Archive for SICHUAN



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One of the Smile-O-Meters you might encounter at the Immigration desk

Okay, I’ll put it out there… Nothing in my life raises such a nervous sweat than going through immigration at an airport. And that goes for driving across international boarders too. I am the obvious victim of watching too many cheesy TV shows and Hollywood movies! I can’t help it, when I approach an immigration kiosk or gate, my skin becomes clammy and I begin to rehearse what I will say if questioned, hauled over and stripped searched!

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with your entry into China? Good question. I have entered China from two locations, Beijing and Hong Kong/Shenzhen Customs. Both are the same in their very quaint and ridiculously cute way.

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My comfy bed - more like a futon in my room at Sim'sAhhhhh! What an amazing sleep! This morning’s sky was an apocalyptic orange, filled with lightening. This place, Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel, is a secret Sichuan gem in the middle of a city of 10.4 million.

The hostel staff can organize anything for you from a grand expedition into Tibet down to a simple stroll of the panda breeding centre. I have opted for the latter.

The breeding centre is located a half hour ride by private van from Sim’s. It is a very large space surrounded by lush, thick bamboo forest. It is a magical place. The quiet paved paths lead the visitor from one area to another through a tunnel of bamboo created by the bamboo growing up and reaching over to the other side of the path.

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Not much happened today. It was a travel day. The hotel wake-up was set for 5 a.m. and the day was long. The bus was to leave at 7 a.m. and get into Chengdu at 1 p.m. I say this because I experienced on of China’s legendary traffic jams along the way.

At about 11 a.m., the bus was honking it’s way through yet another town until it came to a grinding halt. For two hours the bus moved only seven metres! Many hundreds of vehicles ahead – there was a traffic accident. And this is a problem everywhere… whether it is a traffic accident, a landslide or another earthquake, rescue vehicles have almost no way of responding since the roads are clogged with vehicles or damaged.

Luckily today was just a traffic issue and nothing greater.

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OK, lied, I thought I’d end up back in Kangding today, but Luding is a town closer to my destination of Chengdu, plus it is different and a new place to explore. The town of Luding is very sweet and it is steeped in a violent past.

In relative terms, Danba has become home! I spent an entire day there with sleeps at each end! There was so much to see in Danba that I may just keep this town open for another visit.

Leaving Danba, the traditional mountain side villages face us and see us off on our day's drive along the Da Du River.

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Morning in Danba. Walking the streets early to find a place to eat. The streets are filled with the sweet smell of wood fires for cooking.

Danba, like so many towns and villages is built along a river. Here the bridge joins both river banks and the mountains are close behind.

Staying in one place for two days is luxury on this trip around Western Sichuan. The pace was slower and I was able to take in a lot of local sites. Danba is a town nestled deep in a lush valley. Encircling this town are souring mountains limiting the amount of sunlight. Evenings come early down in Danba, but staggered along the etched roads on the mountain sides, Tibetan villages bask in the late day sun of longer days.

This is a small piece of paradise, I’m told there was a German who lived a few years in one of those small Tibetan villages. He lived in a traditional-style house and was seen reading and writing on his balcony each day. Sounds pretty idyllic if you want to get away and compose your novel.

Feeling stressed? Need to get away? Perhaps write a novel? This is the place to go! This is a typical Tibetan village on a mountains side.

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“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”— Robert Louis Stevenson

Truer words have never been spoken. Today we moved between snow covered mountains & lush green valleys, all the while descending 2,700 metres from Daofu in the morning to Danba in the evening.

Outside, behind the hotel in Daofu, a young boy bathes before heading off to school

This morning we drove through beautiful country. If your impressions of China are that of crowds, you would be right when picturing the big cities, but get out to the countryside and like Canada, there is a whole lot of space between people! Today it was hard to find many people!

A few monks, nuns and locals hang out near a hot spring.

Today, the people I saw came in small groups. There was the small group of monks sitting by the roadside where out of nowhere, a small hot-spring was located. A few of the monks were bathing, others were sitting and chatting with some locals. They seemed as surprised as I was to see us motoring along the empty stretch of road.

