Kham Photo Diary – Part 1

Prayer flags, mountains, and clouds – a hilltop view in Tagong toward the end of my trip


Here is the first installment of my travel diary of my adventures in Kham, the eastern area of Tibet that now lies mostly within Sichuan Province. The places I visited were all within Ganzi Prefecture, through which the roads mostly follow north-to-south river valleys. My first visit to the area, in August 2006, barely scratched its surface. This time, I ventured much forther north and west, as far as Dege, center of an ancient kingdom, which now lies close to the border with the Tibetan autonomous Region.

My combined vacation/architectural study tour/photo outing lasted 12 days, leaving me exhausted, and that was without the heavy-duty hiking and camping venture that I originally planned. I didn’t suffer much from altitude sickness, even though I was at about 3,700 meters for most of the journey. The main problem was a lack of energy and oxygen. My trusty photo companion was my beloved Pentax KX, purchased in 1978 in Chicago.

I made these rather muddy-looking scans at a local copy center. When you rely on commercial photo processors, the results are often not the best, and combined with this scanner the results came out looking flat. Next time I will try some high-quality scans from the original negatives.

Further installments will follow over the next week or two.


Chengdu to Dege: Days 1 to 4

From my journal:

I’m a little light-headed and my eyes burn. I’m starting this journal in the same place I began my last one in Kham (Aug. 2006) – at the coffee bar facing the river in Kangding. I think I recognize the woman with the shortish gray hair sitting on the ledge outside the window. The group of ladies she’s with seem to form a permanent kaffeeklatch.

I met a young man from Holland named Roman, outside the bus station. Together we walked to the Black Tent Guest House next to the Ngachu Gompa (Anjuesi Monastery). We’re staying in a 4-bed room for 20 yuan a night, the cheapest place I’ve ever stayed.

I left Chengdu on a gray, wet morning. The day before I’d spent furiously shopping for supplies, including a large backpack. My friend and I looked at digital cameras, but thankfully I didn’t buy one at that point.

Kangding is gray. I “did” the town last time, and it holds no enchantment for me. I think I’ll leave tomorrow on the 7 am bus for Dege, a two-day journey. While I’m here I’ll pick up some film and shop for cargo pants and a hat. My “official” guidebook for this journey, Mapping the Tibetan World, advises me that buses leave Kangding for Dege only on dates beginning with a 1, 3, or 6. This turns out to be wrong, since there is now a daily bus in each direction. My writing is very wobbly now, probably from the onset of altitude sickness. Thank goodness for the traditional Tibetan medicine capsules I brought.

Luhuo: barley field, dirt road, and a small shrine across the river



I’m having the trip from hell. I’m in a depressing town called Luhuo, somewhere in the middle of Ganzi Prefecture in W. Sichuan. Outside the window of my hotel room [80 yuan; clean, private bath], someone with a hammer and chisel is chopping away at concrete. My travel clock doesn’t work, to I had to set the alarm for the wrong time since the clock is set 2 1/2 hours ahead. Have to be up at 5 for the continuation of my journey.

The first part of the trip from Kangding was beautiful, until after we crossed the Zheduo Shan pass. Then the hideously bad road began, lasting until we reached Tagong. The bus driver drove like a bat out of hell, and every bump and hole sent passengers flying into the air. I had the bad luck to be in the very last row, elevated above the rest of the seats, so I bore the worst of the shocks and flew higher than anyone else. No seat belts, no safety bars – I clung for dear life to a seat cushion and the back of another seat.

At one point my wrist came down so hard on a seat back that my metal watch wristband broke, sending the watch flying, and leaving my arm painfully scratched and bruised. Another bump sent me flying straight to the ceiling, where I hit my head.

It was a cold, rainy day, and I had worn shorts and sandals – more exposed flesh to receive bruises from the ride. I had a headache, I was tired and cranky, and I was beginning to get seasick from all the bouncing. To add to my woes, I think my bed at the hostel in Kangding had fleas. We eventually stopped at a roadside “greasy spoon” for lunch.

I kept saying to myself: The way out is through the pain. It didn’t help.

Luhuo: Drango Gompa (Luhuo Monastery) perched on the hillside.



