Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Saved by Nomads

We had been walking for less than an hour when the rain started. It was around this time that the washouts began; sections of the track covered with recently formed rivers. Crossing the washouts without wetting our shoes required some creativity. Sometimes a few leaps from one little island to another; sometimes a large detour upstream to find a spot that was passable; sometimes removing our shoes and hoping for the best.
At first, we fought the cold of the rain with the body heat. But, as we ascended toward the pass, the temperature began to drop. The rain turned to face-stinging-ice pellets. And then to snow.

There was a voice in my head telling me that it was a bad idea to continue hiking directly into the deteriorating weather. But we were soaked and cold and we needed to keep moving. Without a wood or fuel, we had little hope to get dry or warm on our own. It was too late to stop.  I realized that we might need to keep moving past sunset, which was eight hours away, in order to reach the next town.

Our progress was impeded by a massive washout, which required an equally massive detour upstream to avoid getting our feet wet. By this point, the water that was dripping from my drenched pants had already soaked my shoes and socks. Detouring to stay dry was a complete denial of the situation, imagining that there was some inch of dryness or warmness on my body that I could salvage. But the diversion upstream gave me something to think about other than the grim reality of our situation.

The river looked like a delta across a snowy field of grass. We leaped from one little island to another, while balancing >20kgs of gear on each of our backs. The situation was becoming increasingly urgent. Pierre spotted a tent with some smoke coming from a little chimney. Inside was a woman and three children. While we didn't have the benefit of common language to communicate, it was clear that we were in a bad situation and it was clear that they were willing to help.
Pierre and I sat in front of the fire; at first just warming ourselves and then methodically drying our clothing, item by item. The woman took a kettle from the fire and poured us some hot yak milk, while her young son filled the pot belly stove with dried yak poop.

Judging by the grass on the floor inside the tent, the family hadn't been here for long. They were nomads and we were just very, very lucky that they had chosen this spot to call home right now.

We stayed for a couple of hours until the storm passed and then we carried on our way. As we reached the highest point of the pass, we saw several other hikers (all monks) coming from the other side of the mountain. I have no idea how they weathered the storm or whether they even experienced it on the other side.
By now it was relatively clear and we could actually enjoy the view. Every step for the rest of the day was a celebration. The weather improved, the scenery became increasingly spectacular and, well, we were heading downhill, so we were feeling strong and speedy.
It's warm and dry as we head to sleep. The sun is even showing itself. I'm warm and comfortable and even a little bit giddy. As we were reaching the pass this morning, I really thought that there was no way that I could feel this way today.

Our only worry at this point is as we look at our hand drawn map; we aren't entirely certain where we are. It's not that we think that we are lost, it's just not clear how far we have gone or how much farther we need to walk. I think that I'll leave this as tomorrows problem.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Tibetan Cowboy and the Horse

After a three day adventure that included a bus ride, a ride in a police car, another bus ride, 4 hitchhikes, and a 12 hour ride in a gravel truck, we were finally on the last stretch of our journey to Xueshan. Just as the first several hundred kilometres were no cake walk, the last 80 kilometres was not going to be easy.

There are no buses or natural traffic volume moving from Machen to Xueshan. Most of the drivers didn't know where Xueshan was (and the map was not useful in resolving that). Those that knew of Xueshan didn't want to go there (we would soon discover why). Eventually, Pierre convinced an unsuspecting driver to make the trip and we were on the move again.

As each kilometre passed, the road conditions deteriorated. The mud became thicker and the ruts became deeper. There was an unmistakable combination of regret and determination in the driver's face. After bottoming the car out several times, there came a point when Pierre and I needed to get out and push the vehicle in order to keep moving forward. After almost four hours, we finally arrived in Xueshan and were ready to begin the preparations for our trek. 

The plan was to spend the next five days making our way around Amnye Machen, eastern Tibet's most sacred mountain. We had a rough hand drawn map of the trek that Pierre found on the internet. We also had a tent and sleeping bags and some eager legs. Since my stove fuel was confiscated at the airport, we knew that would need to be creative with our food and water supplies. This is where a packhorse was critical; we could not carry all of the necessary supplies for the coming miles on our own. 

We began asking around about renting a packhorse. The response from the first person was quick and clear; there were no horses for rent in this town. We tried again and again. The answer remained the same. The task felt hopeless as we were running out of people to ask (Xueshan is not a large town).

