Garze: Western Sichuan
How to do it
In terms of transport, many tours are available from Chengdu. Lazybones Hostel was extremely helpful in helping us organize a driver. In hindsight, I would recommend taking a bus to Kangding and hiring a local driver for around 600 yuan a day, as our city-born companion was visibly uncomfortable in this unfamiliar environment. On entering the mountains to the west of Chengdu, the local toilet mafia begin to hawk the public squat toilets along the road. Make sure you have change on you, as one has to pay one yuan for the pleasure of entering the concrete gates of 7th hell. Tagong is the ultimate not-to-miss location. Visit the Khampa Cafe for helpful English-language tips on the area, and great yak burgers. Be wary of people collecting random fees for parking when not indicated. Play very dumb and they should go away.
Where to stay
Absolutely visit the Pengbuxi Home Stay for an amazing and yet comfortable insight into the Tibetan way of life (Tel: 15281577729). If you’re lucky, the owner’s son might even take you up the mountain on his motorbike.
Right from the word “go” I knew that our five-day journey through Garze, the Tibetan area of Western Sichuan, was going to be unforgettable.
Having initially planned to travel across the border to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the obstacles of permits and guides pushed us instead in the direction of Garze. Declining the many tours advertised in Chengdu, we designed our own itinerary for the trip and hired a driver for 1,000 yuan a day (US$145). So it was that with rucksacks packed with clothes for all weathers, and our minds filled with stories of snow-capped mountain peaks and Tibetan villages nestled among rolling grasslands, we headed west from Chengdu.
We broke the first day of driving in Rilong, where a two-hour walk in the nearby Mount Siguniang National Park took us past a beautiful Lamaist temple, and through verdant woods beyond which one can catch glimpses of snowy mountain tops. For those who are so inclined, this route can turn into a 29km mountain trek. Not us. And so before long we were back on the road towards Danba, winding along sweeping mountain valleys strobed with bright sunshine one moment, and doused with heavy rain the next. Low-hanging clouds added a certain mystery to the landscape and the beautiful Tibetan houses scattered across the hills, built of stone and brightly decorated, with turrets, rainbows of colorful prayer flags and Buddhist symbols adorning the walls.
Danba’s main town itself is fairly hideous, a cluster of newly-built concrete tower blocks, standing in sharp contrast to the rather sublime rock face on the other side of the river which runs through the valley. Moving swiftly through the city, we ended our first day at a homestay in Jiahu, a typical Tibetan village just up the mountain. With easy access to higher peaks, Jiahu is a great base for people who plan on doing some serious mountain climbing, and provides an authentic insight into the local way of life. After an undisturbed night’s sleep in the silence of the mountain surroundings, we spent the next day trekking around the mountainside with the sun on our faces and glorious blue sky above, passing locals who would wave and smile in greeting, and occasionally having to hurdle cows sunbathing in clusters on the path.
The following day we headed for Tagong, which is surrounded by what I can now say with a certain degree of perspective, is one of the most beautiful areas of western Sichuan. As we approached from Danba, the towering rock faces of the steep river gorges gave way to rolling green grasslands, framed by the snowy summits of the Daxue Mountains and crisscrossed by winding streams. Yaks roamed with their fluffy young, often straying onto the road, unfased by oncoming traffic. In the centre of Tagong itself one can find beautiful temples, stalls selling local handicrafts and small restaurants offering delicious yak-meat dishes and momos (Tibetan dumplings). Nestled in the grasslands ten minutes’ drive along the road to Danba is another impressive temple and nunnery.
Had we realized earlier how beautiful it was, we would have planned to stay longer in Tagong, but sadly before long it was time to continue on to Kangding. As in Danba, the city itself is fairly grotesque, but is a great springboard into the surrounding areas. After a night of terrific thunderstorms, we headed southwest from the city for a day of adventure, armed with a map annotated with recommendations from our hostel owner. In an attempt to locate a hidden mountain lake, we soon found ourselves on an extremely rocky path, a far cry from the “road” we had been promised, the car lurching around like a thing possessed and our livid driver huffing and growling at us in fury from behind the wheel. While this track does indeed pass through some wonderful scenery, we decided after a while that a further 80km of this terrain would be pretty unbearable given our lack of a suitable vehicle, and therefore turned back.
Instead we made our way to Pengbuxi, where we had been given the number of another local Tibetan family who would give us a room for the night. I would say that this was hands down one of the best experiences of the trip. We were given a warm welcome and shown to snug, clean rooms, and then sat together around the wood stove in their beautifully-decorated living area. And plied with butter tea and tsamba, the local staple dish consisting of butter tea mixed with yet more butter, as well as barley flour and sugar, which you mix into a paste with your fingers and eat with yak’s cheese. Here I will throw in a small note of caution: while you should certainly try a little, those among our group who chugged butter tea at the same rate as the locals were kept up at night being reacquainted with it. I’m sure it’s just a question of building up a tolerance to large quantities of yak butter.
As luck would have it, it emerged that our host’s son was the leader of the local traditional dance troupe, and, before long, around thirty dancers turned up at the house for a rehearsal. We were treated to a wonderful show of singing and dancing which lasted well into the night. They returned the next morning before we left, this time dressed in their full traditional costume, sending us off back towards Chengdu on an absolute high and sorry to go. I know I will be back though, as we leave having only scratched the surface of all that this area has to offer. Perhaps next time I will come in October, when fall is said to paint the mountains in hues of glowing red and gold.