Monday, August 30, 2010

Fwd: Yuelai Loop - Sunday 29th August

Here is a quick report written by our trip leader from our ride on Sunday. Plus pictures he took. Was a good ride, but crazy long time out due to all the hiking.


Another adventure for the adventure book.
We covered 36 km in 5 hours and 40 minutes today for a total ascent of 700 m, not a record breaking pace, but considering what we slogged through today, not at all bad. These numbers included hiking our bikes 3.3 km for 2 hours up a 270 meter ascent!
Thanks for sharing an exploratory ride on a rainy, foggy, Chengdu Sunday. 
Until next time, keep the rubber on the dirt. Cheers, 

































The green line is the planned route, the red is the actual

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Driving in China

Yesterday we drove to Chengdu. We left at 5 am because three have been lots of landslides and the roads were reputed to be very bad. It turned out to be good that we left so early because it took 11 hrs to get to Chengdu (our personal best on the drive is 7.5 hrs) and that meant we got in at 4 pm, giving us plenty of time to get our haircut, go out to dinner, and show a newly arrived undergrad our flat to see if he wants to share with us (he does!). Oh, and we got to eat Baobing with real bing. Yum!

On the drive I was thinking about my favorite things about long-distance driving in China and came up with: podcasts (we listened to car talk, wait wait, this american life, and planet money), books on tape (we listened to the Alchemist), and driving ourselves and thus trusting the driver. I also noticed that during the drive there was a steadily decreasing quality of gas station bathrooms. At the first gas station the bathroom almost could pass the test of being clean enough to be in a developed country. The second was a bit dirty. The third was so gross that if we had had a choice, I wouldn't have used it. However, there was no choice. In case you're wondering, the worst things about long drives in China are: other drivers, the roads, buses, trucks, 3 wheeled carts and tractors, and the bathrooms. Oh, and the food. we take all our own food for drives and lots of water. We have, however, gotten totally used to long drives. We did the 11 hr drive with just the 3 bathroom stops (where we also swapped driving).

The road turns out to have been ok. The first 5 hrs went according to schedule and we were past Ping Wu before we really hit the traffic. The first was a hold up for 30 minutes (until 11 am) and then after that there were regular stops and often the other side of the road was mostly ripped up, creating an uncontrolled 1-lane road with 2 lanes of traffic.

Today we had a fabulous (but long!) bike ride with the Chevron expats who mountain bike every weekend here. Most of the group did half the ride, but since that was only 1.5 hrs, 4 of us decided to complete the loop. We were unfortunately given bad directions and rode quite a ways up a large hill (>1 hr up) before the 2 who had done the ride before decided it probably wasn't the right way. We then spent about 45 minutes trying to use the iPhone to figure out which way to go before we just called the guy who mapped the ride and was leading our ride before he had to leave early. Oh, did I mention we met at 6 am, which meant we left the house at 5:40 and had to try to find somewhere we'd never been before in expat land? It was exciting. Fortunately our friends' driver came and found us. In any case, we got turned around and finished something resembling the right ride. We definitely did the wrong thing at the end since instead of a loop we did a lollipop where we went back down the same evil hill we started up first thing in the morning (and which got my unwarmed-up-self up to a heartrate of 199!). In any case, we did a 5 hr ride of unknown distance (including the stops to figure out which way to go) and burned over 2300 cal each. Wow. We got home safely and now know where to find the starbucks where everyone is meeting tomorrow at the more civilized time of 8 am for another ride.

Dessert is coming soon, so I'm off for now.

a :)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mother spider!

Last night when we were packing the car and this guy crawled into the
flat, Josh didn't believe how big it was until he saw it. It crawled
under the sink in the Asian bathroom. This morning it reappeared
crawling into our full bath. I would like to believe it is the same
guy, not that we have 2!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Answers to last weeks Query

Apparently the picture I posted of the device in the Beijing subway terminal was of an anti-explosion device and not a bath tub or a Persian tea urn as was guessed by a couple of avid readers. Thank you all for your submissions and I will try to post something in the next couple of days for your enjoyment.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Josh said my note about our ride Sunday was confusing.

