First Bus, Last Bus

January 31, 2017 – Ya’an, Sichuan Province

I have a need to be on the first bus of the day.

It doesn’t matter whether I need to be or not. Something about missing it fills me with anxiety and despair.

I try hard to hide it. I try to listen to my travelling companions. I try not to stare at them. I try not to pace or rush or sigh. I’m better than I used to be.

I still need to be on the first bus.

That’s why we rose in the predawn dark to catch a quick cab to the long distance bus station where The Swede and I would catch a bus the two hours to Ya’an (雅安), then a minibus an hour up the mountains to the Bifengxia (碧峰峡) gorge and Panda Research Base.

The Chengdu cabs had other plans.

We stood at the intersection just behind the bridge and waited. We walked to the next intersection and waited. We walked to the subway stop and waited. And waited. I started to panic. We decided to take the subway, despite having to transfer twice to go five total stops to reach the bus station.

The first bus was at 7 a.m. It was already 6:45. The subway trip took 30 minutes. I despaired.

I was wrong. The first bus was 7:30. Fifteen minutes to spare. Still time to eat breakfast, which I’d promised we’d have time to do. I rejoiced.

It was still Spring Festival. The bus station Dico’s Chicken, with its instant coffee machine, was closed. I despaired.

The convenience store with canned coffee, crackers, and a Snickers bar was open, though, and so was a tiny noodle joint with dirty pots, lots of steam, and delicious sour and spicy rice flour noodles (suanlafen 酸辣粉). It might not be breakfast, but it was something. I rejoiced.

And we still made the bus with a minute to spare, though my noodles got a dirty look from the bus driver.

Sleeping on the bus.

Sleeping on the bus.

The ride was uneventful and we pulled into Ya’an a little under two hours later with no idea of where to go next. My guidebook said simply to walk out of the bus station and find the minibuses.

The front of the bus station had been ripped out for construction, making that difficult.

This is often the way things when trying to get somewhere small. Take the big bus to a big bus station, then wander around outside the bus station – but never exactly in it – for a while until you find some vans or minibuses or something that looks like a van or a minibus. Get jammed into the back by some guy that seems like he’s trying to hustle you, hand over some cash, wait 40 minutes next to a farmer with a duck in a bag, then finally get going. Assume that the bus-van thing will take you to the place you want to go while craning your neck in every direction hoping for some kind of sign that you are, indeed, going the right way.

You usually are. I am still unclear, though, as to whether any of the vans or minibuses anywhere in China are private or public transportation. It is one of the many mysteries of the East.

In this case, we did find the pack of minibuses, and we did take one of them after handing some cash being jammed in the back with a farmer, and we did crane our necks while we wove up a mountain road into the Sichuan highlands. After about an hour, we arrived at the Bifengxia Panda Research Base.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

Bifengxia, which means Green Peak Gorge, was the second Giant Panda breeding center in China, opening in 2004 in order to spread the Panda population out to avoid catastrophe in the case of disease or other disaster. That paid off in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake damaged the original Wolong center and some of the pandas had to be evacuated.

Aside from the animals themselves, though, the area also features some fantastic natural scenery, as you climb out of the gorge at about 3,000 feet elevation up on to a plateau at nearly 6,500 feet.

The ticket window was crowded, not only with tourists but with all sorts of cutesy plastic pandas, as well video screens trying to get you to pay extra to visit the zoo, where you could feed tigers and bears through a bus window. We skipped that, as well as most of the line. There were about 10 windows open but everybody was crowded around eight of them.

People in China often assume that if a line is long, its the one you’re supposed to be in. Then they try to cut to the front of it. We just chose the short line instead.

The entrance gate is at once side of the gorge, and the panda base is at the other side. Visitors can either take the bus around or they can take a giant elevator down into the gorge and walk to the base. Having seen pandas before, we’d mostly come for the walk so down the 50-story elevator we went.

