Unexpected China

Posted on
April 30, 2010 by

We were going into China with visions of a machine-like suppressed society that we would in no way enjoy mingling in. This picture came to us from a long onslaught of travellers’ stories depicting a land of uncouth, unfriendly and unhelpful people. We also had the idea of a single propaganda fuelled communist culture encompassing the whole of the country. However, our low expectations made for a pleasant surprise and proved that everyone’s experiences are paramount in forming their judgements…

In order to cross the border into China from Pakistan we along with our friend Markus were obliged to put our bicycles onto a bus and be driven over the Khunjerab pass to the town of Tashkurgan. Here, we were told, would be the formal immigration checkpost for China. Before we arrived in Tashkurgan though, the bus stopped at a new, official looking building swarming with military personnel. One of them was stabbing the air in front of him with Rambo’s knife like he was in the first psycho film. This was quite intimidating but he seemed like an obvious pick to be protecting the border. Then the door to the bus flew open and a man stuck his head in who looked like he was about to give E.T. an autopsy. He thrust his latex-gloved hand into the bus brandishing a fistful of thermometers as he spoke some muffled gibberish from behind his SARS mask. Each of us was to put a thermometer into our armpit and return it for examination by the masked man. We came to this conclusion after his small but effective charades gesture. There seemed to be no evident medical problem with any of the passengers on the bus and we were led through a room with similarly clad men. This was the baggage check room and they were quite thorough and wanted to see everything, including the contents of our books. We were let through without censorship of or reprimand for any of our belongings. It would have been interesting to have run the gauntlet with our copy of the Tao Te Ching. Would they have brought the hand of Mao down upon the ancient Taoist writings? Or would they have smiled in the presence of such an important piece of Chinese history and culture?

Our first day riding in China was to be a cold and wet one over slow rolling hills. The landscape was barren and the weather gloomy but we weren’t unprepared for the ride. After seeing the locals carrying thermoses filled with hot water, we decided to follow suit. This was good while the water stayed warm but the thermoses were cheap (made you know where) and before long the water was as icy as the wind that forced us off the road. Luckily we stumbled upon what looked like a government housing project, a group of small, identical, rectangular mud brick buildings by the road. Most of these were uninhabited so we took refuge in one until the rain stopped. Again we flung ourselves at the road and were at the mercy of the elements. Towards evening we found a clump of trees and we knew that we would have to take advantage of this in order to get a decent night’s sleep. After stopping amongst the trees, we noticed a police building hiding on one side of the road. We thought it would be best to notify the police of our intent to spend the night in the shelter of the little forest. We greeted the first uniformed man we saw with a wave and the best "Neehow" (hello) we could muster. He smiled lightly and retreated back into the building. We weren’t sure what to make of this but decided to wait for a chance to try some awkward communication. Sometimes this can be a real blast. Before long another uniformed man came out with a slightly more authoritative air. With our English/Chinese dictionary in hand we began the painfully slow rendition of our plea for sanctuary amongst the trees. To our surprise he would periodically nod his head in a gesture of understanding. However, at the end of our appeal he failed to give us his nod of approval. Instead he smiled lightly and retreated back into the building. The first man’s retreat was confusing but now it was a little worrying. It was beginning to get dark and any hope of finding other shelter was evaporating. At long last a third (and we hoped final) uniformed man came out and greeted us with a heavily accented hello or more closely, "herro". With this man we could communicate more interactively and were faced with a few questions that gave us the impression they would really like to be rid of us. After successfully answering all the questions and reiterating our plea, the man was at a loss for a solution. We could tell now that there was a general sympathy felt by the policemen towards us but this scenario just wasn’t in their book. After a quick consultation with the other men he flipped open a cellular phone and talked to yet another man who we hoped could speak outside the book. The conversation ended, the cellular phone flipped shut and the man turned and gave us his nod of approval. There were smiles all around and they took delight in our many "shay shay"s (thank yous) before we departed to our side of the road.

