The Adventures of a Part Time Professional Gypsy (and her ginormous teddy thing)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Power of Thumb: And then there was Mum

So once again I’ve accomplished my mission (finally), I’ve done what I set out to do. Trouble and awesomeness have stuck to me like shadows and it’s been quite a ride... But it’s over, it’s almost time for new adventures….

 My shortest distance yet (111 km) took 4 and a half hours and three different rides from Tagong (somewhere Tibetish in China), but that’s okay – I actually had company for a change – one Irishman and a Swiwi (Swiss-Kiwi) - and when in good company, little can go amiss! Apart from your mind that is – especially when you play silly car games. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is trying to think of a song with the word “motorbike” in it? For 2 hours. In aggravated silence.

We flew past crazy icy cliffs and hot springs and waterfalls and all sorts of beautifulnesses with three sets of very non English-speaking Tibetan rides!! The last one was hornless (hooterless) – If you’ve ever been to Asia, you’ll know the horn is the most importantest part of a vehicle. You can ride without wheels or even an engine, but without a hooter, you die. Fortunately we didn’t (because when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go and apparently it wasn’t ours. Yet.).

I joined forces with an Israeli hitcher from Danba and we lucked out with the lovely people from China Mobile who drove us the last 387 km all the way into Chengdu. Stopping on the way to feed us and shower us with gifts and show us ALL the touristy attractions on the way including a 6500 m mountain and the earth quake zone and far too many comunisty signs and monuments and pandas.

And that was that. 2687 km. 18 rides. 18 Chinese and 9 Western converts to the power of them. And then, after two years apart, there was mum.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Power of Thumb – It’s Contagious!

7 of us ended hitching out of Shangri-la last Monday. 2 were headed South, and the rest of us North. I was quite looking forward to some good company. But it was only when I was checking out that I consulted a map and found out that my planned route cut straight through the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Foreign tourists can’t enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region at present – unless of course you have a guide and a permit and, as of two weeks ago, 4 other people from the same country. It’s harder than you may think finding 5 South Africans or Dutch (because I’m apparently also Dutch) people in China, let alone ones who plan to go to Tibet…

So although the streets were littered with hitchers, it was another lonely walk for me while the Chinese tourists roamed free… and the road to Litang had me off the highway heading down the dirtiest road yet.

There was a lot going through my mind as local construction trucks sprayed mud all over me and Teddy. Litang was still apparently out of bounds for us touristy types. Rumour has it that two monks had burned themselves and over 600 people had been arrested there just a few days earlier. I walked onwards half fearing that I’d spend a whole day hitching and walking just to be sent all the way back again.  I don’t like doubling back.

Whilst far away in worry land, a car pulled up and offered me a ride. My first Tibetan hitch. They only drove me 30 odd kilometers, but it was far enough to be committed to my path! I walked across the next village and carried on to nowhere in particular, joining some Tibetan ladies in a bit of chit chat on the run- I didn’t understand it at all, but it had to be good, I had them in stitches! And then started the accent. Things were getting steep!

2 trucks, a tractor, and several herds of wild horses later, a car flew by so fast that I actually fell off the road. It was either the elegance of my fall or a sense of deep routed guilt that made them double back and pick me up, either way, I was in.

They had mumbled something about not going to Litang so I figured I was only going a couple of villages down and kept my pack on my lap, not wanting to get too comfortable. It was only 4 hours later, when we were far from anything that even resembled a road that I started to ease in. The driver had a GPS (and a beer) and we were racing up mountains and around rivers and it was a mad quest to prove the capabilities of the car.

It was a wild ride over and around and through rocks and mountains and rivers and herds of yak and sheep and villagers and I felt a little guilty that I had nothing to offer in return; but once I showed them my altimeter I was in. I had them driving towards the biggest mountains they could find just so to reach the 5000m mark. We were just short (5m). But the scenery from way up there was phenomenal!

At some point I glanced at the full back of the truck and wondered if they were all out on a boys camping trip. To be honest I had no idea where I was and seeing as China has blocked the GPS function on my camera, even my compass doesn’t quite work properly – they could have been taking me anywhere!

Darkness was rapidly descending and by 9pm (sunset, that’s the beauty of having a massive country with only 1 time zone) we were still in the middle of somewhere. And then we climbed a mountain and on the other side was a road. A tarred road.

