China – Xiahe & Chuanzhusi & Huanglong & Chengdu

Xiahe is known as “little Lhasa” and since we were unable to visit Tibet, this city was the next best thing. Xiahe is an ethnically Tibetan town famous for its Labrang Monastery, which is one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Driving from Chongqing to Xiahe brought us up in elevation and by the time we reached Xiahe, all of our snivel gear was out. In the surrounding scenery, yaks replaced cows, tents replaced buildings, red robed monks replaced camera toting tourists, and a super grumpy goat reigned supreme on the streets of Xiahe, terrorizing locals and visitors alike. It was easy to get swept up in Tibetan fever…Xiahe has a super funky vibe about it and we really enjoyed this laid back town. Despite our high expectations, the Labrang Monastery did not disappoint, although we were really glad we got to visit Lhasa in Tibet back in 2008 when domestic tourism was still at its infancy. Xiahe was overrun with domestic tourists, and we felt bad for the monks who have to deal with an insane circus everyday with thousands of tourists invading every nook and cranny of the monastery. From Xiahe, we made our way towards Chuanzhusi, bush camping en-route. Kate P wanted to experience a proper truck party, complete with fireworks for the grand finale and she got her wish. Kate F and Tom prepared a fantastic last bush camp dinner (yummy dumplings) while the rest of us got a bit tipsy on the back of the truck. Then it was a danceathon on the back of Habibi while it rained all around us…good times. The next day brought us to Chuanzhusi where the rain followed us. We weren’t sure if visiting nearby Huanglong was a good idea due to the inclement weather but we were so glad that we did despite the rain and cloud cover. Huanglong was spectacularly beautiful, even though we had to contend with thousands of other tourists on the narrow footpath. Back at Chuanzhusi, we explored this scenic town and tried a bowl of yak meat soup…yum! And then it was on to Chengdu, where we had a whopping 3 nights stay. Our overlanding buddy (Scott Draper) from the TransAfrica trip has been living in Chengdu for the past 4 years and it was wonderful to link up with him again. We got to experience a bit of Chengdu’s nightlife and witness the ever entreprenurial Scott in action on his home turf. In the 4 years since he’s been in China, Scott has become fluent in Mandarin. He’s put his skills and good looks to use by transforming himself into a presenter, TV host, model, spokesperson, and businessman. Lucky for us, the 2016 youth music festival was being held in Chengdu so we got to watch Scott perform as the master of ceremonies and work the crowd before later getting swarmed for autographs and selfies. Oh, and we got to see a couple of pandas while in Chengdu…cute little suckers but the real star of this city was definitely Scott! We are so thrilled to see how far he’s come in such a short amount of time. From Chengdu, we’ll be heading to Xi’an where we will bid the majority of the truck goodbye before continuing the rest of our journey through SE Asia. Till next time!

23 Jul: After lunch we drove to Xiahe, which was an interesting drive because we got to see the strong Muslim presence in this corner of China (dozens of mosque minarets could be seen in every road side town) before we entered into the Tibetan area. Tom (Chinese guide and navigator) must have fallen asleep and caused us to miss our exit because we drove an hour out of the way before Kyle finally did a u-turn and drove us back towards Xiahe. It was late afternoon by the time we finally reached Xiahe where we parked in the parking lot of the Labrang Monastery and walked to the Labrang Bao Ma Hotel (which is a really nice Tibetan style building). The wifi signal didn’t reach our room but we were starving so rather than fret about it, we decided to find a place to eat right away with Lars and Ichiyo. First place we hopped into was recommended by Lonely Planet but it was full of tourists and the menu wasn’t budget friendly so we decided to look elsewhere. That was the moment we met “angry goat”, a massively obese, long-haired, ornery goat that was walking down the sidewalk attacking people. Unprovoked! We laughed as he even head-butted Robby in the legs! Eventually, we stumbled upon the Gesar Restaurant, which appeared shut but opened right up when the 4 of us strolled in. All of us ended up very happy with our meals, and would recommend this place (even though it did take a long time for our food to be served so don’t go hungry). Right when we were about to leave it started raining really hard and then the power went out so we turned right back around and ordered another round of drinks. When the rain finally eased up a bit, we decided to make a mad dash for the hotel even though the power was still out so it was a wild scramble in the dark. We were wondering if our key cards would still grant us access to our hotel room despite the power outage but as luck would have it, power was restored by the time we reached our rooms so we never got to find out. First impressions of Xiahe: a funky Tibetan town that has a super cool vibe. Can’t wait to check out the monastery tomorrow!

