Kangding does not exactly get a glowing reception in the major guidebooks, which describe this Chinese-Tibetan border city as “uninspiring,” maybe even “boring.” I am here to say that they are wrong, and that I am happy to defend Kangding’s honor – this pleasant little city with crisp mornings, a remarkable vegetable market, and a surging whitewater river right through the center of town.
If you want to travel in Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, you must first go through Kangding. Getting to this border town, which is known as Dartesedo or Dardo to the Tibetans, requires a heavily theoretical six to nine hour bus ride – the duration of which can lengthen shockingly when a landslide takes place or an accident stops up the narrow mountain roads.
I booked a bus ticket in Chengdu and reported at the exceedingly shovey station at 9:00 AM sharp, where I boarded the Luxury Bus (well, sort of) and headed for the mountains.
The trip took us through the surprisingly bucolic lowlands of Sichuan, dotted with electric green small farms and traditional white Chinese houses with black trimming. Eventually, we began our climb upwards, into ever more enormous canyons covered in bamboo and thick jungle foliage, the roadsides dotted with endless unfinished construction projects.
In the finest Chinese tradition, my seatmate appeared to have some of unpleasant respiratory disorder and spat at regular ten minute intervals into a small blue bucket in the aisle, provided for that purpose. We got on well enough until he produced an enormous hunting knife and a sausage, which he carved at meditatively around tight mountain passes, which we traversed at high speed. This made me nervous.
We finally arrived in Kangding around 6:00 PM. As soon as I got off the bus, it was glaringly apparant I had left China and entered an – as the anthropologists call it – Cultural Liminal Zone. Kangding used to be where Tibetans and Chinese would meet for trading purposes, the Chinese hauling great blocks of Pu-Erh tea and other goods up the jungle roads I had just traversed, the Tibetans bringing furs and yak meat and other high-altitude valuables to meet them.
The city remains the gateway to historical Tibet, and remains primarily Tibetan with some Han Chinese population, in a region that some say with confidence is now more Tibetan than Tibet proper.
Certainly, this Tibetan predominance was evident in the tanned and angular faces of the tall, ponytail wearing men who gathered around me as I walked out of the bus station – and all of them thought I should really hop into *their* taxi, except none of them spoke any English and damned if I knew any Tibetan. I almost never take unmetered taxis, operating under the assumption they are almost exclusively driven by cheating bastards. I could see metered taxis streaming by, but none of them were stoppping.
I called the Zhilam Hostel and begged for mercy – and conveniently, ran into a British couple who were also heading to the same place.
Allie, a London-based worker for a startup company, eventually managed to fling herself halfway into one of the taxis which had (foolishly) stopped within running distance of us. Meanwhile I shoved a phone with the Zhilam Hostel owner on the line into the bewildered looking drivers face. We got our ride.
The taxi deposited us at the base of the hill, and I soon discovered that the “uphill” location of the Zhilam Hostel was actually a very delicate understatement. In fact, it was a 15 minute upward haul to the hostel, a narrow switchbacked stretch that no taxi could be cajoled to bother with. Cursing the life choices that had led me to carry three bags (one of them wheely) through the odder stretches of China, I began the upward climb, swearing quietly to myself at regular intervals as I clacked along. The British couple, bless them, took pity on me and helped.
I arrived at the Zhilam Hospital sweating, slightly irate, and in dire need of a beer. I felt a bit better as I looked the place over, an American-owned guesthouse decorated in a traditional Tibetan style, all wood, colorful paintings, and comfortable cushions and couches. The place was full of sunburned Western backpackers, a stack of well-thumbed Lonely Planets dominating the kitchen. I had booked a dorm bed and was happy to find the dorm rooms were spacious and actually had curtains, and lacked the persistent smell of mold and despair that seems to characterize Chinese hostels.
Upstairs, I spent a pleasant evening chatting with two American rock climbers and their Australian friend, all coming down from Sichuan’s northern regions. The rock climbers had just finished a first ascent of a route in what’s termed “Asia’s Patagonia,” while the Australian was hustling down to Chengdu, after being bitten by a dog in Litang. (This was to be only the first in a series of interesting rabies conversations I engaged in in the region of Garze).
We shared a yak meat pizza, which was accidentally given to the wrong party, but we got it eventually. I can confirm that yak meat is perfectly edible, especially when it – as is ideal in Tibetan culture – has suffered from a pleasantly accidental death instead of an unsightly planned *murder*.
