THe Northern route of the Sichuan Tibetan Highway
A surprise opportunity to make an incredible journey from Chengdu in Sichuan into the foothills of Tibet came when Ricarda, a sailing friend, emailed to say that she had a mini bus in Chengdu and wanted to make a trip to explore the North Western area of Sichuan province, which is effectively the eastern part of old Tibet. What made this journey especially unique was that we were self-driving on the Northern route of the Sichuan Tibetan Highway which sounds very grand but in practice the road surface varies from not very good to appalling. Because a new road system is currently under construction we found conditions even more hazardous than normal, old otherwise passable, roads had been torn up and left completely unmade after the bulldozers and diggers had passed.
Very few foreigners would have previously had the opportunity to self-drive in this area.
In 12 days we drove over 2500 km and road conditions were a major factor in this expedition as we were completely focused on negotiating them for most of our waking hours. I suppose it is not surprising that I seem to have written so much about them.
Talking to a Lama
On one of our stops we had a lengthy conversation with a Lama who was very concerned about the erosion of Tibetan culture especially through lack of education.
Chengdu in Sichuan
We flew from Shanghai to find Chengdu, a big modern bustling city which is at the center of China’s South West. It seems to be well organised and is surprisingly clean and tidy if that’s ever really possible in a city. The gray cheerless cloudy sky and modern characterless buildings give it an oppressive grim feel. The road system seems very well structured on the map with several ring roads which is just as well in order to cope with the traffic and the hundreds of bicycles, motor bikes, rickshaws, and three wheelers. In practice there are no rules and road or lane markings not so clear. We stayed close to the town center and dined on Sichuan food, including marinated cold pork, stir fried chicken which was on the bone and finely chopped with a plate of morning glory. On the next table was a Chinese family who kept looking over, smiling. Eventually the son, encouraged by his Mother, came over, introducing himself as Victor and asked if he could talk to us to practice his English. We chatted for at least half and hour and found out that he hoped to travel and aspired to get a place at Oxford to which I suggested he might think about that as many of our politician’s had been thus educated and they seriously lacked ability and acumen. As we said our goodbyes and went to pay the bill we discovered that Victor’s family had already taken care of it – needless to say we hoped we might find lots more people wishing to practice their English!
After dinner we walked in a pleasant park, nearby. Already after dark, we watched as dozens of people entwined, twirled, and stepped out various ballroom and line dances. Ricarda explained the attraction of this in the conservatism of Chinese society which restricts male - female contact. Dancing is an opportunity to close the gap.
The motorway from Chengdu to Ya’an is surprisingly well constructed heading west to Ya’an. The traffic is heavy with many Dong Fang trucks to negotiate. The Chinese have not missed any capitalistic opportunities and obviously help funding by the installation of several tolls. From Ya’an we pass the massive construction of a new 3 gorges dam near Luding which will soon form a massive reservoir and flood the old road. The new highway is under construction and was particularly difficult on the return journey being very roughly carved, often one lane, sometimes steep, not to mention the nose to tail traffic with those impatient hand on horn drivers with their organ enhancing 4 wheel drive vehicles, mainly Toyota’s, pushing and shoving their way in and out all the while.
From Ya’an the road was concrete, busy, generally reasonably surfaced in places but severely cracked and deteriorated in others. So at reasonably high speeds constant attention was needed to avoid occasional deep pot holes.
Kang Ding 2616m
Kang Ding is a crescent shaped town wedged into a deep valley and built on either side of the Zheduo River. Unfortunately its character has largely been destroyed by the construction of many modern concrete Chinese style buildings.
