or, "The Yaks Among Us" (September 30 - October 3rd)
From Kangding, the bus ride over the high pass (elevation: 4200 m) into the alpine prairies around Tagong was no less jolting than I remembered. Certainly the new paved road made things worse and only taunted us as I routinely slammed my hat into the ceiling. Herds of shaggy yaks and black mountain-pigs graze the slopes between islands of shrubbery--spinach green, coagulated-blood red, watery gold--and occasionally raise near-sighted eyes to greet the arrival of this dilapidated beast we ride in. The Tibetan architecture has changed radically in the last 1000 meters of elevation, fortress-boxes now composed almost entirely of rocks mortared with mud, precious timber used mainly for interior supports and decoration. The top level is often open at the sides and only ceilinged three-quarters, more of a barn for drying barley or straw (yaks' winter diet?).
Tagong is slightly more touristy, more "found" by small tourist crowds than it was last year. Granted, I come during a 'Golden Week', that apex of the Chinese tourism calendar. There are at least three or four more hostels/hotels in town than before, and one Chongqing-style lowlander restaurant. Oh, for shame, but we do eat there with other waiguoren we had met on the bus (one Israeli, one Chinese-Australian, one Canadian).
The Tibetan family whose home I stayed at last time remember me, and are eager to welcome us back into the fold. Mmm, home-cooked meals! Ayi (auntie, a polite honorific) also gives us a discount, especially important given that during Golden Week, prices for everything usually double in China.
Sketching yaks on the prairies outside town--the yaks grudgingly ignore our efforts at immortalizing their hairy brows--turns into a conversation with some young Tibetan boys who share sunflower seeds with us. Among the piles of yak shit, wildflowers mirror the sky with such incredible shades of blue.
The skies over Chongqing are never clear, and between the foggy weather and light pollution, few stars can be seen in its night sky. Like I remember my father once doing for me, in the deserts of Death Valley, we walk into the black of nigh outside of town to marvel at the clarity with which thousands of cold stars might glare down upon us.
The next day we catch up with some nomadic yak-herders, out in the hills beyond town. Here you can see them attempting to untie a rope from a rather uncooperative yak. More obedient yaks were already geared up and decked out with sacks of this and that. Also, a young yak calf appeared to be hog-tied to his mother's back.
In the couple days it takes us to wend our way back down the windy mountains to civilization, my mind is still occupying that peaceful place. I knew of a peaceful place in an otherwise chaotic and stressful country, and I'm glad to have found that place again. Getting to play tour guide was a bonus. I just wonder how long those hills can remain peaceful. But these days, the lonely stupas still rise between the grassland and the lowering skies, like the prayers they represent. Tibetan scripture is carved into the hills, into pieces of slate, written across prayer-flags whipping back and forth in the ever-present wind and on the temples' prayer-wheels (moved only by the hands of the penitent).
Chengdu (above) during Golden week, compared to Tagong (below).