All through this trip so far, I have seen one vehicle constantly. It does everything from acting as the family car, to hauling vegetables, to pulling wagons piled with others who need a ride somewhere. It is the ubiquitous tractor! A little exposure to the rain is no problem, like people on their bicycles, they just hold an umbrella while they drive. The tractor is the single thing that moves and shapes this province, and indeed the country.

The ubiquitous tractor serves as a workhorse and a family vehicle

Today we drove to Tatong to have lunch. The village was basically a street lined with shops, nothing more than that. Again, hardly any people! The place was deserted and resembled more of a set for a movie. We walked in to have lunch at a tiny shop and there were just a few people there, who stopped eating as soon as I entered. I get that a lot! The food was amazing! Fresh and tasty, the meal was very welcome.

The village of Tatong which resembles a movie set is all but deserted.

Soon, a group of people entered the restaurant and were making a lot of noise. At first I didn’t pay any attention, but then I happened to notice that everyone was fussing over one of the young women in the group. When I caught a glimpse of her I knew why everyone was agitated. Her lips were blue and face white and pale. She was not at all well and was suffering from the affects of altitude sickness. Some cans of oxygen were found and after taking some oxygen for a while, her colour returned as did her composure. I surmised that they must have driven up here from some place like Danba which is not too far away and much lower.

Women walk the length of a wall of prayer wheels, spinning the wheels as they go

Like other villages, this one had a temple. It was undergoing some renovations, but still was charming. It was small and inviting and had a cistern of holy water and a tap. A self-serve anointing station! Again, hardly any people here either. Just two monks in a booth selling tickets to see the temple and a few workers renovating the place.

Returning to the main road and heading on down to Danba, there was a lovely structure set against the backdrop of distant mountains. The

A horse having a nap. At first glance I thought perhaps it was dead!

exterior walls were lined, and capped with rows of white stupas. I have seen stupas in all sizes during this trip. They contain Buddhist relics and some contains the bodies from a burial. These are locations for worship. Not many people ere either, in fact, there were more dogs and horses, that there were people. I declined the offer of a ride. Having been thrown off the horse in Yajiang, I was going to take a pass on the offer. In fact, as I looked, one of the horses appeared to be dead – but he was just having a nap!

Rows of white stupas line this lovely place for worship set against the distant mountains.

Another small group, this time five people, seemed totally out of place. It was a photo shoot of a white dressed and jacketed bride and groom. Off the side of the road, out in a field of dried and yellow grass and lavender wild flowers, the two were sitting on the ground. Standing, were three people, looking more like gangsters. One was the photographer, the others were the assistants. This was an original location for wedding photos to be sure. They must really love this spot since it is pretty much hours from the nearest village!

A photo shoot for a newly married couple - in the middle of nowhere!

A slightly larger group of people were ahead of us in a traffic jam. About 20 vehicles. Road work was being done here and again, traffic control was something nobody considered. From down at road level, it was next to impossible to get anywhere. If one were in a helicopter looking down, I’m sure if one strategic vehicle moved, the rest could then flow. But nope! I hopped out of Su’s van and motioned for him to drive forward, inching his wheels ever closer to the edge of the road so he could squeeze past a China Post truck. Slipping off the roadbed would not have been far, about 20 cm, but would have caused a lot of damage. There was one young woman wearing a mask to keep the dust out of her nose and mouth. She held a red traffic control flag, but she had o idea how to use her powers, she was just as perplexed as the rest of us.

A puzzled road worker with no idea how to clear the traffic jam around her.

The road down to Danba is a photographer’s dream. The road followed a rushing river and plunged deeper and deeper into valleys as we drove. The sun was getting low and highlighted the beautiful homes on the hillsides. I’m sure people lived in them, but we didn’t see a soul! A few times we pulled over to take advantage of the light and shoot some of the homes. I didn’t have to worry about traffic – there was none!

A home with a million dollar view! Nearest neighbour? About a kilometre!

