Gateway to pandas, horse treks, and glaciers.
Also in this section: My experience being an American in China during the May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.
1999, April 2002
First Visit, May 1999
the Chengdu railway station was another chaotic adventure. I certainly
wasn’t going to find an honest taxi ride around the station, though there
was no shortage of touts willing to take me for whatever they think I’d
pay. I did as the locals and walked out to the main road. In front of
the train station was a large and busy traffic circle intersecting two
main roads. I walked a little bit beyond the circle where there were quite
a few Chinese trying to get taxis. While I may not have the Chinese ‘line’
thing down yet, I do know how to get a taxi. There was stiff competition,
so as soon as I spotted an empty cab I stepped out in front of the others
and flagged it first. Rude? Sure. But I picked this habit up from the
Chinese after having it done to me several times last year.
Chengdu many budget travelers stay at the Traffic Hotel. It has a Chinese
name but don’t ask me what it is, but all the taxis know it, so it’s easy
to get to. I got a single dorm room for something like Y40 or Y60 and
immediately went for that desperately needed cup of coffee or six. I planned
to spend the rest of this day in Chengdu, walking around a little, testing
out my knee which had taken a beating on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek
a few days earlier, seeing the city, and trying to get some firsthand
advice from travelers just returning from the outer reaches of the province.
It was now May 3.
Yunnan, Sichuan has many travel options and I hadn't yet made up my mind
what I was going to do here. Near Chengdu is Emeishan, one of China’s
sacred Buddhist mountains. It’s a 10,000-foot mountain attracting scores
of pilgrims and tourists alike. Climbing one of China’s sacred mountains
is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everybody should do it only once.
Last year I climbed the Taoist mountain Huashan near Xi’an, and thus had
no desire to relive the sacred mountain experience with its souvenir stands,
fluorescent hatted pilgrims, loud-speakers barking out advertisements,
and the like. In the same neighborhood of Emeishan is Leshan, home to
the world’s largest Buddha. Dafo, the Grand Buddha, carved out of a cliff,
is an impressive 235 feet from head to toe, and he’s sitting. But seeing
Dafo and the inevitable accompanying silliness always found at popular
domestic travel sites wasn’t high on my list, either. Sichuan province
is panda territory. On the outskirts of Chengdu is the Panda Research
Center and this was a bit higher on my list but not a priority. There
are also several wildlife preserves in Sichuan that are home to some of
China’s giant pandas, though you’re not likely to actually see one in
the wild. In eastern Sichuan is the famous Three Gorges of the Yangtze,
destined to be submerged under water at the end of the next decade. Boat
trips are fairly pricey, sometimes go through at least one gorge in the
dark, and many travelers have written the journey off as overrated.
But there is still half a province I haven’t talked about, the heavily Tibetan north and west. Isolated and stunningly beautiful with mountains rising as high as the 7,556-meter (24,700 feet) Mt. Gongga near Hailuogou Glacier Park, it was this region that topped my list. However, most any combination of areas will require a minimum of two weeks, and as I had about a week to ten days I was going to have to pick only one area. Beyond Hailuogou are various outposts along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, sometimes closed off to travelers due to the Chinese government’s sensitivity to Tibetan issues. To the north of Chengdu is Songpan with its famous horse treks, and north of Songpan is Jiuzhaigou National Park, staking legitimate claim to status as one of the world’s most scenic national parks. The Songpan/Jiuzhaigou area also marks the eastern limits of the Tibetan people’s range. It was either going to be Hailuogou, Songpan, or Jiuzhaigou. It might be possible to combine Jiuzhaigou and Songpan depending on transport and the relative condition of one sore knee. Transport to Songpan and Jiuzhaigou requires lengthy bus rides but within the past few months a new and improved highway has brought the travel time for the 200-mile Chengdu to Songpan trip from fourteen or more hours down to about eight to ten. Jiuzhaigou is another half day beyond.
is like most any other Chinese city of a million or so people that is
experiencing any degree of prosperity. Many shiny new office towers and
hotels dot the skyline, but still, it’s an attractive city with wide tree
lined boulevards. It’s almost indistinguishable from Kunming except the
buildings in Chengdu are a little higher and the city center is more compact.
Chengdu is flat, so walking around wasn’t much of a problem on my knee,
but I still kept my walking down to a mile or two. The knee was still
a little tender, but immensely improved from five days earlier.
