Friday, March 13, 2015
First full day on the Tibetan Plateau and we arrived at a town higher than Lhasa in elevation.
Not a smart move for two out-of-shape office workers living at sea level our entire lives. Within 24 hours we moved from an elevation of 500m at the Ancient Town of Shangli to 3700m at a small Tibetan settlement known as Lhagang / Tagong. Good thing we'd been taking Tibetan Rhodiola as a herbal remedy to combat altitude sickness.
But we hardly felt any effect from the altitude -- or perhaps we're just full of adrenaline, having finally arrived in ethnic Tibetan territory after a grueling 8-hour bus ride from Ya'an the previous day. There was something exotic in everything we saw, heard and smelled, and I was just happy that months of planning had paid off.
For foreigners like ourselves it takes a certain degree of luck to enter this pristinely beautiful region in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. This is Western Sichuan, a traditionally Tibetan annex in a primarily Han Chinese province. Political volatility can spark and travel restrictions can pop up any moment. We were careful to avoid the Tibetan New Year when political unrest tends to intensify, but even so we're never sure about our chance of arrival until we finally arrived.
Leading the way on this day was a most honest and dependable Tibetan driver, who went by the Chinese name of Gao as well as the Tibetan name of Abu. Finding a good private driver wasn't easy: all I could do was to randomly pick one out of a small list of drivers recommended by Chinese bloggers. We ended up hiring about five different private drivers on our trip, and Gao Shifu was among the two that I would recommend to fellow travelers.
Through 250km of winding mountain roads Gao Shifu would deliver us from the ethnic Tibetan town of Dartsedo / Kangding, over the saddle of Mount Zheduo to Xinduqiao, then up to Lhagang where we're stopping for a late lunch. In the afternoon we would journey north and settle into a village guesthouse overlooking the canyons of Danba for the next couple of nights.
Lhagang. Tagong. Whatever you call this dusty semi-nomadic settlement, it's probably been here since prehistoric times, arising out of practicality for herders of the surrounding steppes to congregate and trade their flocks. To this day it still exists as a market town for several nomadic clans nearby, even though times have changed and the caterpillar fungus has overtaken yaks as most valuable commodity.
Since time immemorial this has been the homeland of the Khampa, a distinct branch of Tibetans known for being fiercely independent from both Lhasa and Beijing throughout history. Hints of their ferocious warrior genes can still be spotted in the physique of the dagger-carrying males, but it's mostly the genuine warm smiles of the women that welcomed us.
One peculiar sight in town was the clever use of parabolic reflectors for heating water, which is especially important at such high altitudes where water takes much more effort to boil. Archimedes would be proud.
Gao Shifu took us to his favorite roadside restaurant, conveniently located on the townsquare opposite the Lamasery. The driver usually gets a small kickback from the business he brings, a practice we're fully aware of and accept as the local custom. Besides, prices here were definitely cheaper than in Chengdu.
These wild mushrooms were in season as we visited in late autumn. We ordered three dishes and a soup to share between the two of us plus Gao Shifu -- taking care of the driver's meals is another one of those unspoken rules of hiring a private vehicle in China. Though if the trip goes multiple days, drivers are often able to negotiate with the hotels / guesthouses to get his own room for free in exchange for bringing in business.
Seeing that the back of the restaurant doubled as a store for the local specialty of yak jerky, we decided to order some Red Braised Yak Meat for lunch. The meat wasn't as tough and fibrous as we expected, and carried a stronger beef flavor compared to the Albertan beef that we're used to in Canada. At RMB 50 (CAD$8.7) this heap of yak meat was already the most expensive dish of the day.
Under cloudless blue skies we wandered into the courtyard at one of the best known lamaseries outside of Tibet Proper. The 1300-year-old Lhagang Lamasery is not only a treasure house of medieval Tibetan art and fabled relics, but is also home to about 200 lamas and boarding students.
Khampas from all over the region arrived to worship in their most respectful and extravagant outfit of wooly Chuba. Out in the courtyard resident teenage lamas juggled to balance Buddhism studies versus tuning their old motorcycles or playing with apps on their phones. These are all facets of a fascinating culture to which we, and the Western world in general, have very limited exposure unfortunately.
