The morning broke in Kangding slightly cloudy, as myself and the British couple I was to trek with anticipated catching a ride in the morning to Tagong. This was a fairly relative measure, as are most things in Sichuan. Angela, the American-born owner of the Khampa Cafe in Tagong and the organizer of our impending trek on the plateau, arrived for breakfast and told us that while she wasn’t going to Tagong after all, she had found a driver for us, and he was attempting to locate more people to help defray the cost.
Happy enough about getting a slightly later start, we hung around the Zhilam Hostel, drinking surprisingly good French-press coffee and watching backpackers stream in and out of the landing.
We would be staying at Isabel’s guesthouse in Tagong, by the riverside a bit outside of town. This was because some sort of stomach bug was preying on the foreigners that went there, afflicting them with impressive attacks of barfing (and more!) just as they were growing accustomed to the high altitude. “We don’t really know how it’s getting around,” said Angela,”but I think it’s the water. It’s best not to eat anything in Tagong,or drink anything. Maybe don’t touch anything.”
Overwhelmed with vivid visions of being struck with some sort of exploding Mao Zedong’s Revenge-type ailment four miles into a horse trek, we agreed to stay out of town.
Angela then informed me about the peculiarities of the huge Larong Gar Buddhist monastery a day’s drive from Tagong, which few Westerners seem to know about, but numerous Chinese help financially support – many of whom have converted to Tibetan Buddhism in recent years.
“They’ve got this sort of Disneyfied Sky Burial,” she said of the place, referring to the practice in which Tibetan Buddhists ritualistically feed their dead to vultures and other scavengers.
“They’ve got this big cement skull, and then inside of it, there’s real skulls. Some of the monks lets the tourists come inside and see.”
I resolved to have a look, one way or another.
By 11, the driver was duly rustled up, and we bumped down the hill from Zhilam Hostel to the Kangding Hotel with our luggage to meet him. He had a brown van and a large tan Tibetan cowboy hat, and he was now very eager to leave. Tony and I decided we needed to buy emergency provisions, as well as make a final ATM run, and we decamped towards the surprisingly large supermarket, leaving Allie to guard our bags.
The driver was exceedingly irritated at us for taking 20 minutses to locate snacks and a reasonably hygienic place to pee, and was more so when Allie realized she needed to do the same – altitude, we deduced, being a true diuretic when combined with buckets of coffee. But soon enough, we were off.
The road to Tagong climbed up out of the well-like valley in which Kangding sits, quickly breaking through the lush high-altitude forest and into a grassy and green plateau. We saw numerous miserable looking cyclists as we drove, some pedaling resolutely upwards with their freakishly bulging calves, others morosely pushing their bikes uphill through the cloud banks.
“If we get lost up here and desperate, we can always eat one of them,” I pointed out cheerily. The fact that the couple didn’t react to this with disgust (hey, I think cannibalism is hilarious) is one reason I like traveling with British people.
Soon, we went over the pass and the land truly opened to the Tibetan Plateau, with rolling hills denuded of trees, dotted with white boulders and numerous rainbow-colored prayer flags. It was at this plateau that the Chinese government had, for entirely mysterious reasons, decided to build the Kangding Airport.
It had an exceedingly optimistically huge main terminal, and an immensely long runway, accounting for its tremendous altitude and the amount of lift a large airplane requires at altitudes where the air is thin. “There aren’t any planes out there, are there?” asked Tony, as we looked at the lonely expanse. “I think there’s only one flight a day.”
“I wish them all the best with their tourism endeavors,” I said, as we drove past – finding ourselves encountering our first bank of nomad camps. The camps involved plain-looking white tents, surrounded by small and scrawny horses and plentiful herds of shaggy, small yaks, in shades of black and white and grey. The nomads wore black clothing accented with bits of color, including vibrant pinks and yellows.
Some of the nomads sat in small conclaves outside the tents and drank tea and smoked pipes, their huge and savage dogs wandering the perimeter with their noses to the ground and their flag-like, waving tails in the air. We were all very concerned about dogs, and seeing them so often did little to alleviate the tension.
A grim conversation about how to best subdue an angry dog ensued. (I mentioned a small bit of lore I had heard from protection dog trainers- to wit, if a dog is biting someone and you need it to let go, you can try sticking your finger up its butthole. I have not tested this personally, but I’ve heard good things).
