What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on October 12, 2015.
DAY ZERO: KUNMING
My twenty-fifth birthday. Buy apples, pomegranates, toilet paper, a bar of laundry soap, and a tiny towel. Wash clothes by hand on roof terrace of hostel. Shower and shampoo my hair. Attempt to get SIM card for phone at China Mobile, unsuccessfully.
I am terrified. My stomach on its own is clenching and occasionally its muscles buzz, like a phone. I do breathing exercises to calm down.
I’ve already done battle with China — its strange language, its rude smells and manners and streets, its essential foreignness — for a week now. It has left me exhausted and nervous for the deeper vulnerability that I know is yet to come.
At this nadir, filled with self-doubt, I receive my first friendblessing. Conrad the Swede is 18, keenly intelligent, and just arrived in Kunming to start a month-long apprenticeship with the American owner of the hostel and a nearby brewpub. He brings a vast plastic suitcase that immediately and permanently obstructs the walkway in our tiny dorm room. He speaks English at one volume only — loud, nearly shouting — and he wants to talk about philosophy. We immediately hit it off.
Over dinner at a Sichuanese place with great mushrooms and tangy-hot tofu, he asks me about my trip. Telling him about it, I grow excited again. I relax. It’s a good birthday dinner, as much as such a feast away from home and family can be satisfying. Afterwards, walking back to the hostel, the rising full moon sits red and giant, nestled in the modest skyline of Kunming.
I will leave. The adventure will happen. Yes.
DAY 1: KUNMING – PANZHIHUA – XICHANG
I wake up early and pack my half-dry t-shirts and socks. I tighten the straps on my bag. Conrad and I eat a breakfast of muesli, yogurt, fruit, and the last good coffee for a long time. I look over my maps: the Lonely Planet map of Sichuan, with a dotted line I’ve drawn between Muli and Daocheng, where no road shows; a series of grayscale terrain printouts from Google Maps. My research has not revealed a bus route or major highway between the two towns. The maps do not exactly inspire confidence.
I ask Conrad if he would like to come help me find a cab to take me to the Northwest Bus Station. Of course he would. I get that blush of relief, like my whole body unclenches. This feeling of relief surprises me. I don’t know why I still so much need my hand held.
We find a cab by the Green Lake Hotel, a concrete highrise with vast plateglass windows and rooms starting at $300USD a night. The driver seems to understand the sentence I earlier asked the hotel attendant to write out for me: Please take me to the Northwest Bus Station. I shake Conrad’s hand, he says a bon voyage, and I embark.
Thirty minutes later I’ve been deposited at the East Bus Station. By the time I realize this, though, my cabbie is long gone. My doom has not jammed.
I sweat and despair for a few minutes. People screaming at me, “Hello, hello!” Nowhere clean to sit. I almost despair. There’s nothing to do, though, except solve the problem. I dredge my memory to try to figure out how to say “Northwest.” Because of certain very literal translations I’ve run into, I suspect that West might come before North in Chinese: Westnorth. I know that North is bei, because Beijing means “Northern Capital.” And I have a hunch that Xian, another ancient capital, might have West in its name.
I convene a conference of bike taxi drivers and do a frantic dance with them, jabbing at my precious Chinese sentence and saying “Xi-bei, xi-bei,” over and over again. After conferring amongst themselves, the young cabbies who hold motorcycle helmets only as symbols of their trade, never wearing them, join me in my chant. “Xi-bei-buo, xi-bei-buo,” they say, nodding. We agree on a price, bungee my bag to a bike, and speed off.
I have no further trouble buying my ticket, and soon I’m in the dusty departures hall, looking out at a lot filled with the usual menagerie of buses. Chinese buses come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of cleanliness. Nevertheless, when thirty of them crowd a lot, it can be hard to tell one from the next. I realize I will have to ask for help again. (In fact, constantly asking for help is the nature of successful travel in China. I just don’t know it yet.) I take out my ticket and approach a nice-looking girl, but at the last moment her boyfriend swoops her into conversation. Who else looks likely to help this deaf and dumb foreigner? There’s a quiet-looking boy. I steel myself and approach him.
