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The Year of Living Differently #3: Horses, Trains & Muddy Public Buses – Lijiang to Chendu, China

TIME : 2016/2/27 15:51:47

2: Horses, Trains & Muddy Public Buses

The 9-hour bus-ride spun me round and round downhill from Lijiang to Panzhihua. Panzhihua must be the opposite of what Lijiang is. It was set by a brown river, had many factories with chimneys (even nuclear reactor sorts) churning out toxins and pollutants constantly. The apartment buildings perched precariously on the banks of the rivers were grey, ugly and grotty. Panzhihua was smog-filled and utterly depressing-looking.

I must be getting to the ‘real’ China, I thought. I had to start getting used to this sort of view, instead of the prettified touristy towns I had just been to. Another bus took me to the train station at the nearby town, Jinjiang. And then, there was a mad rush for tickets for the train to Chengdu which was leaving in less than an hour!

The ticket-seller must have thought I was a local. She practically shoved the ‘hard seat’ ticket to me. This was cheap and mostly purchased by the locals. I was elbowed out of the ticket-window before I had a chance to inquire about the ‘hard sleeper’ option. Oh well…

I would have to treat this train-ride to Chengdu as one of those character-building experiences in my life. It was 13 hours of upright sleeping for me in a cramped set of seats facing each other and a tiny table that barely jutted out for the four of us to share. The lights were left on the whole night. I couldn’t move a notch because the girl sitting next to me was almost glued to my hips as she leaned on the tiny table to sleep. I had to dance my toes around to prevent dying from the economy class syndrome. Later, I almost reeled in shock when I finally and desperately went to the toilet. My butt could touch the pile of shit if I squatted a tad too low. One never breathed in the toilets of China.

CHENGDU, CHINA – 10 May, 2002
I woke up to a very foggy Sichuan Province. And when I reached Chengdu, it had the same thick fog hanging around the city. Visibility was incredibly low. It felt like there was a soft-focus lens in front of my eyes permanently and I was posing in some cheesy wedding photos.

I didn’t read my guidebook properly and hopped onto the wrong bus. I was made to get off at some random spot and spent the next hour wandering around the blurry city to locate my hotel. Not the most pleasant experience considering the awful sleeping condition I was in the night before.

Weather was shitty, I was tired. Slept the rest of the afternoon in, I must say, the best dorm room I had been so far.

LESHAN, CHINA – 11 May, 2002
I hadn’t had anything planned for Chengdu and when a dorm-mate Alex (but this time, female Alex from Germany) said she was going to Leshan to see the Grand Buddha, I decided to join her.

It would have been a great temple-park, had it not been so expensive. It was Y40 to enter. And this was almost the first time I paid admission and I couldn’t quite get used to it. Yeah, I know. I was being Miss Cheap-skate. This was a park where a 71m Grand Buddha had been carved into the side of the cliff overlooking the confluence of two rivers. Even sitting down, this was the largest buddha in the world. The next largest was the recently destroyed one in Bamian, Afghanistan. There were a few interesting temples around.

The Grand Buddha was impressive nonetheless. It had been carved around AD 713. I believe this was an endangered treasure as major restoration work had been done to it for past decades to save it. The rock where it was carved into was soft, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Giant Buddha should collapse down the side one day. Also, foliage continued to grow in between its ears, fingers and toes.

One thing many Chinese tourists loved was to pose in tacky ‘make-believe’ shots. There was a photo-shoot going on where tourists (inadvertently Chinese) could pay Y15 or so to stand on a bench and point their index finger. The photographer would try to take a picture of them digging into the Grand Buddha’s nose or something. Very kitsch.

The day continued to be foggy and depressing. The only cheer I got for the rest of the day was to discover Chengdu had a hypermarket Carrefour where I could shop for groceries like the city girl that I am and pay at real cash registers.

