Tag Archives: Sichuan 蜀

Postcard from Panzhihua

Parched hills, muddy waterJust a picture here snapped through the train window of the approach to Panzhihua. Grimy tracks, muddy water (that’s the Jinsha), and dusty, scrub brush-covered hills. This is mining country, and we’re just passing through on our way to the cool, verdant tourist country of northern Yunnan. Hopefully we don’t get stuck behind too many coal trucks en route.

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Western Goodness

Qionghai LakeWe’re out of the mountains, momentarily, and down in the city of Xichang (the name’s meaning is the title of this post). The last three days were quite a ride, but we’re happy to be trading the inevitable surprises of rural bus travel for the relative certainty of train schedules tomorrow. And today we’re enjoying a whole lot of doing nothing, which in Owen’s case means keeping extremely busy. And this city is perfect for that.

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At First Sight of Beautiful Girl, We See a Good Reason to Spend the Night

Beautiful Girl, as seen from the streetOn Saturday, I lost my voice. I blame a combination of coal dust, secondhand smoke inhalation, and lack of soap in the bathrooms. Saturday was also the day we began our bus trip across a slice of particularly rural Sichuan province. We decided to cut through the Yi Autonomous Region, ostensibly in order to reach the train line in Xichang, but our real reason for coming through here was just to see what’s going on in these parts.

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Postcard from Leibo

Watching the cranes roll inWe’re in Leibo, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, a county seat perched high on a cliffside over the Jinsha River. We got here in just 3+ hours from Yibin, due to the modern marvel of the new gorge-spanning, mountain-piercing highway. This place is being opened up, and that’s probably a very good thing.

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Postcard from Yibin

PedicabToday begins a sort of second phase to our trip. The Yangtze ends here in name; farther up, its longest tributary is called the Jinsha River. Following it (roughly) westward into the mountains of Yunnan Province, we’ll be heading into some more remote areas, many populated by various ethnic minorities. We’ll also surely encounter booming market towns and unbelievable highway projects, as the Chinese government races to “develop the west.” And in northern Yunnan, we may find ourselves a couple westerners among many, as we join the backpackers who flock to the area’s famous attractions. In any case, we’ll be seeing a very different part of China. Stay tuned.

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In Southern Sichuan, You Can’t Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

Southern SichuanOur latest story begins in the hills of southeastern Sichuan, near the Guizhou border, where there are found mysterious concentrations of ancient wooden coffins, perched high up against the limestone cliffs. They are 1,000-year-old remnants of the Bo people, a long-lost ethnic group that once populated this mountainous area. The bigger mystery, though, is how our visit there went so suddenly awry.

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In Chengdu, Following the Government’s Instructions to ‘Not Miss Home’

Hey Panda, don't miss home!For the past three days, we put on hold our thematically-consistent travels up the Yangtze. We bid the river a brief goodbye back at Songji and rode a train northwest across the Sichuan basin to its opposite end at Chengdu. We’re here to take a look at this famously laid-back provincial capital, and to do some relaxing ourselves. Fortunately, that part of our plan complies with the city government’s current tourism development campaign. The part of our plan that didn’t mesh with what the government planned for us was our choice of accomodation.

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Huang Journey Part the Fourth: Langmusi (highlight), Lanzhou (low, low, lowlight)

On the bus from Xiahe to Langmusi, the horn honks. There’s another car in the road. There are people on the side of the road. And places where there aren’t cars or people, but very well might be. The horn honks at all these places, sometimes short, often long, always loud.


We walk up behind the gold-roofed monastery in this tiny, foggy, high-altitude (10,000 feet) Tibetan town. On our walk we happen upon a sprawling sky burial site, where we step carefully around bones (some still pink with marrow), vulture feathers, hatchets, knives. [A sky burial is a Tibetan ritual where the deceased person’s body is taken to a designated place outside of town, where it is then hacked apart; vultures know the drill and swoop down to carry the meaty bits to the heavens, while the bones stay, chopped-up, on earth.] These are the first human bones I’ve ever seen, and I hold my breath. We walk through the burial site, lifting paper prayers with our shoes as we climb the ridge to peer over into Gansu province. All below us, green and mountainous and unpopulated, it spreads. Sichuan, to our backs, is craggy, black, misty mountains. The red roofs of Langmusi look like tiles below us.