Nearly a month had gone by. We had said goodbye to Markus and seen the transition in to and out of the desert. We had cycled up into the highlands and found ourselves surrounded by Tibetans and their yaks. It was a dramatic landscape with miles of treeless pastures dotted with traditional tents and hundreds of yaks crossing the winding highways. One evening we found a picturesque spot to pitch our tent and began to cook our evening meal. Two young men passed as they were bringing the horses back to their tent and their curiosity got the best of them. They approached us with wide, teeth-filled grins and greeted us in their Tibetan language. We were able to get across to them that we wanted to sleep there that night and they immediately invited us to their tent. We thanked them for their generosity but declined the invitation. This seemed sufficient for them and they left with the same smiles they came with. Not long after they reached their tent, a solitary figure began to move towards us. When he came close to us, we realized he must be the father and master of the tent. Again an appeal to come to the tent was put before us. We were not about to disappoint such a dignified figure so we agreed to finish our meal and push our bikes over to the tent. After a quick repacking and a sloppy push through fresh yak dung and very wet grass, we arrived at the home of a Tibetan yak herding family. We were greeted by no less than nine people of all ages donning long sleeved yak wool jackets and face stretching smiles. Immediately we were invited inside the tent and poured two cups of salty yak butter tea. A broken conversation ensued consisting of a few words and many gestures, creating a jovial atmosphere and before long we were faced with two bowls filled with giant steamed buns and similar sized dollops of yak butter. We were already quite full but we weren’t about to refuse the hospitality of this happy nomadic family that wanted so much to give us something. It was not an easy feat as the dense bread filled us beyond comfortable capacity but we managed to finish with smiles and return our bowls empty. The rest of the night was spent fascinating the family with our digital camera and its ability to instantly conjure up images of themselves with the click of a button. After a while the fascination inevitably succumbed to the power of fatigue and our hosts began to prepare for a night of rest. To our amazement all eleven of us had enough room to stretch out together inside the small nomad tent. It made for a cozy sleep filled night. We woke to the smell of burning yak manure. This smell we were already acquainted with after spending a couple nights in a yurt near Kashgar in western China. The same yak butter tea was presented to us but this time it was accompanied not with bread but a bowl of some kind of light brown flour. To the flour we were to add dried chunks of yak fat and yes, a baseball sized chunk of yak butter. Hot water was then introduced and the mixture we stirred to a thick doughy consistency. It seemed like quite a small bowl when it was handed to us but after a few mouthfuls we realized that it wasn’t the size of the meal that would give us the energy we needed for our days ride but the weight of it. A lengthy farewell later and we were back on the road, glowing from the good will and generosity that was shown to us by a poor Tibetan yak herding family in the highlands of the Gansu province.

Probably one of the most famous animals in the world is the Panda bear. Us being the suckers we are for seeing interesting wildlife, decided to go off our intended path in order to get a glimpse of one of these famous creatures. Now we were in the Sichuan province near the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake. We had ridden alongside collapsed bridges and buildings, roads that had been taken over by the fallen valley wall next to them and even a car still hanging off the edge of a near gone cliff-side road. The road venturing up the valley that would lead us to the Wolong Panda Reserve was what we thought to be a good distance away from the earthquake site. When we arrived at the turn-off however there were a barricade and a bunch of anxious people waiting for approval to use the road. They told us the road was still under repairs and after recent rains they were trying to clear away any hazardous debris. There was no way to tell just how bad the road was from where we were and we knew that the reserve was only twenty-five kilometers away. The lure of seeing a real king Panda was too much for us and we decided to wait for the road to open. We were given the go ahead before the cars were and tried to get as much distance between us and the barricade as we could before being caught by a long line of impatient drivers. The road proved much worse than we had anticipated though and the going was not much faster than walking pace. Dusk was fast approaching and we were faced with having to find the safest tenting spot that we could in the "danger zone". The men working on the road were telling us to beware of falling rocks from the valley walls and so we picked our spot accordingly. A couple scares of loud crashes from falling rocks later and we were eating breakfast in anticipation of seeing a Panda bear. Before arriving at the reserve we passed through what had been a village but was now nonexistent, the local shop in the middle of the river and water flowing out of the windows and doors. Devastation was not on our list of things to see but we were confronted with it anyway, up close and personal. Further up the road we passed an abandoned hotel with a sign reading "Panda Inn". We had planned to spend the night there after playing gleefully with frolicking king Pandas but soon learned that the bears had been evacuated after the earthquake and in our minds they achieved the status of mythical creature. To top it off it had begun to rain profusely and we were without a warm place to sleep. Fortunately a nice man who must have been the caretaker at the inn lent us a worker tent to sleep in so we could be dry. We really weren’t looking forward to the return journey to the main road but it had to be done before the level of the river overtook the road and we were trapped in the valley. The road was now a shooting gallery of high-speed projectile rocks ricocheting unpredictably off the steep valley walls. Thankfully it was downhill out of the valley so we knew it would be quicker getting out than it was getting in. At one point we were stopped by a man sitting in a truck watching the rocky wall intently. There were two big trucks at the other end of a small curve in the road waiting for the signal to go. After about fifteen minutes the man got out of his truck and waved the trucks over. They started their trucks and began to move forward when a football sized rock shot across the road at windshield level. The man cringed and the trucks immediately began to back up to their starting position. Another ten minutes later and the man waved for the trucks to go again. This time they weren’t moving and it took about five minutes of the man waving at them frantically to get them going. Once they had bridged the gap successfully the man turned to us and said it was our turn. As we were navigating the slushy mud and jagged rocks we heard the ominous crashing of a rock above us. We looked up to see a rock the size of a boxing glove bouncing down the wall like a pinball from hell. We were at a loss as to whether we should speed up, slow down, stop or go back. It was impossible to tell where the rock would cross the road. In our confusion we stopped and watched in horror as the rock came down to hit the front tire of Shahla’s bike. Luckily no damage was done and we high-tailed it out of there, confident in the belief that Panda’s are mythical creatures.

Overall, our experience travelling in China was a positive one. We were treated as equals and shown the respect that should be common amongst all people. We were enveloped by amazing scenery and drastically differing climates, from cold, snow covered land to hot and steamy tropical jungle. We saw a nation under construction and at the same time finding time to celebrate their many cultures. It was vastly more diverse than we had anticipated, strengthening our belief that culture is a product of its physical environment. Chow mien anyone?

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