Paul's Travel Pics

Friday, February 27, 2015

On Tibetan Roads - Part 1: Dartsedo to Lhagang Lamasery

We expected this to be our toughest road trip ever. And it was.

And it deserved to be. It's not just the elevation, but a multitude of factors that could go (and did go) wrong when traveling through one of the world's harshest climatic zones.

But the rewards were too tempting. Exotic tribal culture, breathtaking (pun intended) sceneries, and the hardship that inevitably goes along with it -- it's bragging rights material, and few travelers I know can resist the allure of the Tibetan Plateau.

The preparation took months -- consulting the locals on routes, consulting official and unofficial sources for road conditions and closures, even taking Tibetan herbal remedies for preventing altitude sickness. I have a lot of respect for this land, and I wasn't going to take chances especially with my wife traveling with me.

Our route would take us through the easternmost section of the Tibetan Plateau, just outside the edges of Tibet's modern political boundary. It's a ruggedly spectacular land known to travelers as Western Sichuan, an ethnic Tibetan annex in a predominantly Han Chinese province. And to most Han Chinese, this is the wild, wild west.

Some consider Western Sichuan more traditionally Tibetan than Tibet itself -- the population is more tribal and culturally diverse, and the ancient indigenous Tibetan religion of Bon is more prevalent here than in Tibet proper. Ever since time immemorial this has been home to three culturally distinct groups of Tibetans, and we would come face to face with all three.

But it was mainly due to practical reasons that we chose Western Sichuan -- no Tibet Travel Permit was required of foreigners, and plus, the medieval towns of historic Sichuan (e.g. Langzhong and Shangli) were also within striking distance. The decision was easy: we'd opt for the two trips in one.

Two weeks before departure I called up Gao Shifu, the first of many drivers we would end up hiring along our journey. Gao isn't his real name -- he goes by the Tibetan name of Abu when speaking with his own kinsmen. This is a most honest and trustworthy driver, one whom I'd fully recommend to fellow travelers, providing that you have someone being able to communicate with him in Chinese or Tibetan.

His passenger van would carry us through 250km of winding mountain roads in one day, starting out from Dartsedo / Kangding, climbing the mountain pass of Mount Zheduo to Xinduqiao, onto Lhagang / Tagong of the Khampa tribe, and finally ending the day in the villages of Danba where we would spend the next three nights.

Only two paved roads led from Dartsedo to Xinduqiao -- the shorter, always under construction and thus highly congested Highway G318, or a longer but well-paved "Loop Road" that was entirely unknown to us at the time. Gao Shifu decided to treat us, at his own cost of gas, to the long and scenic loop which wrapped around the north face of Mount Zheduo.

30km or so north of Dartsedo we passed by a series of steaming hotsprings near the tiny hamlet of Zhonggu. The little hut on the left was the change room/washroom, behind which sat a small pool of barely 3m x 3m. I can't describe how good it felt to warm my freezing hands in the 30+ degree Celsius water.

The lonely asphalt road snaked its way up Mount Zheduo's north side, above the tree line and into a country of alpine meadows and seasonal lakes. In July this would have been carpeted with wild flowers and shrubs, and awaited us in November was a more prototypical Tibetan scenery of half-frozen steppes with the odd rock piles or prayer flags at strategic spots.

Rugged mountain peaks and sharp valleys hewn out of volcanic rocks by retreating glaciers -- that's my memory of the Tibetan Plateau. Landscape like this would stretch for another 2500km to the northwest, and slanting progressively higher, in the direction of the Hindu Kush.

For the first time in our lives we set foot at 4400m above sea level, roughly half the elevation of Mount Everest, on the northern saddle of Mount Zheduo. We would reach similar elevations a couple more times later on our journey, but the first time was most memorable especially under such glorious blue skies.

The panoramic views were absolutely magnificent -- by sheer luck the majestic peaks of the famous Minya Konka, the third highest peak outside of the Himalayas, could be clearly seen from 100km away through the crisp mountain air. Needless to say this peak of 7556m was the highest we had ever seen.

Farther to the west loomed the snowy 6000m peaks of the Shaluli Mountains. In the foreground was the tiny civilian airport of Kangding, the third highest in the world at 4280m. It's probably not a great idea to fly in from sea level and cope with this extreme variation in elevation though.

