it after a while, but at the moment it seems appealing. Of course what I really want is a job where I’m doing something different and interesting; a job where I don’t have to show up to the same place every day, or where I’m at least working on very different things all the time. That’s part of why I’m attracted to working for ASIO or ASIS, although my short attention span and tendency to daydream could count against me. Also the fact that I’m more in line with the Julian Assanges of the world rather than the John Howards.

Our plane was delayed by about half an hour due to air traffic, so we didn’t land in Beijing until about 1.30. The terminal we arrived in, built two years ago for the Olympics, was absolutely massive – in fact, looking it up now, it has the fourth-largest floor space of any building in the world. “This is amazing,” Chris said. “I want to play jetpack chasey in here.”

We wandered around the airport for a bit trying to find Starbucks, where we were supposed to meet Glenn, a friend of Chris’ parents who was kindly letting us stay with him. We found him around two o’clock in the morning, profusely apologised for making him be awake at such a late hour, and then he drove us to his house.

Chris’ parents had frequently described Glenn’s house as mansion, but in recent days we had decided to downplay our expectations in case they swelled too greatly. “I’d be happy with something on par with my house back home,” I said.

Glenn’s house is significantly better than my house back home. For example, it has an elevator.

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Three stories tall, it sits inside a gated compound full of wealthy expat manors. It has a swimming pool, a sauna, at least three bathrooms, multiple expansive living rooms, century-old antiques and – in accordance with the opulence scale established by the hotel scene in Knocked Up – 35 different kinds of chairs.

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Today they were having a barbecue, and after sleeping in (on soft mattresses in an air-conditioned room) we enjoyed the best meal we’ve had since leaving home: sausages, salad, chicken wings, bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and wine.

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They also own a piano, something Chris has desired for a very long time.

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I’m so glad we made that flight. Actually, did we die on those roads back there and go to heaven?

August 13th, 2010
Kangding, Sichuan Province, China

Squat toilet analysis: not that difficult to use, if you have a decent amount of thigh strength, but it robs you of all dignity. Particularly since you have to take your pants off to avoid crapping in your jeans. I am not an animal, China! I am a man!

We hired a private car and driver from our hotel to take us on the two hour drive to Litang, the next town along. It cost us 150 yuan each (about $23 AUD), but the Israelis were indecisive about whether or not they were going to Litang. Plus they were weird, plus it was less cramped without them. I’ve dropped twenty bucks on less.

It was a pretty nice drive. The roads and the scenery in western Sichuan are fantastic, ranging from steep mountain ravines to high altitude grasslands. For most of the trip we were cruising through wide open fields full of scattered rocks and boulders. We stopped so Chris could take a leak by a beautiful river flanked with pine trees.

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Obviously it would have been better if we had our own vehicles – everything is – but some countries are assholes about that kind of thing, and China is one of them. It was still a gorgeous drive, and as we drew closer to Litang we entered herding country. The pastures were dotted with black and white yaks, and nomad tents were more common than fixed structures.

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Litang itself was a really weird town. It was almost pure Tibetan, and most of them were dressed up in traditional gear that resembled cowboy get-up from the American West. In place of horses they had ornately decorated motorcycles, with colorful tassels and seats and flags attached to them. Combined with shocking filth and poverty, an enormous population of stray dogs, and the fact that Tibetans closely resemble Native Americans, it really felt like an Old West town. Except, y’know, with no white people. And there were cars and motorbikes and everyone spoke Tibetan.

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Still. It had that vibe.

After we found a hotel and secured our bus tickets for the next day (6.30 departure, urggh) I went for a walk. The main street of Litang is utterly disgusting – the kind of abject poverty that makes you wonder how people can live like that – but as soon as you venture down one of the side-streets it’s a bit cleaner and everyone is friendly. It felt like Cambodia again, with four out of five people (even the adults) shouting “Hello!” and smiling at the gangly white foreigner strolling around. I had two teenage kids follow me for ages saying random words like “china” and “monastery” and “dalai lama.”

Here’s some little girls who wanted their photo taken:

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As the streets grew steeper, I eventually ended up on the edge of town, at the bottom of a grassy hill leading up to a shrine of some kind.

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I crested the hill to find a very pleasant image on the other side:

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There were some more kids playing around that tent, holding onto their ankles and hopping on one leg. “Hello! Hello!” I walked up to the shrine and sat cross-legged next to it for a while, looking out over the town and the valley. There was a nice breeze blowing, and it was a perfect afternoon. One of those pleasant little moments where you realise where you are and what you’re doing.

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It was nice to turn around and see a random Tibetan guy doing the same thing – just relaxing on the grass and enjoying the view.

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A European couple with much nicer cameras than mine came up and started taking photos of the shrine. I asked them if you could get inside the monastery, and they said yes, for free. That sounded just dandy, so I headed down there to investigate.

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It was more or less deserted on the inside, apart from a few yaks wandering around in the courtyard. Most of the buildings were closed, but I walked up through the streets. It was sort of a monastery and a town in one – there were a few cars driving around, and some buildings that were just ordinary Tibetan houses.

