Dardo, Dartsendo,...now Kangding. Historically the Kham region of Tibet, ruled by kings and warriors, now part of the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a politically defined area of PRC east of the Tibetan Autonomous Area, also within the political borders of PRC.
I’m always amazed that I feel like I am prosaically “going home”—or arriving home— in certain geographical places. Why is that? This feeling gushes from deep within my soul —or another lifetime— when I arrive to Kangding, is similar to what I feel in New Orleans. My psyche sighs in relief; I feel at ease, I feel hopeful, I feel happiness. It’s a unique feeling, and infrequent.
When I look out the aeroplane window at miles and miles of alpine peaks, as far as I can see—there are ridges covered with snow alternating with darkly forested green, split by lonely roads in deep valleys; some filled with blue water from melted snow or a small village— a word forms in my mind. Only one word, but imbued with everything my brain is registering, flying from optic nerve to conscious realization: “Impossible”. It’s impossible that this is real. It seems I am in some incredible landscape painting, or seeing a larger-than-life outdoor magazine cover that’s been pasted on the plane window. From this view, you FEEL the earth. I don’t know another way to express it. It’s IMPOSSIBLE, and I FEEL the earth.
Our short flight takes only 35 minutes, but 10 minutes prior to landing I feel the disorienting effects of altitude, equally difficult to describe. A feeling of pressure and not-quite-dizzy dizziness. An indescribable feeling of not having holistic control over my body’s vestibular system. Even my eyesight is affected. Then a headache begins, mildly. We landed around 40 minutes ago, and the bus is only now leaving at 11:38. Oh geez, I think we have a driver in-training, because the guy sitting next to him in the jump seat seems to be instructing him and the driver just scraped through the gears a few times. Great... will this be as terrifying as my last trip in the minibus from the airport, the day my flight back to Chengdu was cancelled?
Everything that was graveyard-white is now scrubby-green with patches of white, even here at what appears to be the top of the world. The pressure on my body is rough; I’m so glad we will descend. It’s like my heart and lungs are being squeezed, though it’s not unbearable but noticeable. I wonder how I will fare at higher altitudes when I eventually venture to towns further into the high latitudes.
Just before noon, we just pass the mountain with the boulders that spell out “The Love Song of Kangding”, signifying the famous mountain and its eponymous song. This bus ride is a heck of a lot less scary than the minibus ride last time! The driver goes slower and is more cautious. There is no ventilation in the bus, and it is hot and stuffy with the bright sun, at such a high altitude. Of course, it is interesting (well, on this trip I can say “interesting”) to be passed by another bus on a curve. The other bus passes both our bus and another tractor-trailer truck. Also, I can’t get over all the cyclists slowly pedal-trudging up the mountain pass; what endurance! I wonder how far they ride between overnights, considering all the switchbacks, elevation gain, weather variance—not to mention all the traffic! I think it would be fun, terrible, and an extraordinary accomplishment!
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As we continue on, I observe the vast, slanted mountainsides are littered with rocks and boulders and ... yaks! On lower peaks, the snow looks like spilled salt: random and granular. Rock cairn grave sites are scattered not far off the road and slate grey rockslides have paved their way down the tree- and scrub-covered cliffs. Prayer wheels pop up randomly on the roadside, as do small herds of horses and yaks! (Notice: The word “Yaks!” will purposefully continue to be followed by an exclamation mark!) Then, tied to the base of a towering commercial sign, are two cows on quite short leashes. Odd place to tie your cattle, but hey, why not? Streams of melted mountain snow rush down the gorges they have created, and pale pink and blooms infrequently appear now and again — rhododendrons? Suddenly, a motorcycle rider passes by! He is all decked out to cruise across western Sichuan; gear packed high behind him.
At 12:18 we pass through the tiny village of Ji Tou, at least I think that is the name; it could simply be the name of that one hotel among the 10 Tibetan-style buildings welcoming you to the rest of the village. Here, every other building is a hotel or inn, with the largest building being an obnoxiously grand police station. That overdone pretentiousness seems to be a pattern in at least this part of Sichuan. I don’t know if this is a village, or why there are 20 hotels in a village of 25 buildings.
