Giant pandas. Leaping Tigers.

Yeah yeah yeah. Life on the road. After that break in HK it’s back to flying (well, training) around at break neck speed. I’ve only got 30 days on my visa and I’m trying to get back to HK before it’s over, even though I’m really really tempted to extend it. China is sooooo damned cool.

So Nancy and I left Lijiang and headed for Qiaotou so we could start a nice little 2 day trek through what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge. The bus ride was spectacular (despite the cigarette smoke) and it’s fascinating just to stare out the window at all that is going on. There are always hundreds of people in the fields planting and transplanting bright green rice shoots, people hustling about on bikes loaded up with leafy vegetables, old women walking down the road with a big stick over their shoulders with two baskets tied to each side carrying an assortment of items, and tractors (a Chinese tractor is hard to describe) putzing down the dirt trails between rice fields. We descended into a huge valley and as the mountains grew higher and higher our little bus was slowly swallowed by the canyon. The soft shadows cast by the sun and the overhanging clouds created fluffy patches of loosely highlighted brilliance – bringing out the details of the water flooded fields and scree mountain cliffs…and the bright farmers’ clothing. It was breathtaking.

And then we arrived. We hopped out and chatted with a tout who wanted us to take his bus to the entrance of the trek and avoid the entrance fee, but I didn’t know if it was legit and I would rather pay the money so they could maintain the trek, so we just walked to the start. As we got closer, an Australian woman marched over to us and asked gruffly if we were going to start the trek right then.

“Well, yeah. We’re just gonna walk two hours, halfway up the mountain.”

“It’s too hot! And you’re going to walk over 1000 meters up. You should wait until tomorrow.”

“Hmm…it’s 4pm, the coolest part of the day and we have 3 1/2 hours of daylight. Are you sure?”

She threw her hands up dramatically, “IT’S YOUR CHOICE!” and stormed off.

Nancy and I looked at each other…”What a bitch!” we both said in unison. But more on her later. We started our trek and ventured up into the mountains. The climb wasn’t bad and the views were great (although it was a bit cloudy) and we walked a little bit up the mountain before stopping at an incredible guesthouse. It was impeccably clean and besides a Japanese guy and Chinese couple, we were the only other ones. The food was great and cheap and from the courtyard we had a view of the valley and grey snowcapped mountains above. I spent the evening playing chess and practicing Chinese with the lady running the place.

So the next morning, we got up late and had a nice and filling breakfast. And then we set off. The climb was quite steep as the trail winded up the mountain to 2600 meters, but the view at the top was incredible. The chocolate brown Lijiang river (from the silt) roared through the gorge and brilliant green jagged farming terraces climbed up the valley walls, requiring us to stop every so often to ponder the beauty. We had a lazy lunch at another little guesthouse and played with the owner’s dog and then continued on, eventually arriving to our destination: Walnut Grove. We checked into the hostel and went to the courtyard where we met a Scottish couple who were both doctors and we spent the night staring from our patio into the gorge (it was a phenomenal view) and chatting about everything from health care, to the European Union constitution, to travel to amoebic dysentery (of course!). That morning, we all split a taxi back to Qiaotou. We hopped in a bus to Lijiang and just before we took off, that same obnoxious Australian woman poked her head in the bus and commanded us to get out and get another bus because this one wasn’t going to Lijiang. She then asked the lady if it went to Lijiang and she said yes. So the Australian woman told us we could stay in the bus. We told her that we knew and she stormed off again.

“What a bitch!” we all said in unison. The bus driver said that the Chinese people didn’t like her. She had a restaurant in town and had been there a while, but she had a lot of enemies because she was a biatch. We all concured.

When we finally arrived, Nancy and I wandered about the town for a while before catching our sleeper bus.

My plan was this: I wanted to get to Chengdu, but I didn’t want to take the train 10 hours back to Kunming and then up to Chengdu (another 20 hours). So I could catch a sleeper bus to Panzhihua (10 hours) and then catch the train on it’s way to Chengdu (another 10 hours). Nancy decided that she wanted to go to Beijing and would go via Chengdu as well, so we got our bus tickets. I managed it all in Chinese!

Well, the bus was horrible. It had about 30 full on beds crammed into it in three rows and you could barely walk between the beds, they were so close. I didn’t really fit and couldn’t lay on my side and the whole bus smelled like a toilet (literally). I had a window bed though, so it wasn’t all that bad, and Nancy and I were able to entertain ourselves by annoying and complaining to each other. At about midnight we stopped somewhere to eat and I wandered away from the bus towards a dark valley and sat for a few minutes listening to the discordant hum of thousands of frogs croaking. The moon lit up the valley, which had a huge lilly covered lake within – and the experience was quite surreal. I snapped out of my trance and stumbled back to the bus still in a sleepy haze – and went back to sleep.

We eventually arrived at our destination and were herded out of the bus into the onslaught of taxi drivers wanting to take us to the train station. My guidebook had no map or directions so we hopped in the cab and put ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver. He drove us all around and I could have sworn I saw the same place twice, at which point I voiced my concern.

“I’ve already seen this place. Why is this so expensive?” I asked.

“The bus station is far!” the driver replied. He pointed at a sign that said 15 km to the train station.

“I’m not going to pay this much, but keep going.” I said. I would handle it when I arrived by talking to a cop.

You see, the problem is that I had no idea where the hell I was, where the train station was, how far it was, how much it should cost, or when my train would leave. Nancy and I were at this guy’s mercy – until we got at the station and he wanted his money.

