Monday, October 19, 2009

October 17 - 19: Can't accuse us of a boring honeymoon (Kangding to Xinduqiao and back)

You'll have to excuse us, but the are will be only one picture in this very long post for reasons that will soon become clear. As well we are going to skip the few days that came before October 17th.  But don't worry, even without photos we think it is worth a read!
On the 17th, Saturday morning, we headed out of the charming mountain town of Kangding on our way west towards Litang.  It is a nice town nestled in the mountains, and called the unofficial border between Sichuan and Tibet.  Though the Tibetan Autonomous Region doesn't start for another 600 km or so west of here, you can feel the landscape changing.  We left early in the morning since we had about 75 kilometers to cover and the first 36 km were a continuous climb of almost 2000m up to a peak at 4300km.  The climb was pretty tough, made even more so by the fact that there was some construction along the way that forced us to push our bikes uphill through a stream for about 1 kilometer.  Mike also had a tough time, as the yoghurt we had for breakfast took a toll on his stomach and he didn't seem to get as much out of the calories we ate all day as he should have.  Finally, we arrived at the beautiful, chilly, thin-air peak a mere 8 hours after starting the day.  The views of snow-capped peaks were gorgeous, but it was getting late and we still had 40 km to go (albeit all downhill) so we hurried up and started to descend the hill.
The descent is what we would call the real border with Tibet.  As soon as we started to descend, the valley opened up into beautiful yellow, olive and rust-coloured grasslands with gorgeous, large Tibetan houses and buildings on either side, often sitting beside very picturesque streams.  We also felt the friendliness of rural life return again, with kids running out to yell "Hello" to us and everyone waving at us from their yards and cars and motorcycles.  The downhill treated us well and we realized we would make it to town well before sunset, but we were still incredibly tired.  We had just decided we were almost ready for bed when we approached a motorcycle by the side of the road, with two guys standing around it looking like they had difficulties.  As we approached, they stood on the road in our way and made motions as if they needed our help with a broken bike.  Once we were close enough and slow enough, they then made a motion rubbing their fingers and soon after yelled "mun-ayy" at us.  Mike yelled "Jen, go!" but right away they pulled some pretty mean-looking knifes from their belts.  We stopped immediately and with their knives waving around they ransacked our bags. They grabbed Mike's front handlebar bag off, and used their knives to cut his back red rack pack off which was tied onto the bike. After failing to pull off Jen's front handlebar bag, they rummaged through it and took out a wallet and an iPod.  Worried about travelling in China without passports, which we've needed each day so far, we begged them in Chinese for our passports and said we'd find them more money, but they ignored us and took off quickly on their motorcycle, with almost everything of significant value that we had with us.  (This was unfortunately alot of stuff, as we travel with alot of toys...perhaps too many in retrospect)
After this, we biked to the busy intersection two kilometers later and asked around for help.  There, a very apologetic Tibetan fellow (who was disgusted to hear what had happened to us) told us to go to the police station 9 kilometers later, in the town we had planned to sleep at.  He led us the whole way there.  Once there, we were a little apprehensive having spent much of our time so far in countries with less-than-legit police forces.  That said, we had no alternative, with no passports, no Chinese money and only half our credit and debit cards, which were useless as there were no ATMs in town where our cards would work.  We needn't have hesitated - so far our experiences with police in China have been fantastic, and this was no exception.  They took down our story, took us back to the scene of the crime and took pictures, and fed us an amazing supper.  They called in to their superiors all over the province, assured us that "the highest level of authority will be taking care of our case," fed us supper and, once it was all taken care of, drove us the 70+ km back to Kangding at night, so that we could stay at the hostel we had just left, since we wanted a safe-feeling place to stay where we wouldn't need to show our passport again.  That was another huge help - when we tried calling the embassy and our credit cards from the police station and couldn't get through, we were fortunate to find a card from the hostel in our pocket.  We called Chris, the manager of the hostel we had stayed at in Kangding, who very helpfully said he'd make room for us again that night, no matter how late we got back, and looked up a local number that connected to a 24-hour emergency hotline that went straight to Ottawa where they could help us with our passport and credit cards.
We slept surprisingly soundly that night, though we couldn't help going over the incident so many times.  Strangely, we weren't as scared or shook up as we thought we'd be, we just felt so stupid for all the things we thought we could have done to avoid it or make the losses a little less devastating.  We were mostly just happy that nothing truly serious happened, though pissed off at how relaxed we had become.  We were so paranoid and careful when we started the trip four months ago in Kazakhstan, but we've been lulled into a little bit of complacency, especially here in China where we've felt so safe the whole time.  It's not certain that we could have avoided it altogether - our very foreign-looking, helmet-clad, baggage-laden selves get alot of attention and we think that they probably saw us earlier in the day and then went ahead to wait for us on the side of the road.  We know of many many foreign cyclists who have done the exact same route without problem, and are assured by many locals that they've never heard of this happening before.  It was bad luck and we were just glad to leave feeling only poorer, but still safe and sound.