Having exhausted my supply of reading material on the train, I went looking for the Foreign Language Bookstore. It lived up to its name - it was foreign - to me. The only thing in English was a very small selection of paperbacks that weren’t the least bit interesting (teenage romance novels, that kind of thing), and some English language instruction books. I promptly gave up any ideas I had about scoring a new book or two but I figured I could at least get an English language newspaper. The Foreign Language Bookstore was no help, but near my hotel stood the expensive Jinjiang Hotel that maintains a small foreign newsstand. They gave me the latest China Daily for free and I also picked up an International Herald Tribune for fifteen kuai. Other than picking up a few supplies, band aids, toothpaste, etc., that was about the extent of my day. I put off until tomorrow deciding where in Sichuan I’d go.
Traffic Hotel has numerous travel agencies staffed by young people who
often have nothing better to do than sit around and talk to you, even
if you’re not buying anything. But the only information I got about Hailuogou
was that it was closed. I really couldn’t believe how a glacier at 10,000
feet could be closed in early May, but as the woman made no point in trying
to sell me something in its place, she at the very least must have believed
what she was telling me. But whether it was true or not, I couldn’t confirm
the report anywhere else. Did I want to risk a one day, possibly two day
trek to the park to find out she was right? No. So I was going to Songpan
for a horse trek and if time permitted I’d go to Jiuzhaigou as well.
Knowing I’d be on a dilapidated old bus for up to ten hours I really hoped there’d be a few other foreigners on board. I bought a bus ticket from one of the many Traffic Hotel travel agencies. The man told me he had indeed sold four tickets for the same bus to a group of foreigners. Good news. So I bought the ticket, about 100 yuan.
I spent the next day being lazy. I wandered a bit more around Chengdu, stopping to spend an hour or two in People’s Park, an attractive park with trees, a pond, some amusements, and many tables full of elderly Chinese playing mahjong. I also stopped at the Bank of China to get some cash. Out front were about a dozen would-be moneychangers. “Change-a money?” they ask. “Sure,” I say, “I give you a ten kuai bill you change it into a one hundred kuai bill, okay?” They didn’t know what I was talking about. I finished my day by checking on flights from Chengdu to Guilin. I was planning to finish my trip with about four days in Yangshuo. Getting to Yangshuo requires transiting through Guilin and though Guilin is on every train line, it’s a circuitous route from most anywhere. It’s a good place to fly into and out of. I was supposed to be back in Bangkok for work on Monday, May 17, but I knew I could show up a day or two late if I had to. The flights to Guilin were late afternoon flights for either May 10 or May 13, so I bought the ticket for the 13th knowing it was entirely exchangeable and refundable. This also settled the issue as to whether I’d be arriving back to work on time or not. I returned to my hotel and stocked up on some snacks and instant coffee for the planned horse trek around Songpan. I had no expectation that there’d be any coffee available on the trek and I wasn’t planning to repeat the three day withdrawal I went through on the trip from Lijiang to Chengdu.
...This tale continues
in Songpan, but while I was horse trekking
high in the Sichuan mountains, certain events transpired in Yugoslavia
between my country, the USA, and China. As it was in Chengdu that I felt
the brunt of the backlash I've included the story here. I have just finished
a four-day horse trek in the Songpan area, am back in town and preparing
to return to Chengdu the following day...
May 9-10, 1999
another hot meal and that long awaited shower, I sat down on my bed and
started flipping through the TV channels. Even in a Y30 hotel room in
remote Songpan, satellite TV was available. It was all Chinese TV of course;
foreign stations (i.e. CNN) are generally available only at the better
hotels. Although CCTV (China Central Television) broadcasts an English
language version of their news, it’s not until 11:00 p.m., and I knew
I’d be fast asleep by then, and I was. However I did watch the Chinese
news, if for anything, just to watch the film clips.
knew that China had never favored NATO’s involvement in Yugoslavia so
it didn’t surprise me to see film footage of young Chinese protesting
in city streets. I figured it was only a matter of time before the Chinese
government organized a few protests against the NATO bombing. Then I saw
images of some bombed out building and a middle aged Chinese man crying,
wailing, uncontrollably. I couldn’t tell where the building was, maybe
a building exploded in some Chinese city somewhere and the man lost his
wife or something. Then I saw more protests, some appearing rather violent.
“Hmm,” I thought, “the Chinese really are stepping up their anti-NATO
activities, aren’t they?” After more clips of protests, some announcer
came on and appeared to be angrily editorializing about something. Then
there was footage of the top party leadership (Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji,
Li Peng) acting concerned about something. Then more protest footage.