One of the many mountain views during our drive between Daofu and Danba

Closer to Danba, we encountered more people. Danba is a big place. This was going to be the biggest place yet after leaving Chengdu and Kangding. The river began to slow as we got further down, an indication that w were leveling out a bit at the lower elevation. Along the river there were dozens of small footbridges and some that were just wide enough for a vehicle or a few yaks! I would not have wanted to test the bridge with Su’s van, but they did make for lovely photos with the river rushing under them. There were some neglected footbridges with boards missing. I assume neglected, but one never knows!

Traffic begins to build as we near the town of Danba!

Once in Danba, I felt something strange and different and admittedly a little unsettling. I found I was not the only foreigner around! For many many days, I have been the only foreigner I have seen. Now it is me who is looking at the foreigners and wondering where they came from! What a reversal!

We will stay in Danba for two nights sine there is much to see here. In fact, one can stay a week of two there is so much to see.

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Today I broke into a police station!

Well, not intentionally – Honestly, I didn’t mean to set the police officer running from across the street. I just needed to use their toilet and Su pulled up in front of the walled police station and I walked in. The toilet, like so many is a concrete box with an open door on each end, one for men, the other, women.

A typical public toilet.

Su hopped out of the van to run interference for me and explained to the officer that I was only in need of the facilities, nothing more. I’m only going to publish a small, non-graphic toilet photo, they are all pretty much the same. One squats over a trench. There! That is enough, the rest you can imagine.

The police officer was still hanging around when I left the squat bunker and was pleasant enough. The town here probably has never seen a westerner before, let alone one so desperate as to cause some alarm! Read More→

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The Road & Track Edition

I am safe and sound and back in Ganzi. If there were alcohol here in my motel room, I would be writing this totally liquefied. But good thing there isn’t any because I might go on and on making nonsensical Star Trek references about maneuvering wormholes at warp speed!

Setting off from Baiyu, a monk sees us off on our long drive.

What was a 270km, 6-hour drive took us 10 ½ hours. We left Baiyu at 9:00 this morning. The drive to Ganzi is another one of those circuitous affairs that spooks you whenever you come up on a hairpin turn, not knowing if the oncoming motor bike, car, van, or overloaded transport truck would be on the outside or inside of the same turn.

What was that… the brake cable coming loose?

A wooden suspension bridge along the way.

The day was a picture-perfect day with big puffy white clouds and deep blue skies. The driving conditions were perfect, however the road and obstacles were not in our favour.

This would be an excellent time to talk about the vehicle in which I have been cocooned for many days. It is a white Chang An Xing Guang 4500 van, only one month old. In North America, we are used to the not-so-mini mini vans squirted out by the likes of Ford, Nissan, Chrysler, GMC and others. Those are bigish boxes with bells and whistles and even entertainment! However, the Chang An 4500 I am getting very cozy with is not what you would think of a van. Yes, it is van shaped. It is about the same height as your average soccer-mom van, but the wheelbase is more like a Mini Cooper. Read More→

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Dirty, ink-stained fingernails and a printing process which predated Gutenberg by centuries! I am in my element! I am not standing in a pressroom filled with Heidelberg web presses, I am standing in the Dege temple mesmerized by the frenetic activity of seated men printing Tibetan sutras and other “books”.

Just inside the temple gates, men sit washing red ink off the wooden printing paddles.

The Dege temple is not the biggest temple on this journey by any stretch of the imagination. It is painted a deep red and has an orbiting parade of worshipers walking the temple grounds in the typical clockwise direction. Together with the worshipers, dogs, delivery vans and motorcycles add to the activity on this wonderfully sunny cool morning.

Passing through the entrance gate of the temple, you arrive in a sunlit courtyard where men wear waterproof aprons and wield plastic scrub brushes as they clean long wooden rectangular blocks of wood. Getting up close and risking being splattered with the soupy red-stained water, you see the wooden “paddles” are intricately carved in rows of text. The language is Tibetan and the paddles are the blocks upon which the pages of books are printed.

A closer shot reveals intricately carved Tibetan scrip which is carved in reverse for printing.

