Published: November 7th 2010September 24th 2010
It was getting to the end of my time in China and being familiar with the Chinese world of rice fields and mountains, I was eager to see some of the west of the country. Here, the landscape becomes harder, Chinese culture merges into Tibetan and the modern world hasn't quite kept up. To Visit Tibet proper, foreigners are currently required to obtain special permits, for which you are usually required to travel on an organized tour. To save time and money we decided to save 'real Tibet' for another time, and instead take a trip along the southern branch of the Sichuan-Tibet highway, through western Sichuan into Yunnan province, along some of the 'worlds most dangerous roads'. It’s a decision I don't regret and the awe inspiring, bum-numbing journey was both beautiful and interesting. It was also the only place where I found outspoken criticism of the government (there was some questioning at other times), where Tibetans actually referred to 'the stupid Chinese government'. Strong language indeed! For me, these outspoken people and their harsh land were one of the highlights of my China trip.
Our first stop was Kanding, 9 hours from Chengdu, a small frontier town surrounded
by mountains, with a rushing river flowing though its centre. Here the population was mainly Chinese, but the cliffs towering above the town had Tibetan inscriptions and were home to several prayer flag strewn temples. Tibetan restaurants were tucked into alley ways and several of the mobile phone shops were serving fully clad Buddhist monks. It was a bustling town, feeling bigger than it was with energetic and friendly people. A well integrated mix of Chinese and Tibetan culture, with a good selection of tasty bread!
One immediately noticeable thing on this journey was that as the altitude increased so did the friendliness of the people. Chinese people are friendly on an individual basis but as a society the entire culture seems to based on the self. English notions of politeness, such as queuing, just don't work here. If you wait your turn, you loose out. The most pungent demonstration of this that I can think of is in public toilets. Many of these are big troughs with no doors but usually with dividers, maybe 4ft high, between stalls. The smell is invariably appalling, but to wait at the door of the room, as you would do in the
west, would be a folly. Whoever is nearest goes next, so each individual squatting space gathers a, sometimes jostling, crowd by it. Getting to an empty spot is a race and its not unusual to be stared at by the women who wants to go next. Its not an environment conducive to weeing. The Tibetans were gentler people and thus relieving oneself, amongst other things, was a much more pleasant experience.
Nine hours west of Kanding, after a hair-raising journey along mountain roads and across vast empty highlands, we reached Litang. As the bus dropped down towards our destination, what looked like the sea stretched out before us. In fact Litang is set on was an enormous plateau. 4000M above the actual sea, herds of cattle and yak roam the bare land, herded by nomads and Tibetan cowboys. Colourful prayer flags adorn the roadside and the weathered people go about their work under a great open sky.
We'd decided that for this section of our journey, we were going to fully ignore our guide book and go entirely with touts. As we stumbled off the bus in Litang, slightly nauseous from the bumpy ride and dizzy from the
altitude, we were met by a smiling young Tibetan by the name of Long Life. He escorted us to his simple but nice 'Peace Guesthouse', where, somewhat dazed, we fell asleep.
The next morning we rose early and along with a small Mexican and two friendly Belgian guys, started off on a day long tour with Long Life. We set off early in order to visit the sky burial site; A desolate hillside, strewn with prayer flags, where the bodies of the dead are ceremonially consigned to the swooping vultures. According to Long Life, most local families are happy for outsiders to attend but that day they were people who he didn't know, so having seen the hill from afar we left the mourners to themselves.
From the sky burial site we drove further afield to a holy mountain, at the bottom of which stood a tiny monastery. The mountain, although small was awash with prayer flags and riddled with caves and passages. It was a reasonably sheer climb to get to the top, perhaps not the most sensible way to spend our first morning at high altitude, but we reassured ourselves with the beautiful views and the
logic that death by falling off a holy mountain probably landed you straight in heaven.
