Monday, November 2, 2009

"Tibet is closed...again"

When we returned from Qingcheng Houshan to Cheng Du, we found a sign in Sim's lobby: Tibet is closed...again.

The Chinese government is not issuing travel permits to Tibet until Oct. 9th.

No one had to say a word, but it was the talk of the town. China was preparing for its 60th anniversary holiday. The Chinese flags were out on every flagpole, in front of every shop and flapping alongside each taxi.

It would be bad for foreigners to be in Tibet in case any Tibetans felt like protesting the fact that they have been occupied and oppressed by the Chinese for the past fifty years.

Gunther, Yong Ha, Tom and I sat and drank beer on the veranda.

"I could have stayed in Thailand for another two weeks if I had known this was going to happen?" I, unthoughtfully, said.

"How can they close a whole country?" Yong Ha asked (his English is surprisingly good on occasion).

"It's not its own country, according to the Chinese." Tom was ceaselessly flipping through the Lonely Planet for options.

"Look at those two over there. We should go to a club tonight. Ladies, ladies." Gunther mostly just smiled and sipped beer.

A German guy we had been eating with regularly had already paid for his Tibet tour would now not be allowed to go.

"This is b*llsh*t. I'm just going to fly to Kathmandu. Maybe I'll see you guys in India." he said. (He later gave me a pair of long pants that he wouldn't be needing anymore and some socks....nice guy)

Somber moments....and then...

"Up north, in Inner Mongolia, they have the fourth largest desert in the world, camel-trekking, dune buggies, microlighting, 700 meter sand dunes!" Tom had found the section of the Lonely Planet that he had been searching for.

"I'm in." I said without a thought. "We have two weeks to kill."

It didn't require much discussion to get Gunther and Yong Ha to sign on. Yet, we lost Mark...he had to return to Beijing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sichuan Province - Qingcheng Houshan - Three River Gorge

The bunch of us had so much fun at The Big Buddha that we all (minus a possibly-offended Margo) decided to go on an overnight excursion to a much-talked-about monastery on the top of a mountain in the recently-earthquake-devastated Sichuan province.

We woke early and took a van for a couple of hours to a "tourist entrance" for a mountain hiking trail. However, we were looking to get around to the not-so-often-visited village on the other side. Just beyond this village, Qingcheng Houshan, lies a second mountain, our destination.

So, we all wandered around the parking lot trying to hire a private car. This was not the easiest of exercises since none of us speak any Chinese. There were a number of drivers willing to take us, but I, inexperienced at bartering as I am, bumbled a couple of negotiations. It was decided at this point that I was no longer allowed to try to arrange prices for the group for the remainder of our travels.

After a few minutes, we had a car and were headed around the mountain.

Along the road, the majority of buildings were still left in half-standing heaps of brick, rebar, and pieces of furniture. Obviously, many of the inhabitants had just moved on. The remaining villagers, however, could be seen swinging sledgehammers and pushing overloaded wheelbarrows. All this still going on and the earthquake occurred a year and a half ago!

The car dropped us off in the middle of the village and pointed to the mountain where the monastery is. We piled out and made our way down the street.

Along the way, we continually asked the locals the name of the monastery and which direction we should be going in (mostly by making confused looking faces and pointing in all directions). Some seemed to be very confident in pointing us along the way, while others responded with equally confused expressions.

The mountainside also offered a peek at the strength of the earthquake from 2008. At the peak, facing the village, it appeared as though someone had cut a slice out of the mountain and all of the trees beneath stood hip-deep in rock and sand.

We finally found what looked like the path we wanted to take. Sim from the guesthouse told us to expect a three hour hike to the top. It was early afternoon and we had plenty of time. Up we went. We talked about how exciting it was to be staying the night in the monastery, and Gunther talked about women.

The path was narrow, covered in trees, and wound up a narrow/steep valley. It was comprised of stone steps and wooden bridges. Within the first few hundred meters we encountered an outhouse that had been shattered by a massive boulder. There was a urinal and a "toilet" sign, but all that was inside was an eight-foot rock. There was another spot where a boulder had taken out a ten-foot section of the stone steps, forcing us to go around on the mud-slippery slope.

Every few minutes rounding rock cliffs and coming out of tree enclosures presented a scene more impressive than the last. It was a seemingly neverending series of waterfalls and pools that constantly took us aback.

At one point, covered in sweat and tired of climbing, Tom decided to jump into one of these pools. Pause for a momentary swim break.

The water was so cold, I couldn't breathe once I got in past my waist. Gunther jumped in and let out a banshee-like, schoolgirl wail that startled Yong Ha, and didn't stop whining for at least five minutes after he dried off.

We encountered a number of questionable points in the trail. Areas where it looked like the monks had just tied a bunch of rubble together to patch the broken spots in the bridges and steps. We would pause for a minute, look at the rigging. look at one another, and then decide it was safe to proceed (even if I actually wasn't convinced). It was always in the back of my mind that I must weigh far more than even the heaviest monk residing at the top of that mountain.

"The monks take this path every day." That was the inevitable rationale that kept us pressing forward.

We hiked for about three hours. Then, the path ended. It just ended: a dead end where a bridge led directly into a rockface in front of a waterfall. Yong Ha, being quite a nimble and natural mountaineer gave a noble effort, forging his way through untrodden brush and steep, tree-covered terrain. Yet to no avail....the trail was lost.

It was about an hour from sundown, so we decided that the best plan was to retreat to the village.

We flew down the trail, past all of the potentially-life-threatening patches, in record time and hit the village just at dark.

We got a room easily (with a restaurant attached). Gunther wanted a "big chicken." So we did chicken dances and sounds until the Chinese cook understood what we wanted. We also got tomatoes and scrambled eggs, capsicum chow mein, and a number of small noodle dishes.

Gunther's "big chicken" came just as that. It was one, big, whole chicken in a pot of soup. The skin, head, beak, neck and (of course) feet included in order to make our dining experience as complete as possible. The Chinese are generous people. Even Yong Ha flinched when he saw it.

In all honesty, the food was delicious. The mood was joyous. We had all had a fantastic day. Gunther continued with his inevitable stories and fantasies of girls. Yong Ha said "very nice" to everything.

We drank beer and played "shithead" until the wee hours of the morning.

When we got back to Sim's Guesthouse, we told Sim that the trail didn't reach the monastery. Sim informed us that we must have gone "up" the "down" path, the "down" path being completely neglected and unused since the earthquake. It was at this time I realized how lucky we were that no one got hurt.