As I begin the journal of my Tibet adventure, I’m sipping a lovely cup of instant Nescafe in the Jingshan Tea Garden in Kangding, TV sounds in the background. On the other side of the window, Chinese women sit gossiping, their grey heads bobbing in time with their knitting needles, as the river rushes by just beyond, slicing the town in two. A sore on the back of my foot gives me pain, the result of wearing my très butch Skechers work boots for an entire day back in Chengdu. They rubbed my rear ankle raw, the high price of beauty: I tried to explain to my Chinese friend Fred that these boots were considered sexy in West Hollywood. I don’t think they made the same impression in Chengdu.
My adventure began on Tuesday morning at 4:30 am, when I was awakened by a rollicking thunderstorm. Boom! There was lightning to die for, and heavy rain for about an hour. No need for the 5 am alarm. I packed light, taking only my backpack and a plastic bag with a pair of shoes and some water. I was wearing my flip-flops because of the aforementioned foot sore. Some trekker I’m going to turn out to be. I left the apartment at 6 and crossed the street; almost immediately I heard a car horn, and turned around to find that a taxi had magically appeared, saving me a walk all the way across campus. An auspicious sign, boding well for my journey.
I took the taxi to Xinnanmen Bus Station, where I planned to take the 7 am bus to Kangding. I stood in line at the ticket window for about 30 minutes, impatiently watching ticket sellers flow back and forth, in no particular hurry to open. Long lines formed and re-formed; I was drenched with sweat in the sticky heat. A man then walked into the room and announced “Kangding!” for the 7 am departure. I gave up on the ticket window and followed him. It turned out that I could pay on the bus instead, because there were still vacant seats. I paid my 115 yuan and we were off. Hallelujah!
We left smoggy, smelly Chengdu and before long we were gaining altitude. After the first hour the scenery turned mountainous, with green vistas and forests. I was on vacation! The divided highway going west lasted as far as Ya’an, then veered off and became the two-lane Sichuan-Tibet Highway. The road twisted and turned as the climb got steeper and the mountains higher, as we followed a deep river valley into Kham, as the far eastern province of Tibet is called.
A river valley from the bus window
We would make three stops on the 7-hour ride: two potty breaks (the last one also a bus-washing break) and a lunch break. At 11 am we stopped at a roadside “diner,” an open-front restaurant in a small town through which the highway twisted. I went to the open-air kitchen and pointed at what I wanted: stir-fried fatty pork slices and green onions, and pork soup. When it came time to pay, my bill was 22 yuan, which I thought a bit steep for a back-woods eatery, but then they had a monopoly on the bus passenger trade.
As we were eating, I hear firecrackers going off. Soon, a funeral procession came winding its way up the road and past the restaurant. The deceased was borne by several men on two heavy poles, in a “coffin” that looked like three half-round logs lashed together with rope. A live chicken was tied to the log over where the person’s head presumably was, perhaps as an offering when it came time for cremation. More firecrackers went off, as the faces of the people in the procession showed joy, for they seemed to be celebrating a life rather than mourning a death. When the bus started up again, the procession was veering off the road and into the woods.
After the third (bus-washing) stop, I spotted my first chorten (a Tibetan Buddhist devotional structure, more sculpture than building – more later). I was overjoyed, for this meant that I was at long last entering the world of ethnic Tibet. The chorten was on the other side of the river, out the opposite bus window, so I couldn’t photograph it.
The bus bumped over the remnants of a couple of small landslides, always a danger along this route. Work crews were still clearing away rocks and debris. Eventually we came to the Erlang Shan Tunnel, the highest road tunnel in China. It’s actually one long tunnel, about 2 ½ – 3 miles in length, and a very short one. Then it was down, down, down, following hairpin turns and a lot of construction work making concrete retaining walls to prevent rock slides.
We passed through the ugly town of Luding (I decided that ugliness was a Chinese product, and I rejoiced as the “uglification” of the Tibetan landscape was less and less evident as I got deeper into Kham). Then, suddenly, we were in Kangding.
The bus pulled into the Kangding bus station a couple of minutes shy of 7 hours. My butt rejoiced at being freed from the seat, and I was glad to put the hot, stuffy bus ride behind me. The river that winds through Kangding, fenced in with concrete walls and marble balustrades, is beautiful, and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking. The town itself is so-so. It’s a small city of high-rise Chinese apartment buildings squeezed between mountain ranges.