I flipped through my phrase book and found “Women xianzai dao nail le?” (where are we now?) ... “Shan-go-li-la” (Shangri-la) and then I flipped out a bit because I realized that we’d just been on an 11 hour joy ride. Which was nice, but…

By 11pm we were finally in some sort of actual civilization and I may have been wrong, but it wasn’t Shan-go-li-la so I looked perplexedly at my new found friends and they seemed to know what I was thinking “Shang-ho-liii-la something something something  bu (not) Yunnan” they said and I accepted and thanked them kindly and pondered off to find a more affordable hotel. It’s amazing how you can negotiate down from Y580 to Y90 for a room…

Tuesday bought with it even more confusion. Very picturesque confusion.  I had no idea where I was and my map didn’t list any other Shangri-la’s and nobody spoke English, or Mandarin for that matter and everything was written in Tibetan so nobody could even understand my hitching sign and although the village was beautifully paved, there didn’t appear to be any roads to anywhere in particular.

With all the Tibetan about I had to wonder if I’d illegally crossed into Tibet and had to wonder what the implications are for doing such. Even if I was now in Sichuan, I’d crossed illegally too… hmmm… It was going to be an interesting day!

The village was all run on generators, but somehow I found stray wifi and I tried google translate, but no – even google doesn’t do Tibetan! I tried to search for other Shangri-la’s  - but with all the internet blocks in China it was a failed mission! So I did what any of you might do, I picked up my pack and started walking asking any and every person for “Litang?” I walked and walked and found a road and walked some more and a couple of hours later a car finally passed and I got a ride to Doa Cheng. Doa Cheng is on the map.

From there it was a long wait until a mini bus driver offered me a “mianfei” (free) ride all the way to Litang.

Now despite being on the tourist trail (for some bizarre reason) – Litang is a hole of a city – it has no soul, no vibe, no nice hostels… I was greeted by a mob of cowboy hatted Tibetans trying to chase me into moldy guesthouses and I have low standards but really… I spent one night observing the caterpillar larva trade on the street, eating my worst Chinese food yet, and then listening to the dogs howl at the full moon till 6am. At first light I left. In the rain.

I was feeling quite sorry for myself as I walked up yet another hill with an umbrella and a poncho and a wet sign, but then I looked up and saw the snow capped hills surrounding me and I felt a lot happier about life.

15 minutes later Jeshu pulled up and I was off again. His snazzy car thermometer measured 1degree. He was great. We chatted about everything from the weather to work to “do you think that China’s present rural reform is making progress?” gotta love the ‘friends’ section of my phrasebook. And when we ran out of conversation he played some bad club anthem CD and he flashed the lights and we danced as we sped past hundreds of cyclists on a terribly muddy road. 200 km took a whole day.

Tagong was incredible. The hills were alive with prayer flags and monks. It was kind of like being in a sort of western – One dusty road in, one dustier road out – but yaks and short people instead of life size gangsters and big horses …

A beautiful Tibetan lady pointed me to the hostel and it greeted me with a dead horse and a viscious dog. I’d been bitten twice that week already, I’m starting to develop a slight phobia of rabid looking dogs. I almost ran away from the hostel owner who was trying to get me in and I’m quite glad I did because just down the road, under a beautiful rainbow I found a haven of niceness…Tagong won my heart and, because I’ve promised mum I’ll be in Chengdu by Friday the 15th, four days of my life!     

Also if you're wondering why this blog post is black on white... i don't know... computers hate me. Deal with it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Power of Thumb

“May your child be born with a perforated anus…” yes, this is China [I’m pretty sure of it!] and even the profanities are arbitrary. And it’s confusing enough just traipsing through the country without throwing [the yet to be invented in these parts] hitch hiking into the equation – but if a life of bewilderment surrounds you, you may as well immerse yourself in it completely!

It was much harder to say goodbye to my little bicycle [Mao] than I’d anticipated; but it just felt right leaving him with an incredible South African family I met in Jing Hong (Yunnan). They’d had a fixed gear bike for the past 15 years and had just moved to the top of a hill… They needed it a lot more than I did! After days spent wandering, and absorbing the intricacies of the city; I finally decided what I’d be doing next and so, at 10-30 pm last Sunday, I wandered the jumbled streets and bought myself a brand new, bright orange backpack… I was all set for an early departure!

