What my girlfriend Kay and I expected to be a very normal, fun, relaxing trip to Sichuan’s Northern regions turned out to be anything but. Instead this trip turned out to be much more than we expected both in good ways and bad. The story contains laughter, sadness, good times and bad. Everything from meditating with Buddhist monks to fearing for our lives… and we even some dead bodies!
Our trip began in Chengdu, a nice city full of very friendly helpful people, some of the most beautiful girls in China, and famous for being the Panda center of the world. After staying the first night at a great Chengdu hostel and trying out some of the famous spicy Sichuan food (whose taste lives up to its reputation) our first trip took us to Leshan to see the giant Buddha.
The whole park around the big Buddha was cool with plenty of nice things to check out. The line to climb down to the bottom of the cliff to see the big Buddha from ground level was quite long though and would take us about 1.5 hours to wait through. Luckily we had our iPad with enough movies and games to keep us entertained. We realized how the iPad would come in so handy during the trip, watching movies on long bus rides, booking hostels, etc and were so glad we brought it. (yes this is foreshadowing)
Big Buddha was very cool… the scale might be hard to tell in the photos but a full grown person isn’t even as big as one of the Buddha’s toes!
After the big Buddha we stopped for some noodles. While waiting for food at this shop I suddenly had a terrible pain in my arm pit… I didn’t see anything but it seemed something had bit or stung me. The spot got really red and painful and then proceeded to itch heavily at times for the next 5 days. The restaurant staff again showed us how kind people of this region are. They seemed really concerned when we asked them about the bite and they even brought us a bottle of rubbing alcohol to rub on it, even offering us the whole bottle to take with us. They weren’t sure but guessed it was a type of ant in the area that bit me.
After our short stay around Chengdu we decided to get the real mission going and start making our way to Seda. It’s a very long journey and we couldn’t find any direct tickets so we had to first head to the town of KanDing.
After checking into our hostile Kay used her awesome social skills to find us a recommendation for the next day’s daytrip and also a place for some awesome food for dinner. The restaurant was Sichuan style where you choose all the ingredients you want, give it to the chef and they cook it all up together for you in a big spicy bowl of deliciousness. We had a strange seat in the corner with limited leg space, and due to this I put my bag to the side of our seat in the corner. After the meal we left the restaurant without a second thought, leaving the bag in the corner. It wasn’t until after we returned to the hostile we realized it was missing. We ran back to the restaurant but it was too late. A misplaced object is never where you left it for long in China. We did everything we could, talked with the restaurant staff, reported to the police, searched the streets with the police, put up posters offering rewards, but it was no use.
Inside the bag was Kay’s iPad, smart phone, digital camera, some cash, and her passport.
I was so incredibly upset with myself for being so careless and losing all of our valuable things that I felt sick to my stomach. Kay on the other hand was smiling and joking not even 20 minutes after it happened. She didn’t show even a moments anger or upset towards me, telling me its only money and not to feel bad. I realized that night what incredibly control she has over her mind and emotions, and how special she really is.
After searching and working with the police for hours we returned to the hostel. We worried about the passport a bit for booking hotels and flying home but over the coming days tried to re-frame the situation as something that happened for a reason, maybe the loss helped us avoid some bad situation that would have happened otherwise? I guess that’s all you can do to feel better in situations such as those.
KanDing has an altitude of around 2600m the air is just starting to get thinner here. Our next day trip would take us to altitudes of 4300m.
This daytrip was a sightseeing mountain tour to beautiful areas around KanDing. Our driver took us to a bunch of nice scenic spots where we could get a good look at the mountains, wildlife and some local people.
We saw giant herds of yak grazing in the fields. With a few locals who live with them on the fields in tents for months at a time.
The Tibetan people in the region are very into Buddhism and love to write Tibetan prayers everywhere. We saw a river full of large rocks that stretched for miles with prayers written on almost every single rock, giant prayers were also written on the mountains themselves.
