Friday, February 5, 2010

Cheng Du: Take 2 (part two)

We walked to the reception desk armed with our money, passports, smiles, and eagerness to get our Tibetan permit process underway.

Abby, a short, cute, and inherently sweet Chinese girl set it all up for us. She asked us for our documents. Then it happened...sudden and painful. I noticed that my visa was set to expire during our trip across Tibet. For some reason, throughout all that I had learned during my time in China, I still thought of Tibet as a separate country. Abby informed me that if I wanted to get a visa extension in Cheng Du, it would take five days. It takes five days to process the Tibet permit. This would make it another ten days before we would be able get on the train. My face must have shown my severe frustration and utter disbelief. Abby quickly suggested that I go to Leshan, a two hour bus ride away, and that the immigration office there could process a visa extension overnight.


Team meeting! Mihail and Kiril both said they were willing to wait while I went to Leshan, got my extension and came back to start the permit process.


I told Thomas that I was totally capable of going alone, but being the more-than-awesome-travel-companion Thomas is, Thomas insisted that we go together. However, we had to get a move on.


We got the first bus the next morning, went to Leshan, found the immigration office, dropped off my passport, and killed the rest of the day and night. The next morning we picked up my passport, complete with renewed visa, and caught the first available bus back to Cheng Du.


Upon returning to Cheng Du, the permit suspension had been pushed back a couple of days, yet again, so we were still able to get our applications in at the earliest possible time.


Thomas and I had five days to kill in Cheng Du. We'd already seen the city and all the sites, so we sat on a couch in the DVD room at the guesthouse and watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers, ate pizza, drank beer and recovered all of our must-tested-patience.

It was a good few days. We met a ton of other travelers that were doing exactly what we were doing. They are too numerable to name them all here, but the stand-outs were:

Ross Dickinson - A British schoolteacher "on holiday"
Luke Tucker - A British wild man on his tour of the world
Martin Kuenzle - A Swiss man with a lovely American girlfriend
Kat - Martin's girl
Donna and Soren - An Irish girl and her Dutch boyfriend (who met and fell in love on one morning when they were both drunk in Australia - three years prior - great story!)

Those days passed pretty quickly.

The night before our train departure for Lhasa was my biggest party night during my entire time in China. We had all put up with a lot of waiting. We were all so excited to be finally going. It was palpable, yet not ever directly spoken. That night was electric. A night when you feel like you bond with people. A night when the beer and hours don't seem to matter. It is all about the energy, excitement, anticipation, and life, and laughter. All of the tribulations, red tape, uncertainty, sense of dormancy, ALL OF IT, was dispensed with our early morning, incoherent shouting. It was cathartic. For all of us, Tibet meant something special.

The next day would find most of us on our way to a place we would only visit once in our lifetime. I think that was what was inherently felt and yet never truly acknowledged. We told dirty stories, jokes, and of course, punchlines about Chuck Norris.

Good people. Good night.

Cheng Du: Take 2

Cheng Du is a wonderful city.

When we first returned, I was sick. Sim's Guesthouse was absolutely teeming with travelers waiting for the permit suspension to end. 'Tibet' was the word on every lip and the place was bustling.

I stayed in my dormitory bunk for at least 30 straight hours. I drank Robitussin, chugged water, and listened to my mp3 player (mostly Impeccable Blahs by Say Hi To Your Mom...."Sweet Sweet Heartkiller" is exceptional).

Thomas was a determined man. He wanted nothing more than to book our Tibet trip and get the f*@k out of dodge A.S.A.P. So, while I was laid up, he had his mission to pursue.

About eight in the evening, Thomas came excitedly to my bunk side and said, "I found two people that want the same tour as us. Come down and talk to them if you can."

I managed to rouse myself, get dressed and go downstairs. I was still fairly ill. I sat on a wicker couch in the lobby and was promptly introduced to what would become our Tibetan tour group.

First was Kiril. Kiril is a Bulgarian mountain-climbing guru. His entire life up to this point had been to see Mt. Everest, up close and personal (for reasons unknown to me at this point). He had also read a few books on Tibetan Buddhism and was eager, at any given prompt, to share his vast knowledge on the subject. Genuinely kind and respectful, I thought him to be a likable guy.

Second was Mihail. Mihail is a Russian-born Jewish girl who had immigrated to Israel and was now, for all intents and purposes, Israeli. In my never-ending ignorance, I was was unaware that any nationality can instantly immigrate to Israel if they can prove Jewish heritage. Mihail had done this in her late teens. Therefore, Mihail was fluent in Russian, Hebrew and English. I have a sick jealousy and admiration for people with this kind of ability. She seemed quiet, but approachable. I did notice that she had a way of staring with an unusually intense glare of the eyes while being totally quiet. The kind of glare that can make one feel a little uncomfortable. However, when I spoke to her, she smiled and was sincerely sweet.

