Tashi Delek བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས། from Garze!

Alright. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to write this, but, in my defense, the past few weeks have been absolutely insane. I’ve accomplished a couple of life-long goals, and bumbled into several adventures that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve been elated, exhausted, and ill. Travelled thousands of kilometers (both horizontally and vertically) on buses, cars, bikes, bullet and regular trains dragging over 70 pounds of luggage. And somehow managed to land safely at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But I’m not going to really go into my experiences at HKUST yet. For one, I’ve really only had a couple of classes, so I don’t have a feel for how the year will be academically. Additionally, I have only just begun to explore Hong Kong. There is just so much to talk about, so it deserves its own post.

When I was in middle school, I developed a minor obsession with Tibetan people, Tibetan Buddhism, and the regional politics. While I won’t go into the Tibetan independence issue here, there is ongoing conflict and rising tension in all areas where Tibetans are concentrated (herehere, and here). Partially because of this, the Chinese government has prohibited foreigners from entering the Tibetan Autonomous Region UNLESS they are with an approved, arranged tour group. These tours are expensive, limited, and very tightly controlled… in essence, ensuring that visitors have little to no unsupervised interaction with native Tibetans. My situation is further complicated by the fact that the Chinese government has repeatedly refused requests by our consulate to allow Foreign Service Officers into the region… so they probably wouldn’t be happy about me entering the region.

Fortunately, not all Tibetans live in Tibet. There is a sizable population in Chengdu living in the aptly named Tibetan Quarter. There are lots of shops and a few Tibetan restaurants, however everything has a heavy focus on religious iconography, rather than handicrafts or gifts. This is, in part, because many monks migrate to Chengdu to pick up the supplies to refurbish or establish their own local temple. So, if you are ever in need of a six foot tall Buddha statue or a set of Tibetan monk robes, check out this district. Below is Maddy, my roommate this summer holding up the prayer flags that she bought for roughly $1 by the major intersection at the center of the district.


After my internship at the consulate ended, I traveled to the Ganzi (or Garze in Tibetan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Sichuan. Although not given as much autonomy (or attention) as the TAR, the Autonomous Prefecture was set up in recognition of the fact that the majority of the citizens in this part of the province are ethnically Tibetan. Don’t ask me why they weren’t just lumped into the TAR… I have no idea. At any rate, foreigners are basically free to travel to any city within the prefecture that has been “opened to tourists,” meaning there are “adequate facilities to house guests.” If you try to travel to cities that are not yet opened, you run the risk of being forcibly removed by the police, and yes, this does happen. I talked to one guy who was told to leave a city he was trying to stay in overnight as he motorbiked from Xi’an to Tagong in Ganzi. Also, keep in mind that the government reserves the right to forbid entry to foreigners at any time, without prior notice… this has happened multiple times in the past.


Anyway, I took an awful 8 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding, the largest city in the prefecture, and largely regarded as the major starting point for all Tibetan adventures. There is exactly one two-lane highway that connects the two cities, and it winds around some of the most incredible mountainside scenery I’ve ever seen. At least, it is gorgeous upon reflection… because for most of the trip, I was incredibly uncomfortable and ill. August is the end of the rainy season, and so the road had been heavily damaged by landslides, and torn apart by construction projects. At one point, I realized that we had driven over four hours without once driving in a straight line over smooth roads. Needless to say, by the time I got off in Kangding, I was very excited.


All of the travel guides recommend spending a few days in Kangding, not because it is an especially interesting city, but because you need to acclimate yourself to the elevation before heading any further out into the region. In and of itself, Kangding is pretty mediocre. Beyond climbing the Paoma Mountain (famous in China because of the Kangding Love Song) and checking out the Tibetan gifts (which are pretty much exactly the same things on offer in Chengdu) there isn’t a whole lot to do. I split my time between hiking and exploring, and hanging out at the Zhilam Hostel, where I stayed. This is an excellent little hostel located up above the city, run by an American couple, employing lots of locals (who are incredibly kind and smart, you should definitely hang out with them and talk in a mixture of English, Chinese, and Tibetan!), and it serves coffee! What more could you possibly want?


Next, I needed to find a driver who would be willing to take me to the town of Tagong. While the town is open to tourists, it is slightly off the beaten path, so there aren’t any busses that go there. On my way there, I paid for a guy to drive me and his sister (girlfriend? I wasn’t really clear on this… he spoke Chinese with a thick accent). I later found out I had been fleeced, but the ride was relatively comfortable, and the scenery so amazing that I really didn’t care.


