West Sichuan, the 'province' of Kham


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October 25th 2007
Published: February 8th 2008
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Sichuan-Tibet Highland Highway: Kangding, Litang, Xiancheng



Saturday, October 20th, I am thirty today, a long day beginning at Xinnanmen, boarding the coach for Kangding, gateway to Tibet, 2560m above sea level, six grey hours drive west of Chengdu. The passengers are dressed in head to toe gortex and equipped with fancy cameras. I burry into a copy of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad from which I learn of the author's unappreciated talent as a travel writer and the late nineteenth century's mistrust of his less than honourable commentaries of American tourists relic hunting in the Holy Land. I find his cynicism and blunt though at times racist analysis brilliantly entertaining. He cautions the reader to reconsider society's accepted worship of what is beautiful and who is virtuous. I'd have enjoyed his company traveling in China where no doubt he'd have much admired the money making stratagems of the Han and found the Tibetans and Uiyghers far too superstitious. My seat is broken and to the dismay of the passenger behind me I recline practically into his lap. Fortunately the speaker above my seat is working, though its the only one, and the driver has put it on max so the others may appreciate hour after hour a repeated VCD. My fondness for Tibetan pop is planted unknowingly.

The chill is immediate, in the sixth floor hotel room, and strolling the river through town, a confined valley of new highrise hotels and apartments hugging the Zhedvo river, nestled in snow sprinkled mountains. Past a cozy noodle shop patroned by senile old friends, past a store front crowd in dark hats and matching mao jackets huddled round an enlarged checkerboard with wood pieces shaped like miniature curling stones, climbing away from the river lies Anjue Si. In Tibetan, Ngachu Gompa, is a quiet curious lamasery inside whose gates hang three framed posters recounting its auspicious foundation, in Chinese, Tibetan and English.

The construction of Anjue Temple started in Woodhorse Year of the 11th Raohui (Tibetan calender), 1654. On his way to Beijing Dalai V. Lucrongjiacuo arrived at Kangding and stayed temporarily at the Sagagongbas' recite room. Dalai V. remembered that his five guardians prophesied that a residency be built in Kangding for them when he was in Lhasa. As Dalai V. proposed that a temple be built here, the host offered their vegetable garden as temple site. And Dalai V. held a ceremony by choosing the very temple spot, praying for it and for good luck and long life. Later Dalai V. left the capital presented Emperor Sunzhi of Qing dynasty, and then returned to Lhasa. The next year when five wandering Budhist monks visited him, Dalai V. regarded them as he embodiments of his five guard gods, and consulted the project of building a temple in Kangding with them. They volunteered to put in charge of it. Dalai V. presented them plenty of gold, silver and other treasures as well as Buddhist scriptures, images of Buddha, and figures of Buddhist tower. After arriving at Kangding, they visited the Sagagongbas and explained their goal. It had been decided through consultation that the five wandering monks were asked to be responsible for building the temple and benefactors were the five wealthy families; the Sagaggonbas, the Chonggias, the Xiaobas, the Kedawas and Sakas. The construction stared April 5, Woodhorse year of the 11th Raohui, 1654, and completed October 25, 1655. Dalai V. named it "5 offerings" transliterated into "An Jue" which stemmed from five guard gods' prophecy, Dalai V.'s project, the five wandering monks charge, the five wealthy families' benefaction and temple's complete date October 25, and these factors happened to be "five 5's". That's the etymology of An Jue temple.
An Jue Temple which belongs to Gelu Sect (the Yellow branch of Lamaism) enforces traditional rules, activities and praying ceremony laid down by Naiqongduoji Temple. An Jue has produced about 30 well-informed and well-conducted doctors (the degree of Lamaism scholar), one of which was Chi Yixiqupi, who was granted doctor of Gadongchiba. In addition, it has produced 6 versatile living Buddha such as the reincarnation of Chi Yixiqupi. There were more than 300 Budhist monks in its period of great prosperity. Two-storey gold-plating images of Tsangkhapa and his two disciples, along with mage of Mile (Maitreya), are mainly enshrined at An JueTemple. And there are many other valuable Budhist scriptures, images of Buddha, and towers, etc. It suffrede little destruction. But after the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Commitee, as the policy of Nationality and Religion is correctly carried out. An Jue Temple was reopened. Now its normal religious activities such as praying ceremony on January 15, prohibition and fast, summer ceremony, pilgrims' donation, winter ceremony are held every year. Chanting scripture and praying to Buddha is held every day so that believer can attend it.