CHENGDU, CHINA – 12 May, 2002
I joined the Panda Tour organised by my hostel. I figured since there was no public transportation there, I might as well join a tour. Big mistake. It had been raining since 8pm last night and it didn’t stop by this morning either. If I had a choice, I would continue to lie in my warm bed. But since I had already coughed up the money, I had to go.

The weather was really bad. There was no chance to walk around and wander at your own pace. It just rained and rained and rained. We saw about five or six pandas around the compounds but I guess the rest were smart by cozying up to their beds to avoid the chills.

The rain continued for the rest of the day, lasting close to 24 hours. Female Alex was leaving Chengdu tonight for Lijiang. She bet that once she left Chengdu, the next day would be glorious and blue. Such was her luck, she complained. We shall see.

CHENGDU, CHINA – 13 May, 2002

And female Alex was right!! Today was indeed glorious and blue. What a difference the sun made to my impression of Chengdu. I started to like Chengdu already.

I had to take my third and last shot of anti-rabies injection to complete the course. Before I left Singapore, I only had time to take two shots. I asked for directions to the Vaccination Clinic and I found myself in a dodgy part of town, right next to a wet market.

Indeed, I saw the sign for the Vaccination Clinic but it was selling tires and bicycle parts. Hmm…. A few steps later brought me to a hospital-looking part and I felt relieved. That was more like it, I told myself.

But wandering in the hospital was fruitless, I kept being directed to the back exit. Finally, an impatient cleaning lady practically shoved me out of the back exit and I stood facing a back alley with the smell of urine around. I spun around and finally, saw the recently relocated Vaccination Clinic. It was indeed in a dodgy part of town, next to the wet market.

I explained my requirement for an anti-rabies shot and the lady puzzled over it for a while before deciding on ‘the French vaccine’. It cost me Y60. This was strange. One shot in Singapore cost me almost Y600 and I was warned that it would be much more expensive to take the shot in China as I would be treated as an expatriate. But, this was only Y60? What had I just been jabbed with?

CHENGDU, CHINA – 14 May, 2002
Many of the back streets of Chengdu would turn into fantastic markets and there were just so many cheap eateries around.

Dali and Lijiang mainly catered to tourists so many people could speak standard Mandarin. Here, many people only spoke the Sichuan dialect. If they spoke slowly, I could just about make it out as it was a little similar to Mandarin. And it was great at some places, where the friendly locals made the extra effort to try and chat with me.

There are many temple parks around Chengdu. I had visited a Taoist temple yesterday and today, I lounged around in a Buddhist temple. There were signs in front telling people to respect the temple grounds and they should not 1) spit, 2) raise their voices, 3) gamble, etc… among other things.


  1. Try telling the Chinese not to spit. Every other corner, I could still hear the ‘aaarrrrrggghhhh-pttyui’!
  2. Try telling the Chinese not to raise their voices… Some who couldn’t find their grannies, friends or children were shouting into every temple to track them down.

  3. Try telling the Chinese not to gamble. The temple garden was filled with scores and scores of old geezers playing mahjong (a game with tiles played by four people).

On the other side of the temple park, was the tea area. The place had low tables and bamboo chairs where a great number of locals were sitting, smoking, chatting and sipping tea. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

CHENGDU to SONGPAN, CHINA – 15 May, 2002
I decided against going to Chongqing (my original plan) to take the Three Gorges Cruise as I didn’t fancy like being cooped up in a tin can for a few days with smokers and spitters.

Today, I headed north to Songpan for a horse-trek so that I could be in the wilderness for a few days with smokers and spitters.

Songpan turned out to be located at an altitude of 3000+m. Ooops. I hadn’t planned on going to such a high altitude yet so I was not prepared for it, clothes-wise.

Songpan used to be a walled city and still had some remaining walls, gates and bridges around town. It was a very charming little town, I thought. There was just one main road with tiny streets branching to the left and right. Most of the buildings were rather old. At night, the road was lit, if at all, by strings of bulbs.