We eventually came across a man who was hanging around the front doorstep of his house. He seemed a bit of a cowboy, with his long hair tied back in a pony tail and a cigarette hanging from his lips. Pierre asked him about getting a horse. The man asked if we had money. We nodded. He then invited us to sit down in his living room to wait. I use the term living room because it fits the location of the space within the house. But, in fact, temple might be a more fitting term.
Every wall was entirely covered with elaborate and colourful carved wood. Around each side of the room were massive leather couches of the sort that you might expect to find in a nice whiskey bar. In front of each couch was an impressive wood and marble table. This would be an unusual sight in any town of this size and stage of development (no plumbing or pavement); the fact that it was in a town at the end of 80km of road that was barely drivable made the experience all the more surreal.

If there was a man in this town who could get us a horse, it was this guy.

When the man returned, he had brought with him a man who owned a horse. The initial price was prohibitively high - but after 3.5 days getting here, we were sure that this was an obstacle that we could overcome. Using a combination of picture drawing and words, the negotiations began.
We eventually found agreement and the owner of the horse left to retrieve his horse so that we could leave as soon as possible.

Pierre and I were excited, but we had a few questions. The process of procuring a horse had been such an ordeal that we hadn't had an opportunity to consider the finer details of the actual trek.
- How could we build a fire in an area that has no trees? 
- Were there any predators in the area? (Tigers live in Asia, right?)
- Would we need to carry something for the horse to eat or drink?
- Was there anything special that we would need to know when we took the horse across rivers?
- What would we do with the horse when we were sleeping at night (recall, no trees around)?

And…who could answer these questions for us? Surely, we didn't want the horse owner to realize how unprepared we were to take his horse. As it turned out, these were unnecessary questions. The owner of the horse returned and advised us that he was no longer interested in renting his horse out; no explanation offered.

With the horse alternative exhausted, we probed about taking a yak instead. We learned that yaks don't move on their own, so this alternative would involve multiple yaks. In the end, that was an irrelevant detail, as renting a yak was not an alternative in this town either.

Frustrated but determined, Pierre and I grabbed a few supplies (mostly cookies and water) and set out on foot. We are taking a shorter route around the mountain, which should be only 2 or 3 days, according to our hand drawn map.
The first few hours have been quite nice, despite the weight of our packs. So far, we've seen only three other hikers; all of whom were monks.  We found a quiet spot near a river to set up camp. Next to our tent, we uncovered a broken slate tablet with Tibetan characters etched into it. This is without a doubt a different mountain experience than Jiuzhaigou.

The Road to Xueshan. Day 3.

As our starting town today was too small to have taxis, we negotiated a shared ride to the highway (Dot Seven) with a local. From there, a couple of friendly guys driving a gravel truck agreed to take us to Machen (Dot Eight). Considering the distance between dots seven and eight, it was a miracle to get the entire journey in one shot. And, even better than that, we could do it in the comfort of the sleeper space in the truck.
Easily the most enjoyable land ride that we've taken so far. Listening to chinese music while an ornament featuring Mao's face swung back and forth as the truck bounced slowly along the road. These guys were well equipped for a long ride. We snacked on plums and watermelon and watched yak herders on the mountains move their herds as we made our way over one mountain after another.
We stopped for a bathroom and lunch break at a town about half way through the day. The town toilet system was essentially the same as we enjoyed last night, except that, this time, there were three large pigs sleeping in the corner of the concrete box. At that moment, I decided that it would be at least a few days until I would order pork again.

I was soon reminded that, on this trip, not all of the decisions are mine. When I arrived at the restaurant, I discovered that the truck drivers had (very kindly) taken the liberty to order some lunch for us. First course: a gigantic plate of pig meat. And I didn't want to be rude.
When we first climbed into the gravel truck, it was 8:00am and we imagined that we might get to Machen by 11:00am, potentially leaving time to get to Xueshan by dark. In the end, we rolled in some time after 7:30pm. Xueshan will have to wait another day.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Road to Xueshan. Day 2.

We made it by bus to Tongren (Dot Three) relatively early in the day. That's where our public transportation alternatives ended. We hitched a ride to another town (Dot Four), where we thought there was a bus or car that could take us further. The bus, and the road that the bus used, were no longer in service.

Time to improvise.

Fortunately, last night, Pierre found a map that had some important road detail, including the names of towns in Chinese. We celebrated the acquisition of the map; it seemed like something that could be really useful for a road trip. Using the map, we planned a new route to get to Xueshan and we began trying to procure a ride.

What we discovered is that maps are not universally useful. Something to consider when traveling through this part of China is that it seems that i) many people don't read Chinese, ii) many people don't speak Chinese, and iii) many people don't know what a map is.