Beyond the eternally grim dog topic, we enjoyed the scenery – green fields dotted with handsome Tibetan villages, the large houses made with grey brick and magenta accents. It reminded me of a rather Medieval scene, and it is also probable that the construction style has not changed much from that contemporary time period.
Everywhere were rainboe colored prayer flags and prayer banners, some arranged into attractive patterns. Stones were painted with Tibetan sacred characters, and torn-apart banners emanated from the tops of particularly attractive stones. White stupas – the same as one finds everywhere in the Buddhist world – occasionally poked their heads out from gulleys or behind sharp turns in the road.
Tagong was a truly Wild Western town, as if we had stepped into some left-over Blazing Saddles set-piece that had been taken over by a Kung fu movie – the extras occupying the exact same liminal space in their choice of outfits. Men with yak-skin ponchos and brightly colored clothing rumbled into town on large, mud-spattered motorbikes, while women in traditional Tibetan clothing wandered up and down the dusty streets, doing their shopping. People shouted “Tashi delay” in greeting at us, and smiled widely.
Numerous souvenir stores all seemed to be selling the same Tibetan jewelry and bric-a-brac, while many more general stores sold everything from faded basketball posters to fluffy pink towels to work boots. Trucks pulled up beside the road deposited lush-looking peaches and apples, while groups of Tibetans gathered around to trade jewelry, shouting happily at one another. Construction was underway to widen the sidewalks (or some sort of improvement along those lines), and a bulldozer made its way down the not-exactly busy streets, the driver peering at me with mild curiosity as I passed by.
We had lunch at the Khampa Cafe, where I ordered a yak burger – this time, the American style yak burger, on a house-made bun with real cheddar cheese. It was surprisingly delicious, with a homemade taste that reminded me, oddly enough, of the burgers my dad makes when occasionally moved to do so. This was served with potatoes baked in – you guessed it – yak butter, as well as a tomato and cucumber salad that made me have nostalgic thoughts about countries that have good relationships with fresh vegetables. I was happy.
We walked into Tagong’s main monastery, which had a large courtyard used for traditional performances on holidays. It was not exactly a holiday, and the staging area reminded me something of a motel, with yellow, numbered doors denoting where the monks lived. We walked inside to the smoky main vestibule and watched as two monks quietly lit small butter lamps and recited sutras. A skinny white horse grazed outside.
We had planned to secure a ride to Isabel’s guesthouse – also known as the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse – but it was proving harder than we had assumed. Late in the afternoon, and all the drivers had better things to do with their time, or had already retired to the hills, or something. After a solid two hours or so of sitting in the Khampa Cafe and drinking tea with ever-increasing nervousness about how exactly this stomach bug was transmitted anyway, we secured a ride.
Isabel was not there, having gone to Danba to get more appealing Western food for the Swiss group that was coming in, but Tashi, her husband, was present. He was not quite aware that we were coming, or so it appeared, but he punted masterfully.
The couple had build a huge stone house in the traditional Tibetan style, with Tashi’s brother and his family occupying the ground floor, and the guesthouse occupying the upper two floors. We were shown to clean and simple wooden rooms with white beds built into the floor, with windows looking out over the river, which had white and brown horses grazing beside it.
Tashi seemed eager to talk. He had, he said, worked at a Burger King in Basel and then an old folks home, while at the same time attending six months of German language lessons. “I like it better here,” he admitted, in his deep-accented but entirely understandable English. “In Switzerland, they are much too busy.”
He had studied Buddhist philosophy in Dehradun in India, he told us, but he had been born here, in the river town outside of Tagong. Isabel had met him while she was on vacation from a teaching post at Chengdu University.The two had lived in Switzerland until this year, when they moved here for a while to allow their five-year-old daughter to improve her Tibetan skills. The house was strewn with her small drawings and Western DVD covers, as well as books on Tibetan and German language.
Tashi proudly showed us their gorgeously painted karaoke and party room on the second floor. “Scottish students came here last week, and they sang and danced,” he said, noting a karaoke and sound system set-up, as well as burners for fires in the winter. It was highly impressive – and even more impressive, there were incredibly hot showers. We slept soundly.
If you need a place to stay in Tagong, do consider the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse/Isabel and Tashi’s. Contact information is here: