Sichuan Sichuan was the location of my last venture into China in 2006. Leaving at the beginning of May, the timing proved to be a bit awkward as this is when all of China goes on vacation (Labor Day/Week), much like the beginning of August in Europe. This itinerary was less structured than previous trips in China. Upon setting off, all I really knew was that my wife and I would be flying in and out of Chengdu, and in between traveling along the Sichuan/Tibet highway. Sichuan (translated as "four rivers") has been dubbed the "Heavenly Kingdom", due to its vast landscape of mountainous terrain, powerful rivers and high plateaus. But aside from the magnificent scenery, Sichuan is perhaps most renowned for its fiery hot, chili laden cuisine. Chengdu turns out to be much bigger than I imagined, with a population of over four million. For most Western tourists, Chengdu is a perfunctory layover on the way to Tibet. China has strict rules regarding visiting Tibet, with few locations allowed as entrance points. Many tourists travel to Chengdu, then sign up for phantom sight-seeing tours in order to receive their travel visas, at which point they then carry on to the land of the Dalai Lama. Chengdu is quite vibrant and easy to negotiate, the locals friendly and helpful. An afternoon visit to Renmin Gongyuan (People's Park) presents an opportunity to see what the Chinese love to do most: dance. The park is sprawling with ad-hoc groups, gracefully gliding to Chinese music from individual boom-boxes. I am instantly befriended by many locals and, for a change, can now carry on reasonable conversations in Mandarin. My linguistic achievement seems to impress, at least enough that some allow me the privilege to photograph them. Peoples Park also shows off the second favorite pastime of the Chinese; relaxing languorously while sipping from endless flasks of tea (and possibly playing cards or some sort of gambling game at the same time.... their third favorite activity!). All in all, the first day in Chengdu surpasses expectations, the city appearing vibrant and relaxed, bustling but not intimidating. The next day was spent visiting some of Chengdu's cultural sights, including the Green Ram Temple and Dufu's cottage, home of the famous Tang dynasty poet. Chinese tourists abound and the day proves to be a real challenge in transportation as free taxis are more difficult to find than in mid-town New York at rush-hour. Later that evening, a visit to Chengdu's most popular Huo Guo (hot-pot) restaurant proves to be an incendiary oral roller coaster, as chili infused meat and vegetables are washed down with ice-cold beer. The evening is completed by late-night packing for the next day’s eight-hour bus ride to Kangding. Kangding has been termed a frontier town due to its lively, Tibetan influences. Indeed, the shops and markets abound with Tibetan goods, produce and souvenirs. A good deal of the restaurants serve Tibetan food and the streets are filled with Tibetans, unmistakably different from their Han counterparts, the men in cowboy hats, sunglasses, flowing long hair, riding custom motorcycles, the women in native dress with multi-colored aprons, their long black hair braided in twists. After an afternoon of seeing the town, the next day is spent at a nearby alpine lake, Mugucuo. The weather and scenery are quite spectacular. So too, unfortunately, are the hordes of Chinese tourists that have descended upon, or rather are ascending up, the winding trails to this serene spot. The Chinese, naturally, have created quite the chaotic tourist environment here, with endless bus lines for ferrying visitors to the starting point of the walk. Despite the tedium and the normal doses of Chinese kitsch, Mugucuo's sheer beauty dominates, with snow-covered alpine peaks studding the lake boundaries, making the trip a worthwhile endeavor. An early call followed the next morning for another grueling Chinese bus ride, this time to Litang, a 4,000m high city in the heart of Tibetan Sichuan. The ride was promised to last eight hours, but it was a good 10+ hours before we pulled into the dusty and non-descript Litang bus station. Along the way, the neighbor to our front became sick, making a narrow escape to the window to relieve his churning stomach. For the rest of the ride he sat by the open window, alternately smoking and spitting. Though the draft was icy cold, no one dared ask him to close it, as we all feared another sudden attack. Our driver did an excellent job keeping us awake, blasting his blaring horn around each naked bend, as he passed each car, or went through any town. We snuck up on no one. But the ride itself was wonderfully scenic, high plateaus and twisting mountain passes, flapping Tibetan prayer flags, snow-capped peaks glistening in the distance as we huffed, puffed, honked and spat our way on to Litang. Litang is a dry town, but not in the conventional sense. Indeed alcohol can be bought at just about any store. No, its dryness pertains to the condition, that a town at 4,000m has a basic problem: water pressure. The hotel, the best in town (nightly cost $15), provides in the bathroom (a generous term) a bucket of water with a plastic ladle