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.
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.
Notes from a Mountain Journal
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 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.
View a video slideshow of images from the trip, with Dartsendo and Lithang:
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…
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.
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.
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.
View more of the Kham: Notes from a Mountain Journal series:
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- Kandze (Chinese Garze, Ganzi, Garzi or Garzin), is also called Garnze, Karze or Kardze, and is in the Sichuan part of Kham, outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.)
- Dartsendo (Chinese Kangding) is also called Dardo, Darstedo, and Darzêdo.
If you are planning a trip to Kham or Amdo, we can put you in touch with a reliable Tibetan-owned agent who will plan a non-touristy trip that gives you a real feel for Tibet. Contact us here for Tibet travel help.
Emma from England, on her trip using a referral from YoWangdu Tibetan Culture:
The sights and sounds of Tibet will remain with me for the rest of my life…The trip was over too quickly but it has become number 1 of the more than 120 countries and islands I have visited in my life…