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Today, I have no idea where to begin! There was so much to see and do between Ganzi and Dege. I will not dwell on the drive, though the drive was easier and less of the ‘main event’ as it has been in the past. Today’s drive was a means to and end.

A treat for early morning eyes as we packed the van for today's drive.

Leaving Ganzi was a little tough, since it was so very comfortable, and I knew I was again going to be visiting upcoming towns which were going to be again, rough and uncomfortable!

Even before driving out of the gated parking out behind the hotel, the beauty of this region impressed me. Rising over a blue shed roof next to the parking lot, the impressive mountains were up earlier than I, catching the morning sun. I will get another look at tem, as we will be back here in a few days.

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Ahhhhh! You know that euphoric feeling you get when you fall back onto a soft, comfortable bed after a marathon! I had that today! Running? Nope! But over the last two days, the driving was the marathon and the hotel here in Ganzi is the prize for finishing. And if some of you are concerned about where Su is staying, not to worry! He too is probably relaxing in his room and feeling the same.

A typical scene along the road between Xinlong and Ganzi. The valleys are filled with beautiful small villages.

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Leaving my cozy pile of mats and garishly printed cartoon-printed comforters was tough! It was chilly and we had a very tough trip ahead of us today.

Breakfast with Su and the monk in charge of the temple

The day was raining again and cloud hung low. But trough the open window to the next room was the smell of  breakfast. More butter tea and more bowls of grain meal. I sipped tea and warmed my hands around the steaming tea. Is it me, or am I getting used to this tea!

Su, the senior monk and I were still a little groggy from a late night, so we sipped and ate in silence. The quiet was accompanied by the rapid and hushed tones of two very young monks in the next room reading their sutras. The sound was mesmerizing, like staring into a campfire at night, I was taken away with the chanting and never wanted it to end – it was lyrical and poetic in a way.

After saying our good byes we crossed the deep river again. It was a little tense but Su managed it after many attempts. The Chinese van Su drove was an amazing vehicle with great stamina!

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Like a Christmas morning as a child, I was excited for today to begin. I learned a bit more about the Tibetan opera in town. It’s a big deal! Actors, tents, costumes, food and good times!

Prayer flags and smoke mix with the low clouds in the morning in Batang.

As usual, I study the view outside my window each morning. My views have ranged from the spectacular to the downright depressing and ugly, with grilled windows keeping the ne’er-do-wells out and trapping the occupants – and their flowerboxes, in. Today’s view spanned a wide economic swath beginning with mud & wood shacks and their few rows of corn, to a lovely, whitewashed four story building complete with ornately painted window frames, tended garden and shiny vehicles.

Beyond the homes, about a kilometer away, massive green hills rose up and disappeared into thick cloud. One of the lesser hills looked to be on fire, with smoke billowing from it’s top. Following the smoke down revealed again, ore prayer flags and a large structure, most probably constructed from rocks but was far away so I could not be entirely sure. The smoke rose and mixed with the cloud creating a beautiful scene.

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Litang is a small town which we approached yesterday from a high mountain pass. The town sits solidly on what can only be described as a broad flood plane. The area is flat with a wide valley surrounding it. The town is predominantly grey, with not too many trees.

Inside the temple, beautiful sculptures and woodwork is found everywhere

This morning’s time was dominated by an amazing temple. It was huge! The temple was still undergoing some renovations and was buzzing with activity. Women were carrying huge loads from one building to another, even Su got into the action, carrying loads.

The temple was also home to many young monks. With the sight of me wandering into the temple’s square, monks came out of the woodwork to check me out. Though they did not speak English, there was one word they all knew: “Hello”! After a cheery greeting, many would turn away and giggle and feel very proud of their association with the west!

I was very ignorant in thinking that these young monks, around the ages of 6 -12, would be studying day and night, only to interrupt their studies with prayer. Was I wrong. Oh yes, they do that of course, but hey, they were kids too! They had great senses of humour, would tease each other, and also, as one demonstrated, had a gift for showing off!

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Morning finally broke on a sleepy, quiet Yajiang. Today, Su would return to pick me up and has agreed to be my driver for the next week or so. This solves many headaches.

