Journeys in Kham: Notes from a Mountain Journal

We’re excited about today’s post, the first in a 5-part series about a journey through Kham taken by our new friend, Carol Brighton. We met Carol at a Tibetan event this March, and were fascinated by her story of traveling in the Kandze region of Kham1 in September, just after the region had re-opened to foreigners.

Yak Hair Khampa Nomad Tent
Yak Hair Khampa Nomad Tent

An artist and paper maker from Berkeley, California, Carol has spent a lot of time in Tibet over the years. She worked for many years as a primary member of Paper Road Tibet, a truly wonderful project which partnered with the Jetsun Chumig School and Orphanage in Lhasa to develop a papermaking program that continues to provide vocational training for the kids, helps fund the school, and is revitalizing the endangered tradition of hand papermaking in Tibet, all from a green, sustainable perspective.

Carol brings an artist’s eye to her travels, and we love the calm and lovely way she traces the journey through moments — simple, clear details that flow through the days like the rivers they follow in Kham

Guest post by Carol Brighton

This two-week road trip in a four wheel drive made a huge loop:  Chengdu — Kanding – Litang – Xinlong – Baiyu – Dege – Sechen – Ashu – Kandze – Luoho – Bamei – Danba —  Luding (Chaksamla) –  Chengdu, about 1500 miles. I had wanted to see this region and especially Derge for years. Derge is said to be the beating heart of Tibetan culture – and after many trips to central Tibet up on the plateau, I was ready to take a look.

The Route

Chengdu to Kham Route
Chengdu to Kham Route

The roads were a mess. Bumpity bump all along the way —  washboards and potholes and dust when not mud. It was wonderful though, to be in Kham, the Eastern part of Tibet. The place is a revelation of geological force with extreme expressions of needly mountain peaks and voluminous movements of glacial water. Water rippling, trickling, pooling and springing up into hot steamy baths besides speeding white water rivers. There’s an amazing wash off the high mountains in hundreds and hundreds of little streams and rivulets into steep valleys with clear green rivers. And wherever the rivers build enough force, the government is there with a dam…

There are cell phone towers all over the place — even in the remotest areas. Little old women in traditional dress chatting away on cell phones as they walk down the street, yak herders have cell phones. But in Kandze — a huge region — I can’t call out. The police have blocked all international connections — email and phone. The security forces are very evident here. It seems we’re among the first westerners here since late July when the border reopened. The police open and close Tibet whenever they feel the…whatever they feel — breach of security fear, fear of losing power, fear of chaos, fear of freedom, fear, fear, and fear shoring up power.

The landscapes are unbelievable. Yaks and more yaks…and horseback herders. They come down the mountain in stages, staying at each site several weeks while the yaks graze. Finally these nomadic families settle in for the winter at lower altitude.

Generally meals are taken at Chinese dives. This is usually a single store front with a wok on a metal drum with coals underneath. There’s a small stove top with a big pot of boiling water and a cleaver with chopping block. There’s always a display of vegetables — always the same — potatoes, tomatoes and a green leafy vegetable – sometimes eggplant. Generally the food is not too bad – in the range of not really good. An occasional added fly kills the appetite, but it is otherwise palatable.

Chengdu to Dartsendo (Kangding)

Yellow yellow and more yellow. Corn gathered and hung to dry around blue window frames, shucked on to wide straw mats on the sidewalks, and filling the cone shaped baskets strapped on an old man’s back.

We arrive at Xinbo at 1:30 and eat a lunch of chicken and fungus and doufu and rice and soup — a good rich, oily broth. Everyone was watching a TV hung on the wall…a tidal bore in the lake at Hangzhou, repeating over and over.

We went through one of the longest tunnels I’ve ever been through — 4 miles? 5? And here we sit again by the river. A long caravan of military trucks has the right of way. And then trucks loaded with rocks and more trucks and on and on. Already there is a growing awareness of gaining altitude.

The river is pushed to one side here and sluiced and channeled there, concentrating the flow into white water and electro hydropower. Sympathy for the river…

Dartsendo (Kangding)

Dartsendo2 — is busy with lots of shops. The town is in a gorge with the fast river running through it. It’s warm enough so we had sidewalk dinner tonight. Also the restaurant was packed with smokers, so much better outside where they set up a table for us. The eggplant chips in a light spicy sauce and chicken with peanuts and fine julienned cabbage were good. The tall buildings stand against steep mountains, and over the peaks, fog rolls in with the night sky.