At the highest point of one road was a set of stone stairs leading up to a level yard out the front of another monastery building. Apparently this was the main structure, and some kind of free time was in progress for the young monks.

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A bunch of the kids clustered around me, and when I took my camera out one bold lad promptly seized it and started taking photos. He wasn’t quite sure how to use it, and took some interesting photos of the ground and my shoulderblade before giving it back to me and motioning for me to take photos of him and his friends.

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Some older monks soon came along and ushered them back inside. I wandered up to the doorway. There seemed to be a lot of interesting activity going on in there, but I got the sense that it was literally hallowed ground, and I didn’t want to push my luck. I snapped one photo and then wandered around the outside some more.

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Here’s a reminder that, while they are painted in the Western mind as people of pure and noble spirituality, Tibetan monks still live in their own filth like everyone else in the developing world.

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It was getting late, so I headed back into town. On the lower streets outside the monastery two monks came speeding towards me on a motorbike, and I whipped the camera out. They waved and shouted “Hellooooo!” as they passed, but I pre-empted the shot and missed what would have been an awesome photo.

So that was a pleasant day, and, as these things go, I paid for it with a very unpleasant day. I knew it was going to be bad – nobody enjoys waking up before dawn to get on a bus for ten hours – but it was even worse than I imagined.

It started when we left our room, at a quarter past six, with the sky only just beginning to turn the shade of blue that comes before the grey that comes before dawn. Our guesthouse was arranged around an enclosed courtyard, and we arrived at the front gates to find them locked. Nothing was stirring; we weren’t even sure where the owners slept.

We took a crude roof ladder from the gatehouse and used it to scale the three metre wall. I passed our bags up to Chris, climbed up onto the wall after him, and then we pulled the ladder up and lowered it down the other side. “This is ridiculous,” I said, passing our bags down to him.

“Mmhhm,” he said, holding the ladder steady so I could climb down. We left it on the outside of the wall; I think we also left our room door open and the light on. I wonder what they made of that. We did tell them we were leaving before dawn.

We walked to the bus station and nearly had heart attacks when somebody tried to usher us into a minivan; it turned out our bus was the actual, large, proper kind. Since it was a Chinese bus, it was also full of chain-smokers and left half an hour late.

I was having stomach cramps. It’s part of a glorious tapestry of bowel problems I’ve been having for weeks – I’m going to see a doctor in Beijing, because I suspect I have ameobic dysentery. This was unpleasant enough, but it meant that every time the bus hit a bump, it felt like a screwdriver stabbing me in the guts. We were at the very back, right above the rear wheels, which amplified the bouncing effect. And all that would have been tolerable, except the roads were in atrocious condition, more pothole than asphalt. So it was basically non-stop bumping and I was in agony for hours and hours and hours. The cramps went away around noon, but those five hours easily earned thus bus ride the #1 spot on my list of Worst Rides Ever. Worse than the Tiger flight out of Perth, worse than the Cambodian sex tourist minivan, worse than the sleeper bus from the Vietnamese border.

We arrived in Kangding around five o’clock, and leaving the bus station we were accosted by an English expat who was just a little too eager to help us. He wasn’t a con artist or anything, just annoyingly (and ineptly) helpful. We had a hostel we were planning on staying at, and he offered to ring them to see if they had space. It took him fifteen minutes just to ring people to track their number down, and then another ten to sort out whether they had space or not.

They did – in the dorms. This is the first time we’ve ever slept in dorm rooms, since we like our privacy, and Asia is cheap enough for us to have private rooms all the time. It’s only for one night; we’re going to Chengdu tomorrow, then flying to Beijing that night, where we’ll be staying with an old colleague of Chris’ parents.

This is moving slightly faster than we’d intended. Or than I’d intended, anyway. I’d wanted to see some of the stuff around here – the Tagong grasslands, maybe Emei Shan, and I’d been planning to train it to Beijing rather than fly. But things didn’t quite turn out that way.

I’m not the biggest fan of travelling. It’s not what I thought it would be like (Japan) and I’m waiting until the end of the trip to determine whether the 10% of fun is worth the 90% of dealing with befuddling cultures/lugging your bag around in the sun/sleeping in shitty rooms/sitting on buses. But I’m fairly content with it, for the most part. I’m happy to stick to the original plan.

Chris, on the other hand, hates it – hates it. He’s travelling through China with me simply to get to Mongolia. He hates hostels, hates buses, hates travelling the way other people travel. This came to a head today when, exhausted and in a shitty mood, I sort of wrote off the idea of going to Tagong. Chris greeted that very enthusiastically and suggested we just skip through Chengdu as well and book it to Beijing. I dug my heels in over that, and we ended up having a huge argument.

