As I prepared for the last leg of my trip through China and India, I came up with a plan that would enable me to travel throughout China and reach my final destination in northern India, without having to fly.
After traveling counterclockwise around China, I would continue west through Tibet then south to Nepal before reaching Rishikesh in northern India where my yoga course awaited me. Not only would I get through China and India, but I would add two entirely new and exotic places to my trip, all for what I estimated to be the same, if not cheaper, cost of flying. Brilliant!
Nepal had grown as a leading destination of interest after hearing universally rave reviews from fellow travelers. But Tibet, China’s isolated and controversial land in the west, had also risen to prominence after the sheer amount of excitement and curiosity I found in other travelers who also discussed the journey. Tibet, however, like Myanmar, also brought a whole new level of travel concerns.
An ancient land that had undergone centuries of various autonomous and non-autonomous rule, Tibet declared its independence in 1912 after the fall of the Chinese Qing dynasty. In the 1950s, Communist China invaded Tibet in an attempt to reclaim control of the land. Technically, the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhism and the former political leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, supports a “middle-way” approach of Tibet being a part of China with a high degree of autonomy, but the issue remains controversial. The Chinese say they are developing the isolated land and saving its people from an oppressive feudal system, while those in support of a free Tibet accuse the Chinese of violating human rights, destroying Tibetan culture and forcing Tibetans to assimilate to the Chinese way of life. The conflict has led to numerous protests both inside and outside of Tibet and restricted access to the land by outsiders, despite growing interest by tourists.
Of course, a mere few weeks before my estimated departure, my brilliant plans were shattered. Protests in Tibet, including several monks setting themselves on fire, caused the Chinese to tighten travel restrictions, eventually prohibiting all tourists from entering the region altogether.
Anyone planning to travel to Tibet knows the borders open and close on regular, and often unpredictable, basis. But as I waited around Chengdu, hoping for a last-minute change, I found myself defeated. Tibet was not going to happen. Not this time.
But I still had more than a week left on my Chinese visa, and I was determined to make the most of it. After discussing alternatives with some fellow travelers, I heard about a small, mostly Tibetan village in Western China called Tagong. Located about 270 miles west of Chengdu, one of China’s last major cities before reaching Tibet, Tagong is a tiny village full of mostly Tibetan inhabitants that would offer a glimpse into the isolated lifestyle that was proving so difficult to experience.
After weeks of massive, crowded Chinese mega-cities, I was ready for a change. So I packed up my bags, bought a bus ticket and headed off.
The first step to reaching Tagong was Kangding, a Chinese city up in the mountains that serves as a jumping off point for many who plan to continue traveling west. The eight-hour bus ride to reach Kangding from Leshan/Chengdu is stunning, albeit, a bit scary at times. Rocky cliffs covered with dense green trees and shrubs surrounded us, topped with hovering mists that let us know we were high enough to enter cloud territory.
When we finally reached Kangding, I was pleasantly surprised to find the city quite charming. Tall green mountains surrounded the neat city streets, full of a combination of Chinese and Tibetan shops. But Kangding offered another surprise for me: it was cold.
I know I’m from Michigan, land of seemingly eternal winters, but I was not prepared for this. After nearly two years of hot weather, including 14 months in Malaysia which is practically located on the equator, this was quite a shock for me. To top it off, it was raining and nothing is as much fun as being cold except for being wet and cold.
So I put on my jeans, my sole long-sleeved shirt, my broken-zippered hoodie and each of the three pairs of almost-never-used socks I brought and hoped they’d be enough. And I set out to find a ride to Tagong.
Luckily I had made a travel buddy in the process. Daniel was from Germany, and after already having spent several days in Kangding, was ready to head to Tagong. So we hailed a share taxi and found ourselves crammed in the backseat of a minibus with two older Tibetan ladies and a Tibetan man. And it was one of the coldest, most dramatic bus rides I had ever been on.
Apparently old Tibetan ladies don’t get out much, at least not in cars, because these women were extremely prone to motion sickness. At an hour and a half, the ride wasn’t really that long, and though we were up in the mountains, it wasn’t that winding either. But for some reason these women insisted on keeping the windows down in the car, despite the fact it was about 40 degrees outside and raining. Daniel was kind enough to share his blanket with me, but even that wasn’t enough and we remained shivering in the back seat. And though we repeatedly asked the driver to talk to the ladies about closing the windows, they were apparently very adamant about not doing so, at one point even opening the windows all the way so it was a complete wind ambush in the back. Meanwhile, the ladies, with their rosy cheeks, braided hair and colorful Tibetan clothing, lay prostrate on the middle seat, like some Victorian English woman in the midst of a fainting spell. If I wasn’t so cold, I would have been very amused.
Once we arrived in Tagong, I was surprised and charmed at how quaint the town was. With a population of only 8,000 people, it was definitely the least populated city I had visited in China, and with an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, it was also the highest point I’d ever reached on land in my entire life.
Daniel and I opted to stay at Iya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse, a cheap yet delightfully colorful and charming place listed in our guidebook. The only problem was, despite the high altitude and cold temperatures, there was no heat in our building. In fact, there was no heat in any of the buildings.