for washing away bodily emissions (of course there is no toilet, just a porcelain slab on the ground with an ominous black hole). The odors emanating from this room were remarkably pungent, ensuring that any and all bathroom visits were carried out instantly, if not sooner. Shower? Not a chance. The length of our stay in Litang would ultimately be determined by the degree of our progressively deteriorating body odor. Arriving in Litang, you have the unmistakable feeling that you have entered a Wyoming outpost, circa 1910. The street plan is basic and grid-like, the roads simply trailing off and disappearing into dirt at the towns' outer extremities. People don't seem to be busy and there are quite a bit of lingering Tibetans found at every corner. The main trading commodity seems to be an orange root herb/worm called chong cao. Apparently chong cao starts out as a caterpillar type of insect, and instead of morphing into a butterfly, it crawls into the ground and regenerates as a growing root herb. The people gather around in circles to admire these specimens, while a few dogged workers carefully clean the dirt off the herbs with a toothbrush. Chong cao commands a reverential respect from the locals, reminding me of my high school days and the awe we held for California pot. And chong cao is expensive. About two US dollars for each one (in Litang, $2 is a lot of money!). The herb can be grown only above 4,000m, thus making it in short supply and a good money source for the Tibetan farmers. The Chinese believe it has strong medicinal and aphrodisiac-like properties, and will often cook chong cao with a duck. Unfortunately, my chong cao initiation did not happen on this visit to Litang, so I will have to make another trip to report on its passionate side-effects. Mr. Zheng doggedly cajoles us into his restaurant, where we are given hot food and an earful of his English practice. Zheng and his wife operate a tiny stall, serving up a tasty fare of Chinese and Tibetan dishes, plus his own creation for Westerners, potato pizza. He is an endearing fellow, and praises my unworthy Mandarin endlessly. He shows me a video of a rally by Tibetans against the ban on tiger hunting. Because he smiles at the end of each sentence, I cannot tell if his sympathies lie with the tigers or the Tibetans. We finally leave him, promising to return in the morning for some pork buns. We spend most of the next day wandering around town, talking to locals and taking many pictures. The weather is spectacular; dark blue skies with just a few puffy clouds, a slight breeze, and temperatures in the mid 60's. The Tibetan homes are quite elaborate and ornamental. Colorful prayer flags flap in the breeze above each sand-colored structure, intricate and imposing metal gates mark the entrance to each courtyard. Navigating through the mazes of Tibetan alleys, we come across many friendly faces, with the Tibetan greeting of "tashi delek" being offered instead of the traditional, Chinese "ni hao". At dinner we meet a French couple on a month-long tour of Sichuan. Michel & Regine are both retired and their penchant for adventures and their willingness to "rough it", at this stage in their lives, is truly inspiring. They spend one month each year in China, knocking off the provinces one-by-one. They provide us with some helpful information as we contemplate where to go next. We decide to endure another day of shower-free conditions and tour a large Tibetan Monastery on the outskirts of Litang. Ominous rain clouds threaten in the distance (visibility is practically endless) and chained, snarling dogs keep us company along the way. The monastery is enormous, the size of a small village, and we see Nike sneaker-clad Tibetan monks, frequently on cell phones, some whizzing past us in taxis, apparently enjoying the luxuries of modernity while savoring the spirituality of their temples. Another dinner with Michel & Regine convinces us to proceed next to Moxi as we make our way to Emei Shan, a mountain supposedly of great mystical and religious meaning to the Chinese. Moxi is best known for being the starting point to the mighty Gonga Shan, which at 7550m is the highest mountain in China (outside of Tibet). The Chinese vacationers come to Moxi to visit Gonga Shan’s glacier, Hailuogou Glacier Park, which has reportedly been doomed to being yet another fine example of Chinese tourist desecration. We get an early night's sleep as we have a less than anticipated date with a jolting, 6:30am, 10 hour bus ride back to Kangding. Our plan was to overnight in Kangding, then the next day take a series of other buses, first to Luding and finally to Moxi. But that morning, luck decided to smile upon us, and as we walked away from the hotel, exorcising the memories of our ladle, bucket and porcelain slab, a friendly Chinese man, with a flashy Toyota 4WD, asked us where we were going. For the same price of the slow and dumpy Chinese bus, the man (along with what appeared to be his girlfriend and cook) drove us all the way to Luding, in just eight hours. Along the way, we stopped so he could buy about $125 worth of chong cao (evidently, he was both rich and amorous). In Luding, we were