A journey to the West

It’s been a week on the road and the first time with proper internet access, though as my blog host is blocked here, I’m having to get mum to turn emails into posts for me. So here goes my first post from Karm, the name for the historical region of eastern Tibet. 

Two  nights by train from Guangzhou to Chengdu, 7 hours by bus to Kangding, and we finally arrived hungry and smelly on Monday evening. Kangding lies where the mountains start to rise in western Sichuan, and is one of those large, elongated towns centred on a main road and a river. The valley walls are steep and grey-green, with peaks jutting into a swirling sky, and traffic tooting and shuffling and screeching and rumbling past at all hours on the long drive to Lhasa. The guesthouse mentioned in the guidebook was full for the eclipse, so we were directed down a wee valley and up to the 4th floor flat of some sweet old Tibetan ladies. It was definitely a home not a guesthouse, but they were happy to take our money and give us beds and hot water. In the evening we ate sizzling “iron pan” food which you cook yourself on an oily metal plate, and chatted to the local guys who were keen to brag about their beautiful homeland. One of them says his daughter is studying at Cambridge. Had terrible dreams and wondered if they were inspired by the altitude or the tofu.

The next morning we enjoyed the large and flash selection of high-street shops – looking slightly incongruous with the potholed streets and traditionally clad sun-blackened locals – to stock up on necesseties such as chocolate for the road ahead. And then we got into a minibus and headed up and up and onto the mountainous plains.

The landscape here is stunningly beautiful. A huge variety of shapes and sizes of hills, from grassy pillow-shaped ones, sheer dark-green edges, sculpted palace-like rocks, and snowcovered peaks in the very distance. The road twists and dives round corners and groves, far too bumpy to read, as the driver chainsmokes and pumps electromusic. The grasslands are dotted with shaggy cattle/yak and horses, the sky with birds of prey. And while town business and officals look very Han chinese, everyone in the countryside and most in the settlements are Tibetan. Or other related minorities.

As the hours flowed past, there were more and more stupas, greenpinkyellowblue prayer flags and delicately carved Tibetan slogans on the hills. And finally we turned the corner into Tagong town, and its shining golden-roofed monasteries. We found a guesthouse run by a lovely Tibetan couple and their one-eyed dog. Every inch of wall was beauituflly decorated with intricate wood-carving, multicoloured and fantastical with creatures and flowers and infinite patterns. What a world away from Hong Kong. I had been so excited on the road that I couldn’t stop grinning and singing, and now that we had finally arrived I was just gloriously tired, only my eyes still spinning with curiosity.

The town is pretty small, just one street and no internet access (they said it was cut last year) and many of the shops and restaurants are run by Han chinese. We had auberigine and beef dishes for supper, and then sat in the guesthouses where most foreigners stay called Sally’s. The son of the owner is a monk who has studied in India for three years. They run a clever business which is very popular with tourists, serving hot chocolate and banana panckaes in addition to Tibetan snacks, and organizing horse tours as well as enforced recommendations.

I found myself deep in conversation with two students from Chengdu who had been active in the earthquake relief efforts last year. Although I’ve read and heard a lot about those times, their stories were so harrowing that they reduced the three of us to tears. Particularly moving was their tale of a pregnant woman who was buried to her waist deep under a building and being slowly crushed to ddeath. She pleaded with the people above to cut through her legs to get her out and rescue her unborn child. They couldn’t reach her so she shouted for a knife to be thrown down. Then she cut herself in half at the lower abdomen, and as she bled to death they were able to pull the remains out in time to save the baby.

It was hard to sleep in the thin mountain air with crazy dreams and excitement for tomorrow. Because tomorrow would be Wednesday, the day of the eclipse, and the arrival of a living Buddha in little Tagong.

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