If it’s Thursday (at least I think it is), it must be Tagong. Tagong is about 4 hours from Kangding, in the Tagong grasslands, home of stone houses and the ancient Minyak culture. I’m in the Khampa cultural center, using their one working computer. I just finished a dinner of vegetable momos (steamed tibetan dumplings) and spicy cucumber salad. I’m drinking black tea.
When I got off the bus here yesterday, a woman came up and said “come with me, I have a beautiful house.” She was right; with her husband she operates a guest house, a Tibetan stone building with paneled rooms painted gaily with Tibetan designs. The house is new but looks old. I stay on the 3rd floor, in a comfy bed. Last night was the first full night’s sleep I’ve had in 10 days of traveling. The sun came out today after 3 days of rain; in fact, I just discovered that this is the rainy season in Kham.
Here’s a brief digest of my journey so far. I will eventually post pictures, but probably not until late August. I’ve taken 6 rolls of film to date, and it will take a while to scan, digitize, and edit them.
This was my itinerary: Chengdu to Kangding; then from Kangding all the way to Dege, in the northwest of Kham (the name for the eastern region of Tibet); then retracing my route I went back to the town of Ganzi for 4 days; then from Ganzi to Tagong; then to Kangding, and finally home to Chengdu.
I left Chengdu a week ago Monday on the 8 am bus to Kangding. I’ve already “done” the town, so I stayed one night at the Black Tent Hostel. I think my bed had fleas; I scratched for 2 days. Then began the ride of a lifetime: 18 hours over two days on a bus and a bumpy road.
The ride from Kangding to the pass at Zheduo Shan was fine: after that the trip became a nightmare from another dimension. Until we reached Tagong, the road was the worst of the entire trip, and the driver took it at twice the speed he should have. With each hole or bump the passengers went bouncing toward the ceiling. I hung on to chair cushions and seat backs for dear life, at one point banging my wrist against the back of a seat, breaking my metal watchband, and cutting and bruising my arm. Anther bump sent me flying to the ceiling and hitting my head. I wondered what kind of descent into hell my restful vacation had become. I was a nervous wreck by the time we stopped at a greasy-spoon roadside restaurant.
At 4 pm we stopped overnight at a god-forsaken town called Luhuo. My guidebook says the town was destroyed in 1973 by an earthquake; it should have stayed that way. My hotel room was nice, with a clean private bath and a hot shower, but there were screaming people and banging doors till 1 in the morning. I barely slept, before being back on our bus at 6 am.
The next day we reached Dege, after crossing the Que Er Shan pass beneath a 6,000 meter high mountain. The scenery between Ganzi and Dege was the most beautiful of the entire trip: green mountain and jagged, rocky peaks with snow and glaciers. I loved Dege; it’s peaceful and has an wonderful Old town of “log cabin” style houses. I visited the Derge Parkhang, a printing press founded in the 18th century, where Buddhist scriptures are still printed by hand using carved wooden plates (some have been replaced by more modern rubber printing plates). I was enthralled. I longed to have one of the art designs hand-printed on handmade paper, but there was no place in town to buy them.
I splurged on a nice hotel (the Que Er Shan Hotel) for 3 nights, in a private room with bath, with a river flowing beneath my window. The rivers here are all polluted; the public toilet across the way “emptied” right into it. I browsed in the shopes and bought a Nepalese cotton shirt and a pair of cargo pants
I visited a couple of monasteries, and did a walk into the countryside. My one disappointment was not being able to go to Palpung Gompa, a huge monastery 3 hours from Dege by vehicle or 2 days on foot. The journey would have been too treacherous for me, over mountains, and a hired car would have cost 500-1,000 yuan. Once you get to the monastery, you’re stuck there, for there is no traffic back and forth. Next summer, for sure.
Then it was back over the treacherous mountain pass to Ganzi for 4 days. Ganzi’s modern town isn’t terribly interesting, but it has a gorgeous Old Town of stone and adobe houses. At Ganzi Monastery, I saw my first Tibetan buddhist debate, and heard my first long Tibetan horns, so long that their openings rest on the edge of the roof.
I stayed in Hotel Hell (officially the CountyGovernment Guest House), in a room with nice furniture but no running water, and a toilet I wouldn’t wish on a cockroach. The hallways were dar, filthy, and scary. I was there 3 nights. The screaming guests I later realized were hotel employees, who were housed on the floor above me. My final night I splurged on a hotel with bath, but when I turned on the water it came out brown. It smelled like polluted river water, which it probably was. No shower for me. Oddly enough, the hotel had the softest bed of my entire journey. I was out like a light.
The highlight of my Ganzi sojourn was a very long walk into the mountains. I crossed a suspension bridge over a river, which shook and swayed with each step. I tried not to look down, for the brown water swirled beneath me through cracks between the boards. I walked through a couple of villages, and stopped at a small monastery where a crimson-robed monk invited me to sit with his young pupils while they learned their scriptures. Then it was up a mountain road.
I huffed and puffed and gasped for oxygen and sweated my way up the hill, even though the day was cool. I stopped at a shrine and rested. A man with a young daughter joined me, and helped me with some elementary Tibetan. I walked higher, reaching mountain meadows studded with bright flowers. It was raining lightly but I kept going past a hilltop village. I made it about halfway to my destination of the mountain top in front of me. Then it really started to rain.
There wasn’t a tree, stone, or cave in sight – nothing but rolling green mountain. I thought briefly about seeking shelter underneath a grazing horse, but decided against it as too risky. I ran back to the village and was rescued by a group of children I found standing against a wall under trees, where it was dry. After joking around with me they took me to a small chapel that was filled with a giant prayer wheel. Then the boy “in charge” invited me to his home, where I was fed rice and tea and stayed until it stopped raining. Entering and leaving the house, a vicious black Tibetan dog attached to a heavy chain lunged at me, its evil teeth snapping hard enough to tear me limb from limb. I prayed the chain didn’t break. The children and I then went out to sit in a meadow. then I went back down to Ganzi by a slightly different route, down a dirt path and though a field planted with barley. On the way, I came to a small temple chaped like a large chorten, and a monk said hello come inside. He showed me around, and on the upper level was a statue of Chenrezig (Boddhisatva of Compassion – a million hands and at least four heads that I could count) that he claimed dated from 1360.
I was exhausted; I gave myself a “bath” at the hotel with a washcloth and bottled water, then went out for dinner. I showed my vocabulary list (put together with my friend’s help) to the owners, and they helped me choose what to eat and helped me with my Chinese.
My final day it rained, so I walked around town and hung out at “my” teahouse, a large second-floor room frequented by Tibetans and by many monks. I drank LOTS of jasmine tea there, and ate bao zi (steamed meat dumplings) every morning at a local storefront restaurant.
I woke up at 3:30 am yesterday, to catch a bus back toward Tagong, a bumpy 9-hour journey. I haven’t slept well on this journey, one of the effects of the altitude. Most of the towns have been about 3,700 meters. Last night, at the guest house here in Tagong, I went to bed at 8 pm, woke up once, and then slept until 7:30. My hostess fed me and another guest (another American, also living in Chengdu) homemade bao zi and Tibetan butter tea for breakfast. I’ve toured Laghang Gompa (Tagong Monastery), which is gorgeous. Today when the sun came out I walked to the top of the hill and took photos of prayer flags and distant mountains.
That’s it in a nutshell. It’s been a marrrr-vellous trip, and I think tomorrow I’ll head back to Kangding, maybe stay one nite, then go on to Chengdu. Next Wed. or Thurs. I’ll take a 28-hour train ride to Ganzhou in eastern China to teach at a 4-week summer camp.