At the Edge of Tibet

Visiting Tibet as a foreigner is extremely difficult, and requires securing permits from the Chinese government through a process that is at best expensive, lengthy, and exceptionally bureaucratic, and at worst complete blocked for an unknown period of time. Consequently, Andrew and I decided to look for alternative ways to experience Tibetan life and culture while avoiding the permit process. Luckily for us, while Tibet is an actual province within China, there are also areas  of neighboring provinces that have large Tibetan communities and cultural influence. Dubbed “semiautonomous regions”, these areas permit visitors to enter and get a taste of Tibet without the hassle and permit. With this in mind, we set off for a two day journey to the town of Kangding in the western region of Sichuan bordering on Tibet.

Andrew in downtown Kangding

To get to Kangding, Andrew and I rode a public bus on an 12 hour journey through the mountains of Western Sichuan. Except for a pair of Israeli guys, we were the only non-Chinese on the bus and the single television up front played a long reel of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chinese action films. Kangding is set in a deep and narrow valley, and the river at the bottom bisects the town lengthwise. When we finally arrived late at night, the audible rush of the river and the crisp mountain air provided an extremely welcome relief from both the bus and the smog of literally everywhere else we’d been in China up until that point. The other thing we noticed was that building and directional signs were written in both Tibetan and Chinese script, and there were brightly colored Tibetan prayer flags hanging invitingly of the corners of distant buildings in the hills.

The river that runs through Kangding

Our first night in town was a bit difficult. We had called a famous, American run hostel two days prior and had been promised space in a side building where the staff usually sleep. When we arrived around 9:00pm, the town was mostly closed down and well past dark. After being misled by a Tibetan guy who we thought had a taxi but really wanted to sell us private lodging, we wandered our way through the closed shops and businesses in the middle of town to find the pathway to our hostel. The hostel was an additional 15 minute walk up steep, windy, poorly lit streets with no English signs (we used the GPS on the Israeli guys’ phone) with our heavy backpacks in tow. When we finally arrived, there was no record of our reservation and we were turned away by the confused Tibetan manager with minimal English. This news came much to my chagrin as the Israeli guys, who had called only that morning, had managed to secure dormitory rooms in the hostel, which was gorgeously decorated with traditional Tibetan furnishings. We ended up bunking at a locally run hostel at the base of the hill with comfortable beds but smelly toilets and almost no English.

The following morning, after a bowl of beef noodles off the street for breakfast, we set off to find me a winter jacket to use for the next two days in the mountains. This was difficult feat given the prevalence of really expensive, foreign brand outdoor athletic gear stores. After a bit of searching, we lucked out and found a hot pink women’s fleece about 4 sizes too large for me on sale for 44 yen (around $8) because it had a few small bite holes from a mouse in the storage room (don’t judge me! ;-p ). The Chinese sales girls laughed at me, so I stuck them with tons of small coins as payment and felt slightly better about things as I walked away like a gigantic, snug marshmallow, contented with my purchase.

Babies and children in China love Andrew. I took a photo of this awesome baby and grandma.

We then spent a while wandering around the town trying to find the hiking trails listed on our guide book but had little success. I cursed the nicer, American run hostel for screwing up our booking; usually we can rely on hostel staff with good English to give us directions about where we need to go but at the place we ended up, even communicating what type of room we wanted and the cost of difficult. This speaks to some of the difficulties of traveling in China; while we’re living proof that it is 100% possible to travel in China with no knowledge of Chinese language and still avoid major mishaps, there are lots of minor inconveniences such as ordering the wrong thing, confused wayfinding, and extensive searching required to find desired niche products (e.g. hand sanitizer). You have to roll with it, and things vacillate between wearisome and rewarding.

When it started raining, we took a break and headed inside for lunch at a local Tibetan restaurant. Here’s a rundown of what we ate:

  • The “yak burger” was more of a yak stew covered with Tibetan bread. Yak is a lean, gamey meat and tasted like dry, chewy roast beef - not unpleasant, but not something we’d go out of our way to try again. The bread on top was like a plain, spongey naan, but the best part was the potatoes on the bottom layer which got a delicious caramel brown from touching the pan. 2.5 Buddhas.
  • Potato curry was like a less flavorful version of an Indian potato curry; greasy and lightly spiced, but the red peppers mixed in were tasty. 2.5 Buddhas.
  • Fried yogurt was the best dish; think of a Tibetan fried mozzarella stick. The inside was soft and chewy like a cheese with a mild, sweet flavor. 4 Buddhas.
  • Butter tea is the quintessential drink associated with Tibetan food. It’s made by mixing yak butter and/or milk with black tea. It tastes a bit like someone took the cheese powder from a box of white cheddar Mac n’ Cheese, mixed it with hot water, and poured in a small bit of sugar. Not horrible, but we didn’t finish. 1 Buddha.

Our Tibetan lunch

Our efforts at wandering were rewarded later in the afternoon when we spied what looked like temple rooftops high up on a hillside. We trudged 40 minutes up a maze of steep residential streets, trying to move closer to what we had seen from down below. After what felt like a long trek, we stumbled into a side doorway and found a breathtaking Tibetan monastery tucked way up into the hillsides. It was the first day in China where we could see clear blue skies instead of smog, and the sparkle of the afternoon sun through the brief afternoon sun shower made the visit worth all 12 hours on the bus.

The monastery contained several different buildings, all decorated in an almost psychedelic array of bright colors unlike anything we’d ever seen. Several of the buildings contained private shrines hidden behind draped curtains, which, when pulled back, revealed enormous Buddha statues, Tibetan prayer flags, cloth banners covered with flowers, and brilliantly colored frescoes - the oppose of the reigned-in and often austere decoration of many churches in the US and Europe.  

The monastery also contained a central courtyard where two groups of Tibetan monks (some only in their teenage years) stood talking cheerfully, playing with small instruments, and playing simple games. We walked through their living quarters, arranged like dormitories around the courtyard, and wandered the grounds, running into monks, construction workers who were building an addition to the monastery, and locals who had come visit the temple.

Visiting Kangding was probably the most stressful visit of our trip, but visiting the mountain monastery and experiencing a slice of Tibet definitely outweighed the difficulties. See Part II from Andrew, coming up next, about how we got ourselves back to Chengdu.