Kangding – A Welcomed Retreat

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 ‘justtwo-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.




Kangding – A Welcomed Retreat — 17 Comments

  1. Wow, what a beautiful experience, it sounds like your almost-Tibet trip was exactly what you needed; I can hear the joy in your words :) I visited Dharamsala in India a few years ago and attended a 10 day teaching with HH the Dalai Lama, where I sat like a giddy five year old every day, so I know how you feel. The Tibetan people are amazing, and their culture is so beautiful. It breaks my heart that Tibet is still not free, but I will live in hope that one day justice will prevail, and us Brits, and the rest of the world, will be allowed to witness it first hand.

  2. That would have been amazing, Hannah. I only just finished watching a show on the life of Buddha in which the Dalai Lama spoke. He always seems like such a cool, down to earth guy to me, always ready for a giggle. I do hope to get to Tibet some day too. The issue of independence is a complex issue that I do not fully understand, and would like to learn about first-hand.

  3. Everyone needs a retreat, even when traveling, and I think you picked a perfect location. Glad to see you are emerging from your funk. :)

  4. It’s great that you were able to get so excited again :) and it sounds like a great place to get excited in! I also would have been freaking out about the monks in the temple – amazing!!

  5. Finally got to catch up on all your China posts dear Sarah. Especially loved this last one. Just what i would love to do myself. That wonderful deep chanting reminds me of didgeridoo music – so ancient and powerful . . . i have had the best meditations sitting and listening to that when the Tibetan monks have visited here. And that photo of the prayer flags fluttering is a beauty! Reckon it could win a prize in a National Geographic photography competition!

    • Yes, I was thinking of you whilst I was there. Well, I always am! Have to give Tyrhone credit for most of the photos, I love it to, so much movement you can almost feel the cool breeze. Thank you Sally, lots of love xxx

  6. So beautiful. I love the photo of the prayer flags and the last photo of you and the mountains! Such a lovely place. Where are you headed after China??

    • Hi Kim, thanks so much, Tyrhone is becoming quite the photographer, and occasionally lets me use them on my blog, he he… About to post about our upcoming plans :)

  7. Hi Sarah, I’m happy that you got to experience a piece of Tibet without going to Tibet. but I hope you and Tyronne get to visit the real Tibet someday. I love Tibet. It’s my most favorite place in the world. It breaks my heart that the country (I still consider it a country) and its people are not free I still hope and pray that they get their independence someday.

  8. Whenever Tony and I make it to China, Kanding will certainly be on the itinerary! Tony has been wanting to visit Tibet since the very start of our trip planning process (so, that would be years at this point), but the feasibility of actually getting a visa to go there is so iffy we had long-written it off. I think if we could get a taste of Tibet even without really going there, that would tide him over for a while (plus it looks SO very gorgeous, we would be fools not to go!).

    • Hey Steph, hope you do, Tagong was amazing too. That website I linked, Land of Snows is a great resource for Tibetan China. I’d still like to go to Tibet some day, but happy we still got to experience the culture outside of The Autonomous Region. You’ll love it!