Chaiyo chaiyo, fighting fighting!

What to do when you feel like your muscles and your fitness have disappeared? After two and a half lazy weeks fattening up on Sichuan food in the big smoke? You walk up a mountain and walk back down again. But first we visit a giant Buddha.

The Giant Buddha of Leshan

Imagine our happiness to be back on the bicycle again! We spend two very enjoyable days cycling South of Chengdu. We even manage to find a camping spot in the densely populated countryside.

Camping in the Sichuan countryside
Camping in the Sichuan countryside

Our first destination before we climb our mountain is the Giant Buddha of Leshan. A 71m high statue of a seated Buddha, carved out of a cliff rising up from a confluence of two rivers. It was made in the Tang dynasty, around the 8th century CE. The initiator was the monk Hai Tong who wanted to tame the wild waters at the foot of the cliffs. Coincidentally he did, as the rubble from the carving fell into the river and calmed the currents. The Giant Buddha is an AAAAA attraction in China’s tourist attraction rating system, but as it is low season and no weekend it is relatively quiet. We had seen pictures of the Buddha but to see it up close is impressive. A nice park surrounds the statue, and a short stroll takes you up to eye level.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Leshan Giant Buddha

From here we descend a steep staircase to giant toe level.

Frogs eye view of the Giant Buddha of Leshan
Frogs eye view of the Giant Buddha of Leshan

Another steep path carved out of the cliff face takes us back up to the plateau again. We wander into the 1000 Buddha Capital park, where we find ourselves alone. Possibly we have the place to ourselves because this is ‘only’ an AAAA attraction and not as suitable for taking selfies as the head of the Giant Buddha. It is a beautiful bonus to the main attraction and holds many surprises such as another giant Buddha, sheltered in a cave and with a beautifully serene face.

Giant Buddha nr. 2
Giant Buddha nr. 2

There is a tacky Kama Sutra cave with plastic sculptures depicting some pretty wild scenes, a 170m long sleeping Buddha carved out of a hill, so overgrown with foliage it is slowly becoming part of the natural landscape again. The whole park is on a hill that has been tunnelled through. In the tunnels there are modern statues that offer the history of Chinese buddhism told in a mix of Socialist Realism, Chinese nationalism and Buddhist styles.

Carved caves
Carved caves

Emeishan

Not far from Chengdu is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains. Emeishan is the holiest of the four, as it is the place where the first Buddhist temple of China was built in around 100CE. Many more were built in the following centuries. Today it is possible to walk up the mountain via thousands of stone steps.

Endless steps to enlightenment
Endless steps to enlightenment

Pilgrims can spend the night in one of the monasteries and see the sun rise over the ‘sea of clouds’ from the Golden Summit at 3077m altitude. It is also possible to take a cable car for one or two stretches of the way, take a bus all the way to the top, stay in a luxury hotel just below the summit or have yourself carried up the steps by traditional sedan chair carriers. On the way there are plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops selling bamboo walking sticks, incense, hiking food (unidentifiable dried… something. We didn’t try), rain ponchos and even warm coat rental services.

Fuhu temple at Emeishan
Fuhu temple at Emeishan

Needless to say, this is another popular destination for Chinese tourists so we were expecting large crowds. We are happily surprised when we find ourselves alone most of the way. Apart from a few monks, some fellow walkers, pack horses and cargo carriers lugging supplies and building materials up and down the steps we don’t meet many people. The people we do meet say chaiyo, chaiyo! This means fighting, fighting! A great encouragement, and we hear it more often when we are back on the bicycle.