able to quickly transfer to a small mini-bus to Moxi, arriving a full day earlier than expected and in a considerably more comfortable fashion. Being a resort town for Hailuogou Glacier Park, Moxi has been built-up like many a Rocky Mountain ski resort. Somehow, the village has managed to maintain a pleasant, natural appeal, with an older section of the town completely intact. The Red Army’s Long March came through Moxi, with Mao camping out at the nearby Catholic Church (his room, and furnishings, of course still intact). The people are friendly and we spend an afternoon in the countryside, walking through farms, constantly being offered to sit and “xiu xi” (rest), while being given nuts and cherries. The local farmers are hard at work, harvesting grains (the casings look like string beans) that grow in the quaint, valley fields. We decide to avoid the glacier (and the tourists), and are rewarded with fine weather, affording us many breathtaking views of Gonga Shan, its sharp peaks piercing the deep blue sky. A rendezvous with a Chinese bus (actually we have two buses to look forward to) awaits us the next morning en-route to Emei Shan. First we travel to Ya’an, a communication hub along the Sichuan/Tibet highway, and from there we transfer to an Emei Town bus. The journey is quite tolerable and we reach our hotel, The Teddy Bear, in Baoguo Village by mid-afternoon. The most noticeable difference around Emei is the presence of Westerners. Kangding, Litang and Moxi had just a sprinkling, but Emei draws the backpacking crowd, and we are thrust back into the typical, multi-national, internet café ambiance. The Teddy Bear walls are lined with hand-written tips and announcements from some of the other poor souls who have weathered the rain, fog, fierce monkeys and otherwise foul conditions to clamber up to the summit at 3100m. Emei Shan, along with Putuoshan, Wutai Shan and Jiuhua Shan, represents the four Buddhist mountains from China’s past. These mountains are dotted with temples and monasteries, often having spectacularly unusual names: there’s the Pure Sound Pavilion, the Elephant Bathing Pool, the Crouching Tiger Monastery and the Venerable Trees Terrace, to name but a few. Many of the original temples have long succumbed to the perils of nature, but even the newer ones are reputed to be quite impressive. Despite the gloomy weather, we plan our assault of the mountain for the next morning, intending to spend one day climbing, one day ridge-walking between monasteries and the last day descending. The written warnings on the Teddy Bear walls, covering everything from the attacking chimps to the dampness that permeates every inch of your body, pack and luxury sleeping quarters (in the Buddhist Monasteries), do nothing to dissuade our enthusiasm, and the next morning, after a typical backpacker breakfast of a banana and chocolate pancake, we set off into the mist. Almost instantly, we are befriended by Jan and Lune, a delightful Danish couple, who along with their kids, Amalia (12) and Esperon (14), are on a three-month hiatus from the rigors of their jobs and schoolwork. They made excellent companions, and were able to take our minds off the infinite number of steep steps and the wretched humidity. As the path rose, small stalls selling water, soda and snacks materialized at regular intervals. But the increase in altitude also resulted in price escalation, since these merchants could easily detect the growing weariness and desperation of the panting foreigners. As the day wore on, the conditions became worse, and by the time we had effectively reached the summit, a solid rain and dense cloud were our only view. Bunking down for the night in a non-descript hotel (the Danes opted for a Monastery), the steady and rhythmic sound of the rain quickly put us to sleep and we could but dream of brighter prospects for the morning. The 5am alarm rang, but any hope of experiencing a sunrise at the top of Emei Shan was quickly dashed. Though the sky was still dark, there was no doubt as to the outdoor conditions. The morning was foul, the rain was heavy, the cold dampness was everywhere. We ate some runny eggs and tomatoes in the gloomy restaurant and contemplated our options. We had planned to rendezvous with the Danes for the supposed breath-taking sunrise, but there didn’t seem much point in braving the elements. So instead, we opted to join the many Chinese tourists and headed for the bus that would take us all the way back down to Baoguo Village. The gloom of Emei had defeated our spirit, and though the hardest part (the ascent) had been accomplished, we were disappointed to be cutting the trip short. The Danes, independently, had come to the same conclusion, and as we clambered aboard, they greeted us with dry seats, sunflower seeds and stories from their night with the monks in the Monastery. Back in Baoguo for a day, we were able to wash away the muck of Emei and in the afternoon managed to take in a few local monasteries. The following day was spent in Leshan, visiting, you guessed it, more monasteries. Leshan is home to a spectacularly large and ugly Buddha, carved into the sandstone, and draws many admiring Chinese tourists.