The end result was that we now have plane tickets to Beijing tomorrow evening. I have a mild desire to see more of Sichuan, but not enough to drag a miserable friend along. If I really badly want to, I can always come back to China on my own. For now I’m willing to agree with Chris. I got my way when we took the endurance buses through the mountains; now it’s his turn. Besides which, I’m in a mood where I’m ambivalent about China and travel in general, and leaning more towards Chris’ “only unique things are worth doing” school of thinking. I don’t hold a firm position like he does. I’ve always had two differing opinions on the standard Lonely Planet backpacking method. In the back of my mind is always the faint desire to say “fuck this” and get on a plane to Europe or North America or back home, and to get on a plane tomorrow to Beijing – where we have a home away from home awaiting us – is a partial fulfillment of that desire, and very satisfying.

To be honest I’m also towards the end of my tether with third-world travel, coupled with travel in a foreign environment. Doing it for any significant length of time wears me down. After Mongolia lies Europe, glorious cradle of Western civilisation…

August 11th, 2010
Daocheng, Sichuan Province, China

Travelling to Tibet is difficult for the independent traveller, because the Chinese government tightly controls the area and places restrictions on foreign visitors, on account of how nothing sketchy whatsoever is happening there. You need to be part of an official tour group, and while there are certain agencies who’ll let you get around this and do your own thing, it’s still very expensive. Besides which, the flood of Han Chinese inundating the region and ruining the culture – whoops, I meant “modernising” the culture – many travellers don’t find what they expect. I hear that these days, Lhasa is aesthetically indistinguishable from Guangzhou or Chongqing.

North-west Yunnan and western Sichuan, however, are historically and culturally part of Tibet – and yet, for whatever reason, not classified by China as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. This means foreigners can visit without the hassle of permits and tour guides, which is exactly what we’re doing.

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After Tiger Leaping Gorge we headed up to Shangri-La, which was formerly known as Zhongdian until the town council saw the town councils of Dali and Lijiang lighting cigars with $100 bills and freestyling in swimming pools full of tourism money. In a stroke of genius, they “discovered” that their town was the location of the mythical Shangri-La, the earthly paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Some people have called this crass and cynical, but I think it’s fair enough, and Shangri-La is a much better name than Zhongdian.

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As towns go, it’s about halfway between Dali and Lijiang: nothing amazing, but a pleasant enough place to be for a few days. It’s most definitely Tibetan, with the bulk of the population resembling smiling Native Americans rather than stern-faced, street-spitting Han Chinese, and while the tourism industry is certainly creeping in, it’s still a real town where people work and live. There are enough Western restaurants and amenities to provide a certain level of comfort, while still being off the trail enough that it’s not swamped with tourists; sorta like Kampot.

It also lies at a dizzying altitude of 3380 metres. By comparison, Mt. Kosciusko, the highest peak in Australia, is a pathetic 2228 metres. 3000 is where symptoms of altitude sickness kick in for some people, and I was one of those unlucky few. It was pretty mild – just a morning of nausea and pins and needles in my legs – but we have much higher altitudes to reach yet.

A French guy we met in Tiger Leaping Gorge recommended us a motorcycle rental shop run by an American expat named Kevin, and since we haven’t been on bikes since Hanoi, we were both keen to rent some for a day. Unfortunately, he was closed on Sunday, and Chris was sick on Monday, so we ended up staying a little longer than we expected.

It was worth it, though. Chris informs me that these Chinese dirtbikes were pretty shit, as motorcycles go, but since I had nothing to compare them to except my literally-falling-apart 1980 two-stroke Minsk, they felt like a dream. They were so quiet! And the brakes were responsive! And I could change gear with the slightest flick of my toes, rather than having to slam my foot down on the lever like a corrupt cop curb-stomping a suspect!

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We took them for a spin around a nearby lake, which was surrounded by big white Tibetan houses and wooden frameworks for drying wheat on. It felt very medieval. (And somehow more like home; rice paddies are foreign, wheat is normal.)

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After then getting lost in the sub-districts around Shangri-La for ages, we found our way back out into the fields and paddocks, and rode to the foot of the mountains. There was a shrine on a hilltop, which we climbed up to simply because it was there. When we went back down a group of Bai women (a local tribe) were standing around asking us for money.

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I know that there’s a massive imbalance of wealth in the world. I know that I was extremely lucky to be born in a wealthy country, so that I can live like a king in less wealthy countries. I know the Chinese government doesn’t cherish its ethnic groups, and that all the good jobs go to Han Chinese. But I’ll be damned if I’m giving free cash away to degenerate freeloaders. I worked for that money – they should try that sometime. At least hawkers earn their money. Hell, even the con-men earn their money.

After it became clear that white skin does no equal free handouts and they buggered off, we rode the bikes up a hill that was slightly more than we could handle (or, since we ended up OK, precisely what we could handle). Getting back down was a bit dicey, on a thin trail running along the hillside, but we made it in the end, and were rewarded well.

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Open green fields speckled with wildflowers, and mountains in the background. This is what I imagine Wales to be like.

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We explored some ruined farmhouses, took some photos, and then headed back to town because we were starving. Incidentally, if you’re ever in Shangri-La, Compass does fantastic Western food.