To clarify: we were about 8 linear km along the road and 200 vertical m from the pass. We bike 46 km with a total of 1365 m elevation gain. We plan to bike 70 km on Saturday starting from the same place, so we'll go past the pass by about 4 km before turning around.

our flatmates don't like Italian food

On Saturday Josh made a delicious fresh tomato-mushroom sauce to go with the rest of our gnocchi. Yum. Our flatmates both had the afternoon off, so they were home when we finished and we invited them to dinner. They agreed after a bit of humming and hawing and we all sat down in the sun room for our meal. We had the gnocchi and some extra sharp cheddar cheese Jessi brought for us as a topping. Xiao Yu (the younger of our two flatmates; she went to college in Chengdu and is half Tibetan) put out a bowl of left over cucumber salad (a spicy dish with cucumbers, oil, and hot pepper). Both girls gamely took a bowl of gnocchi and Xiao Yu even decided to use a fork to eat hers. Zhuo Ma (our other flatmate; she spent the previous 9 years dancing in the shows here. She just turned 24, so she started dancing at 14! She is full Tibetan; they are from the same city originally) opted for chopsticks and it was quickly clear that she strongly preferred the cucumber salad. They thought the gnocchi were kind of weird and when they tried the cheese Xiao Yu couldn't contain herself and said "That is a very strange flavor!". She tried to describe it but had nothing to compare it to. Zhuo Ma managed to choke down half of one little piece (we had grated it!). Zhuo Ma eventually resorted to dumping the sauce from the cucumber salad into her bowl of gnocchi and then didn't finish it, left the table early, and went to get Dicos (local KFC knock-off). Xiao Yu ate her whole bowl and said that though she isn't used to it, it is good to try different foods. Then while she was helping us clean up, she noticed all the spices we have (actually not that many) and was telling me that making western food must be so complicated because there are so many different flavors to use. In Sichuan cooking you only use salt, soy sauce, vinegar, msg, spicy pepper, and sichuan pepper. Basically every dish has all of those in different amounts. I told her that we are used to variety in our food flavors, so to us Sichuan food all tastes the same. It was an interesting cultural experience for all of us.

We moved around the furniture over the weekend and discovered that mice have been eating sunflower seeds under our tv stands. The girls didn't seem to connect that to their food left out and on Sunday when they were eating walnuts, I told them that the mice *love* walnuts, so to be careful. I'm not sure they really get how to keep the mice from wanting to be in our house by keeping the food out of reach.

Last night we had another unfortunate bad flatmate experience. I woke up at 3:45 to go to the bathroom and noticed that they weren't home. Before I fell back asleep I heard them come in (the front door is kind of loud) and get ready for bed. Then for at least 15 minutes someone was banging on the front door. I almost got up in my pjs to go yell at the person. I assume it wasn't Zhuo Ma or Xiao Yu, but I don't know. Then someone started yelling at the door. Yikes! Not appropriate 4 am behavior! Both girls were asleep this morning so I didn't get to ask about it. I thought maybe Zhuo Ma's creepy on-again off-again boyfriend was there. She is supposed to be staying away from him because he's such a creep and is not faithful (a mutual friend described him as worse than a dog because a dog knows to go home at night). I'd rather he stay out of the house anyway since he was the smoking instigator last weekend. In any case, I will try to figure out at lunch time why they were out so late (probably work) and who was pounding the door. If it was one of the girls and she got locked out, I would feel rather badly that I didn't go open it.

Other than that excitement, our weekend primarily consisted of bike riding. We rode 60 km on Saturday (1315 m elevation gain) and 46 km on Sunday (1400 elevation gain). Sunday we drove up to only about 7 km from the end of our Saturday right so that we could ride somewhere different. I think we'll start there next Saturday too. It was a nice road, though a bit steep. Next weekend we are aiming to get up over the pass at the top of that road. We got within 100 m of it yesterday. We also ate at a new guesthouse with a nice western restaurant. I had a tuna sandwich (Yum!). It seems like since we've been riding so much I've been wanting to eat more protein, so we've been eating more eggs and also have been getting things like tuna pizza or tuna sandwiches when we go for western food. I think we'll buy some tuna in Chengdu when we're there.