Managemnet Commitee of An Jue Temple, Kangding

Tucking aside the thick blankets covering the door to the temple, adjusting to the darkness in the aisle circumambulating the hall clockwise, the walls appear as in all Tibetan temples painted in a profusion of strong colour from floor to ceiling with images of serene Boddhisatvas, seated Buddhas, diligent Lamas, ghastly demons, protective gods, wise arhats, flying apsaras, threatening scenes of hell, other scenes of monks in devotional settings or ascetics meditating in mountain caves. My favourite scenes include Avolokitesvara, the thousand eyed, thousand armed Buddha of Mercy, depicted with eight heads towering like a stupa above him framed in a kaleidoscope of limbs fanned out around his body. Further along the wall is depicted Kalachakra, the Wheel of Time, a dark multi-headed, multi-armed beast wrapped in a tiger skin and copulating with a fair skinned half naked goddess. In all depictions the beast faces the viewer, his arms embrace the slim goddess whose bare backside, and head held back in profile cover the beast's midsection. In a shadowy alcove, only its wide entry light by an overcast sky, several women, middle-aged and elderly, a granddaughter or two and perhaps an old man seated in the dark recesses, another seated on a bench outside the doorway surround a large spinning prayer wheel, bell ringing, chanting Om Mani Pedme Om, around and around, its axis, a pole, reaches high into the dark depths of the temple. The walls are hung with framed portraits of lamas and images of Buddha, countless, receding into the shadows as though eternity were entered into through this humble place of prayer, a far more enchanting site than Leshan's Grand Buddha.

The woman seated behind the wicket offers an apologetic expression. She gestures to a blackboard scribbled in Chinese with a series of chalk characters. I can deduce tickets to Litang are not available due to heavy snow. Return next day at six in the morning I'm told. The whole town it seems is assembled at the coach station at this ungodly hour, tying packages, queuing for tickets, scarfing down pork buns, boarding buses of various size and dependability, destined for a dozen different towns scattered across West Sichuan, huddled in snowy valleys from Chengdu to the Tibetan border. News arrives of a bus departing 6:45. I scour the yard
detail of mural inside Nenwu Si, Kangdingdetail of mural inside Nenwu Si, Kangdingdetail of mural inside Nenwu Si, Kangding

apsaras? gandarvahs? gezundheit
comparing the characters printed on placards tucked along dashboards with those typed on my ticket. I remain next to a long red coach whose dashboard claims Litang its destination. The bus does not move. The passengers huddled around the vehicle scatter into smaller white coaches, piling in large sacks, blocking the aisle and any possibility for an emergency escape. Searching in the dark for a plain clothes bus driver among the commotion of passengers, luggage and coaches blaring horns to clear a path, I show my ticket to likely candidates who examine it and respond with jibberish concluding in a negative meijo. In the waiting room I seek further instructions from a bull dyke of a security guard with a take charge attitude and an ability to clear her sinuses with a snirch and spit better executed than most Chinese men. She leads me back down to the yard to a small white bus hidden between two long coaches. A few passengers wait patiently while a young man attaches jumper cables to the battery. This looks promising. There are nineteen seats crammed into the old bus, numbered 0 to 18. My ticket places me in lucky number 18, in the back corner on a raised seat below a lowered ceiling that receives several blows from my head as we journey unmettled, potholed sorry excuses for a highway, my thighs tucked into my belly, my bladder screaming for a pit stop.

The sun rises over a clear morning, a misty dawn like in ethereal paintings floats over the town, unveiling towering white peaks. A short distance out of town climbing the first switchbacks the bus stops, the driver and a few men aboard hop out onto the icy road to wrap chains around the rear tires. The bus lurches ahead slowly swerving, dodging unprepared sedans, maneuvering round abandoned cargo trucks lodged in low snow banks. We come to a halt. Trucks, buses, 4x4s, sedans have bunched themselves into a parking lot atop the summit, stretching for several hundred metres either side of the pass. I wake from a four hour nap to discover we've proceeded a mere three hundred metres. A police car appears around the bend among the parked cars, two officers in long blue coats stand diligently by the road side, looking official and absolutely etraneous as though their mere presence will inspire cooperation and success.