Starting to see a few Tibetans. A local told us that it used to be all Tibetans – now it’s mostly Han Chinese.

Dartsendo (Kangding) to Lithang (Litang) via Xindu Chou

The road is paved out of Kangding then pavement gets intermittent. Most of the roads are under construction. The extra heavy rains last summer washed out most of the roads. Now, in the fall, they’re being rebuilt…some just resurfaced and others started over from scratch after completely disappearing into the river. We sit in the car and wait a lot. Now we are sitting, waiting for one lane to clear. The river rushes several hundred feet below. An exotic looking winged bug slowly makes its way across the windshield.

So we wait.

The driver saw lady Gaga on TV. He liked her. She is a star. Much of the trip I gave our young driver English lessons. The sky is blue. The clouds are white, the grass is yellow and the trees are green…and so he learned colors, numbers, words for places. He’ll soon be trilingual, Tibetan, Chinese, English.

There is a big mantra on the hillside near Zhong Shap — white stone on green hills, it can be seen from a long distance.

Mantras on a hill.
Mantras on a hill. Photo © Carol Brighton.

SHRI

OM MANI PADME HUNG

OM AH HUNG BENZA GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG

Crossed the Garse pass (4600 m/15,000+ ft) with its stupa and prayer flags.

The Chinese are boring a tunnel through this mountain — in a year or two nobody will drive to the top of the pass with its fabulous views, looking over mountaintop after mountain top, with fog thick in the valleys between.

Lunch in Yajiangkou — delicious tofu with a perfect not too hot sauce. Local mushrooms perfume a chicken soup. Grated potatoes fried in a thin round – a giant thin latke, with a sprinkling of hot pepper and salt. Yum.

186 kilometer road from hell. Bumpety bump washboard dusty jarring now over 12,000ft. Hard to describe how bad the roads are….

The vistas are deep, rich, dark gold, grey and soft siennas. Layering forms of folding hills in shades of subtle colors with indigo mountains far away on the horizon. That’s where we are going.

Nauseous fierce altitude headaches – forced some food down that helped. I was hungry and nauseated at the same time. Trying out some Tylenol for the headache. Later we found an herbalist’s pharmacy where I bought the local altitude medicine (Rhodiola) in little glass vials. It helped, and I continued to take it for several days.

Lithang (Litang)

Anyhow we’ve arrived in Lithang. Lithang is in a high valley (4000 m/ 13,000+ ft) It is so under construction. Newly finished and under construction concrete and brick buildings line the street.

Litang monastery has a two story Maitreya statue and views to distant snowy peaks. It’s been restored with elaborately detailed carvings and paintings. Hundreds, maybe thousands of small Buddhas are carved into the walls, each with their own arched mini grotto. Carved, red pillars line the main hall. Wide brass containers burn yak butter candles, filling the dark rooms with light and scenting with heavy redolence. The bug eyed protectors who subdue demons peer out from the walls, and sweet smiling guiding spirits lend enough courage to move forward. Approximately 2,700 monks are in residence. There’s a mani stone wall along the road with hundreds and hundreds of carved stones, each with a mantra – mostly Om mani padme hung – calling for wisdom and compassion – the jewel in the lotus.

It is rugged country. Up over passes and down into valleys where all the water rushes. Water rushing downhill, and bridges where they can. Bumpy washboard road then pavement mostly to Xinlong. Following along the Yalung River. It is soothing to watch it flow – like medicine after yesterday’s rough drive.

Stopping by the roadside we visited a nomad family, parents with a teenage daughter and a toddler boy. Dad had a motorcycle and a satellite dish beside the tent. The girl straddled a long stretch of cloth, bending over as she threw a shuttle on a simple loom. She wove a long and thick rough black cloth from yak hair. It seems to have been a continuous piece, folded over at about twenty feet and about a foot wide. Looking across the field I saw the black tent – the same woven yak hair. She stood, smiling a big smile, and stretched her back. They had rigged a simple mechanical pulling device for twining – and every couple of minutes mom would walk over and yank on a handle to spin the yak hair into a thread. 

They told us they’d be moving into town and giving up the yak herding.

Zhun Ba Xiang for a good lunch of noodles with leafy greens.

Nomads get loans from the government to build small houses. They build only along the road so the tourists can see how the government is taking care of the nomads. Some of the roofs of the houses are Chinese style – the locals buy them and apparently get some supplemental income. The houses aren’t occupied much. At most a few, during the winter by the old folks, but they appear to be entirely empty now.

