Tibetan Border Towns of Sichuan

In my last post I was considering a couple of different options. I ultimately decided to take the road-less-traveled, rather than retreat back south, I ventured into the Tibetan border towns of Western Sichuan. Its amazing how things end up working out sometimes. The night I returned from the Gorge trek I began to prepare for the long 12-hour bus ride north to Xiangcheng but was told by another traveler that the bus was already full and I would have to wait an additional day…. I considered that, but then I would have no room for error to make my flight in Chengdu 5 days later. To my great fortune, a polish couple, Janek and Martyna, were also traveling that direction and decided to look into a private 4wd car. The fortune continued as they found a driver for half-price because he has to drive that direction anyway and they were more than willing to allow me to tag along and share the cost. This turned out to be an excellent decision.

The drive started routinely on a paved road towards the north, but within an hour we were on a rough, 4WD road passing through the mountains. The weather was clear, the air clean and the views incredible. I was expecting a difficult road, but not one that went over 4500 meters 3 or 4 times including the highest point above sea level that I have ever been: 4640 meters or 15223 feet! Photos here:


As our drive progressed the scenery became more aired and brown, and Tibetan villages, prayer flags, and Yak herds began to dominate the landscape. The Chinese machine was also hard at work, as we passed numerous damming and electric projects and large villages of construction workers in the middle of nowhere. The highlight of the day however, was when our driver asked if we were hungry and when we indicated yes, 10 minutes later we found ourselves inside his traditional Tibetan home, sharing cordialities with his family. We were quickly served yak milk tea, apples, bread, and yak cheese, sharing laughs while attempting to pronounce each others names. My eating quickly ended when our drivers father accidentally cut his hand pretty badly and kept on trying to serve us food… that was the epitome of one of the major problems I saw in the Tibetan towns ahead – basic sanitation was not on anyone’s priority list. The children all of runny noses and dirty hands, and no one is cleaning up before preparing food. I tried not to think about it too much and despite a slight belly ache after all the Yak products I didn’t get sick. It is incredible what basic education could do for these people.

Janek and Martyna and I ended up traveling together for about 5 days, we joked that I was also on a honeymoon as they were just married and on theirs! They were truly a great couple, fun to be around and travel with. I imagine we’ll keep in touch and hook up again some time in the states or in Poland.

After the Tibetan lunch we settled into a small town, Daocheng for the evening. I walked around alone, getting giggles and hellos from the children while I searched for dinner. The air quickly grew cooler as the sun set over the mountains. I ended up eating from tofu and potatoes off a stick from the street vendors and hurried home in the dark to get some sleep before the next days drive to Litang.

Litang I spent two days in – the guidebook stated it was the best ‘taste of Tibet’ without actually crossing the border. It is also the center of Tibetan secessionist activities. The town was nearly completely Tibetan, with a handful of Chinese shop owners. There were nomads wandering around the village, a beautiful lamasery at the top of the town and a sky burial ground (more on this later) near by. The day we arrived we waited out a rainstorm and climbed the mountain to the lamasery. There was an amazing view and we spent time laughing and joking with the young monks – I can’t describe how friendly and open and warm the Tibetan people generally felt to me. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I’m a Buddhist but you sensed the sincerity despite the struggle and poverty. It was the first area of China where you could really see the poverty – and I sensed the urgency in that, as winter was just beginning to take shape and people were looking for warm clothes and provisions. Tattered and dirty, many of the nomads were in town just for a few things before heading back to their villages. The children all had long, flowing hair and sunburned cheeks. The people in general were very beautiful, and there colorful, flowing clothing only added to their beauty and solemnity.

The politics of Tibet were also up close and personal. During my stay in Litang and subsequent trip east to Chengdu, we watched over 300 large Chinese Army vehicles roll through town, undoubtedly going into Tibet. Several individuals were arrested right on the main street for either throwing rocks or making a rude gesture to the soldiers. The trucks honked, waved flags and shouted propaganda over their loudspeakers. You could just feel the oppression and pain of the Tibetans. I still have no idea what China really sees in this region – there is little strategic or economic reason for Tibet to remain in China – its about power and ego and making a statement to the world. FREE TIBET!!! I must say the combination of the people and the landscape has given me a strong urge to travel into Tibet – however China has once again stopped issuing permits indefinitely, another tactic in Tibetan isolation. I’m hoping that I may be able to travel overland from Mongolia to Tibet and into Nepal in early November. Could be an epic trip of like 3000 miles by train and 4WD… time will tell.

