|Nature Inn, Dazu Village|
Nature Inn 本色客栈
|The trip so far….|
|Nature Inn, Dazu Village|
|The trip so far….|
‘Are you from Singapore?’ the man at the petrol station asked me.
The area was remote and beautifully wild – tall craggy cliffs rising vertically from the river bed towards the sky, with plummeting narrow waterfalls rushing back down to the river at intervals. In such remote and mountainous country flat land for farming was scarce.
The road, if I can truthfully call it that, was only one lane wide, so we drove in a caravan between trucks until there was a slight widening, then stopped so the caravan of trucks and cars travelling in the opposite direction could pass us. The going was painfully slow.
‘LESHAN COUNTY: ALIENS NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER’
which we neglected to photograph on the grounds that it might later incriminate us.
That 68km section of road took eight long exhausting hours to traverse, and as you can well imagine there was nowhere to camp that wasn’t already occupied by a construction crew or a broken-down bus.
We wound down the steep and twisting road into the centre of town, utterly chaotic with a mayhem of tricycle taxis, blaring music, horns, and bright flashing lights, a place that was rapidly outgrowing itself and hadn’t worked out yet what to do with all the surplus people.
The surplus people, meanwhile, had suddenly spotted us.
Fifty incredulous faces watched us park, then watched me get out of the campervan to ask about rooms at the tiny hotel across the road.
In the lobby three young women wearing suits were playing on their mobile phones over a scale model of a new Ebian housing development. They looked up in unison and their jaws literally dropped. Perhaps I was an alien after all.
This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the process of registration which involved twenty very interested locals crowding the hotel’s small counter and shooting me with a battery of questions:
‘Where are you from?’
‘What’s your job?’
‘How much do you earn each month?’
‘How come you can speak Chinese?’
‘Are those your children outisde?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She’s from Australia. Monthly income 10,000 renminbi. Two daughters.’
Our passports did the rounds of the crowd.
For people unaccustomed to aliens, Ebian’s locals were mighty keen to get to know us. A tight crowd followed us around the small night market until we found a restaurant that looked clean and welcoming, but as we sat down the rosy-cheeked waitress took one panicked look at us and ran off, returning five baffling minutes later with the owner, an older man.
You might also enjoy:
|This outfit may actually have been improved by a lifejacket….|
The view from the river gives you an idea of the full majestic height of the Buddha – his ten giant toes, truly like ‘ten minibuses parked side by side’ according to my daughter.
The huge elegant hands rest gently on his knees and it seems amazing that this was accomplished with human hands alone more than 1200 years ago. As the boat finally overcomes the strongest currents and we head back upstream I catch a last glimpse of the Buddha’s beatific face, calmly serene despite the ant-like humans swarming past him in a never-ending file, and the turbulent waters rushing past.
The main hall of the market is a vast space stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of chillies – from Xinjiang (curled and crinkled), from Hebei (straight and dark) and from Henan (straight and plump). Each has a different taste and degree of heat, although if you really want to maximize the heat you can also purchase sacks of chili seeds (above).
The air is full of the acrid smell of dried chillies and it makes your eyes water and your nose run. I developed a tight cough, the kind you get when you fry chillies at home and the kitchen fills with the aerosolized chili vapour. The chili vendors (and their children) seemed completely immune to it though – playing cards, eating lunch and gossiping amongst the red-filled sacks.
The vendors of the spice market are its lifeblood, a hard-working, cheery bunch who toil seven days a week. Chengdu people are very friendly, but the vendors at the spice market are almost overwhelming in their enthusiastic friendliness, and it’s a place that sees few foreign visitors.
A group of chili vendors trailed me around the market, explaining to everyone who I was and where I was from. (Australia? Wow! Lives in Shanghai huh? Ooh. Interested in Chinese food? Of course!) I was delighted by their hospitality and good humour – I think my eyes streamed as much from laughter as from the chillies.