Too cold and too conscious of my discomfort, sleep is no longer a possibility, much too bumpy to read and without music or videos, I study the faces and dress of the passengers and admire the colours and textures of the countryside. Beyond the pass lingers an isolated settlement, a string of farmhouses, grazing yaks poking their muzzles through a thin sheet of fresh snowfall. Like the folds in a Chinese fan, the mountain slopes facing north or south, bask in sun or shade, alternate winter and autumn, black and white, bronze and gold. The road relaxes in a wide valley steeped in sunshine and gilded trees following a shallow galloping creek past Tibetan style homes, bold cheerful trim replaces the austere facades seen in other villages. The stone and timber beam constructions, a windowless ground floor suggests storage purposes, the second floor uniformly perforated with four large square windows along the front wall supports a third floor open courtyard where piles of hay lie heaved under wood awnings. My guess it'll be used mixed with yak feces and burned to keep warm in winter. The stone walls are left river washed rustic grey or painted white, door and window frames and below the eaves are yellow, red and white stripes. The straight line drawn on my map a couple centimetres in length continues on and on snaking across the wild landscape, zig-zagging up and over one mountain range, descending into yet another valley, flitting images of villages and towns.

The sun eases behind a smudge of blue-grey cloud the far end of a wide basin at an altitide of nearly 5000m, the air stirs with snowflakes. The bus descends the slope and pulls into Litang, a one road town with newly acquired commercial limbs, a bank, shops and restaurants, an internet cafe and police office tucked to one end of town, an old neighbourhood of traditional homes crowded on the low slopes behind town. I check into a grubby hotel across from the bus depot and stretch my legs exploring main street and the back roads in the fading light and rising chill of day's end. The wind swirls round my collar. The Tibetan neighbourhood squats behind main street, spreads out half hazardly in a maze of dirt footpaths connecting one and two storey homes, each constructed of wood beams covered in dry mud bricks, the facade painted with
nine year old, Litangnine year old, Litangnine year old, Litang

he stopped me in the road and invited me to his home
bold stripes to frame the door, windows and eave, a design repeated and improved upon year to year, generation to generation, sawed, lifted, nailed, erected by the neighbourhood's men and women. At this hour the locals gather inside their homes, dogs bark from chained posts in the yard and a foreigner wanders back down main street past half empty pool halls. A warm red diner with wood benches painted with simple floral patterns and a wide screen TV playing a tourist VCD of Tibetan culture lures me through the open door. A strong young woman rosey cheeks framed with long thick black hair serves me a bowl of noodles with beef. The markets and menus contrary to my understanding of Budhist practices, are full of carved up yak, goat, cow and pig.

Litang's population is mostly Tibetan. The streets offer unparalleled people watching opportunities, bronzed characters in strange fur and embroidered hats, women wear their hair grown to waist length, gaudy jewellery wrapped in profusion around their necks, over their bosom, dangling from ears and hair and jingling on their wrists. Cowboys dress in broad hats and chuba, a sheepskin lined cloak with extra long sleeves, others braid their long hair and wrap it round in a red head band, children scamper about, buying sweets and little plastic toys from street stalls parked outside school gates. Chode Gampa, a large lamasary, and the jewel of Litang, spreads across a saddle shaped dip of a hill in the north of town watching over a neighbourhood of crumbling fort like dwellings inhabited by friendly folk and dogs who bark incessantly the night through and sleep under the sunny sky, dispensing growls to passing strangers.