We arrived in time for a quick stroll and some provisioning for our trip. We also managed to get the most inventive meal of the trip in a Tibetan restaurant perched on the 5th floor of an apartment block. We were greeted by a very masculine looking waitress dressed in a rather grubby gray robe. The innovation came in the form of a Tibetan Yak hamburger. The name had already put me off but the dish itself bore no resemblance to its impoverished namesake which marks the very best of United States cuisine. It turned out to be a plate full of lightly sautéed yak meat with chunky chilies and a spicy sauce topped by a round slab of unleavened bread. Deep fried yogurt croquets, potato dumplings, stir fried yak meat with vegetables in a sauce, and broccoli completed the feast. We were seated in a booth, to the side, ideal for watching the noisy Chinese tour group slam back glass after glass of rice wine.
Once out of Kang Ding the new and surprisingly well made asphalt road winds its way into the hills again along the low lands of the Yala Mountains. It made a delightful drive climbing up to a plateau of over 3000 meters surrounded by towering white peaked mountains. The road meandering over hills sometimes diving along recessed valleys and following many streams and smaller rivers. We passed the brand new airport with its extremely long run way which must be expecting International flights from all over the world or perhaps has some other hidden military agenda.
We passed a number of Nomad tents and then spotted a large black one close to the road surrounded by yaks and goats. We stopped to find a cheery old couple the old man tending his herds and the woman making a powdery cheese which looked much like parmesan. The tent looked pretty spartan inside and not too hot but I suppose they had all they needed
We had not come far, but as we climbed higher leaving “civilisation,” traffic receding, there was a growing sense of awe, a sort of mystical attraction. The cold rarer air, the rawness of the landscape took on a timeless ethereal feel as though we were almost in contact with the heavens evoking a sense of divinity which was at once real, challenging and earthly yet tenuous and intangibly inspiring. It is no wonder the lives of Tibetans are so inextricably woven around their religion. No wonder that so much of their energy goes towards planting prayer flags, turning their prayer wheels, and supporting the monks and nuns who guard their faith.
Driving into Tagong we visited the Ani Gompa, a Nunnery with its huge slate Stupor and prayer wheels beneath. Each slate is engraved by hand and then stacked to form the Stupor. Overlooking the the Stupor is a cave once inhabited by a hermit Lama who lived there for many years. As we started to leave many nuns started descending along the road and we discovered that there was to be a sky burial later that afternoon.
We decided to turn the Van and get some lunch in the refectory below but as we backed it up our front left wheel dropped off the steep sided concrete road, the suspension arm crashed to the road and we ground to a halt. It took a while to jack up the car, build a make shift surface out of rough sawn planks and granite blocks to get us back on the road. But we did eventually get our noodle soup for lunch. It wasn't bad cooked in a very basic kitchen by a couple of nuns.
Suitably fortified we climbed the hill side weaving our way along a path adorned by the bunting like prayer flags fluttering in the chilling breeze. Chanting carried on the wind, whirling around and growing louder as we approached until we could see the source – some 30 red robed nuns seated cross legged on the grassy hill side looked down on the rocky dissection site and juniper burning byre below. Haunting the scene, the rhythmic melodic chanting was accompanied by the percussion from a small hand held rattle like drums as the nuns twisted and twirled the instruments in their right hands.
Sky Burial was once a common funeral practice in Tibet but was banned under Chinese rule which governed Tibet from 1950’s. Now since the 80’s this has relaxed and it is regaining its role. Intrinsically Buddhist Tibetans believe in compassion, generosity and reincarnation. The later removes the need to preserve the body, which becomes an empty vessel. A sky burial generously returns the body to nature allowing birds or creatures to feed on it or let it decompose. In much of Tibet the ground is too frozen, hard and rocky to dig a grave and fuel and timber is scarce, thus a sky burial is a simple, practical and compassionate way to dispose of the remains. The body may be left whole or otherwise dissected for more easy removal. The practice is known as jhator (Tibetan) which literally means;- "Giving alms to the birds." Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his/her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. It seems that other people don’t appear to take part in this ceremony, including family and friends of the deceased. There are other accounts of outsiders observing it but it does not appear normal and other reports suggest that photography is considered unethical, offensive and is generally forbidden. We were invited to attend and openly allowed to photograph the proceedings.