24 Jul – After breakfast, we headed over to the Labrang Monastery complex at 8:30 am. Since Tom told us our guided English tour wasn’t until 10 am, we had some free time to wander around on our own. After visiting Lhasa in Tibet back in 2008, we were shocked to see so many tourists here in Xiahe. The number of tourists (especially domestic tourists) has increased exponentially and we don’t know how the monks of Labrang Monastery put up with all the annoying camera toting, selfie taking tourists. Our 10 am guide was a no show so we hung around waiting. All the English tourists had been lumped together into one massive group and by 10:30, our monk guide showed up and we were off for a quick tour of the complex. Our guide was quite taken with Denise and agreed to a selfie pic with her but when Lars asked for a ponder pose, the monk angrily refused and his friendly demeanor switched off. We really didn’t enjoy being part of such a large group to explore Labrang so as soon as the tour was over, we split off to do our own thing. Which mainly consisted of climbing a nearby hill for a nice panoramic view over the city of Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery followed by some lunch. Our original plan was to eat at Gesar Restaurant, but as soon as we saw the disgruntled faces of our group (they had been waiting over an hour for their food), we turned right back around and found a local joint that served up some delicious noodles within mere minutes. After lunch we circumnavigated around the Labrang Monastery complex, spinning prayer wheels as we walked along before heading back to the hotel to relax for a bit. Tonight was a repeat of last night as we headed over with Lars and Ichi to the Gesar Restaurant. Again, the place was empty and we had it to ourselves over an enjoyable dinner. Two thumbs up for Xiahe…we really enjoyed this town.

25 Jul – Goodbye Xiahe! Kate had given us a departure time so it was up to us to pack up and head over to the truck after breakfast. From Xiahe, we drove towards Langmu to visit the Dacanglang Monastery. We actually enjoyed Da Cang Lang Mu Monastery (大仓郎木寺)a whole lot more than Labrang Monastery because there were far fewer tourists and the temples were in much better condition. Kate sneakily arranged for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Langmu (Oasis’ treat) where we enjoyed a delicious mix of about seven different dishes (every dish was popular except for the tofu, ha). Even though we had free time to explore this city, it started pouring with rain when we were finishing up our meals so we opted to return to the truck to wait out the storm. When the rest of the group showed up, we drove for the rest of the afternoon until Kyle found a suitable spot to bush camp for the night. Our bush camp was just south of Dazhasi near a place called Little Village. Kate P wanted to experience her first truck party and we happily obliged, getting the party started about an hour before Kyle pulled over for the day. Kate F tried to trick Kyle into participating (hiding on the truck until he showed up, wondering what the heck was going on) but Kyle was having none of it. The rest of us drank and chatted while Kate F and Tom volunteered to do cook group duties, whipping up some delicious dumplings in the rain. While they were cooking, several curious locals showed up to check them out. Outfitted in clear plastic rain jackets, hats and face masks, the silent women looked like creepy zombies checking us out. Or that might just be the rice wine talking. Getting stared at in complete silence was something we never got used to…one of the more bizarre aspects of bush camping in China! After dinner our truck party continued with more drinking and dancing. Robby’s Uzbek smelly sheep hat even made an appearance. Tom had saved the best for last, finishing off the night with fireworks. So there, young Kate Price – your first party with swigs of sketchy alcohol passed around the truck, some dance tunes and fireworks! What more can a girl ask for? With that grand finale, we finally crawled into our tent for a blissful night’s sleep.