After the introductions were made and we lightly discussed what we all hoped to achieve during our trip in Tibet, it was agreed that we would book it as soon as possible. We all wanted an eleven day tour and see all of the same spots. It was settled.

Once we arose from the lobby sofas, I did take Thomas aside and nonchalantly say, "You know, we could wait until tomorrow. There are plenty of other people who are looking for tours. You want to do this now?"

Thomas' immediate answer was "Yes!"

The Train to Cheng Du...

No pictures taken during this time ( It was a miserable ride and I was already growing weary of running out of the eight gigabytes of camera cards that I had stashed in my bag).

It was 38 hours on the train. We decided that we would be making the trip back along the same route in a weeks' time, so we got cheaper, sleeper seats. These sleeper seats fit 6 in a cabin and are triple-stacked on either side of the cabin. The top bunks only have about 2 feet of "head room" and are, therefore, much less expensive. We purchased two of these.

The ride wasn't all bad, in retrospect. I slept and read most of the way. I had purchased a 12 yuan copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night when I was first in Cheng Du and hadn't had much time to devote to it. It is a beautiful read, by the way.

When it was time to get up and eat, Thomas and I would sit at a little aisle table, eat a bowl of noodles, drink a beer and started what ended up being an epic five week bout of playing card Gin.

However, it was an extremely long ride. To make matters worse, we shared a cabin with what might be THE most revolting individual I have encountered in my thirty-two years on this earth.

This Chinese man would fart and spit every fifteen minutes. There are not too many rules of etiquette in China that I had noticed, but this one individual gave new meaning to "foul." He smoked cigarettes in our little cabin, which was one place that every other Chinese recognized as a legitimate location in which not to smoke. He ate noodles and drank coffee at the little table in our room and spilled everything all over and just stamped it into the carpet with the sole of his "train slippers." I think he barely even wiped his ass. Excuse my crass choice of vocabulary, but the smell was nauseating. NOTE: This was a unique individual and in no way representative of the Chinese in general.

Once we arrived in Cheng Du, I had a serious bug. My nose was constantly running, I was coughing and sneezing uncontrollably, and was running a fever. I attribute all of the aforementioned to this one person that I shared a train cabin with for 38 hours.

Yet we did reach Cheng Du without any major difficulty. Thomas and I were happy to be back. It was October 7th. We had a couple of days to find another pair of travelers to book our Tibet trip with and things were looking up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Well, well, well....

I took a month hiatus from updating this little blog. I got caught up in the holiday spirit and was more than a little overwhelmed upon to my return to the United States.

I must admit that it didn't occur to me how many people are actually reading this thing. To all of you, I apologize for the laziness. And I will resume the telling of the adventures in the coming days.

Yes, my travels are finished for now. Boo hoo. Sad face.

However, I plan on returning to Thailand to do my TEFL certification at the end of January. My triumphant return will be short-lived. The sun and beaches prove to have too strong a gravity for myself.

So, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for having an interest in these exploits and tell you all that I am determined to finish what I have started.

Tales to be continued....

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Golmud was surreal in the most disappointing of ways. We arrived at 4:45 a.m. China's transportation system is miraculously, and magically, designed so that no matter what the distance to one's destination, and no matter what mode of transportation is used, the arrival time is always just before dawn.

We spilled out of the over-night bus and stood at a dark intersection just a block up from the massive train station. It stood there silent and empty.

One Chinese man who spoke good English asked us where we were headed as we gathered our bags from underneath the bus. We said that we were going to find a hotel here in Golmud, but were not yet decided on one.

He looked surprised and asked, "You are not going to Lhasa?"

"Uh, no, not yet. Hopefully, next week."

"Alright. Well, good luck." He waved his hand as he pulled his bag (on rollers) in the direction of the train station.

It was at this moment that I realized the ban on travel permits to Tibet applied only to foreigners.

Tom and I found a taxi and showed him, in Chinese, the hotel we wanted him to take us to. We piled in and we were off. The first hotel we went to said they were full, although the large parking lot was completely empty. The next two hotels also said they were full despite appearing totally abandoned. By the time we found a hotel that was willing to give us a room, the sun was rising.

Golmud, at sunrise, is reminiscent of something from a science fiction movie: it is perfectly flat, the streets are flawlessly straight, and the blocks are all precisely the same length. Even the buildings are all the same height and shape. It has the feeling that it was entirely built before anyone actually lived there, possibly even dropped there from a prefab factory. Eerie.

We got our room and slept until noon. I was the first to wake.

"I'll go scout around, you sleep," I said. Tom was not about to get out of bed.

We needed to find a way to get our permits and find a couple to join our Tibet tour while in Golmud. I walked for a good thirty minutes in a counter-clockwise circle. I found an internet room, a couple of noodle restaurants, and a handful of hair salons. All of the other places were strictly industrial.

