If you’ve visited Kangding, you’ve likely noticed the little necklace of red gondola cars heading up the cliffs that skirt town. If you are somewhat familiar with Sichuan’s exuberant seismic history and Chinese construction norms, you may have concluded no earthly force can compel you to get on said gondolas. I am here to tell you it is worth it, because they bring you to Paoma Mountain.
At the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding, I ran into a young man from Wake Forest, North Carolina, who had recently passed the bar exam and was now knocking around China for the holidays. My father hails from North Carolina, and we happily exchanged cultural pleasantries about the correct way to cook barbecue as we headed for Paoma, and the Dentok Monastery that lies at its top.
Finding the entrance to the cable car was a remarkable pain in the ass, considering that the track itself can be easily seen from just about everywhere in Kangding. We hiked up the hill to the approximate spot where we saw the cable car hitting the bottom of the mountain, made a left, walked past a promising looking parking lot – and found ourselves on the busy highway that runs through Kangding, full of trucks honking at us.
Confused, we escaped into the vertical warren of Kangding’s tenament buildings, the residents staring at us with unveiled amusement. We eventually emerged on the hill exactly where we had started, and hiked up again. This time, we chanced making a left into a beer garden area ringed with international flags. Sure enough, we passed a curiously empty Tibetan museum, and there was the gondola terminus. We paid 40 RMB and boarded, thankful it wasn’t a windy or rainy day.
The entrance to the grounds around Dentok cost an additional 40 RMB, which seemed a bit silly until we realized how large and impressive the mountaintop actually was. We first went inside the monastery, which had impressively elderly stone steps, and two monks reciting sutras inside. Reasonably aged paintings of Buddhist deities lined the walls and the doors.
From the monastery, I walked down a tree-lined path that led to a barred stone Tibetan house. To my left, a path led upwards to a flat, grassy plateau. Frightened looking Chinese tourists bounced around the circular lawn on annoyed-looking Tibetan ponies. Two Chinese girls in traditional costumes begged me to take a photo with them. White statues of Himalayan goddesses looked down upon the scene.
I walked up a series of white steps to take photos of the goddesses, which were framed elegantly by a sea of well-maintained wildflowers. Up there, I met up with my North Carolina countryman again, and we walked down the hill to a little pagoda and water-works area.
SOME NOTES ON PAOMA MOUNTAIN
Gondolas cost 40 yuan, and stop running around 5:30 PM. Be sure to enter at the beer garden, lest you suffer the fate we did, of wandering around aimlessly up and down hills while looking hopeless.
If you remain opposed to the gondola concept, it’s quite possible to walk up the mountain, a likely pleasant uphill track through pine forest and tattered prayer flags. Guidebooks will tell you that a tourist got murdered here in either 2000 or 1998, but Angela from the Khampa Cafe in Tagong scoffed at the idea of being frightened as a result.
“It was 15 years ago!” she told me, when I mentioned it. “Fifteen years! I’ve been walking up there and I haven’t been killed yet.”
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.
I woke up in Chengdu and immediately realized I should get a Chinese SIM card, as well as a bus ticket to Kangding. The SIM card seemed more immediately approachable, and I walked out the door in search of one of Asia’s ubiquitous, usually slightly cleverly-concealed cellphone shops. 100 RMB later, I had a SIM card for my iPhone with a nice 3G data plan. I suppose I had expected to have to fill out paperwork and then being yelled at by someone in a starched Mao suit in exchange for the privilege, instead of handing a lady a bill and being up and running nearly instantly.
It was already lunch-time and high time for touristing, and so I hopped in one of Chengdu’s pleasantly cheap cabs and headed for the Chengdu Museum, continuing my life-long love affair with provincial museums with dodgy signage.
In search of a pre-museum lunch,I briefly walked along the river and looked through Chengdu’s interesting antiques area, which is spread along the water and featured many interesting small things, from jades to black beaded necklaces to vintage Communist literature and posters. No restaurants or snack stalls apparated, though. I tried the string of restaurants across the street: one featured real Sichaunese food downstairs and was totally full, with Western food for depressed tour groups upstairs – no go. Another had excellent looking food that only came in party-size portions. I finally settled for a Xinjiang place, where a very loud and very good-natured Uighur man served me an enormous bowl of pulled noodle soup for 14 RMB.
