Thursday, October 29, 2009

October 20-27: After lots of "Mafan," back on the road again (Kangding to Rongxian)

After the craziness in Kangding, we stayed an extra couple days hoping the police might recover some more of our stuff.  We were a little dissapointed when we went back for some more paperwork and found out they hadn't either caught the guy or got any of our stuff.  We figured with the pictures of their home, motorcycle and family it couldn't be that tough, but I guess these things take time...
We left Kangding on Thursday morning by bus for Chengdu.  We had decided not to bike out, for a few reasons... we had already done the bike before, we wanted to get to our consulate quick to apply for our passports, and we really yearned to be a little more anonymous and soon.  Kangding was a small but touristy town, so we wouldn't have felt like we stuck out too much except for the fact that strangers on the street did point at us a few times, recognizing us from the hot pursuit a few days back, or even come up to us and say good job.  This attention probably wouldn't normally have bothered us, but we were still suffering from a little extra paranoia so were quite anxious to get back to the anonymity of the big city.
We called our consulate from Kangding and found out they would be closed on Friday afternoon, so instead of getting to Chengdu and chilling out after the 7 hr bus ride from Kangding, we dumped our stuff off at a hostel, had supper and got back on the overnite train to Chongqing for a short 4-hr sleep.  We got there long before the Consulate opened so just chilled out drinking coffee at the downtown McDonald's until the sun rose.  The passport application went without major problem - lots of forms to fill and, because we had to fill out one extra form saying our passports were stolen and another saying we needed a guarantor (not being in Canada), so the whole process costed double the normal $100/person it does to get a new passport.  All in all it was a bunch of "mafan" (chinese euphemism for pain in the ass) and we were a little grouchy to start with given our short night's sleep, so after an hour or two at the passport office we got right back on the train back to Chengdu, eager to get into a bed that didn't move back at the hostel.
After a good night's sleep, we then spent a day in Chengdu getting ready to be back on the bike.  We had some small bike tune-ups to do, we bought a couple new bags to replace those that were stolen (though much smaller as they no longer had to house all the stolen stuff), bought two new MP3 players (opted to go for the cheaper, non-iPod option this time, and got our camera repaired (it was damaged when the dudes threw it out in the big chase through Kangding.... from here on out our post gets more interesting, having the benefit of photos again!)  We also planned out a route to Kunming that would get us there in time to receive our new passports and apply for our new Chinese visas.
The next morning we set out back on the bike.  The first day was a quick and easy 90 km through Chengdu outskirts to a town called Meishan.  As ever we were hugely impressed by everything that's going on here.... huge new roads everywhere (with beautiful cycle lanes), scores of new, large, trendy apartment buildings, and internet connections everywhere you go.  Instead of asking if hotels have internet or not, the options now are for a room with or without computer, but always with internet.  The infrastructure here is just amazing, and feels like it's just ready and waiting for more economic booming... just a couple lay-cyclists' observations, but observing rural China we would definitely bet their growth isn't over any time soon.
Rolling into Meishan's luxuriously wide roads...These super wide roads are common throughout China, the road infrastructure they have built is incredible.
At the end of the day in Meishan, we met up with two Chinese cyclists who were doing two days of cycling before school starts, so the next day we travelled with them to Leshan.  We had lots of fun just chatting along the way, all got plenty of chance to practice our Chinese/English and ask some of the more taboo questions you can't just ask strangers on the street, and they acquainted us with some excellent new dishes that we have incorporated into our repertoire.  (It's still impossible for us to read the entirety of any menus, so we either alternate between the dishes we know how to recognize or ask directly for what we want.  The nice thing is, it's all fresh and made-to-order when you get there, so many a cook has let us come back to the kitchen and pick exactly the cuts of meat we want, with exactly what veggies, without MSG or whatever else you do/don't want, etc.  And this is just the cheap roadside "fast food".... certainly no McDonald's!)
Jen and our new cycling buddies, two students at the tourism college in Chengdu...
The four of us as we said goodbye in downtown Leshan...
