Let me begin by saying that this entry is about Tibet. It’s not actually in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) as defined by the government of China. The area I’m talking about is actually all in the western part of Sichuan province. But the area where we spent the days chronicled here is on the Tibetan Plateau and culturally is almost all Tibetan. Indeed, I’ve read that because the Chinese central government is making such a point of trying to assimilate the Tibetan residents of the TAR/overwhelm them with Han Chinese migrants, the most culturally Tibetan parts of China are actually those outside of what is officially called “Tibet.” I’ve never been to the TAR but from what we saw in western Sichuan there may well be some truth to this.
There. Now with that dealt with I can get on with telling you what a fantastic place it was.
The view out the front windscreen on our northbound bus from Zhongdian
Our bus left Zhongdian in northern Yunnan province at 08:00. As we drove along the smooth, paved road we passed yaks and their herders, small villages with Tibetan style houses and lots and lots of pine trees. The signs of human habitation faded as we carried on and about an hour into the trip when we passed through the arch marking the entrance to Sichuan province they were all but gone. The quality of the road deteriorated a bit, but the quality of the scenery around us was on a constant uphill (as was the grade of the road, if not, as mentioned at the start of this sentence, its smoothness.)
We crossed three mountain passes during the seven hour bus trip, the highest at over 4700m was the highest elevation I’ve ever been to by vehicle (eclipsed only by 5416m Thorong La in Nepal, which is only accessible on foot.) When approaching these the pine forest would slowly thin and disappear as the twisting hairpin turns of the road took us up and up and up past the treeline. The pines would be replaced by patches of snow, brown earth and bare grey rock. At the very summits of the passes you could see dozens of kilometres off into the distance, looking over forested hillsides and snow capped peaks, each mottled by the patches of sun shining through gaps in the clouds. Each stretching off as far as you could see.
When I opened the bus window to take photos of these spots we were greeted with a blast of chilly but beautifully clean and fresh air. A welcome relief given the number of smokers on the bus.
Lunch break! We stopped in a tiny little sub-village sized habitation. Everyone filed off, headed into the tiny kitchen and procured their choice of three main dishes and rice. I was happily surprised by the liberal dose of chilis in my pork and veggie dish (although we weren’t in the Chinese part, this was still Sichuan province after all, home of the chili in Chinese cuisine.)
Near the top of our highest pass of the day
The road was fairly rough by the standards of those we’d seen in China so far. But traffic was pretty sparse too, so there were very few opportunities for incidents like this one where a jeep to squeeeeeze past our bus
Eventually the road started heading down a long series of switchbacks into a huge, dry valley. Longer even than the impressive sections leading down off the passes. Far below us at the bottom we could see a village made of bright white buildings. They were sturdy, fortified looking structures, different in details but similar in overall impression to the Tibetan homes we’d seen near Zhongdian. At long last we reached the valley floor where the road markedly improved once more and we blazed past this and other lovely small Tibetan villages with nary a concrete apartment block in sight. All of these appeared as green oases amongst the otherwise brown, goat trail-covered hillsides.
Finally after another hour or so in the valley we rounded a corner and saw a big settlement, which we were sure (correctly) was our destination for the day, the town of Xiangcheng.
Xiangcheng was a town of… 10000 perhaps? There was the old town built out of whitewashed rammed earth houses down on the floodplain of the river, and the new town of modern (ugly) concrete buildings along the main through road up higher above.
Town hall and public square at the centre of Xiangcheng. There was a great community built sand box (or actually bean box, since it was filled with tiny little legumes [or were they grains?]) near one corner
We took a walk along main street to the entrance to the Tibetan monastery (pretty, but closing soon, so we didn’t go inside) then took a bit of a look around the new town’s smaller streets. As it turned out we didn’t really have a chance to see much of the old town, as during our explorations we met Ilma, a 12 year old girl who wandered down the streets talking with us, then invited us home to have a look at her house. While it was in the new town it was on the fringes and its construction was more old-style. A white two story earth building with a wall extending out from the front creating a small courtyard that served as a front yard. In this courtyard was a small outbuilding containing the kitchen. The ground floor of the main house was used for storage, while the second floor with its beautiful colourful window frames was where the family actually lived. We joined Ilma’s parents, brother and grandparents for some yak butter tea and dumplings. The dumplings were filled mostly with vegetable and were very good. The tea meanwhile was… interesting. The first sip was tasty, salty, creamy and very rich. If it was allowed to settle a bit between sips a layer of yellow oil appeared on top. It actually tasted pretty good for one or two sips, but the richness of it caught up with you very quickly and you were soon wishing to stop the refills as soon as it felt polite to do so.