My hostel window opened up to the North Gate. Lovely view. But there were no hot showers in this hostel. So, one had use the public showers which were permanently heated by hot stoves. This was more reliable than electricity. Indeed, the shower was hot but the shower curtains putrid. I believe new mould was growing on top of the old mould.

SONGPAN, CHINA – 16 May, 2002
There were eight of us on this horse trek: Natalie, Fanny, Nadege (from France, also on a RTW), Robin and Louise (from England), Yuval and Tal (from Israel) and myself. Which means there were eight horse-guides, one for each of us. We were on a 4-day trek to the Ice Mountain.

Along the way out to the countryside, the horse-guides were singing and yodelling ‘mountain songs’ and sometimes, Chinese pop songs. We climbed slowly up the hills for about five hours. We were surrounded by pristine alpine scenery. Pine trees, rushing streams, Tibetan prayer structures and villages and a wonderful sunny day… it was brilliant.

At the first campsite, the horse-guides dismounted everything and prepared lunch and set up the tents. We did not need to do anything at all. We simply wandered around the area, waited to be fed, got fed and took naps.

That night, we had a huge campfire. And like all campfires, one, regardless of training, had to sing. I coughed and coughed and managed to save them the ordeal of hearing me sing. The horse-guides had been drinking whiskey like water the whole day and were quite drunk by nightfall. Thankfully, they took over most of the singing. This was especially true of our ruddy-cheeked leader, Tong. He had the typical sun-burnt and wind-swept faces that one saw quite commonly around these areas. He just sang song after song.

I was freezing cold. It must had been close to 5�C. My guide (hereafter named as ‘Old Geezer’) helped me into a Tibetan yak coat. The middle portion of the coat was gathered around the waist and then a sash was tied just below the waist. I felt like a pregnant whale.

SONGPAN, CHINA – 17 May, 2002
The second day was a shorter ride but up much steeper terrain. At a muddy portion around a hill, my horse tripped and threw me off! I was glad my boots were not caught in the stirrups and I managed to get on my feet in a second, albeit with muddier pants now.

A few horse-guides jumped down to save me and, noting I was still alive, struggled to get the horse upright which by now had started panicking and squirming around in the mud.

We were camped near a Tibetan village. I wandered around and chatted with some of the locals sunning themselves in the hills. The kids all had snot half-flowing out of their noses. They requested photos which I would have to try and send to them after I got them developed.

We played cards among ourselves and with one of the guides – Nigatow. He looked nine or ten but must have been made to tell us tourists he was 15 so that we would not be too disgusted. He was always ordered around to do stupid errands by the other horse-guides. He seemed to be constantly being blamed or whacked for certain things done wrong (even if he put down the wrong card in our card games!). Poor dear.

It was colder tonight. Then, it rained. And the tent leaked…

SONGPAN, CHINA – 18 May, 2002
A very drunk Tong had broken his tooth trying to open a beer bottle with his teeth last night. Today, he was still bleeding. For painkiller, Fanny gave him morphine (!!) and I was to translate to him that he should not drink alcohol if he took this medication. Asking him not to drink must be like asking him not to breathe. Surprisingly, he promised me.

I was changed to a different horse which was more steady and less likely to throw me off on the ride today which was up steeper hills, round and round mountain tracks and finally, up a switch-back of track on loose slate rocks.

At the valley to view the Ice Mountain, we dismounted and the horses were gathered to be brought back by the guides. A pity the Ice Mountain was blocked by clouds today. After a short rest, we walked down back to the campsite.

