Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Photo 1: Chinese workers by the roadside. Photo 2: The VW Touareg we stopped, our black unicorn...

Initially only taxis seemed to be using that road. Eventually, a Cherry QQ, a miniature car of local design, stopped for us and took us to a place called Yingjing, through forested hills that ended up in terraced valleys. Farmers with conic hats worked hard in the ricefields. Mist seemed to be a 24 hours resident of those hills, and we could never afford to see further than 100 meters ahead. When night fell, after having tried in vain to spark the hospitality of a couple of hamlets, we decided to camp just next to the road. We set off to explore the area a little bit to find a suitable terrain for our camping ground, and we found that somebody had already set some sort of tent made with stitched potatoe bags. Inside this unusual tent, a perfectly clean bed awaited its mysteryous inhabitant. There was even a packet of peanuts under the pillow. And that was as far as we dared to investigate. We smoked a cigarette in the dark, trying to guess who on Earth could live there. We finally went to sleep. In the middle of the night, a man, and a woman carrying a crying baby entered the odd tent. Still wondering.

On the second day hitch-hiking results improved a lot. We stopped a Mitsubishi Pajero whose driver invited us for lunch and drop us off in a place called Hanyuan. There, fingers crossed, we looked at the card of the saint that Pablo had met in the mountains of Yaan, and in 10 minutes a VW Touareg 4WD was still next to us. That was not a car, but an unicorn! In that bolid we reached Shimian, where Pablo, who had less days left in his visa, took a bus to Kunming. As far as I was concerned, I was still cleaning the sin of having taken a plane from Lhasa to Chengdu, so I continued my pilgrimage on foot, postrating every three steps, and asking forgiveness to the God of Roadsides...

Being alone, the hitch hiking became really smooth, and soon I was overtaking the Kunming bound bus Pablo was in. In spite of this optimistic prospect, I did not rejected the free train ride that I was offered by the police in a town where I arrived by night. People there could really understand I was tryingto hitch-hike! So the free train payed by the cops landed me in Kunming, on the morning of the third day.


On the pics: Pablo and Johnson, the falso policeman. The "real" (and pretty) policewoman at Ya'an. And me with the fake old bridge in the background.

Coming from Western Tibet the arrival to Lhasa had been to a certain extent a real shock. We were catching up with civilization! After five days in Lhasa, we didn’t have other choice but to board a plane to Chengdu, even if our original idea was to hitch hike to Kunming. My Chinese visa was about to expire and the PSB office at Lhasa was refusing to grant me an extension. After hitching for 20 months from Europe, I should say it was a heavy joke..

Eventually we landed in Chengdu, a mega city of 11 million bodies which lets you know that any provincial capital in China has more high rises than Paris and London together. Modernity is clearly something else other than glass panels, but the Chinese seem happy to crowd their country with future ruins. China seems to be embracing everything that the West gradually starts to abandon.

Since in Chengdu bureaucracies were too complex, I decided to extend my visa in Ya’an, some 100 km south from Chengdu. We had been told by our HC hosts in Chengdu that Ya’an definetly didn’t deserve a visit, that the town was forgettable. In other words, the town was not mention in any Lonely Planet. And that was like a letter of recommendation for us. The first thing to surprise us was the pretty police woman in the PSB, the department in charge of extending my visa. For a couple of seconds Pablo and I envisioned alterntive futures, in which we wrote letters to our families explaining the odd event of settling in Ya’an.­ The little police girl there was not only cute but also helpful She and her collegues had my visa extension ready in one our. At the end of the task, they wanted to have a picture taken with us and even invited us cofee in their office!

The city, as forecasted, didnt have anything spectacular, besides the vague pride of having been the cradle of the tea culture in China. Yaan’s second abstract claim to fame was being the place where the first giant pandas were found. The city has some relax pace of life that pleases us. Archaich looking new bridges crossed the river which name we never asked. The people, with only looking at us, make some exclamation. Wow! Ah! As if they had seen an animal absent in any catalogue. It was clear the city didnt draw many visitors. Yet, Yaan was going to stay in our memory for ever. Not due to their markets selling catfish or sea turtles in buckets. Not for the kindness of its citizens. We will always remember Yaan for its false policeman.