The gorge path wends along next to a river, reduced in dry-season February to little more than a trickle. The bruise-colored walls and spires rise on both sides, and greenery creeps its way up from the river to the gorge rims. At first, small waterfalls splatter down the overgrown slopes where ferns drip their own tiny waterfalls onto the concrete path. At one point early in the trail, the walker with decent eyesight can spy a handful of central China’s mysterious hanging coffins, nailed to the side of the cliff almost two thousand years ago.

But as the path continues on past markers explaining the area’s mythos, which is rooted in the very Chinese creation myths themselves, it starts to climb up past roaring waterfalls shaped like falling dragons, past placid pools of water where goddesses are said to have bathed, and across flatted stones and raised bridges where ancient monsters were vanquished. Platforms provide a rest from the stairs and opportunities to buy boiled eggs, liberally spiced fried potatoes (it’s Sichuan, after all), water, soda, or beer.

At last the trail winds out of the gorge and up onto the plateau, through a small collection of hotels, noodle stands, cafeterias, and tea orchards and into the panda base.


The panda base was a panda base. There are pandas. They live in pretty big pens. They don’t do much except eat bamboo and scratch themselves on trees, except for one panda who, agitated by something, would make a strange, breathy chirping sound, then run up to his “house,” cartwheel upside down on the wall, then urinate it.

Another highlight would of course be the cubs. We happened upon them by accident after following a footpath across one of the parks ridge lines, then running into a crowd of people peer over a wall looking down onto a long slope. There, just below the wall, were a pair of yearlings, wrestling and chewing on each other.

I counted only one person that threw anything at them.

Down the hill another crowd gathered around another panda cub, this one high up in a tree and way out on a flimsy branch, asleep. As he woke and started to move, the branches started to crack around him. For one breathless moment, he lost his footing, slipping up to his front armpits, back legs kicking the 20 meters of air below as more sticks crashed and broke on the ground. I could hardly watch.

At last he pulled himself up and in what seemed to me to be a controlled panic, scrambled back to the trunk and back down to the ground, fast.

The third highlight was the Panda trashcan.

We finished up our panda touring and took a series of buses back down to Ya’an and its under-construction bus station. We had enough time before our bus left to grab a quick dinner at a street-side restaurant, then set off for Chengdu.

We made it about 15 minutes outside of town when the bus broke down. Then all of us – a pair of monks, a few chain smokers and at least one Chinese guy and one Swedish woman who desperately wanted to find a bathroom and eventually just had to stumble down the hill into a bamboo grove – milled around outside in the light of the dying sun waiting for something about our situation to change.

We got the first bus to Ya’an. And the last one back.


Peril at the Edge of the World

August 7 – Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

The edge of the empire.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

We stood atop the west gate of Jiayuguan fortress, looking out at the sands and mountains beyond. Through this gate, disgraced officials and scholars, poets and criminals walked out of the Chinese empire, banished into the wastes, most never to return.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

Known as the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”, Jiayuguan is the most intact ancient military fort along the Great Wall of China. Located at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor – China’s throat – it was the first pass at the western end of the Ming Great Wall. Built in the late 1300s, its purpose was to protect China’s heartland from the “barbarians”, and for centuries it served as a key chokepoint along the Silk Road.

The fortress is massive: Concentric walls 11 meters high and 733 meters in diameter enclose an area of 33,500 square meters.  The walls, turreted at each corner, connect to the Great Wall and the northern and southern sides.

But where before those walls garrisoned China’s westernmost armies, today they garrison a tourist trap.

Dancers, juggles, face changers, and contortionists abounded. Camels waited for passengers. Dune buggies hummed out into the waste. And overhead some kind of lawnmower-powered hang glider buzzed the tops of the gatehouses.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

Even when I found a quiet spot on a corner tower, it was all a bit much. The hang glider just wouldn’t go away.

So we circled the walls and headed for the Great Wall instead.