While walking around outside here I started to notice I was getting out of breath easily. Even while doing basic things. The difference really hit me when I went into a washroom on one of the fields. The washroom was a hole in the ground full of mountains of poop, so I decided to try to hold my breath while I took a pee. From experience I know I can hold my breath for a full pee without much trouble. This time however after taking a giant breath and entertain the washroom I had barely started before I couldn’t wait to breath any longer.
Later we climbed a little mountain at a very slow pace. Every one of us in the group was amazed by how difficult it was and how tired we became after climbing only small distances. I got a whole new level of respect for those who climb giant mountains like Everest.
We read about thinner air effects while planning the trip and had been drinking the recommended Chinese medicine for days before arriving which was supposed to help us combat all the symptoms that come with the high altitudes, but it wasn’t long before we started getting our first headaches. We also both had colds before we started the trip which apparently makes mountain sickness symptoms worse.
While the weather wasn’t great for pictures, the view was quite beautiful. We tried the locally made yak yoghurt, learned some things about the local culture and enjoyed the day.
After a 7 hour ride in a crowded little minivan we arrived in a little town called Luhuo although we were tired we didn’t want to waste any more time so we found another minivan to complete the journey to Seda. We were told it was only about 50 more km to Seda but to our surprise it took about another 4.5 hours to get there. When we asked why we were told it was because the road was so incredibly awful. We couldn’t imagine any road being so bad that a 50km journey would take 4.5 hours, but it was true. It was a dirt road almost completely flooded, full of large rocks and other hazards, without a single straightaway, and with terrain that would put the moguls from any double black diamond ski hill to shame. Needless to say it was a rough ride.
When we arrived in Seda we were exhausted from our 12 hours of transport, but the sight of the town was so stunning that it forced a smile to our faces.
This area of Seda is a school for learning Tibetan language, culture and most of all, it’s the world number 1 school for those interested to become Buddhist monks. At 4,000 meters the entire town is built directly on the face of hilly mountains, with thousands of tiny homes centered around a few giant schools and temples of study.
I would guess that around 90% of the inhabitants are Buddhist monks, all wearing monk uniforms, with shaved heads. Of these monks most were Tibetan and only a small percentage were from Chinese speaking areas of the country. There were not many tourists, and in the 4 days I was there I only saw 1 other westerner.
We needed to carry our big bags from the bus area to the one giant hotel on the top of the town. We were energized about finally making it to our destination but the thin air was making it quite hard to climb. My legs were burning after moments and the monk that was climbing the hill with us said the air made it feel as if we were constantly carrying an extra 35 kilos (77 lbs) with us everywhere we went not including the weight of our bags.
Eventually we made it to the top and got our first view of the city.
We had arrived late, and since the town only has one real hotel (in which you can’t book in advance) we were worried it might be full. It was and for a moment we were quite worried. Luckily at the last moment they told us they had a storage room with nice beds that we could sleep in, as long as we didn’t mind having no bathroom. We were grateful just to get a bed and gladly accepted.
After dropping off our bags we headed outside to look for some food. It was about 9pm then and the town had gotten dark. We walked only for a moment when we decided to ask a Chinese speaking monk for a recommendation.
She told us it was too late and the restaurants would likely all be closed then without missing a beat invited us into her home to share dinner with her.
A dream of mind since childhood was to meet a Buddhist monk on top of a mountain, haha and being invited into her house was so thrilling for me. She told me not to speak until we got into her house because she wasn’t allowed to have men in this woman’s only area of the village.
Inside some of her family was cooking a vegetarian noodle stew. Her house was very small and cosy. It consisted of a tiny kitchen area and a bedroom / living space just big enough for a bed and for each one of us to have a sitting space on the soft padded floor. The house was quite minimal containing a bookshelf packed full of books, a tea preparation area and a few other bare essentials.
