I'm not one to get scared or back down from a situation.
But I found myself in a dingy hotel room in Ya'an, in my underwear, sweating bullets in front of a tiny fan. I had just realized that not only had I lost my only Chinese phone that my roommate had given me, I'd also forgotten my laptop power cord. I didn't have a map. I was starving. I was freaking the hell out.
I was alone in western China with only a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin. I just had a destination- the small town of Xinduqiao, in the Ganze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I was trying to get to Tibet, but as an American on his own, it just wasn't happening. So I was doing the next best thing: getting to the border. Or close to it.
Ya'an is a polluted transit town, seemingly used a stopover for travelers taking the bus. I fit that category. I eventually left my hotel room in search of food. I stopped in at one restaurant and was laughed out of the place after not being able to read the menu. I found a noodle shop shortly thereafter that would sustain me for the rest of my time in Ya'an. I eventually got some sleep, still stifling a panic attack and a direct flight home.
The next day, I walked across the street to the bus station and caught a ride. I was heading to Kangding, the capital of the prefecture. What followed next was a 9-hour crapshoot of breakdowns and random stops. My bus was full, and old, and with nothing but low-grade movies for entertainment, I became the focal point for most of the passengers. The Tibetan passengers were all smiles, and would talk to me a bit in Mandarin. The Chinese passengers just scowled.
I got to Kangding after dark, and it was raining. It looked like a single-street town, and I walked up and down it trying to find a good hotel. There were two. I chose the cheaper one. By some miracle, I got myself some food as well. I was fed, I had a bed. Things were looking alright. In the morning light, I realized that Kangding was a sprawling city, nestled in a small valley. It was a very cool mix of Tibetan and Chinese culture, and I enjoyed walking through it. Today was the day that I decided to start hitchhiking. I was nervous.
I walked for about 20 minutes before being flagged down by two Chinese girls. They were from Chengdu, and were heading out the same way I was, also hitchhiking. We talked for a bit in broken English and broken Mandarin, before I sent them on ahead for a better chance of getting picked up. Within a minute, they were in a shiny new SUV, heading west. I was encouraged. After another hour, however, I had lost that sense of excitement. Now I was sweaty and a little put out, climbing some steep hills high above the city. Out of the blue, a sleek sportscar rolls up beside me. I tell the guy that I'm heading to Xinduqiao. He laughs and says that he's going to Xinduqiao. I get in. His name is Li Rur, and I can't pronounce it. He's Mongolian, from Erduoci, but he's traveling to Lhasa. He's incredibly friendly and patient, working with me to figure out more complex Mandarin terms. His English knowledge begins with “I really love Americ” and ends with “I really love music.” To me, those are the only two things he would ever need to say to make it big in the USA.
We drive through some of the most beautiful terrain I've ever seen, stopping to take pictures and admire the view when we feel like it. He gives me some food and water. We talk about music, and movies, and many other topics, as best we can. He's a good guy.
I'm starting to think that I made the right choice.