They advertise pie at all the backpacker restaurants here. We order a slice of apple. It is more like a fried crepe with apple goo inside. Almost correct, almost.

There is a bar in town called Theme Bar. As if someone suggested that it would be smart to open a theme bar, and someone else took that idea and ran a very, very short distance with it.

Our second day, we pick a mountain on the edge of town that looks not-too-huge and endeavor to reach the top of it. There are no trails, and on the way up we get stuck on the wrong side of a chest-high cattle-enclosure fence. We take turns scaling it, and pass Owen across. The cows are nonplussed. We trek on, through high altitude flowers and wet grass lumps, up the steep bank of the mountain, until we finally reach the summit, which is rich with prayer flags whipping in the 11,500-foot wind. We are utterly alone, though far up the cave-filled valley we can see a herder with his sheep. On our descent, the vultures from the adjacent sky burial site circle low above us, eyeing a sleeping Owen. I admit, he does look deliciously fat, but unfortunately for the birds of prey, he is undead, and we carry on.

We move, by bus, to Linxia, a biggish city, where we climb up a 5-story Taoist temple at the edge of town. Our afternoon is free, so we walk behind the temple and…just keep walking. City turns to country, and we’re padding through a string of rural farming villages that look and smell like home (Vermont, that is). The sprawl of Linxia is invisible and inaudible. We are maybe ½ a mile from the city, but we’re completely in the countryside. A woman rolls up the dirt road on her bike and asks, “Are you from the Soviet Union, or America?”

At the chicken and potatoes restaurant, I change the baby’s diaper and (accidentally) leave the diaper on the floor when we go. We are becoming Chinese!

We board a speedboat to see Bingling Si, old Buddhist rock carvings in a grotto down a canyon. On our boat, Chinese men smoke cigarettes underneath the “no smoking” sign, and they toss empty plastic bottles out the boat’s window into the reservoir. The scenery is Utah on steroids. The Buddhas are, indeed, very old, though the star attraction (a 100-foot-tall Buddha) is under construction and unviewable. We take a golf cart ride up the canyon 3 kilometers to a remote monastery, where a garrulous monk shows us a stunning Tang-dynasty seated goddess, all gold and mascara-eyes. On the cart ride back, we pass canyon cows and a bird with a broken wing. Our driver slows the cart to watch the bird flapping futile-y on the canyon floor, then laughs out loud (the nervous Chinese laugh that substitutes for outward empathy).

From Linxia to Lanzhou by hired car/driver. The driver informs us that he will honk the horn frequently “for the baby’s safety.” And how! He honks at dogs in the bushes, cars in the other lane, people in their yards and on their front porches: 3 hours of nonstop honking. But, man, is the baby safe.

A few years back, Lanzhou held the title of the Most Polluted City in the World. It’s cleaned up its act and moved down the list a few notches, but it’s still basically a shithole. Everyone smokes, the restaurants are filthy, the streets are strewn with trash, and as we walk to our hotel we watch a 10-year-old girl take a giant dump in the middle of the sidewalk. Men strip down to their undershirts and get wasted on bai jiu (white liquor) at lunch. In our hotel, businessmen chain-smoke and drink heavily with the doors wide open (to let the smoke out and also to be social with other rooms of businessmen on the same hall), 24 hours a day. They leave their doors open while they’re in the bathroom, and leave the bathroom doors open, too. I watch a woman fix her make-up in her bathroom as I walk to my room. At lunch, the chef takes his shirt off while he cooks. The museum we came to see is closed for a “rest day.” We leave hastily.

NEXT STOPS: ONTO YINCHUAN TO SEE TOMBS IN THE DESERT, THEN TO INNER MONGOLIA FOR GRASSLANDS AND YURTS AND CHINESE TOUR GROUP SHENANIGANS

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