He looks at my ticket and smiles. He’s also going to Panzhihua. “Let’s go,” he says in English. After boarding the bus we discover that our assigned seats are right next to each other. We share a cigarette, exchange names, and then Davey John and I are friends.
Dawei Zhong, as it turns out, works at the hydroelectric power plant in Panzhihua which, he proudly informs me via the translate feature on his phone, is “The Biggest of the Eighty.” I wonder what this number means, though I’ll soon find out firsthand that the Yangtze and its tributaries are dammed again and again and again. Davey is from Nanking, and his brother studies at SUNY Old Westbury. His English improves the whole ride to Panzhihua.
At the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, the police board the bus. They demand our ID’s and spend a long time handling and photographing my passport. At some point a more senior policeman boards the bus, equipped with both a sidearm and an AR-15 on a shoulder strap. He takes the backpack of a twelve-year-old boy and intimately examines it, disgorging every pocket, palpating each strap and inch of canvas. Over ten minutes his face shifts from annoyed to furious and sweating profusely. Eventually, having found nothing, he has to shove the schoolbooks and socks and snacks back in the bag. He hands it to the boy, grimacing and still beadily examining him. Then he walks off the bus. As we pull out of the police border station we pass the “Illegal Examination Room.”
We pass fields of corn and wheat and hay and quinoa. A goatherd under a parasol. Endless haystacks and dozens of brand-new, plastic hoop houses. We watch Japanese girls drive recklessly in Drift Special: Beauty Battle. We go through tunnels that last five minutes. We eventually arrive.
Panzhihua is an industrial town built on the slopes of a gorge. Rock cliffs race hundreds of feet up above the road. The swift, broad Yangtze subdivides town, crossed by a half-dozen bridges. It is a hot four o’clock when we arrive.
Davey has offered to help me find a hotel in town, but I tell him I need to buy my bus ticket to Muli first. With his help we discover that there are no buses from Panzhihua to Muli. After a long discussion with a husky-voiced, chain-smoking fellow who’s hanging out in the ticketing hall, we determine that the only official way to get to Muli is to take a bus from Xichang, the next city over. I buy a ticket for the five-thirty bus to Xichang, and Davey walks me all the way to the ticket-taker’s booth. We shake hands and promise to stay in touch.
On the bus to Xichang I have a long conversation with a policeman going home to spend his day off with his wife and one-year-old son. Using various dictionaries, we talk about basketball, hotpot, and California. He tells me that he is not Han Chinese but instead Yi. He speaks some of his native language for me, and it’s beautiful, though I don’t think I can describe how it sounds.
As we approach Xichang I psych myself up to ask him for a hotel recommendation. But then, just as we pull through the outskirts of town, he says goodbye, the bus stops, and he gets off. We continue on without him, and my terror returns. It is dark, and I’ve been traveling for twelve hours, and I’m hungry. I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping.
We pull into the bus station, and as soon as I get off a woman comes up to me and offers me a room for 60 kuai. I follow her up the street and take the room sight unseen. It turns out to be fine, and they have zero interest in checking my passport. I lay down for a while and then go eat an enormous feast of spicy eggplant and garlicky cabbage. I like Xichang.
DAY 2: XICHANG – MULI
I wake to a great windstorm and watch as dawn reddens the surrounding hills. Lightning flashes to the south, but there is no thunder. The street below is abandoned but for the occasional motorbike speeding by. I pack my bags in the soft light. Downstairs, I have to wake up the boy sleeping on the lobby couch so that he can take the bike lock off the grease-smeared architectural glass doors to let me out. On the street, I almost lose my hat. A few dumpling shops are open, early risers sitting in the back, where the winds are stiller.
At the bus station the ticketseller refuses to give me a ticket to Muli. She thinks for a second and then writes down a sentence on a scrap of paper, puts it through the slot, and starts shout-talking with the next customer. I take the scrap of paper, confused for a moment, and then head out to the street. There I find a cabbie, show him the piece of paper, say, “Muli,” and he nods. We drive to another bus station.