River City: Kangding, with Guoda Shan for a backdrop
Kangding is the meeting-place of the Han (Chinese) and Tibetan worlds. It was for many centuries an important trading post on the Tea-Horse Route; after tea was introduced into Tibet, brick tea (tea leaves pressed into form of bricks) produced in Ya’an flowed west into the Tibetan plateau, while horses flowed east into China.
I walked around town looking for a hotel, and happened upon great piles of dried mushrooms and scary-looking fungus for sale. Apparently it was mushroom season, and I inhaled musty, earthy, herbal smells. Directly across the river rose the sheer rocky slopes of Guoda Shan (shan = mountain), its lower faces decorated with colorful Buddhist images. Actually, there are two rivers in Kangding, the Dar and the Tse, which meet near the town’s center. Put them together and you get Dartsendo, one of the town’s traditional names.
Kangding was full of Tibetans in bright, colorful traditional garb. The people in the town, especially the Tibetans, seemed much better-dressed than the average Chengdu resident.
I found a hotel near the bus station (actually, across the street), at 90 yuan a night, the lowest price I could find for the minimum I would accept: a single room with private bath. The place had its drawbacks: it was between two narrow, noisy streets that echoed honking car horns, shouting people, and music; there were flies everywhere (no window screens); during the four nights I was there, there was never any hot water, nor was my bed changed nor the room cleaned; and there was no electricity except after 6:30 pm, when a portable generator was dragged out to the sidewalk and fired up. Between midnight and about 6 am, I could get some sleep when the noise died down.
On the plus side, the bed was kind of comfy, and I could wrap myself in the thick comforter as I coped with two days of altitude sickness, including cold chills. I also had headaches, nausea, elevated heart rate, and fatigue. My foot sore was now infected, and when I had two days of diarrhea later in my stay, my life was nearly perfect. At about 8,000 feet in altitude, I was also weak and short of breath after even minimum exertion. Even with the street noise, when I was overcome by fatigue I could cover my head with a pillow, burrow into the covers, and grab an hour or two of sleep a couple of times a day.
I took my sore ankle and throbbing head on a walk through town beside the river, as far as the small Anjue Si monastery. This was my very first real live Tibetan Buddhist monastery. As I entered the gate, I turned a couple of the prayer wheels that lined the entry passage. In a small room to one side, pilgrims walked clockwise in circles, turning a huge prayer wheel that filled the space from floor to ceiling.
Anjue Si Monastery: on the roof, the Wheel of Life flanked by two crouching deer (representing the Deer Park where Buddha gave his first teaching) are a dead giveaway that you’re looking at a Tibetan Buddhist temple.
Inside, there was a hushed atmosphere and smell of incense. A friendly monk approached me and shook my hand, then explained some of the iconography of the statues: Padmasambhava (he brought Buddhism from India to Tibet in the 8th century), Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama), and others. He also showed me a small picture of the Dalai Lama, stuck onto one corner of a picture frame; it’s still technically prohibited to possess the DL’s picture in China. The monk then touched his forehead to the image before slipping it behind another picture. He explained that it’s subject to theft, as a coveted object.
Around three walls of the interior were glass cases containing 1,000 small Sakyamuni Buddha statues, all exactly the same, all in the same right-hand-touching-the-earth posture. The monk also taught me how to pronounce Chen-re-zi (Chenrezig, Boddhisattva of Compassion, currently manifested on earth through the 14th Dalai Lama), and remarked on my gau box (pendant) with the “Om mani padme hum” Tibetan characters on it, the mantra of Chenrezig. He also taught me to say Ben-chin Lama (Panchen Lama), whose photo was displayed in every temple I would visit.
Dromo Yudra Khampa Tibetan Eatery, where I met my new friend Puba, and where I ate my first yak meat and drank my first Tibetan butter tea
The bright spot of my first day, after the monastery and a nearby tea garden where I enjoyed some instant coffee, was the Dromo Yudra Tibetan restaurant next to my hotel. I ate my first yak meat here, and drank my first Tibetan butter tea (black tea with yak butter and a little salt). I also made a new friend. One of the waiters was named Puba, and he hovered over me during my meals (I ate there three times), wanting to learn English from me. We talked mainly using had gestures or with me writing words in English so he would recognize them. He would become a part of my later story.
– continued –