Poor workhorses
Poor workhorses
Hardest working guys we ever saw
Hardest working guys we ever saw
Monkeys crossing our path
Monkeys crossing our path

We read a claim that the famous Shaolin fighting monks are from Emeishan (not true!) but we can imagine how this story came about: a monk with a walking stick, some wild Tibetan monkeys…

Strike a Shaolin pose
Strike a Shaolin pose

It is misty and wet, which gives the forest a beautiful mysterious silence. There are steep cliffs, dripping bamboo bushes and we cross a troupe of wild Tibetan monkeys. Hiking up some 15.000 stone steps is hard work, but eventually we are rewarded. We come above the clouds and climb the last few kilometers in the sun, looking down on the dazzling white clouds and the distant islands of other mountaintops.

Rising above the clouds
Rising above the clouds

We spend the night at Taizi Ping monastery, an old and charmingly ramshackle temple at 2850m altitude. It is recommended by our new friend Qi Lin, a monk who lives in a monastery a bit further down.

Emeishan monk Qi Lin
Emeishan monk Qi Lin

Taizi Ping is inhabited by one monk and a couple who manage the kitchen and the veggie garden. For a small amount we spend the night and enjoy a typical Buddhist dinner and breakfast of rice and vegetables. The food is prepared without the usual kick of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper. This might excite the senses too much according to Buddhist cooking tradition.

Quanyin, manifestation of mercy
Quanyin, manifestation of mercy

The next morning we set off for the last stretch to the summit. We walk in the dark, the moon lights our path, and we are completely alone. We walk in silence. When we reach the cable car station and the resort it gets busier, but still, it is peaceful and calm. We walk up to the huge golden Samantabhadra statue, a four-faced representation of the Buddha, seated on four elephants. In the cold moonlight it looks magnificent. We walk to the East side of the summit. Below us is the slow moving sea of clouds, gradually becoming more visible as the first light appears, and we wait for the sun to rise. It is an unbelievable sight. Shortly after the sunrise busloads of tourists start arriving, and we start our descent.

Sunrise over the sea of clouds
Sunrise over the sea of clouds
...
Samantabhadra after sunrise
Samantabhadra after sunrise

Going down is easier on the heart and lungs, but much harder on the legs. We have to give up on doing the last stretch and take the cable car from the last monastery to the bus station, barely able to walk. The ensuing muscle pain is as epic as Emeishan, and lasts for days. We lurch like zombies with our stiff and sore limbs and can hardly climb stairs, let alone descend. We decide it is probably easier to cycle than to walk, so we start cycling the day after coming down from Emeishan.

Sichuan cycling

We follow the S306 West towards Shimian, and from there we head South on the S108. There are other options South but they were either impossible because of road works or otherwise not enjoyable, and we hear the S108 is beautiful. This road also means we will climb once more to about 2500m. Our first plan was to head even further West, to the Tibetan plateau, but this is too cold at this time of year. It is possible, but we wouldn’t enjoy it. When we leave it is raining and the visibility is down to almost nothing, but we don’t mind because cycling is indeed a lot easier than walking. We are happy to be on the move.

Happiness = cycling in China
Happiness = cycling in China

It is super easy to find cheap accommodation so we don’t have to camp in the rain but we can sleep in a basic hotel for about $7 to $10 every night. Great! Camping is difficult because every square centimeter is cultivated. Every horizontal surface, right up until the edge of the road, is someone’s vegetable patch. In the end we only camp one night between Chengdu and Xichang, even though we love camping. The hotels are by no means luxurious. They are cold and the rooms are in various states of disrepair, and sometimes there is no hot shower. One is so depressing and dingy it would be the perfect set for a film noir, smoking, moody and silent. Or a gory splatterfest. We count ourselves lucky there are no rats or cockroaches.

Charming hotel rooms of China
Charming hotel rooms of China

The roads are fantastic. Meandering up and down hills, following rivers, passing through villages with shops and street food restaurants. There is not too much traffic and the truck drivers and cars give us plenty of space. The gradients are doable, there are some short stretches of about 9% and we rarely touch 12%, meaning we never have to push the bicycle up the hill. Until Shimian it is as much up as down, so we do 700+ climbing meters per day but always end up on about the same altitude as we started. One stretch of the road to Shimian is under construction. We are allowed to pass the road block, and we enjoy a beautiful ride through the spectacular Dafu canyon with zero traffic on brand new tarmac. After Shimian we start climbing from 900m towards 2500m, spending the night halfway.

