A town with many faces

Ganzi did not get off to a good start. The main road was filthy and full of potholes. We were surrounded by beggars and hawkers as soon as we stepped out of the bus. The hostels in the guidebook were too expensive, we couldn’t find the bus station, and it was pissing down with rain.

The place we eventually found to stay in was a funny sort of hostel, which seemed to be inhabited mostly by relatives of the landlady. They were all Tibetan. We were shown around by the only woman in the place who spoke Mandarin: it later turned out she was not staff but lived in a room with her husband and child. They invited us for tea. Since the landlady still hadn’t shown up we helped ourselves to rooms and keys, tried to ignore people using the only toilet without closing the door, and wished they had a shower or hot water. But food and bai jiu and music later, Ganzi seemed rather a more jolly place.

The next morning we found the public showers and three of us set out for a walk together, across a cleverly constructed rope and wood bridge over the raging river. I had bought a book by a photographer from Shanghai (Zhuang Xueben) who travelled in these regions in the 1930s when there was basically zero Han Chinese presence or control, and many of the structures we saw including the bridge reminded me of these. It was a grey rainy day but the locals waved and shouted “tashe dele” from their huts and motorcycles, and we were chased by excited kids. We had a breathtaking time in a deserted temple, where Nikolai explained to me the 8 symbols of buddhism and how timber is so expensive in parts of Tibet that it is inherited from one generation to the next, and we saw some brilliant carvings of the way to nirvana. The landscape here was a world away from the town, full of fertile fields of wheat, potatoes and vegetables. The river looked silty and a bit of a flood hazard, and the distant hills were draped with corn terraces, like luxurious velvet.

In the afternoon I climbed a hill behind the town and ended up lost in the local graveyard, finally scrambling down into the Tibetan quarter where all the buildings had courtyards and roofs you could walk on. I was really impressed at the quality of houses throughout this region, since in other parts of the Chinese countryside they are often delapidated or hideously ugly. Perhaps the low density of people means resources for building houses are more available, and the culture means more care is taken with decorating… all in all, I don’t why, but Ganzi is the first town in China where I really got the feeling that the new houses are in every way nicer and more tasteful than the old.

I also passed two kids of about 5 with cigarettes in their mouths, an old guy with pants around ankles shitting at the side of the street, and teenagers playing air guitar and chasing each other with knives. Definitely a town of many faces. Some other locals gave us biscuits and fed the fish with us near a brilliant old stupa with a breathtaking view of the river, and some workers tried to teach me a Tibetan song. A monk at the monastery (the biggest in the region and very impressive with a fantastic view of the town and over 400 monks) waived the ticket price and showed us around even though it was really late. The landlady and other ladies at the hostel chatted excitedly and with great interest – one had two children studying abroad, one in India and the other in Switzerland. I feel so frustrated that I speak no Tibetan and really struggle to understand Sichuanese. The majority of Tibetans I came across did not speak Mandarin well enough for a proper conversation. I missed out on so much.

Anyway, despite the unpleasant arrival in Ganzi, I ended up rather sad to leave: as with all the places I’ve visited so far in western Sichuan, I could happily have spent weeks and weeks there. But amidst terrible weather, two people with food poisoning, and three with a deadline to get back to Chengdu (not us three), we headed onwards, towards what is apparently “the most Tibetan cultured” part of China. And this – Dege town – is where I am now 🙂

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One Response to “A town with many faces”

  1. runningintomyself Says:

    There’s some beautiful writing here. Thank you for your description of your visit to Ganzi – I made this trip in 2007; I also “did” Dege. My impressions of W. Sichuan were sometimes conflicted – I hope I never have to experience the town of Luhuo again, nor ride a bus between Kangding and Tagong. You can also visit my blog (I’m in Chengdu) at http://runningintomyself.wordpress.com/

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