The next day Janek and I decided we would go to the ‘Tibetan Cemetery’ and attend what is known as a sky burial. Nothing was happening and we essentially looked at an open field with prayer flags flying around. I am actually quite happy we didn’t get to see the real thing as I found later what happens. The Tibetans believe the body is a vehicle for the soul, and once you die the body is simply part of the earth. A master of ceremony will take the corpse, skin it, chop it to pieces, mix the bones and brains with barley flower and then leave the parts on the hillside for the vultures to tear apart and eat. This is considered ones final act of generosity, giving your body back to the cycle of the world. It is also quite ecological for in this region of the world there is very little firewood and the ground is frozen for 8 months of the year. Later in the day we discovered there was a sky burial and from the distance of a mile we watched the vultures diving from the sky. I could also see a group of tourists snapping photos and that just felt wrong to me – I would never want someone treating my final act as a photo opportunity. I think karma got the best of me anyway, even watching from a distance…. on the walk home I attempted to jump a creek and ended up knee deep in an irrigation ditch full of cow shit and leeches. I’ll let your imagination fill in the details on that one….

I’m running out of wind here but want to quickly describe the next day – an epic 15 hour bus journey to a town called Kangdeng. I saw the true treachery of Chinese roads, seeing a traffic fatility just two vehicles in front of us, several accidents including the bus we were band-wagoned with, horrible driving behavior, two feet of snow on a high pass, landslides… on and on and on. My Canadian friend Jeremy took plenty photos of these debacles and if I can get them from him I’ll post them. The other really fun thing about the day was that the men on the bus LOVED to smoke, and despite pleas from us and indications that Martina was pregnant, they didn’t hold back. So we chose to freeze to death with the windows open to the dismay of many of the other passengers… Now despite all this complaining we once again passed 4000m several times in amazing alpine scenery- unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best so it wasn’t quite as spectacular as our 4wd day…

PHEW. OK – I’ll fill in the gaps over a beer if anyone wants to join me when I come home. I owe the blog my 4 month reflections too. I have been struggling with purpose, routine, getting caught in activity rather than sitting still as much as I’d like to. I think wandering with the Nomads in Mongolia will be good for me.


Tiger Leaping Gorge

I’m coming off an incredible week of travel. Last time I wrote I was relaxing in Shangri-la, buying warm clothing for the days ahead in the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Tibetan borderlands. Leaving most of my things in Shangri-la, I took a 7am bus to the Gorge, driving through pouring rain that was turning to sleet at the higher elevations. It was not looking good for the start of a two–day trek. I had breakfast at Jane’s Guesthouse where I picked up beta on the trail and decided to zip up the rain jacket and take off walking. Fortunately, the weather improved slightly, allowing me to enjoy the day, meandering through the gorge, walking past small villages, farms, all the while looking at beautiful vistas of the river below as I ascended the trail. The trail was a bit confusing as it winded around houses and fields and I did get lost a few times. Once a villager came running after me to tell me I was on the wrong track. How nice!

The first day I walked a total of about 16km or 12miles, reaching the famed Halfway House lodge early in the afternoon. Slowly, other trekkers trickled into the lodge and we all congregated over beers and dinner, the evening culminating with a 30 minute episode (caught on camera) of a group of us trying to remove a MASSIVE spider from the dorm room. The next day I joined a small group and headed along the trail, ultimately making it back down to the road. Two of us decided to take the steep trail down to the river, where legend has is a tiger leaped 25 feet from a rock to escape a hunter and hence the name of the place. The water was raging after the rain and quite a powerful site. The path up included some hairy scrambling and 100 foot ladders. Not for the weak of heart or those with a fear of heights!

Tiger Leaping Gorge is listed as one of the must-do’s in Yunnan, and despite the fact that it is highlighted in many guidebooks, the 26km high-route was spectacular and rather isolated, as most tourists come in on the bus and stay near the road. See some of my photos here under Sichuan: http://picasaweb.google.com/kmcguinnes

My next post will include detail my amazing road trip through the Tibetan borderlands. Teaser: It was the most amazing road I’ve ever driven on in my entire life!