Eastern & central Tibet

Chengdu-Lhasa trip notes by Claire Barnes, June 2001.

Highlights and surprises: the lush fertility and prosperity in the east (especially the areas now incorporated in Sichuan). Strong Tibetan character of the countryside communities there (the Chinese are in the towns, and an occasional roadside restaurant). Variety of architectural styles for houses - new valley, new style. Variety of geology, flora, tribal peoples. The Bon monastery. The faith of the pilgrims.

9th: arr Chengdu; good Sichuan dinner.

The bridge at Luding.10th: through spectacular mountain countryside, ordered off the road many times for Zhu Rongji to pass. After many false alarms we had ceased to take much notice (although the many police were in obviously new uniforms), and he did pass - in a minibus in huge convoy.

By 6pm we reached the suspension bridge at Luding, c1700, scene of a famous Long March battle. The two armies raced to it along opposite banks; the Kuomintang arrived first, fortified one end and set fire to the planking, in an attempt to prevent the Red Army escaping - but troops crossed anyway, hand-over-hand along the cables under machine-gun fire. Many casualties fell, into the swirling river.

On to Kangding (Dartsedo), the historical Tibetan border, and a remarkably comfortable hotel.

Wrestling yaks.11th: breakfast of warm soymilk and delicious steamed pork bun in a roadside stall. Beautiful scenery; lush pasture with plump contented yaks, pigs and horses.The pigs are huge and pink, European style. Architecture all Tibetan, large solid stone dwellings like small castles. Little visible Han influence except ubiquitous satellite dishes - apparently handed out by govt so one per house rather than bother with cabling. We forded a small river to a sky burial site, stretching up a high sided valley with suitable vantage points for the vultures, and were then invited into Munya monastery. The monks showed us their library, with ancient manuscripts on stacks of individual leaves, bound and cloth-wrapped and stored in square cupboards. One with gold text and images was said to be 1400yrs old; another 1700. The material, like tough parchment, was said to be made from both leather and plant products. Through the Tawu valley, with houses of red horizontal logs with a white flat roof. A lorry ahead was blocked by landslide; our smaller jeeps managed to slip past a huge boulder as more stones fell. At Dawa we helped to heave a car from ditch in order to clear the road; night at Luhuo (Drango).

Hermit at turquoise lake.12th: the CITS programme is fiction - at least the sights; some are two days by horse from the route. However there is plenty of interest. The architecture has changed again, to mud walls with broad vertical stripes in brown and white, some in walled villages reminiscent of Omani forts. Then a very photogenic town where tyre repairs gave us time for a leisurely stroll, ending up on a promontory with manificent views both ways along a broad river valley, across which a yak herd was being made to swim. On to another monastery, huge, multi-coloured horizontal layers following the contours of the hillside - and first seen across a carpet of yellow flowers and pretty stream, with gilded top ornaments glittering in the sunlight. Then to a lake of startling turquoise amid snowcapped mountains, quite the most beautiful I have ever seen. Shortly after our arrival, a turquoise tern arrived and circled over the sacred site in some agitation until we left - as if guarding it from intruders. We decided that it could not be turquoise but must be reflecting the lake on its white underwings - but this seemed remarkable in itself, as the colour was so vivid. Up through snow and glaciers over a pass at 16,100ft, stopping to impress a first snowball on Mei Wah. Waited for a broken-down truck to clear the road, and rolled into Dege at 9.15.

Pilgrims at Dege.13th: to Dege printing press, built in 1729, and using the same blocks and techniques ever since. In the monastery (distinguished by a stuffed yak suspended from the entrance ceiling), monks were chanting, one old man and three boys - rhythmic and compelling, reminiscent of Georgian or Orthodox harmony. Across the current Sichuan-Tibet border, on a tributary of the Yangtze; dire warnings about the consequences of photographing. Progressed haltingly through beautiful countryside - with the engine passing out every 200yds due to adulterated petrol. At Jomda, foreigners banned from govt guest house due to imminent arrival of unnamed big shot, whose pickup convoy had run us off the road earlier in the day. Visited the Tibetan medicine hospital, where staff obligingly showed us their raw materials (all leaves, roots, stalks and flowers, no bark and no fungi 'yet'), plus chalk, and an enormous elk horn which they soak and then slice very finely for soups. All remedies are ingested with hot water (none eg applied to the skin), and they diagnose mainly from urine samples. They had 34 remedies to dispense, mostly made from 25-35 different ingredients. The thirteen staff do the picking themselves (with exceptions like the elk horn, sold to them by a farmer, and other items in a backroom store of 'imported' ingredients from Qinghai and other provinces), and also do the processing, whlch sometimes involves distillation or other procedure for exraction. They all have degrees - some from Lhasa but others from Nanjing etc, where they presumably study related subjects - and 4 yrs' training (incl degree?). The boss said they might not be up to standards of western doctors but they know their stuff.

