I knew I needed to escape the city, the question was, where? I had always wanted to visit Tibet, and had hoped to be able to get there, but alas, permits are required and are not currently being issued to British citizens (my bearded boyfriend). I was a little disappointed, but after doing some research on the wonderful site The Land of Snows, I learned that we didn’t have to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region to experience Tibetan culture.
And with that, we set the itinerary for our last week in China, starting in Kangding, 8 hours south-west of Chengdu, via the Sichuan-Tibet highway.
During the second half of the journey, we clung to our vinyl seats in the hope that the bus would cling to the narrow, sometimes damaged road that snaked through the mountains. This difficult road did however offer us breathtaking views of soaring peaks, spectacular waterfalls and the rushing river in the depths of the valley below.
Arriving into Kangding we were greeted by a medium-sized, bustling town, its development literally overshadowed by the towering mountains that cradled it. It was pretty spectacular really, after the urban sprawl of Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, to be surrounded by jutting mountains that reached into the milky skies at almost right angles.
We made our way by taxi to Zhilam hostel, far enough out of the town to escape the persistent car horns, and high enough to provide uninterrupted views of the monastery-dotted mountain opposite.
Owned by an American couple and furnished in a beautifully ornate Tibetan style, we immediately added an extra night to our ‘just-two-nights-to-see-if-we-like-it’ booking.
The mountain view from our huge, wooden-floored upstairs room, complete with King Sized Bed, helped just a bit.
“This is perfect,” I gushed to Tyrhone, who breathed a sigh of relief that I had emerged from my traveller’s blues.
The next morning, following a great night’s sleep snuggled up in the doona against the fresh mountain air and a breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, we went on a gentle hike behind the guesthouse. Taking a narrow dirt trail frequented by farmers and yaks, we entered the forest, where coloured prayer flags adorned the trees, bellowing in the gentle breeze.
We took a moment to sit and be still, just us, the prayers carried on the winds and the smell of crushed leaves decomposing in moist earth.
Hiking over a gentle ridge we began our descent into a valley, negotiating the path with a friendly yak before crossing over a bubbling stream into nearby farmland. The only humans there beside a couple of friendly potato farmers, we freely wandered down the gentle emerald slopes towards town.
I had a quick chat with a lovely woman, neither of us having a clue what the other was saying. She kept gesturing towards the way we had come from, so I replied with “oh yes, very beautiful, we just came that way,” when for all we knew she could have been inviting us for lunch.
“Surely she would have gestured more forcefully if she really wanted us for lunch,” I reasoned with Tyrhone, seriously hoping I hadn’t misunderstood an invitation for food.
But as luck would have it, as we emerged into town via a series of descending alleys and steps, we bumped into the young guy who had checked us in at the guest house. A Kangding local who volunteered at Zhilam to practice his English, he kindly invited us along to lunch with him and his young companion.
“Would you like to try some special dumplings?” he asked us innocently, though was perhaps a little taken aback by my enthusiastic “YES!” as I grabbed Tyrhone by the arm to signal our eagerness. I was starving!
The dumplings were indeed very special, as was the tiny restaurant packed with people, including some Tibetans in traditional dress. Woman wearing ornate head dresses slurped noodles next to men with wind-burned faces and sturdy, heavy coats.
The following day we visited a nearby monastery, just in time for chanting. We sat inside the ornately decorated temple behind a row of monks dressed in port-coloured robes. I tried to still my mind which was made all but impossible by an excited internal voice that screamed, “You’re in a temple filled with chanting Tibetan monks, this is soooo COOL!”
And it certainly was.
It all was - the monasteries, the mountains, our comfy digs, the fresh air. We had found our retreat from the cities and the smog, and experienced a glimpse of Tibetan culture, just 8 hours away from the capital of Sichuan province.