I figured the protests were certainly orchestrated by the government,
probably to deflect attention from the upcoming tenth anniversary of the
Tiananmen Massacre, err, Incident, which was June 4, still twenty-six
days away. I didn’t think much more about it, I set my alarm for 6:00
a.m., turned out the light, and went to sleep.
following day was uneventful until I reached Chengdu in the late afternoon.
The bus ride back was covered in nine hours this time, arriving around
4:00 p.m. The only other foreigners on board were a young Israeli couple
who had come to Songpan planning on a horse trek but the girlfriend had
come down sick so they were giving up and returning to Chengdu. In retrospect,
it would seem that nobody on the bus had been watching the news lately,
or perhaps nobody particularly cared. But at the time I still had no reason
to think about it.
Back in Chengdu I decided to share a taxi with the Israeli couple. Though going to different hotels, we were going close enough to one another that it seemed like a reasonable idea. The first thing the man wants to do is bargain the fare with the taxi driver. “What, are you crazy, man? Don’t you know what meters are for? You’ll NEVER get a lower fare negotiating. Meter. Meter.” And then began the beginning of an unusually long string of bizarre behavior, rude treatment, hostility, and dirty stares, absolutely none of which I understood because I still had no idea about the Embassy bombing.
taxi driver, though agreeing to take us, was either new to the job, stupid,
or in a mood to be uncooperative. The Lonely Planet guidebook I was carrying
has all the hotel names, locations, etc. written in Chinese characters,
and except for the occasional driver reading the wrong line, I’ve never
had a problem reaching my destination by simply pointing to the text.
Well, this driver couldn’t find anything, drove around in circles, all
the while stopping to write something down in Chinese even though I had
shown him and he claimed to understand the phrase that says, “I don’t
know Chinese!” Finally, he got close enough to the other people’s hotel
that they got out. But he still had to get rid of me. Again he started
in the wrong direction. I stopped him handed him some money, got out,
flagged down another taxi, who, like all the other drivers in Chengdu,
knew exactly where I wanted to go and promptly took me there.
returned to the Traffic Hotel, I had to, I had a bag in storage there.
At all Chinese hotels one is required to show their passport at check-in.
This of course would reveal to all that I was American, not that I had
any reason to think that this mattered. Well, I had to haggle about a
room with the woman behind the counter, who was being very rude and uncooperative
with me. I did get a cheap room but not the cheapest as I had before.
Once the check-in procedures were finished I asked about retrieving my
bag. She waved me in the direction of the baggage room, but there was
nobody there. I went back to reception, “nobody there,” I said.
settling into my room and putting the uncooperative taxi driver and hotel
receptionist out of my mind, my next task was to change my plane ticket
for Guilin. My ticket was for the afternoon of the 13th and
it was now the afternoon of the 10th. I didn’t want to stay
in Chengdu that much longer. Changing the ticket would of course be no
problem so long as I could find a flight or combination of flights to
get me there. I knew the only direct flight earlier than the 13th
was leaving in about an hour, so I wouldn’t be on that one. For domestic
flights in China, if there is no direct flight for your destination, you
have to buy two tickets for each leg of the journey. These are handled
as entirely separate transactions as there is no such thing as a single
ticket with a connecting flight. All fares are regulated by CAAC and calculated
by distance, therefore, so long as you’re flying in a reasonably straight
line it doesn’t cost you much extra, except of course the Y50 airport
departure tax you’ll have to pay each time.
a big intersection near my hotel where the Jinjiang Hotel, Bank of China,
and several ticket agencies are located. It’s a busy intersection for
cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. For almost this entire trip I had pretty
much rendered myself immune to the kind of staring a foreigner often gets
in China, especially away from the cities. But what was up with people
today? I remember waiting at the intersection for the light to change
noticing a lot of people were giving me dirty looks. Uncooperative taxi
drivers, rude receptionists, now this? What is going on today?!?
I walked into one of the many CAAC ticket offices near this intersection. I was ignored for awhile, then rudely told to go somewhere else. Umm, okay. I went to another airline office next door and got the same treatment. A third office finally turned up success. The woman I dealt with, aside from speaking excellent English, was in fact very helpful and friendly, but I couldn’t see why she was so understanding about my desire to get out of Chengdu. She was almost encouraging it in a way. All I wanted to do was get to Yangshuo and relax in some familiar surroundings; I wasn’t running away from anything - or so I thought at the time.