She served us first tea and then dinner, and we talked for hours learning as much as we could about the school and the Buddhist way of life. With Kay as my translator I was able to share a few ideas with her about combining scientific understandings with Buddhist wisdom. She flattered me by saying that she saw something great in me, and that I was菩薩Púsà which means something like I am wise like someone who is one step away from the Buddha himself. I told her I am often too emotional of a person to deserve a compliment like that ^.^
All This Beauty
The next day we decided to climb to one of the nearby peaks for a nice view. The mountain sickness was a little heavier now so we had to climb quite slowly, stopping for many rests on the way.
The surrounding mountains stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see around the town, and hit you with such a stunning beauty that you feel you are no longer on earth, but instead in some amazing dream world.
It’s frustrating to post pictures because they completely fail to capture the stunning awe-inspiring feeling the place hits you with as you stand there and look around at 360 degrees of the most beautiful mountains you’ve ever seen. I would compare the feeling of seeing the photos now, compared to the feeling when I was there with, the feeling of looking at a postage stamp of a beach compared to the feeling of spending all day playing and swimming in the sun.
I remember looking at Kay and saying that if I died and went to heaven and it looked like this I wouldn’t be disappointed.
On our way a small boy crossed our path and told us that there was a funeral we could come see and pointed us in the right direction. We had to cross a few more mountains to reach it, and couldn’t come close to keeping up with the boy whose body had adjusted to the altitude long ago. Eventually on the way, gathered on the side of one of the mountains we ran into a big group of birds.
They were vultures. About 60 of them… Powerful, giant creatures, each with a 2.5 – 3 meter wingspan were huddled together on the side of the mountain, with about 20 circling above occasionally diving down to join the group.
We got close to take pictures of them, but eventually one person with us got a bit too close and scared them a bit too much. What followed was really stunning… High on the mountain, with the village in the distant background, only meters away right before our eyes all 60 giant vultures took off flying at the same time, filling the sky with their giant wings, soaring in front of the amazing backdrop.
Again the picture can’t capture even 1% of the awesomeness.
We followed the flying vultures to reach the site of the funeral.
As the final act of those who have died to provide a benefit to the world, and as a way to free the soul from the body for ascension into the afterlife those who take part in this Tibetan tradition have funerals in which their bodies, instead of being buried or cremated are instead fed to the vultures.
When we arrived it had already began. There were hundreds of vultures, all fighting viciously to be the ones to tear the flesh off of the bones of those who had died. It was an ocean of vultures, loud, violent and so tightly packed together that at first we couldn’t see the bodies underneath.
Eventually we could make out flashes of the bodies underneath an arm here…. a foot there… a ribcage… it was quite a shocking sight. I had heard about the funerals a few days before but to actually see animals eating the remains of a real human body really makes you say ‘holy shit’.
There was one man playing a little drum and doing some chanting at some points of it, but overall it was a lot less ceremonial, a lot more violent and with a lot less feeling than I expected. After a while a man casually walked into the center of the pit, and with his bare hands casually picked up the skeletons and began cutting skin and other parts that the vultures were having trouble consuming into more manageable sizes for them to eat. To see a man so casually cutting off parts of a dead body as if he was doing a daily chore seemed really strange to me.
After the funeral we headed back to town.
The next day we woke up not feeling to well. Kay’s face had started to swell, my cough was getting worse, our headaches were getting more frequent and we were starting to not feel like eating anymore. The mountain sickness was causing a total lack of energy, and it was also raining so we decided to have a real easy day with plenty of rest.
We checked out the nearby temple where you must walk around it in a clockwise direction while spinning giant prayer columns with your hands. My presence as a foreigner was quite surprising to many people and many said hi, or smiled at me, a few seemed very delighted to see me there and with big smiles and nods moved their hands in a Tibetan respect giving gesture which I thought was really special.
The people we met were all incredibly friendly. They loved to answer our questions, take pictures together and help us in any way possible.