I barely slept last night at the hotel in Luhuo. The construction noise from outside stopped, but then the insanely loud yelling and slamming of doors in the hotel hallway began. It lasted until almost 1 am. Please remind me again what I’m doing here.

Luhuo is full of pool tables: indoors, on the sidewalks, under tent-like roofs of cloth. It seems like the preferred local activity; there’s little else to do.

I had an OK dinner last night of pork with peanuts, and walked across the river to look at the monstery. Didn’t have the energy to walk up the hill for a closer look. My guidebook says that Luhuo was destroyed in 1973 by an earthquake. Evidently it was rebuilt, but I couldn’t wait for the new version to disappear from memory. Back on the bus, then on to Ganzi and Dege.

The bus that was my home away from home for 2 days, at a brief stop at the Ganzi bus station.


Between Ganzi and the Que Er Shan Pass, our bus stopped to help another one that had blown a tire.


While passengers wait for the tire to be changed, the mountain range that we will soon cross looms in the background.


The Sichuan-Tibet Highway North (yes, it’s the narrow brown road on the right) passes through some breathtaking scenery. A view from the top of the mountain pass before Dege.

The bus driver stopped at the top of Que Er Shan Pass for about 60 seconds for a photo op for the “foreigners.” The pass is at 4,775 meters. Prayer flags mark the spot, and small thin squares of paper printed with Lungta (Wind Horse) litter the ground, thrown by Tibetans as they shout Lha Gyal Lo!


Mountain-top clouds.


View of Dege from my hotel window



I’m in a room at the Que Er Shan Hotel in Dege, listening to the sound of the river running beneath my open window, and drinking jasmine tea. It’s the 4th day of my journey, and I’m feeling a little more human than I did yesterday.

[The Chinese pronunciation of Dege is “Duh-guh;” in Tibetan it rhymes with “Reggae.”]

The hotel is blissfully quiet. I almost slept the whole night through, for the first time in days. The bus ride here was spectacular, past green mountains and rocky peaks with snow and glaciers, over a high pass, and then down into a deep, winding river valley.

Dege is nestled into two intersecting valleys, with green mountains rising steeply on each side. It seems like a peaceful place, after you get away from the main commercial street (also the highway) and its noise. Dege has preserved its “old town,” which rises up the hills on each side, in layers of Tibetan “log cabin” houses.

Everywhere I go I get “hello” or “tashi delek.” Last night at dinner, two Buddhist monks stared at me as I ate my shui jiao (pork dumplings with a spicy sauce).

When our bus arrived yesterday, after an 18-hour journey over two days, it was sunny and the heat was stifling. With two backpackers from Israel, I roamed the town looking for lodgings. The “Designated Hotels for Foreigners” were ridiculously expensive. Finally I got tired of the other two people’s indecisiveness and mini-temper tantrums; they seemed to be very bad travelers. I went back to the expensive hotel we’d just looked at and negotiated a lower price for a single room. The last I saw of my “friends,” they were sitting in the shade, waiting for the sun to go down to resume their cheap hotel search.


A view of Dege’s hillside Old Town.

My trip to Dege had two purposes: to visit the Dege Parkhang (Dege Printing House for Buddhist scriptures), and to make a journey to Palpung Monastery. My trip, indeed, was inspired by two books written by Pamela Logan (director of the Kham Aid Foundation): Among Warriors, and Tibetan Rescue. I only realized one of my dreams; the monastery will have to wait until a future trip. My first evening, I walked to the Printing House in the moonlight, and sat contemplating the scores of pilgrims who made a khora (clockwise circumambulation) of the structure, which is considered sacred, since its library is literally the home of Tibetan Buddhism.

I started to walk up a dirt road toward a monastery, but stopped when my breath and my energy gave out. Still too early in my trip for hiking. I reached a wall of chortens (Tibetan Buddhist version of the Indian stupa or the Chinese pagoda), and saw a sad sight. A small white dead animal – cat or dog – had been placed on its back on the ledge of one of the chortens. Perhaps someone had put it there with best wishes for its afterlife.


The hillside Old Town behind the Dege Printing House. I later visited the small red gompa toward the top.


A shop in Dege, with typical log construction 


A line of chortens marks the approach to the Derge Gonchen Monastery.


Detail of a mani wall (Om mani padme hum), with figure of a cat


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s