26 Jul – After an early breakfast, we were on the road by 7:30 am for a cold and wet drive to Chuanzhusi. Due to the inclement weather, we weren’t sure if this afternoon’s excursion would be a go (a visit to the nearby Huanglong pools). By lunch time, we made it to Chuanzhusi where we checked in at the Jinjing Hotel and waited to see if the weather would clear up for our visit up the mountain. A group of eight of us joined Tom for lunch at a local restaurant which served up some tasty meals. Back at the hotel at 12:30 pm, we linked up with the group to discuss whether we would visit Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) pools or not. In the end, everyone except Warner, Denise, Andy and Kevin decided to go. Kyle drove us in the truck, and it took us about an hour to drive to the park. Luckily for all of us, Kate ended up paying for our cable car ticket up with local payment so there were no other costs for our afternoon excursion…yay! We did have to wait in a long queue to get on the cable car, but the line moved quickly. The ride saved us a 30 minute hike up the mountain, but little did we realize that it only took us up part way. There still was quite a bit of hiking to do but it wasn’t too bad. Definitely not bad enough for the stalls that were selling oxygen canisters! We laughed at a couple of Chinese tourists we saw puking over the side of the railing due to altitude sickness…seriously? We were only up 3600 meters!! There was a light drizzle of rain for most of our visit to Huang Long but the colorful pools were still worth a visit. Kate had coordinated for us to be back at 5:30 pm, so we felt a bit rushed in our desire to see everything, springing up the stairs and trying our best to bypass the crowds. And by crowds, I mean crowds. This place was packed with thousands of tourists, and everyone was stopping frequently with those damn selfie sticks and umbrellas. With so many inconsiderate tourists blocking the walkways, it made getting around a bit tricky but we managed to sprint around and see everything and make our way down to the meeting point with 10 minutes to spare. In the end, our rush was for naught, as quite a few members of our group decided to show up at their convenience so we had to wait an extra 45 minutes for the last stragglers to filter on in. Tom called Kyle to come pick us up and we were off, returning back to Chuanzhusi late in the afternoon. With the remaining light, we wanted to walk around and explore this interesting city, so we immediately set out to check out the temple before making our way to the other side of the river for some dinner, yak noodle soup style. It was nice to see the Tibetan influence on the architecture in this town, and we laughed at the humorous Chinglish translations on many of the buildings. After dinner, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.

27 Jul – We had a bit of a lie in today with a 9 am departure! About 10 minutes after we hit the road for the long ride to Chengdu, Tom remembered that he had forgotten to get his hotel deposit money back, so Kyle had to backtrack. This slight detour ended up costing us dearly, as we ran into a traffic jam that delayed us over an hour. The reason? A truck had overturned and a crane was needed to flip it back over. All traffic had come to a standstill and we learned how impatient Chinese drivers are! Our lunch stop was near Shuangquan where Kate found a restaurant for us to eat at (paid for with local payment). The girls took a funny group pee photo in the ladies’ bathroom since the dividers were so short with Robby serving as the photographer. Who knows what the locals must have thought we were doing in there?! Our drive today was quite scenic with mountains all around as we drove along the river in a deep gorge. Becky and Connie spent the afternoon spotting Chinese ladies with intricate traditional hats but weren’t able to get any photos. We did pass by a couple of villages capitalizing off of white yaks – dressing them up for tourist photos. By late afternoon, we finally reached Chengdu and checked into the Lu Jian Hua Hotel. Tom offered to help us order dinner so we went with Kate P, Kate F & Kyle and enjoyed a nice cheap dinner. A couple of other stragglers showed up after we had ordered and they had to point at photos on the wall to order their food since Tom had already left for his apartment. Unfortunately, the photo meals looked a lot better than what was served, so the group was stuck with a couple of mystery meals. While we were having dinner, we heard of some drama involving Daniel and the police. Apparently he had been escorted back to the hotel for causing a scene, and he had denied knowing anyone else in our group when Ant tried to intervene and assist…how bizarre! We were glad to have missed the drama since it didn’t involve us at all!