After such a horrible night and no sleep, I question my sanity as I sit here, prayer wheels spreading out in a long row behind me in the middle of town, and a scene from a movie before me. Local women lead horses along the dirt road steel side-long glances at the westerner sitting and drinking steaming liquid from a shiny silver mug! Yes. Quite out of place! A few yaks try to bust in on a small vegetable plot only to be chased away by what looks to be a 5-year old with a stick! And then a small girl I noticed yesterday veers off her course and walks right up to me and stares into my camera, recording her.

Not at all timid or shy, she greets me with a smile and a puzzled look at my mug – it is the shiniest thing in the village! it is my coffee mug, a shiny stainless steel, double-walled mug from Mountain Equipment Co-op ( No, I do not get a cut from them by mentioning their name!!). But what is inside the mug, despite my poor surroundings, is pure luxury! Coffee! Hot, steaming black coffee from my friend Patricia Snell and her company, Muskoka Roastery ( ), north of where I live back in Toronto. Patrica sent me a few bags of my favourite blend, Northern Lights for my trip. Along with the mug, I have a small, fine-screened basket into which a carefully pour some coffee grounds and then slowly pour boiling water, filling the mug.

It is here I sit, watching life unfurl and drink my daily coffee, savouring the rich black java and inhaling the aroma of Northern Lights, a small taste of home! The coffee is working its magic and waking me up after a very long night!

A simple meal for breakfast - fast food, Tibetan style!

Early in the morning I set off on a trail ride on a very sturdy horse, up about 5oo metres to a most beautiful green plateau. Picture that corny, bright green hillside image when you open up your PC. Well, this plateau should be the image. It is real and it is stunningly lush and just as green with the added touch of free ranging horses.

The horses are quite different that the ones back home. These are short and very round and quite used to hauling materials up and down very steep narrow trails at high elevations. On several occasions, the horse would mosey on over to the very edge of the path, almost defying gravity on the edge of the cliff to edge around a yak also occupying the same footpath. And here I thought my fear of cliff edges was to be limited to those of the automotive kind!

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Rising early, I said good-bye to Kangding and ducked low, into the white van. The night before, arrangements were made with a driver to pick me up at 7:30 the next morning. But of course, he was early! He had been waiting since 7 am!

Driving through the countryside with the trees painted white

The drive today took me from Kangding, west to Yajiang. The morning broke into stunning balmy sunshine as we motored along country roads fully embraced by soft-shaped green hills to the right and left. Along the sides of the roads, poplar trees with their trunks painted white to a height of about 1 metre. I have seen these a lot around China. I have not yet heard of a reasonable explanation for the painting, so if you have any ideas, send them in.

I have heard and read of a few good ones (very sarcastic here…) 1. To keep the animals from eating the bark. Hmmm! 2. The prevent insects from climbing the trees. As if! And what about the insects that can fly? 3. And this is sort of plausible… to act as a reflector at night to keep drivers safe as they hurtle along the roads like nocturnal missiles. Yah! You are right, still looking for answers.

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Today was a day of great contrasts. What began in a nice large bed in a city, any amenity one could wish for – ended in Kangding, my first real Tibetan town. While not in Tibet, this area is also called a Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Eight a.m. in Chengdu: the bus threaded its way through an hour’s worth of very thick traffic to a freeway before launching me onto the famed Sichuan Tibet Highway. This is reported to be one of the most difficult and dangerous roads in the world. Not only is it an engineering feat because of it’s elevation at times, but the fact that it was built in the 1950s is astounding The road hugs mountain slopes of 80 degrees and often the driver must pull well away, to the outside of the roadway, to avoid overhanging rock cuts.

On the sheer-drop-to-death side of the severely potholed road are occasional safety barriers that would be very useful if one was riding a bicycle. Not recommended on this road, but frequently chosen. Classroom sized boulders occasionally careen down the slopes and add to the potholed complexion as well as taking out those useful bicycle barriers. All in all though, the drive, however. is awe-inspiring and breathtaking in every sense, and not to be missed.

