Walking in the Mountains of China at Bifengxia Panda Preserve
July 22, 2010 Trip log
Ya’an City, Sichuan Province, China

My attire for this mini-adventure walk consisted of a brilliant red Russel Athletic T-shirt with black accented sleeves bought in Covina, California for $17.95 in March, a pair of mud brown cargo pocket shorts that I had a seamstress cut extra short and that I bought in 2006 for $8 at Bass Pro Shop in Southern California, wicking type fast drying underwear from REI circa 2008, a pair of black low top socks from Costco and my trusty Columbia Birke hiking shoes with the very good skid resistant soles that I bought at REI for $69.95. Sadly this pair of shoes is worn out. I have a new pair bought online waiting for me back in the USA, but until then I am walking on a less than perfect pair of foot beds. 

Leaving the van I pushed a broad brimmed hat that I bought two years ago in Vientiene, Laos for $1 down on my head. The neck string dangling loose beneath my chin, but still capable of keeping the lightweight hat from blowing away as I crossed bridges and river beds. A pair of Polo sunglasses with gray smoked glass lenses that I purchased on Wangfujing Street in Beijing in December of 2007 for $150.00 dangled from a black string around my neck. 

My small digital camera went into the right front pocket and my cell phone and some small Yuan notes like one, five and ten yuan bills into the left pocket. In the front right button pocket I placed a small rectangular package of toilet tissue that sells in China for 1 Y. or about $.15 US. In the left button pocket I placed a small glass cleaning cloth. A waterproof gel type pen was slid onto the neck of my quick dry T-shirt. My passport and some large Yuan notes went into the left rear button pocket. The right rear button pocket held my reading glasses and a small notebook that I bought in Manila for about 10 cents. I carried a 500 ml. bottle of water along with me switching that from hand to hand as I walked. 

Before leaving the hotel I prepped my face and neck with SPF 50 sunscreen and I felt I was ready to go. Because I wanted to be in an adventurous frame of mind, I did not shave. The dark black stubble giving me the appearance of someone who had stayed up all night, but also making me feel as if I had a little Indiana Jones’ spirit within me.

The morning air was languid and heavy with moisture. Heat from yesterday’s sun still emanated from the gray concrete of the parking area at the entrance gate to the Bifengxia Panda Preserve. At 8:00 AM there were already cars and buses parked haphazardly around the paved area.
A dense growth of trees and underbrush, growing on three sides of the parking lot, shrouded my view of the surrounding mountains. Drops of water like tiny crystals glistened on the spider webs that industrious arachnids had woven between pine trees and the bamboo growing in the shade of those evergreens.

At the entrance to the parking lot the forest crowds in on both sides of the roadway. This idyllic atmosphere was shattered as thronging hordes of Chinese tourists walked up the road from two local style inns. The scent of pine and bamboo was smothered by billowing clouds of black diesel soot blowing from the exhaust of a dozen buses.

The van with my guide and small tour group drove through the park entrance, leaving me alone on the edge of the parking lot. Today I had decided on a small adventure that seemed perhaps a bit more than I would be able to manage to complete. I planned to walk from the entrance to the Bifengxia Panda Preserve back to the Ibis Hotel in the city of Ya’an, where our group is staying in the evenings while they do their volunteer work program at Bifengxia.

At the entry gate to the Panda Preserve as I stepped from the van I had wished the group a good day and told the driver to keep her eyes wide open for a BRIGHT RED shirt as she drove back to the hotel at 4:00 PM. There were so many things to see along the way, I did not know how far I would get. Thirty kilometers seemed like a very long way.

The first 2.6 kilometers were easy to measure because a huge sign at a Y in the uphill roadway points to the left and says “Bifengxia 2.6 kilometers”. There is a large electrical generating plant at this Y in the road, powered by the rushing Qinyi River. 
My walk from Bifengxia to Yaan began at precisely 8:00 A.M. I arrived at the Y in the road at 8:40 A.M. 

Along the way I stopped to talk to various local people working the small plots of vegetables that they have planted along the roadway. Most of these workers were women 45 to 80 years of age. Each of them carried a round basket on her back, shoulder straps holding the basked in place and in which they loaded whatever vegetables they were harvesting this morning.

