They say that getting there is half the battle, but that was not often the case in China. Don’t get me wrong, getting anywhere in China is rarely easy—take my two attempts to make my way west to Sichuan province while I was living in Shanghai; once foiled by a snowstorm and once by an earthquake—but things don’t generally get any easier once there. In fact, they often get much more difficult. Let’s stick with the Sichuan example.
I’ve written about my attempts to explore this province previously. After a few days in the capital of Chengdu, I headed into the Tibetan areas of western Sichuan, starting with three days in the town of Danba. It turned out the government had closed the rest of the area to foreigners, so I ended up heading northeast instead and after a night in Maerkang, and another in Songpan, I arrived in Jiuzhaigou where I spent a day being pushed and shoved through some incredible scenery.
Originally, one of the areas I planned on exploring after Danba was Tagong, famous for its high altitude grasslands. Since that didn’t work out, I decided to head to the far north of Sichuan from Jiuzhaigou to another Tibetan town called Langmusi, which is also surrounded by some beautiful grasslands. I boarded a bus for Lanzhou and was informed I would be dropped off along the way where a smaller road heads a few kilometers away from the main highway to Langmusi. I was counting on the driver to first of all stop and second of all let me know I needed to get off. I was fairly confident he would do both of these, since I had only paid for the portion of the fare up to that intersection.
Sure enough, after we had traveled for many hours and climbed to an altitude of over 3000 meters, he did stop at an intersection and let me and a few other passengers off the bus. Apart from the two roads and a couple of rocky hills, fields of green stretched out endlessly in all directions. A few guys with vans were parked along the smaller road to Langmusi to take people like me the last few kilometers to our destination. Well, not people like me exactly. They eagerly let the other people who had gotten off my bus into their vans, but when my turn came, I was quickly and firmly told I would not be leaving the main road that day.
Obviously, they would have personally been quite happy to take my money and give me a ride, but they had been informed, very recently, that foreigners were no longer allowed to visit their town (apparently due to a visit by the Panchen Lama). This change in policy was so new that it had come about in the few hours since I had boarded the bus—they wouldn’t have even sold me a ticket otherwise. Even the bus driver was shocked to hear the news when he came over to see what the problem was.
I’m glad he noticed something was wrong. He tried talking the drivers into taking me, but that’s not why I’m glad he noticed. He obviously had no luck with the drivers, since there was nothing they could do, but I’m just glad he didn’t drive off. Since he stayed, I had the option of getting back on his bus and paying the rest of the fare and heading all the way to Lanzhou as well as the option of waiting by the side of the road for a ride that could take me somewhere nicer than Lanzhou.
The list of places nicer than Lanzhou is quite long, including pretty much all places not named Lanzhou. Nevertheless, spending a few days there was still more appealing than waiting by the side of the road for quite possibly a long time—a road that only went in two directions anyway: south to Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu, from where I had come and north to Lanzhou, where I was now apparently heading.
Lanzhou turned out to be every bit as unappealing as I expected and as a nice bonus, I got to spend one night in the nastiest hotel I’ve ever seen (and remember: I’ve been to India), but I’ll write about that in a future post. For today, the point is simply that nothing ever comes easy in China, but I think that’s part of the reason I enjoy traveling there so much. The unpredictability keeps things interesting and sometimes things work out incredibly well and you end up meeting interesting people or discovering an amazing destination you had never heard of before; other times, you end up in Lanzhou.