Visitors are allowed to enter the heavily curtained sanctuary hall after taking off their shoes, and it's just unspoken that ladies should never wear anything too revealing ... not that anyone would in this cold climate. Photography seemed to be unallowed officially, but we saw a group of Chinese travelers asking the custodian for permission to take non-flash pictures and we simply followed suit. But it didn't matter -- the mystique inside was just impossible for me to capture on camera.
Venerated inside were 1000-year-old statues adorned with the most vivid colors and wrapped in gold leaves. The Sakyamuni statue is said to be an exact copy of the one inside Potala Palace, meaning that for the Khampa of the surrounding region a visit here is almost as effective as a long pilgrimage to Lhasa.
These images were taken exactly 2 weeks before the 2014 Kangding Earthquake. Little did we know at the time that the region would be devastated and some of the Lamasery's priceless murals and statues would be forever damaged. While Lhagang was quite close to the epicenter, luckily the area was so sparsely populated that only a handful of houses collapsed and casualties were few ... as far as Chinese earthquakes go.
North of the Lamasery the valley opens into wide alpine steppes and gentle rolling hills where Tibetan cowboys and their nomadic clans roam. Twice a year they would return in full Khampa attire for equestrian games and festivals in the shadow of the white Stupas. Herding is still the principal way of life in this eastern part of Kham territory.
It's a wild and romantic lifestyle, one that has enticed a few Westerners to forego material comfort and settle down in the nearby plateaus as modern day hermits. There's also the Khampa Café and Guesthouse in town which is owned by an American and her Tibetan husband. With a relatively mild climate (for the Tibetan Plateau!), close proximity to resupplying in Chengdu, less political hassles than in Tibet Proper and a unique and colorful tribal culture, I can see the appeal of moving here for a cheap retirement.
There's also the appeal of breathtaking sceneries in the shadow of the venerated Zhara Lhatse, better known by its Chinese name of Yala Snow Mountain. While its full Tibetan name roughly translates to Mountain of the Eastern White Yak, we did not encountered even a fully beige one through our travels.
From Lhagang we set out again in the northern direction towards Danba, passing by a peculiar rock formation known as the Stone Forest of Bamei at about the 50km mark. We did not stop for long periods anywhere as Gao Shifu was slightly anxious to arrive at Danba with a couple hours to spare before sundown. At the time we didn't know why.
We did make one more stop in Bamei when our van climbed over a 4000m mountain saddle with a sweeping panoramic view of these Khampa steppes. You won't find even sheep at this altitude -- stocky Tibetan steeds and wooly yaks are all the locals can breed in this extreme climate.
Closer to the county boundary of Danba we had a glimpse of the mountaineers' route into the holy mountain. Not to be confused with the Yala Peak of Nepal, the jagged crest of Yala Snow Mountain is extremely technical and I'm not aware if anyone has succeeded in reaching the summit.
As the afternoon wound down our driver became increasingly concerned about his safe return to Dartsedo that night. "We are different from the Han Chinese," warned Gao in the most serious tone, "Absolutely do not travel on these roads after dark." He went to relate accounts of 21st Century motorcycle bandits that echoed myths of Khampa warriors of old, their Tibetan daggers ready to prey upon anyone trespassing their ancestral land. So according to at least one Khampa this ancient land is still the lawless wild west of China, even in 2014.
"I'll be safe as long as I make it back to Lhagang before sundown," concluded Gao, "Just don't travel at night north of Lhagang."
We said goodbye to Gao Shifu soon after entering the canyons of Danba, transferring to a different van prearranged by Gao so that he could return safely to Lhagang in time. From here we still had to take the bumpy potholed ride to our guesthouse in the Village of Jiaju, which turned out to be another adventure in itself ...
Friday, February 27, 2015
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 Gao 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 Gao 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
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 Marinade||RMB 35|
|Soft Tofu||RMB 5|
|Seasonal Vegetable Broth||RMB 10|
|Stir-Fried Pork with Bamboo Shoots||RMB 20|
|Scrambled Eggs with Nettle Leaves||RMB 15|
|Rice x 2||RMB 2|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 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 Pork||RMB 12|
|Noodles with Mountain Vegetables||RMB 10|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 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 CTrip.com.
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.