The western Great Wall little resembles its eastern cousin that climbs the shrubby hills outside of Beijing. Shorter and narrower than the famed gray stone wall, the western wall’s local-materials construction makes it a sandy brown mud structure, bonded together with straw. It follows the jagged curvature of the Gansu hills, making use of the local terrain to reinforce its defensive purpose.

We climbed the stairs of the open-to-tourists section to the topmost tower. From the roof, the purpose of the wall is clear: It commands hundreds of empty kilometers of flat, dead plains. Now, nuclear power plants dot the distance, but in the 16th century, no invading army could get even consider approaching the wall without raising the alarm and calling the garrison out from Jiayuguan.

From the tower, though, we spied something else: The dusty remains of skeletal pagodas dotting the steep and shifty hilltops around us. We had to investigate.

Picking our way along the treacherous, crumbling rocks, we wound along the hillsides passing whimsical shapes built by people who’d come before us with collections of the desert stones. We tried to convince ourselves that a fall down the jagged side wouldn’t be all that bad. In places, the trail narrowed to barely a boots width, sloping downward into the space below.

Periodically Matt would insist we go no further. As the man with the most mountaineering experience in our band, that should’ve given us pause. But Dave and I pushed ahead, dragging Matt, muttering this and that about “dangerous” and “hate” and “unstable traverses”, behind us.

At last we reached the splintering pagoda, robed in faded and unravelling prayer flags. Two other pagodas capped hills just below us. Between them, more lines of once-colorful prayer flags stretched like a cobwebs above decrepit temple buildings at the hill base.

To our north the Great Wall slithered up the peak from which we’d come. To the south, it slithered down another hill, then ran rail straight across the empty plain, out to the commanding Jiayuguan fortress, then disappeared into the desert over the horizon.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

We snapped a few photos, then ambled and slid down to the peeling monastery.

A lone nun, bald and grey clad and trailed by a shaggy malamute, scuffled along among the sand-blasted buildings.

Then we had our closest call of the trip.

As we walked out of the monastery, Dave spied a trashcan for his empty water bottle. Nearby, a tiny mongrel of a dog lay asleep on the sidewalk. As Dave approached the trashcan, the dog lifted its head just a little, but when the bottle clanged to the bottom of the metal bin, he transformed into a demon.

With a snarl he tore from his resting place, flinty eyes locked on Dave’s ankles. With a yelp, Dave slung the bag off his back, wielding it like half like medieval flail, half like shield to keep the dog at bay. Whichever way Dave turned, the dog spun faster, yipping hatred all the way. Each time Dave turned to run, the dog was on at his ankles, forcing Dave to swing around once more and bring his baggy weapon to bear.

Matt and I looked on in horror and delight, flinching backward each time the dog spun closer us, unsure whether to gape or flee. Finally, with something of a strangled battle cry, Dave saw his opening and bolted toward us. On the tiny demon came, still, and the three of us sprinted around a copse of trees, dog in pursuit.  At last, Dave’s foe relented and broke off growling while we broke into nervous laughter as the terror faded into shame.

“Man,” Dave said, trying to recover some bit of his pride. “I just do not want to get a rabies shot in China.”

Dave retreats.

Dave retreats.

Shades of Red on the Yellow Mountain

Holidays being what they are, I wasn’t able to get a bus out of Hangzhou until three hours after the first one left, which crimped my plans for climbing Huangshan.

Rising out of the Anhui bamboo forests, the Huangshan range is known for its jagged and jutting granite peaks thrusting more than 1,800 meters out of a sea of clouds into the blue. The mountain, which translates as Yellow Mountain in English, inspired an entire school of Chinese painting. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the peak has held renown in China for more than 2000 years, and some of its 10,000 steps are said to have been constructed as long as 1,500 years ago. Today it’s one of the most popular tourism sites in China and, being located just a few hours from Hangzhou, I got it into my head to climb it.

