Prayer wheels near the base of Paoma Shan
By Wednesday, I had added severe lower back pain to my list of ailments. I couldn’t walk more than 10 minutes without doing back stretches and then sitting down. Life was still good, though: I walked out of my hotel that morning to inhale beautiful, clean, fresh air, reveling in the coolness and the views of mountains shrouded in floating gray clouds.

Today I took it easy, enjoying two naps, trying not to strain my sore foot and back, and nursing my altitude sickness. I stopped for lunch at a small place on the town square, enjoying delicious homemade noodles in a spicy beef broth for 4 yuan (50 cents). That night, dinner at Dromo Yudra was yak dumplings, rice with fried egg, and Tibetan butter tea. Back at the hotel, the electricity was on, as it was after 6:30 pm. I became engrossed in a TV show that was part historical Chinese costume drama, part soap opera, and part sitcom. I watched it for two hours.

Thursday was my Big Day in Kangding. My altitude sickness was magically gone, except for the fatigue and shortness of breath, and I felt like a functioning human being. I was doubly grateful to my Higher Power today: for my health, and for another day in sobriety in one of the most beautiful natural settings on earth.

This was my day to climb Paoma Shan – Racehorse Hill – that rose just behind my hotel. I had purchased water and Oreo cookies for sustenance. On the steep street to the beginning of the hill’s stairway, I watched a fruit seller’s Herculean labor of pulling his three-wheeled bicycle, weighted down with his inventory, up the hill. He stopped to rest as I passed him.

Stairway to heaven (or heart failure)
I found the beginning of the stairs, and after a few flights there were a couple of small shrines and a huge incense burner. I went inside one shrine, looked at the statues flickering in the light of butter lamps, and suddenly felt completely and utterly at peace. From here, the ascent of the hill was via steep, narrow, concrete steps. My climb was excruciating – every few steps my body would be deprived of oxygen and I would have to rest, gasping for breath, my heart pounding in my ears. The ascent was bordered with lengths of fluttering prayer flags, and halfway up there was a pavilion where I rested and read some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The upper part of the hill was covered in a beautiful pine forest.

Fluttering prayer flags and mist-shrouded mountains: Kangding from Paoma Shan

I reached the summit, admiring the huge chorten, then descended a few flights of stairs to a beautiful small temple, where I paused to rest and to listen to four Buddhist monks chanting.

Chorten, Paoma Shan summit

My string of prayer flags, which had made the journey with me from Los Angeles, found their final home as I strung them between tree branches just behind the temple.

My string of prayer flags now decorates Paoma Shan

I descended the mountain via cable car, which deposited me on the opposite side of the hill, on the west side of Kangding, where I climbed a winding street that approached two temples I wanted to visit. The first one (sorry, I don’t yet know its name), was in the process of restoration or rebuilding, and I sneeked a peek inside, awestruck by the most flamboyant and colorful temple interior I’d ever seen. I’m still kicking myself for not taking pictures.

– continued –


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