Monday, November 06, 2006

Dangling Debacle: Days 8 to 10

After going back to Danba from Zhonglu (partly by hitching a ride on a tractor), I felt I had had enough of village hopping around Danba. Li Tong, however, had to wait for his wife, and suggested that we could move on together since we were going in the same direction. We spent the rest of the day hanging around Danba doing nothing, until Li Tong's wife arrived in the evening. However, having come so far, she didn't want to just move on to another place, she wanted to see something around Danba. There was only one village we hadn't yet seen, called Dangling, and Li Tong asked me if I wanted to come along. I had already heard several people compare Dangling to China's most famous nature reserve, Jiuzhaigou. I figured that if it really was that nice I might as well give it a shot.
Dangling was much more isolated than the other towns we had visited, and to split the costs of getting there we had to find other people to split the costs of hiring a car. We found two other Chinese tourists who had met on the road, a man named Liang Chao and a woman named Wen Yi. The five of us hired a large car and set off the next morning.
The ride to Dangling was very uncomfortable, over the worst roads I had yet seen in China. Several times we had to get out and push the car out of mudholes or over rocks that jutted up and threatened to catch the bottom of the car. Sometimes the road seemed barely fit for walking, let alone driving. To make matters worse, I got a bad case of diarrhea right after we left, and spent most of the trip on immodium. My Chinese companions were very confused as to why I would take a medicine that would make me so miserable; I tried to explain that it was the only way to make myself not have to use the bathroom every five minutes but they still didn't seem to think that it was worthwhile. The scenery we passed was at least predictably pretty, and included some thick forests that seemed like they should be in the American West rather than China. Chatting with the driver was also pretty fun, and made the ride go a little faster. I was particularly amused by his attempts to convince me to find him an American girlfriend (he was already married). In the Khampa tradition he sported a very long knife that appeared to be an AK-47 bayonette. Like many drivers in Tibet he invited us to his house for a drink of Tibetan barley alcohol and a small bite to eat, though unfortunately I was unable to either drink or eat because of my stomach.
We arrived in Dangling village in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day wandering around. It was a miniscule village and couldn't have had a population of more than 100. It was supremely isolated and quiet, except for the sound of Buddhist chanting coming from loudspeakers on the local temple. The town was surrounded by the most untouched-looking scenery I had yet seen in China, with pretty hills and fields occupied by horses and yaks.
The main attraction of Dangling was a couple of lakes on top of a mouintain next to the village. Our plan was to climb up to the first lake, where we thought we should be able to stay for a night, then on the next day move on to the second and then go back down. We left in the morning of the day after we arrived. The climb was pretty exhausting. We went from around 3,300 meters to 4,000 (Danba's altitude was only 1,900 meters; people begin feeling the effects of altitude after around 3,000 meters). Every twenty minutes we stopped to take a break and catch our breath. The paths were muddy and treacherous, and were made worse by the horses that seemed to be carrying all the other tourists up. There was a lot of pretty scenery along the climb, but I was very happy when it was over.
The lake we were going to stay by was a pretty green color backed by some craggy mountains, but the living situation was not so good looking. I immediately began to regret going with Li Tong. There were two living options, divided by a rocky stream. One consisted of a tarp and some mats. The other consisted of a tarp and an old tent with a broken zipper that was probably meant for three people at most, and which I couldn't fit into regardless. They were owned by two Tibetan families. Sleeping outside was not an option because the air was both frigid and damp, and since we had no tent of our own and only two of us had brought sleeping bags we really only had one choice- the tent. I was a little frustrated that Li Tong and the others had dragged me into this situation, and even more frustrated when I found out what the asking price for the tent was- 300 kuai, or about $37! That was over fifteen times what we paid for a comfortable, warm and clean bed in a hotel in Danba. Li Tong managed to get the price down to 200, but it was still a very bad ripoff. I wanted to go down and try to make it to a small hamlet we had passed about a third of our way up the mountain, which at least would have been less cold than by the lake, but for some reason the Chinese wanted to stay- I think they still hoped we could make it up to the second lake the next day.
However, as the day dragged on it became clear that that would be impossible. It rained for most of the rest of the day and into the evening, so that all we could do was huddle under the smoke-filled tarp. Across the stream, in cruel contrast to our situation, a group of Shanghaiese had set up tents and ate food that they had paid porters to carry up for them. We crossed over ourselves to get dinner since the Tibetans on the other side seemed more friendly and had more food to offer. That turned out to be a mistake as when we went back to our side the tent owner insisted that we cheated him as we didn't get dinner from him, and said we would have to pay 300 kuai rather than 200 we had agreed upon earlier. Li Tong spent half an hour yelling at him, and in the end the owner agreed to let us stay for 200 if we ate his food for both breakfast and lunch the next day.
On top of all this, my relation with the Chinese got pretty bad. They seemed to take me seriously everytime I tried to kid them or tell a joke, and then assumed I didn't understand they were joking is I replied to their humor with mock seriousness. It didn't help that I felt a bit left out of the conversation since my Chinese still wasn't (and isn't) good enough to keep up with theirs, and that Li Tong seemed to increasingly aim jokes at me which would be harmless if I could understand them and respond, but got annoying when I was only half-sure of what was going on. I was pretty sick of them by the end of the evening.
Their bad mood did bring out one interesting thing- Chinese regional prejudice. All four of my Chinese companions bashed the Shanghaiese living across from us quite a bit. They saved even more venom for people from Nanjing. I don't remember what they said specifically, but it was generally about their arrogance and greed. When I went to ask one of the Shanghaiese for something Li Tong predicted, accurately, that they would try to talk with me in English no matter how much better my Chinese was than their English.

That night was probably one of the most uncomfortable of my life. The five of us squeezed into the tent, me with my feet sticking out by half a foot. I had absolutely no room to move and was pretty much wedged between Li Tong and Liang Chao, though at least that meant I would be warm. We also lay the two sleeping bags that we had over us to ensure that we didn't get cold, but as it turned out with the five of us stuffen into the tent we were if anything too warm.
After having dealt with the tent owner's last attempt to extort money from us we were a little paranoid. Also, as we got ready to sleep one of the Tibetans who owned another tarp kept coming by and asking Li Tong for cigarettes. The Chinese felt it was suspicious, and to keep our things safe we tied our bags together and then tied our bags to the foot of our tent before going to sleep. As we settled in I saw a flash of light and asked the others if they had seen it.
We all quieted down and listened. We heard footsteps outside the tent, and everyone tensed.
"What should we do?" Li Tong's wife whispered.
"Don't worry," Li Tong said. "Nothing has ever happened up here."
The foot steps went away, and after a little while we all fell into a very uncomfortable sleep.

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