I crossed the semi-deadly street to the museum, which was thankfully emptied out of tour groups in the late afternoon. I was even more pleased to find that the ticket was free after I flashed my drivers license. The collection featured a T-rex skeleton in the basement. More gorgeous ivory carvings of bug-infested vegetables, a beloved motif in fine Chinese art.
However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually do, as was distracted and increasingly concerned about my inability to speak Chinese. This was compounded by my inability to find anywhere I could buy something approximating a phrasebook. I began wondering if I was going to starve to death on the Tibetan plateau, unable to say anything but “Thank you” and “where is the bathroom?”
There wasn’t too much time for language based existential terror, however, as a friend of a friend via Twitter had answered my request for assistance with navigating the vast territory that is Sichuanese cuisine. That’s how I met up with Kevin Lee.
A young Chengdu native, Kevin is one of China’s few Mormons, a fact he volunteered eventually as I asked him about his years of life in the Mountain West of the United States – he was attending university at Brigham Young University’s Idaho branch.
. Being a Mormon in China, he said, was not a very comfortable business. “You can’t really talk about it. If you’re talking about what you believe, you can mention you’re a Christian and then say you’re a Mormon, maybe.”
Attired in a white polo shirt, Kevin spoke with a California-accent with a vague Mexican inflection and plenty of entirely current West Coast slang, picked up from his overseas mission in the Sunshine State, prior to his enrollment in BYU. In fact, he had served in Sacramento, which happens to be where I went to high school – one of those bizarre geographical confluences I’ve become almost accustomed to in the course of international travel. “Oh man, Inn and Out Burger,” he said, a look of profound nostalgia on his face. “I get those whenever I go to Utah. Bomb-ass food.”
The other food in the West, he said, was less compelling. He admitted to going to Panda Express, but only because there were no other options. He also had taken to driving and road-trips, although he said that driving in Chengdu – in the midst of a sea of new drivers with a very limited understanding of road rules – was too much for him. “I do have a car. No other way to pick up girls for dates, right? You can’t just call her up and ask her to pick YOU up.”
He hadn’t been back to Chengdu in about three years but was happy to be home. “The city has changed so much,” he said, referring to the madcap pace of expansion and the immense and light-festooned buildings that were sprouting in every possible direction. “I mean, there’s as many people here as New York City.”
We hopped a surprisingly clean, if crowded bus, which cost 4 yuan, and headed to Wide-Narrow Street, a walking and shopping area of long-standing that has been renovated and airbrushed into a major tourist attraction for China’s many domestic travelers.
True to the name, there were two parallel streets, one rather narrow, and one considerably wider, with cobble-stone floors and traditionally built buildings. The businesses were rather less old-fashioned, with an exceedingly elegant Starbucks, various and sundry fancy nightclubs with young Chinese men belting out American songs, and a sea of luxurious looking restaurants. We stopped for a snack of an entire potato deep-fried on a stick with chili powder, and watched various tourist demonstrations of tea-pouring, traditional candy making in the shape of crabs, phoenixes, and oxen, and the production of Chinese crafts.
For dinner, we stopped at a very popular and very large hot-pot restaurant. Kevin was surprised I was interested, noting “My Mexican friends love hotpot and spicy foods, but the white kids…man, they don’t like it.” (I ventured that this was at least in part a function of being in the Mountain West in the US, the land where Flavor Goes to Die in Solitude and Disrepute).
Many of the male clients had taken off their shirts, a seeming prerequisite to successful hot-pot consumption. We ordered tofu, beef, pork meatballs, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bacon, which were brought to the table raw. The half-and-half hotpot came out in a ying-yang shape, with one side filled with a mild pork broth with green onion, jujube, and spices, the other side filled with the vaguely evil looking Sichuanese standard of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilis, and onion.