Did you visit the temple? A question I pose touring remote lands clinging to Tibet's edge to fellow travelers who more often than not respond, in a moan, 'you've seen one, you've sen them all.' I disagree. The wall surrounding Chode Gompa rises and falls in a series of white stupas completing a mile circuit through the pasture land. Beautiful old women make pilgrimage and circumambulate the kora spinning handheld prayer wheels. Men, fewer in number, in fur hats or dark bowlers pause on the benches and pull from their pocket a bejewelled yak horn from which they retrieve a sprinkled teaspoon of snuff, a beige powder balanced on their thumb nail thence inhaled providing an
midday prayersmidday prayersmidday prayers

a rare and unexpected opportunity to witness a lama's family's chanting - with all the bells and whistles, drums and horns, sweetbreads and tsampa
invigorating return to the pilgrimage. I enter unknowingly a back gate leading to an unattended slope of jumbled wood piles and shacks decomposing, losing themselves in face lift operations to other temple structures. A road winds its way up from the village, climbs into the temple grounds past an unattractive tiled facade crouched behind a high wall from inside which lifts the shouts and laughter of a playground during recess. A chubby Lama with a round brown face, red cheeks and gracious smile gestures at me to follow him first inside a barn like temple where large vats of yak butter lie cold and sealed in preparation for ceremonies. He guides me next to a loft, his sleeping quarters shared with two jovial men seated, they smile at me and return to their conversation. Bright posters, pictures, framed photgraphs brushed over in technicolor highlights, fake flowers all decorate the walls in a an explosion of red, orange and yellow.

Next door I'm shown inside a vast temple as yet unequipped with entry fees and bothered by tour groups and few lamas present to safeguard the holies from a camera bug. No two temples are alike, art galleries beautifully crafted, embibed with a serene atmosphere of faith inspiring awe, woven streams of silken prayer flags climb into the darker recesses high above the offering tables and floor mats. The walls are painted a variation on common themes. One in particular takes some time to read, The Wheel of Life, a blazoned demon grasps a disc of four concentric circles, the inner most containing three creatures, a bull, a bird and a dragon of equal size, each biting the others' tail. The second band is divided vertically in half, the left a heaven in the clouds scene where monks and the faithful contrast with a black hell of bound naked figures dragged by sabre wielding demons with flowing orange hair. The next band, the widest, depicts six seperate scenes. At bottom, a crowd of naked souls writhe in tall leaping flames, freeze in snow drifts, and lie hacked to pieces by demons acting with pleasure on the order of an enthroned demon King. Clockwise, a scene represents the Buddha standing amid the clouds over a peaceful land of abundant wildlife, though by their nature, the lion, bear, tiger and cheetah are ech painted gnawing on bloddy scraps of carcass. The Budha
Chode Gampa, LitangChode Gampa, LitangChode Gampa, Litang

a Tibetan Lamasery in the fotthills behind town
appears above each scene, floating over a walled city under attack by armed soldiers, monks kneeled in prayer on the steps of a temple, above a village, a garden of fruit trees and nude figures. The outtermost band displays twelve scenes, strikingly similar among Tibetan temples, although its underlying theme escapes me. In one panel stands a potter at work; next, a couple cross a wavy sea by boat; a monkey plucks fruit from a tree branch; an amarous couple holding each other at the foot of a tree; a woman stands alone beneath a tree poking her eye out with an arrow; a man sits at a table served tea by a woman of his same age; a birthing scene of a young woman lying alone in a tent, half her child protrudes from between her legs. The painting is a fantastic story, a wonder to gaze upon, and only one corner of vast cultural art museum. In the centre aisle a handful of lamas sit before their teacher studying debate explains a large robed man scolding his adolescent students sweeping vigorously a back hall on the second floor. I've lost my guide, free to wander, to photograph, even encouraged to do so by a couple of the temple's youngest caretakers. I climb to the roof for a view over the temple's front cloister, an ageing barraks constructed of brown earth camouflaged in a warm edge of the grasslands. Litang fans out below, surrounded by hillsides where yaks graze, and beyond dark blue mountains dusted white hold the sky aloft.

