Traveling in China’s interior is tough for families
There are countless motivations for traveling, and countless travel methods, but these often seem to fall away once you start a family. When kids arrive on the scene, many people largely abandon the whole “throw yourself into the deep end and see if you can swim” approach. The risks simply feel too heavy – it’s much easier to just hit a beach in Thailand or stick to Hong Kong Disney.
My family has certainly done our share of safe and comfortable travel, but sometimes we like to reach for something more. It’s not just for mom and dad’s sake – we’ve discovered that our kids can also tap into something deep within themselves when forced to stretch their comfort zones. However, on a recent trip to Sichuan’s Wild West, we realized that it’s possible to reach too far, and that there’s a limit to the elasticity of every comfort zone.
We’d done rough travel in China before: while not always easy, past trips to remote Guizhou and Yunnan were memorable and rewarding. This trip – to Sichuan’s Tibetan region and the Wolong panda reserve – was a different story. Like on our previous adventure trips, the first four days were tough, but fun, and the sights were spectacular. But all of this was ultimately overshadowed by a terrible, endless bus ride on a half-built, high-altitude road that left me fearing for my family members’ lives.
Before the journey from hell, we spent days riding our tour bus through grand vistas, past monasteries, roaring rivers and soaring mountains standing up to 24,790 feet (!) high. We visited ancient watchtowers and Tibetan villages. We were welcomed into homes and fed impossibly rich yak-butter tea and raw barley cookies. I was concerned because we rarely had time to linger in any of these places and because some of the roads we traveled on were just rock-strewn dirt tracks. But everyone was having fun; when I apologized for the long drives and rough conditions, my apology was soundly rejected.
On our final day in the frontier, we left Dongba, a primitive town in a gorgeous valley, to head towards Wolong, home of China’s largest panda preserve and research center, a 200-kilometer drive away. On the way, we paused in a lovely little town for lunch and our guides said we had three more hours to go, including a 10 kilometer stretch on a “bumpy road.”
It was slow going. We stopped for the tractor blocking the road. We stopped to free the car that drove into a ditch while backing away from us. We stopped so Mr. Wang could examine the bus axles, and so our guides could get out to move rocks or fill in gaping potholes. When we encountered a cement barrier closing off a newly paved section of road, forcing us to fall two feet onto a rubble-strewn lane, with a precipitous drop on our immediate right, I started to feel a tightness in my chest; it lasted five hours.
As dusk approached, we finally reached the snowy 14,000-foot summit of the pass, in the shadow of the four majestic peaks of Four Girls Mountain. Downhill, to the right, corkscrew switchbacks cut through a barren, rocky landscape that stretched to the horizon. We would have to descend for several hours before even reaching the tree line.
It was soon pitch black and the only illumination was provided by the lanterns in the workers’ tents, which we passed every few-hundred yards. Luckily, the kids remained remarkably well-behaved thanks in large part to my mother-in-law, who told wonderful, lengthy versions of classic fairy tales, lulling all of the kids to sleep despite the extreme conditions.
At about 9pm, we encountered a sign that read “Welcome to Wolong, Home of the Pandas,” but all that was visible was a pile of rubble. We banged along for another hour-and-a-half, and finally arrived at our hotel at 10:30 – the “three-hour drive” had taken nine-and-a-half.
Our guides tried to cheer us up with news that the hotel promised to keep the hot water running until midnight and that a nearby restaurant would stay open to serve us dinner. Straggling off the bus, carrying sleeping children, we were solemn, almost silent.
I volunteered to stay with the kids as long as someone would send me a beer. I took a long, hot shower, washing away the day’s grime, and settled in for a liquid dinner. It was then that I discovered this truth: The sounds of your children sleeping deeply and the taste of a warm Tsingtao are both pretty darn good when you’re happy to be alive. Alan Paul