Speaking of going to Chengdu, the roads are quite bad and we aren't sure exactly which route we'll take. It took our friend 30 hrs on the bus to get to Chengdu. Yikes! We are thinking about going the long way without any mountain passes and not the route buses take. We should figure it out at the end of this week. Also will take sleeping bags in case we have to sleep in the car (which is what happened to our friend on the bus).

I'm off for now.

amanda :)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seafood loving 13 yr olds

Yesterday the manager of the visitor center (on the left) took us out
to dinner with her son and niece (the others is the picture). Turns
out her son loves seafood. The piles of detritus on the table are from
him eating fresh water lobsters and snails. He also attacked the BBQ
fish. The bones just don't make such a big pile. The lobster and
snails weren't really worth the effort to eat. Lots of work for little
food. Also no butter. Just spicy oil.

Chocolate milk river

Currently this what the river outside our house looks like. Reminds me
of the chocolate river in Charlie and the chocolate factory (the One
with Gene Wilder not Johnny Depp). This is currently the color of the
water coming out of our facet as well.

What is it?

Unlike previous posts that I have sent out I actually have no idea
what this thing is and what it does. That being said take your best
guess and the winner will receive a months prescription to this blog,
that should help you fall asleep.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sad Car Talk news

Our car is too weird for Car Talk. The producers decided that Tom and Ray will know nothing about a Citroen ZX. :-( So I'm not going to be on the show. What a disappointment!

a :)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

No smoking in my house!

Last night we woke up to our flatmate's boyfriend smoking IN OUR
HOUSE! That is not ok! What can we do? I asked him not to smoke in the
house, but woke up to a stinky house and an ashtray cup.

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Car talk will be next week

They didn't call me last night but told me when they called 2 nights ago that I will be on the show either this week or next, just depends on timing. It looks like it will be next week. I will keep you in the loop.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

car talk

I am going to be on car talk either this weekend or next. I should know tonight. I believe it will be this weekend. Woo hoo! I'll try to post a link to the show once it's been aired, but if you can listen to it on your local NPR station, you might as well.

a :)

Monday, August 9, 2010

On how the lack of rule-of-law in China affects my life (and it isn’t good)

We all know that the rule of law is one of the important features of functioning democracies. It's important to know what the rules are and what will happen if you break one of them. Or what to do to get things done. For example, if you need permission to work in a National Park back home, you can find on a website a procedure by which you apply and get permission. This is a relatively known quantity. Having a relative who is an official at the park isn't going to really help you. You can't take the park director out and get him drunk to get your permission. Here things are really arbitrary. Connections make all the difference. If you have the right connections, you can get a park pass by getting someone drunk. If you don't, you need to go through a long application processes. Actually, even that takes connections. If you have no connections at all, the whole thing can take a long time, if it ever gets done.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently for the very mundane issue of making sure that we don't get parked in in our parking lot (the one outside our building). It's only happened once when it really mattered – when Jessi and CJ were here – but it has been something we think about every time we park the car since then.

What happens is this. The parking lot is small and triangular shaped (stupid shape, I know). It is supposed to be primarily for people who live in the complex. There is another small and stupidly shaped parking lot behind the management building for people who work here and live in the other housing complex (most of the staff). Since not many people in our complex own cars, there are some spots left for other staff who live at the other complex. Maybe you could fit 20 cars in the lot if you parked just around the edges. Careful parking may fit another 3 or 4. The other lot could fit another 10 or so cars and still allow everyone to get out.

The problem is that there are probably 50 cars trying to park between the two lots every day. More now that it's summer. Many of these cars belong to tourists or tour guides. Neither of who are supposed to use the lots. There is no parking attendant. No one charging people to park. No one putting notes on cars which aren't supposed to be there. And no one telling people they can't park others in. So every day people park in a totally haphazard manner all over the lot. They triple park. They park sideways. They park next to the dumpster and along the side of the already narrow bridge into the lot. The park staff generally all work from 8:30-12 and 2:30-6 every day, so most people want to drive home for lunch and an afternoon nap. However, when there are so many cars parked in such a random way, it's quite difficult to get out. Sometimes one tourist car will block in 3 park staff. Or the opposite happens after lunch and the tourists want to leave for their hotel around 5 but no one is off work yet. They could be parked in by park staff. One day at lunch time we saw people hoisting up the back of a car (it was small) and sliding it slightly to the left so that they could get two cars out. Later that day a tourist was stuck for 45 minutes waiting for staff to leave.