The only problem was, given those 10,000 steps, Huangshan isn’t the easiest climb. And since I wanted to summit before sunset, my three-hour delay, coupled with one of China’s ubiquitous traffic jams, was jamming up my plans.

There are two main routes up the mountain – well three if you count the three different cable cars, which I don’t – a 15-kilometer climb among some of the mountains most well-known geologic features or a 7.5-kilometer climb up the east side. I’d planned on the long route, but given my time constraints, I decided on Option 2. Still, by the time I’d bought my ticket and taken the shuttle to the base, it was already 3 p.m.

My guidebook says the climb takes 2.5 hours. The sun starts to set at 5:30 p.m. I was going to have to run.

So I did. Taking steps two at a time and dappling the stones with my sweat, I hoofed the four-mile climb in an hour and a half, shrugging off the shouts of “Look, look! Running foreigner!” and even stopping to snap some pictures and make some new friends, two of which mentioned they’d each make an excellent girlfriend. I declined.

And then I was at the top.

I’d packed a borrowed tent with plans to camp at the summit, but I had no sleeping bag and no pad, only a light down jacket and a pair of gym shorts. Two days before, I read that the temperatures were dropping to the high 30s some nights, so I’d booked a room at the White Goose Hotel at the summit at the last minute, figuring it would be better to pay outrageous prices than spend the night freezing on a block of concrete.

I hiked one more set of stairs and found the place, then checked in to my bunk in the hotel basement. Nice enough for a night, though not for 70 bucks.

The White Goose Hotel, complete with campsites.

The White Goose Hotel, complete with campsites. I did dodge a bullet indeed.

Then it was off for the sunset.

By the time I reached Guangming Peak, the second highest of Huangshan’s spires, nearly every piece of ground was supporting at least a body and a half. I scrambled around, climbing trees, balancing on fence posts – sometimes with the help of my new friends – snapping whatever pictures I could. Below, wisps of haze went red, then purpled as they embraced the rolling hills which gently shaded the sun as dusk turned to night. Behind, the rock faces caught the last light before they, too, faded into the gloom.

As I walked back to the hotel, I realized I’d made my second big mistake: Food. I didn’t have any, I hadn’t eaten any, and there didn’t seem to be any.

I bought a pack of cookies for four dollars, and went to find my bed, tripping all the way over the darkened stairs.

Turned out, sometime in between checking in and taking pictures, someone else had taken it. And every other bed in my basement room. That wasn’t all: By this time, beds had appeared in all the hallways and all the lobbies. Outside on the basketball court, nearly 100 tents were packed side to side in a scene that was being repeated all over the mountain, wherever tents were allowed. Where they weren’t, police were chasing off would-be sleepers.

I realized I might be in trouble.

I went up to the service desk. She drug me back down and the questioning began. We went through everyone’s receipts. After much denial, it turned out a middle-aged man tucked in to his spectacles had taken my bed in confusion.

“We can switch, OK?” he pleaded. “Ok?”


The attendant showed me to my new room. I had the corner bunk. Pushed together with some other bunks. Shared with other people. At least it would be warm, I thought.

I followed the attendant back upstairs, where I started a pretty typical conversation: “Where are you from? How old are you? Where do you live? You’re Chinese is so good … blah blah blah.” Then, it took a weird turn.

“So,” all three young women behind the desk turned to look at me.

“Do you think Chinese girls are pretty? Do you think they’re prettier than American girls? Are Chongqing girls or Anhui girls prettier? What about Shandong girls?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you want to be?” one of them practically shrieked.

I hadn’t noticed that a crowd had gathered. It erupted in cackles. My ears flushed. I dissembled.

“Yeah, Beijing is pretty far away,” she said.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking at my feet and wishing beer didn’t cost 20 yuan a can.

After a half hour of conversation with this person and that, the lights at last went out. I went downstairs to find a room of snoring men. I clambered into bed with them, snuggled up, and tried to sleep.