You can look and point to places on a map all you like, but it's not going to get you anywhere if the map is nothing more than modern art to the person you are asking.

Time to be tenacious.

We (Pierre) talked to every driver who would stop, hoping that they might help us to connect the next dots. People were friendly, but those who understood where we wanted to go weren't heading in that direction. And those who seemed to be heading in our desired direction didn't seem to understand what we wanted. We kept trying.

Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Success! At last we were on the move again.

Perhaps our struggle to keep progressing toward Xueshan that has heightened my sensitivity to the beauty around me, but I feel that we are inching our way toward something truly magnificent. The population density has decreased and the landscapes are becoming increasingly beautiful. It's like someone covered the mountains entirely with green velvet. Every inch covered in green and the shades changing with the contours of the hill. If you look more closely, you can see that it is not just green, but, in fact, filled with white and purple and yellow wildflowers and, in the distance, with yaks and the occasional yurt.

A number of the roadside yurts that we passed today had pool tables outside. The tables were destroyed from the weather, but, strangely, still in use. We will probably never understand how or why the pool tables are there.

Ultimately, we made it through Dot Five and then on to Dot Six (the actual names of which I will not attempt to write). Our room for the night is on the second floor of an unmarked hotel. The room has a TV and a DD player, but no toilet. The town toilet is located about a block away from our building, just past the garbage dump. When you stare down the streets of the town, it isn't obvious that this place has a designated garbage collection area, but next to the toilet is where a lot of the garbage seems to end up. The piles of wrappers, cans, tissues and other waste have formed a colourful garden of stink through which people must walk in order to reach the toilet. And, when I say "toilet", I mean "raised concrete box in which several holes over which it is possible to squat".
Once you move past the waste management situation, the town actually has a certain charm to it. It is clear that tourists - western or Chinese - don't come through here often. We are sort of celebrities tonight.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Road to Xueshan. Day 1.

The next stop in our adventure will be Xueshan, a little town in the province of Qinghai, and the starting point of what we hope to be a slightly less busy trek.

A careful time-cost analysis of our transportation alternatives revealed that getting from Jiuzhaigou to Xueshan by a combination of bus and airplane would be the best alternative. What the calculus didn't reveal was our sense that getting there entirely by land would score a lot higher on adventure. Why? Well, because there is not an obvious way to get there by land. We aren't even sure how far it is. Or how we are going to get there.

We have several shitty 3inch-by-4inch lonely planet maps (one for each of the provinces that we will travel in) that show part of the route. We also have an amateur hand drawn rendering of a hiking route, which Pierre downloaded from the internet. The hand drawn map has an arrow pointing to a town that appears on one of the lonely planet maps, so…it's almost like we have the whole thing mapped, right? Ok, well, at least we know the names of some towns along the way. We also know that there should be buses connecting some (but probably not all) of the towns. Bus information tends to be limited and very local, so planning more than one or two dots ahead is futile.

Our plan is to take the journey town by town and to just keep moving until we make it to Xueshan. It looks like we have 5 or 6 dots to connect, if things go well. Today, we made it to the second dot, but it would be a stretch to say that things went smoothly. The day began with a bus ride to Langmusi. Dot one. From there, we were planning to catch another bus to Xiahe (Dot Two). We quickly observed that this was unlikely going to be possible - time to improvise - so we climbed back in our bus and headed north, hoping to find another way to get to Dot Two. Four hours later, the bus dropped us off at the side of the highway, near a turn off to Xiahe; which was just 35km west of the highway. With no other ideas about how to make the distance, we began walking with our thumbs out.

Before long, we were picked up by a police car. Two friendly traffic cops who, as luck would have it, were headed to Xiahe. As the sun was setting, we managed to snag what seemed to be the last hotel room in the town. Tomorrow starts with a bus ride and then…who knows.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I normally associate the mountains and nature with peace and freedom. That's probably because, before now, I had never visited the mountains in China.

Jiuzhaigou is the Banff of China. Access to the park is controlled through a single gate at the foot of the valley. More than 2.5 million people visit the park each year, each entering the park through that same single gate at the foot of the valley. We've come here on a weekend during the high season. You do the math.

Private cars and bicycles are not allowed in the park, which means that you must purchase a ticket to ride on the park-operated buses that take visitors from one sight to another within the park.

The roads in the park are clearly not designed for buses, narrow and with tight switchbacks; yet, buses are the only mode of transportation available on the road in this park. Even foot access is restricted to wooden walkways; and only in designated areas. Given the shear number of people visiting the park on a given day and the limited distance of path, this means that "hiking" in the park can feel a bit like queuing for a new iphone.