The monastery at the base of the mountain was populated by a few very small monks with very dirty faces. They were involved in an extremely serious game of catch but ran away shyly when we came close by. In a field next to the monastery, several locals and a monk were having a small party which they waved us over to join. They had set up a rudimentary gazebo under which they sat on mats. Perhaps they were going to stay there for some time as in the centre was an enormous pile of food; bananas, biscuits, rice and massive hunks of meat. A little way off, a woman squatted at a fire brewing tea. Next to the tent, a car stereo was turned up to the max and boomed out a weird selection of Tibetan-chant-inspired cheesy pop. Five people were dancing, a solemn process which occasionally broke down into rolling around on the floor and laughing. After we were fed and watered, one of the men displayed his mischievous nature by starting to tickle some of the ladies. When he also started
trying to bite the monk, this escalated in a shrieking chase around the field ending in the man being pinned down, tickled and noogied excessively. I think it is not often in my life that I will witness a middle aged monk wrestle a full grown man to the floor then sit on him. It felt good for my spirit. Anyway, after this exertion more feeding and watering was required and not wanting to outstay our welcome we bid the group goodbye.
After (more) lunch we headed to Litang’s main monastery, (Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery) a vast complex, teaming with monks going about their daily life. It was a glorious monastery, filled with dusty sunbeams, colourful patterns and monks running to and fro. Unusually for a Buddhist sanctuaries, they didn't mind photography. Also, as well as seeing the main hall and Buddha’s, an old monk led us upstairs and into some of the more hidden chambers. Here, there were shrines to the current Dalai Lama (who lives in exile in India) and also pictures of the 11th Panchen Lama, whose whereabouts are not known. It is thought he was disappeared by the Chinese government as he has not been
seen in public since 1995. Whilst we were there an enormous ceremony was taking place in order to rid the monastery of evil. As I stepped out of the minivan, an old man grabbed my hand and dragged me across to where I would have a nice view. He was not a monk and I'm not sure what his role was but in the final procession he proudly carried a small statue, grinning at me while trying to look solemn for the occasion. The senior monks followed him along with the musicians and people central to the ceremony. Towards the end the rag tag all monks pushed and shoved in an attempt to start a fun game of monk dominos.
According to wikipedia, Litang monastery was a keen pocket of resistance during the take over of Tibet by the PLA. Even now things in Litang are not always peaceful. For many years it was host to a famous horse riding festival, but this was recently cancelled by the government due to 'security concerns' following the Tibetan monks uprising in 2008. One predictable but interesting thing I learnt in Litang is that despite the town having a large ethnic Tibetan
majority, local government is mainly Han Chinese.
The rest of the afternoon involved a visit to the stupa in the town centre, a small amount of off-roading in search of fine views, and a final soak in the local hot springs. Dinner was yak dumplings, followed by a headache and some longed for sleep.
A share taxi, the next day took us on the nice short journey to the tiny town of Daocheng. Once again the road was spectacular, this time switching between piney alpine views and boulder piled plateaus. A muddy pig marked the street to a hostel, in which we reclined for the evening.
Our last day of travel in this region proved to be the most epic, not helped by the fact the bus left at 5.30am. The supposedly ten hour bus journey down to Zhongdian (Shangrila) was even more spectacular than the days before. The narrow roads were largely unpaved and rather than being straight across flat highlands, they twisted and turned next to vertigo inducing sheer drops. In China, the car horn is an essential piece of driving apparatus. Drivers do not need to look where they are going, they merely listen.