I woke up early the next morning in an effort to catch some AM photos of the mountains that loom over Kangding, which didn’t work out very well because it was rather overcast and depressive looking. I punted: I bid farewell to the rock climbers (headed to Chengdu) and ordered some surprisingly excellent French press coffee, plotting out the rest of my day in Kangding. First on my agenda was fixing my knockoff North Face backpack, which had cost me the princely sum of $12 in Phnom Penh a month ago. It had rewarded me by having both the straps pop off within a week, leaving me to wander around China with a red and black backpack secured to me only some straps of fabric and my own profound annoyance at the situation.
Even worse, the knockoff trade in China had diminished greatly since my last visit in 2007, with all the available backpacks costing at least $60 at shiny outdoors stores with Adidas signs all over them. I didn’t know what to do.
“You could buy a new one,” the hostel owner said, “but you can just find one of the old men with sewing machines to fix it for you.” Of course I could.
I had just forgotten that I was back in the part of the world where elderly people with extremely tiny street-based businesses will solve most of your human needs for under $5.
Sure enough, I found an elderly man with a considerably more elderly sewing machine at the base of the hill where the Zhilam Hostel sits. I handed him my backpack, showed him the damage, and looked unhappy about it, and he understood immediately, going to work with tools likely last in vogue in 1935. Within 20 minutes, he had resewn my straps and added new bolts to my loose backplate, transforming my knockoff backpack into something considerably more stalwart. I tried to hand him 100 RMB as a gesture of extreme gratitude, but he shrugged and pushed it away, delicately accepting a 10 RMB note instead.
Enjoying my newly rejuvenated backpack to an almost bizarre extent, I walked into town in search of things to put inside of it (as well as an ATM). Kangding reminded me of Reno in an odd sort of way, with its rushing river through the middle of town, sharp mountain air, and aura of slightly odd people making easy money.
The mountains towered up all around, from the basin in which the town sat, and I was reminded of the words of British explorer Elizabeth Kimball Kendall in her 1913 “A Wayfarer in China,” who described Kangding – known to her as Tachienlu – as lying “at the bottom of a well,” with “hardly room to stand.” Modern Chinese construction was doing its best to alleviate the canyon situation of Kangding, but the aspect of the place was still aggressively vertical – hemmed in by rock and trees and the omnipresent danger of landslide.
The town’s Peoples Square was hosting a Tibetan song and dance festival, inspired by the omnipresent Chinese love song inspired by Kangding’s mountain. I shoved my way to the front of the crowd (as is proper) and watched for a while as a boy and a girl, dressed up in a deer suit, acted out a melodrama involving the female deer being shot and eaten by other teenagers dressed up in furs. It was very exciting.
I wandered down the river and found myself in the midst of Kangding’s food market, which stretches along the left side of the river for a good half-a-mile. The produce was tremendously attractive, as fancy as that found at a horrendously expensive California Whole Foods – enormous pink radishes, robust and luridly colored eggplants, and an endless variety of wild-picked mushrooms. I eventually found myself in the butchery section, where tables held the remains of yaks, made recognizable by their hanging, tufted black-and-white tails.
I planned to take the gondola up the mountain, but instead, I misplaced my passport. This led to a good two hours of ransacking the hostel in a state of slowly increasing panic, which magnified after I looked up the horrifyingly byzantine process that is getting a US passport replaced in Chengdu. Eventually, one of the young Tibetans that works at the hostel produced a penlight and discovered my passport had somehow slipped out of its sleeve – where I had put it for safe-keeping behind the front desk – and under a cabinet. whew.
The British couple, Tony and Allie, and I decided to have dinner at the Malaya Restaurant, which we found was on the 6th floor of Kangding’s most posh office building, above the omnipresent Dicos chain restaurant After accidentally heading up some distinctly murderous-looking stairs, then finding the right staircase, we emerged into a wood-paneled and pleasantly Tibetan-decorated restaurant, with waitresses in black silk and embroidered Tibetan garb, and a fine view of the Las Vegas lights of nighttime Kangding.
The menu was distinctly Tibetan, with everything from benign momos, to raw yak meat, to yak tongue served with Sichuan’s famous, supposedly medicinal fungus worms.
Eschewing the Tongue and Worm combo, we had beef with hot chilis, which was smoky and good. Next were stir-fried wild mushrooms, which were quite tasty but also cost 150 RMB, ensuring we didn’t repeat the experiment.
Last was a “yak burger,” which was actually a large steamed dish, with boiled Tibetan bread on top, yak stew in the middle, and potato on the bottom. Yak was surprisingly tender and tasty in general, and the potato did an excellent job of soaking up all those delicate yak juices.
We headed home to Zhilam, the walk uphill slightly more manageable without our luggage. The next day, we would head to Tagong to go trekking.
As for me, I’d concluded that Kangding deserves a much fairer shake than those stupid guidebooks would have you believe.