All afternoon along the Yalung river – green fast and wide. Like medicine, a soothing breeze flows up from the river.

We came out of the valley with its blue green river and there, at the bend of the road, the green river flowed into a wider brown river. We’d arrived at the Yangtze River, flowing off the plateau and gaining speed, depth and volume from so many smaller rivers like the one we had been driving along. Such a clear demarcation, blue green river vanishing into the silty brown Yangtze.


The Road to Derge (Dege)

Khampa homes in Derge (Dege).
Khampa homes in Derge (Dege). Photo © Carol Brighton.

Barshok (Xinlong) to Pelyul (Baiyu)

We are in the Nyarong region, a day or two out of Derge, and up at altitude — 12 to 13,000 feet or so – approaching a high pass. It’s been a long morning drive and the afternoon came on with fatigue. I dozed off and woke up suddenly, startled. My mom’s voice spoke. What? Here? All the way out here … I get to this remote place so high, so far from home and now you want to talk? I laughed – the driver looked over at me and smiled. The sky is such deep cerulean – and clear. And out of the blue mom checks in – “I just came to say hi – just to say everything is OK.”

Mom died about this time four years ago. I was with her when she died. She was as big as life and in charge to the last breath. Now she’s one with the Great Mother.

Asay Valley

The Changwo monastery is half way between Barshok and Pelyul. There’s a prayer flag house of white prayer flags and a gold roof monastery.

There are installations of tent-shaped prayer flags – like art installations, in the fields and by rivers. They’re constructed by stringing hundreds of round rows on rows of prayer flags, in grey and sometimes faded red, they sway in the wind. They are gathered and tied and added to over the seasons. Intense bright light breaks into the interior spaces, between the rows shades of grey form dark folds and curves of their own.

Prayer flag tents, Kham.
Prayer flag tents, Kham. Photo © Carol Brighton.

The flag tents, white cloth and printed in black or red, are now, even faded in this high altitude sun, stunning. Crawling underneath the outside rows it’s possible to get inside and see how they are strung layer upon layer in a wide circle and raised on a central wooden pole. As the wind blows the rows open, intense sunlight flows in and blue sky appears between dancing, rippling edges. Most of the flags are the Padmasambhava mantra — om ah hung —  benza guru pema siddhi hung — a song of clear light, calling to mind a great teacher, a Buddha, and an awakened mind, repeated ad infinitum.

These installations — from the printing process through the day they were hung, and afterwards as pilgrims walk around them — are intended for the well being of all of us. The mantra calls a great teacher to be with us, and calls up that quality in each of us, for the benefit of all. It is inspiring and has so much spiritual energy — benevolence, compassion and caring for those close to us and for unknown multitudes. The prayer flags are a generous gift.

After lunch in Changko, we cross the 4800 meter/over 15,000 ft. pass — sick and irritable — felt better after a descent to lower altitude.

This is a green, green valley, so beautiful with lots of standing prayer flags. We have passed such beautiful stupas.

We arrive in Pelyul after dark. There are lots of police around, and parked on the corner outside our guest house.  Looking out the second floor window of my room I saw a man standing in the dark by the telephone pole across the street…a watcher. We heard there were road blocks at both ends of the road to a monastery where a monk had self immolated.

This is a horror; a Tibetan, a fellow human being, has died in a desperate act of protest. By the time of this posting, many more have died this way – giving up life calling for freedom for their people. It’s a sad, deep sorrow.

May their deaths be enough — may they serve the cause of freedom. May all beings be free.

The occupation of Tibet is a heartbreaking catastrophe.

Derge (Dege)

The Derge parkhang — printing house — Wow. It is all that could be expected. The main prayer hall is on the ground floor, the printing house and library are up on the top floors.

Carving woodblocks of Buddhist texts.
Carving woodblocks of Buddhist texts. Photo © Carol Brighton.

Upstairs the printing creates its own rhythm. Tengyur teachings are being printed today – commentaries written on the Buddha’s words — teachings for the common man. They are using an expensive red ink, tsol rinpoche, a precious pigment costing  400 yuan per kilo.  It’s rare – probably mercury based. They crush it into a dry red powder and slowly mix in water to make a paste.

Of course these printers are expert. There’s a synergetic relationship between the inker who applies the ink with a short bristle brush – and the printer who lays pre-dampened paper on the inked block and prints the text with a thick handmade roller. It’s all very lickety-split, in efficient movements. Brushing ink, slapping down paper, rolling to print, lifting and placing aside to dry — both printers in a creative flow. Here is the beating heart, in this steady, accurate rhythm, printing dharma teachings.