The dated information that we had before coming to the park suggested that there was an extensive trail system could be used as an alternative to the buses. Even the tickets to the park show a dotted line paralleling essentially all of the roads in the park. Eager to escape the queue-like hike, Pierre and I searched out the "lost trails".

The path was in mostly good condition,

but had sections in extreme disrepair....overgrown...

...broken by fallen rocks or otherwise rotting...

...or intentionally dismantled. 

For the most part, we could make our way through the exposed, rusty nails and wobbly boards, but, in the cases where the path disappeared all together or were under water.

It has made for a fun (but slow) adventure. We have not seen anyone else using the "lost trails", so it's been a very nice way to escape the crowds. The path is never too far from the road and we can hear the constant roar of the buses hauling visitors up and down the valley - so not having any idea where we are hasn't really caused much concern. 

While our tickets suggest that staying in the park overnight is "strictly prohibited", we have found a place to stay with a family in one of the Tibetan villages in the valley. The roar of the tourist buses has begun to die down and it almost feels like we are in nature...finally.

We hope to hike for another few hours tomorrow and then begin our journey to Machen for a slightly less touristy trek. 

Friday, August 17, 2012


One word: Pandas. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Train: Take Two. Onward to Chengdu.

Round two on the train brings a markedly new experience.

Two monks sit in the row ahead of us. One is a regular-looking monk (if there is such a thing). The other looks like the monk equivalent of Ghandalf. He's got a tall stick with some cool beads and other nicknacks hanging from it. And, the hat and extra shawl he is wearing suggest that he might have some different kind of status than any monk I've seen before. He's playing games on his cell phone, which is kind of cool, but also messing with my head and my ideas of what monks do to amuse themselves.

As my blackberry disappeared in Xi'an, I have no such way to amuse myself. So, I amuse myself by watching Ghandalf until my eyes become heavy and I fall asleep (upright, in my hard seat).

I awake to the sound of some shouting. An argument has broken out between a few passengers on the other end of the carriage. Other passengers indiscreetly watch as the conflict escalates. Soon, the entire carriage is watching; many standing on their seats to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, others crowding into the aisle for a better vantage point, none willing to intervene in the matter.

Insults are exchanged and the crowd laughs and smiles as they take in the entertainment. Before long, the dispute turns physical. There are now somewhere around five train employees at the site of the conflict, yet the conflict somehow continues for a while longer.

I don't know how long this journey is actually supposed to take. That doesn't matter much, since I have no way to tell the time. My only strategy is to try to sleep my way through the time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Time capsules and the future of exploration

It's tempting to think that the age of exploration is over and that all of the exciting new discoveries will come from...I don't or space or maybe the deep sea. As I don't (currently) have a particle accelerator or a spaceship or a submarine, that would essentially mean that I'm not going to be making any great discoveries in this lifetime.

But maybe I shouldn't give up. 

If you are like me, you've probably never heard of Xi'an before. It's a bit embarrassing when I think about that now; something like 8 million people live here. 8 million people.

That China has big cities and a lot of people is not a new concept for me; it's just strange to think of other places that are so familiar to the world and which are so miniscule by comparison. And it's not like this place is unknown because it lacks history; there's a good 3,000 years of history here (actually, a lot more, depending on what you want to count).
The main attraction for many visitors to Xi'an is a tomb, located not far from the city. The tomb was built around 300BC, but only discovered (accidentally) in 1974. 1974! 

8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors, 700 horses, and over 100 chariots; decked out with armor and weapons to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It's the work of an estimated 700,000 people; all hidden under ground, away from thieves and enemies for several thousand years.

On the one hand, I suppose that a time capsule like this only survives because it disappears for thousands of years. On the other hand, it still surprises me to think that an incredible human constructs as this (and as Machu Picchu, for example) can go undiscovered for so long.

This place is exciting to visit not just for the enormous effort that went into its construction, but because it was so recently discovered - right next to a city of millions - and by accident. I think that's amazing.

Adding to that, I got a little news blast on my blackberry saying something about new (old) pyramids recently discovered using google earth. Really? Imagine what else is out there!

Maybe the age of exploration isn't over. Maybe you don't need fancy and expensive equipment. Maybe you just need to go out and use your feet and ears and eyes and let the world reveal itself.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The night train to Xi'an

Anyone who claims that trains are lovely for sleeping has not taken the night train from Beijing to Xi'an. Beds are available on the train, but those have long been sold out. Our last minute travel decision left us with one option; to make the thirteen hour journey in a hard seat.