I wander out through the courtyard to another temple rising six stories tall, its windowless facade painted golden yellow like autumn leaves. The interior remains empty, unfinished, void of colour, without murals, burning yak butter candles, or columns of lamas seated on cushions chanting sutras and ringing hand bells. A metal scaffold rises above a raised platform where presumably a grand statue of the Buddha shall be erected. Nextdoor stands another temple, its walled courtyard and front gate are made of recently carved soft wood, unpainted and cracking, reliefs and columns finished with elaborate dargons, friezes of birds and flowers and peasants. Inside the hall, hidden in scaffolding, welders join together copper sheets to form the Budha's crown. Calligraphers and painters perch on high planks applying gold leaf to the outline of a hundred lamas, each face a
The Wheel of LifeThe Wheel of LifeThe Wheel of Life

a section of the mural common to Tibetan temples, endowed with dozens of symbolic scenes illustrating various beliefs
careful copy of an historic member of the sect. A young robed craftsman dips a thin brush in black paint and traces the script below each seated saintly scholar. No two temples are alike. The faces and hearts of these craftsmen lama mixing powders and gel, climbing scaffolds, copying diligently the outlines, bringing colour and form to a temple's wall, create in the process something unique in its finer details, faith inspiring in its overall effect.

A local I pass in the street introduces himself, Nyamin, and asks if I care to join two other foreigners the next day for a short drive out of town to a nomad encampment where a horse race is to be held. We meet next day in front of the bus station, Sonja from Bavaria and Doug from Toronto, the latter three weeks into an eighteen month exploration of Asia's far corners. West of town the black and white hillsides close in, and to either side of the the road appear black and white pitched tents, among them rise whispy trails of smoke from cooking fires. A white circus sized tent rises on the edge of the encampment, a golden medallion framed by
detail, centre, Wheel of Lifedetail, centre, Wheel of Lifedetail, centre, Wheel of Life

symbolising the three evils: (pig) ignorance, (snake) anger, (bird) attachment
a pair of goats printed over the door flaps. From a distance I spy two columns of lamas seated facing each other. An important lama has died, our driver explains. The horse race is cancelled. Instead I witness the ceremony's early preparations. The four of us approach a large black tent, its top flap pulled away, smoke billows within wrapping the souls in a ghost of the departed. A row of eight cauldrons boil atop a mass blazing fire fed from a pile of sticks. Yak butter bubbles and melts. Eight young lamas lie on the earth blowing the fires through holes in the mud brick oven wall. Before we can fully appreciate the significance of all the frenzied and intimate behaviour, four police officers enter inside the tent, Han Chinese, two of them tall, young, handsome in navy uniforms, the other two in plain clothes, older, unfriendly, one armed with a video camera. Sonja tells me they have filmed our presence here inside the tent. Without explanation we are told to return immediatley to the car and leave the valley. "I knew something of this sort would happen," confesses Sonja. "Someone said the fire is holy." I didn't feel unwelcome or threatened. Our driver is likewise angry with the police officers' unwarranted abrupt behaviour. Had they not arrived, we'd have continued to spectate from the sides, obeying our host's gestures, calculating what degree of participation were acceptable. Down the road, all seated inside the van, we slow for a moment so Sonja can photograph the snowcapped hillsides. The police jeep pulls up alongside, cuts in front and nearly forces us into a ditch. The officers yell out the window, "no photo! no photo!" in a rediculous abuse of their authority. Nyamin, our driver, mentions how tensions exist in the community between the local Tibetans and the police and local government.

Mother Nature has draped across south west Sichuan a most breathtaking quilt, patches sewn with dragon backed rocky pinnacles, deep green and yellow gorges, golden pines, beige and white washed mudbrick villages, rolling peaks blanketed in snow like giant whitecaps cresting towards the horizon, riverbeds piled with giant boulders and a vast plateau where in ages past it hath rained boulders and shrunk an inland sea to a dozen dozen shallow pools. Darkness falls as we climb the bank to Xiancheng, which pleasantly the guidebooks don't mention for the most part. The bus pulls into a depot hanging over a construction sit pit. Graeme, a restaurant owner from New Zealand and I check into a guesthouse, a towering white washed Tibetan style structure tucked inside a walled yard reached through a narrow hidden footpath behind the ticket office. The ceiling and walls of the second floor dormitory and the third floor doubles are covered in painted wood panels, animals and flowers on a red background. Grame and I wander up the street, a recent Han construction, a bathroom tiled facade bandaging a scar in the otherwise native landscape. The town has retired before eight o'clock save for a few small eateries most of them offering the same barbecued skewers. Customers wave hello from tents set up along the curb. We find a quiet shop and order several sticks of brocolli, green beans, meat dipped in the deepfryer, lathered with spice and cooked over the coals. For the past twenty years Graeme has been traveling four months out of the year. I listen to his tales of Peru and Ecuador, perilous donkey rides, pickpockets, ancient ruins and wonderful landscapes. He tells about his younger years as a horse jockey and about his three gifted children. We have a good laugh ignoring cerfew and the restaurant employees falling asleep at the next table.