Fellow road warrior
Fellow road warrior

Even more fantastic than the roads are the people we meet. We regret that we speak so little Chinese, as so many people are happily surprised to meet us, and eager to talk with us. Someone stops his car to give us two bottles of water. Kids get super excited when they see us, shop ladies give us the thumbs up, motorbike riders wave when they pass us. Sometimes people are so surprised they can only stare. But when we wave and smile we usually get a big smile right back. We make contact and joke as well as we can without language. The smart phone is a great ice-breaker, everybody wants to take pictures and we use a translation app. Some people of the older generations have a way of looking right through us that is somewhat unnerving. But we know what they have been through in recent history and imagine they have no time for frivolous gallivanting foreigners on bicycles.

The Yi people of Langshian

After one week of cycling we take a one day break in Xichang. A day to do small repairs, some bicycle maintenance, to write a blog post and to give our legs a little rest. Two days ago we did our last serious climb to 2500m and after a few very cold days we are finally getting closer to warmer weather. It is dry and around 15 degrees here, not bad for winter. The biggest attraction of Xichang is lake Qionghai, once very polluted but right now in the last stages of an extensive ecological regeneration plan. A beautiful wetlands park has been laid out around the marshes and together with the Xichang people we enjoy a sunny walk. This is the first time since leaving Dushanbe in early September that we are once again warm and well enough to fully relax.

Qionghai wetlands
Qionghai wetlands

Xichang is the capital of Langshian Autonomous Prefecture, the home of many of the 8 million Yi people. I try to find out more about them and read an interesting article about the Yi from a 1987 New York Times edition. It is amazing to consider how fast things have changed here, as predicted in the article. Yes, the Yi have lost some of their customs and traditional dress, but they have also benefited from economic development in the area. Most of the villages we see are tidy and well maintained, people are cheerful. They are a tribe of huge diversity. Every 30 kilometers we encounter a new headdress, a new style of decorating the houses, every area has its own language, there is a complicated caste system that until not too long ago allowed slavery. Again we regret not being able to speak the language. The young daughter of a hotel owner who speaks some English tells us proudly she is Black Yi, which is the ruling caste.

We are not comfortable with sticking our camera into peoples faces without first getting to know them, or unless they start with taking pictures of us first. Still, we’d love to share some of the beautiful faces we see on the road everyday. Here are some pictures of Yi women made by others.

Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 clicks
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 clicks
Pic courtesy of indulgy.com
Pic courtesy of indulgy.com
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 Clicks
Pic courtesy of Around the World in 80 Clicks
Pic courtesy of Create International
Pic courtesy of Create International

Countryside China

Overall the countryside is lovely. Just like everywhere else in the world: the people are easier to connect with than in the big city. We exchange smiles and waves. Life is cheaper, there is less choice, you make do with whatever is available, people are happy to help you out. Great for bike tourists on a budget.

We can see that life is hard for the people actually living here. Everybody we see is always busy. Harvesting, cleaning, repairing, hauling heavy loads from here to there, selling produce, running a restaurant. The Yi are no longer living in the hovels as described in the above NYT article. But their new concrete houses, with identical ‘traditional’ murals, still have no heating and running water is provided by a hose outside. 20.000 Yi have been displaced when a hydropower dam created a new lake by Shimian. As is often the case in China, the (economic) greater good will have prevalence over minority concerns. Still, there is a government program that once again supports Yi culture after shamanism, slavery and chiefdom were eradicated during the Cultural Revolution and many people were killed. Today the official Yi script and language is taught in schools alongside Chinese. Since 2010 the Chinese government has built many new temples for the Yi Bimo religion.

 

Yi script
Yi script

As we are walking around Qionghai lake today we hear a trio playing and singing traditional Yi music by the waters edge. Life, for now, feels in perfect harmony.