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Sunrise at 5:40, and I had a couple of kilometers to cover in the meantime. I grabbed my bag, and lurched into the dark.

Down, up, down again, more up, passing crowds of people on the half-lighted steps along the summit paths. In no time, my hat, gloves, and sweatshirt came off. Wherever I got, 1000 people had gotten first. I tried to force my way up to the cliff edges to get a clear look. Nothing. As the clouds started to brighten, I lucked upon a security guard opening a gate to a previously closed peak. The rusty gate creaked open, and I darted up the steps. Fifth one on the top, with prime position. Finally. More shades of red, this time the morning. Below, the cloud sea lapped at the lower peaks, and early rays silhouetted the pinnacles in pinks.

In less than 12 hours, I’d seen the sun fall and rise on the slopes of Huangshan.

But I had miles to go.

My plan for the day was to hike the West Sea Canyon, regarded by many as the most beautiful hike in the park, then to slide down the West Steps that I’d shunned the day before.

I’d picked a sunrise peak in close proximity to the West Sea Canyon entrance just for that reason. As soon as the sky blued, I was through the gate and onto the steps, built hanging onto the side of the cliff with 1,000 meters of air below. Across the canyon, the famed Huangshan rocks burst with of gnarled pines clinging to their faces like beard patches on a high school boy. For three kilometers I looped around the spires and down the hanging stairs, through tunnels, over pines and across broken bridges, swooning with bits of vertigo where the railing disappeared and the path edges slipped into abyss.

About halfway down the winding staircases, though, I realized I’d made my third classic mistake: I’d brought half a bottle of water my last three cookies. Surely there was a store at the bottom.

Indeed, there was. Only, it was staffed by a pair of small dogs which, instead of offering me succor, chased me out of the storefront, yipping and howling at my heels. As I faced the upward stairs stomach rumbling, mouth parched, I knew it was going to be a long five kilometers back up, views of the sun-sloshed granite notwithstanding.

My nemeses.

My nemeses.

I didn’t know just how long it would really be.

Through my whole hike in the West Sea Canyon, I saw maybe two dozen people. That changed.

As I staggered up the last of the steps, nearly fainting and vomiting both for lack of hydration and energy, I nearly fainted and vomited again. I’d finally found what everyone had warned me about: The Horde.

I spent the next four hours “hiking” in line, shuffling up and down steps, shoving by in frustration when gaps appeared only to run into the next person’s back. Where I could manage, I ran through the underbrush, dodging angry police and even People’s Liberation Army soldiers who were trying to keep order and stop runners like me. I tried following a stick-stick porter whose bamboo load-bearing pole kept the crowds away but eventually lost him to the masses.

At one junction approaching my planned decent-route, after jamming myself into the crowd China-style, I stood without moving for nearly 10 minutes in the then-baking sun as I stared aghast at the red-and-yellow-capped snake of tour groups that coiled around the mountain past what appeared to be a man-carried chair that had fallen off the mountain side, and then coiled around again out of sight.

No way. No way. I shook my head. And shook it some more.

No way out, indeed. Yes, this is the summit.

No way out, indeed. Yes, this is the summit.

For a moment I considered hurling myself after the chair into the void and into sweet release from panic. Then I ducked the line, instead, smacked a woman with my bag, and went back the other way. Only to find more jams. In vain, I searched this way and that with trembling legs frantic to find an alternate route down the mountain. Everywhere was more of the same. Lines in every direction. There was no way out. I was trapped on the mountain with a million other people. There was no way out.

Well there was one: The way I came. And I could only pray it would be better.

It wasn’t by much. For another 7.5 kilometers I smashed my way through children, tripped old women, and stumbled over groups of men sauntering back and forth across the steep and narrow stairs – all the while seeing my last shades of red and trying not to scream or punch or simply kill myself on the mountain side.

Well, I didn’t. But it was a close call.