In Leshan, we tucked into a hotel and split up with our friends, who had to take a bus back to Chengdu for classes the next day.  We then visited Leshan's famous Giant Buddha and spent some time touring around the park. 
In our usual irreverent spirit, Mike picks the Buddha's nose...
Boatloads of tourists were brought by the front of the Giant Buddha for some great photo opps...
The scenery in the surrounding park was also quite beautiful...
That evening we were a little dismayed when we were actually kicked out of our hotel after coming back from the Buddha park.  The hotel lady started to explain that we could do her a favour and move to another hotel right close where they could serve us better, as here they were a small hotel and couldn't speak any English, so it would be better for us at the other hotel.  We politely explained that that was no problem for us... we didn't need to hear any English, as all we were going to do was go to sleep and then leave early in the morning.  She laughed a little at that, smiled sheepishly, and then we got to the crux of the matter.  Each time we go to a new hotel, we always ask whether or not foreigners can stay there... it is an uncomfortable question for many hotelliers, as they always act like "of course!," but in fact it's often the case that we can't, as they don't have the proper forms, photocopying capability and haven't been registered with the government.  For some reason they often beat around the bush and tell us either "of course" as if we're crazy for asking, or say that they don't have any rooms available, which is often code for "we can't register foreigners."  We suspected this might be the problem in this case and asked multiple times... near the beginning of the discussion when we were still confused at what she was saying, we asked "Can foreigners stay here?" to which she answered "they can...."  Then asked "Can we stay here...." to which she answered "you can...."   This led to an extremely frustrating line of conversation, because the point in the end was that in fact we couldn't stay there... but finally at the end of the conversation we found the source of our confusion.  "Yes foreigners are allowed to stay here, it's just that today we can't have you, as we would have to register with the government...."  Kind of the hotel-equivalent of "it's not you, it's me...." but these subtle euphemisms are a little annoying given the communication barrier and the fact that you're finally realizing at 8:00 at night that you have to move all your bags and bikes to a new hotel, when you tried to prevent this problem right from the beginning.  Anyway, it was still alot of "mafan" for nothing as it could have been easily avoided from the beginning, but the new hotel was close and the room was even nicer, so we were back relaxing in our hotel room again soon.
The third day cycling went great... the scenery finally got more interesting, as we rolled through hills and rice patties with ducks gliding through them and lots of little charming small towns.  We've really gotten to like the rhythm of these days.  Cycle along through beautiful countryside as we listen to books and podcasts and music galore, stop for an almost always delicious fresh stir fry at a shop on the side of the road, and spend a sleepy afternoon listening to more stories on the bike until we roll into a town with interesting alleyways full of food and fruit vendors and always cheap, clean and well-equipped hotels.  It's actually quite luxurious in a way that is both sustainable for our budget (so long as we don't get robbed again!) and our attention spans.
Some typical rice-paddy scenery...
We slept in Rongxian last night, a fairly big town but more remote than most we've been in since Chengdu.  You can tell how many tourists they get by their reactions.  In cities we're hardly noticed, in outskirt towns we're kind of gawked and giggled at and often hustled in a way we find a little rude and annoying, but here we're straight-out stared at in a way that is only delightful for everyone involved.  As we rolled into town, two young girls just burst out in a surprised and curious laughter that was almost contagious.  Small kids stop, stare and point at us on the street, and instead of explaining that we're foreigners and telling them not to point, the parents turn and can't help staring a little themselves.  And everyone's always waving and yelling "hello" to us all the time, from children to construction crews to motorcycles alongside us on the road. It's all so innocent and well-intentioned that we can't help loving these little interactions ourselves.  Gotta love these small towns!
This morning we head off east towards the big city of Chongqing, but will turn south before we get there, staying in small-town China until we hit Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou in a couple weeks.  It's been a little "mafan" here and there, but all in all we're loving being back on the bikes...

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