Kangding; Gateway to Tibet

13:14 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Tibet was once a sovereign country but is now part of China (I'll leave aside the politics for now). Kangding was originally the beginning of the tea-horse trade route into Tibet and known for being the gateway to the 'Land of Snows'. After Tibet was absorbed into China, the politicians reorganised the provinces. With the stroke of a pen on a map, everything east of the Yangtze River became part of Sichuan. So, we might not have been in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) but we were still in Tibet. We saved ourselves the expense and hassle of the prescribed government visa's and official tour guides. What's more, buying a Tibet visa only strengthens China's claim to Tibet.

We travelled by a seven hour bus from Chengdu. Out of the window, the rain-sodden bamboo forests gave way to cloud-hugging mountains. On the whole, the journey was very comfortable apart from the occasional areas of landslide damage. The disastrous affects of heavy rain were still visible in one town where the river had burst its banks flooding people's homes and even the local petrol station forecourt.

We arrived in Kangding around 5pm. It was refreshing to be away from urban China. We checked into a hostel and headed out for a Tibetan meal. I've eaten Tibetan food before and found it too bland and stodgy. Here though, the food was amazing. We were served a Chinese twist on Tibetan food, with yak meat and chili cooked on a hot stone and a yak yogurt salad. Delicious.

 Our first full day in Kangding began with a visit to the local museum and cable-car ride up a mountain. On top of the mountain was a small temple, a large stumpa and millions of prayer flags. Those little flags are so photogenic.

 We ate lunch in a tiny dumpling restaurant in town. I sat next to an old lady, asked what she was eating and ordered the same. I was served dumplings in oil that tasted of chili and orange. More delicious food. Afterward we wandered around a market that had all the usual fare - watermelons, cabbages and a bloodstained hall full of decimated yak carcasses. In China, there is no danger of forgetting where your food comes from.

As evening came, we sat in the town square and watched the world go by. People strolled home from work or met their family for dinner. The pace was peaceful and a world away from frenetic Jinan. We were sat by two giant golden prayer wheels where we watched the locals walk around whilst endlessly repeating their mantra. As the sun set, a Chinese folk band appeared out of nowhere and began playing. The square filled with waltzing couples. My girlfriend and I exchanged a few 'hellos' with a curious monk. He suggested we dance but I politely refused. He persisted though and soon my girlfriend and I were out there dancing with everyone. I was embarrassed and tripping over my feet but I knew it was special moment. I turned to smile to the monk who had encouraged us, but he had already disappeared. Obviously, his work there was done.

The next day we left the town behind and set off on a hike. Our hostel provided us with some directions for a local 2-hour walk to a local grassland. We picked up a packed lunch and headed out. The directions were at best, subjective. We followed them to the letter and ended up in an old lady's back yard. We backtracked and used the directions as a rough guide. Our path followed some small vegetable plots before snaking up the mountain. The path became little more that a rabbit-trail and was totally overgrown. We battled through the bush. After 30 minutes of scratching up our arms and legs but not going very far, we decided to stop and plan our own route. When I picked up my bag, it was crawling in fire ants. The nasty little critters were not happy, one even bit my shin and drew blood. We ploughed on, nervously scratching at the ants we imagined were crawling all over us.

Eventually we came to a clearing, tired and sore. To our amazement, there was a grandma and toddler having a picnic in-front of us. Behind them lay a lovely wide path coming from the opposite direction. We'd obviously been lost from the very beginning.

We ate lunch and followed the path into a forest full of prayer flags. It was beautiful. Unfortunately, we didn't have it to ourselves. There were lots of people who hadn't got lost, including our dorm-roommates and a skipping family without a care in the world. We were already exhausted. We climbed for another hour, questioning our route every step of the way. Finally we found the summit and the grasslands we'd been aiming for. It felt great to finally reach the top. I'm not sure if it was because of the view or the fact we'd avoided failure. Either way, we had a chat with a few of the other tourists and headed back down. We followed the correct path and were feeling good. My girlfriend and I had a huge conversation about life but before we knew it, the vegetation had closed in and we were back in the bush, lost on a different rabbit trail.

I was tired and a little bit anxious. We could see the town beneath us but we couldn't find a decent path down. There were only a few hours of daylight left and seemed to be going nowhere. For what felt like hours we pushed our way through thorn bushes and ants nests before eventually we found a paved footway which lead back towards town. Relief washed over me like a cold shower. The people we met at the summit already had their feet up with a few beers. I wasn't that ashamed to be back so late, I was just glad to be back at all.

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