This whole time Gao Shifu had been extremely careful with his driving, negotiating continuous hairpin turns as the downhill roads turned treacherous to the west of the summit. Somewhere on the way down the permafrost started giving way to golden pastures, sparse villages became visible from a distance and massive eagles soared in the skies above. That's when we knew we're approaching Xinduqiao.

Xinduqiao was just another anonymous settlement along the G318 route until its recent discovery by domestic Chinese photographers. Since then its reputation as one of the China's top spots for autumn foliage colours has attracted droves of wealthy amateurs and their telephoto lenses every October.

Foliage season or not, this idyllic landscape of Tibetan stone houses, white stupas and roaming yaks was worth the long drive. Even as we arrived in November, full SUVs with license plates from as far as Beijing could still be spotted at roadside viewpoints.

From Xinduqiao we hurried north in the direction of Lhagang, the road now meandering alongside a furious creek with an ever-increasing concentration of rock inscriptions adorning the sides of the deep valley. We knew we're about to encounter something special when Guo Shifu stopped his van at a narrow crossing of the river ...

"The Holy Mountain of Potala - Do not endanger the animals and the forest" was posted, bilingually in Tibetan and Chinese, at this wobbly, dilapidating bridge. I was somewhat alarmed when a wooly Tibetan dog (not a mastiff!) eyed us from the other side and started to cross the bridge, but it was soon apparent that he just wants some companionship from humans.

I don't think the bridge was quite up to standards in terms of safety! I took a brief walk on the holy mountain to check out a couple of Stupas before returning to Guo Shifu's van. The dog didn't cross back to the holy mountain -- I imagine he would wait on the roadside for his master's return.

Prior to this trip neither myself nor my wife had ever seen a yak in real life. For the next 10 days they would become our main source of sustenance, providing us with butter for tea and meat for our meals. We would even share a car with a former yak cowboy, but that's a story for later.

Our first meal of yak meat awaited, unbeknownst to us, less than an hour later at the nomadic market town of Lhagang, home to the spectacular Lhagang Lamasery. Here we would take a lunch break before continuing our road trip towards our eventual destination of Danba, to be covered in the next article.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Shangli of the Ancient Tea Horse Road

Two hours southwest of metropolitan Chengdu lies this gorgeously dilapidating town, hidden among bamboo groves in the foothills at the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

For centuries this served as a caravan stop along the ancient Tea Horse Road between China and India, somewhat analogous to a modern truck stop on an E-Road in Europe. Here porters bearing back-breaking loads of tea bricks would begin their treacherous journey into Tibet on foot. Many didn't make it back, but that's all part of its legend and romance.

And like modern truck stops, the medieval town of Shangli remained unheralded almost to the degree of anonymity throughout its history. It was simply known as one of the last Han Chinese outposts before a lawless wilderness of exotic tongues and horse bandits began.

Back in the Qing Dynasty this was the last frontier of civilization according to the Chinese. A 20-day trek to the west would take you to the Khampa Tibetan city of Dartsedo, beyond which thousands of miles of cold, barren plateau awaited. Here inexhaustible Tibetan stallions would enter the Chinese empire to be integrated into the Imperial cavalry, and in exchange precious black tea would flow west, past the Himalayas and eventually reach the Bay of Bengal.

Only two generations ago you would still see the last legions of porters on this millennium-old international trade route, crossing Shangli's stone bridges en route to the Land of Snows. 60 years later we arrived in town, crossing these same bridges with our backpacks.

It was by pure chance that we stumbled upon this hidden gem of an intact Qing Dynasty town. The old porter destination of Dartsedo, now better known by its Chinese name of Kangding, was exactly where we were heading. It made perfect sense to stay in Shangli for the night prior to the long bus ride, now taking several hours by the G318 Highway instead of a 20-day trek.

Getting here by public transportation wasn't as straight forward as we hoped (see the TRANSPORTATION section below), but it's the same disadvantage that has preserved the town's tranquility and authenticity. We half expected a Wuzhen-like commotion of pedicab drivers and dozens of guesthouse touts, but awaiting our arrival was only this ornately carved Paifang gate.