We headed off the next day into Sichuan province. I had vague ideas of following the string of Tibetan towns north, before eventually turning east towards Chengdu, where we can take a train to Beijing. Our bus left at the gut-wrenchingly early hour of 7.30, but the owner of Compass told us the trip to Xiangcheng should only take four hours.

The trip got off to a bad start when the bus driver clipped a pole and smashed the wing mirror off while backing out of the parking space. “That’s a good start,” I said.

“I wonder how he’s going to handle the mountain passes,” Chris said.

And mountain passes there were! Up and up and up, along winding roads and compact switchbacks, tthrough pine forests and fir forests and eventually right above the alpine. Chris hadn’t slept the previous night because of his chronic insomnia, and was feeling extremely carsick. The bus eventually stopped at a truck stop, where we ate some rice and talked to an American heading south, who delivered the grim news that the roads from the truck stop to Xiangcheng were entirely unpaved and we still had many hours ahead of us.

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Not only were they unpaved, but in many places they were churned to mud. We eventually got stuck behind a minivan that was bogged down at a spot where the tyre tracks were knee-deep. It took them about half an hour to stick branches and pieces of shale under the tyres and eventually get it moving again.

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Chris was sitting on the embankment wall wishing he was dead, but I was sort of enjoying myself. Granted, I’d rather be on a motorbike or in our own four-wheel drive, but it was more interesting than the average bus ride.

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It got pretty boring as we descended again, though. On the other side of the mountains were the valleys and fields of Xiangcheng, and it took hours and hours for us to switchback our way down there.

We eventually rolled into the village at about five o’clock – a trip of nine hours, not four. We were immediately met with the unwelcome news that there were no public buses from here on, and that if we wanted to proceed north we’d have to hire minivans. We’d been planning on staying in Xiancheng and going to Litang the next day, but two Israeli guys were heading up to the town of Daocheng, a mere two hours further north, and offered to split the costs of a minivan with us. That seemed like a good idea, in addition to the fact that one of them spoke Chinese and we were now well off the beaten track, so we decided to throw our lot in with them.

So it was us, them, one of their girlfriends and a random Chinese guy, 60 yuan each, for a two hour ride. At least, it was supposed to be a two hour ride. The Israelis weren’t as fed up with the day as we were, and wanted to do some sightseeing, so we stopped off at the local monastery first.

Chris could not have been in a less enthusiastic mood, and I wasn’t too keen myself, but we wandered into the courtyard and took a few photos. A stern-faced monk came up to me, pointed at a brochure and demanded 15 yuan, which I didn’t feel like paying, so I went to wait outside. Chris soon joined me. I needed to take a leak, so I ventured inside a typical vision-from-hell Chinese toilet attached to the monastery. When I emerged, I found the same grumpy monk standing outside demanding 1 yuan for the use of the toilet.

“Extortionist,” I said, giving him the note. I went and sat at the edge of the monastery with my feet dangling over a drop, read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim for a little while, and watched a monk throw a stick at some chickens. These guys didn’t seem very Buddhist.

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Still, it was nice to be there, in a pure Tibetan town surrounded by mountains and populated by monks in crimson robes. This is the kind of place I was dreaming about when we were sweltering in Hanoi.

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Eventually our companions returned to the minivan and we started the long and arduous journey to Daosheng. They wanted to stop for dinner, so we pulled over in some roadside shack and waited forty minutes for a woman to cook us some of the spiciest food I have ever had. Then we set off for Daosheng, stopping every fifteen minutes so they could get out and take a photo of anything remotely interesting. They somehow turned a two-hour journey into a four-hour one.

We arrived in Daosheng well after dark, which I wasn’t best pleased with, seeing as it’s not in the guidebook and I know zilch about it. The minivan driver took us to a pretty crummy hostel, and everybody started settling in. I went for a walk to look for food and water, but instead discovered a much better guesthouse next door, which had rooms for the same price that were substantially better. The first hostel, for example, had literally no matresses: just a few layers of blankets atop a metal bedframe. That’s not worth 100 yuan ($18 AUD).

This one also has an ensuite bathroom. Unfortunately it’s a squat toilet, which will be… interesting. I’ve done it in that position before, but always when camping back home, surrouned by the glory of nature. Doing it in a bathroom will be bizarre. I have no idea how to straddle one of these bastards.

August 6th, 2010
Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, China

Aside from our brief jaunt into the Cang Shan Mountains about a week ago, Chris and I have zero hours of trekking experience between us, so it was with some trepidation that we tackled China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Lonely Planet warned that it was a difficult hike even for experienced trekkers in good condition, that the rainy season often caused landslides and deaths. Lonely Planet was, as usual, wrong.

The bus from Lijiang dropped us off at the western edge of the gorge in the village of Qiatou (actually pronounced Chowto, or something; I would love to get my hands on whoever transliterated Asian languages into Roman characters). At that point we had to get to Jane’s Guesthouse, where we could leave our main packs while we spent two days trekking, but it was very unclear as to how to go there. You’d think that with thousands of tourists doing the trek every year you might put up just one little sign, but no. We trudged a while up the road, decided that we’d gone the wrong way, and trudged back down the road. We followed it downhill for about two kilometres, with Chinese people still telling us we were heading towards the gorge, before deciding that we must have gone the wrong way and needed to go back to Qiatou.

