I took advantage of my students' mid-term exams to take a long-awaited trip to Sichuan province. Time was limited so I decided to cut the 30 plus hour train journey and splash out on a 3 hour flight to Chengdu and back.
The flight, the shuttle bus and the free map they gave us made getting to my hostel a dream. I'd somehow managed to get a dorm bed for 10 kuai a night which was even better. What didn't sound good though was that they told me that, as a foreigner, I couldn't get to where I wanted to go on the bus. Although not in Tibet, there are Tibetan villages round Jiu Zhai Gou and Songpan and the rules change every now and then. It seemed I needed a permit, that it would take 2 days, and I would have to go on a trip- with shopping! Anathema.
The next day I asked again and, after a phone call, it emerged that things were back to normal. I could go, no permit, no trip, no shopping. I was back in action.
I spent the first day at the panda breeding centre in Chengdu and was fascinated, especially by the interaction between a mother and her child. So much caring, playing and touching. The afternoon was devoted to trying the hot hot-pot of Sichuan. We had the 'hong guo' (spicy) and had to choose skewers of various meats, vegetables and tofu to dip in our side of the pot. As it's so hot you have a little dish of peanut oil to cool it. You need it. The rest of the day was devoted to tea drinking in one of the many open air tea houses the locals frequent - for hours - watching the world go by, having a hair cut, playing cards or generally relaxing with a huge flask of water to replenish your cup.
The following day I took the bus to Jiu Zhai Gou, through earthquake country, with rebuilt roads but we were slowed by several landslides and the 10 to 12 hours quoted by LP became 13. No matter. Jiu Zhai Gou was beautiful, albeit expensive with the usual hefty entrance fee of 220 kuai plus 90 for the bus that took you to the beauty spots. I did take it so I could get to all parts in one day and walked back admiring the bright greens and blues of the lakes, the distant snow-capped mountains and meeting people along the way.
I arrived back at my hostel having walked about 20 miles in the day. There was just me and a Moroccan-French man in there as, apparently, there's accommodation for 20,000 people. Nightmare.
The next day I caught the bus to Songpan, a small town with an ethnic mix of Hui (Moslem) people, Han and Tibetans, so it was interesting to see the different dress. Everyone was genuinely friendly and I had a long chat in Chinese with my hostel manager's mother which was great. 3 little girls chatted away to me in the clearest putonghua I've heard to date. The locals had the most incredible rosy cheeks from the mountain air. We were at 3500 metres in the mountains.
I booked a 2 day horse-trekking trip, my main reason for going there, and loved every moment. There was me, two Chinese Malaysians and the 3 guides/cooks. 5 men and me. All Chinese speakers. It was liberating to be out in the mountains again, with no steps and the horse riding felt great in the sunshine with fantastic scenery. We rode for 3 or 4 hours before arriving at our lunch, dinner and sleeping spot at the hot springs park whose name I can't remember. The hot springs weren't very hot and there was ice around. Our guides were lovely, the food was cooked on a wood burner in the hut and we ate good simple food, drank lots of tea and chatted. We had local breads, a fried tofu dish that was very tasty, a potato with ox meat dish, all basic but good. Accommodation was basic too and I opted for sleeping solo when offered, in my own VIP hut. Once settled on a mat on the floor, with a sleeping bag that was none too clean, I suspect, a blanket and a big thick coat over me I felt snug …. And as always when I know the loo is a long way off, dying for the loo all night.
I washed, Karrimor style, in the cold stream in the morning before we set off on a different route back.
I opted to fly back to Chengdu from the local airport to give myself enough time to go to Leshan to see the Big Buddha. There were a lot of tour groups there and after the tranquility of the previous few days I didn't particularly enjoy it so I spent the rest of the day drinking tea! In the process of this I met an Englishman. Aged 50 he told me, out of shape, who was married to a Chinese woman. He spoke no Chinese, she spoke no English. He was as happy as Larry . Mmmmm.
That was all I had time for, possibly my last trip in China … this time anyway.