There were no tour buses, no local guides and their amplified megaphones, and simply no other foreigner in sight. For various reasons Shangli seemed to have remained largely undiscovered by the tourism industry, which was a welcomed breather from our visit of Leshan's Giant Buddha earlier that day.

It wasn't until fairly recently that remote Shangli was rediscovered by independent travelers, and so far it has managed to avoid the cash-grab and redevelopment that plagues similar "ancient towns" in 21st century China. Your entrance into town won't be blocked by a ticketing booth -- you just wait for your turn to cross one of the numerous bridges after the local school children.

If you're sick of brand-new-looking "Ancient Streets" (think Beijing's Qianmen area, Shanghai's Chenghuangmiao or Chengdu's Jinli street) and their corny trinkets and cafes, Shangli will restore your faith in the authenticity of the Old China you may come across. Make no mistake -- this is not a remodeled and manicured medieval town in the mode of nearby Huanglongxi or Jiezi. Shangli still looks and feels real.

Much of the old town dates from Shangli's heyday in the Qing Dynasty when the Empire's insatiable appetite for warhorses fueled commercial traffic along the millennium-old trade route. Five influential clans once controlled the town's economic and political lifelines, though today only two dilapidated Family Courtyards, both still inhabited by descendents of the Han Clan, stand to testify the town's former glory.

Gone are the days when one single authoritative patriarch owned the family courtyard. Nowadays a dozen male descendants and their families lay claim to fragments of the rambling complex, operating Mahjong teahouses or renting out rooms to travelers for about RMB 60 a night.

There's a certain similarity between Shangli and towns like Tsumago-juku on the Ancient Nakasendo Highway of Central Japan -- both being historic towns on ancient trade routes in their respective countries, relegated to provincial backwaters by the advent of modern transportation. And then there are uncanny aesthetic similarities in their traditional two-storey architecture, both having ornate latticed windows and lanterns hanging above the wooden veranda.

The decline of Shangli was scripted from the start by its dependency on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. When the guerillas of the fledgling Communist Party passed through in the 1930's, the town had already shrunk to an impoverished community of farming peasants, receptive to novel Socialists ideas. To this date slogans carved into stones by the Red Army remain visible on the town's main bridges and monuments.

Failing to escape from the socialist "graffiti" was the town's main landmark, a Chastity Paifang erected by the Emperor's order in the 1800's to commemorate two widows. On the morning of my visit a team of quasi-government officials gathered there to discuss plans to repair damages caused by the 7.0 magnitude Lushan Earthquake from more than a year back. But most of the intricate relief sculptures escaped the earthquake unharmed, as did the Red Army slogans.

We spent a leisurely afternoon and the next morning in this idyllic little town, sharing the scenery with a small class of fine arts students with their paint brushes. It was to be a relaxing day before venturing onto the high altitudes of Tibetan Sichuan, except my wife finally fell ill to a flu she picked up while still in Canada. There was no other clinic in town ...

... except this old pharmacy with a medicine cabinet likely from the Qing Dynasty! This was our first ever experience in China to see a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor, who happened to speak nothing but a near unintelligible (to me!) Sichuanese dialect. After a pulse diagnosis the doctor did understand my wife's flu symptoms and prescribed about 5 different medicines, some being western pills and some being traditional herbal remedies. I failed to even understand when the doctor told us the price and simply handed him a RMB 100 bill in good faith. I hoped it was enough.

The doctor returned from his money drawer and gave RMB 80.4 back. Needless to say it was the cheapest trip to the doctor ever -- RMB 19.6 (CAD$3.4) for the consultation plus two days of prescription medicine.


While choices for food were few in this remote town, the main clientele of poor backpackers and fine arts student on week-long field trips kept prices quite affordable. Five-Spiced Duck Legs went for the standard RMB 10 (CAD$1.8) a piece, and sit-down restaurants seemed to charge lower prices compared with Chengdu.

The curiously named Red Army Restaurant (Hongjun Fandian) seemed to be the prominent restaurant in town, judging by the photos of visiting celebrities and TV interviews on its walls. We half expected to pay a premium for its popularity among Chinese visitors, but prices actually turned out cheaper than reasonable.