This problem could be solved fairly easily.

1)      Issue stickers to park staff

2)      Patrol the lot and put tickets on cars which are parking people in or parked stupidly (like parallel when it's a back into spot)

3)      Don't let tourists in

The problem is that the tourists and tour guides who get in are the ones with connections. This is where the rule of law bit comes in. If there were rule of law, it wouldn't matter who you know where, you couldn't park in the staff parking lot. But because there isn't rule of law, people who have the right connections or paid the right people or took the right person out drinking can park in the staff parking lot. This in turn results in way too many cars in the lot and precipitates a lot of the problems. To make it worse, people know if they park in back they'll get parked in, so well before the lot fills up they start parking in the cars towards the front. We have identified 2 spots which never get parked in and we do everything possible to make sure we get one. We have gone out at 9 pm to move the car once everyone is gone to ensure we get the right spot.

Another way that the lack of rule of law is apparent is in the poor driving skills and total lack of enforcement of traffic laws. We regularly see police officers yelling into the bullhorns on their cars at people to move out of (totally legal) parking spots just to harass them. They could be being significantly more useful by actually monitoring traffic on the road. The weave, where one car passes a slower car on the right while another car passes them both on the left, or some variation of that, is quite common. People honk for no reason. They stop in the middle of the road. They move to the right before turning left. They don't use blinkers. They don't stop at stop-lights or accelerate through intersections. They double park on the side of the road. They drive in the shoulder. They speed through town. They pass on blind corners. They ignore the red flag telling them not to pass through the single lane construction zone and just honk at you until you get out of their way. None of these things are legal but none are enforced. It makes for rather hairy driving, walking on the side of the road, or cycling.

A final example of a manifestation of the lack of rule of law with driving is the caravans of official cars. When someone is important (or some people are important), they get in a caravan of black SUVs with dark tinted windows, turn on an awful horn, turn on their little lights on the top of the car, turn on their blinkers, and drive as fast as they want down the middle of the road. Sometimes roads will get closed for an official traveling to Chengdu. We basically just bail as far to the right side of the road as possible when we see these caravans. Why should these people get to ignore all the traffic laws? What if they kill a kid by speeding through a village? An unfortunate side effect of this legal law-breaking is that people with lots of money to pay off traffic cops will illegally install sirens and flashing lights on their cars. Usually they own Toyota Prados or Land Cruisers. These folks then speed around like they aren't driving dangerous machines and simply honk until you get out of their way. I think they would have no qualms about running you over if you didn't. It's completely absurd that the rules of the road don't apply to important people. If they don't apply to important people then why should everyone else feel like they need to follow the law?

It would certainly help if they made speed limits reasonable (30 kmh is way too slow for down a major arterial through town, for example) and enforced them. They also need to simply crack down on people who buy driver's licenses, cars without registration, and all the other rules of the road which are so carefully tested in the 100-question driving exam. And stop letting it be ok for important people to ignore the rules. They would do well to follow the example of the ICAC in Hong Kong. Starting with the police officers.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Posted 4 albums of photos at and

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The rest of the trip to the SW

Given how long this is taking, I'm going to write up the rest of our trip to the SW in one note and then we can move on to more current events.

We left Zhongdian in the morning and were on a beautiful and well paved road for about an hour. Then the road ended. We were on a dirt road with massive ruts from the trucks driving down it in bad weather. Josh did spectacularly and we made it through, with a few stops to take photos. The car was having trouble starting at altitude so we had to push start it pretty much everytime we stopped. Josh stopped really wanting to stop the car much, understandably.