If you’re ever in Chengdu, yes, be sure to see the pandas, but don’t miss the Spice Market. It’s unforgettable.
|Little campervan, I miss you!|
I’m sitting here in Shanghai waiting for the call from the mechanics in Chengdu telling me our campervan is fixed and thinking, what can I write about?
The travels have been suspended for over a week now while they work on the damage caused by months of shaking and rattling on Chinese roads – the popped welds on the water tank, the leaking sink, the cupboard doors that unscrewed themselves and fell off.
|Driving through Aksu, Xinjiang: dustiest town in China|
Not to mention the damage caused by weeks of driving in high-dust desert conditions – the clogged spark plugs, the blocked exterior locks, the shrivelled windscreen wipers, the floor that continues producing its own volumes of dust every day from unseen reservoirs, so when we lift the carpet we find an even layer of pale silt thick enough to sweep into small hillocks.
Then there’s the damage caused by none of these things – the bathroom roof vent smashed when a tyre mechanic was up there ‘just having a look’ and put his foot straight through it, the extractor fan splintered when a branch fell into it from a nearby tree.
Worst of all, we have somehow sheared off the two outlet valves underneath the van for clean waste water and dirty waste water (er….sewerage), so now the waste goes straight through onto the road like a Chinese train toilet. Not good. Certainly we can’t use the toilet whilst parked anywhere, and using it while moving is logistically difficult on very bumpy roads. We don’t even know when or how it happened, but probably a rock was involved, or bottoming on a huge pothole.
The wily Mr Chen tells us over the phone this is definitely not covered in our insurance policy:
‘It’s an accident if you hit a car, yes. But not if you hit a rock.’
It seems unnecessarily specific, but then, I know nothing about Chinese insurance policies. Is it OK if you hit a cow, for example? Or a fence? But not a telephone pole? He doesn’t come outright and say it, but I know what he’s thinking – that we got under there and sawed off those outlet valves ourselves with a hacksaw, then claimed it was an accident. Foreigners are sly like that.
So as I sit here waiting and waiting I think: I haven’t written much at all about what it’s really like driving around China. And this is definitely something you need to know, should you ever decide to let go of your good sense and drive around this country.
Just as you near a blind uphill hairpin bend, the three-wheeler truck behind you (an unusual breed of small cheap blue conveyance beloved of Chinese farmers) overtakes you towards the hairpin. At that moment a passenger bus full of people overtaking a petrol tanker rounds the bend from the opposite direction on your side of the road. It looks grim. It’s a narrow two lane road and there are no less than four vehicles battling for space between the mountain and the drop-off.
But something miraculous happens – instead of a major collision and a fatal fall down the mountainside for one or more of you, the tricycle truck zooms into the space in front of you created when you moved as far to the right as possible, the bus slides into the small space left by the tricycle truck, and the petrol tanker, having pulled on the brakes a little for good measure, gives everyone involved a friendly toot on his horn as he rolls past down the mountain. After all, he’ll repeat this scenario every few minutes on his journey.
This is just a normal day on country roads in China. Character building. You’ll get used it.
The roads themselves are a different matter. Graded into national (guodao 国道 – G), provincial (shengdao 省道 －S) and county roads (xianxiangdao 县乡道) the number of lanes and quality of the driving surface decreases accordingly. Most maps fail to include my own grading – mud trails (B – for bog risk) goat tracks (C – for carnage, as in when you run into one of those critters) and corrugated potholed dirt roads (T – for tractors only).
It varies from the cheapest at 6 yuan (Qinghai) to the most expensive at 33 yuan (Shanxi) for every 100km travelled.
The toll booth operators have usually never seen a campervan before, so we’re used to a protracted Q&A before the correct toll amount is assigned.
‘Are you a goods truck?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what? A bus?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what??? Let me see your vehicle registration licence.’
(now on radio to friend in next tollbooth) ‘Xiao Wang! Get a load of this! It’s a CAMPERVAN!!!’