The transition to hitchhikeryness was not nearly as smooth as I’d imagined though. Hitch hiking literally does not exist in China! It took nearly an hour to explain [via google translate] to the poor receptionist at my hostel what I intended to do – but I walked away with a sign and a point in the right direction.

A bit further down the road my sign was added to and I was boarding a bus to the outskirts of the city. I must admit that it’s been a while since my last hitching and it took me some time to suss out the perfect spot and hand actions (the Asian ways are quite different to Western thumbing it). I held up my sign that said who knows what and proudly began the 2500+ km hitch to mum.

An hour in I’d created a few minor traffic jams and had caring civilians point me to the nearest bus station at least 5 times. The heavens opened up and I took shelter in a stranger’s garden. Another hour of failure bestowed itself upon me. It rained again. I questioned my mission. I looked longingly towards the bus terminal. I got a new sign.

And then some cyclists bought with them hope and smiles and while we conversed in Chinglish, a whole string of cars pulled up to find out what was going on… My luck was about to change. 

Cyclist number 1 ran off to find some new cardboard for a sign while cyclist number 2 educated the masses in the ways of alternative transport and then the police pulled up and I got my first ride…

My second ride came from a bus driver who read my new sign and welcomed me aboard – for free. And then talked another bus driver into giving me another free ride. 162 km from Jing Hong, I called it a day and checked myself into a middle of nowhere hotel.

I got an earlier start on the Tuesday with an altered sign that read something about “Lincang” (a reasonable distance to cover in a day) and something about “Dali.” My new backpack broke as I walked out the hotel, but I’ve stitched the shoulder strap back on to the best of my ability, and I’m hoping for the best! I walked up a mountain back to the highway and prayed I’d have better luck than the previous day. I did.

Two business men pulled up in a brand new Audi and off we zoomed at speeds faster than many planes fly. The scenery got better by the turn in the mountainous roads and I clung on so tight my knuckles turned white – My heart was racing so fast that I could hardly eat when they treated me to an immaculate lunch.

At Lincang they tried to drop me off – but I knew they were headed for Dali… it really is harder than it should be to try and explain your actual destination – but in retrospect, I should have seized the opportunity to find a safer ride, the worst of the MANY near death experiences were yet to come!

Dali was so incredible though that I’m not actually sure I survived the 562 km [In less than 5 hours] ride, I may have made it to Heaven: good food and quaint intricacies and an old town abuzz with wild music and the perfect amount of craziness!

I lugged myself away from Dali two days later and lucked out again getting a ride all 234 Km to Li Jiang with two friendly twenty somethings in a VW Polo. Man I wish I spoke Mandarin… there’s so much I could be asking, but car charades is just so limited!   

Li Jiang is a cultural experience you wouldn’t really expect to find in China. It’s constantly humming with millions of local tourists dressed in crazy clothing. People stumble from one ‘yak meat of the naxi sister’ shop to the next, stopping to buy pashminas and colourful leggings and an array of things one could never really use and then bar hopping between gangster rap and rock and acoustic sets and pole dancing and… well, it’s the kind of town you could get lost in for weeks. I spent three days doing just that – but mostly because I have no sense of orientation.

I left Li Jiang with a Mandarin-English dictionary and a shirt that reads “I don’t understand” (in Chinese) and because nobody understood me either, I ended up walking more than 12 km (stopping thrice to escape the torrential cloud breaks) to get out of town to an ideal hitch point.

Finally a car pulled up – but a couple of km down the road I began to suspect something amiss. I fumbled for my dictionary and pointed to the word ‘taxi’ – my suspicions were confirmed and I found myself back on the side of the road. In the rain.

A few minutes later I’d met a lovely family who drove me twenty odd kilometers to the next intersection where three business men took me in and drove me to the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

A final family drove me the last of the 204 Km to Shangri-la (or, as they say “Shan-go-li-la”) and the 7 year old besides me more than doubled my Mandarin abilities. I’m now able to speak the astounding total of at least 13 words… I’m practically fluent!

And that’s where I find myself right now, lost in a mountainous haven of spectaculousness and yaks.

1084 Km later I have renewed faith in hitching – even if I’ve just discovered that I can supposedly go no further North. “Why?” I asked. “You don’t know? Something happened. We cannot speak of it.” That’s the answer I’ve had thrice… Looks like there may be some interesting border runs ahead of me… Sichuan Province, here I come!