Tongren (aka worst town in China)

12:58 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Tongren, deep in the foothills of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is served by a single bus from Xiahe at 7.30am. The seats were oversold, which meant some people had to sit on little plastic chairs in the alleyway. The bus was so packed, there was barely space to turn your head to look at the barren views outside. The passengers were made up of local Tibetans, Buddhist monks and two Austrians decked out in full Arctic hiking gear.

The bus was a typically rustic affair, however it was fitted out with a DVD player. The driver was happy enough to browse his DVD collection whilst driving up a mountain pass, I was pretty nervous watching him though. Of course, when he finally decided on a film it was a period war drama about those nasty Japanese. 

With the heavy rain and falling rocks, the road was pretty dangerous. The altitude meant that there was little vegetation and the low lying clouds only supplimented the bleak view. Occasionally, the clouds would break just enough to reveal tiny settlements. Brick built villages appeared, each building following the same identical traditional courtyard layout. The villages looked like tough places to live in, although every single one of them had a tiny store selling mobile phones. As we moved further towards Tibet, the bricks settlements were replaced by nomadic tribes living in white tents. An even bleaker existence. 

Eventually, familiar sight of concrete towers and cranes came into view. Tongren. The town was miserable. It exists primarily to support of the surrounding monasteries but in itself the town is depressing. Dilapidated roads, grey towers and horrific on-street butchery which stimulated the previously hidden vegetarian within me. 

 There were no English signs and no other tourists, so I had to rely on my Chinese skills to find my hostel (I didn't have a map and I can't read Chinese characters). Every single service person I spoke to was rude and surely. When I finally found my hotel, they refused me entry, even though I had a reservation. Having a foreigner there was just too much hassle for them. With the help with a friend on the phone, I negotiated my way into the room I had already booked. My room was collection of various stains and peeling wallpaper and bizarrely, a desktop PC. But at least I had a room to myself. Outside my room there was a constant drone of police cars - unusual for China. Tongren has been witness to several Tibetan immolations in protest of the Chinese government and there is a palpable tension in the air. 
The Longwu temple is reputedly another important site for Tibetan Buddhism. It was largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and is only now being slowly reconstructed. It is a tatty monastery which actually added to its charm. Temple apathy had started to kick in so I left after a short while to find some Tibetan food. Momos, butter tea, yoghurt etc all very stodgy, clawing and bland - and this is from a man who's favourite food is steak and kidney pudding.

My second day in Tongren was spent visiting yet more temples. I drifted through unengaged; a Buddha here, a monk there, prayer wheels bloody everywhere. My interest in Buddhism isn't quite strong enough for two weeks worth of temples. My main reason to visit Tongren however, was to watch the Tangka painters. 
These artists create elaborate and intricate Buddhist paintings. Each painting is unique and embroidered with gold. I visited several different studios and my Chinese was good enough to gleam some interesting facts from the artists. A small (A5-ish) design took a few days to paint and cost 500RMB (£50). A larger (A1-ish) painting could take several months to complete and were so expensive that I haven't yet learnt the Chinese pronunciation for such large numbers. The largest painting I saw was a huge Magna Carta-esque scroll which had taken the artist over a year and was nowhere near completed. 

 To visit the artists, I had to take a ride in a random people-carrier. Designed for eight people (at a push) we somehow managed to squeeze 12 people into the vehicle. My knees were up to my chin and I couldn't move my feet for all the watermelons rolling around. With no organised public transport, I also had to hitch a ride home. Unfortunately for this story, nothing exciting happened!

Guiltily, I spent a lot of time in my hotel room avoiding the grim town outside. It is one of the few places I've visited that didn't welcome tourists. It was a bit like my hometown of Oldham after the Apocalypse and I was quite happy when it was time to move on. 

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