28 Jul – After breakfast, we linked up with Tom at 10 am for a Chengdu city walk. He led us to the tourist district of the city and then told us we were on our own…not a great tour! So we decided to partner up with Lars and Ichi to explore Chengdu on our own. First heading to the People’s Park and then to Jinli Ancient Street, which were both worth a visit. On our return trip back, we stopped for lunch at a noodle shack. Back at the hotel, we chilled until our reunion with Scott (one of our TransAfrica buddies who has been living in Chengdu for the past 4 years). He was supposed to meet us at the hotel but forgot all about the time so when Ichi called him, he asked if we could meet him at the Joy Yard Restaurant instead. A short taxi ride and we were there. It was so great to see Scott who hadn’t changed a bit. We also got to meet his girlfriend Doris, brother Adam, and cousin Paul. Doris ordered a nice mix of food for the table and we all chowed down. Excellent food here! After catching up on the past couple of years, Scott presented us with an assortment of “gifts”. First present was a pack of cigarettes and lighter because it is common to offer cigarettes to people in China whether you are a smoker or not. Next up was a bottle of rice wine (which we had already had plenty of and were not huge fans of), followed by a massive ladle since that is what was traditionally used as a drinking container by poor Chinese who had traveled a long way. Interesting Chinese gifts but we will certainly be re-gifting ours, ha! After dinner we went to a pub called “The Beer Nest” for a few tasty beers and then headed over across the street to McElroy’s Irish Pub for more drinks and some games. Scott pulled some strings and coordinated for the Pub to open the upper floor so we could play some games (pool, darts and shuffle board) while we drank a mini keg of beer. Good times and we forgot how much fun Scott is! All too quickly, the bar closed so we had to say our goodbyes and returned to the hotel.

29 Jul – This morning we took taxis to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Since Chengdu is world famous for its pandas, we would be remiss if we didn’t visit! For some reason, Daniel didn’t show up at the agreed upon departure time so Kate told us to go ahead and wait for her at the ticket booth (since she was paying for our entrance). However, the delay took longer than expected, and SCUBA Gill got a text message urging us to go ahead and visit and we would get reimbursed later. No need to tell us twice! We decided to hang with Ichi and Lars as we discovered the wonderful world of pandas together. The place was super packed with everyone eager to learn about this adorable creatures. We got to see several giant pandas (adult, juvenile and even babies that were less than a month old) and red pandas. The adult pandas were fairly active when we were there since it was obviously their playtime and they were busy romping around. Too cute! After checking out all the enclosures, we returned back to the hotel and grabbed some lunch. The group was supposed to link up in the afternoon for truck clean but it was obvious not everyone got the message or they chose to ignore it. But a hot, sweaty team of us got the job done despite the overanxious security guard giving us a hard time about laying the tents out to dry in the parking lot compound. He was an annoying bugger, pestering us constantly. About as annoying at the dozen or so mosquitoes that were munching on us. After cleaning the tents, Kate took us to a supermarket for drinks and ice cream as our reward. Back at the hotel, we took a well deserved shower and relaxed until Ichi got a message from Scott for our evening’s activities. The plan was for us to grab a taxi and link up with Scott at an event he was hosting (an international youth music festival). Apparently, Scott has become quite a celebrity in Chengdu with his fluent Mandarin and good looks, catapulting his success into several lucrative businesses. He had reserved tickets for the 4 of us, and gave Ichi the directions to show the taxi driver. At the industrial park, we linked up with Doris and Adam and grabbed our tickets before heading inside to find a place to chill for the next few hours. Since we were early, we managed to score some tables close to the stage so we could see all the action. We quickly surmised that the beer buckets were the best deal and ordered several buckets between the 6 of us, ending the night with a whopping 45 bottles of beer. The show was pretty cool since it was an international event, with talent from all around the world. It was great seeing Scott work his magic with the crowd…he seemed to be in his element and completely at ease. We even managed to get some one on one time with Chengdu’s most popular celebrity in between the sets. Since the show started late, it also ended late and we stayed for the whole thing making for a late night. Everyone was zonked after a full on day so no late night activities for us. Instead, Scott ordered us a taxi, bid us farewell and sent us on our way. We were starving at midnight and the only thing open was McDonalds so burger and fries for dinner it was! What a fun couple of days in Chengdu and it was really lovely to see Scott again after so many years. Who knows when the next reunion will be?

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