After a late lunch in Xiangcheng, which unfortunately made Liz sick later, we drove the rest of the way to Daocheng and met Travis there. Travis is an American working on domestic tourism for his dissertation. We spent the night in a nice guesthouse in Daocheng. The guy who runs it was really nice. Unfortunately he charged an arm and a leg for coffee and we didn't find that out until after we drank it. Liz was sick all night (boo) from the meat in her noodles. Cabinet meat the came out of a cabinet, was reheated, and then put on her food. She was the only one who had it and thus the only one who got sick.

The next morning we left some stuff at the guesthouse and squeezed all 5 of us into the car for the drive to Yading, the park where Travis is doing his research. The landscape these two days of driving was spectacular and it got even more so when we got to Yading. The village we stayed in is perched on what looks like an alluvial fan which was truncated by erosion. It looks flat as you go down to it, when compared to everything else, but it is really relatively steep. After checking in to the hotel, Josh, Brian, Travis, and I took a walk up one of the valleys. We found a yak herder hut with some folks who invited us for tea and met 2 women from Guangdong. We all ended up at the beautiful Frog Lake in a light rain before heading back. We had an ok dinner back at the guest house. The guy who runs that particular hostel is a bit lazy and isn't the best cook. It was ok though. At dinner we met the other non-Chinese guest at the hostel, a very nice Korean engineer named Soong Ho. He visited us in Jiuzhaigou 2 weeks after we met him in Yading.

Over dinner we decided that all of us, except Liz, would attempt to go on a village outing the next day. the walk is 32 km around one of the sacred mountains in the park and all the local villagers do it twice a year (in a day). Basically it goes from 3800 m to 4500 m over a pass, down to 4000, up to 4500, and back down to the entrance. Being that we aren't totally used to hiking at that elevation or that distance, we took the electric cart thingy for 10 km in the beginning. The girls from Beijing rode horses for about the first 3 hrs. The hike was amazing. Thanks to our bus ride we were somewhere near the front of the village for the beginning of the trek and since we are slower than the locals, we ended up seeing just about everyone. After the first pass we climbed down a bit to a place where the whole village sat down for a picnic. They ate traditional Tibetan foods (yogurt, bread, yak) but also a huge assortment of Chinese snacks (chicken feet, tofu, candies). We had peanut butter and honey on local bread. Pretty good.

After lunch we walked basically fairly flat around the edge of the mountain and then had a steep climb up to the 2nd pass. Brian got kind of sick on the 2nd pass (asthma+altitude?) and we ended up at the end of the group. Lots of little kids were riding horses and someone kindly let the two Guangdong girls ride horses since it was really hard for them. We hardly saw them all day because it was such a rough outing for them.

Back down the pass we ended up at the other tourist site for the park and walked back to the entrance where we ate another mediocre dinner at a local restaurant and then drove back up to the hostel. Liz joined us for the trip up through the bus ride and also for dinner.

The next morning we left early and gave Soong Ho a ride back to Daocheng, where he was headed to visit a hot spring. We had dreams of making it all the way to Chengdu in a days driving and so we set out with me behind the wheel once we had lunch at the local backpacker hostel/restaurant and packed the car up again.

The driving was spectacularly beautiful. The weather was gorgeous and we were on a high plateau which I later found out had an ice cap during the last glacial maximum. It was strewn with gigantic granite boulders and really flat. Neat! About half way to Litang we saw a group of young monks swimming in a river and sunbathing (NAKED) on the side of the road.

When we go to Litang we filled up the car with gas and Josh started driving. Heading out of town (at about 4000 m) we started smelling gas. Figuring it wasn't a big deal and not wanting to stop because of the car-starting-problem, we kept going. The smell didn't go away. Eventually we go to the top of a 4700 m pass and Josh stopped the car. There was gas gushing out of the spot where you fill the gas tank. We opened it up and for about 30 min gas gushed out. We think that because it was stored underground and was cool but heated up in the car plus the 700 m climb, it just expanded too much. Once the gas was ready to stay put in the tank we pushed the car to get going and hoped back in.

