Mint-colored mountains sweep below, some terraced into waves of farmland, alternating green hues until the shock of white interrupts; ridgelines sharpen to a white point that is blinding. A solitary gompa (monastery) inhabits a flat expanse between peaks; the narrow road leading to and away from it a sullen brown, snaking through the valley and disappearing up the slopes.
At 1154am the landing gear rumbles into place, and I am curious about the affect of altitude at various elevations -- I make a mental note to study this phenomenon later--I've never had reason to explore it until now! My feelings are a mixmaster of happiness, contentment, curiosity, excitement, tiredness, and amazement. Amazement most especially when I observe that we are now flying parallel and below the mountain tops! Through? Between? I hope we stay between! I haven't flown through a mountain range before, but I can predict that the view on either side of the plane would make the perfect content of a pre-crash scene in a movie, yikes! The pilot doesn't disappoint, and we land surprisingly smooth three minutes later.
Dang, it is seriously cold!!! I stand and exit, noticing that I feel quite strange. My body feels dizzy and "off". The monk sitting a few rows ahead has left his sweet sandalwood scent to linger, I pass throught this invisible cloud in a daze, although my imagination leads me to believe it has form, and that I pass through a significant universal boundary -- a gate into the world of Kham. Moving along the jetway seems like a slow motion scene from that previous plane-crash movie I was not actually in: I am somewhat breathless and my heart is a staccato prelude to dizziness. I slow my gait, and as I approach, hope I won't tumble down the escalator! But making it to the toilet is a major feat. I discover that I have arrived just in time for a blizzard! Not only have I flown into one of the highest airports in the world, the single road leading south to Dartsendo (Ch. Kangding) leads upward to an even higher mountain pass, which is now the site of heavy snowfall. Little do I know, I will get to experience riding along these extremely hazardous, cliffside, blizzard-blown roads on three occasions during my short four-day holiday!
The airport is a one room affair, expansive and yet small. Either there is no heat or it is powered down, for it is bracingly cold and the difference in temperature from outdoors and inside seems only that we are protected from biting and snapping mountain wind. A tiny luggage retrieval area is separated from the main reception area by a glass wall. The 15m walk across the main hall to the toilet makes me dizzy, breathless, and my vision is doubled or blurred; these are not alarming sensations, but odd and new. I sit in the vacant restaurant and enjoy my first bowl of Tibetan noodles with yak meat, awaiting the roads to clear.
unique sights only seen in Tibet!
The nice folks from my hotel pick me up at 140pm, after the roads are clear, in a small, black off-road truck. With my lack of Putonghua skill (Mandarin) and their small English vocabulary, we speak little, but enjoy the ride. We pass many rock cairns along the way. Although late April, it seems like mid-winter in this barren landscape of black rock, white snow, and slushy grey road. There is an overturned truck that has apparently slid onto its side. My stomach feels the same due to altitude and too many noodles. Twenty minutes down the road, traffic halts due to a yak traffic jam. I'm excited when we reach the hotel, a collection of quaint stone cottages built in a Tibetan-style, (later I will learn this assumption is incorrect: almost all new buildings in Tibetan areas --including rebuilt monasteries-- are a mix of Chinese-Tibetan; since China has violently colonized Tibet and force-fed Chinese culture to the Tibetans in their attempt to annihilate both its culture and its people is horrifically obvious).
Why I left this small roadside hamlet and my first hitchhiking experience in Kham... next post!