As we are cycling further away from home it is increasingly hard for us to get on our Western high horse and simply say that the Chinese government is bad. Just like everywhere else, the reality here has so many nuances and there is no simple answer as to what would be the right way. Especially now, when democracy seems to be failing us and a wild monkey will be running the USA for the next four years. Who are we to judge? We can only try and understand.

China photos part I

The photos of the first part of our China trip are now online, you can find them here. Pictures from the Kyrgyzstan to China border crossing, cycling into Kashgar with our friends and then the train trip via Turpan and Xi’an, on to our extended stay in Chengdu. Enjoy!

Pushbike panda
Pushbike panda

Zen godverdomme

Two and a half weeks ago we arrived in Chengdu, and funnily enough we are still here. It’s been good to settle into this megacity for a while and to feel like a local instead of a nomad. The reason for our stop was not so nice unfortunately.

Chengdu highlights
Chengdu highlights

Chinese medicine

Cyril got an acute hearing problem and needed to be treated in the hospital. Two weeks ago we went to Huaxiba International Hospital where Cyril got diagnosed with sudden deafness, a weird condition that needs immediate treatment to have a chance of recovery. Luckily the hospital and the prescribed treatment were excellent and his hearing is almost back to normal. A special big thank you to our new friend nurse Zhang! She performed the daily injections and invited us for a lovely day out with her family last weekend.

Cyrils Angels of the Huaxiba hospital
Cyrils Angels of the Huaxiba hospital

Going to a Chinese hospital is (just like traveling on the train) an interesting experience. On the first day we ended up in a chaotic A&E. Waiting times of a few hours, nobody who spoke English, a confusing system of payments, receipts and other procedures we didn’t quite get. Cyril got the medical advice to come back for daily medicine transfusions. In addition to this he got prescribed the more holistic advice of cheerful demeanour, a lot of sleep and no more meat, only vegetarian food. Luckily he could continue treatment in the International Hospital next door. Staff here speak English so we could actually understand what was happening. This is the place where important government officials, rich people and Western long-haul cycling bums go if they need treatment.

Sudden deafness. Say what?
Sudden deafness. Say what?

Since the treatment only took an hour every day and Cyril was not in pain we got the opportunity to kick back and relax for a while.

Zen, godverdomme!

So there we are, forced to stay in Chengdu for one week. Forced to slow down to an absolute standstill after months of being on the move. We feel we are both quite tired so we listen to the doctors advice and sleep a lot. As one of Cyrils friends says: Zen, godverdomme!

It’s a gigantic city but there are not that many tourist highlights, which helps a lot with our mission to do as little as possible. Since I am recovering fast from my cold I tick off the not-to-be missed highlights in the mornings while Cyril gets his treatment. Panda’s, temples, Tibetan culture and more great food. I do eat a ducks head but don’t feel brave enough to try the chicken claws.

After one week Cyril gets the advice to continue the treatment for another week. This is good news because it means the treatment is working, but it is bad news because we were eager to get going again. We settle in for another lazy week at our hotel. We have stopped over in cities before but never before have we been this slow, we were always out and about, trying to do and see as much as possible.

Chengdu highlights

Giant Panda Research Base

The panda’s are much cooler than I expected. I get up at 6am, to be there for their feeding time and to beat the tourist hordes. The Giant Panda Research Base is beautiful, with lanes meandering through bamboo forests. I wander around until I’m eye to eye with two panda’s who are munching on bamboo. Later I find more, climbing trees and playing, rolling around and pushing each other. They are super entertaining.

Panda <3
Panda <3

But I think I love the bushy tailed Red Panda even more:

Red panda
Red panda
Little Lhasa

Most people in the West know of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army annexed Tibet in 1951 and came to an agreement with the then 15 year old Dalai Lama. In 1959 however the Dalai Lama fled, denounced the agreement and established a government in exile after Tibetan uprisings against the oppressive Chinese rule. Some 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and thousands of people died during the Great Leap Forward and the retaliation after the Tibetan uprising of ’59. For most Westerners it would appear that the Tibetans are virtual prisoners of the Chinese government ever since.