I could go the following day by way of Guiyang, which would cost an extra
110 yuan ($13.75) over the direct flight cost. No problem. I bought the
tickets, and happy in the knowledge that in about 24 hours I’d be sitting
in a café in Yangshuo eating a banana pancake, I went to get some news.
I hadn’t seen a newspaper in a week and other than knowing that the Chinese
were protesting about something or other I had no idea what was going
on in the world. I was especially interested in the status of the NBA
and NHL playoffs and how Philadelphia’s teams were doing. The Jinjiang
Hotel, where I could get some English language newspapers, wasn’t far,
across the street more or less. Getting to the Jinjiang Hotel requires
walking past the Bank of China, and as usual there was no shortage of
people looking to change yuan for my United States dollars, but of course
I had none.
I went to the hotel counter and actually received some friendly treatment, something I was certainly taking notice of now, given the bizarre behavior I was experiencing that day. I asked for both the International Herald Tribune and the China Daily. The man gave me the most recent editions he had - yesterday’s Herald Tribune and a two-day old China Daily. He apologized for not having anything about some bombing and something about an embassy but I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, I really just wanted to see some sports scores.
looked at the front cover of the Herald Tribune. It had two articles about
China; the first article stated that China was softening its stance on
and reducing its rhetoric about the NATO involvement. Hmm, I wondered,
what about the protests I saw on TV last night? That doesn’t make sense.
The other article was about an upcoming clampdown on foreign media. With
the Tiananmen anniversary approaching, China was going, for the first
time, to enforce its laws banning unlicensed satellite dishes. I walked
back to my hotel, still wondering why everybody was so weird. The only
people not acting weird seemed to be the moneychangers, who were working
as hard as ever to get their hands on more US dollars. Back at my hotel,
I sat down at an outside table at the restaurant and ordered dinner. The
waitress was very pleasant and my food came reasonably fast. Then I ordered
dessert, which took like an hour to arrive, but given the bizarreness
of the day it seemed perfectly normal to wait an hour for a simple piece
of pie. After eating, I returned to my hotel room and finally learned
flicked on the TV and went through the channels looking for something
in English. I found the Australian satellite TV channel which, good luck
for me, was just about to begin its nightly world news. And all the day’s
mysteries were solved. I watched images from Chengdu of Molotov cocktails
being hurled at the US Consulate, just three blocks from my hotel. I was
real happy that I had a plane ticket to leave Chengdu the next day.
had a lot to think about. Aside from the greater implications of future
US-Chinese relations and analyzing the incredible stupidity of the action,
my more immediate concern was what could I expect for myself in the next
few days? The news report said the US State Department was requesting
Americans not to travel to China. Yeah, whatever, State Department advisories
are notoriously conservative. I would just have to take it day to day
and see what happens. At least I was heading to Yangshuo, a place with
a heavy foreign presence so I’d be as safe there as I would anywhere.
Of course, I could tell people I was Canadian when it seemed advantageous
to do so.
two flights to Guilin were incident free. I did get a current copy of
the China Daily and spent the Chengdu to Guiyang flight reading news stories
that really were nothing more than editorials blasting America. The headline
read “People agonized by criminal act”, so it was pretty obvious what
kind of objectiveness I could expect in this day’s newspaper. A caption
under a photograph of protesters read “…Beijing students yesterday condemned
atrocities of hegemony in front of the US Embassy in Beijing.” Might as
well get used to it.
Second Visit, April 2002
Stepping outside I'm faced with the reality of no organized taxi queue - just a bunch of sharks standing around yelling "taxi" and asking me how much I'll pay. "I'll pay what's on your meter" is my usual response which is inevitably followed by some kind of nonsense like, "no, you pay 60 yuan." Ignoring these monkeys, I chose a likely driver, who, surprise of surprises, spoke English quite well and didn't play games with the meter. Later I spoke with some tourists who paid 120 yuan for an airport to center-Chengdu ride. Y40 is about right. Reminder - in many cities (regrettably not all) in China metered taxis display a driver ID card on the dashboard. If the driver refuses to use the meter, make a show of writing down his ID number, license tag (also on the ID card), look at him, showing that you have his number and say "jingcha", (police). This should solve the problem. Most drivers will lose their driving privileges for 30 days just on the receipt of a complaint, regardless if true or not.