This was carrying our 15 kg packs in summer heat, and it was putting us in exceptionally foul moods. Neither of us had slept well the previous night, since our guesthouse hadn’t been well-equipped for that. The beds were rock hard (a common problem in Asia), there was a bright porch light directly outside our window, and – worst of all – one of our neighbours snored heavily all night, blasting right through the paper-thin walls. It sounded like an aggressive dog growling at an intruder.

“Why don’t we just go to sleep on the floor of a barn in the middle of the day, with all the cows mooing around us?” Chris asked.

So, that wasn’t a great start to the day. We trudged all the way back up to Qiatou, sticking our hands out in the hope of hitching a ride from one of dozens of minivans passing. No luck. Upon our return to the village we found a very obscure route into the entrance of the gorge, across a bridge and squeezing through some trucks in a construction site, which led us to Jane’s.

Trekking the gorge on no sleep was obviously not an option, so we resolved to stay there the rest of the day and that night, gratefully flopping down onto our beds as soon as we’d had something to eat, exhausted and fed up. “The perfect life,” Chris said, “would be if your spine was broken and you just had to lie in bed all day.”

After a decent night’s sleep, we set off the next morning around 11 am. We left our main packs there, taking along only our daypacks, with a change of clothes, notebook, iPod, bottled water and something to read.

There are two ways to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge. You can take the low road, which is an actual proper vehicle road that’s under construction and involves a lot of mud, gravel, earth-movers, workers, dynamite blasts and trucks. It’s straight and flat and easy. Or, you can take the high road, which is foot-trail that meanders through forests and bushland at a higher level and takes a lot longer to complete. If you want to do things properly, the high road is clearly the only option.

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The first stretch saw us following some convoluted directions to get out of the cluster of village buildings at the west end, before we emerged into a bare hillside with a path stretching around to the point.

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We stopped for lunch at the Naxi Family Guesthouse, and then pushed on, following the path around a curve that gave us a pretty good view of the river below, and the trail to come. There was a lot of horse shit on the path, and I could hear them whinnying off in the distance, but no enterprising Chinese man came up and offered us a ride. I totally would have taken it. On level stretches, I can walk all day, but uphill, I need to stop every ten minutes. This was the view from the top of a particularly strenuous uphill struggle:

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Later in the afternoon we rounded another bend and were treated to a much more impressive set of mountains on the opposite side of the gorge. This is the range that includes Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and it rises to a dizzying height of five and a half thousand metres. By comparison, Mt. Kosciusko – the highest peak in Australia – is a pathetic 2228 metres high. These mountains were titanic granite monsters. They just went up and up and up and their peaks were completely hidden in the clouds.

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It’s the kind of thing you don’t see much of in Perth.

After the 28 Bends, a section of the trail that is extremely steep and winding, the high road levelled off and we made very good time. In fact, we overtook everybody we came across: Chinese locals, Western backpackers, Korean ajossi decked out in their North Face gear and hiking poles – and arrived at our planned stop, the Halfway House, at about five in the afternoon.

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This place had good rooms, did decent food and had a spectacular view of the mountains. We had dinner there, and spent some time talking to an American guy, and a French guy who recommended us a great motorbike rental place in Shangri-La. As sunset approached, the clouds finally dissipated, and we could see the mountain peaks in all their jagged majesty, crowned with the last amber light of the day.

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Sill haven’t seen snow. I thought I could see a few patches here and there, but Chris said it was shale, and given how low down it was he’s probably right.

Halfway House didn’t give the gift of good sleep either, since every dog within five hundred metres was barking its fucking head off until 2 am. I also woke in the middle of the night needing to pee, and sat up to see a man standing right beside my bed, sillhouetted by the faint moonlight coming in through the curtains. It was actually Chris’ shirt, which he’d hung by a coathanger from the light fixture, but for a split second it scared the crap out of me.

We set off again the next morning at 11. I had a banana pancake for breakfast; I order these everywhere I find them, on the theory that as soon as I can’t, I will have found the end of the Banana Pancake Trail. Also they’re delicious.

The trail after Halfway House was often covered in rocks and waterfalls, which was cool.

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There was also more livestock than the previous day, which meant an increase in shit. Tiger Leaping Gorge is by no means wilderness; people have always lived here, and the trail often leads right past fields and pigsties. You’re also spoiled for choice when it comes to guesthouses.

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After clearing the land of waterfalls, the trail started to descend towards the low road, and Tina’s Guesthouse.

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We’d been told that at four o’clock a bus ran from Tina’s, back to Jane’s and then on to Shangri-La, and we wanted to catch it. As we were heading down, however, somebody else was coming back up.

“That’s not a good sign,” Chris said.

“He’s probably just doing it the other way,” I said.

“No, we met this guy last night.”

He was right; as the man drew closer I saw that he was an Israeli backpacker we’d met at Halfway House. “How come you’re heading back?” Chris called out.