Golmud is a mining town, and for all intents and purposes, it is perfect for what it is. What WE needed it to be, on the other hand, was something else.

Via the internet, we found the location of the two tourist offices in Golmud. Either of these places are authorized to arrange tours into Tibet.

We took a taxi to the first one and found a man sitting behind a desk smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Once he saw us, he motioned for us to sit down and made a telephone call. After ten minutes, a young woman entered and informed us that the office was "closed" until October 9th; the other tourist office would also be closed until that date.

However, she was amiable and made a few phone calls for us. She told us that the passport office was open and that they were able to make arrangements as well. She wrote down the address for us and we went to get a taxi. This was another instance which confirmed my belief in the lack of efficiency of taxi drivers in China.

The man had an address, written in his mother tongue, in his hand and he still could not find where we wanted to go.

He eventually dropped us off in the area he thought it was and drove off. We showed the address to store clerks on every corner until we finally found one who pointed us in the right direction. By the time we arrived at our destination, it was closed. The man in the shop next door said it would be closed the rest of the week, until October 9th.

The frustration that I felt at this time was nearing its pinnacle.

I went and got my hair cut. That's right. I got my hair cut in Golmud, middle-of-@*!&$#@!-nowhere, China.

Thomas and I had some serious deliberation to attend to. Contrary to what I was told to believe back in Cheng Du, it would not be possible to start the permit application before October 9th. Our understanding at that time was that travelers would be allowed to go on the 9th or after. This was not true. The process would not be allowed to start until the 9th; therefore, the soonest anyone would be going to Tibet would be the 13th.

The options were: 1) stay in Golmud for 5-8 days and try to find tour partners via the internet or 2) get the train back to Cheng Du where most of the Tibet travelers meet to form their tour groups. For me the decision was simple. Cheng Du. It didn't take too much discussion to get Thomas to agree.

That night we were on a train back to where my China adventure had originally started, and this time....we were going to go to Tibet.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dunhuang, Microlighting and The Jedi Mind Trick

Upon arrival in Dunhuang, it was quite easy for us to find a nice hostel tucked into the trees beside the edge of the desert. And the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct about the town being convenient for foreigners. But, I started ahead of the real story...

Early in the morning, before our arrival, I questioned Tom about his visa status. I knew that China mostly grants one month tourist visas. He had been traveling from Beijing for a couple weeks before I flew into Cheng Du and we had already spent about two weeks together. So, I casually asked him while we were both half awake on the sleep-filled train, "When does your visa expire?" This question seemed to rouse his curiosity. He sat up and pulled his passport from his bag.

"It expired yesterday," was his reply. Both of us were slightly nervous about the implications of such a situation. The resolution was to first find accommodation and then find the passport/tourist office in Dunhuang as soon as possible.

When we arrived at the hostel, they would not give us a room because of the expired visa. Luckily, it was midday. We asked the man at the desk to call us a taxi to take us directly to the passport/visa office.

As the taxi pulled into the Dunhuang Police Station, I saw the expression on Tom's face change from inconvenience and disgust to one of uncertainty and slight terror. The Chinese Police are not the ideal type for understanding misunderstandings.

We walked into the lobby and there were three police officers lounging around in their socks, chain-smoking cigarettes, and watching the replays of the holiday celebration in Tiananmen Square from the day before. There were trucks with nuclear rockets and tanks in formation and millions cheering on the screen.

One of the men told us to sit down and wait. He made a phone call and then resumed his position on the sofa next to the massive ashtray. About fifteen minutes later a woman in a pantsuit arrived and escorted us to an adjacent office.

To make a long story short, Tom convinced me of a theory that I've maintained since childhood: the Jedi mind trick is not a fictitious invention.

At first, the woman said it would be no problem to get a month visa extension. It was printed out on the spot and pasted in his passport. Then she came to the subject of price. Tom's visa extension would be 160 yuan (approx. $26 U.S. dollars). She then proceeded to tell him that he was two days past his expiration date. Each day came with a 500 yuan penalty. Thus, she concluded that he owed her 1,160 yuan.

It was at this moment that I actually witnessed the Jedi mind trick for the first time in my adult life. Tom, being the master price negotiator that he his, proceeded to tell her that the day before was a holiday and that he had no way of obtaining his extension. Therefore, it should only be a one-day penalty. She agreed.

"You're right, it's only a one-day penalty," she repeated after Thomas.

"And I was on an overnight train, as well." Tom produced our post-midnight train stub from Shandan and presented it to her. "I could not do until now. So, there should be no penalty."

"Okay, there is no penalty," she again repeated the words from his mouth.

Tom paid her the 160 yuan and we walked out into the street.

As soon as we were around the corner I burst into belly-full laughter fits. Tom had gone from scared pale 60 minutes earlier to bartering with the woman about the price of his extension. And he had won.