Moonscape detail.14th: eagles, some nesting; a hare; many lemmings. Others saw ibex and snow pheasant. Saw a yak caravan (a family on the move), a picnic of nuns (including some lepers), and yaks standing in white water (yakuzzi). Snow, sleet, mainly sunshine; spectacular geological formations and hairpin bends. Into Qamdo; a 15 hour day.

Resident of Qamdo monastery.15th: Visited Qamdo monastery, among the most important in East Tibet and with considerable architectural and decorative charm, and lively statues and paintings of figures mounted on tigers and other animals. Guns and knives prominently displayed in one chapel were donated by hunters forswearing killing. Drove out through very barren mountains interspersed with fertile valleys of vivid green and occasional patches of bright yellow, presumably rape. At one pass, two tributaries of the Mekong flowed in deep gorges below. Lunch on spicy Mekong fish. A hot spring. Held up by a convoy of 82 PLA trucks and an axle problem; arrived in Baxoi at 10pm, followed by two intrepid foreign cyclists and a timber-smuggling lorry.

Pilgrim lady at the Brahmaputra crossing.16th: a day punctuated by many PLA convoys: 39 trucks, then 44, 140, 54, 45, and at the Brahmaputra river 200. Here we met three young foreigners hitchiking from Yunnan to Lhasa, including an anthropologist who had been living with one of the more obscure minorities for two years, studying their grammar etc. This is the most dangerous section of road, where our drivers were stopped last week by landslides, and waited 3 days before returning to Lhasa and taking the northern route to meet us (taking over from our Sichuan drivers at Qamdo, rather than Dege as originally planned). Very varied terrain: stony, then very green, gorges, lakes, major landslides, shoring-up works of heroic & Sisyphean proportions, hot springs sending clouds of steam from the banks of the Brahmaputra, wild roses & wild strawberries. Into Lunang and a very comfortable bed at 11: our longest day yet, and the most nerve-wracking as we attempted to pass all the likely blockage points before the drizzling rain intensified. Now we can continue on the southern route; previously there was a possibility we might have to backtrack all the way to Qamdo and take the less interesting northern route. We are the first foreigners to travel legally on the southern route (although many may have done so illegally), and the last until September, after the rainy season, when three groups will travel - subject to no rain, & ministerial clearance regarding state of the road. Touching that the Chinese government should be so concerned about foreigners' welfare.

Himalayan blue poppy.17th: Outrage: breakfast cost Y13 per head, instead of Y1-3 - but it was delicious. A magical forest with rhododendron in all colours, hanging spanish moss (white and a startling orange), heather, primula, Alpine rose, buttercups in varied & variegated yellow & white, iris, Tibetan rhubarb, and the Himalayan blue poppy. Visited a Bon monastery, of the religion preceding Buddhism, and the origin of much of its ritual. Here however one perambulates anti-clockwise, instead of clockwise, and the swastika is the other way around, like a Nazi emblem. In this area we have been warned not to accept any offered food or drink, due to a local belief that poisoning others prolongs one's own life. Visited a grove of giant cypress trees, the largest 5.8m in diameter and said to be 2,500 years old, another only slightly smaller and supposedly 2,000 years old. Overnight in Bayi, where a trading town has grown up around the military garrison. Terrific dinner with beer for Y14 per head, a contrast with the morning.

Boy in embroidered hat.18th: two monasteries, the larger reached by a long walk up a (literally) breathtaking valley, and quite beautiful. At Menling, Moslem traders, like restauranteurs met earlier, told us that they had moved here recently, having heard that life was better, and that the reality was tough - but on discussion of mountains rivers & clean air agreed not so bad. The market was full of glorious fruit and vegetables, plus ducklings and baby chicks; pigs and piglets roamed the main street along with hookers in skimpy outfits and huge platform shoes. Many army checkpoints, at every intersection and river crossing, initially looking for a young man with bloody chest who had escaped (deserter?), and later for 3 men of the Hui minority who had murdered a man (soldier?) and fled into the mountains towards India, 30km away. At one point large numbers of troops of the Border Patrol were amassed, sitting in platoons with rain capes and chunky weaponry (and a truck full of telecom gear), apparently ready for mountain search. Along the Brahmaputra river, which in places had created huge sand dunes, to Lang.

