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.

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