There are stacks after stacks of woodblocks – some 800 years old, some even older – they say there are 300,000 blocks. This is a library of Tibetan Buddhism.

The printing house is a quiet oasis here. All around the building there is a murmuring life. The Tibetans circumambulate the kora clockwise – keeping the sacred on the right. Walking swiftly, saying rounds of prayers on their malas. Talking with each other or walking solo, some very old, and some carrying young babies, they share the circular route.

Inside the building there are water offerings at the foot of the great golden Buddha. A monk is drumming in a nearby protector’s chapel. Mostly it’s quiet since the monks have already left after morning prayers.

On the third floor there is a small room where one monk sits chanting Tara mantras —  om Tare tu tare ture soha — in a low, steady baritone. Twenty one gold Tara statues line the walls, keeping him company.

The surrounding rooftop views towards the hills. Brown houses stacked up the hill with decorated window glass and marigolds in boxes butted against each other. Prayer flags drape up where it’s too steep to build, reaching toward the top of the mountain, and clouds hide the high horizon.

Up here in the mountains – the air is so clear the sky so blue.

High altitude dreaming. A woman told me the axis of the earth has shifted. Stepping backwards into thin air, I didn’t fall.

Thoughts have weight. The mind creates. The first work is the work of the mind – what’s going on in there — in the free zone? Empty like the sky, full like the earth.


Kham: The Land of King Gesar

Tro la Pass – Dramado – Manigango

Snow covers the pointy needle peaks at the Tro la pass 15,500 ft/4700 m. The Tibetan medicine, rhadiola, we bought in town helps relieve altitude symptoms.

Dramado village has a huge chorten – very big and Nepali-style, like the Bhoudha stupa in Kathmandu – charung kasho chorten.

There is a carving of Buddha in a rock wall above us, beside the river. They’ve been working on it for two years, climbing up the scaffolding every morning to chip away at the image. The general shape is now visible – the shoulders can be made out and more or less the shape of the head. Buddha is emerging all over Kham, in reconstruction, new construction and the daily circumambulations of the hundreds of prayer wheels and stupas. The stone carvers figure they’ll be finished in another year or so.

Buddha Wall Carving at Dramado, Kham.
Buddha Wall Carving at Dramado, Kham. Photo © Carol Brighton.

We drove down the mountain several thousand feet to Yo Long (Joro) lake where we hiked in to the shore. One could hire a horse and take the newly established tourist ride – it felt good to be walking. So pretty, soft rolling hills, green with trees and the snowy mountains in the distance. King Gesar’s wife was here some thousand years ago and told of visions.

Prayer flags and mani stones fill the slopes and the shore on this side of the lake. Big boulders are perfect warm seats for watching the rim light on the other side and the bright reflections changing on the glacier.

The lake is deep green glacial water. A steep green wall of stone, trees and bushes rises directly out of the water on the opposite side. Here on the shore a stupa is glowing in the bright light. Faded gauzy prayer flags drape all around.

Arrived at Manigango for lunch. Manigango is a crazy, kind of wild-west looking crossroads town, a place to stock up. There is a butcher on the street – that is the animal, maybe a yak, has been skinned and carved up and is splayed out on a sheet on the street. A rollicking crowd watches a young man — toothy, grinning and red faced — cut off pieces of bloody meat and offer them around.

At lunch, two Chinese cooks strut around the kitchen with the confidence that cooks have when they know their foods is good. Midday sun lights a big bowl of white rice and is shiny on all the aluminum bowls. Tibetan woman also work in the kitchen – preparing vegetables. They asked me to take their picture.

It’s only been six days – seems like weeks. So much to take in.

After lunch, and another pass at 14,500 ft., we drive through velvety green grasslands with smooth rounded hills.

Sechen

Now at about 3800 m., we stayed at the monastery’s guest house. It’s in a beautiful setting, surrounded by green hills all covered with prayer flags. Pink and white on green.

Dormitories at Sechen Monastery, Kham.
Dormitories at Sechen Monastery, Kham. Photo © Carol Brighton.

Dinner came from the supply pantry box kept in the car: packaged noodles, nuts, protein bars, cocoa. Couldn’t sleep until sometime after 4 am, even though the bed was comfortable.