“An American girl is missing,” he said curtly.

He explained what had happened and asked if we’d seen her. She’d left before them and was supposed to be at Tina’s, but hadn’t showed up. We hadn’t run into anyone except a Dutch trio, but there were lots of branching paths, and at least one other guesthouse. We wished him luck and descended down to Tina’s.

Tina’s Guesthouse was a bit of a mess. There were quite a few trekkers there, but not enough to explain the catastrophic level of disorganisation. It took us half an hour just to place an order for a meal, and Chris asked Tina several times if there was a minivan leaving at four o’clock, receiving only vague replies – and being ignored by Tina constantly as she walked past us and he tried to grab her attention. We talked to a Chinese guy who spoke good English and said that it would probably be easier for us to just walk back to Jane’s; on the low road, it should only take three hours. And given the constant construction, the free passage of vehicles was dubious.

So after eating a mediocre lunch, we set off down the path to the low road. (The American girl turned up safe and sound, by the way.) This was a muddy, unsealed road that led us between a sheer cliff face (sometimes with tumbling rocks) to our right, and a steep drop down to the river on our lift. There was construction going on, but not as much as I expected, and we often had the whole road to ourselves.

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We were walking for less than an hour before a minivan offered us a ride back to Q-Town, as Chris had dubbed it. We haggled him down to 20 yuan and hopped in – so much for the road being closed to vehicles. This was a pretty cool ride, since it was very… precarious. Not exactly like that road in Bolivia, but we were quite often cruising along wih less than a few feet between the minivan and the edge of the road – no guardrails, no safety measures, just a hundred metre plunge onto the rocks below.

Arriving back at Jane’s Guesthouse at three o’clock, we learned there was a bus leaving for Shangri-La at 3:30, and so we grabbed our stuff and headed into town. Sure enough, there was a bus, and we spent the next three hours crammed into the backseat watching a spectacular landscape of mountains and ravines go by. And now we’re in Shangri-La, staying in a fairly cramped and crummy room, which is OK because it’s only 80 yuan a night. We’ll shift somewhere else tomorrow.

So that was Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was pretty amazing, and I’m glad we did it, although I can’t say I’m sold on trekking. I think I’m just too lazy. A lot of the time I was fantasizing about Mongolia, and having a horse to carry me everywhere. Nonetheless, I think it was a hike well done, and I’m glad we did it before the completion of the low road, which will grant free passage to hundreds of thousands of Asian tour group buses.

August 3rd, 2010
Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

Lijiang is a maze of winding cobbled streets swarming with thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists, dawdling and wandering all over the place taking photographs every three steps. I went for a walk up to Black Dragon Pool today (which would have offered a stunning view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain had it not been miserably overcast and drizzly) and after arriving back in the Old Town it took me more than an hour to find our guesthouse. Walking around in this town when you’re not in the mood for a stroll is an immensely frustrating experience.

 

This photo depicts one of the widest streets in town. For the most part it’s alleyways.

Dali had a lot of tourists too, but not quite as many, and it had wide and straight streets. Lijiang may be slightly prettier, but it has twice the amount of shutterbug sightseers crammed into half the space. Even at our first guesthouse, everything was small and crowded, and our room had the tiniest bathroom we’ve yet encountered, about the size of a closet. Everything about this town is suffocating.

Our first guesthouse was Mama Naxi’s, popular amongst backpackers and Lonely Planet’s top pick. I have no idea why; maybe it was just coming from the Dali Hump, which was a fantastic place to stay, but Mama Naxi’s was cramped and crowded, the staff were indifferent to us and the rooms were poor value compared to what was on offer elsewhere. I’ve noticed that the best places we’ve come across – Steve’s Steakhouse in Phnom Penh, the Rusty Keyhole in Kampot, and the Dali Hump, to name a few – weren’t in the guidebook. We found them on Wikitravel or through word of mouth. From now on I’m making heavier use of Hostelworld and TripAdvisor.

Not a lot to report other than that. I wanted to rent a bike today and explore the ruined monasteries around here that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but it was raining nearly all day. We’ve booked bus tickets to Tiger Leaping Gorge tomorrow morning; hopefully we’ll have fairer skies there.

This was a fairly short post and Chris put a lot of effort into writing something up; enjoy this trip into his eternally restless and dissastisfied mind, and marvel at how similarly we think:

Sitting on the toilet staring at my reflection in the pool of water on the tiles. The showerhead is dripping slowly, sending ripples across my silhouette. It’s a good time to think when you’re on the can. We’re in Lijiang and it’s been raining for thirty six hours straight; confining us to either the cheap, paper-thin walled hostel rooms, or the ridiculously named restaurants and cafes. An example of such titles: “Whisper Restaurant” neighbour to “Indulgence Restaurant.” The other guests here at the Traveller’s Inn won’t stop stomping around up stairs. Pick a fucking direction and stick to it. “Oh no I forgot my purse.” “Oh no I forgot my sisters purse.” “Oh no I forgot my children… and their purses.” They are driving me insane.