I spent my first night at Sam's Guesthouse, Lonely Planet says all sorts of nice things about this place, I can't understand why. Not that it's a bad place, mind you, but it wasn't the kind of place I'd describe as "cosy". But as I learned on this trip, using the LP Southwest China book (published Jan 2002 - just three months before starting this trip), I found a lot to disagree with, all of which will be detailed somewhere on this website. Oh, yes, LP says a metered cab from the airport to center Chengdu should be about Y60. That's nonsense, my trip was Y39.
Chengdu seemed no different from my last visit in 1999, only this time I wasn't fearing for being an American as the 1999 embassy bombing incident is no longer so much in the forefront of peoples' memories.
Apparently some very savvy real estate deals have gone down here as I noticed several high-rise building shells that are as much an empty frame today as they were three years ago. Progress of some sort perhaps.
I had originally planned to go to Juizhaigou National Park from Chengdu, but after having read a few negative reports on the place, not for the scenery - nobody's ever complained about that, but for the hassles with getting around the park, I changed my mind and decided to go to Hailuogou Glacier Park instead, where I would ultimately experience most of the same hassles anyway. Obviously this a bit of a Chinese national park problem and not confined to any one place.
I had met up with two other travelers, an Israeli and an American who I split a triple with at Sam's for Y30 a person. Time for dinner. First night in China, certainly going for Chinese food, right? Nah. Went to Pizza Hut instead. Most impressive was the fact that the Chengdu Pizza Hut has without a doubt the cleanest toilets in all of China. You'd almost want to eat off these things. Umm, well, maybe not. But they were clean - not only by Chinese standards - buy by any standards.
For my night at the Traffic I opted for an "economy single" which gave me a bed in a dark, dreary prison cell for Y40. Hmm, maybe Sam's isn't so bad after all. I do recall back in '99 getting a bed in a double that was upstairs and rather nice and just as cheap. Don't know what became of them this year...
The Traffic was under some renovation, temporarily moving reception, the convenience store, and a couple of travel agencies to other parts of the building. As part of the construction they claimed the water would be off for the night. It wasn't.
Though Chengdu was chilly by my southeast Asian standards, I spent the dinner hour hanging at the outside tables in the hotel's courtyard chatting with some other tourists and having my first (and last) dinner at their restaurant. I don't recall the restaurant being all that inspiring in the past, but tonight's meal was positively wretched.
I booked a ticket to Kangding, though I could have gone to Luding, two hours closer, but I had heard Kangding was worth a few hours so I'd give it its due. But first I had to waste a few hours running around Chengdu getting the silly insurance foreigners are supposed to have for bus rides to the Sichuan hinterlands. I located the China Life Insurance Company, got the policy, helped one of the girls edit her English-language resume, and returned to the bus station. We hit the road about 12:40 pm in a brand new bus that was quite comfortable and afforded far more leg room than I had experienced on any public China bus before and would rarely experience again. This was not one of the private luxury buses that ply Yunnan and other parts of China, but a regular government bus - just a new and still nice one. Also, smoking and spitting was kept to a minimum as well.
One motorcycle driver approaches me and speaking fairly good English asks me where I wanted to go and why don't I just take a bus. My answer was I had been bumming rides all day and only wanted to get back to my hotel as quickly and painlessly as possible. In the meantime, the screaming pedicab driver is still carrying on as loudly and annoyingly as ever. I turn to the driver who spoke English and said, "could you tell that guy to shut the f%&k up, or at least stop screaming so much? Him carrying on like that - I'd walk to my hotel before I'd get into a vehicle with him." The driver only laughed. Fortunately a metered taxi pulled into the lot just then so I had my ride.
I stumbled into the Traffic Hotel at 7:15 pm, determined not to spend another night in a prison cell. How about the standard room offering a big bed, private bath, and TV normally priced at Y240, presently listed as Y160? Okay, they'll give me one for Y120.
I handed over my laundry in exchange for an outrageous Y87 bill and disappeared into the city for dinner going as far as the place a few hundred meters east, Carol's by the River, and eating some kind of Mexican fare that they did a reasonable job with.
I farted around Chengdu until late afternoon when I grabbed a taxi to the train station to catch an overnight train to Panzhihua where I could connect with a bus to Lijiang. The taxi ride was another reminder why China has such a horrific amount of highway fatalities. Weaving through traffic we nearly took out half a dozen bicycles and came way too close to a few other vehicles as well.
At the train station I was predictably the only westerner and as usual I attracted the expected attention. An uneventful train ride got me to Panzhihua around seven or so the following morning.
(story continues on the Lijiang page)
Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.