He wanted us to call him Johnson. Being his real name closer to a tongue twister, that was merciful on his behalf. He approached us with the excuse of showing us a good place where to eat duck. (since Tibet the indulgent and luxurious combination of taking a shower and eating a duck had come to simbolize all things unreachable) Finding an English speaking friend in such a forgotten city was already something notorious, so we gave it a go. From the beginning he had been unable to explain what his job consisted of. While we ate the duck he had made to us some vague not to say stupid questions of the kind of :do you like the city? or how do you like the people of the city?. He tried to convince us that it was a survey for his studies.

After dinner Johnson guided us to a dance hall where people danced in the most ridicolous way imanigable. It looked like a 1950s disco. Men grabbed women with tango manners but described waltz orbits on the dancefloor. There we noticed for the first time that our young new friend (he was some 21 years old) would come up more often than not swith a strange behaviour. In that case he introduced us to the disco owner, made him come to our table, and then pretended to translate his words (but actually put his own message through). So Johnson said that the owner was asking us if we wanted any girls, fior which we inmediatly undesrtoos that he was trying to sell us a couple of prostitutes. We said a big and noisy “No!” only to see how Johnson called the resident singer and had her coming to our table. Pablo and I crossed sights. “He is crazy!” And we were only starting to browse the extraordinary repertory of absurd ideas Johnson could come up with. After a few second he suggested that we should climb the stage and sing a song together with the disco owner. Yeah, he was not playing with the full deck. When we eventually left the place we were invited to visit again. Pablo and I imagined the hipothetical act of dressing up in smoking suits and white shirts and going for a waltz­.. thus commending ourselves to destiny.

Once in the street Johnson invited us some tofu that smelled like my socks after Tibet. Piece by piece we had to throw it to the ground, with our hands in the back, much to the happiness of an impromptu assortment of street cats and dogs that followed our way. Johnson had already invited us to stay with his familiy for a couple of days. The most logical thing would have been to leave that city, but the stay with Johnson promised a decent dosage of absurd.

In Johnson’s house we were treated as part of the family. Everynight Johnson and someone who was supossed to be his elder brother. By that time we stilled believed his words- would invite us to eat out at a local restaurant. The local way was to ask for a hot pot full of mushrooms, egs, fish, pork, vegetables, and everything cookable pinned in the end of a stick.. The essence of Chinese cuisine is to turning usual ingredients into unidentifiable shapes. Here comes a plate with something resembling rice. But it’s egg. Oh! These ought to be sausages. Never mind, it is rice. Everything is cooked, cut and presented in an absolutely different way. Those were really filling meals that we really apreciated since Tibetan frugalty was still fresh in our memories. Pablo celebrated local hospitality “This guys put cigarettes in your mouth!”. One night our stomachs were full to the extent that the idea of a single grain of rice being offered to us became abominable. Then, Johnson reminded us that later on we were expected in his third brother’s house to eat calf. Johnson would always refer to his relatives with an ordinal number. My third brother. Ny second uncle. The second sister of my fourth uncle. Pablo admited that in such conditions we couldn’t eat calf even by IV.

While I vainly scanned the city in search of a road map, Johnson guided Pablo to a sacred mountain. There he met a saint that gave him his own card! Pablo later related how Johnson would at every step tell him: “Pablo! This man is inviting you to lunch at his house! Then he would tell the man: “this foreigner wants to eat at your place!” We realized he repeated this strategy on and on. For what porpouse we will never know. We can just think he was as compulsive lier. The last afternoon Johnson showed us around town, always screaming to us if we would stop for an extra second. He seemed to specially target Pablo. If he would stop to tie his shoes, Johnson would shout “Oh!, Barburi (that was the closest he could pronounce Pablo) What are you doing! Come on!¡”

On the last night the “great confession” took place. We were in local fast food shop, a sort of Chinese KFC. We had spoted two other foreigners (the firswt we saw in Ya’an) ordering their chicken burgers. They turned out to be a Nepalese tea businessman and his son. They had come to China to buy machinery. We were talking over the burgers about the political events in Nepal when Johnson stood up and said, with a ceremonious voice that could only spark laughter .
“Now I can tell you the truth about my job. I am a policeman and my jobe is to make sure that the tourists have a good time in Yaan. Sorry for lying to you!”
Against all his expectations we continued talking to the Nepalese guys, who realy had interesting staff to say. In any case we were sure that the policeman story was just an excuse to hang around with us. The whole episode was redeemed by the faces of the Nepalese when Johnson made his confession. Worthy of a portrait.