The monks made unleavened bread in a long cast iron stove for an early breakfast in the monastery kitchen. That and a hard boiled egg and tea were plenty. I gave them dried blueberries, apples and mangoes brought in from my local store at home.

We drove down the hill and visited the school where 500 monks — from elementary school age to adults — are studying the dharma. They were sitting on cushions in the floor – filling the main prayer hall and chanting a padmasambhava mantra — om ah hung –  benza guru pema siddhi hung.

The gompa has images of famous lamas painted on the walls. The ones from our time are painted in a photo realist style, looking contemporary and very real next to the traditional painting.

Ashu (Axiu)

Rousting out the “curator” and the head monk, we found the man with the keys. He was half dressed – but he lumbered out and opened the little King Gesar museum, a small building. The king sits on a big horse all in clay with shiny, colored glazes, surrounded by his ministers, wives and soldiers. A very sweet space, packed full of figures – supporters of the king in all his magical and heroic adventures.

King Gesar’s story is an epic filled with mystical and magical deeds of one of Tibet’s cultural heroes from the kingdom of Ling. It is a very long epic –perhaps the longest known – and continues to be sung and read in poetry and prose some 800 years after it origin. I was happy to come across a version in an English translation in a used bookstore not long before leaving for this trip. It was great reading.

The local monastery, TsaTsa Gompa, is a Karma Kagyu site. There’s a big Buddha Maitreya with gold filigree details and a lovely prayer hall.

We have a couple of hours to rest before dinner. There’s a generator beating away noisily, but nice to sit in the chilly, late afternoon light and rest. There is the usual squat toilet,  and the whole room is the shower, with a drain in the floor.

The rooms are so pretty, painted ochre with medallions of blue flowers all around, and panels of blue with flowers as a wainscoting and again at the top of the wall – and medallions again in the middle of the ceiling.

Peanut butter on day-old bread in the room for breakfast. This seemed like enough – I never seem to have much appetite at altitude.

So we left the land of King Gesar heading for Dzogchen.


Dzogchen and Kandze (Garze)

On the Road from Manigango to Dzogchen

More bumpy roads, more yaks, more water running off the mountains. Running in little streams into wet marshes and joining together into rivers flowing into a wide array of water controls — diversions and dams. And then there are the big trucks hauling goods and fuel up the mountain and logs down the mountain.

The driver’s English lessons go on: “The sky is blue, the clouds are white, the trees are green, the grass is yellow.”

And deep turquoise blue is the sky, and bright sparkly white are the high clouds so quickly moving across the mountains, and deep dark green are the trees.  Except the trees that are now logs and stacked on flat bed trucks as they get hauled down the mountain. And the grass is yellow in some of the wide open places but often it is dark and velvety green.

We stopped behind a long petrol truck stuck on a hair pin turn going uphill. The other side was a steep drop down to the valley below. The driver just couldn’t get enough traction to get up the hill and was backsliding to the edge of the cliff, wheels spinning in the mud from last night’s rain. He stopped just before going over. He maneuvered enough space to let us and a smaller petrol truck pass around. They rigged up a chain so the smaller truck could pull him up the hill. Our driver wanted to get away quickly — he couldn’t help and it was a hazardous circumstance. As there was no subsequent ball of fire rising out of the valley below, they must have been successful.

Dzogchen Monastery

The Dzogchen monastery is preparing for a special teaching. The feeling is high with the friendliness of a community gathering and the excited anticipation of the spiritual teaching about to begin. Monks and nuns are unloading thousands of brown-paper wrapped texts from the side of a truck, hand over hand the texts fly into the gompa.

The place is spectacular — the grounds are well designed with wonderful details. Mini stupas line the low wall around the main assembly hall, each with gold decorations, and larger stupas flank the walls surrounding the building. There’s power in repetition; a printed mantra repeated thousands of times is inside each stupa, with a ceremonial consecration. Knowing the intent is more than decorative, that they hold prayers for all of us, is a powerful awareness.

There’s a lot of Chinese support here. Lots of donations showing up in the gold roofs and elegant details. This is private support, not governmental. Tibetan Buddhist monastics of Chinese descent are here for the teachings, and the surrounding fields are filling with tents and kitchens for the lay people.

The entire center, with prayer hall and surrounding buildings and guest houses, is deep in a valley. One wouldn’t know it is there from the outside – only discovering it after a long drive curving into this far end of the valley. It’s beautifully placed against green hillsides, embraced in green.

I could have stayed there forever.

View over Kandze (also Ganzi or Garze)
View over Kandze (also Ganzi or Garze) Photo © Carol Brighton.