In the evening, we headed to the Jinli Walking Street, which was recently renovated. “It definitely wasn’t like this five years ago,” said an obviously impressed Kevin, as we walked down alleys filled with craft-makers, designer clothing outlets, fast food restaurants, and yet another very high-end Starbucks.
There were yet more expensive pubs, including one where a handsome young Chinese man sang American songs in front of a Confederate flag. I’m guessing they’re not aware of the context, though to be fair, it seems many Americans aren’t either.
We were far too full to eat anything, but we were both impressed by the long strip of snack places, featuring the full range of Chengdu specialties. “I want to come back here and eat everything,” said Kevin. I seconded that emotion.
Chengdu falls neatly into the orbit of massive, bustling Chinese cities that the West has given almost no thought to. Certainly I hadn’t, beyond a vague sense that it was in Sichuan and was where people went if they wanted to go see pandas. I was not expecting an immense, modern metropolis with a Metro system, massive designer shopping outlets, and a mall that so huge that it has an actual, simulated beach in it. Such are the wonders of modern China.
I mainly came here for the food, after a life-time spent being intrigued by the kind of peppers that make your mouth go numb and strange upon consumption. I flew in from Shanghai, catching a late afternoon plane from the immense and disturbingly empty Pudong airport.
The new Shanghai airport is like someone’s vague, poorly-expressed fever-dream of a welcoming and luxurious international airport, with gate upon gate laid out in a grey and very clean expanse, with nowhere to buy much of anything beyond a single Famly Mart convenience store, as well as some souvenir luxury food emporiums that sell little beyond very strange-looking beef jerky. Thankfully, my China Air flight was on time, which left me with only a bit of time to enjoy my ready-packaged tuna fish sushi roll.
The hostel sent someone to pick me up in Chengdu, and we drove into town – allowing me to immediately appreciate how enormous the city really is. I had a vague idea of Chengdu as being Northern and largeish, but no comprehension of its true scale: it is in fact China’s 5th largest city and has a population of 14 million. For reference, the 2012 population of New York City was 8.337 million. (Some fudging may have been done on the municipal area vs. the city proper – this link puts Chengdu at a respectable 39 on the world scale of biggest populations, between Hyderabad and Lahore).
As we drove in, I saw the curious neon expanse of the New Century Global Center, which is supposedly the largest building in the world. Coming in, I tend to believe it. That’s big enough to house 20 Sydney Opera Houses. China, as is evident to anyone paying attention, is going hell-for-leather to rack up as many world records as humanly possible.
I stayed at the Chengdu FlipFlop Hostel, which was a deceptively large place near the Chunxi Metro area of the city – near the glitzy International Finance Square mall, which has an entire wall covered in lightbulbs compelling you to buy exceedingly expensive Louis Vuitton products.
The hostel happened to be near a nice food area, and I walked down the street watching Sichuanese promenade on a Friday night. Slightly less accustomed to a sea of foreigners than those in Shanghai, young men said “Hello!” to me as they went by on their silent electric scooters. Hot pot place after hot pot place lined the streets, as well as small BBQ places selling fish and squid and small birds on sticks.
There were also small tuk-tuks selling noodles, and numerous restaurants filled with hard-drinking and very sociable Chengdu natives. I noticed a rough collie – the Lassie-type dog – standing by a BBQ stall, shaved down with a summer cut like all the other furry dogs with owners here. There were also crawfish, which I wish I could get the chance to try.
Eager to use a picture menu, I opted for a restaurant. Eager to try Sichuanese food in its native home, I walked into a popular looking spot and walked in. Pointing wildly at the menu while a disenchanted looking Chinese woman stared at me, I ended up with a delicious dish of stir-fried beef with Sichuan chiles, peppers, ginger, and – curiously enough – chunks of breadstick and peanut. The combination was delicious and entirely unusual, with the oil-sodden breadsticks adding a tasty, carby influence to the stir-fry.
I also enjoyed ordering green beans with stir-fried eggplants, which is a typical sort of Sichuanese thing. There’s a photo of the restaurant sign up above, and someone could do me a favor and translate for me if they’re feeling compassionate.