Tagong Grasslands

Trip Start Oct 20, 2008
Trip End Oct 20, 2009

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Part 2

We walked the pre-dawn ice-blue streets to our 11-hour bus to Xiengcheng – the only westerners aboard. The smoking on the bus quickly became ridiculous and with no windows open because of the cold we could only gaze at the fresh vista of sheer grey crags, snowy peaks and puddles of green crops out of dusty windows.   With everyone chain-smoking for the entire journey the only relief was getting off & surrendering our passports at mean-faced police checkpoints.

Mentally in tatters when we arrived we took the first offer of a hotel to rest before our next day connection although the chalked outline of a body was the only thing missing from the first 2 bleak rooms.

We had a walk out into the shoebox town, the Chinese having taken over this once Tibetan town and 'cleaned' it up with bathroom-tiled blocks of concrete. The "bus station" was typical of the bewildering confusion that stalks any visit to China.  A collection of boarded-up huts surrounding a piece of wasteland not giving any clue where to buy tickets or whether it was even a bus station at all.  4 separate people pointed and gestured to 4 different doors - all shut - the place deserted apart from a cage of about 20 white baby bunnies.  Fiona wanted to let them free to eat the glass & plastic on the floor but I thought it best not.  Our hotel manager seemed to be saying the daily bus for Kangding left at 5:30am and no ticket was necessary so settled to wait another night. 

At 5.15am the next morning we joined hunched figures hocking up in the darkness waiting for buses, the earth not yet awake.  Our driver came round with a torch checking tickets and, not having one, he gestured us off without even having the decency to accept our bribe.  With Fi making sure he didn’t drive off with our bags I ran in the gloom across the waste ground & up some wooden planks to the bus huts. Nothing seemed open.  I ran back to find our backpacks slung off the bus, our pleads for information going unheard.  I ran back to the hotel to find our manager to help.  From the incessant babbling it seemed the only way to go was back to Shangri-La on the cancer bus!  Trapped & completely bewildered like the bunnies in the cage we found ourselves unwillingly putting our packs on the Shangri-La bus.  At the last minute a police officer/bus official/guardian angel finally seemed to understand our broken Chinese (nobody could read our desperation & disappointment) and beckoned me back up the planks.  I followed him in the indigo shades of dawn, the whole thing like some ‘running-on-the-spot’ nightmare.  I patiently waited in a boarded-up hut around a cooker ring amidst plumes of cigarette smoke and was finally rewarded with what we could only hope were 2 tickets for the next morning’s bus. The scramble of buses departed and silence descended again in the gloom.  So, without anything else to do we headed back to the hotel without quibble and asked for our old room back…….again! 

Joining the bus the next morning with our fingers crossed & we settled in amongst the aisle of luggage, speeding around mountain roads as we climbed up & out of the valley into the pinky promise of dawn.   At 4700m herds of shaggy yaks lazily ambled out of the bus’ way searching for grass on the parched fawn-coloured landscape dotted with stubborn ice.  To divert attention from the people being sick out of windows the driver began to play kung-fu movie after kung-fu movie for the reminder of the journey (12 out of the 15 hours).  One bizarre comedy-horror film called ‘Herman’s Law of Beijing Hair Culture’ had confusing English subtitles & was like some wacky Chinese version of the Aussie classic ‘Bad Taste’.  Highlights included stopping an undead transsexual in S&M gear with Maltesers & Clingfilm and rubbing poo in a trainee ghost-hunter’s face.

The marshmallow clouds & fierce sun of Xiengcheng had long since passed & now the mottled overcast challenges of blank tundra spread in every direction. We stopped for lunch at a crumbling roadside ‘caff’ and after our yak & potatoes trotted to …drum roll please….the most vile horrifying & gut-wrenching toilet we had ever visited.  Through the cloth door & into a sunken pit of sloshing shit, piss, rags & butts over the top of which were pieces of two-by-four to balance on.  With no privacy separating man from man I whizzed next to 2 squatting old men holding my breath in the shadowy bamboo hell.  Involuntary shuddering followed for the next hour or so.

The next morning like gluttons for punishment we returned to the bus station to enquire about our final leg to the Tibetan town of Tagong.  Nobody in the station really helped & people just seemed happy to stare & laugh at us although in reality it was probably the socks & sandals (how can I ever forgive myself?).  We joined 5 other locals in a minibus & set off into the desolate wastes of the Tagong grasslands, each hillside covered entirely in colourful prayer flags. 

Three hours in, a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery came into view and the mini bus dropped us off in the village square.   Another of travelling’s random guardian angels guided us to her friend’s house to stay and we were shown to our ‘bedroom’ which was like some ancient room in a palace.  Every inch of the room (and the house for that matter) was decorated in patterns of vibrant colour, painted directly onto the walls and with ruby red silk quilts and a royal blue and gold stitched silk ceiling we thought we could rest here awhile. 

Taking a stroll on the bitterly cold streets (the village being at 3700m) was like something out a Wild West movie.  Horses were tied up on every street corner, 80% of the men wore tall Stetson hats, thick, gold square shades and warm straight jackets with the long sleeves flapping untamed like their wild long hair.  This was the Khampa people whose culture spread across the plains and was most definitely the authentic Tibetan tradition we were looking for.  We expected a brawl to spill out of some saloon doors onto the street but guns had been replaced by prayer wheels and cut-eyed grimaces with big grins.  The other 20% of men were Tibetan monks.

Whilst in Rome we had to try the region’s cup of choice - Yak Butter Tea.  We sat with some nomads (who roam the grasslands selling their wares) in a local café and after 10 minutes of a game of charades involving cow/yak impressions they set about making it, eventually presenting 2 bowls and a large pot.  It smelt like sick but perhaps it could taste better than it smelt.  It tasted of hot sick.  A heavily salted, cheesy liquid with globules of yak fat that eventually would return to its solid state.  We invented a new extreme sport of Extreme Politeness (with me immeasurably better than Fiona) and I drank a whole bowl of this Yuk tea, desperate not to offend.

During our stay we went for a day’s trek up along a horse-shoe shaped ridge high above the village.  At the top, amongst the melted patches of snow, we watched the morning frost retreat back to the huge snowy peaks in the distance.  A solitary eagle circled acknowledging our presence as smooth curving hillsides of beige swept in every direction.  On our final descent we walked through an army of prayer flags on the hillside watching over the village.

Back in the village looking for beer we walked past a café and a monk, sat there in his saffron robes with his monk friend sipping green tea, invited us to sit with them.  Although English was not really on the menu we sat for nearly 2 hours talking in the universal language & both making ourselves perfectly understood.  Between gallons of green tea I arm-wrestled one of the monks and politely declined their serious offer for me to join them as a monk in the monastery literally moving Fiona on her way.  I think it’s The Devil’s Advocate when Al Pacino says “temptation is my favourite sin!” as it struck me then how one decision could completely turn life on its head!

With enticements of a simpler life it was time to say goodbye to the Tibetan cowboys and move on to the last exhausting leg of the China adventure…..
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