China, 5 years too early

Trip Start Jan 01, 2010
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Trip End Jun 30, 2012


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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Traveling in Southwest China will be great... in 5 years ! Since we started the road-trip between Shangri-La and Chengdu, we have spent 80% of the time on road under construction... The Chinese apparently found a way to spend the money from the economic boom : improve road conditions in remote provinces. I wish they would do it in a more concerted way, bit per bit. Instead, their strategy is to completely destroy the road and rebuild it, hundreds of kilometers at the same time. Consequence : average speed 15 km/h.

In this conditions, we quickly got bored of the buses. And because travels take more time than usual, bus drivers found it was fair to raise the prices... In order keep our budget, and add more fun and impertinence in our travel, we decided to try our luck at hitch-hiking. The Chinese have a strange relation with money, unlike Western people who consider some things don't have any price (like helping others) and that certain things cannot be bought (for everything else, there is Mastercard...). In China, literally everything has a price. Not a single museum, temple, typical village... is free of charge. And virtually every driver behaves as a taxi driver : they are more than happy to give you a ride... But you have to pay. There are many reasons for a driver refusing to take hitch-hikers : he may be afraid, take his time or not be bored... But in China, most people won't give something for free. It is just not in their mentality... and education. Sure, plenty of drivers do stop. And I am not talking about people who make a leaving as working as a black taxi. I am talking about middle-class people, owning a nice car and going from a city to another for private reasons.

We tried to make them understand that it does not cost them anything to take us... with partial success ! We finally managed to make most of the journey between Litang and Chengdu (609km on precarious roads, but almost a week long, including waiting time and detours) at no cost. Road condition on this part of the Sichuan-Tibet highway was actually pretty bad (but will certainly be great in a few years), but even though we crossed many young Chinese riding a bike between Chengdu and Lhasa (this bike trip is off limits for foreigners because of travel restrictions in Tibet). Our best bet : the truck drivers. Unfortunately, our limited language skills sometimes led to misunderstandings, like the time when we had to spend the night inside a small hut at an almost 5000m high pass, sleeping on the floor because the truck drivers had to stop to rest (not the best place, in our opinion, but the tenants of the hut, an elder couple who made a leaving cooking meals and selling supplies to truck drivers, were nice).

In this road trip, we also discovered that some Chinese can be helpful (yes, you read correctly, HELPFUL) and divert a little bit from their way of thinking : the monks who hosted us one night in their monastery, the traffic cop, who stopped every truck and ask the driver to give us a ride (it is much easier to hitch-hike with the help of police ;), the truck driver who could not drive us further but asked a colleague to help us... But the most interesting experience was when we were stopped at a police checkpoint and not allowed to proceed further. It was during the last piece of the journey, while we were heading to Chengdu. We were about to cross the region that was badly affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the direct road to Chengdu was apparently closed (but we still believed it was open). Police asked us to backtrack the 70 kilometers to Danba and take another route, preventing us from hitch-hiking. Since we were not willing to pay a ride for backtracking, we explained him we had little money and could not pay for a bus. While he asked us to wait, looking for a solution, we observed the activity of the checkpoint : they stop every truck, perform endless controls to finally fine almost every driver (sometime hundreds of yuans fine). When a bus finally showed up, the head policeman took a note out of his stake of money, gave it to the driver and throw us into the bus. Thank-you...

The road trip made us discover small villages in Western Sichuan, like the best Chinese village (that is actually cheaty), realize that Western Sichuan was not closed to foreigners despite rumors we had heard (because of the 60Th anniversary of the "Liberation" of Tibet, China closed the province to foreigners and many travelers said Tibetan areas of Western Sichuan could be closed too) and understand the pattern of roads in China : improve the existing road by suppressing curves (using tunnels and viaducts). For this purpose, the new road can be built next to the old one (typically on the other side of the valley) or at the exact place of the old one (so it must be destroyed first and hassle can last many years), and on top of the new road, building the freeway (mainly on piles and long viaducts), which undoubtedly will remain empty of all traffic because the toll will be too expensive...)

After a week, dozens of rides, 180 refusals (approximation) from drivers and a the last leg between Danba and Chengdu in a bus, we finally arrived in Chengdu, the fourth biggest Chinese city. We would stay there a few days, couchsurfing with Benoit, a French expatriate, before starting another road trip to the mountains of Northern Sichuan.
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