It is strange then, to see a whole tranquil Tibetan neighbourhood in a quintessential Chinese city. Most of the 60.000 Tibetans living in Chengdu’s Little Lhasa are not from the Tibetan Autonomous Region but from Tibetan prefectures in the surrounding Chinese provinces. They are one of the 56 recognised ethnic groups living in China and as such free to practice there culture.

The Tibetan quarter of Chengdu
The Tibetan quarter of Chengdu

There are shops selling Tibetan buddhist paraphernalia, monks wander around, restaurants serve momo and yak butter tea. The same thing however happens in these Tibetan provinces as in Xinjiang: Han Chinese are encouraged to move to the Tibetan regions, roads are being built, their culture gets ‘disneyfied’ in a similar way as we saw in the Kashgar Old Town.

Tibetan demon
Tibetan demon

For non-Chinese it is difficult to obtain visa for Tibet, but Chinese are of course free to go. It is popular with Chinese bicycle travellers. Our warmshowers host Zhu has cycled to Lhasa, and we are envious when we see the pictures of her trip.

Local nomads

In the evenings we meet up with some great locals, mostly other cyclists who stopped over in Chengdu and decided to stay for a year. They are earning good money for the rest of their trip by teaching English. Scott & Sarah, Rae, Sean and Robin make us feel like locals by providing a great instant social life. We see some of our cycling friends from the Pamirs come and go as well.

Time

It is very odd to be settled into some sort of urban routine for two weeks after half a year on the road. We have never stopped this long before, and never before have we done so little.  This does something strange to our sense of time, and after two weeks it is hard to tell how long we have been here. Cycling feels like a lifetime away. I am tempted to stay here too and find a job, if only the air pollution wasn’t so bad. Eventually we decide we will move out of our Hotel California and go to a warm showers host, to get off our lazy butts and to get closer to the cycling vibe again.

Water calligraphy, evaporating like time
Water calligraphy, evaporating like time

Traversing megapolis Chengdu

We cycle 20km South and find we are still very much in the city. Since Chengdu is home to about 14 million people it takes a while before you reach the edge of the city. Amsterdam is a quaint hamlet by comparison. This is the first time we physically experience a megapolis. Cycling through a city of millions is quite different from merely reading about it. Without the physical experience it is so hard to comprehend the consequences of this big scale urban fabric. It is exhilarating to cycle through the landscape that Le Corbusier envisioned: endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks stretch towards the smoggy horizon, surrounded by small patches of green, intersected by highways with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. At the foot of the apartment blocks are eateries, gaming arcades, beauty salons. There are shopping malls. The lanes are wide and well organised but busy, it is noisy and the air is dirty. As we cycle South along such a high-rise highway we see a building frenzy going on all around us. New blocks are being erected everywhere, new houses for the millions. It is a breathtaking sight, it would be futuristic if it wasn’t happening right here and right now.

Smog
Smog

Small town Chengdu

Parallel to experiencing the enormous and seemingly inhuman scale of the city it is getting less intimidating as we are getting to know it better. We can now find our way around by bike, by taxi or by metro. We get a feel for the different neighbourhoods and find pockets of quiet and old fashioned living in-between the highrise. In our neighbourhood we start seeing familiar faces who we greet on our way to the metro station. We develop a taste for certain dishes and cafes. In one little park we see old people playing classical Chinese music. I try to dance along with the people who exercise some sort of line-dancing in the park every night. Every night we hear the particular chime of a street vendor when he comes through our street.

