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…

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