As we determined earlier on in the trip, each day holds a cataclysmic shift in desire and opinion for me. If there is one thing I tease Mitch about most, it’s his lazy, floating “It’s alright” attitude towards almost everything. Including most meals:

“How was your hamburger man?”

To which he replies without fail: “Yeah, it was alright.”

In reality though, I admire this ability. I often wonder what it would be like to enjoy more things than not. Dali was the first place, I believe, that I enjoyed more than Mitch. Just yesterday, I was willing to sabotage the entirety of the trip to stay and live in Dali for a few months or so. Today… today I want to get out. I want to skip ahead to Mongolia. I don’t care for getting there, all I want is to be there. Tomorrow, I’m sure, will evoke yet another slip in the indecisive black hole that is my brain. This is why I haven’t left Mitch in the dust: because I know that, although my mind sloshes from side to side like a ship in a storm, my desire to travel and see new places and experience new things is stronger than the urge to not. Today is a low day I guess. I am very much a person of my environment.

Lijiang’s old town is a maze of trinket shop fronts swarming with thousands of umbrella-wielding Chinese tourists. Imagine a flock of sheep, all of which have an ear infection hindering their sense of balance and ability to hold a straight line, all sharing a symbiotic relationship with their cameras, stumbling through narrow alleyways, stopping every few seconds take photos of anything and everything unremarkable. A brick fucking wall would be less obstructive.

Alas, I have judged yet another book by its cover. One of these covers being the concrete ceiling of clouds concealing the sun and blue sky. I am stupidly comparing everything here to Dali, a place that does all the same things infinitely better. The roads are wider, the water is cleaner, the people were exceptionally helpful and the hostel was easily the greatest place we have stayed. I have had two of the greatest days on the trip in Dali. Here in Lijiang, I feel cornered like a mouse in a maze. It is suffocating. The clouds above, the constricting streets. There is nowhere I can go to be alone here. Even in this excuse for a room I can hear the messy conversations, the neighbours TV, the endless endless stomping of feet. STOP FUCKING MOVING FOR TEN SECONDS!

Tomorrow morning we leave for Tiger Leaping Gorge. We are both crossing our fingers for good weather. Clear skies, that’s all we ask. Just two days of clear skies.

July 30th, 2010
Dali, Yunnan Province, China

We’re in the charming little mountain town of Dali, at the foot of the Cang Shan Mountains in western Yunnan. Dali is far and away the most pleasant place we’ve been on this trip. It’s an old Ming Dynasty town of traditional architecture, with creeks running through it that have been funnelled through canals lined with weeping willows. Much of the town is surrounded by a citadel wall, with our hostel being just inside the imposing West Gate. This is set against a backdrop of enormous mist-shrouded mountains to the west, and a huge lake to the east.

 

The temperature hovers pleasantly in the twenties at all times, there’s something nice to see nearly everywhere you look, and the mountain air smells clean and fresh. After the horrors of South-East Asia, this is just what we needed.

 
 
 
 

We’re also in one of the nicest rooms we’ve yet stayed in, brand new and spotlessly clean, with a balcony that looks over the moss-covered trees and gardens just inside the city walls.

 

Granted, we’re still in China, which means parents think absolutely nothing of pulling their child’s pants down and letting them shit right there on the footpath in a busy, crowded street. If you let your dog do that back home you’d be facing a hefty fine. It also has a greater population of hippies than anywhere I ever went in South-East Asia; must be the proximity to Tibet. Come on, people. Get some real clothes and wash your hair. It’s 2010.

We went for a walk into the mountain foothills on our first day here, and randomly came across a woman leading some horses down towards the town. She pointed at them and offered to take us up the mountain for about 20 yuan each, which we happily agreed to.

We’re planning to buy horses in Mongolia and ride around the steppe on our own for a few weeks in September, despite the fact that neither of us had ever so much as sat on a horse before. This was about as tame an experience as we could possibly have had to introduce us to horse riding. They responded to no commands: they were tourist horses, following a well-worn trail up and down the mountain every day, with the Chinese woman following close behind saying “Choo! Choo!”

 

It was still great. It sure beat walking up, and it made both of us even more excited for Mongolia. The only thing I disliked about it was having my feet in the stirrups; it made me feel trapped, meant I was buckled to the horse and that our fates were entwined. I prefer to be able to jump clear of things that are even remotely dangerous.

Apparently it’s possible to do horse trekking all over Yunnan and Sichuan; one place in particular stands out, a town called Songpan, altough that’s fairly out of the way in northern Sichuan. It would probably be a good idea for us to do a multi-day trek as a sort of bridging gap between the tourist pony ride in Dali and the remote wilderness hardships of Mongolia. (Just for the record, we’re also planning to do a few days of professional training outside Ulaan Baator with the people from http://www.stepperiders.com. We’re not idiots.)

We had a weird encounter after having dinner with a nice Dutch couple we met on the bus into town. We were on our way back to the hostel when a Chinese girl accosted us, said she’d been watching us and invited us to go drinking with her. Now, in South-East Asia that’s an instant red flag. She’s either working for the bar or planning to drug you and steal your kidneys. Or both. But in China, I have no idea.