Tagong is located in a beautiful stretch of grasslands, home to actual real-live yak herders, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Sichuan, and hosts one of the most important monasteries in the region. It is also incredibly high up the the mountains, roughly 3,500 km. If you look on the map, Kangding and Tagong are fairly close together… however, even with my driver speeding basically the entire way there, it took three hours for us to navigate the winding roads up the mountainside… not that I’m complaining. I was glued to my window most of the drive.


Here, I stayed at the Khampa Cafe owned by a American-Tibetan couple who work to support the local community through treks, trips, and tourism. Again, this was a wonderful experience that I whole-heartedly recommend to any interested travelers… and they have coffee!


And, as much as I had a wonderful time here… the trip was slightly troubling. Twice on my trip in, my bus was pulled over as policemen boarded to examine all of the passengers. Kangding is becoming increasingly developed as more and more Han Chinese move west, creating a city that is more “Chinese” than “Tibetan.” I heard from many travelers that this is much worse in Lhasa.


I met lots of friendly travelers from around Europe and a few from the States, and none of us seemed to face many problems with locals. In fact, most people (outside of the super-touristy areas) were very eager to meet and talk to foreign visitors. However, they didn’t seem to like the Chinese visitors very much. In Tagong especially, each day a new tour bus would deposit 20-30 new tourists armed with trekking packs and DSLR cameras. They swarmed the temple, the stupa on the hill, the touristy horse-riding area, and the shops, proudly finishing their day with hundreds of impressive photos, a new strand of beads, and a fine woolen scarf (like those patterned pashmina scarves you can buy ANYWHERE… I have no idea how they ended up here or why they were so popular). They climb back onto their bus, and continue on their journey, leaving the disgruntled Tibetans to pick up the bottles and wrappers left over their streets and sacred hills.


Also… you may have noticed that most of my pictures don’t include people. The Tibetan people themselves are fascinating. Everyone wears a mixture of traditional wool coats, skirts, turquoise and coral jewelry, and various Buddhist symbols, along with jeans, nikes, and fake Rolex watches. Many people ride motorbikes that are a cross between a dirt bike and a motorcycle. Each morning, most of the elderly people in town migrate to the temple and form a clockwise procession, rotating the prayer wheels, and praying over their beads. Many of the children speak a smattering of English, while the elders don’t speak Mandarin. People still live out on the plains raising yaks, but many of the younger generation hope to learn English and attend university.


I have talked in the past about how uncomfortable I feel about being stared at, talked about, or asked for a photo. However, I can reasonably expect this behavior to end once I return home, to my own community. For the Tibetans that live in the tourism cities, this is their life. I can’t imagine what it is like to be constantly bombarded with curious tourists every day. What’s more, Tibetan women are incredibly modest and reserved… and they were often visibly uncomfortable with tourists asking (or, more often, not asking) for their photo. When I openly carried my camera in town, I almost never had anyone come up and talk to me. However, some of my favorite moments came when I had the camera tucked away, and I was simply interacting with these people as a fellow human.


For example, on my first day in Tagong, I saw a sign for yak’s milk yogurt, and decided to give it a try. I passed an incredibly old Tibetan woman on my way inside the building and gently said hello to her. Once I made it inside, it wasn’t all that clear where I was supposed to head to find the restaurant, so I took a guess and began climbing the stairs. I soon heard the old lady yelling after me in Tibetan, and quickly clambered down and tried to explain myself. After both English and Chinese failed, I fell back to pantomiming eating, which miraculously worked. The lady smiled and lead me into what appeared to be her living room and began scooping out a dixie cup of yogurt topped with a hearty pile of sugar, and handed me a pair of chopsticks. As I sat on her couch, attempting to eat yogurt with two sticks, her daughter and granddaughter came into the house and began eating with me. The daughter spoke a bit of Chinese, so I managed to figure out how much to pay the family and express my thanks, but mostly I just enjoyed watching the three of them interact. And I’m fairly sure they enjoyed watching me bumble around.


While I definitely consider this to be a defining experience in my life… I hesitate to call it a positive experience. As with so much in the world, the Tibetan people are complicated, they live in a complex society further confounded by greater national and international forces. There are not easy answers, and there is no easy way to process everything I’ve experienced. Hopefully, someday, I will be able to return and explore these issues in greater depth. At any rate, I will leave you with some prayer flags from the top of the Paoma Mountain. It is said that with every wave, the prayers and blessings printed onto the flag flow out into the universe, spreading good will and compassion.