I buy the last ticket for the 7:40AM bus and go queue for it. The bus ticket claims that the journey will take seven hours. The policeman last night said that it would take ten. I end up spending eleven hours on the bus, my butt falling asleep, my legs growing stiff, my bladder aching for hours at a time. I invent a TV show called, “So You Think You Can Potty Dance.” I start a novel with the line, “It is a fact universally acknowledged that when you’re holding your pee you can’t fart.” Just when I think I might wet myself, we stop at a clifftop toilet with an odor entirely its own. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever been.
Somehow my assigned seat puts me right next to the two other foreigners going to Muli this fall. They are Talita, a Brazilian lady living in Shanghai, and Marijn, a Dutchman promoting trade in Chongqing. They are spending a few days of vacation in one of the more remote corners of Tibet, kind of on accident. Nobody seems to mention the great difficulty of reaching Muli.
Once you have fought through about seven hours of muddy, bumpy busride, you enter Muli County. There are countless prayer flags at the pass, and a dozen great piles of Mani Stones. Also there are many signs and banners, all only in Chinese. There is no settlement of Tibetans here nor monastery. Instead just great piles of carved rocks, none weathered, all maybe three years old.
The bus jerks down skinny lips of dirt road, often terribly close to the thousand-foot plunge to the base of the gorge. When a car comes the other way both parties have to stop and then creep around each other. It is beautiful and nearly impassable terrain. How anyone lived here before the ubiquitous Chinese road crews took up residence is anyone’s guess.
Across the gorge are a series of Buddhist and Communist shrines. First a hillside portrait of Avalokiteshvara that must be two hundred feet from bottom to top. Around another bend, hundreds of twenty-foot tall flagpoles with long, long flags in an array that forms the Buddhist swastika. Next, on the opposing hillside stand the ubiquitous Chinese characters — white on a red field — saying, “Long Live The Communist Party Of China.” These are festooned in prayer flags. A few minutes later we see a giant starburst composed of multi-colored strands of fabric, and next to it reclines an enormous hillside portrait of Chairman Mao.
Below us, the valley floor is changed. No longer is there a ribbon of rushing water carving ever deeper its channel through the mountains. It is replaced with a large, dull lake. The color is overcooked pea soup. It is opaque. On the banks, a few old Chinese men tend fishing lines. Two cigar boats speed across it. The drama of the gorge is gone, slain by a dam.
Arriving in Muli I say goodbye to Marijn and Talita. I walk up to the top of town trying to get a view, but tall concrete walls block all the streets. As high up as I can get, but still with no vista, I set my bag down and have a cigarette. Trash blows in the evening breeze. Beyond a wrought iron fence there is a small graveyard. Stray dogs wander around, giving me side-eye. A Tibetan lady in a ratty coat comes up the hill, carrying two pails of slop on a milkmaid’s yoke. She stops next to me and sets down the pails. We smile at each other — she catches her breath — I smoke. Then she picks up her load and continues up the hill.
Back on the main street I’m having no luck finding a hotel. They seem to be all booked up, and I remember someone telling me that right now was Golden Week — a national week of vacation for students and government workers. Finally I break down and ask for help. A crowd forms as I gesture at my phrasebook, and I choose a young boy who seems to speak English to be my guide. We go to hotel after hotel, each time turned away because there’s no room or they don’t take foreigners. Meantime my guide turns out to be able to say only one word, “Restroom.” He repeats this like a mantra, gesturing at me, “Restroom, restroom, restroom!” At one hotel he tries to book a room with his ID card that he’ll then let me stay at. I try to tell him this is a bad idea — we could both get in trouble. What I actually say is, “Don’t want, don’t want.”
Back on the street it’s dark and crowded. A police SUV is making its way towards us, red and blue lights spinning manically. The boy gestures at me manically, “Arrest you! Arrest you!” I have a moment of fear and laugh nervously at the absurdity of the situation. The cops roll by us though, and there is no problem. “Restroom,” he says and leads me back down the hill.