Prayer flags.19th: 3 hour delay hunting petrol; garages are few and far between, and two in a row were shut. Up to a pass at 16,500ft, walking a short distance, with an enchanting music of bells wafting up from the pastures below. Delayed by broken-down trucks on road under reconstruction; Joanne showed top form as traffic policeman. Hardly surprising that truck drivers stopped gobsmacked when ordered by a 6ft female barbarian with cowboy check shirt and bandit handkerchief over mouth (dust everywhere); presumably they too had seen western movies. Late into a smart hotel in Tsetang, with Abercrombie & Kent tourlsts looking disdainfully at the dusty apparitions.

Valley view from Yembu Lgang.20th: to Yumbu Lgang, an ancient fort on a promontory with spectacular views over the valley. This is deemed the cradle of Tibetan agriculture and civilization, dating from the 2nd century BC although the fort was destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt twenty years ago. Then to Tadruk monastery, both charming and important, and to the tomb of the C7th king who brought Buddhism to Tibet and married the Chinese Princess Wencheng (who smuggled the silkworms in her hair; along the way she stayed at one of the monasteries we saw earlier). A one-hour ferry ride across the Brahmaputra and half an hour standing in the back of a truck in a minor sandstorm took us to the huge and beautiful Samye monastery. Ursula and I had thought of staying in the guesthouse here, and proceeding to Lhasa via Mindroling tomorrow, but apparently our permit says Lhasa tonight, and there we must go. The PSB alleged last night that our existing permit is not in order, and ordered us back to Qamdo. Our guide was up until midnight arguing otherwise, and fortunately won. Safely in Lhasa, CITS greets us - their first group on this route, Chinese or foreign, with a celebratory dinner with splendid views of the Potala. Willie the guide is all smiles now that we are shortly to be off his hands, having appeared increasingly close to a nervous breakdown as the trip progressed. (Mishaps would have had dire consequences for his career, we are told.) Wade through roadwork mud to the friendly hospitality of Hotel Kechu.

Sera's mattress-stuffing team.21st: The new Tibet museum is interesting, with terrific displays and English narration but extraordinarily brazen & unsubtle propaganda and misrepresentation. An amble around the Barkhor was interrupted by a shout from an upstairs wlndow, so joined Aake for a lunch of Tibetan noodles & yak momos (meat dumplings). Meru Nyingba, found by exploring some foul-smelling alleys inside the pilgrim's circuit, was a delight - like stepping back into the middle ages, with a friendly community atmosphere among the throngs lining alleys, courtyard, and gallery, and huge cooking pots - including, curiously, a pressure cooker. Various prayer wheel fashions were on display: jumbo width (long prayers?), parasol, knitted cosy, and hanging silk threads in rainbow colours which whirl out when twirled.

We took a taxi to Sera monastery, where the afternoon debating practice was in full swing. Young monks were paired, one sitting and one standing, and made their points with great rhetorical flourishes - using kung fu movements, vigorous slaps of the palms, and whirling beads. The noise level was deafening. Two elderly supervisors monitored the proceedings, and occasionally wandered about watching individual students. Around the edges of the walled courtyard, Tibetan laypeople followed individual debates with fascination, but we were unable to determine the subject matter - finer points of theology, or irrigation policy? - or how the subjects were chosen. At the upper end of the courtyard and slightly apart, small groups of 2-6 older monks engaged in more measured discussion. In another part of the monastery's extensive grounds, we found a printing shop - only three workers, much smaller than Dege. On a nearby roof, male and female workers were stamping down a newly laid mud floor with a hearty song and dance routine.

Just outside the walls, painted rock carvings lined the pilgrim circuit. From there I scrambled up to a small hermitage which had wonderful views over monastery and city, as well as a colony of lemmings confident enough to ignore my arrival and continue foraging outside their burrows.

Final dinner of yak curry, chang (barley beer), and more normal Lhasa beer, followed by a final stroll around the Jokhang. Pilgrims are still arriving, and we thought of those we saw prostrating themselves almost 2000 miles back, and wonder how they will cope with the deep mud churned up by trucks in the landslide areas. They expected to arrive in Lhasa in six months' time. We notice one man 'cheating' as he circles the Barkhor, taking many extra steps between prostrations - and who could blame him, but our distant friends were very carefully putting down a stone marker with their outstretched fingers, and walking forward only to that point before repeating. The faith of the people is truly amazing. Tomorrow Joanne and Aake are off to Everest base-camp and Kathmandu, and I more prosaically to the airport.

Giant panda.22nd: via Chengdu (and a quick dash to the panda research institute, spotting two giant pandas and two red pandas) to Guangzhou and the comforts of Courtney residence, whence on 23rd to KL. Several hours of scrubbing and soaking later - back to normal colour.

Participants: Peter Ostwald, Joanne Wood, Ursula Daniel, Edward Bagnall & Eun Ah, Karin Brunzell, Kwok Mei Wah, Stephen, Aake, Wendy Lui, and the author, Claire Barnes.

Photos: page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.