The town of Kangding. Like many of these towns, a river runs through it.

The reward for today’s seven-hour epic drive is the town of Kangding. Once off the bus, there was no doubt Kansas was left far behind and I was in a very different world. The temperature is lower, the faces darker and ruddy, the painted buildings more like the colourful detailing of Tibetan themes; and a noticeable shortness of breath from an increase in elevation.

And this is just the start!

The hotel is cheap and is a must-stay for backpackers On the wall, there is the logo of the International Hostel Federation. I am in a fourth-floor walk-up. This building is typical in that there are no carpets to hold the bright orange earth from hiking boots, walls are whitewashed with no decorations, save for the graffiti of past travelers marking their passing, and compact fluorescent bulbs to light the way, welcoming you down the long featureless corridors of white walls, and shiny white tiled floors.

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Ear cleaning is a serious profession and a delicate one. Note the concentration on this man's face.

Chengdu is covered in dense heavy cloud and fluctuates between a steady light rain under low-lying cloud and frequent bursts of torrential downpours.  Even though, one cannot escape the magic of this ancient city.

The hotel I am staying at is the Jinli Free Time Hotel. It is a small, unassuming hotel tucked away through a private driveway off the main street. Forget about the gym or a pool, you will find none of those amenities here. The hotel is clean with pleasant staff, public computers in the small lobby and the guest rooms very reasonably price. Room rates rage from 138 – 198RMB. At today’s exchange in Canadian dollars you are looking at $21 – $30 including a hearty Chinese breakfast buffet.

The best part of this hotel is that it is just a block or two from the famed Jinli shopping area. This is a trendy area of pedestrian only streets with bars, jewelry shops; craft stalls and stands selling an amazing range of traditional snacks. Some even fried on sticks and these, for the hearty and adventurous!

In this area are people specializing in ear cleaning! I knew of this and was squeamishly curious. Imagine a guy with a headlamp standing with many long, very thin steel rods, and going deep into your ear! It’s a very strange sensation to say the least. But I can honestly say, despite the discomfort, it was well worth it! These guys are no amateurs! They know what they are doing and this skill has been passed down for generations.

The 19 year old young man who looked afer my foot and body massage.

After much walking, the best way to end a day is with a foot massage and full body massage. A foot massage begins with soaking your feet in a wooden bucket filled with piping hot tea. After a steeping of close to 15 minutes, your feet are then brought to their knees! In my case, a 19 year old boy who has hands stronger than most adults! The massage business is in a large store front with armchairs around the perimeter for the foot massage, and tables in the middle, row upon row for the body massage. Here, massage is done, clothing-on. Despite the clothing, my 19 year old lad still knew how to bring the baby out in me! Like the ear cleaning – it was again work every bit of discomfort!

Tomorrow a 7 hour bus ride awaits. The first leg of a trip up high into the mountainous region of Sichuan.

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The Cathay Pacific flight from Toronto to Hong Kong, all 15 hours, was relaxing and seemed much faster than these flights in the past. Perhaps it was because this time I had an entire row of seats to myself in which to stretch and sleep. In fact, the plane looked as though it was about 10% full. So lots of room, and no end to the helpings of whatever food or drink one wanted.

Even the three hurricanes headed to Hong Kong cooperated by shooting up the coast giving me a smooth landing. Having now been in Guangzhou for two days in the high 35+ degrees and unbearable humidity, its time to make my way west to Chengdu and then into the mountains.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and is such a wildly fascinating place. The food. The culture. The landscape. The pandas! I await all with great anticipation!

Chengdu has seen far too much tragedy in recent years and days, it wall be wonderful to feel the resilient spirit of the people who simply move ahead and take all things as part of life.

From Chengdu I head west and into the high mountains in a mostly Tibetan area. The going will be very rough at times. Some times, a horse may be needed to reach the particular sites I wish to film and write about.

The pounding rain that has drenched Guangzhou all day today is letting up just a little and hopefully will clear for a picture-perfect flight tomorrow morning to Sichuan where I shall post again.

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