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Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:36

Where the Trees Reach the Riverbanks - NiHao, Sichuan! Part one.

Author: Balazs

Translated by: Pál Capewell

In order for you to get a good feel for what Sichuan is like, let me depict the picture in front of me. We are in LeShan, and like the carved Buddha statue of 71 meters, we are sitting at the riverbank and are staring at the river. Over on the other side, an old musical instrument vendor is playing on his flute. The traditional Chinese melody is disturbed by the constant flow of buses, motorbikes and their never-ending honking. Some fishermen battle for victory (and probably dinner) from the riverbanks, and, further inward, other fishermen sit in their boats waiting for their luck. The 20 storey tall buildings give little room to smaller, older houses. Though historical looking gems, they fit nicely together. Just like China today: the old customs, traditions stay alive in the modern ways of life.

But of course this is not where our exploration of Sichuan began. Leaving QingHai, after a long hike over the hills, Sichuan welcomed us, with the exact same natural perfection QingHai said goodbye with. The three of us joyously rolled down the hill, down into the afternoon, down into a new province of our Chinese exploration. I’m writing “the three of us”because leaving Yushu behind, we bumped into Henk, who departed from Holland in February heading to Singapore. The 27 year old Dutch had enough of event management and decided to explore the world. As for a destination, he decided on the furthest land possible, Singapore, and on his feather-light bike he was making steady progress.

Allow me a little detour regarding the bike. Do you have any idea how many bags we carry? Both of us have four bags on our bikes - two at the front, two at the rear. Eni carries our sleeping bags at the rear, and a backpack. I carry our tents, a larger backpack, and a ukulele. Eni’s bike is approximately 45 kg, mine is around 60. Compared to this, Henk is carrying two bags the size of ours on the front, a waterproof bag of 20-25 litres, a light sleeping bag, and to the front he tied a 1kg tent. His bike couldn’t possibly be more than 13kg. Actually, if we were to start our journey all over again, we’d do many things differently, wouldn’t bring a lot of stuff we carry now and, in all honesty, would bring some stuff we didn’t think of. I guess this is what they call hindsight 20/20.

We spent a few days with Henk, and over these days, the following happened: we slept next to a nomad family’s tent, taught the kids how to frisbee, and we learned how to prepare “tsampa”.  Another day, a different nomad family lent us their out-of-use house in the midst of heavy snowfall. We went through the “how to make fire with yak dung in a iron stove so that it stays lit as well”training. I can tell you this much: it’s not as easy as you might believe so, but patrol solves most of the issues. The same evening, enjoying the warmth coming from the oven, we had ourselves a little movie-time, watching The Hobbit. We also ate in a traditional Tibetan restaurant, fixed flat-tires in the rain, had tea with Henk at our tent, and munched crackers while the storm was raging outside.

One day we said goodbye, and on another said hello again. We hitchhiked ourselves into a pick-up truck that already had five passengers - two of which were yaks - and admired a Buddhist pilgrim destination in the mountains. Finally we had to wave goodbye, as Hank’s Chinese visa was expiring soon. Once, we saw him from a distance setting up his tent at a lakeside, where we passed him in “our”truck on the road hundreds of meters above. We couldn’t wait to get down from the Tibetan Plateau: as beautiful and serene it all was, so was the weather getting colder and unwelcoming day by day, letting us know winter arrived.

As we were descending, the colour green showed itself: bushes and trees appeared, the latter of which were preparing for the winter with their yellow leaves. The architecture changed as well: the nomad tents and single-storey houses were replaced by 2-3 storey high, stone and wooden houses. We had the chance once to sleep in a Tibetan house: made out of wood, all painted red with self-drawn Buddhist pictures on the walls, depicting dragons, white lions, elephants, and spiritual “guards”.

Not long after, Sichuan’s more crowded part appeared. Noisy, rowdy, dirty small towns with honking trucks and street-food stalls. Then came the part of our journey, for which many people would say “now THAT’s the China I know”. Gigantic green mountains, whose tops disappear in white clouds, forest covered bases stretching all the way to the rivers. Narrow valleys, where the mighty mountains are crossed by fast-paced rivers snaking downwards. We really enjoyed this part! Soaring downwards, racing with the rivers, the condensation from the mountains damped our faces. It was exactly what we needed. 

The narrow two-lane road was occupied by houses on both sides, with their facades right on the road. It was frightening to see little kids just an arm’s reach away from the speedy trucks racing along. A lot of families run car-washing businesses to make ends meet. They hose the water over from the rivers, through cleverly manufactured systems just above the busy road. They wash cars, trucks, but mostly specialise on large trucks carrying cargo. At one of our stops we had the fortune to witness it all in person. It was quite the sight! Even the grandma came over in her waterproof boots to wash the truck, scratch off the cement from the sides. Here I’d like to grab the opportunity to say a few words on women’s position in China. We don’t know much, but frequently saw how women do men’s jobs and tasks. Before female right activists jump at my throat, what I mean is that these women do physically trying tasks that require a male physique: working on construction sights lifting heavy bricks, shovelling, or do work at places which is really not the norm back home in Europe: car repair centers, for example.

Our Chinese visa slowly reached it’s mid-term, so we decided to pick up the pace a little bit and hitchhike. At times, we were slower than snails though, when the smallest possible truck got a flat tire, and there were times I (Balazs) had to drive myself. Right before Chengdu a young driver, Yan, picked us up. Yan, though couldn’t speak a word of English, was very courteous and kind. He drove us for 280km, which took a trying nine hours due to the ever so curvy mountainous roads, and didn’t allow us to pay a dime. Even treated us to a heavenly Sichuan meal on the road at a pitstop. And get this: upon arrival we had a few bites for dinner in a teahouse before going to sleep in our hostel, and when we wished to pay the next day we found out he already settled all our bills in secret. Well yeah, this is what Chinese people are like. Interesting, as we were told quite the contrary (both by expats and Chinese) before departing on our journey. We were told that inviting others, treating others is not a common practice in China and yet there we were, enjoying the opposite. The next day we hit the streets in 25 degrees and humidity, to enjoy the trees with their large, green crowns. Having finally returned to the warm climate, we hit downtown in T-shirts and shorts, a much needed change after all the freezing we’ve gone through. On the road we couldn’t get enough of the sights and kept nudging each other “Check it out! Bamboo!”, or“Look, banana tree!”, or“By God, those are some enormous palm leaves!”What can I say, we are indeed getting closer and closer to the tropics!

And what did we look for and find in Leshan? How did we get there and what happened in Chengdu? How did our journey commence afterwards? You will find out from our next blogpost. Stay tuned! 

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:47