Travelers perhaps in keeping with guidebook comments or lack thereof, do not usually spend more than a night in Xiancheng, a requisite for bus riders along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway headed towards Yunnan. I have yet to sketch a Tibetan village and am reluctant to leave behind this magical region despite the oncoming winter. Graeme is up early for the bus but I stay behind. After tai chi in the walled yard, I fetch a bag of pork dumplings and hike across town, pausing to admire a schoolyard, a thousand strong army of elementary students swinging limbs in unison under the rythm of a blasting megaphone. A dirt track climbs above the schools and shops and apartments, their tiles facades glistening like vanilla ice cream, ands winds around a bluff before reaching a large lamasery. Rows of identical structures, sturdy two floored sloping boxes, abandonned as though wiped out by a plague, surround the temple. The windows are barred or covered with wood planks, the doors are bolted, the paint peeling. I later discover by persoanl invitation that the young novices stay three or four to a floor in these unkept barracks. Two boys motion for me to enter inside their tarpaulin partition where I sit across from them on one of their thin mattresses accepting their gracious offer of bruised apples and bitter nuts. "Tibetan temple" reads my guidebook. Even the most recently updated guidebooks fail to elaborate further. A 20 RMB entry fee is levied from non-Tibetans and a guide provided to enforce the no photographs policy. We wander as usual clockwise along the narrative of painted demons, fierce guardians, solemn buddhas and sanctified lamas. I'm lead up a staircase into the deeper recesses where my lama friend gestures toward a glass cabinet stocked with sutras. Opposite, bronze seated statues of blue bug eyed Buddhas cower over framed photographs of a half dozen lamas, young and old, perhaps reincarnations of the same soul, dear to the temple and to the sect.

Along the central column of raised cushions several monks sit chanting in a low tone lead by their master before taking in hand their lunch bowls. Four crosslegged monks lean in deep concentration over a large mandllah. Each fills his silver horn with coloured powder and rubs a silver stick along the horn's ribbed side spilling a measured flow of colour from the narrow spout. A framed print of the mandallah, A4 size, lies next to the eldest, pouring yellow curves along the outer band in a series of ritual instruments. My trusting guide has wandered off leaving me to explore the upper floors alone. The railing overlooking the prayerhall is glassed in. A wall directs foot traffic past the second flor an on to the next. I backtrack, however and pullin aside a thick blanket uncover a doorway leading to perhaps the holiest space I've ever witnesssed among Tibetan temples. A stage of long, unsettled wood plank creaks underfoot. Sunlight pierces the broad unwashed window panes cutting an angle from above an illuminating the red painted wood columns and gilded statues seated on raised bases on the first floor, their breasts reaching the second floor, their constant gaze returning mine at eye level when I take position on the floorboards. How is it the handiwork of skilled craftsmen, the shiny surface of bronze, the reflection of gold foil, the Buddha's smooth contours and enlightened visage, the silence interrupted by distant chanting and the metal rubbing of the mandallah's creation, how is it this lonesome town and isolated valley can illustrate to a passing wanderer, a stranger to the local ways, a profound intuition of one's own temporal, fleeting repeated journey through the world.

I hike along the bramble slopes below the temple and stop halfway before a walled hilltop cemetery where not unlike Homer I nest on a goat trail overlooking a pastoral scene passed from generation to generation since long before the arrival of Buddhism. Farmers mend channels, gather hay into stupa shaped stacks, carry bundles of corn stalks, plow, lead yaks to graze and zigzag between terraced patches of furrowed land surrounding a neighbourhood of whitewashed mudbrick fortresses.


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boiling vats of yak butterboiling vats of yak butter
boiling vats of yak butter

at a ceremony commemorating the death of a locally reknowned lama


12th February 2008

happy belated birthday!
Sorry I missed your birthday. You must be another Libran! Me too! Anyway, hope it was a happy one.
3rd May 2010

Lovely photos - take me right back to my own journey across those passes.

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