The seat design and arrangement seem to have been conceived with the goal of maximizing passenger discomfort in mind. This may be a seated passenger train but, today, it is also a dining hall, a bedroom and a bathroom. And, judging by the men in the row ahead of me, it's also a great place to cut your nails and shave your face.

There is a man standing in the corridor between carriages smoking a cigarette. Above his head is a no smoking sign. Perhaps he can't read pictures.

The sign next to the no smoking sign indicates that the capacity for the carriage is 118 people. Between the children sitting on their moms laps and the men squatting and standing through the aisle, there are more like 150 people in this carriage. I'm trying to use this as an opportunity to be grateful; I am fortunate to have a seat.

In this seat, I will wait and sleep and eat as we make our way to Xi'an. The dining options are limited, so we have brought our own fare for the ride. Leftover squid and garlic eggplant isn't the sort of food that I would normally feel comfortable consuming in a closed public space, but I feel entirely comfortable doing it on this train.

In fairness, it could be worse. There is air-conditioning and I have my own seat that I don't need to guard (flashbacks of the ferry ride from Egypt to Sudan). I'm watching the landscape move past at an excruciatingly slow pace, anticipating the moment that we will step out of this moving box to discover another part of China. Only 10 more hours to go.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Welcome to China

I've been teleported into another dimension. The world as I know it is has disappeared.
The sky is thick and brown, reducing the sun to a simple red circle that is comfortable to observe with the naked eye. Blocks of residential houses have been replaced by blocks of identical high rise apartments.

The social order and norms with which I am familiar have dissolved into a sort of chaos; I'm surrounded by a new world order.

A man walks toward me, looks me in the eye and then tosses his empty plastic bottle on the ground. It rolls for a moment before hitting another piece of trash. Nobody cares.

I hear the ghastly sound of someone choking. When I turn see what is happening, I discover that the sound is coming from an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk. She proceeds to spit.

I queue to buy a train ticket, only to be pushed aside by strangers urgently insisting to purchase their tickets before me. Realizing that a queue cannot exist without the participation of others, I abandon the strategy of "waiting my turn" in favour of "pushing my way through the aggressive mob".

This is not my first time abroad and it's not my first time visiting Asia. Still, I find myself experiencing a mini culture shock. Most of my travels have left me with the feeling that people and places have their differences, but beyond that, they are really not so different. My first 24 hours in Beijing has challenged this feeling.

It's really hard to see past the feeling of outsideness that I feel here. This feeling is amplified by the attention that I attract from just walking down the street; I haven't had this many people stare at me so indiscreetly since I rode my bicycle naked through a shanty town in Namibia.

I hope that my shock will fade with time as I travel around over the next three weeks. I want to focus on what's actually happening around me and not how it makes me feel. I want to be able to discover new things and develop a true impression of China!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Precaution is more fun than abstinence.

When I signed up for a health insurance policy a couple of years ago, the questionnaire asked me if I engaged in any high risk activities. Among the list of examples provided was mountain biking. I remember feeling that this was a rather surprising activity to appear on the list. For one, I consider mountain biking, on balance, to be good for my health rather than bad. For two (can I say that?), I consider mountain biking to be far safer than other forms of recreation, such as...bicycle commuting in the city (which, incidentally, was not on the list).

I acknowledge that biking carries with it some risk. How much risk, depends on the rider and the environment. Some elements of risk are within the riders control; others are not. In any case, because precaution is more fun than abstinence, we indulge in the sweet joy of cycling, despite the risks. Wear a helmet and know your limits...and enjoy.

But, every so often (probably more often than I care to acknowledge), I am reminded that mountain biking isn't entirely free of risk. Accidents happen; even to the most experienced and skilled cyclists. Somehow, miraculously, even the most frightening accidents somehow turn out to be manageable. Stitches, slings, surgery, and the distance of time allow us to forget the panic and danger that we faced. We carry on, with our scars as our badges of honour and a testament to our resilience.

I hope this will be the case for a friend of mine, Devin, who took a spill this weekend. After some nervous moments on the mountain and in the hospital, it appears that the only permanent damage was a decimated helmet and broken handlebar. In some sense he was unlucky; a bit too much speed and an unexpected obstacle. In another sense he was lucky; it could have been worse.
I don't think that giving up cycling is a reasonable response to the potential dangers inherent in the sport. Instead, taking precautions that mitigate damage seems a more reasonable (or at least enjoyable) approach. A helmet should definitely be at the top of that list, as Devin demonstrated this weekend. I wish him a speedy recovery and hope he can get back to the joy of cycling very soon.