Later we took off our shoes and checked out one of the schools. We tried meditating in the main hall and took a peak at some of the classes that were in session. Some were chanting classes, others had a speaker talking to 40-50 students. The school didn’t have any chairs and everyone sat on the carpeted rugs.
Later in the day we noticed a little clinic. We told the ‘pharmacist’ about our increasingly unpleasant symptoms… He told us to take the symptoms seriously then shocked me by saying that sometimes people would come in feeling not bad with symptoms like ours then just die a few days later. He gave us a medicine that he told us would certainly fix us. We had suspicions that the dying part was just a sales pitch for the medicine but it was cheap so we decided to buy it anyway.
We took one each then lied down for a nap. After waking up we felt so much better. The medicine really did work awesomely we thought. We were excited to take the next one and maybe completely cure our health problems.
Foreigners having restricted access to Tibet, but although Seda is a Tibet region it is technically still in the Sichuan province and as such is a gray zone for foreigner policies. We knew there might be a chance we weren’t allowed into Seda when we arrived, and were very relieved when they let us in without issue. We heard stories however that 2 Japanese had been prevented from entering the week before. We counted ourselves lucky for the first 2 days but on day 3 near our hotel, we suddenly ran into a plain clothes police officer. He quickly approached us and told us foreigners were not allowed in this part of Seda. He demanded that we leave immediately. Kay and I had planned to leave Seda the next day, and Kay managed to convince him that it was too late for us to leave today but we would stay in our hotel room until the next morning. The officer reluctantly agreed but warned us that if his leader caught us he would immediately put me in jail.
We waited until nightfall when we decided to head out and use the darkness and the hoods of our winter jackets to hide our faces and avoid detection from the police while we looked for food again. We made it about 20 steps before the same officer this time with 2 friends found us. He warned us that his leader was in the lower parts of the city and we’d risk everything if we went down there, he told us the only place we could go was near the temple. We agreed and then found a nice path behind the temple that lead out into the hills away from the village where we could get a great view of the night sky. It was a really peaceful beautiful walk and the night view of the illuminated village under the stars was really nice.
We returned to the hotel with a sense of peaceful sense of completion. We took one more of the wonderful medicine and easily fell asleep.
Kay and I woke up at what seemed like the same time. The swelling of her face was worse, her cough and headache increased, she was having awful stomach problems, crazy explosive diarrhea, hot flashes, and her heart rate was super high.
I couldn’t breathe properly… even resting in the bed I couldn’t properly catch my breath. Strangely I could hear my heart beating in a blood vessel in my ear. My hands felt very swollen. I had a really strange feeling in my chest, and an intense anxiety running through my body.
It’s hard to describe it now, but we both had a very strong feeling that something was terribly wrong with us.
We checked our phone for more information on the mountain sickness. Before I had just read that AMS (acute mountain sickness) wasn’t serious and that it went away for most in a couple days and that there were 2 more serious things that happened but were rare… This time those 2 other things really stood out. We had every one of the long list of symptoms of AMS and some of the first symptoms of the more serious lung issue. The swelling of hands and face, persistent dry cough, and shortness of breath even while resting, were possibly signs of fluid accumulating in tissues of the body.
Phrases like “rapid progression”, “descend immediately”, and “often fatal”, lit up the screen of the mobile. Without even talking about it we both reached the same conclusion. Not only would we get off the mountain as early as possible, we’d cancel the other mountain plans for the rest of the trip and instead head back down to Chengdu as soon as humanly possible.
I’ve been terribly sick before, but this time it was different. I’ll try to explain it, but I think it will sound weird when put into words… When I’ve been terribly sick before in the past it merely felt like I had a strong body that was being covered up with a terrible feeling of sickness. As if there is the healthy me, with the sickness existing on top of the healthy me making me feel awful. But this night, I felt like instead of adding a sick element on to my body instead it was taking the healthy part away from inside leaving me with nothing left. That doesn’t really make sense, but it’s the only way I can try to describe how it’s not the most sick I’ve ever been, but it is the night where I felt my life was threatened more than any other night before.
