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.