The next day we spent many hours describing the event at the larger police station at Kangding.  After describing the event, giving a description of the muggers (which was partial as best, since they had scarves covering their head and mouths, as many people here do to avoid the dust) and a list of all they had taken.  Again the police were very sorry to hear what had happened, and assured us that they would do everything they could to find the perpetrators.  We were lucky enough to have the attention of at least 10 different officers for many hours on a Sunday. After a long set of interviews and thumbs dyed red with ink from all the thumbprints we gave to certify about a zillion statements and other official papers, we ended the day with consolatory fried jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), wine (we bought a few bottles in an attempt to find the best bottle of wine under 10 Yuan, approximately $1.30CDN, which FYI are all bad), movies and Monopoly.
The next morning we had to visit a different police station, this time to get a bilingual document certifying the loss of our passport which would enable us to temporarily travel within China until we can get a new passport at the Canadian embassy 700km away (you normally need a passport to do anything in China: ride a train, check into a hotel, go to an internet cafe, pass check points, etc).  After only about an hour there and yet another heartbreaking listing of all the items that were stolen, we left with yet more paperwork and red thumbs and decided to go to the town square and check out the "18-county dance competition" that we had heard was going on today.  On our way there, we bemoaned our lack of ability to take any pictures or videos, but figured we'd enjoy it anyway.
Just as we were entering the square, two young guys in fairly flashy jackets caught our eye.  Though their clothes weren't familiar, there was something about their eyes that were, and we both ended up staring at them for awhile.  Jen locked eyes with one of them for a good five seconds and thought she recognized him.  He didn't recognize her but did notice her staring, and before we could say anything to each other, the stranger looked at Mike and got a startled look on his face, clearly having recognized him.  We had just crossed paths with them, about a meter from them the closest, and when we snapped our heads back to look at them again they bolted, running down the street in the middle of town. We did the only thing we could think of: we ran after them.  As we both ran after them, Mike following as close as possible while still keeping a safe enough distance behind and Jen following behind but not being able to keep up with their pace, yelling like a crazy person through the streets in broken chinese that "we need help..." and "call the police..."  As the train of the four of us weaved through streets and alleys, many people crowded around, no one joined in the chase but several people picked up their phones or helped us by pointing where the robbers went.  They finally approached the main street again, crossed a bridge and went down a new road where Mike saw them split up (likely when they finally figured out that they could not lose us on foot...running is kind of Mike's specialty!)  One got into a cab, as Mike yelled to the cab not to go, that he was a robber, while the other took off on foot.  As Jen approached the corner, Mike yelled to Jen that one of them was in the cab and took off to look for the one on foot as Jen took down the licence plate of the taxi driver and told it to a bystander that had already dialed the police.  By then, they had both gotten away and the police had arrived.  They took us to the nearby police station, where Jen had to clarify that nothing had just happened to us, but we were the "Xinduqiao" people (the location of the original mugging) and had seen the guys who had taken our stuff.  They then told us we had to go to their main police station, and we were starting to get a little pissed as it seemed like they were letting them get away.  However, before we even got there, one of them opened a purse containing our camera and videocamera - they had picked it up after the guys ditched in in the street during the chase!  By the time we got to the second station, we saw one of the muggers already captured in the other office, kneeling on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back! It turns out Mike's yells and gestures to the taxi worked - right after having dropped off the guy at his destination, he went directly to a police on the road and told them where the mugger went.
So now, after yet another full day at the police station, we sit here writing this with extremely red thumbs, but this time even a little more at ease. We know those guys will not find us along whatever road we choose to travel next (for at least 3-5 years, from what the police told us).  We have back our camera, our video camera and about a third of the cash that they took. And, believe it or not, our complaints were in vain - though we didn't get to videotape the dancing competition ourselves, the very thoughtful muggers videotaped it for us on our videocamera, and took a large number of pictures of themselves, their family and their house for some extra viewing pleasure.  We couldn't help adding our favorite picture below, taken with our camera of one of the muggers (and his mother?) keeping warm in our down jackets, playing with our videocamera!
The police seemed to think that they should be able to get back even more of our stuff tomorrow, and with the extra evidence they gave us (photos of their house, family, etc) this seems promising. Fingers crossed!! We'll post more over the next day or two as to how this ends up...
Like we said, no one will ever accuse us of having a boring honeymoon, I guess...


JanL said...

I want to punch that guy in the face so bad! YAY that they're so stupid!!!!

Aaron Sarauer said...

I'm pretty sure the last thing anyone could accuse you guys of is a boring ANYTHING!

Adrian said...

Wow, that is quite the story... that picture is an awesome punchline!! Here is hoping that was the most 'exciting' thing that happens to you this trip!!

Anonymous said...

I heard that the muggers only demanded money from Chinese along the road to Tibet.They seldom robbed foreigners.These muggers must be punished.I am sorry to hear that these muggers scared you on your honeymoon trip. Looking forward to reading more exciting stories of yours!

russ said...

Hi Mike & Jen
We had just finished our 5 day trek to Gongga Shan when we ran into Mike & Linnea, who told us of your robbery and chase through the streets of Kangding. WoW!!
I guess the good guys do win after all!
I am back in Montreal as Dom and Sandra continue their honeymoon to Laos.
Hope Mike's back wheel is holding out

Mike & Jen said...

Hey Russ, I want to write you back and get your email, but do not have your email and your blogger profile is not public so I thought I would leave a message here in the off chance you see it. Drop us an email at if you see this.