That strange feeling plus the fact that it’s an unfamiliar sickness we’ve never experienced before, plus the fact that the nearest hospital was a 12 hour drive away had us both feeling very afraid.
Kay and I didn’t admit it to each other that night, but the next day when we talked we both said that we actually, not exaggerating or downplaying, but actually thought we might die that night.
We got out of bed at first light, both still with the feeling that we might not make it back into town. By then my stomach had followed Kay’s and the explosive diarrhea added to my problems. We grabbed our things and after a few more trips to the washroom stumbled out of the hotel. We had a feeling of intense urgency to get lower, but we also had to move really slowly to keep ourselves from getting too tired in the mountain air. The sleep deprivation plus the symptoms was taking everything from my personality and the only thing I could think was get lower, get lower. Kay looked like she was going to cry so I told her our mantra was ‘meter by meter, lower and lower, better and better.’ Repeating it over and over made me feel better.
I couldn’t make it to the bus area before my stomach demanded another immediate bathroom stop. I found the monks male bathroom, a row of door-less wooden stalls, with holes in the ground to squat over. The kind of place you can make eye contact with the guy pooping next to you. I learned how when you think your life might be endangered everything else disappears or becomes meaningless. During my squat a monk came in and so surprised to see a foreigner using the monk toilets, just stood there with his mouth hanging open and watched me do my business. I was so focused on finishing quickly and getting off the mountain that even pants down to my ankles, completely exposed, squatting over a hole in the ground, wiping my ass, not a single funny or embarrassed thought about that situation even entered my mind.
After 1 more poop break we finally made it to the bottom of the village and luckily found a vehicle that would make that same bumpy 5 hour ride back to Luhuo.
Either the road had somehow gotten even worse or the car we chose must have had no shocks whatsoever. We sat over the back tire again full packed to the brim.
In China seatbelts are thought of as an unnecessary hindrance that only the ultra-cautious wear, or only if those ultra-cautious sit in the front seat. Wearing a seatbelt in the backseat is unheard of but not only is it uncommon. They also often completely remove the back seatbelts from the car… So if you are a sick desperate foreigner who thinks he’s dying with diarrhea, headaches, and nausea on the worse road in the world, and you don’t want to bounce your head off the roof of the car and the person sitting next to you for the next 5 hours, you are completely screwed.
Kay and I learned what it must feel like to be a popcorn kernel… popping in a microwave… inside a tumble spin clothes dryer… on a roller coaster.
Back when I used to study Muay Thai kickboxing I would go to a sparing class. Inside that class the instructor would make us fight him in the rink, only we weren’t allowed to fight back, we just had to try to defend ourselves for 5 straight minutes while we beat on us as hard as he could. This ride was much more painful than that… and it lasted 5 hours instead of 5 minutes. We held on for our lives as we slowly began to descend.
The next 7 hour ride was on a smooth road and luckily as we descended lower, our symptoms resided relatively quickly. We spent the night at 2700m in KanDing and by the next day our only symptoms were the stomach problems, and minor headaches. Eventually we reached Chengdu and the relief really set in.
We took it easy for the rest of the trip, staying at low altitudes, cruising Chengdu and Chongqing cities at low altitudes. Thankfully at the end of the trip, even without Kay’s passport we were able to fly home without much trouble.
Although we did lose some valuable possessions, and we got pretty sick, we are both really thankful we went on this amazing trip. One of the things the Buddhist monk told us during dinner at her house was something we both agree with fully. Travel is not about what you see and do, but how the trip affects you as a person. This trip gave me a lot of fresh perspectives on life. I think the way I look at everything from money and my business, to Buddhism, to my relationship with Kay and even my own life has been altered.
I also feel more grateful for all the awesome things in my life and for my lovely home here in Shenzhen.
Here’s a slideshow of our favorite pictures from the trip