We had a relatively uneventful drive, although the roads got worse, as we pushed on towards Kangding. By 6 pm it was clear we weren't going to make it past Kangding and I called and made a reservation at the hostel Travis recommended. At about 7 pm we got stopped because a tractor with a bunch of logs on back had the trailer tip over in the middle of the road. We tried to help out as he cleared up the mess and got the logs to the side of the road so he could reload the tractor (I guess a rope broke and destabilized the load). At about 9 we pass the Kangding airport and got pretty excited to almost be there.

Then 13 km from town we saw a line of parked buses and trucks. Bad news. But no cars, so maybe the way was open for cars. We drove past all these parked vehicles for a while and eventually decided that we'd better stop too. Josh and I went up and talked with some folks and found out that there had been a landslide which washed out the road and we weren't going to get through for 3 days. We went up and looked at the landslide. Then after talking with some folks who couldn't really undrestand me ("where are you going?" "Chengdu" "oh, Changdu?" "no, Chengdu" "Changdu is the opposite direction" "No, Chengdu" "Changdu isn't open to foreginers" "No, the province capital, Chengdu" "Oh, Chengdu") (Changdu is the major city in Eastern Tibet), we finally found out that there was another road we could take up near the airport, but we'd better spend the night in the car and wait until tomorrow because it is dangerous. Walking back to the car we talked with some other drivers of small vehicles and decided it would be a good thing to try, despite the rain, since some police officers told us it was open and passable. Liz had met someone who told her there was no alternative and for 50 RMB he would have someone pick us up if we walked across the landslide. We consulted with some more drivers and decided to risk taking the new road. So we turned around and followed the line of small cars to the airport and onto a road that was actively under construction. At some points the road was ok and had been graded, but at others it was totally miserable. One time Josh stalled the car and we had to get out in the rain and ankle deep mud to push start it, but fortunately it started. After about 2 hrs we had gone 10 km (max) on this miserable road and got to the pavement at the other end. We got to Kangding at 2 am after a 4 hr detour. The lady at the hostel was so nice to us and got up to make sure we could find the place and get in.

The next morning after a fantastic breakfast (pancakes!), Josh and I decided to get the car fixed while Brian and Liz hung out at the hostel. It was making some funny noises and needed to be dealt with before continuing our drive. We went to drive out the way we got in to the hostel and discovered a pile of bricks and a tractor in the way. They told us to go out the other way. Then we ended up on a road too narrow for our car and a kind tractor driver backed us up that and got us turned around to get back out the first way. We helped the people to load the tractor until enough bricks were gone for us to get through. Turned out that part of a muffler had come loose (still haven't fixed that) and our skid plate (hooray for that!) was dented and filled with dirt. They took of the skid plate, pounded it out, and put it back on for 40 rmb. While at the car repair place some other dude getting his car fixed was trying to tell us what was wrong with our car and what to do about it. Finally I asked him if he worked there, he said no, and I said, "I am trying to talk with the man who works here and is fixing our car, can you please let me have that discussion" and the car repair guy agreed with me and the annoying man left. We went and got Liz and Brian from the hostel (along the walking path since we didn't want to drive back up that narrow road again) and headed back towards Chengdu. The roads weren't great and then in Ya'an we had trouble finding the freeway. Eventually we got back to Chengdu before dinner time and had a nice dinner with Mark, a friend of ours who also knows Brian.

After a day in Chengdu, an easy drive to Jiuzhaigou, and 2 days here, Liz and Brian were off.

This concludes the SW China Road Trip Series.

We're a bit behind on our reporting and may have to skip over Jessi and Justin's visit and maybe Kathie and Jerry's visit as well. Hopefully we'll write a bit about hiking on the great wall.

We miss you all and will upload photos soon (maybe tonight?)

Amanda :)

I was mistaken for a taxi

On Saturday night I went to pick up Josh, Kathie, and 2 of Zhuo Ma's guests from Zang Mi, the best cultural show in town. I was in our car within the line of cabs, since I couldn't park on the other side of the road. As I was waiting for them, a few folks opened the front and back doors to the car and tried to climb in. I basically forgot all my relevant Chinese and yelled incoherently at them until someone goes "Hey, that's a laowai" (laowai = foreigner) and they left. Next time I need to remember to look the doors in that situation.