Streetlife nightlife

Chinese conversations

Chengdu is also the place where we meet some locals who speak good English. We make some friends and get some small but interesting insights in Chinese life at individual level. Just like in Iran it is not at all surprising that there are many contradictions and nuances. Even if we will never grasp all of this gigantic country with its many cultures and the consequences of its long and complicated history, maybe we got a tiny bit closer to understanding.

The government is widely supported and can take credit for making China an economic superpower. Many things have improved for a lot of Chinese people since Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: literacy has increased enormously, as has life expectancy. There is now a middle class of 300 million people who gets to travel and enjoy the finer things in life. This stability and prosperity come with a price tag attached though. Crackdowns on separatist movements, severe restriction of freedom of speech, media and internet censorship and other blatant disregard for the basic human rights we generally take for granted. Another huge concern is the high level of air pollution in the big cities, even if China invests billions in clean energy.

When we meet up with nurse Zhang we also get to meet her mother and her mother-in-law. Nurse Zhang is our age. They are both lovely ladies and they are enjoying the time spent with their grandchildren. Nurse Zhang has brought her two children along; Parker is 9 years old, and Mei Mei (little sister) was born after the one child policy was lifted in 2015. We talk about how different China is today from what I saw 16 years ago. I mention I notice the prosperity and nurse Zhang says, yes, not so long ago there was hunger. Her mother and her mother-in-law experienced hunger during the economic reform (read: disaster) of the Great Leap Forward. It wasn’t just the Tibetans who suffered during that time: all of China did. It is estimated that between 18 million and 40 million people died during the campaign. I look at her elder family differently now, they have been through so much.

A few days later we meet Zhu, our twenty-something warm showers host. I try to practice my Chinese and tell her about our siblings. Wo you mei mei, wo you didi. I have a younger sister, I have a younger brother. Zhu and her flatmate tell me they have no siblings; they are from the one child policy generation. Together we watch the crazy news about Trump being elected president of the USA. They are the internet generation and very well informed. They do not agree with the strict internet censorship of the Chinese government. Apparently 70% of the Chinese people still lives in the countryside and doesn’t have more than primary school education. As a consequence they are quite easily led by the state controlled media. Educated people however know very well about news and opinions in the rest of the world and they are hoping for a gradual change in China.

China for the win

All in all I really like the China of today, even despite the obvious objections I have against a non-democratic government that violates human rights. There seems to be a renewed national confidence after the hardships of the last century and the future looks bright. Chinese culture is back en vogue with the Chinese after much of the classical imperial culture was stamped out during the cultural revolution. You can see this revival in the fashion, with detailing referring to classical hanfu and cheongsam clothes. Confucianism is experiencing a comeback. There are fancy tea shops where elegant hostesses perform a tea ceremony and you can find a tea that is fertilised with panda poo. Ultimately the rebuilding of previously destroyed Qing and Ming era neighbourhoods show this new nationalist reappreciation of the pre-communist past.

When I was here 16 years ago there was none of this, only some classical art forms such as calligraphy, Beijing opera and Chinese medicine had survived the cultural revolution, and of course there were the cultural treasures of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. But in everyday life on the streets it looked as if everybody wanted to emulate Western culture and not in a good way. It looked a bit cheap and not at all creative or interesting, as it does today. Of course this interest in Western culture and products is still here, with Starbucks and Zara in the highstreet and a Swiss watch and a BMW being the ultimate status symbols. But the Chinese are on a roll. They really no longer need our Western products to have an edge, they are making their own Chinese brand of cool.

The above observations are of course only applicable to life in the cities as we observed it in the last few weeks. I am really curious to find out about life in the countryside. That is where the majority of the Chinese still live, despite the rapid urbanisation that is happening here as it is in the rest of the world.

Wenshu tea house
Wenshu tea house

On our last evening in Chengdu we celebrate the birthday of Zhu’s flatmate. We sing Dutch birthday songs and we watch Chinese superstars sing on tv. We feel at home here. But, tomorrow we go back to our nomadic lives, on the road again, and into rural China.

When people ask what bike travel is all about
When people ask what bike travel is all about