Finally we find the one hotel in town that takes foreigners. Marijn and Talita are there trying to check in. My guide waves goodbye and leaves, surely not having expected to spend so much time helping me. The hotel has only the most expensive rooms available. For about $28USD I get a suite with queen bed, several couches, and a well-stocked mini-bar. I lay fully clothed on the bed for a while.
After some time, Marijn knocks on the door. “Jasper, do you want to come to dinner with us?” I immediately agree and hurry out of the room. We eat desultory Tibetan food — we can’t finish the pungent, greasy yak cheese dumplings — and pose for pictures with everybody in the restaurant. We make plans to have breakfast the next morning, and then we go off to our beds.
Just as I’m finishing my journal entry and about to go to sleep, a forceful knock comes at the door. I pull on some clothes and go answer it. Assembled in the hallway are the entirety of the hotel’s night staff, a uniformed police officer, and Talita. She, bless her heart, translates for me. The policeman wants to take some photos of my passport, and he also wants to know where I plan on going. I tell him Daocheng is my destination, and he says I cannot go. The rains have made the roads terrible, and it’s too dangerous. Don’t go.
I shut the door and laugh. In some ways it’s a relief to have to go back to Chinese cities, warm hostels, plentiful Westerners. I gave it my best shot, but the adventure was doomed. I’m under orders from the police not to go. I sleep.
DAY 3: OUT OF MULI
I rise early and have delicious vegetable dumplings with Marijn. Talita is feeling under the weather, unfortunately, and is getting a few more hours of sleep. Over breakfast I tell Marijn about last night’s visit from the police. “So I guess I’ll be taking the bus back to Xichang with you guys,” I say. He gives me a long look. “You’re not going to just give up because of what the police say, are you?” I laugh and say, “No, I guess I’m not.” Though before he said that I certainly was planning to do so.
I buy provisions — spicy candied peanuts, barbecued tofu shrinkwrapped in plastic, two tubes of Oreos, and six dumplings from the shop we breakfasted at — and pack my bags. Marijn hires a van to take him and Talita on a sightseeing tour outside of Muli Town, and he offers to give me a lift in the direction I’m going. We drive up a sloppy mud road, past endless gangs building footings and retaining walls for the new road to Muli. Their countless backhoes and water diversions have left the existing road a royal mess. Partway up we stop to pee next to a sloping slab of rock that runs a few hundred feet above the road. Tibetans have carved prayers and graven images into the stone. Another half-hour on, the driver points out the road to Daocheng and we take a few pictures and then part ways.
Finally, finally I begin walking. It feels great. Then a few hours later, it feels crappy. I start walking near a ridgeline and spend the whole afternoon and into evening descending on a never-ending series of switchbacks and contour lines. What takes me seven hours of walking could have been accomplished in an effortless hour on a bike. My knees ache. Endless dump trucks, backhoes, and SUVs jammed with Chinese tourists pass me, and I choke on their dust.
At some point I stop for lunch and take stock. The dumplings, it turns out, are all filled with yak cheese. I manage to choke one down. I also figure out I’m not even following the road Google Maps thought I should take. I start to think I might be going towards Muli Monastery (Muli da si in Chinese). Later I muster the courage to stop a car and ask them if this road leads to the monastery. Indeed it does. My printed-out map becomes roughly useless.
Luckily, over dumplings that morning Marijn had asked the proprietor if he had a map of Muli County. He produced a Chinese tourism guide showing the spots of touristic interest. At the front of the guide was a little map. I didn’t see it as being useful, but Marijn encouraged me to snap a picture of it with my cell phone. It ends up being the map I use for the next week, until I’ve long since, unwittingly, left it.
That night I pitch my tent just before pure darkness falls. I find a side road up a creek and pitch my tent by a pile of old coals and garbage. I eat another stinky yak cheese dumpling and some peanuts for dinner. The stream is loud all night long, and I hallucinate in its rush the sounds of motorbikes and dump trucks coming to crush me. I have bad dreams, and even in the morning light the stream sounds angry and upset and maybe even evil.
