Ts in the dark

Travelling in Western Sichuan Tibetan areas can be complicated for foreigners. We knew this before we set off – many towns were closed to laowai following the Tibetan disturbances last year, and have only just reopened in the last few months. Furthermore, many public buses refuse to take foreigners at all, especially heading west. Theories about the reason for this funny rule range from how lucrative the private minibus business is, through stopping laowai from trying to sneak over the border into the autonomous region, to a punishment for locals in disruptive areas (since the tourism business has radically altered the economies of many towns).

So it was that we spent Thursday morning sitting at the side of the road, trying in vain to get a bus to Ganzi. We had also had this problem in Kangding, where they told us “there are no public buses to Tagong” – a blatant untruth. After 6 passed without stopping and we were told they’d be no more that day, we had no option but to hang about the town, take a soaking wet walk on the pastures, translate signs for locals, and generally hang out. Luckily three other laowai had the same travel problem, and the landlady of our hostel found a guy willing to drive the 6 of us to Ganzi for 1000 yuan the next day. He told us nervously that if we were stopped we musn’t tell anyone that he was taking us for money. Instead, we were “family friends” being taken on an “outing”.

Another irritation is accommodation. Whereas in theory foreigners can only stay in registered “foreigner friendly” hostels anywhere in China, this is the first time I found the rule enforced. One night we got locked out of our hostel, and while the landlady was looking for the key, the police stopped outside. They asked us what we were doing staying in a place like that, it was “not safe” and “inappropriate”. When the landlady came, they told her harshly that “foreigners cannot stay there”, did she not know it was illegal? To my surprise she just grinned, apologised, and said she would record our names. The police demanded to see our passports, but when we explained they were upstairs and we would be leaving the next day anyway, they decided to leave it, and drove off without more ado.

Indeed after leaving Tagong, we found all towns had an astonishingly high police and military presence. I’ve never seen anything like it before. There were police cars cruising up and down, soldiers walking the streets in uniform, garisons training, multiple police stations and related banners. I found it rather disturbing, and worried that they might be considering chucking foreigners out. However they were always very polite and friendly to us, waving and giving directions and generally smiling.
We were not stopped. 8 hours cramped into a tiny minibus later, we arrived on a dirty, lively street full of screeching cab drivers and begging monks. We had left behind the plains, highlands, herders and horses of Tagong  for the fertile agricultural land around Ganzi. Which turned out to be a fascinating place.


2 Responses to “Ts in the dark”

  1. Ric Lando Says:

    Amazing stuff Ellie. Police at those densities must be a real nuisance to the locals. Where are you on a map?

  2. dick Says:

    Elle, do you do photographs as well, I have been playing with picasa web albums that let you geo-code (point on a map) your photogrpahs, like Ric I would love to see a couple of imaged from these trips.

    PS we have found a true Chinese supermarket, pigs trotters, strange vegetables and little english on labels. Looking forward to having you explain.

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