The biggest problem with independent travel in China is the lack of information. The country is changing very quickly, and the lie of the land both social and physical is prone to constant alteration, but it’s more than that. It doesn’t seem to be in the Chinese nature to use information fully and communicate effectively, by Western norms at least . Every "fact" seems to be modified, an interpretation of what one person thinks other people needs to know, based on the cultural context in which it was asked. The system works fine for those who are inside the culture, but in the case of a foreigner who lives by their own habits, trying to navigate a direct path while always thinking at a tangent to those around you does not make life simple. It is no doubt easier today than it was even ten years ago. The growth of car ownership, the rise in popularity of backpacking and hiking and the emergence of an online Chinese "public sphere" means that most areas within weekend trips of around China’s biggest metropolises and around famous tourist towns now have a wealth of practical information and detailed maps on various websites for those who can read a little Chinese, but going off the beaten track into the rural regions of distant provinces, all you really have to rely on are badly designed virus-ridden local government websites, with all the broken links and computer-translated Chinglish you could ever want, regurgitating dry fact after fact straight from the local statistics bureau, about % forest coverage, and how the region has fourteen class-three state-level historical relics. There might be an advert for the local "five-star" resort, capable of hosting conferences, but there’s usually little where to stay on more modest budgets, nor any info on how I might enjoy myself fully at any given location once I have taken the obligatory v-sign photo at the main gate. In fact China does not lack information, but much of the country does lack comprehensive, useful and interesting information. But that is of course part of the thrill of rural travel, is it not ? I keep telling myself it is, but I become less and less sure each time.
Anyway, assuming that paying a premium for a travel agency to plan a "one-size-fits-all" tick-list tour of the most famous local attractions is not a valid option for anyone with the spirit of the open road in their heart, perhaps the best strategy is actually not to plan at all. Sure, a little internet and travel book research is never wasted, but information goes out of date so quickly, and is generally so incomplete, so inevitably all plans will change. Best just to travel with time to spare and start piecing together your own picture of the area once there. And so it was, after being fortunate enough to run into an American guy who had previously lived in Linxia and had hiked a bit in the area and had very generously written out several sheets of info, that I found myself on the way to Taizi Shan Wilderness Scenic Zone, a range of 4300 metre high mountains about 40 km south of Linxia City that divide the Muslim and Tibetan parts of Southern Gansu.
In times like this, there is no option but arm yourself with whatever Google Map printouts you can find, thrust yourself into the care of the China’s rural populace and hope for the best. First attempt wasn’t quite successful. After an hour of sitting hunched in the back of a mianbao-van along an axle-jarring potholed dirt road, I found it was the wrong bus, and I was in Manjiading (?), apparently the wrong village. The driver had been keen to get me into the van, to fill it, so he could start the trip, and had basically lied, or else not really been listening to me when I asked for the nth time "are you SURE this bus ges to Manlu ?". So back I went to Linxia City, and fortunately on the trip back there was another passenger who was going to take the the Manlu bus, and I was dropped off with her in an obscure part of the city away from any bus station, where a line of mianbao-vans were waiting. I could have spent hours searching for them had she not been there. She was also the only local who could speak standard Mandarin, having worked for a few years at a factory in Guangdong. It often seems the case in China that its the women who are more capable of connecting across such cultural divides.
Anyway, with the afternoon now almost gone, I arrived in Manlu, the right village this time. Actually I wasn’t sure if it was the right village at all, but it was at least the one I had been trying to get to for the past few hours. I went into one of the village’s two restaurants and ordered the "best meal of my life". The food was indeed pretty good, but like all those other "best meal in my life" meals, it was the unexpectedness of finding a restaurant where I did, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t actually been planning to eat until three hours later, that really made it "the best meal of my life". A beer would have made it even better, but it was a Muslim restaurant, and I was still nowhere near Taizi Shan, with only three hours of daylight left.
I had been been prepared to begin walking from Manlu, but I found that another small mianbao-bus runs sporadically to a neighbouring village Taizhai, and somewhere between Manlu And Taizhai was the best place to get off, so I did, and began walking, following a dirt track southwards for 10 kilometers, through villages successively more remote, uphill into a deepening valley with high snow-covered peaks looming left and right. With the sun setting behind the remains of an evening storm, I had reached the alpine heart of Taizi Shan Wilderness Zone, and having reached my destination, I now also had enough complete and useful information on how to get there.
Taizi Shan, Linxia, Gansu, June 2010