DAY 4: TO MULI MONASTERY
I sleep late and tarry in striking camp. It’s nine thirty in the morning by the time I start walking down the road, my legs tender and stiff. I chew on the words I’ve worked out in my head to hitch my first ride: Ching dai wo. Please take me. I haven’t walked more than a hundred yards, though, when a beat-up jeep skids to a stop and waves at me to get in.
Inside are two rowdy Tibetan delivery boys coming back from a run into Muli. They ply me with cigarettes and the Chinese Redbull homage called Hi-Tiger. I love the different entendres in the name of this drink, and I actually think it tastes pretty good. We bounce down the road, blasting music. Their mix-tape is awesome. The version of “Mad World” from Donnie Darko, with the great lyric, “The dreams in which I’m dying / Are the best I’ve ever had.” Then some Shania Twain. Then the theme from Lord of the Rings but with a Chinese lady singing. It’s awesome but unfortunately over too soon. They leave me in front of a billiards hall at a muddy crossroads.
A crowd stares at me, like I’m a streaker at a football game. One man comes towards me, saying something over and over again and gesturing at the ground. I look around but don’t see anything, so I leave town quickly. It turns out the man was trying to tell me that the remaining three yak cheese dumplings had burst free from their thin plastic bag which I had strapped to the outside of my backpack. They had tumbled to the mud, never to be eaten by a human. And I was … relieved.
I walk a few hours up the road, passing a man skinning the bark off fallen pine trees with an axe. The houses in Muli County are often log cabin constructions of varying quality. The worst have great chinks in the walls while the nicest are covered over in a rough stucco. I also pass an old goatherd puffing away on a pipe that smelled suspiciously of marijuana. A few turns up the road and I find its source. Mixed in on a terrace of cornstalks are a dozen tall pot plants, heavily budding but unharvested. I decide I’m tired of hauling my dratted heavy bag with these incredibly sore legs, so I find a shady spot on the side of the road to relax and wait for a ride.
After a bit I see a black SUV zipping up the road towards me, and I hurriedly pack my stuff and go wave it down. The two Chinese men in it just wave as they pass me in a cloud of dust. A while later the bus to Muli Monastery comes and I get on it.
When the bus stops for lunch, I just stand around awkwardly smoking a cigarette. Eventually a Chinese girl comes up to me and asks if I want to have lunch with her. My policy on this trip is to say yes, whenever possible, so I go in to the little truckstop eatery and eat with Tsien lu and her Tibetan boyfriend, Jasi. She’s a terrorism student in Xichang while he works in administration in the county seat, Muli. We have a nice conversation about travel in Tibet, and they reveal that they too are going to Muli da si. Jasi’s uncle is a monk there.
When we finally get to the bottom of the monastery road, hours later, we three walk up it together. Jasi tells me that the ravine we’re coming up on is called “Buddha’s Gift,” a spring of fast-flowing, pure mountain water. There is a low-slung temple where the road passes the torrent of water. In front of it, Jasi burns an offering of juniper leaves. Their smoke is sweet and oily. We march around the smoky little fire three times, counter-clockwise, as Jasi and a monk chant. Then, having paid obeisance to the Buddha, we walk up the stream and clean our faces in its water. I drink a little, and it tastes pure.
Now, Jasi tells Tsien lu and me, we are ready to see the face of the Buddha. As we walk up the road to the monastery, Jasi notices a patch of rainbow floating in the eastern sky. This, he tells me, means the Buddha is very happy to receive me. The rainbow, more a spot really, stays a long time looking down on us.
At the monastery, Jasi asks one of the monks where I can camp. Apparently I can camp anywhere in the monastery grounds. I choose a spot by the first building to be rebuilt after the whole complex was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. It is somewhat private, and it has and incredible view of the valley below. Before I go to sleep I look a long time at the stars, visiting Cassiopeia, Orion, Libra, Scorpio, the Big Dipper. The Milky Way seems a vast field, and the hills softly glow in the starlight. I sleep well and dream not at all.