It was really funny to stop near one of the workers, say Nee hau and then listen to their reply. Then we would carry on a one or two minute conversation, during which neither of us understood one word that the other person said. After a couple minutes, I would say goodbye and wave, they would laugh and smile as I walked away.

Along this stretch of road, carved into the rock face of the mountain I came upon two small shrines. These were in the local style and depicted an old time demi-god. The work was intricate, exotic and the paint had been renewed many times. The name of this figure is “Grandfather Earth”. In Mandarin they call him Tu Di Gong Gong. 

In the ancient religious/political beliefs from the earliest times of the Warring States (roughly 2,500 years ago) and the Imperial Families, there is a hierarchy of Godliness. At the top of this pyramid is God and below God stands the Emperor along with several other all powerful gods. Below this level were the animalistic, natural bound demi-gods such as Tu Di Gong Gong (Grandfather Earth). Each of these demi-gods was believed to have power over some particular area of the natural world. Father Earth could affect crops and weather and movement of water and the earth, such as an earthquake.

These demi-gods were and are now looked upon with fondness rather than fear. Farmers burn incense at the shrines I passed to wish for a good crop or a badly needed rainstorm. In current popular Chinese entertainment Grandfather Earth and occasionally Grandmother Earth are depicted as short jolly looking figures who come up to about the waist on the average Chinese. They frequently provide the comic relief in dramatic works on TV. They are similar in current comedic drama some ways to the Leprechauns of Ireland or the happy dwarves of European mythological fantasy.

I stopped and paid a minute of reverent silence to this interesting figure before my revelry was broken by the harsh strident sounding of a very loud electric horn as a big bus whipped around a 120 degree turn in the road. I walked away from the roadside shrine wishing the road was quieter, but thinking that even with the frequent interruptions by traffic passing by, this is the kind of thing that you just cannot see unless you take the effort to walk a few miles in a strange place.

I continued downhill, passing through an area of cool morning air and enjoying the walk because I did not have a 15 kilo pack on my back. Somewhere around the two hour point in the walk I began to feel a bit fatigued. So I sat on one of the many concrete road markers and took a 10 minute break. Starting up again, I felt renewed and my stride seemed to pick up speed. 

There is a section of the road that is carved into the side of the mountain bedrock. The rock actually hangs out 25 feet from the inside vertical face of the roadside, looking like an enormous ocean breaker about to break onto the roadway. The outside of this rock overhang has no support. It is almost incomprehensible that this half of a tunnel doesn’t collapse and bury the entire roadway. 

Beneath the overhanging rock canopy, rivulets of water splash continuously onto the road. The road was slippery with moss and algae, but I could not avoid walking through this downfall for fear of downhill speeding vehicles. I walked fast here and was glad to get past the rock overhang without falling on my butt. 

A few hundred yards downhill from the overhanging rock two old women who looked like great-grandmas, were at work in the drainage ditch that runs alongside the roadway. One woman repeatedly pushed a two wheeled wheelbarrow across the road and dumped mud and rocks over the side into the steep river gorge. The second woman was down in the ditch, roughly one meter below the road level. She was shoveling mud and rock up into the barrow to clean the drainage ditch.

I stopped and the three of us chatted together, laughing but not understanding a thing that we said to one another. As I walked away, their supervisor drove up on a motor scooter. He was wearing a bright orange safety vest and carried a walkie-talkie. He stopped in the downhill lane closest to the river gorge and shouted over to the pair of workers. They said something back and the conversation got louder. At first I thought that they were arguing with one another. But suddenly he laughed and they laughed and he just drove off. It was a typically loud, three way Chinese conversation.

My walk was going very well. It felt good to be walking in the overcast and wet climate that dominates these mountains. It felt especially good to be walking without a pack on my back. I think that at times I was almost speed walking. Something that is quite unusual for “Slow Walkin’ Jones”.

Again I stopped for a two minute break at a point where the road got particularly steep. Walking downhill here was jarring my shins. While I was sitting on another of those common concrete road markers a motor scooter came slowly up the incline. 
It wobbled and weaved back and forth. There were two men on this slow moving scooter. It was weaving erratically because it was moving so slowly that in fact it was barely moving. They went by me slower than I had been walking. We said Neehau to one another and the guy in the rear gave me a really large toothless smile.

