Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Road to Fairyland

I woke up before dawn broke over the cozy and sociable courtyard-style hostel I had found in ChengDu. The bus for JiuZhaiGou left at 6 AM and from the other end of town... if you could even consider that far out being the same town or not.

The bus gave no comfort. The seats small, threadworn, and a far cry from comfortable. My seatmate chewed on something that reminded me of furniture polish and gave an acrid and pungent offense with each glob of spittle that he expunged upon the floor. I think his excretions eventually ate a hole through the bus.

Outside the confines of this vehicular wonder is where the story took place. Over 430 Km lie between ChengDu and JiuZhaiGou and within that stretch a profusion of landscape. We wove in and out of mountain tunnels and over precarious gorge-spanning bridges around the DuJiangYan Immigration System. I only figured out what this was later when I sat down with a map for at the time it seemed nothing more than a graveyard of concrete monoliths, abandoned tracks of aquaducts, drill-head syphons and other industrial detritus. Seemed like something out of Myst, but even more puzzling.

The country flattened out for a bit, but the mountains came back with a vengeance. Soon enough we zig-zagged back and forth up an incline so steep that I refuse to believe it was the easiest way. In retrospect I'm guessing this was ZhenJiang Pass, but I give no guarantees.

At some point before or after ZhenJiang Pass we stopped for lunch at a roadside chuckhouse complete with pay hole-in-the-ground and junk merchant. Thus the setting for another "foreigner on his own" story is set. Being the first in and out of the hole-in-the-ground shack, a local got in my face demanding money for the use of his hole-in-the-ground. As Chinese were entering and exiting as he pressed his argument, I retorted quite angrily that he was only trying to rip me off because I wasn't Chinese. Meanwhile more tourists were going in and out, paying no money, but snickering quite heartily. The debate came to nothing as I walked away, then flagged over by the junk dealer.

"You speak Chinese quite well!"
"Yes. Thank you. [Insert routine intro conversation.]"

While the pleasantries were exchanged I rummaged through his table, mostly full of the crap I'd seen everywhere else, though maybe a bit more Tibetan in flavor. Prayer bells, some fabric, etc.

"If you can speak Chinese I know something you might like!"
"OK. Show me."

I was kinda hoping he'd pull out some sort of Sword of Destiny or maybe some Dong Tea, but instead i got something I wasn't expecting at all. At first glance it seemed like nothing more than a Jacob's Ladder of sorts, then I realized it was carved from bone (yak bone, I'd learn). THEN I realized each side of each panel carried a carving of some different sexual act! The junk dealer quivered with laughter as he pushed the sale, but I had to pass. Why I didn't buy it, I dunno. In retrospect, it was such an odd and grotesque icon of perversion... seriously, why didn't I buy it?

Side note: the Chinese can certainly match the Japanese with sexual weirdness.

Continuing on, we hit some sort of plateau that almost seemed desert-like, but flanked on the west were those Tibetan mountains that carved their way around the SiChuan border, rising clearly off the plain hundreds of miles away. But even though the land for an hour or so seemed barren and lifeless, this is where we saw more settlements spring up than anywhere else during the journey. And as soon as we began some sort of descent we entered a forest of pine trees. Also odd about this juncture: It began to snow. Earlier in the day I had been sweating, and now, out of no where, the heaviest snow I had seen in China. Where the hell was I?

Twelve hours after departing ChengDu the bus pulled in front of the JiuZhaiGou gate. I purchased my ticket back to ChengDu for the next day (time was ticking till my plane departed for the US only 5 days later and I had over half of China to cross before then) and took up a persistent but friendly tout on a hotel room. Tossing my bags down I wandered up and down the street, sandwiched within a gorge between peaks, and put myself down in front of the largest hot pot I'd ever seen. Yak meat was plenty, as was the spicy, and beer had to follow. Some other Chinese took note of my solitude and invited me over to some toasting. I eventually stumbled back to the hotel.

In the morning I'd enter Fairyland.


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