Coming upon this experience in such a sudden and unexpected way was at first a humbling and a remarkably culture shocking experience. Initially it seemed perhaps barbaric and offensive. However, sitting there watching, without much pondering it soon seemed eminently practical and natural especially in this environment where life and death is so real and more obvious than in our artificial way of life.
Back in Tagong we made a brief visit to the Monastery in town and then settled into Sally’s Guest House for the night.
After Tagong the road was mostly unmade, rutted, pot holed and sometimes extremely dusty to the extent that following or overtaking was often almost blind. We were mostly driving at speeds of 20 to 40k and a maxim of 80k might briefly have been achieved. Some patches of concrete road especially near Tagong had recently been laid but were already cracked and under repair with the added danger that coming around a bend one might suddenly find, sections completely removed or piles of rubble directly in front.
We stopped here for a less than exciting lunch of the now ubiquitous Chinese noodle soup. Dao Wu, built around the main the road seemed like a place mostly passed by and was rather medieval or perhaps that impression was derived from the interesting toilets. Ten wooden stalls, down at the end of a narrow alley way, the sides of which afforded only a meters height of privacy and door less, they faced each other in two rows of 5. The filthy sides and filthy floor centered around just a hole through the boards. The excrement piled beneath in slimy slurry sliding inexorably towards the stream beneath.
The road to Ganze from Tagong was over 200 km the worst encountered so far. It made a very long tiring day crammed into the cab, bouncing, and swerving over ruts and around pot holes became a painful bone jarring endurance. It was a great relief as we closed on Ganze to find a flat open plain with numerous tracks and we raced across jumping from track to track as traffic appeared in front or the ruts got deeper and we arrived just as dusk was falling.
We had been late leaving after spending too long talking to Lilly who served our breakfast in Kham Café, We were further delayed waiting for petrol as vans and motor bikes queue jumped in front of us and an argument developed over a supposed none payment by a monk on a bike. We also had to stop for repairs when the electronics died and luckily another van stopped and an electrician onboard was able to find the dodgy connection.
Exhausted from the day drive we settled into the Himalaya Hotel where Ricarda retired for an early night. I went out with Sonam and found a nice Tibetan restaurant and had one of the best meals of the trip. Roast Yak meat, beef soup, pita type bread, zamba (barley flour, yak butter, tea and sugar).
In Ganze we took a day off from the bouncing swerving and crash braking off the previous days ride. We walked out of town and crossed the river to find a small track leading up to the rear of Ganze Gompa , the Monastery. It contained a two story Buddha and offered us a spectacular view down across the town and barley fields to the snow capped mountains beyond.
Walking back down through the town we came upon a school festival with stage and various class performances. Most interesting to us were the parents many of whom were attired in their best local costume but in contrast wielded video cameras to capture the star performances of their progeny.
Later we drove out of town to find a walled Monastery where we were shown around and was a particularly relaxed and friendly visit.
After quite a drive through lush green pastures we stopped in Manigango, a small town consisting of a hotel, some shops, not to mention the ubiquitous noodle soup, all arranged along the unpaved road. Nevertheless it's the drawing point for heaps wild-haired nomads from the surrounding grasslands who come on their motorbikes and horses to stock up on essentials like tea and barley. When having our lunch we had lots of interested onlookers as if foreigners were a rare sight. We started to take some notes while eating, when a sort of writing frenzy developed: The people from the next table borrowed our pen and started excitedly writing names and numbers on there arms - was ours the only pen within miles? As we left a crowd of these of these people gathered around us all looking for alms – even so they all had their hand out!