On overtaking when approaching blind corners, it is not customary to slow down, instead the horn is sounded repeatedly to warn other drivers of the impending head on collision. If there's no reply, its safe. This journey was particularly sickening as our driver for some insane reason seemed to be in a period of horn abstinence. Luckily he wasn't able to zoom around corners in the usual Chinese fashion due to the steep gradient of the road and the fact that a few hours into the journey the clunky bus was reduced to only one gear. It was getting towards lunch time as we reached the top of a gorgeous mountain and the gear box gave out all together. We admired the view. Several hours later, the engine was disassembled and sitting by the side of the road. A group of grubby handed, lamenting Chinese men stood by, wondering what to do. The view was still nice at sunset, when a decision was made. Having only had a very small breakfast we were getting rather hungry. Luckily, a replacement bus was on its way, from Daocheng. In the dark, the view was less nice, and as it began to rain
everyone climbed back into our sedentary bus. By the time the replacement arrived the wind was howling and the rain was lashing down. Our new bus was half the size of our old (full) bus and our bags were left to the elements on the roof, while every last inch of the inside was stuffed with people. There was a customary Chinese rush for seats, although bound together by situation; several rotations were volunteered making both people’s bottoms and the atmosphere more comfortable. We set off. We were still about 180 km from Shangrila, it was pitch black and raining and we had yet to hit the worst maintained sections of road. It didn't take long. After an hour of crawling downhill through the mud the road in front of us was blocked. On this perilous single lane road, a car had sensibly tried to overtake a lorry and not only got stuck in the deep mud but also managed to wedge itself against the lorry so neither could move. There was also traffic backed up in the opposite direction making reversing for anyone very difficult. With the help of most of our bus and much mismanagement, the too many
cooks eventually managed to manoeuvre the car free and after the rest of the traffic had unravelled we were on our way again. At around midnight we hit our lunch stop and a bus load of people became silent to the worship of instant noodles. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we rolled up to a closed Shangrila bus station, cold wet and exhausted, sometime early in the morning. A nice couple from Shanghai helped us to find a room in Dragoncloud Hostel, where we spread out our wet belongings, breathed some nice oxygenated air and collapsed onto a wonderfully soft bed with a duvet.
Our time in Shangrila was largely given to relaxation. We wandered the old streets as well as exploring a good chunk of the new town. Set up for tourists, the restaurant selection was amazing, especially for me who by this time (dare I admit it) was a bit fed up of Chinese food. We shared a Tibetan hot pot with our Belgian tour buddies and had an excellent Indian meal from a friendly place across the road from our hostel. We also found, and I do not exaggerate, the closest thing to
a good English breakfast that I have had in China. I will not mention the price, but actually being meal sized, unlike many other the attempts, it was a worthy investment.
Having bought some prayer flags, visited one of the local monasteries and smiled at a last few Tibetans, we left the big skied Tibetan world for the city of Kunming, the final stop, on our road to Laos. Yet another epic bus journey, this time in splendid sunshine, took us through a Chinese landscape of rice fields and pottery villages, and past Dali and Shaxi, which I'd visited earlier. It was a hot day and the bus was like an oven. Supposedly it was a 10 hour journey, but either the bus timetable had lied or we weren't supposed to get stuck in an enormous traffic jam, caused by some sort of terrifying missile transportation convoy that took up the whole road. Somehow we all squeezed through and we arrived in the bustle of Kunming and to the shriek of karaoke bars in the early hours of the morning, once again in the pouring rain.
And that, my best beloved, was China. Travel info:
Buses (tickets bought from respective bus station):
Chengdu tourist bus station- Kanding. Several buses daily between 6 and 9am. 9hr. Around Y90
Kanding- Litang 2 buses at 6.45am, 9 hr, Y90
Litang to Daocheng- we took a private minibus for Y50, public bus Y48, early morning. 4hr.
Daocheng- Shangrila- 1 Bus daily. 6am, 11 hr, Y100
Shangrila- Kunming Y227, 9am. 10 hr
Chengdu- Mix Hostel. Nice feel, good social space and cheap food. Double for Y90 with shared bath. Y10 dorms proported to existbut non available while we were there. Go soon before the kitten grows up!
Kanding- many random rooms available just opposite bus station if you let the touts find you. Price is negotiable. We paid Y50 for nondescript double with attached bathroom and hot water.
Litang- Peace Guesthouse. Right out of the bus station. Very Friendly. Shared bathroom with hot water. Y20 pp. Owner can organize tours and help with travel.
Daocheng- International youth hostel. Left out of the bus station for about 3 minutes then left down a small track. Should be signposted. Dorms Y30
Shangrila- Dragoncloud youth hostel. Pretty hostel in the old town. Gorgeous double with bathroom for Y100 (bargain for it). Dorms also available.
Kunming- Hump Hostel. Big and sociable. Dorms from Y35, doubles from Y80. Can book tickets for commision.
There are more photos below