Finally, my ears pop to release the pressure, which causes me to notice the absence of a headache but an increase in thirst. The road narrows as we drive along a terrifyingly steep, drop-off-and-die-far-below, gorge, descending into “New Kangding”. Rounding another sharp turn bares more of New Kangding: falsely proud concrete pillars of apartment blocks, all reaching up, seemingly wishing they could be as grand as the mountains that surround them, but only serving as a blight against the gorgeous green of mountainsides. Concrete slabs surrounding the buildings uglify the incursion further, but there are the bright spots of yellow, periwinkle, and fuchsia flowers to balance the human-made blasphemy. The pink flowers look like red clover blossoms, but with a much brighter pink hue than found on blooms in the US.
Toward the end of the bus journey, for the past 15 minutes or so, (it’s 12:44), we’ve been stuck in a traffic jam on this two-lane road. It has become very slow going into Kangding and frequently, we wait at a dead stop, while the driver itches to light his cigarette during our pauses. When we arrive, I ask to be let off in the downtown square and lug my carry-on up the short set of stairs to Himalayan Coffee. I am exhausted from lack of sleep and being up at 5am; don’t know if a cappuccino will help, but it sure can’t hurt!
The weather app warned of scattered showers, but I sat on a stuffy bus with high altitude sunshine burning my skin, and had to remove my fleece! Even in Lucheng, the main town center of Kangding, I disembarked with sunglasses on, to bright sunny skies and a hot sun, offset only slightly by a slightly chilly breeze.
I spent a few hours in Himalayan Coffee, trying to wake up, trying to write, and simply enjoying the ambience, a cappuccino, a grilled cheese sandwich, and finally, honey-citrus tea for dessert. On the way to Anjue Si temple after 4, the sky was foreboding, but not enough to deter me from sitting in front of the 10m high Buddha for a quiet meditation period. I felt so grateful and at ease. I miss visiting a temple each week, like I did in Korea. I will add that aspect back into my life when I return to Chengdu. I have let many of my good habits lapse, and I sincerely wish for their return: running, cycling, hiking, meditation, morning prana/asana, regular writing... what follows is feeling good, being healthy, and experiencing consistent feelings of joy, satisfaction, inspiration, and happiness in my life.
As I came out of the temple, the sky was no longer kidding! The KABOOMS I’d heard were not accompanying the other construction sounds, they resounded from well above the surrounding ridges that ring the city, and seemed to come from everywhere, directly overhead, and right next to my ear, all at once! The denizens and tourists were scurrying about like a monsoon was approaching—or a plague. We were all cowering under the explosions, contracted and hunched, awaiting the next one. Earlier I had decided to walk up the hill (15 minutes of steep elevation and 698 steps, if I recall) to the inn, rather than call a taxi for the roundabout route, and with another punch from above, I started to regret that. I also started walking much faster. The sky, the wind, the lightning, the thunder, all portended a serious rainstorm. Fat drops began to splat the sidewalk, though only a few, and inconsistently; I thought I might get lucky and make it to the top before all hell broke loose from the now scary, blackened sky. I made it up the hill, my calves and quads screaming, my carry-on banging along the grooved concrete, increasing my drag and decreasing my speed and endurance, as the booming from above spurred me with fearsome encouragement. I arrived huffing and puffing to the driveway of my inn just as the clouds coalesced into one big storm on top of me!
After settling in, a pot of welcoming cha (tea), and a rest, dinner was served. Once again, Nu Wen invited me to join them for dinner. The food made me wish I had skipped lunch! The food is so savory and inviting, nourishing and healthy! Multiple dishes with multiple flavors, yet complementing each other, accompanied by a big pot of rice! I ate what I thought was some sort of short, flat noodle; it turned out to be made from rice (cooked rice ground into a flour) and it was chewy and full of flavor. There were chilled “salad” type dishes, not salad in the western sense, but vegetables with various spices and savories, served chilled, such as eggplant prepared two different ways, and another vegetable dish that was super-spicy and delicious! So, so, so thrillingly good. And of course, enjoying the company of these lovely women who are such gracious hosts. Nu Wen told me that she will offer my meals gratis, since I am by myself. So nice!
Although it’s early, I am soon going to sleep. I am anxious to arise early and meet the trail! My plan is to hike the two other mountains I missed last time, Ju Lian, and Paoma. There are also two Tibetan restaurants to try: even though I can eat here for free, I want to experience a meal or two out. Maybe I’ll depart early, return for lunch and a nap, then head out on a second trail or to one of the museums, and of course, the temple.