Driving on we came to Yinlhong Latso (La = Buddha Tso = Lake) a beautiful spot not far off the road. The entrance was fenced off and we had to pay 20 rmb for the please of entering. Yes you have to pay for everything and its just a tourist tax - there was rubbish and broken bottles everywhere. The opaque turquoise waters surrounded by the towering mountains which reached skywards reflecting their snowy peaks onto the almost mirror flat surface. The holiness of the lake was accentuated by many prayer flags and carved granite boulders with Buddhist legends to proclaim compassion. Here was another place where earth and heavens seemed irrevocably linked and inspired a sublime reverence.
Chola Pass 5060m
The road wound on inexorably getting higher winding its way up steep inclines until even the car was short of breath and trundled even more slowly towards the Chola Mountain Pass at 5060m. Here the snowy pass was adorned by prayer flags and littered with tiny paper prayer sheets tossed to the wind by passing travelers.
As we drove into Dege the road was rough and dirty and the town converted to newer Chinese concrete buildings. It seemed as though we had suddenly been wrenched out of a heavenly dream and re awakened back in a living hell. Nothing had much connection to Tibet or anything Tibetan so we stayed in the largest, most modern and most inelegant hotel in town. It was also exorbitantly expensive and cost us £38 for the night. In my plush room (shared with Sonam our guide) we had a glass walled shower which afforded no privacy to the bather - a Chinese fetish perhaps? In the morning we did find an interesting little breakfast place upstairs and overlooking the river. Still cold and misty outside we huddled inside near the stove drinking yak butter tea and eating steaming hot momo.
We drove up to a courtyard and parked outside Dege Bakong (which means painting house). Many locals especially women were in their traditional costumes and wore jewelry in their hair. Inside is where all the Tibetan scriptures are printed using hand carved wooden printing blocks. There are literally thousands of blocks all racked on shelves – all the scriptures for Tibet.
From Dege we turned south again following the banks of the river Dhouchean. This river forms the border between the two provinces of the Peoples Republic of China, Sichuan and Tibet. Both used to be Tibet and both are still China but it is not possible for foreigners to cross through into the province of Tibet but it is possible the other way round. We came to the border checkpoint at a bridge, where being foreigners we could not cross into the Autonomous Region of Tibet, it's even impossible to pre-arrange a permit. The river flows swiftly and perhaps the authorities believe that nobody in his right mind would try an illegal crossing. On the other hand there did not seem to be any guards and it was not very far.
At BaiYu we stopped briefly to visit the Gomba which perches commandingly on a hillside above the town, the whitewashed facades contrasting with the blood red woodwork and golden ornaments. The monks' numerous houses seemed to be flooding the hillside below and above. After a steep, climb to the main hall, we found more printing from wooden blocks for prayer flags and other less religious artefacts. Many of the carvers were eager to sell carvings and we bought a couple of souvenirs which simply held the traditional greeting Tasi Delek.
As we walked around the compound I heard some chanting and went to explore, finding an upstairs room, our guide obtained permission for us to enter and we were able to sit and listen sipping yak tea for some time. Inside the small room were approximately 40 monks sat alongside long low chests. Most were chanting very fast while reading from some texts. Others kept up the rhythm and tempo for the chanting and singing with drums and occasionally some horns included their part. As this continued some sort of ceremonial minister made offerings of beer and other alcoholic beverages into a large bowl. For the deity receiving the offering it was thirsty work and a considerable amount of alcohol was consumed – perhaps drinking and driving is still possible in the after life.
We arrived at Yaching Gompa just as the sun was setting. Yaching Gompa lies some 6 km off the main road behind yet more sweeping hillsides of grassland. On arrival we passed through a gate and after a while we got to a kind of checkpoint where a friendly monk lifted the barrier after looking inside our car. driving on awhile across the grasslands before some buildings came into sight. The track went over a hilltop and suddenly this amazing monastic settlement was laid out in front of us. Thousands of huts and houses plus numerous prayer halls and Stupors filled the river valley below us.