Yuval was wearing the thick yak coat when, at one point trying to cross the streams across a fallen log, he fell in and the current took him for quite a distance. When we came upon the streams, he had just dragged himself and the heavy wet yak coat up, hahaa…

Back at the tents, we played poker for the rest of the evening. The winner would give the losers a forfeit to perform the next day. As the game continued, it was left to Tal and I. I had the majority of the pebbles for a long while now. But each time we raised every pebble that Tal had, he would win them back. So, the game just went on into the night. Finally, at 9pm, I had a good hand – 2 Queens and 2 Eights and I decided to put ‘all in’. And Tal followed! In the end, he won with Full House. And this was his fourth Full House in the past four hours. Such luck he had, argh! So, Tal won.

At the campfire, two horse-guides were drying their boots, socks and clothes. They had gone and done the Yuval-thing and had fallen into the stream too! We laughed at them hysterically.

The horse-guides now blamed me for disallowing Tong to drink. According to them, a sober Tong had made life miserable for them today. Whiskey-less Tong did not even sing one song tonight. We took over and taught them a lot of silly songs. Naturally, I had to provide translation for both sides to the best of my ability.

SONGPAN, CHINA – 19 May, 2002
I continued to express concern about Tong’s bleeding gum. The horse-guides said that if Tong died, they would just chop him up and eat him, no problem.

Two horses were missing this morning. A few horse-guides went up to the mountains to look for the horses and it took two hours or so before they were located.

Tal finally thought of his forfeit for us poker losers. We were to kiss our horse-guide on the lips. Huh?? My horse-guide was Old Geezer with bad teeth and bad breath! “Tal, I can’t do this forfeit. I’m Asian.” I stated.

We returned to Songpan by a different route today and passed by even more Tibetan villages. Nearing a particular village, our horses seemed to know that this was a rest-stop and raced one another to get there. It was really fun! We stopped for lunch and wandered around the interesting village for a while.

We finally reached Songpan by late evening. I felt like the Lone Ranger riding into town. Yeeha! Yuval’s horse freaked out when it neared a truck and threw him off! Meanwhile, my horse wouldn’t cross a bridge and had to be dragged by Old Geezer forcefully. I wonder why they reacted like this?

This had been a wonderful horse-trek and I would recommend it to anyone coming to Songpan. We used Shun Jiang Horse Trekking Company.

SONGPAN to ZOIGE, CHINA – 20 May, 2002

I left the next morning to Zoige in a muddy, rattling bus. The only other tourist on this bus was Jane from Ireland. The passengers were mostly Tibetan men and many were dressed in their typical thick yak coats. They had wild hair and very dark complexions. Many also had reddish sun-burnt, wind-swept cheeks. Tied to their sashes were gold, elaborately-decorated daggers.

After three hours of bumpy, jiggly, bouncy ride uphill, we reached a plateau and a few Tibetan men threw tiny square-shaped multi-coloured Wind Horse papers into the air and chanted. I guess that must had been an important place because the whole area was strewn with such papers.

Then, it was four more hours of even wilder, bumpier, jigglier, bouncier ride across the barren plateau. I am not joking about the ride. Many times, I was flying in the air. And sitting next to a bale of barbed wire, I was very nervous about falling off my seat. Jane actually hit her head on the roof of the bus and slammed her chin against the seat in front of her when she crashed down!

The plateau was cold and empty. A few yurt settlements were in the distance. Why they are here, I had no idea.

The grounds by the side were soft peat so the only possible road was this awful muddy track. Soon, the mountains by the side had snow on them. Then, the ground on either side had spots of snow. Yaks became more and more common. Finally, the whole area was covered in snow. I started to get nervous. I had no idea what I was getting myself into as no one mentally prepared me for this part of the trip.

Finally, in the distance, out of nowhere, we saw a settlement. It looked like a gulag in Siberia (if I may hazard a guess on how a gulag might look)… like a re-education camp. Zoige was freezing cold, windy, muddy and utterly, utterly depressing. There were a few half-yaks-half-men, Tibetan monks and beggars wandering around in the biting wind. Sad-looking motor-trishaws drove around the near-empty streets, looking for fares. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, it started to rain. The temperature dipped below 5�C.