Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adventures in Kham Tibet (part 1)

(September 27th - September 29th)

China's National Day holiday is one of but three opportunities for the laboring masses of this overpopulated country to take a week (or two) off--to cavort about the main tourist attractions of China (or just its raucous train stations, garish tourist-traps, and smoky mahjong dens). So at least 120 million Chinese took advantage of the opportunity, this year. My girlfriend and I were among them.

(No, I'm not going to disclose more details on that little tidbit. Strange for an avid blogger like myself to say, but I value some last vestige of my privacy. Let us move along.)

From Chongqing's foggy, tortuous hills to the flatlands of Chengdu by train, and then up from the Sichuan Basin into the misty, bamboo-encrusted foothills of the Himalayas we traveled. Having made the same journey last year, I can honestly say that the 8 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding is much easier with company (reading being impossible on those twisting roads).

The proclaimed 'home of Panda'--we didn't see any--is a wild, beautiful, and not terribly hospitable territory for human habitation. The Khambas (an isotope of Tibetan) dig small plots from nearly vertical land in order to grow their crops of corn and barley. At this altitude yak herding is not yet prevalent. Wooden houses (somewhat in the style of barns) attest to the deep forests which used to successfully claw their way of up the cliffs.

Below Kangding the river gorge has been tamed with several very new, very modern-looking hydropower stations/dams. In places, water has been diverted for kilometers through subterranean canals carved through the mountainside, only to spew foaming from the cliff--and generate some electricity?--later on down the canyon.

Kangding is known throughout China as the source of the 'Kangding Love Song'. Supposedly the song depicts the love of a shepherd (goatherd? yakherd?) for a wild, mountain girl who is very good at keeping house and baking whatever the Tibetan equivalent of pies might be (yak stew?). I really enjoy this song, in fact, and performed it for all the parents and students at our Aston School graduation ceremony this last August, to wild applause.

"Pao ma liu liu di shan shang; yi duo liu liu di yun yo! Duan duan liu liu di zhao zai; Kangding liu liu di cheng yo! Yue liaaang, wa-aaan, wa-aaaaaaaaaaan. Kangding liu liu di cheng yo!"

I have to say, Tibetan food rather sucks. Being a people who live at high altitude, at the very edge of sustainable habitability, they just don't have a lot of food options to work with. There's yak meat (cold cut, boiled in stew, or stuffed in dumplings), yak butter (used in tea, mostly), yak cheese (not really what I had been praying for), barley flour (folded into yak butter tea to make a doughy staple of the Tibetan diet, called 'tsampa), and yak yoghurt (extremely sour, use with sugar and extreme caution). These days other vegetables and fruits can be had (at expense) shipped up from the lowlands, and are not really a traditional part of the Tibetan diet. Some of the Kangding local cuisine (a fusion of Tibetan and lowlander Chinese styles) was quite interesting, however. My amor and I dined upon--I kid you not--walnut twigs and blossoms soaked in oil and spice, as well as a local version of 'twice-cooked pork' which was twice as tasty as the lowlander version.

We spent a day in Kangding, avoiding temple guard dogs at the local Buddhist temple and finding a nice place for sketching, up on an isolated patch of untilled farmland behind the temple.

Okay, I couldnt' resist throwing the kittens in. The monks of that particular monastery (an ancient monastery dating back at least to Qing Dynasty times, according to the painting of the Qianlong Emperor bringing gold and leopard pelts up the mountain to their 'holy monkishnesses') were kind enough to keep a whole herd of cats and dogs about the premises.
In any case, I'll finish presenting my holiday account in the second part. "The Yaks Among Us", wherein we continue on to the Tagong alpine prairies.