One Week in Western Sichuan Part Two: Mountain traffic jams, disturbing rest stops, and yak butter tea

Day 2: Chengdu to Kangding

We left Chengdu at 11 a.m. Monday morning. This is about three hours later than we had intended. There were medical issues that arose after our delicious mapo dofu meal the night earlier. I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, we caught the 11 a.m. bus, which was nowhere near as plush or impressive as the bus we took from Chongqing to Chengdu was. But one thing that was far more impressive was the scenery passing us by out the window. More and more rural, more and more mountainous, and more and more resembling the China I had envisioned. Dalian, for me, wasn’t very Chinese. It was less than 100 years old, with high-rises, glitzy signs, all the Western food conveniences you could ask for, and was clean, fresh and open. But as we bumped along the surprisingly crowded mountain roads (traffic jams stalled us twice on the way and three times on the way back), the China of my imagination unfurled, as did lush peaks towering over muddy rivers.

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We whizzed past villages whose dare-devil residents took to selling exotic fruits mere inches away from the highway, affording them harsh breezes as the tourist buses came and went. We even saw one elderly woman (read: at least 75) doing her daily stretches by resting her leg on the highway’s guard rail. We stopped at rest stops along the way with food choices like mystery-meat dumpling soup served out of a large cast iron pot, with bottles of Sichuan’s specialty spices sitting at every rustic picnic table. Some rest stops were less charming than others. Thomas informed me that in the men’s “bathroom” (basically several holes in the ground with some concrete walls enclosing the area), the guys enjoyed peeing on the hogs that roamed around the area. So perhaps that solves the meat mystery.

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After a total of nine hours of winding up and down on a bus that screeched and honked (and sometimes halted) its way toward Kangding, we arrived at about 8 p.m. Most of Kangding is squeezed into a valley and sidles up to two rushing rivers that converge near the center of town.  The water sounded distinctly frothy, the air crisp. Passersby adorned a wide array of attire, from sleek (if slightly dusty) blazers to traditional colorful Tibetan tribal clothing to Adidas merch. We wore shorts and t-shirts, expecting a climate similar to the one we came from in sweltering Chengdu/Chongqing.

But we were cold. Or at least I was. And hungry. My Lonely Planet (dare I even have faith in this outdated version? Every good traveler to China should invest in LP’s 2009 version, released a couple months after I left for Dalian, shucks) said there was a Tibetan restaurant or two in this town, so we set out to find the one it recommended. We found it, but the place had changed names. Now it’s simply called Re Tibetan Restaurant.

There’s no door but instead a heavy duty, brightly decorated curtain, with eye-catching red, blue, yellow and green designs. The colorful Tibetan decor continued inside. We got seated by a window, at a table not unlike a picnic table, bench and all.  We placed our luggage under the table and settled in, thrilled to be right in this very moment. We had arrived, and were about to eat a hell of a lot of food. Nothing could have made me more pleased. And, since I’d recently re-introduced dead animal into my diet, my ordering options included the myriad dishes with yak meat, a Tibetan staple.

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

The tattered, multi-page menu had pictures and some attempt at English. Perfect. We decided (after deliberating in a hunger-induced stupor) on minced yak meat tomato casserole, curry potatoes with yak meat, “beautiful valley” vegetable cake, and yak butter tea to drink.  The vegetable cake was a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly spiced vegetables. The yak meat dishes both had quite a kick to them, and if I knew more about Chinese spices, I would tell you what was in it. This kick was definitely necessary to curb the saltiness of the butter tea, which at first literally tasted like a stick of butter had been melted in a microwave. But the spiciness and saltiness interacted in a way that both were dampened to a very pleasant level. We just may have ordered too much food, but finishing all that we order is a challenge both Thomas and I enjoy. We even triumphantly drank the last of our curry sauce, sauce that neither spoon nor chopstick could access. And let me tell you — that yellow sauce was fantastic. Not too watery, but not thick and heavy, either. Totally drinkable and drink-worthy.

We sat and contemplated for awhile, mostly to let our gorge-fest rest, and  had a bit of a “how are we here” moment. How did we just chow down on minced yak meat and butter tea in the mountains of Western Sichuan, perched close to the Tibetan frontier? After the previous days of convoluted traveling, the meal stood as a sort of arrival for us. From here on out, it was all about slowing down, climbing up (mountains, that is), and exploring. Observing. And of course, eating. And maybe some sleeping. We could both use some of that.

It was now 9:30, and we still had no place to sleep for the night. We gathered our bags from under the table and reluctantly closed the book on our Tibetan dinner experience. The internet and Lonely Planet told us the Black Tent Hostel was our best bet. Kangding seemed a bit less likely to have expanded and altered its entire city makeup as Chengdu had. We headed toward where we thought the Black Tent would still sit.

Along the way, though, we were introduced to the world of Kangding fashion. Brightly colored wraps that would certainly combat the cool air caught my attention. They were beautiful; a bit like Pashmina scarves that everyone obsessed over a few years back, but with East Asian paisley flair. I bought two immediately, each for 30 yuan (about 5  dollars) after half-assed haggling. It’s always hard for me to bargain when I want something that desperately. I have no poker face.

After the shopping stop, we continued to walk along the river. We crossed a bridge over toward what seemed like an open coffee shop. Learning from our Chengdu debacle (read the PART 1 entry below), I asked a worker in there for directions. In Chinese. Perhaps something positive that came from the aimless Chengdu wandering. My ability to express in Chinese that I was very lost and needed help had skyrocketed. Anyway, this nice lady realized quickly that I wasn’t comprehending everything she was saying, so she walked us to our hostel herself, about five minutes away from her shop. Perfect. No hassles, no confusion.

Black Tent is a quirky place, with a wrap-around screen porch, and a single bathroom and shower for the entire hostel. Inside, a girl was huddled around a heater and watching TV while butter tea brewed on a hot plate nearby. She spoke a decent amount of English, and told us they had two bunk beds in a dorm available for 15 yuan each (less than three dollars). The room itself was sparsely decorated, but had warm, Tibetan-style quilts. Our roommates were four Chinese men biking their way to Tibet, so the lights went out early. That was fine with us. We had a big day tomorrow, too. Doing what? We weren’t quite sure. But we were excited to find out.

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