Kangding, Sichuan, 2011-10-03
I was feeling the need to get away, having worked furiously the past couple of months teaching up to 30 class periods a week. I took four days out of the week-long National Day holiday and traveled west to Kangding, nestled among the mountains and a world away from Chengdu. Kangding is the county seat of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and at an altitude of 2,600 meters (8,530 feet), the air is thin and the heart rate increases to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Kangding is the meeting-place of Chinese and Tibetan culture, and was an important stop on the ancient tea-horse trail.
I caught the tail end of a procession at Namo Monastery. By the time I had my camera out and focused, the long Tibetan horns, drums, and other instruments had passed. The umbrella is a symbol of a high-ranking monk or lama.
I’d been to Kangding in 2006 and 2007, but I was shocked at the changes I saw this time around. Not only has the city caught “development fever,” but it’s turned into an overpriced tourist town. Hotel and restaurant prices have risen steeply, there are upscale boutiques everywhere, and the city has extended itself at either end with new construction. I hadn’t remembered so much noise last time; everywhere was the blaring noise of too-loud car, truck, and bus horns, amplified by the narrow streets and the steep valley. My hotel for the first two nights was near the noisiest intersection, which constantly grated on my nerves.
Since the bus ride each way takes a whole day (about 8 or 9 hours), I had three nights and two days in town, just enough time to rejoice in the clean mountain air, the cool temperatures, and the breathtaking natural scenery.
On my first full day I followed winding paths partway up a hillside, until my breath gave out, then I visited two nearby monasteries along the road leading south out of town. I and a small crowd of people followed a procession (pictured above) into Namo Manastery, where I found a spot on the floor and listened for the first time ever to the incredibly deep-voiced chanting of a couple of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Other monks sat in rows on their cushions, chatting, eating peanuts, and playing around, before it was time for them to join in the chanting. Then the drums, bells, and woodwind instruments started, bringing the service to a finish.
I walked in a light rain to the neighboring monastery, where I heard a similar chanting service, on a smaller scale. I was amazed by a portion of the chanting which sounded like choral singing in several parts, but in spoken words, some voices faster, some slower. It may have been unintentional, but the effect was captivating.
view from Paoma Shan
My second day was more relaxing. I found a hostel for my final night’s stay, in a three-bed room for 80 RMB per bed. It was quiet and serene. My destination was the top of Paoma Shan, or Racehorse Hill, which I had climbed on foot back in 2006. This time I opted for the lift, riding in a small cable car at dizzying heights. The lift was 45 RMB round trip, and I was shocked on arriving at the top to discover that a 50-RMB charge has now been instituted to enter the hilltop area.
I huffed and puffed up to a small monastery, from which there were incredible mountain views in each direction. I then followed a trail to where it ended around the mountain, with a view over Kangding and the distant sounds of traffic.
That night I ate for the second time in a small Tibetan restaurant, on “beef lumps,” vegetable fried rice, yogurt, and sweet tea. My other meals consisted mainly of noodles or dumplings, which seem to be a staple in these parts.
Thursday, it was back to Chengdu, leaving my cozy hostel, walking in the brisk morning chill to the bus station, and stopping off for a breakfast of bao zi (steamed meat dumplings) on the way.
Tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday are work days, to make up for having a whole 7 days of vacation. Having time off always comes at a price, it seems.