3. Road Signs
Road signs on all major roads are usually helpfuly bilingual, although this gets less helpful in places like Inner Mongolia where the two languages are Chinese and Mongolian and the signs look like this:
To be honest the one thing I was really worried about, like, waking up at night worried, was Chinese police. I had heard dreadful stories about unprovoked police brutality, about bribes, about deaths in custody. Custody was one place I had tried to avoid all my life, and I didn’t want to find out if the rumours about police custody in China were true.
So the first time we were pulled over by the police I was understandably anxious. We were diverted off the highway in Inner Mongolia into a lay-by filled with policemen and women. A senior officer approached the driver’s window and looked at us with a stern face, his eyes narrowd, his posture ramrod straight.
‘Licence’ he requested, briskly.
My husband handed over his licence, a small navy blue plastic holder with the licence inside behind a clear plastic cover.
He took it with his white cotton gloved hands and tried to open it, but the gloves were too slippery and he couldn’t get a grasp on the edges of the smooth plastic. He sighed.
He handed it back to my husband, who was about to put it away.
‘No! Wait! Let’s try that again’ he said.
‘Pardon?’ I said.
‘Hand it to me again.’ he said, taking off his gloves and putting them in his pocket.
‘Licence’ he requested again. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.
Then I realized we were being filmed by a three man film crew. We weren’t in trouble – we were part of a police training video for highway patrols.
We did one more take, all smiling this time.
Then the entire film crew and all the police took a tour of the campervan.
I’d like to say this has been our only experience of police in China, but in fact we’ve now been pulled over dozens of times for licence checks or vehicle registrations. The police presence in Xinjiang is impressively oppressive, with bunkers, camouflage gear and gun-toting batallions of police manning every checkpoint, of which there are many. At these points, you must complete a registration (dengji 登记）and show your passport as well as your licence. Spot vehicle inspections are common.
In other parts of China there is a lack of manpower in the police force, made up for with these:
Fuel stations are magnificent entities in China. The best are in the east and north, where they span both sides of the highway and encompass acres of grounds, a restaurant, a supermarket, a souvenir shop, a motel, public toilets and a place to buy petrol. Giant hot water canteens dispense boiling water for all your travelling tea and instant noodle needs.
In other places, the fuel stations sell nothing but fuel. They’re so remote the staff usually live on site, and behind the fuel pumps is a vegetable garden where they grow vegetables when they’re not pumping gas.
Prices are pretty fixed across all of China, given that most fuel stations are state owned.
Some handy fuel phrases:
Petrol ＝ qi you 汽油
Diesel ＝ chai you 柴油
Fill ‘er up ＝ jia man 加满
I never thought that our biggest problem with the campervan would be finding water. The van has a 120-litre capacity water tank for showers, washing, and flushing the toilet. Divided by four people, 120 litres doesn’t go very far and we usually need to fill our tank every day.
At home, and in other countries, this would be accomplished with an outdoor tap and a hose, available at every single fuel station. Right?
But this is China. After finding that only tap in most fuel stations is indoors, inside the manager’s private bathroom, we often manage to convince staff to run our hose from it to the van by parking close to the building like this. It doesn’t always work, but mostly the staff are terribly helpful and only too happy to oblige.
We have to disconnect if the manager wants to use the bathroom though.
In drier parts of China where rain is scarce we usually have to buy water, from a roadside jiashui 加水 (add water) stall. These take many forms, and the water might be trucked in, pumped from underground reservoirs, or from nearby canals. The well water is best and technically drinkable. Canal water is usually dirty and undrinkable. The price for 120 litres varies with demand – the cheapest is 5 yuan, and the most expensive, in the deserts of western Gansu, is 20 yuan.
|Roadside Add Water, Xinjiang|
|Cave house Add Water, Shanxi|
|Satellite Add Water, Hebei|
7. Mechanical Assistance
What exactly do you do if you break down in the middle of nowhere?
