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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


The land of Shangri-La-
a road trip through Sichuan in SW China.
Monique Jansen

all photos © Monique Jansen

The baby pandas roll over each other, as their mother and a whole group of tourists watch their antics with tenderness. My trip through the South West of China starts in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan. The Chinese call this provice the Heavenly Kingdom, a reference to the cultural and natural wealth of this mountainous province. Whereas Chengdu is a typical Chinese metropole, it also is the point of departure for the grasslands and plateau of Sichuan, which is populated mainly by Qiang and Tibetans.

In Chengdu you can spend a few days visiting the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, while you wait for your bus to take you to the more remote mountainous areas in the western part of the province. With some luck there might even be a newborn pandas in the fall.

© Monique Jansen

© Incense- Monique Jansen

The Wenshu-temple, a monastery located in the northern part of town, is more than worth a visit. Here you can inhale the smell of incense, which are bought at the monastery by the many buddhists visiting the temple. You can also taste the green Chinese tea in the adjacent teahouse or eat a vegetarian meal in the monastery’s restaurant.

From Chengdu take the bus to Kanding, the "end" of the so-called Chinese world and the beginning of the Kham-province, which is mainly populated by Tibetan people. This area has only been recently opened (since 1999) for western tourists.

Kanding is where you get to feel you you have left China proper. There are some wonderful Tibetan monasteries to visit and in the streets you can feast your eyes on the red and orange clothing of the monks and the outfits of the Kham Tibetans. Although the men look rather dangerous, with long black hair, a cowboy hat, dark sunglasses and a long Tibetan cape made out of Yak hair, they are very friendly. Their golden teeth shine in the sunlight as they smile. They often wear an amulet around their neck and you will rarely see them without their long knife. The women wear colourful costumes and fantastic jewels made from amber and brilliant blue stones. Their hair is woven with several lengths of colourful yarn.

Kanding is the beginning of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. This highway is split at about 70 km. From Kanding in a northern and a southern route, both leading into Tibet. The road was established between 1950-54 and is one of the highest, unpaved, rough and most dangerous. It is also one of the most beautiful roads of the world, leading you through a spectacular landscape to small Tibetan villages, in a no-mans land between Chengdu and the Tibetan border.

I decide to visit the grasslands of Tagong, a small village at an altitude of 3700 metres, about 3-4 hour drive from Kanding. The road takes us over high mountain passes and then descends into the spectacular grasslands, dotted with herds of yaks, sheep and goats. The Tibetan villages we encounter underway are of a heavenly beauty: stone dwellings with richly decorated windows, haylofts but also the occasional satellite dish, a sign that the 21st century has reached these farmers and nomads, who otherwise still live according to old traditions.

© Monique Jansen
Tagong is located in the midst of green grasslands, surrounded by snowy mountain tops and the grass is dotted with Tibetan nomads and their tents made from yak skin.Tagong itself is a lively ‘one-street’ village with a large monastery, the Gompa that has an extensive collections of more than 100 chörtens. Chörtens are the Tibetan stupas you see near almost all monasteries. The outside walls of the gompa are lined with big and small prayer wheels, and especially the elderly people of the village walk around the monastery all day long, praying and turning the wheels. The people here are genuinely friendly and all day long you are welcomed with the Tibetan greeting "Tashi Delek". The people are also very curious towards the few tourists who visit their village: with every meal in one of the restaurants in the village I rapidly attract a large crowd, jostling each other in front of the windows and the door. Who is watching whom here?

In the mountains and grasslands around Tagong you can easily hike for a few hours, taking in the mountain air and photographing the prayer flags and chörtens on every mountain top. Keep in mind the air is rather thin at this altitude. The grasslands around Tagong are also the scene of the yearly Horse Racing Festival, taking place in August.

We reach Litang after a long bus ride past breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. Autumn had started, so the colours of the trees and bushes varied from green, yellow, orange, red to dark brown. Higher up on the hills the bushes make way for rocks and after that, only the snow-covered mountain passes at more than 5000 metre. The route passes majestic mountain peaks which dominate the scenery. Tibetan houses are spread across the landscape like so many little stone castles. Enormous vultures fly above the plains dotted with big yak herds. Tibetan mountain folk follow the bus as it shortly touches their lives and you cannot help but wonder where they came from and where they go – until you see the black dots of their tents in distance.

Litang itself is surrounded by snow-covered mountains and is located on a plateau of almost 4800 meter. It is cold and snow in September is not unheard of. This is the "Wild West"of Sichuan. The townscape is dominated by fur hats and capes, big striking necklaces, sunglasses, frighful knives and old motor cycles. This no longer resembles the China as you know it from books and television, this is truly Tibet. You can visit a very beautiful Tibetan monastery, the Choede Gompa, which was built for the third Dalai Lama. Tibetan houses lead upwards to the entrance of the monastery and the friendly monks are more than willing to guide you around the different buildings. I am even allowed to peek into the school building, where the young monks are more than pleased with this interruption in reciting buddhist scriptures.

Litang, in general, is a friendly little town, with nothing much else to do besides visiting the monastery. However, the area is also excellent for walks in the hills and grasslands surrounding the town. The little markets in the town itself are well worth a visit to buy some Tibetan souvenirs such as wooden and silver teacups, knives, beads, necklaces or even a coat of yak fur!

To get out of Litang by bus proved to be a bit of a challenge because the lady station master stubbornly refused to sell me a ticket. In the end I book a minibus with a few other tourists to take us across the mountains to Xiangcheng and Zhongdian on the border with Yunnan.

The bus trip itself is again highly spectacular and at times creepily dangerous. Mud slides and stone avalanches are no exception this time of the year and on a regular basis we have to get out of the bus because it gets stuck in the mud and threatens to slide towards the ravine.

After two perilous travelling days, during which I often fear for my life or at least several bus accidents, we reach Zhongdian, the end of the Tibetan and the beginning of the Chinese world of Yunnan. The most important reason to visit this town is again the monastery, called Ganden Somtseling Gompa, a three hundred years old monastery complex which houses around 600 monks. You can easily visit most of the buildings in this monastery village and the monks are very friendly and welcoming. The whole thing makes me feel that I have arrived in a small mountain village. I spent a few hours observing the daily life of the monks, a very enjoyable day.

© Monique Jansen June 2003
all pictures MJ -go see her extensive photo site on webshots

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