Sunday, June 17
Slept well and easily and with a slightly full tummy. I awoke early—on purpose—and the clouds were still settled at the level of my window, so I snoozed for another 30 until the view was clearer. When I looked out the bathroom window, there was a whisky cloud hanging by the next building. That’s incredible! How often does one get to meet a cloud at eye-level! The nebulous form just stared back. I closed the window once more for privacy.
My room is comfortable and cozy, I could stay in here all day and be content; writing, reading, watching rain and mist and cloud hover and migrate. My Maxim coffee packs are puffed up like pillows due to the altitude; they are like little musical shaker instruments, puffed up with air, filled with the tempting rattle of coffee, creamer, and sugar. After a few of those and some writing, I meander out to the main room for breakfast, Bouzhe, steamed bread, and a triangle of rice and beans that is moist, delicious and nutty. The morning steam of clouds that filled my windowpane is slowly burning away as the sun tries to force itself up over the mountain, but the rain clouds stubbornly remain.
There are a collection of sleepy Brits finishing breakfast as I begin mine, and we chatter back and forth about the day’s plans. My hostess, Nu Win, offers to take me to a beautiful grassland area, but I have my mind and heart set on the summit of Jui Liansan, which lies in the back yard; this is one of the treks I only partway climbed last time. Part of me wants the solitude required to hike and think and revel in beauty. My mind had cleared itself of all clutter and stress related to work and life, only the night before; my mind was free and unweighted, and I found myself thinking the profound thoughts that need room to enter my mind and heart. Life, change, concepts, blocks to joy, age ... topics I don’t consider often enough in the busy 9-5. I want more time for these thoughts to come unbidden to mind, for it means I am aware and not just wading through life. With that I decline the offer, softly, but she asks to join me on my hike. The contradiction in all of this is that I frequently seek the company of others because I do so much alone, and yet, even after years of wanting a travel partner, when offered companionship for a day hike, I prefer time in solitude. But in the mountains, I am never alone. I am filled with wonder and beauty and nature. I feel the breath of god across the mountain and my thoughts accompany me.
NuWen and I have had many pleasant conversations, albeit with WeChat Translator as in intercessor. Why not? So we set off together, laughing, up the mountain, for what I thought would be a 3-4 hour trek. If I had known, I would have brought more food and drank more water and borrowed a hat! We began our hike up a narrow alley path that led to a road above, lined with lanterns shaped like prayer bells and occasional piles of horse dung. NuWen wanted to stop by the temple first, which I was happy to do. The river rushed below and beside us with it’s loud roar of snowmelt as we rose over the neighborhoods below. I was instantly grateful for both the diversion and company when we entered the temple square to find a group of monks engaged in creating a sand mandala. I wanted to remain the entire time and ponder on the temporary aspect of everything in life, but after 10 minutes I moved on to meet NuWen, who had moved up into the temple to worship and pray.
Bells from the main temple started to ring, and everyone hurried to the main hall. Some were walking in clockwise fashion around the temple offering respect and prayers to the varying representations of god, and the llamas (?) who founded the monastery. Others were offering sun salutations of honor from standing to kneeling to full-on outstretched body on the wooden floor. I felt uncomfortable and out-of-place in my hiking shorts and obvious blonde hair, and with surprised stares from all in the temple, I became more self-conscious. I felt like a charlatan if I bowed and prayed, even though alone, I would not hesitate. I made my rounds, pausing before the differing forms of Buddha and offering my own private form of worship prayer. If you are not knowledgeable about Buddhism, you will conclude that all these religious folk are praying to colorful idols and dead holy men. But that is an incorrect assumption. Just as in the Hindu panoply, each statue represents a unique aspect of god in ourselves, and focusing on god with repetitive chants while stringing the prayer beads through our hands, is to keep us focused on just that: the holiness of all life, including ourselves, and god—who is in us, who is us — rather than human desires which distract us from the knowledge that all of us are one and the same. Have you noticed the pervasive concept that litters and chokes American society and has unfortunately moved beyond those borders to pollute the world: us vs. them, we are separate from each other, I need to think of myself before others, money before humanity, et.al.?