From Kangding, with Love

We’ve been roaming the Garnze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture for days. Now here we are in its capital, Dartsendo དར་རྩེ་མདོ་, known as Kangding in Chinese (made famous with the Kangding Love Song). We plan to take a couple of days off while dealing with our visa extensions. After having checked into a hostel that quickly filled up with Chinese backpackers, we wake up our first glimpse of PLA army trucks and of the snow that fell overnight on the tops of the mountain. Kangding is nestled in a steep valley at the confluence of the glacier-fed Zheduo and Ya La Rivers, which flow into the Yangtze and then into the sea. The town is already over 2300m, with most of the surrounding peaks pushing 4000m and with the Gong Ga Mountain (7556m) towering above.

At the Visa office we learn a tiny but very inconvenient detail, never mentioned on travellers’ websites: the extension is conditioned by the number of registrations one has in the system. This is how it works: theoretically a tourist must register for each night in China. The passport is therefore entered into an official data base so the immigration can check where and for how long has the visitor stayed. By sheer luck and due to freezing cold, we have uncharacteristically stayed in a number of hostels, so upon learning the rules we figure we should be ok. But the clerk in Kangding says we are not in the system and that we cannot only apply. For the next 24 hours we call to Dan Ba and Chengdu and register in Kangding, but even after doing so, we are still not in the system. All options exhausted, we resort to shouting and threatening to report at the embassy. It works. Red-faced lady is intimidated enough to accept our papers, even though she keeps asking “where did you stay in Beining, where did you stay the other nights” and so on. When we say xie-xie she insists that she will not sign our extension if 3 days from now our registrations are not validated. We’ll see about that.
Meanwhile we notice that the clouds have vanished, replaced by white wisps of cloud and clear blue sky. Time to cycle around town.

There are three Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in town. To visit the Lhamo Tse Monastery (Nanwu Si) we need to cycle about 2km west from downtown and navigate a quaint neighbourhood.

The place is silent and there is a thick wool tapestry lining the door. The symbol resembling the steering wheel of a boat represents the continuity of life, the circular life of an individual, and the interconnectedness of all life in the universe and is very important in Hindu and in Buddhist theology.

Inside it’s prayer time. A choir of trumpets is being directed by an older monk who uses tiny bells and a gong to sequence the music and to control the ensemble.

The interior is adorned with all sort of Buddhist paraphernalia. Our uneducated eye is seduced by this intricate and extravagant decor, where the five colors of the prayer flags – representing earth, sky, fire, sun, and wind – prevail.

Ngachu Monastery, known as An Jue Si in Chinese, dates back to 1654 and sits downtown, right across from the Kangding Hotel.

The nearby alleys have been restored and upgraded, with many hip cafes, shops and hair saloons popping up on a weekly basis. We’ve noticed that the hipsterdom has already spread to Tibet. The competition is fierce, with every young guy in town trying to look like their hair is on sky high peroxide fire. I take this opportunity to buy a horrendous fake Jack Wolfskin jacket and to scold an innocent “stylist” about the stupid detail that will make their customers fall right on their hipster-coiffed heads.

While we’re on topic, how about the hipster version of traditional tea in a town that was an important station on the tea version of the Silk Road ? My choice: chrysanthemum infusion, with rock sugar and goji berries.

The waitress kindly educates us on the history of the trade: the Tibetans wanted to buy tea from the Chinese to help with the digestion of meat, while the Chinese wanted to buy horses to use in battle. Both things (tea and horses) couldn’t be sourced in the desired locations, so the Cha Ma Gu Dao (The Ancient Way of Tea and Horse) was established, during the Tang Dynasty (about 1300 years ago). The traders used to travel well over three months from the town of Ya ‘an (widely seen as the start of the Sichuan section of the ancient route with two others starting from Yunnan in the south and Qinghai in the north) to Lhasa.