Xiangcheng monastery had been completely destroyed during the cultural revolution but was re-built by the volunteer labours of craftsmen from around the region, only having re-opened recently
Xiangcheng old town was absolutely gorgeous in the late afternoon light. Someone we met later said the style of the buildings made it look North African. I wouldn’t have put it that way, but I see what he meant
An old style Tibetan home
We carried on our tour with a visit to Ilma’s school. It was hard to believe, but they packed 2000 students into a building that might have held seven hundred in Canada (though there was a lot of outdoor space at this school too.) It was kind of fun to see the inside of a typical Chinese school. We were surprised to see so many students about at 16:40 on a Sunday, but there were lots, playing basketball or soccer outside, studying inside, or just hanging around with their friends in the crowded but tidy classrooms. Interestingly, most of the lessons were taught in Tibetan. They did have Mandarin classes, and Ilma said she could speak it “a bit,” but that she spoke Tibetan with all of her friends and family and that, in any case, she preferred studying English to Mandarin.
Sarah and Ilma after several cups of yak butter tea
Ilma’s homeroom class. Sarah and Ilma check out the inspirational sayings in three languages in multi-colours on the chalk board
When we finally said goodbye to Ilma it was approaching dark. We spent the remainder of our evening in Xiangcheng trying to find a mysterious, mythical beerhall listed in our travel guidebook, though it seemed no one had ever heard of the place. After an ninety minutes of this (and given the size of the town, ninety minutes is a looooong time to be looking for what should be a fairly obvious place) we gave up, bought some peanut candy and yogurt to drown our sorrow over the lack of beer with (yes, I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to work) and went to bed.
It was a long way from the best night’s sleep ever, as the hotel we’d been sucked into immediately on arriving had a barking dog out back who didn’t stop expressing his excitement at the state of the world until the wee hours. Then again, it sounded like pretty much every building in town had one of these. So we would have heard the canine symphony no matter where we’d been in town, and thus shouldn’t be too hard on the place.
The next morning we woke well before sunrise and headed down onto the street to try and find a ride north. There were no buses headed where we were, but plenty of minivans. It seemed as though we’d beat even the early rising locals, so there was only one driver out on the streets. He was a Tibetan Buddhist monk. It felt a bit odd to be negotiating our fare with him (especially the feigning disgust over the price and walking away part) but eventually we got things sorted (by agreeing to pay his original asking price which, as it turned out, was the same price he was charging everyone for the journey.) We gathered up a few passengers and by just after 07:00 we were saying farewell to Xiangcheng as we headed north on leg 2 of our western Sichuan journey.
First light of the morning on Xiangcheng’s main street
Almost immediately on leaving town we began a climb out of the valley. The driver put on a VCD of Tibetan music videos which began with an introduction by the Panchan Lama. We passed by a few tiny villages that looked as though they had been built not because anyone would actually want to/have any reason to live there, but just so that there was some human settlement along the road.
The one real village on our six hour drive for the day. That’s our monk-driver in his maroon robes buying an instant cappuccino drink from the village shop (no, I’m not joking.)
As with our previous trip we wound and twisted our way up and over the hills as we left the valleys behind. However this time when we finally arrived at the top there wasn’t a vista of lofty peaks stretching out to the horizon. This time there was the Tibetan Plateau. There were hills around but for the most part these were just small rounded mounds or low ridgelines, not anything approaching actual mountains. But one thing that hadn’t changed was the expansiveness of the surroundings. The sky was huge and impossibly bright and blue. The stark grey and brown landscape again stretched all the way to the horizon, sometimes broken by the occasional scrubby bush, often filled with kilometres wide fields of boulders ranging from head sized to bus sized, and sometimes almost entirely empty. It looked like a terribly inhospitable place. We passed few other cars along the way, but we weren’t entirely alone. Road crews in bright orange sometimes appeared in improbable spots, filling in potholes with hand packed earth next to their compact cars. And the odd group of yaks and their nomadic herders somehow managed to find sustenance up here at 4500m above sea level.
The vast expanses of harsh land on top of the plateau
We started heading slowly downhill. These weren’t the tight hairpin turns of previous bus trips, but rather a long, gentle descent with a few wide curving switchbacks along the way. Our first signs of a return to civilization (of a sort at least) was a series of chortens decorated with string upon string (numbering into the hundreds) of multicoloured prayer flags. Another hillside similarly decorated soon appeared. We might have left the high plateau, but we hadn’t descended that far at all. We’d merely dropped to a slightly lower bench, this time a wide flat bowl kilometres across, but slightly more accepting of life in its midst. There was more grass about, and with it many more yaks. And before much longer, a decent sized town snugged up to the base of the hills at one edge of the huge bowl. This was our destination for the day: the town of Litang. Perhaps a little lower than the plateau we’d crossed to reach it, but at 4100m above sea level, this Tibetan centre was truly on the roof of the world.
Our slow descent down to the high plateau from the very high plateau
Beautiful window frames in a thick-walled Tibetan home in Xiangcheng
Tags: China, Llew Bardecki, Sichuan, Travel, Western Sichuan, XIangcheng