So we finally arrived and the meter said 77 yuan, which is insane. I’ve never paid that much, ever and I was in dismay. I said to wait a minute and went inside to talk to the lady at the counter (mind you, it was 3AM). I asked her how much it should cost from the bus station to the train station and she sleepily pondered my question. The taxi driver came in and started telling her stuff (like how far it was, and that it was expensive) and I knew she wouldn’t tell me after that. She didn’t want to disrespect him.

I got mad. I looked up the word for police in my book at told him that I wanted to speak to them. He shrugged his shoulders and said there were no police. I said that if there were no police, he would get no money. I set off toward a sign that said “police” and saw a few taxi drivers and got an idea.

“Hey, how much to the bus station?” I asked, as though I wanted to go.

“50 yuan! 40 yuan! We take you now!” they cried.

“Aha!” I thought and returned to my taxi driver.

“They say it should only be 40 or 50 yuan. Why is yours so expensive?” I asked.

He drew two points on a piece of paper and put 25km in between them. “It’s far.”

I looked at him and said, “Yeah, but I saw the same place twice.” As though the two points on the paper were places, I drew a straight line and then a long line that went to the bottom of the paper and back to the other point.

“This one, 2km, this one 25km.”, I showed him and the group (I now had an audience of about 20 Chinese guys).

“Noooooo!” he replied.

“Then we wait for the police,” I said. And he called the cop saying, “the foreigner isn’t paying me.”

It went kind of like that for 10 minutes and then a sleepy security guard finally showed up. The group started yelling at him and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Please come with me. Don’t listen to them,” and we walked a ways away from the group. I pleaded my case, explaining that I came from the bus station and it shouldn’t be that expensive. I asked him how much it should be. He told me that it should be 50 if the guy went quickly and 60 if he went slowly, in a polite and helpful voice. He was really a nice guy. Then the group came over and everyone surrounded us. I told the taxi driver that it should just be 50 yuan if he drove normally.

“But that’s for one person. You were two,” he replied.

“I don’t care if it was one person, two people or 100 people. You put the meter on and you drive. I’ll give you 60 yuan, that’s final,” I said.

“70 yuan!” he replied.

The security guard looked at him and said to take it. It was a good price. He smiled and nodded okay. The group roared and started skipping around (they were loving this show) and yelled out, “The foreigner speaks good Chinese!!!” It was pretty funny. So I paid him and shook his hand and he was gone.

That killed one hour, but we still had 6 hours until our train left. I went to sleep in the terminal and Nancy read her book.

Confrontation is a really funny thing. I’m a pretty confrontational guy if I feel that I am being treated unfairly and I’ve learned a few things about how to present yourself in these situations. I was at a huge disadvantage in this situation because I didn’t know where I was and speak Chinese like a 4 year old – but I was confident and I am a Westerner. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter so much what you say in these situations as much as how you present yourself. If you present yourself as a confident and intelligent person, they see through the language barrier and give you respect. You need to remain respectful, and learn how to convey with your eyes that the person is making you mad without really getting mad. It’s kind of like how your mom says your first, middle, and last name when she’s getting pissed off. If you are Western in a lot of these countries, it makes things happen. But in hindsight, what I was doing was pretty stupid. If the cops did come and weren’t happy about being woken up, they could have hauled me to jail, I suppose – although I doubt it. I could have missed my train, but I figured I had enough time. But I knew it wouldn’t be serious trouble, and if anything, I would have a really funny story to tell either way. So boredom and self righteousness kept me at it. God bless China!

The bus ride was pretty uneventful – and worse, long. I made a few Chinese friends and they offered me beer and a whole pack of cookies and Nancy and I played a lot of chess in between naps. I took a lot of videos of the stunning scenery soaring by. With three hours remaining, and absolutely nothing to do (I was banging my head in boredom on the table), we took to drink and had a few beers while chatting with each other and the Chinese. The time slipped by and we eventually arrived at Chengdu at 10:30pm.

A short and uneventful taxi ride later, we were at our hostel and we checked into the dorm, which was pretty posh seeing as it was just a nice hotel which the hostel leased from the hotel (I don’t get it, either). We went in search of food and found a place where we sat with an Australian girl and American guy and chatted. The guy told us that the new Star Wars movie was playing so we set off to watch it at midnight (this was like a marathon of no sleep) and it started raining. No worries – as the theater was close and before I knew it, we were in the theater watching the flick. It was pretty good, but kind of cheesy and I didn’t really get it all, seeing as I haven’t seen many of the others. After the movie, we headed back to the hotel (now 3AM) and came across a few Chinese guys doing some really weird stuff. We stopped and watched and I laughed a lot. The scene went something like this.

One Chinese guy was really really drunk and stumbling through the street towards a car pulled over on the side of the road with its lights still on. The other two guys were talking to him and the drunk guy kept kicking the car and screaming. He kept trying to get into the car and they would pull him out and start punching each other. The drunk guy took off his pants and stood there kicking the car in his underwear, yelling at the guys. I asked some people in the street what was going on and they didn’t know. But man was it entertaining! I laughed so hard, man oh man. But eventually, we headed back to the hotel and passed out in exhaustion.

This morning, Nancy and I woke up around noon and headed for the Giant Panda Panda Breeding Center where we saw the pandas and stuff. It was really cool and the facility was surprisingly accommodating for the pandas. I was really impressed.

And now here I am, hungry and done with yet another post.

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