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Published: September 26th 2012
Before getting into much detail I should note that this area is extremely mountainous. Further west of where we have driven the last few days are the wondrous Himalayas. While the distances here are fairly short in terms of kilometres or miles, the difficult terrain lengthens the time of the trips.
Number One – From Chengdu to Kangding – Hurry Up and Wait
Approx. time quoted by our guide book: 8hrs
Actual travel time: 12hrs
We left Chengdu at 8am prepared for a long day of travelling. Until this point we had been able to travel via overnight trains and hadn't had to take any form of transportation during the day. Overall this ride wasn't too bad. It was a nice day and our first glance at the mountains in China. The only problem with this bus trip was the construction. It seemed as if every corner we turned we were forced to wait for construction. A lot of the highway was down to one lane and that is what caused the trip to be much longer than expected.
The nice thing about this trip was that every time we stopped there were vendors strategically selling snacks and food to us poor bus riders. We also had a lot of time to stretch our legs and admire the scenery. When all is said and done, I don't have all that much to say about this first bus ride; while it was long, it was bearable and we had no where to get in a hurry.
Number Two – Kangding to Xiangcheng – The Bus Ride From Hell
Approx. Time quoted by our guidebook: 12hrs
Actual travel time: 22hrs
When your alarm goes off at 4:45am, you know it's going to be a long day. After having countless delays on our last bus ride we were prepared for this ride to be longer than 12 hours; we were thinking around 16.
The first hour and a half was a piece of cake. The roads were fine and there was no construction. Apparently everyone on this bus smoked though. I'll take a second now to review our bus conditions – the majority of the people smoked and saw no reason to open a window when doing so, if I opened a window they would all make a fuss about it being cold (when I found it refreshing); spitting is more common in China then sneezing, women and men just hork up a big loogy wherever they are and it splats on the road, sidewalk or in this case bus aisle; motion sickness seems to be very common on the buses, you could have 3 or 4 people throwing up into little bags your entire bus ride, thank goodness Tyler and I don't gag from the sound of gagging.
I digress – After stopping for a snack about 2 hours in, the roads got bad. Not bad, horrible. I'm not sure how they can even be described as roads; they are more like slushy muddy pothole ridden paths that follow a jagged mountainous cliff's edge without guardrails. The “roads” are two-way but barely as wide as a one-way road in Canada; passing turns into a daredevils sport.
We trudged along at a snails pace in between sections of construction, twice stopping for over two hours. This time there weren't vendors around every corner so it was a good thing we brought plenty of food. When we finally did stop for a meal, we had no idea where we were but had been driving for almost 12 hours.
A couple of hours after eating we were stopped at a checkpoint. I was determined to find out where we were; I took our tickets and headed to the front of the bus. There was a group of cops standing at the door so I put on my best “hello kind officer” voice and showed them my ticket. “Xiangcheng? Is this Xiangcheng?” They all laughed and said “no, no, no.” then imitated writing and said “Pass, pass”. I went back on the bus and told Tyler I thought they wanted to see our Visa's. Just as he was asking why, an officer came on the bus and started talking to us in Mandarin. Ty pulled our passports out of his bag and went into the small station with the officer. The minutes that passed felt like hours. My mind was racing. We were getting close to Tibet and I knew foreigners aren't allowed to go there, maybe we were going to be told we had to turn around. We didn't have to give any trip info in HK when we got our Visa's, who knows what itinerary the Visa agent told the embassy in order to get them – maybe we were supposed to still be in Beijing or something. Tyler finally came out of the police station and gave me a thumbs up as soon as he got on the bus. Bless his heart, he knows how stressed this stuff makes me and wanted to calm me down the first chance he got. We got “comfy” in our seats and continued into the darkness...
On the map it looks like a town called Litang is the mid-point between Kangding and Xiangcheng but since we hadn't seen it yet we thought that we were on a different highway. As the hours passed, the sunset (we had started this never-ending trip as the sun rose) and the driver kept on going until we finally saw a town. Thank goodness!! It had been 17 hours on the bus and late enough as it was – 11pm. When we pulled up, we verified with the driver what town this was, hoping to be in Xiangcheng... it was Litang. Our hearts dropped. We were only halfway! The roads were supposed to be much better between Litang and Xiangcheng, but it had to be at least another 4 hours. Uncomfortable, tired, agitated and lost we got back on the bus and did our best to get some sleep. Luckily the roads did improve and we were able to sleep a bit.
We finally pulled into Xiangcheng at about 3:30am. Happy to have finally made it to our destination and breathe in some fresh air, we found a room and started counting sheep.
Number Three – Xiangcheng to Zhongdian a.k.a. Shangri-La – The Scenic Route
Approx. Time quoted by our guidebook: 8hrs
Actual travel time: just over 8hrs
This was the best of the three bus rides. The roads were much better - only a couple of people smoked and the two girls throwing up were far from us (at the very front and the very back). Our bus again left at 6am and the sun started to come up not long after we departed Xiangcheng. As the sun came up, the landscape revealed itself and we found ourselves driving through the most picturesque mountains I think I've ever seen. Some times we were up so high that the jagged tips of the mountains were barely visible through the clouds, other times we found ourselves in valleys sprinkled with Tibetan-style homes and farmland. Water seemed to lead the way as we followed along a river that dribbled down a cliff in some sections and rushed under man-made wooden bridges in other sections. One part of the trip that I found particularly breathtaking was a stretch of mountain where the rolling hills seemed to have collided together. A smooth tree-covered mountain was interrupted by a jagged rocky mountain. It almost looked like two soft waves crashed together and paused in time.
We stopped for some lunch in a quaint little village as the roads became less treacherous. The road weaved between many different villages and farms. The farmers hang their wheat or rice to dry out on huge A-frames and it only adds to this beautiful countryside. I can't count the number of times we had to stop for Yaks or horses to cross the road. When the animals weren't crossing the roads, they all mingled together in the field. In this area it's common to see horses, yaks, pigs, sheep and goats all grazing together in the grasslands between mountains.
The 22 hour bus ride will hopefully be the worst of our entire 8 months of travelling. As quickly as I would like to forget that horrible day, I never want to forget the image of those majestic mountains as long as I live. China continues to surprise me; every day we come across something new and unexpected. What a beautiful country it is and we still have so much to discover. I can't wait!!
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