Luckily for you China has a system of roadside assistance as complex and provincial as you might imagine. Here’s how it works:
Roadside assistance is tied to your insurance policy, so the first thing to do is call your insurance company’s 24 hour assist number – if they have one – and get them to help. If you don’t speak Chinese, you’re stuffed. They will then contact the local roadside assist provider to come and help you, usually a guy in a minivan with a few tools. One of the worst possible places to break down is on an elevated highway, where there may be an emergency parking lane but you’ll be sitting in the baking sun for hours while you wait with no way to get off and find food or water.
If you’re on a smaller road help will be available close to a fuel stop, and China is absolutely riddled with vehicle mechanics in little shacks just like this.
|Mechanic’s shop, Inner Mongolia|
It sure didn’t look like much but but when we had a tyre blow-out and couldn’t get the hydraulically-tightened wheel nuts off the wheel, the tyre shop tent mechanic could and did. Repairs are also inexpensive: the standard rate for a tyre change across China is 50 yuan.
So there you have it. All the helpful information you might need for a road trip in China. Should you be going on one, I happen to know where you can get a campervan reeaaal cheap. Call me.
What a meal to remember, and so wonderful to see local, seasonal produce at its finest. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and experience this wonderful place for yourself.
|Please somebody, tell me what this happy occasion is?|
|I wait three days for the Living Buddha and just when I go to get a sandwich he decides to appear! Damn!|
At the monastery gates we meet our guide – a young crimson-robed monk who giggles at everything we say- a little disconcerting – and speaks in such heavily accented English it’s practically impossible for us and for the French couple joining us to understand a word. It’s made worse by the confusing array of names and terminology which have Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese variations, and rapid-fire delivery of these in quick succession. I decide to learn with my eyes, because my ears are failing me.
Crimson-cloaked monk are everywhere, going about their daily routine. It’s helpful to think of the monastery as a school or college, full of men being educated in philosphy, Buddhism, astrology, traditional Tibetan medicine and of course theology. The monks are all ages, from small boys to old men, all dressed alike.
The multi-purpose nature of some of the halls is eveident when we visit one housing the precious stone encrusted stupas of four famous and long-dead lamas. Around the edge of the candle-lit room are twenty monks eating their single meal of the day. All the while there is an endless stream of worshippers weaving their way in and out of the hall with candles and food, and small knots of visitors with guides, like us. Between all these come lines of benefactors with small bags of ten yuan notes, passing them out to each monk in turn. It feels like a cross between a temple, a school, a canteen and social club as the monks greet their benefactors in turn. No photography is permitted indoors, so you’ll have to imagine the whole yak butter-scented scene for yourself.
We make our way to the Grand Sutra Hall where the monks are now gathering for morning prayers, called there by the sound of long Tibetan horns. Outside are black yak fur-lined black boots, discarded at the door. Inside gilt statues of Buddha and hundreds of yak butter candles line the outer perimeter, and the main part of the darkened hall are rows of heavy columns and line after line of low coloured cushions, on each of which a monk sits cross-legged, chanting.
It’s a low guttural sound, reverberating through the darkened candle-lit room, rhythmic and mystical, repeated mantras echoing from the columns. Time passes slowly. The monks’ breath can be seen in white puffs in the cold air.
We’re permitted to stand quietly on the hall’s perimeter. Between the rows young monks arrive to pour bowls of hot tea for their elders, keeping hands warm. I look outside through the main door where it is still pouring, to see the last few monks arrive late, robes pulled over their heads to keep dry.
In this day and age seeing a sight of massed faith like this is not a common sight, nor is the thought of so many young men giving over their lives to religion. But here in Xiahe it’s just the way it is.
Later that afternoon once the freezing rain has stopped, the clouds on the hills above Xiahe clear to reveal a sprinkling of fresh snow – the first of the season. I go out to walk my own kora around the monastery, now I’ve thawed out after a bowl of hearty hot Tibetan dumpling soup.
The kora winds its clockwise path past the back of the golden prayer hall when I suddenly hear the murmur of distant chanting, and far below the path is a semicircle of monks seated on the ground, praying together. It’s a most extraordinary and uplifting sight.