This Monastery had a guest house so we enquired about rooms but found that facilities were medieval. There were no bathrooms in the hotel and any ablutions would need to take place in the street below. This Monastery, more of a town really, houses some 10,000 Monks and Nuns so we headed uphill and found a camp site by a small stream. It would have been quite picturesque except that the ground around was covered in discarded plastic containers not to mention the feces from any of the passing creatures, including humans. After a night listening to the rain patter on the tent and dogs howling we awoke and headed for the main Monastery. There were hundreds of Monks and Nuns milling around and all seemed to be off in various directions. One friendly Chinese Nun talked to us and tried to help us find our way. It was noticeable here that some of the Monks appear quite wealthy and wear finely tailored clothing and drive expensive cars while others clearly can barely afford their basic robe.
In one large magnificently decorated hall we found over 100 Monks seated in rows, praying and chanting while two or three Monks or Lamas seemed to lead the service. Statues of Buddha's and Deities lined the walls watching grimly, brilliantly coloured silks hung from the ceiling in large cylindrical tubes, and elaborate carvings and paintings adorned the pillars around the hall.
Then in another hall more common folk were seated listening to a service, among them were even children as young as 3 years old, still dressed as monks and nuns in their red tunics and cloaks.
Leaving Yaching Gompa we headed on driving along a narrow plateau with small lakes dotted around. We even spotted a small beach strangely fenced off.
We were stopped by police for an identity check in Xinlong. I thought we had a problem at first because I was driving without a licence but it turned out that they were only interested in where we were going. They asked many questions about why we were going to Litang which has been the scene of many demonstrations and riots in the past. Eventually we made Litang for the night and this seemed rather more organised and certainly had more shops and interesting artefacts. We did a bit of shopping and Ricarda bought silk, brocade and pots for home. While walking around town a Tibetan man came to talk to us with some of his friends. The conversation went - “Hello! Where are from? Where are you going? I am Tibetan! I hate Chinese!”
That evening we managed to find a Tibetan restaurant and ate raw Yak meat which came out frozen so we sent it back to have it warmed enough to eat. It seems, however, that frozen may well be the way it is served and eaten so no doubt there were some “bloody foreigners” comments in the kitchen. Accompanying the cold cuts was a bowl of hot yak meat soup and bread.
Our guide Sonam had arranged to meet some friends called Xiao Sang and Yang Ti Ying and I went along for a beer. It turned out to be a very enjoyable evening and both the Ladies proved to be bright and amusing company. They worked for the government and seemed to have good jobs. Sonam and Xiao Sang had not seen each other for 10 years. We went to a bar and were ushered into a private room and a fresh carton of beer and shot glasses were delivered along with a couple of plates of food. The beer flowed as the case emptied to frequent toasts of “Tasi Delek!!” - down in one. Then to my astonishment Xiao Sang paid the bill at the end of the night which was extremely generous of her.
From there the route took us along the southern route of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway from Litang back to Tagong. The road wound on and up and over several passes 4200 – 4800 m until we came upon a convoy of 40 to 60 army trucks grinding along in low gear at interminably slow speed. The road was under construction and almost completely un surfaced and they trundled up the steep hills kicking up thick clouds of dust as we precariously tried to pass them one by one, hardly able to see and with a precipice beside us.
Once back in Tagong we checked into Jyadromo and Gayla’s guest house and this delightful couple took care of us for 3 days while we recovered from our trip and prepared to return to the outside world.
We took a ride out to Damba following a long gorge winding its way beside the river. We drove up into Jagu and had to pay again just to dribe through. We wanted to see two towers built on a ridge but once there found it impossible to get close to them even after a long walk. Driving on to Suopo we saw numerous of these towers whose exact purpose seems inexplicable. Again we were unable to find a way to get close enough and could not cross the gorge.