After settling in and enjoying a delightful warm foot bath, Daniel and I set out to eat and soon discovered the Khampa Café and Art Center, a cozy backpacker haven nearby that would become our second home during the next few days. Full of comfy couches, puzzles, books and a delightful combination of Western and Tibetan food, Khampa Café was the place to go to kill time between adventures or just relax and adjust to the altitude. After months of traveling, I was quite happy to bum around and do nothing for awhile.
I’m not going to lie, a significant chunk of my five days in Tagong were spent curled up in a blanket, chatting with other travelers, playing with the kittens, reading about Nepal and just hanging out at the café. And it was delightful.
But so was the town itself. Only a few blocks long, the town contained a few small restaurants, some generic clothing and hardware stores and several, redundant Tibetan scarf and jewelry shops geared at tourists. With my mad traveler shopping skills, I browsed several of the souvenir stores looking for the best deals for gifts to take home. I finally settled on a small shop owned by a young, friendly Tibetan man who, with his limited English, had given me the best prices. I happily purchased three scarves and five bracelets. It wasn’t until he had finished ringing up my scarves that he asked me to sleep with him, making very clear hand gestures of what he hoped would happen. Needless to say, I quickly left the store. And then found out I’d paid about four times what the scarves were worth. Awesome.
The real charm to Tagong, however, was not its town or necessarily even its monasteries: it was its grasslands. I had never seen anything like it before. Surrounding this tiny village on all sides were seemingly endless miles of rich, hilly green land with barely a handful of trees to break up the sea of grass. Every now and then a herd of yaks would graze, prodded along by a couple Tibetan men on horses. It was stunning.
I figured the best way to experience the land was on horseback and signed up for a day-long horseback ride with two other girls. Unfortunately, it had decided to rain the day of the trip, and I found myself, once again, piling on every layer of clothing I had to stay warm. The morning was brutal. My gloves, feet and most of my pants were soaked within the first 30 minutes, and I had no idea how I would last the day. The best part came around noon, when we got to have lunch in the tent of a Tibetan nomadic family.
As we entered the tent, the girls and I were quickly welcomed by the older Tibetan lady, her daughter and her young grandson and we crowded around the fire to warm up. Like many Tibetan people, the family were yak herders and moved their tent around the grasslands to coincide with the care of their yaks.
Life was simple. A kettle heated up over a small fire, while piles of blankets, clothing, buckets and food supplies were strewn around the surrounding grass. Though we could not verbally communicate with each other, the family was extremely hospitable. We enjoyed a basic lunch of Tibetan staples: bread, yogurt and raisins, Tibetan butter tea and tsampa, a not-so-flavorful soup of barley, yak butter and boiling water. Not so different than tsampa, Tibetan butter tea is a savory tea made of yak butter melted into a pot of tea and yak milk. While many Westerners don’t care for the taste, I thought it tasted like liquid brie, and I loved it. Apparently the heavy, salty tea and soup provide great nutrients for life in the cold, windy temperatures of the high altitude, and I’ve read that Tibetans can consume up to 40 cups of yak butter tea a day!
As we left the warm comfort of the nomad tent, we were rudely jolted back to our earlier mission of exploring the grasslands. It was even colder now and the rain had picked up, and we still had six hours to go! With our feet numb, clothing soaked and eyes half shut against the rain, we asked our guide if we could just head back. It was far too miserable to enjoy the grasslands. But we had gone too far and the only way back was to follow the original plan, so on we rode trying our best to remind ourselves we were on the adventure of a lifetime.
Thankfully for us, the weather gods showed us some mercy around mid-afternoon. Though it never got warm, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but sprawling green hills and grasslands. At that point, I think we were all glad to have stuck around.
But my happiness was short-lived. Apparently, the nice weather had energized my horse as well, who then decided to go for a vigorous run by himself. Now, I enjoy horses and prior to China, I had ridden them several times throughout my life, though rarely going more than a short trot or canter. While my heart raced with excitement to test my horsewoman skills, this horse had a mind of its own. My attempts to lean back on the reigned paired with “whoa” (I knew nothing else to say) only caused the horse to pause before taking off again even faster. When we approached a rocky area, I was reminded of Asia’s relaxed helmet policy and started to scream.
Our guide was not happy about this. Though he could barely speak English, I quickly understood that I was not supposed to scream at the horses. So things calmed down and we tried again. Sure enough, a few minutes later my horse decided, yet again, he needed to go for a run, and I found myself once more clinging on for dear life and screaming.
Now my guide was angry, but so was I, and I managed to communicate to him that he needed to get this situation under control. Luckily, we had come across one of his buddies who was herding yaks, and I found myself on a horse “leash,” with the yak herder holding on to my reins in addition to his. This ended up being amazingly fun.
Though my wings were clipped, I got to trot along with the yak herder as he did his job. When a few of the yaks strayed, I chased after them with the yak herder to get them back with the group. When they got distracted or slowed down, I found myself whistling along with my new guide to get their attention. While I was merely the tag-along, I felt like I, too, was herding yaks. And it was super bad ass.
By the time we made it back we were cold and exhausted yet exhilarated by the amazing adventure we’d had. I ended up paying for that adventure with a nasty cold over the next few days. But as I headed to the Chengdu airport – indeed, to fly to Nepal – I was grateful that, after weeks of experiencing the “mainstream” Chinese mega cities, I had found a little patch of rural China and experienced a little bit of Tibetan culture. Even if it was, only, almost Tibet.