He threw up his arms in a manner that spelled V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. I told him that we were going to get the most expensive western-style meal we could find and that it would be on him. There were no objections.

We spent three days in Dunhuang. It truly is a lovely town. The streets are tree-lined, well-paved, and the girls are slave to fashion (as in much larger cities around Asia).

We went micro lighting, which is quite possibly the single scariest thing I have ever done, yet also one of the most exhilarating. It's basically a boxcar with a fan that is tied to the bottom side of a hang glider. It takes off completely vertical and loves to wobble (the only thing holding you in is a car seatbelt).

We also saw The Old City, an ages-old dynasty fort that has been turned into a quasi-amusement park much in the same vein of Old Tucson (for those who are familiar).

All in all, Dunhuang was a lovely place. We met some nice Canadians at the hostel and even had a barbecue with some of the locals.

We exited by sleeper bus to Golmud. The next week needed to have us preparing our Tibet permits for the earliest possible departure (according to the sign mentioned earlier, October 9th).

Despite all of the excitement, we were getting antsy for Lhasa and, of course, Everest.

Link to short microlighting clip on Youtube:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shandan, Western China

The morning that saw Gunther and Yong Ha return east also saw Tom and I getting on a bus to Shandan. This was the next stop on our path that would eventually lead to Golmud. When we booked the ticket, I understood that it was only a 200km journey. This was one of the shorter distances I had covered at once in China and I expected it to be rather uneventful.

200km is only 126 miles. Even in a bus going a conservative 60km/h it shouldn't take more than three and half hours. This bus ride was about to challenge everything I thought I understood about distance equalling rate times time.

First of all, I believed that a cross-country bus with approx. 30 seats wouldn't be able, or willing, to transport more than 40 people. This was my first misconception. After the aisles and the steps at the front door were properly covered with bodies, we set off.

The road was dirt most of the way. Vertical. Winding. Desert mountains. Cliffsides just inches away from the tires. Sheep in the road.

Six hours later, we arrived in Shandan. Tom and I had flirted with the idea of going into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Shandan looked like what my imagination told me either of those two places would look like. It was mostly dirt and dust. Cars filled the streets, cars that appeared to have been magically lifted from the science fiction magazines of the forties and fifties. There were a lot of buildings, but most were vacant, hollow, ghost-like. Again, the men in the street seemed to have been standing/sitting there for decades. They were withered, wind-beaten, and smiling at us with no teeth.

We immediately took a taxi to the train station in search of the earliest train to the next "town." Luckily, there was a post-midnight train to Dunhuang. Dunhuang, according to the Lonely Planet, was "tourist" friendly. We bought the tickets and hiked the 4km back into town (the taxi having deserted us).

Instinct told us to find the restaurant with the most patrons and go in prepared to point and smile as charmingly as possible. We ate noodles with some meat-such substance and pantomimed that we would like to find an internet room. One woman amazingly understood what we wanted and pointed us in the right direction down the road. We had eight hours to kill.

A few blocks from the internet room, we were accosted by a high school English teacher and his apparently "star" student (her English was more discernible than his). She was sweet, if not disastrously naive. She confided in me that she wanted to study journalism in university. I decided it was best not to point out why being a journalist in China may not be the most desirable position for a girl with such potential. Then, once she found out that we were headed to Lhasa, she very proudly boasted that her brother was a soldier living in Lhasa. Again, I decided not to try to explain that he was undoubtedly suppressing religion and culture. She was painfully sweet and thoughtful. She showed us to the internet room, arranged for us to pay for the time we wanted (eight hours), and even sat with us while we checked our email to make sure that we were able to use the computers properly.

I mostly streamed movies and drank Sprite for the duration of the afternoon/evening. I watched "Bronson," an ultra-violent film loosely based on the story of Britain's most violent convict. The performance by the lead actor, Tom Hardy, was astounding. He will be a rather big name in years to come. I also watched "District 9" which I believe is the best science fiction movie I've seen since "Primer."


It was the big holiday. 60 years of Chinese communism. The shouts and fireworks from the town square could be heard. Hordes of cheers. I asked Tom if he wanted to go and check it out. His answer was a stout, "not a chance."

By 11:30 p.m. when Tom and I were hiking our way back to the train station, the streets were deserted and quiet. We passed by the town square which was completely covered in celebration debris. I bought a big bottle of beer upon entering the station. As I drank it on the platform waiting for the train, I stared at the stars blanketing the sky. Little did I know that the skies were only to get more and more inspiring as my journey continued.

I also looked at the few silhouettes of people standing in the late-night/early morning dust on the platform as the train arrived. We piled into our car and promptly fell asleep among the Chinese sprawled all over the seats in various states of undress.

We would be in Dunhuang by the late morning and onto another stage of spelunking the depths of the Chinese West.