Tagong. They call it ‘The Wild West’.
We wanted to get away from the big smokes, which in China is easier said than done. A place described in Lonely Planet as a ‘small riverside city’ turned out to have a population the size of Melbourne and smog like London fog. There really is very little space in the admittedly small area of china through which we have travelled that is not built upon, cultivated or excavated. I know there are magnificent swathes of nature in this vast country, we just hadn’t yet walked through them. The monastery and temple we climbed to in Kangding was beautiful, high and solitary with a view out to snow-capped mountains, but higher up on the Tibetan Plateau the Tagong Grasslands would be wide expanses with rounded hills rolling to river banks.
The taxi was only 2 hours but we climbed over a thousand meters in altitude. A toilet stop and photo op at a pass of 4000mt left bums numb but eyes popping at the height, the vista and the magnificent colourful expression of prayer around the stupas. In fact there was colour everywhere. The hillsides were covered in forests of prayer flags on poles that looked to be undulating as the wind rippled through them. The stupas were almost buried under ropes of technicolor flags and joss papers – bamboo paper printed with prayers to blow in the wind. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the prayers, mantras and powerful symbols block-printed on both the flags and the joss paper produce a spiritual vibration that is carried by the wind across the countryside. They believe that all beings touched by the wind are uplifted and a little happier. The silent prayers are blessings spoken on the breath of nature. ‘Just as a drop of water can permeate the ocean, prayers dissolved in the wind extend to fill all of space.’
The Tagong town square was a cobblestone circle off which we found our homestay accommodation. The temperature had dropped significantly from Kangding (high of zero, low of minus 6) and we were waiting to see if headaches and nausea would follow the shortness of breath we were all feeling from the altitude. Although Tagong in Summer is a bustling town filled with Chinese people escaping the heat and a few western tourists, Winter sees half of the business owners shut up shop and relocate to warmer climes at lower altitudes. We struggled to find somewhere to eat. There was no running water and the electricity had been cut off, which seemed to be a regular occurrence and moved no one – except perhaps us. A grim dinner in the freezing dark, 2 out of 3 daughters weeping with the sudden onset of headaches and the prospect of bed below zero degrees with no leckie blankets. Welcome to the Wild West.
At 8.30pm the lights went on. We cheered and heated our beds and slept like hibernating bears.
The local people in Tagong don’t heat their houses, shops or restaurants because of the cost of fuel and, we were told, they are just used to being cold. The men wear yak fur lined coats down to their ankles with overly long arms that come down almost to their knees. They wear one shoulder in the coat and one arm out when it’s not diabolically freezing, with fur-lined hats. The horse men wear felt Akubra style hats tipped to one side so, as they swagger down the cobbles, they really do look like they have stepped out of a John Wayne movie. The yak carcasses hanging for sale in the main street, babies wrapped in tight bundles strapped to mothers backs and the furry ponies wandering through town dispel the American actor pretty quickly and bring me back to Tibet.
A chance encounter with a man we recognised from the cafe in which we kept warm in Kangding proved to be a wonderful stroke of good fortune for us. He and his partner were about to open a guesthouse, cafe and art store on the square and asked us up for a cup of tea. Earl Grey! The room was heated by a small fire, they had puzzles, children’s books, a view and, as it turned out, great food. Over the next few days we ate most of our meals with Max and Coco at Khampa Cafe, where they delighted the girls with pancakes for breakfast and Matt and I with yak burgers for dinner. We were their first paying customers yet we felt like friends in their living room. How profoundly this place and these people enhanced our experience in Tagong. A warm oasis. Although Max did tell us that the walk across the hills to the nunnery would take only an hour and a half.
Off we set, our bellies full, the sun shining and the sky blue. The smell of sunscreen hanging around our little posse like it hadn’t since Saigon. This is what we had been after – space to walk and breathe and soak up the hills. The energy it seems we all get from being away from the concrete jungle. The difference in the girls when they have space to run and rocks to throw and a greater physical distance between us and them – a freedom I guess – is enough to make me want to move to the country forever. The beach perhaps?! We walked across open fields dotted with herds of yak and nomad ponies with tinkling bells. We stopped at the river to throw stones and try to crack the ice. We passed a village with squat stone houses still nursing damage from last November’s earthquake. Like a mirage, the nunnery across the hills didn’t seem to get any closer. Although Matt and I could have wandered the hills for days, the girls we flagging. We cut across to the monastery, not quite making it to the nunnery after 4 hours walking. Hitching a ride back to Tagong I had a moment sitting on the back of a Tibetan man’s motorbike with 2 daughters sandwiched between him and me, both smiling so hard their faces almost cracked, speeding along a dirt track across Tibetan grasslands thinking “yep, I feel alive!”. We even made it back to our warm living room in time to fill our bellies with Max’s yak schnitzels and mashed potato – a Tibetan variation of his favourite Czech home cooking. He did confess to us that he had never actually done the walk to the nunnery, so we assumed the hour and half was done by a man on a pony!
Matt and I were reminded that along this journey we are finding places and people that add so much more to our experience. The highlights are not necessarily the biggest Buddha in the world (although I am looking forward to that tomorrow) but sharing a shot of Czech liquor by the fire in a high Tibetan village with kind and interesting people, or walking under the biggest, bluest sky, not seeing another person for hours.
We have been touched by the Tibetan wind and all feel uplifted and a little happier.
NB – I can take no credit at all for any of the images that appear in this post, or the entire blog for that matter. All credit goes to my husband with the talented eye.