The flight from Bangkok had a stopover in Guangzhou before continuing to Cheng Du. I had to gather my bag and go through customs/immigration before I could go to my connecting flight. In the quarantine line, everyone was violently coughing, but we all got through (gotta love China). At immigration, the man stared at the picture in my passport (from 2003), and at my current state/appearance, and could not come to the realization that I was the same person. So, he called another immigration officer over to make the comparison. After about five minutes, they concluded that it must be me and let me pass. Customs was an undisturbed walk through.
Where I had to re-check my bag for the connecting flight, I met a large African-American man named Al. He wore a purple, satin, button-up shirt and black silk pants; he was no stranger to this land. We went outside to smoke a cigarette before heading to our next gate. He told me that he served in the Army for twenty years. Now he helps design radar systems for off-shore oil rigs. Spending thirty weeks a year bouncing between the Philippines, Thailand, and China, he was excited to have a week and a half off to go see his "China Doll" in Cheng Du.
We laughed about America, Asia, and potato chips that aren't really potato chips. He was one of those strangers one meets and feels completely at ease with. We said good-bye at the taxi stand in front of the Cheng Du airport.
I stepped to the front of the taxi-line when it was my turn (a foreign concept in China). I gave the driver a printout from the SIM'S COZY GARDEN HOSTEL website and he knew exactly where I wanted to go once he looked at it. By the way, SIM'S is the only place to stay in Cheng Du (I will explain later). Once again, I endured a frightening cab ride in Asia (we must have made record time...or at least the driver was going for his personal best).
I arrived at Sim's at ten o'clock on Saturday, September 19th (will be important later). Tom was due to arrive at 5 a.m. the next morning, Sunday. We planned on spending a week in Cheng Du arranging our Tibet trip and getting the necessary permits. So, I went directly to sleep expecting a full day to follow.
I met Tom the next morning at 10 a.m. It was strange seeing each other somewhere other than Korea (Tom has been a fellow English teacher in Seoul for the past 3 years). The excitement of going to Tibet (something we had talked about for months) was upon us. We immediately set to work: rented bikes, got a map of the city, and set off.
In order to travel to Tibet, one needs to arrange a pre-determined itinerary with a licensed guide. These are the rules that commie-commie China has established. These tours are least expensive if a tour has four people (the number that fits in an off-road-equipped SUV). Therefore, Tom and I had to find two others.
We rode all over Cheng Du. At all of the major hostels, we left notices on the bulletin boards saying that we were two and looking for two others to travel 8-11 days across Tibet and ultimately to the Nepal border (including Everest Base Camp). This is a fairly standard schedule and we anticipated zero problems in finding fellow travelers.
We had a great day cycling around the city and returned to the hostel for beer and dinner. That night we ran into some wonderful people:
Mark - a quiet-but-funny Irishman
Yong Ha - an on-the-road Korean who is avoiding is home country as
fastidiously as myself
Gunther - a Belgian with serious one-track mind issues
Margo - a Chilean-American from Florida
We stayed up a bit late and decided we would all go to see the "Big Buddha" together the following morning.