This ancient route is the main reason why there are towns (and therefore places to stay) in this desolate but beautiful part of China. The trade is still going strong. In the local market we find wool, Tibetan herbs and bricks of tea from Ya’an wrapped in yak hide. And the so-called Himalayan Viagra, an endemic, uber-rare and hard-to-harvest worm that is worth its weight in gold. This parasitic fungus grows through the body of its host – the ghost moth caterpillar – killing it and bursting out of the top of its head. Yartsa gunbu looks like a small brown twig on the end of a crinkled yellow worm and it is believed to cure cancer and to be a potent aphrodisiac. Up until 1955 the Garnze region was part of Tibet proper (and this is not a small place, it’s about half the size of Italy). Today 40% of the population are Tibetans and 40% are Han Chinese.

Tibetan swag

20% of the locals belong to other minority groups such as the Qiang, Yi and Hui.

The crimson-robed nomads with jet black hair that can absorb the heat when the sun shines come into town from grasslands like Ta Gong (112km away) to buy and sell goods. We soon find ourselves pulled into the Tibetan culture – fatty foods, heavy drinking and friendly curiosity.

Near the local farmer’s market and the bus station, right across out hotel, is the Yak Bridge, a marketplace for all things yak. Foodwise, East Tibet is all about meat and preparation for the harsh winter that lasts nearly six months. There is also some dairy (hard cheeses, milk & and yak butter to be blended with tea). The rest of fruit and veg are imported. Except for the grass (grazed by herds) and for the main crops of barley (pounded into flour) and turnips (thrown over huge wooden structures to dry in the sunlight), little else grows up here.

This yak jerky reminds us of a South-African delicacy, the biltong. Speaking of food, we manage to hunt down an entire street dedicated to soup and fresh noodles .

And we become regulars at another joint specialised in pickled veg (lotus root, even ginseng) and cured meats (pig’s ear & skin).

To burn off all that grease we cycle up (and back down again) the swirling road out of town, only to fall into more foodie temptation. We meet again with one of our favourite Si Chuan delicacies, the hotpot. The Tibetan variety sports a bubbling stock of pigs’ knuckles and ribs, chunks of ham, and, said the cook, various “healing herbs”, the most identifiable being goji berry. First we fill some plates with our choice of ingredients – meat, of course (chicken, pork, and yak), and all sorts of hopefully-non-toxic mushrooms. Then we make a dipping sauce by mixing minced garlic and fine matchsticks of ginger with chopped chillies and soy, and finally start dropping them meats and veggies into the fire-fuelled clay pot. Trust me, after a day of cycling in oxygen-deprived air and in unfiltered light, this is exactly what you’d want to sit down to eat, especially if rounded off with some local barley wine.

Be it a village or a town, in this part of China everything still happens in the street: the selling of vegetables, the sanding of all-important chopping boards. But when someone has already managed to build a small mountain of sawdust near our bikes, no matter how awesome the restaurant may be, it’s clear that we’ve been inside for far too long.

Throughout the week the weather has been good to us, except for nighttime  when temperatures drop well below zero. To cope, I’ve acquired the habit of drinking hot water. The second best thing is going out for a brutally spicy hotpot with our fellow hostel dwellers, one of whom insists that my boyfriend looks like a movie star! (It’s not the first time John receives such extravagant compliments from Chinese men, and we’ve attributed this to his prominent facial hair; they’d be disappointed to see his chest.) Finally, we are prevented from shivering with cold by electric blankets, which the genius in me has the foresight to plug in and crank up to max power before we go out. As the week progressed our dorm buddies kept changing, except for the mouse that keeps coming out every night.

By the end of the week our visas are ready but we hear that tomorrow it’s going to start snowing again and daytime temperature will drop to -8! Exciting stuff, and presumably lots of snow ahead, considering that the road further west is a section of Tibet Highway still under construction, that goes through two mountain passes at 4,410m and 4,659m. Remind me why we’ve chosen to cycle towards Tibet NOW with the onset of winter?