We started off with a signature dish that every table ordered -- a heaping plate of Free-Range Chicken Tossed in Marinade (Liangban Tuji). But I should have known better -- asking for "mild" did nothing to tone down the heat as the spiciness of the chili oil was simply off the charts. The chicken itself wasn't bad; it was just painfully spicy to the point that the hostess gave us a bowl of water to wash off the red oil. And even then we still couldn't finish.

Thankfully there was the Soft Tofu to quench the heat. Unlike the gypsum-based Tofu commonly seen in China's coastal south, Sichuan's tofu was the brine-based variety that accentuates the flavor of the soy beans. This was a steal at 5 RMB (CAD$1) for a soupbowl-ful.

The best dish of the night went to the local specialty of Scrambled Eggs with Nettle Leaves (Huoma Jiandan). Yes -- it's the same stinging nettle that gives you rashes. I've only previously had it in herbal teas as a European allergy remedy, and didn't realize how good it tastes when stir-fried like spinach. But the best part was the deep after-taste of the free-range eggs on the palate ... you simply can't buy such freshness in Chengdu or Shanghai.

Even after 5 dishes our total bill came to RMB 87 (CAD$15.3), quite a bargain for the most popular eatery in a tourism town. I'd recommend this place to anyone visiting Shangli ... just stay clear of anything Liangban, unless you really like it hot.

Bill for Two Persons
Free-Range Chicken Tossed in MarinadeRMB 35
Soft TofuRMB 5
Seasonal Vegetable BrothRMB 10
Stir-Fried Pork with Bamboo ShootsRMB 20
Scrambled Eggs with Nettle LeavesRMB 15
Rice x 2RMB 2
TOTAL before tipsRMB 87 (CAD$15.3)

The next morning we visited yet another eatery boasting even more national TV interviews. This was the purported originator or a local variant of noodles known as Dadamian, and the shop was simply named after the Noodle Master -- Guo Shifu.

It was one of Shifu's apprentices who made our noodles this morning, the master himself hanging out in the background. The noodles were freshly hand-formed out of a slab of dough in front of the diner ... pulling and cutting, blanching and seasoning, and finally smothered with a ladle of the client's choice of toppings.

The shop's signature Chunky Pork Noodles (Darou Mian) for me, and Mountain Veggies (Shancai Mian) for my wife. The toppings and the soup base were somewhat anticlimactic to be honest, but the noodles were perfectly al dente as expected.

Bill for Two Persons
Noodles with Chunky PorkRMB 12
Noodles with Mountain VegetablesRMB 10
TOTAL before tipsRMB 22 (CAD$3.9)


We came across a great little family-run hotel humorously named Haiyue Jiudian, which sounds the same in Chinese as the Hyatt Hotels. We splurged on a new and spacious double room with private bathroom at the bargain price of RMB 120 (CAD$21), which was actually the cheapest of our entire 18-day trip.

Our room was more comfy and spacious than some of the more expensive hotels we stayed in, with a king-sized bed, good WiFi connections and the room's own water tank for a steaming hot shower. I was aware of private guesthouses charging about RMB 60 for rooms without private bathrooms, but this room was just much better value. This hotel was bookable via


Shangli is on the outskirts of the city of Ya'an, just 2 hours southwest of Chengdu. We combined our visit of Shangli with the Giant Buddha of Leshan, and it's quite possible to also include the Buddhist enclave of Emeishan into a 3- to 4-day side-trip from Chengdu.

Our itinerary involved taking a bus from Chengdu's Xinnanmen Bus Station to Leshan and see the Giant Buddha, then taking a bus from Leshan's main bus station (Leshan Keyunzhongxin) to Ya'an. Our original plan was to take the minivan from Ya'an to Shangli, but we arrived in the off-season and minivans were infrequent. At the end we shelled out RMB 100 for a private taxi for 30km of winding rural roads. Luckily the minivan was available (and departing every 15 minutes in the late morning!) on our way back to Ya'an for a cheap RMB 6.5 per person. So overall the two of us paid RMB 113 (CAD$20) for the roundtrip from Ya'an.

That afternoon we bid farewell to Han Chinese settlements and boarded a highway bus towards Dartsedo and the Tibetan territories of Western Sichuan. For much of the remaining trip we would be in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar customs. That's the excitement of heading into the unknown, and I think many travelers would agree ... it's why we travel.