Behind them a second scooter wobbled toward me. This scooter held three girls aged 18 to 22. They were laughing and shouting as they approached me. If possible their scooter was moving even slower than the first one.

When they were just 5 meters from me the scooter suddenly veered into the other lane heading toward the river gorge, then wobbled back toward me and then straightened out, just before they drove into the drainage ditch. This brought a new round of laughter and giggles.

When they came alongside me, I mimed giving them a helping push uphill. This proved to be just too funny and the girl in the rear jumped (or fell) off the back of the nearly motionless scooter. The second girl also jumped off and the scooter suddenly leaped ahead, before the driver brought it to a safe stop. Once the scooter was pushed to the side of the road, the three tried to talk to me. 

Finishing our brief and intelligible conversation, they began to push the scooter up the incline and I continued my walk downhill.

At 10:20 I passed another power plant. 
At 10:45 AM I was ready for a long break. Fortuitously a small town appeared in front of me. I came upon an ancient stone home which had a small store in front. 

There were four older local people sitting there. I noticed some dark red tomatoes and stopped to buy one. I picked one up and said “du xou chen” which means how much. The man tending the fruit stand was very old. Perhaps 85 or 90 years. I handed him 2 Yuan. He turned to a younger (perhaps 75 years) woman who said something to him. He then handed me back one of the Yuan. 
Another old man pointed at a water tap and indicated I could wash my tomato there. I said XeXe (thank you) but washed the tomato with some of the water I was carrying with me. 

That tomato was perfect! Red, vine ripened, a couple minor blemishes where some insect had bit into it, which assured me it was organic and toxin free. The flavor of that tomato was so good. I finished and turned to walk away, when I realized that the old man was walking back to me, carrying some 1 jiao notes. These are really Chinese pennies. Ten jiao = 1 yuan. 1 yuan is about 15 cents U.S. So 1 jiao is worth just over a penny. The old man handed me back 4 jiao, so that tomato cost me around 10 cents.

I left that produce stand feeling very good. Five minutes walk brought me to a roadside café. Outside the café, by the road there is a large statue of an ancient fisherman. He is holding a fishing rod, with a fish on his line and his head is thrown back in laughter. That ancient fisherman was obviously thrilled with his catch.

I walked up to the two women sitting in front of the café and asked them if they had any tea. Cha! One smiled and nodded yes. The second woman got up from a chair she was sitting on and offered the seat to me. I sat. By then I had been walking almost 3 hours and I was feeling really good, if a bit fatigued. 

I sat and sipped tea while making an entry in my notebook. At 11:00 AM, my 15 minute tea break was over. I felt refreshed and ready to continue. Before starting I retied my shoes and then asked them “du xou chen”. They shook their heads no. When I started to reach into my pocket one of the women waved her hand back and forth. They wouldn’t let me pay for the tea even though this was a roadside café.

Again I walked away with a smile on my face.

I wasn’t sure how far I was from the City of Yaan. Even though I had been up the road two times before starting this walk. Things always seem so different when walking.

The next hour I passed through rural housing on both sides of the road, with large and small plots of corn, rice and other vegetables. The traffic became heavier, but the road widened a little bit so that I felt a lot more comfortable walking.

At almost precisely 12:00 noon I came into the actual city of Yaan. I saw a woman selling produce from a three wheeled cart. What caught my eye was more juicy red tomatoes. I walked across the road and waited while she finished selling some peaches.

I had picked out a nice big tomato and held it up for her to weigh. She shook her head no and made a motion that made it clear she did not want any money. Seems like a foreigner with a smile on his face can walk through rural China and never have to buy a meal.

Once I finished this second tomato I headed toward the Ibis Hotel. At precisely 1:00 PM I walked into the lobby of the hotel, ending the one day walking adventure.

When I got to my room I looked down and realized that my ankles, above the low top socks, were almost as dark as those black socks. I was a little bit tired, but it had been an interesting walk and I’m glad I did it. 

What’s next on my adventure list? Perhaps I should try to walk across the Sichuan Province without ever buying a meal. . .

The End
Keith Jones
July 22, 2010 City of Yaan,
Sichuan Province, China
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