In this fifth and final installment of a series of articles about a road trip through the Kandze region of Kham by Carol Brighton — artist and longtime Tibet traveler — the two-week loop draws to a close, descending toward Chengdu through spectacular valleys and towns that begin to transition to a Chinese landscape.
Road to Rongdrag (Danba)
Like most of this region, there’s a spectacular valley on the way to Rongdrag (Danba in Chinese) – with a white water river rushing through. Over the 13,000 ft pass (3900 m) we dropped down to a densely forested region.
Days after days of spinning prayer wheels
Flags in the wind
Prayers rise up anti-gravity
thoughts sink to earth
We stayed in Jiaju, in a small guest house that’s built around a courtyard like the old estates. Jiaju is at the top of a winding road, up in the hills behind Danbu. The village is a collection of widely spaced homes in a very steep and deep green valley. If these villagers want supplies they go all the way down the mountain to fetch them.
The old woman who helped cook supper parroted our voices and cackled with humor as she cleared up afterwards. She cracked herself up imitating us.
Pear and apple trees fill the gardens and the corn fields are surrounded by sunflowers. The air here is soft and clean. It’s a walk in rural tranquility during the cool evening and again the next morning as the village wakes.
In Rongdrag we got rooms by the river. Clean and comfortable beds. The view is a solid rock wall rising up from across the greenish brown river below. The women wear an embroidered headdress that’s a folded cloth, flat on top and draped down the back of the head.
Rongdrag has a couple tourist shops, antiques, and household stuff. There was a bookshop for the school kids with a good dictionary for the driver. I chatted with a young couple from Guangzhou, a very sophisticated pair, business people. They’d come here to see their teacher – a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, a Gelukpa – who resides not far away. This is a fun town to walk around in — visiting the shops, getting some good food, hiking the hills and seeing the speeding river between the buildings.
Driving out of Rongdrag we found a series of villages across the river collectively called Sobo. The bridge to get there wasn’t finished so we gazed across at several ancient towers of stone, some as tall as 50 meters (over 160 feet). The area has hundreds of these towers, some in ruins, some still standing. It isn’t known exactly what their purpose was – some say watch towers, or signal towers or maybe storage silos. The oldest are said to be from about 800 AD.
Leaving the next morning as we loaded our luggage we watched as three police cars drove up and six tall well equipped young policemen went into our guest house lobby. They took the record books and checked it out. I think it was us they were checking out. Where did we come from and where were we going?
Arrived in Luding mid-afternoon, in time to check into our fancy rooms and go to the temple over a wooden bridge across the river.
It’s a Chinese Buddhist temple – newly built since the Cultural Revolution when the original one was torn down – with Taoist influences. Several older women are taking care of the place – lighting incense, setting it out in three places in the open burners, bowing three times, and smiling sweetly at this foreign face.
We met a Tibetan man up a narrow lane who came here as a child from central Tibet. He’s Tibetan, but forgot the language and now only speaks Chinese.
Luding is a nice town above the raging Dadu River. That night fifty or sixty people were dancing in the square, waltzing in two large circles to loud taped music, a mixture of Tibetans and Chinese couples.
Back to Chengdu
It’s a 6 ½ hour drive to Chengdu through the longest tunnels I’ve ever been in. Following the rushing river, downhill through a deep green landscape of evergreens, we headed to the city. Electrical towers multiplied by the dozens, with silvery cables strung for miles. Dams, and more dams under construction appeared, and more tunnels being burrowed through the rock.
Before entering the darkness of the last tunnel, I looked up at the blue sky. After a dragging few minutes driving through the very long, dimly lit and fumey tunnel, we came out the other side of the mountain to a sky gone hazy grey.
In the few miles of the tunnel, pollution had filled the air, echoed in the “Welcome to China!” sign as we passed a cement factory.
Reflections on the Journey
It was such a pleasure to be in these mountains, to stretch the eyes in Kham. In the city our depth of field gets shortened – so it was wonderful to see across vast distances in the mountains, up to high peaks and down into deep valleys. Every day, every hour, continuously changing forms overlapping in subtle colors appearing in light and shadow. Tree branches made scratchy markings against the sky, on the fog. Then there’s the geological drama of layered rock pushed into craggy mountains, and colored stone lit by high altitude sun, with long fractures reminding of how it is all in motion. It’s comforting and funny to be just a speck in such deep time.
Mostly I liked watching the water and the wide deep views — and of course the great people. A lovely bent over old woman in a dark wool chuba took my hand as we walked a kora around the new stupa. We laughed our hellos in a language of the heart. She took both my hands and we touched foreheads as we parted, still laughing.
In one prayer hall a monk looked me in the eyes and started talking in a low voice – he spoke of oppression, of wanting freedom for his religion. He stretched his arm out from under the robes and showed us he had penned “Free Tibet” on his skin. He asked that we tell everyone how terrible life is for Tibetans.
In one village a non-uniformed, Chinese man sat sideways in a police car – the door open, his legs on the street. He talked to a Tibetan woman holding a child. I’d seen him somewhere before, when we drove past the police station. He was ordinary looking, common, pudgy in late middle age – except his face was a faint masking of hostility. The conversation, even though I couldn’t hear it, inspired uneasiness. The woman looked upset, although she was trying to contain it. She looked briefly at him as he talked; she looked around, over the top of the car, around on the street. He was angry, his face was tight. He held papers. Here, knowing the politics, knowing the history, it’s a fearsome scene.
So much praise, of course, for ancient civilizations. Yet, this high mountain impasse of belief and politics makes one wonder where it gets to… Ancient civilizations not yet able to live at peace with its neighbors …not yet able to have respect for different ways. How we want China to reach into its deep pool of culture and come out with respect, with kindness, with love.
We want Tibet’s, and China’s story to be transcendent. It’s not. Not in our time. Not yet.
Still, the prayer flags fly, and prayers continue to rise, despite all that has happened. This faith, this aspiration of the Tibetan people and their culture is transcendent, and remains.
A big thanks to Carol Brighton, our new friend, for sharing her journey through thoughtful, spare prose and photographs that opened our hearts to the mesmerizing land and people of this extraordinary, beautiful region of Tibet.
View more of the Kham: Notes from a Mountain Journal series:
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By Lobsang Wangdu