The weather eased and we decided to take a horse riding trek from the Monastery around the surrounding country side. We paid 450 (£4.50) for 4hrs. We worked our way up over a pass. Ricarda’s horse was slow while mine seemed keen and well behaved. The guide’s horse was extremely cantankerous; it threw him on his first attempt to mount it and then kept galloping off. So he forced it on at speed nearly straight up the mountain and back again just to wear it out. The horses have short legs, short stirrups and a fairly narrow saddle which made trotting rather unpleasant and not so good for my dancing career! We rode up over a pass and down into a valley beyond. Small dwellings dotted the eastern hillside and we happened upon an unsuspecting women washing her clothes in a stream. We asked if she would make us tea and let us eat lunch in her house and she seemed willing enough. We left the horses tied to stakes and went inside the fairly basic structure with rudely hewn boards and furnishing inside. We sat on bare boards and ate from a wooden board. A baby nearby was sleeping while almost buried in a heap of blankets. These were nomads and only lived here until perhaps July when they would take their two young children and herds up into the hills not returning until around October. The horses now refreshed or maybe sensed the homeward run were much keener and willing to trot. Nearer town we found a fairly flat area and coaxed them into an unwilling canter before pushing them to ford the river nearly belly deep.
The following morning we had been invited to Choenyi’s (a friend of Ricarda’s) mother’s for a typical Tibetan breakfast. We arrived and were shown around the palatial home which was in the process of being converted to a guest house. Breakfast was a feast, a slab of cold boiled or roast yak meat joint, cheese, spicy sausage like chorizo, tsamba, bread and of course Yak butter tea.
After that we went shopping around town and noticed prices seemed to have no real logic and obviously based on the mood of the vender, one small locket was dearer than a much larger one and a bale of yaks wool tent canvas was 150 per meter but could not be bought in pieces. It seemed that they did not want to sell to tourists and would rather keep it for the locals
And then it was time to return to Chengdu and then Shanghai. The drive out from Kang Ding had been fine but on the return we found conditions the worst so far in the mountains. A new road was being built because of the new dam and a new route was being built above the old road which was soon to be flooded. Much of the road was only wide enough for one vehicle and we wound our way inexorably along crashing into bumps and ruts and swerving around holes if we could.
So back to Chenngdu and then Shanghai. Shanghai seems to exist under a layer of grim gray cloud keeping it relatively cool. It is a completely modern city and most of the old colonial buildings have been torn down almost as though they have tried in some bizarre way to eradicate the past. After the vibrance of Tibet Shanghai felt dark, moody and forbidding. Driving through the city one passes development after developments. Dozens of apartment blocks all uniform, all starkly standing to attention just like soldiers. We visited a small old town outside which had clearly been "renovated" as a tourist site. The whole place had been "made over" to accommodate tourists. You arrive, leave your vehicle, pay your entrance fee, get in a golf buggy, get dropped in town, then pass the barriers and visit the town where there a number of sites you can see for free and a number you can pay yet more money to see. It was not such a bad place but completely false and a complete rip off. Capitalism at its worst is alive and well in China - you pay and you pay for everything. You even pay to go to the toilet where you can watch the wild life feeding on all the deposits which are also on display. I don't know why but I had not expected the filthy conditions and I was surprised at the excessive growth. I guess after Chairman Mao one should not be shocked at the almost total lack of respect for anything cultural.
In my view the greatest thing that Planet Earth has to offer over anything else we know is its diversity. This diversity is apparent in every respect and especially related to the species some of which are so bizarre that artistic depictions of aliens are often more attractive or less terrifying than those found lurking in dark and dank places. Possibly the most bizarre of these is Homo Sapiens who find it necessary to disguise their outward appearance with some form of dress. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the human race is its cultural diversity and also conversely some of the similarities found between culture on different continents. Frighteningly China, which retains little of its original culture, is hell bent on making money at any cost and is set on a rough shod ride which will undoubtedly stampede over any cultural or historical differences, only where convenient turning them into some sort of Disney Land side show with a ticket booth at the entrance. Is that what the rest of the world has already done?
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