On to Kandze (Garze)

Another bumpy ride all afternoon.

At the comfortable Golden Yak hotel, a breakfast of steaming fresh bread with peanut butter and a hard-boiled egg. Then on to Kandze monastery up on the hill outside of town, with its 400 monks.

In the main hall, lots of brightly colored clay statues of the deities line the back wall up to the high ceiling. It’s kind of gaudy, even in terms of the brightly colored displays that usually make up Tibetan temples.

On to Lamdrag nunnery — named after the Rinpoche who founded it. There are 100 nuns in residence, including one nun who is 42 and has been living here for 20 years.

This is a pretty place, up on a hill with a long drop off on one side and wide deep views. White stucco walls reflect the bright light. Passing the old well and through an arched entry we end up on a mud deck looking out over the valley. Our nun shares a room on one side of the deck. Two beds, a desk and an altar, the altar elaborately laid out with essential images, water offerings and flowers.

Kandze has 90,000 people and a third of these are Chinese. On His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday the locals hiked up to the top of the hill for celebrating and lighting incense. The military police came and pushed them all away and wouldn’t let them stay at the top. One monk fought them.

Sitting and soaking for an hour in a sulphur hot springs bath soothed the road weariness. Shopped a bit at the large fruit market with lots of everything. Szechuan province in all its farming glory gets trucked in here at higher altitude. Locally they grow barley, radishes and potatoes. We’ve had a lot of fried potatoes.

On a hill outside of town overlooking the whole valley is Zhoa Zha Kowa, the great Stupa. It’s five years old. I walk around, see the valley and the incense burner on the small bluff next to this, walk with some older pilgrims circumambulating in the morning light.

The valley is a bowl with monasteries all around on the rim. In places om mani padme hung mantras are laid out in white stones so they can be seen from a long distance – read, spoken, and silent, echoing across the valley.

Early breakfast and to market for fruit and more peanut butter. Local bread and peanut butter have been breakfast for many mornings.

After visiting the great stupa, we get back on the bumpy roads to Luo He (Luhuo), passing big trucks full of goods on the way to Kandze (Gandze).

Prayer flags in the wind — red, yellow, and blue — point to the sky.

We stop at Takgo gompa, with its 300 monks, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a gift of a Shakyamuni statue with relics inside. There is a long set of prayer wheels in a covered walkway on the slope of the hill. Elderly Tibetans turn the wheels, slowly making their way up to the gompa.

In the prayer hall, monks are saying medicine Buddha prayers – chanting the mantra for a woman from the village who is sick. Up the hill there is a smaller building with a two-story tall Buddha. Beautiful.

On the way out of Kandze there are a lot of pilgrims — a couple of different groups prostrating along the muddy road. They wear long plastic aprons and wooden paddles on their hands. Their plan is to prostrate all the way to Lhasa. One group is nuns, and a man pulling a cart of supplies. Another group is monks. We stop and give them some of the fruit and bread we’ve bought in the market that morning.

Luohe to Bamei

Luohe to Bamei is a long six-hour drive. The roads are the usual mess, muddy from last night’s rain and bumpy. Lots of stop and go with road workers directing the traffic.

I have lost some weight — that feels good. Today we finally got a meal that was pretty good, and I ate too much for lunch. We’ve had lots of eggplant and tomatoes and lots more potatoes … sometimes tofu. We’ve found some good fruit in the last couple days too.

Bamei

Bamei has a nice guest house, big rooms and bathrooms, lovely staff. We drive to the stone forest, where slate stones in odd shapes strangely appear out of grassy hillsides.

The gompa has been rebuilt, and is a short walk behind the guest house. There’s a fenced work yard that has parts of the old building that have been saved — rooftop spires and broken statues. A new two-story brass prayer wheel is housed inside a glass room where it reflects cascading light and the molded mantras on the windows.

A row of big white stupas line the main road, now all dusty from the traffic.

Back to early dinner at the guest house — the same ingredients well made. Early to bed and sleep.


The Rongdrag (Danba) Valley

Kham Women (Khamo) from Rondrag.
Kham Women (Khamo) from Rondrag. Photo © Carol Brighton.

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
grounded

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.

Village homes in Jiaju, Kham.
Village homes in Jiaju, Kham. Photo © Carol Brighton.

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.

Rongdrag (Danba)

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?

Luding

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.

C.Brighton

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.

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Updated on February 18, 2020. First published on June 2, 2012.

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