We ended up going for a few drinks with her and she was actually on the level, although somewhat weird. I got fairly drunk and went home around midnight, abandoning Chris to his fate. Presumably enough, she tried to seduce him, and he didn’t manage to fight her off and return home until about 4.30 in the morning. She’s still emailing Chris, and it took him quite some time to get rid of her after we randomly bumped into her a few days later. Clingier than an octopus covered in glad-wrap.

We ate up another day by venturing into the mountains. We were aiming for the base of one of the chairlifts, but the nature of the winding little farm paths and various locked gates and walls with Chinese signs eventually spat us out at the entrance to a hiking trail, which we paid 30 yuan to access. It was actually a set of stairs, which led up some alpine meadows and into a pine forest.

 

I’ve never hiked. I was out of breath quite frequently and hadn’t brought nearly enough water. Once we reached the top it wasn’t so bad, but getting up there was a struggle. Jeans were probably a bad choice.

 

The trail then led us north, running several times across hugely spectacular rivers cascading down from greater heights.

 

At one point we came to a steep valley with a glimpse of sheer rock faces and waterfalls far, far above our heads, all of it lit up with sunlight yet veiled in clouds. As you can see below, my camera completely failed to capture the moment, but it resembled what I imagine Yosemite or Yellowstone or the entire nation of Canada to look like.

 

Eventually we crosssed a bridge and found the path to be quite overgrown and somewhat flooded, with a few signs in Chinese. They were probably telling us to go back, but hey, we don’t speak Chinese.

 

We walked for a very, very long time, regretting the fact that we hadn’t bought any food with us, and wishing the path would finish already so we could go home and have dinner. Eventually we reached a barricade covered in barbed wire, which was clearly meant to discourage people from entering, rather than exiting. I wriggled through it, while Chris climbed over the top.

 

From there we had to descend down a very long switchback road which added a lot of kilometres to our overall tally. Every now and then I could catch a glimpse of the road further below, which was very disheartening, because there was no way of reaching it except by walking all the way to the curve and then back. Even more disheartening was catching glimpses of the town below us and realising just how high we still were. This was at about five or six o’clock, without lunch.

 

Fortunately, some of the switchbacks had tiny little rabbit trails or muddy water run-off paths that we could use as shortcuts. This resulted in a lot of slipping and sliding, but shaved precious hours off our descent time. Eventually we reached the bottom, followed a creek down a long artifical canal running alongside a golf course and a gated community of brand new identical houses, reached the road and took a tuk-tuk back to our hostel. Hunger and exhaustion aside, it was a productive and enoyable day.

I bought some jeans here, since my old pair just developed a rip in the knee (only a few days after I thought “Y’know, I’ve had these jeans for ages and the knees still haven’t given out.”) The strange thing was that all of the jeans in the store had their button holes sewn up. I tried a pair on anyway, figuring I could cut it out myself later, but the woman did it for me after I paid. Now, because I hadn’t been able to button the jeans up when trying them on, it turns out they’re actually a bit too small, so I took them back and tried to exchange them. Through lots of gesturing and pointing, the woman made it clear to me that she could not take them back, because the button hole had been opened. Apparently Chinese consumers demand that their jeans have closed button holes before they buy them, and once that hole is opened, no customer would ever go near them. The Orient is a strange and enigmatic place.

We rented bikes today and rode them downhill towards the lake. After crossing the highway we were riding down a cobblestone road, through cornfields and rice paddies. The air smelt absolutely beautiful: alpine freshness mixed with the leafy smells of the countryside, something I hadn’t experienced in months. The sun was shining, which was rare, since it’s usually overcast at this time of year. It was one of those days that makes you really glad to be alive.

 

Cobblestones are a pain in the ass to ride a bike on, mind you.

We rode all the way down to the edge of the lake, which is apparently the seventh-largest lake in China. (“That’s… almost impressive,” Chris said.) It was surprisingly windy. We sat around eating some apples and watching Chinese kids dive into the water, then rode back home.

 

We’re planning to spend a week total in Dali, partly because it’s such a nice place and partly because our awesome hostel gives you one night free after you stay six days. Then we’re heading up to Lijiang, then Tiger Leaping Gorge, then Shangri-La and then into Sichuan.

We’re actually worried about time and trying to plan our future route, for the first time since we’ve left. The problem is that we have to be in Mongolia by the first week of September if we want to get in a good month there before the first snowfall. That leaves us with roughly a month to do China. Now, we’re only planning to explore Yunnan and Sichuan province, but that’s still a lot of ground to cover – plus we have to budget time in Beijing to apply for a Mongolian visa.

I really, really wish we’d brought the girls here instead of sitting around in Vietnam for two weeks. Not only would that have been better for our own schedule, but this place is infinitely nicer than Hanoi. It even has an airport… they could have flown to Beijing and then to Dali. 20/20 hindsight, I guess.

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