uddled at home or strapping on a surgical mask for our everyday tasks, the need to get away feels both urgent and remote. So I’m happy to let my mind drift back to Kangding, tucked away in the mountains of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, and the breath of fresh air it provides.
In the stress of these times, it’s healthy to seek out spots in nature where the mind can regroup and relax. Those appear in wonderful abundance in this remote town that once served as gateway to the ancient Tea Horse Trail, with the splendor of that time still lingering today.
After a day spent with the feisty culture and food of provincial capital Chengdu, it was a short flight to Kangding: an hour after takeoff we were touching down on a tiny mountaintop airstrip – the third-highest in the world – and then haggling with the drivers waiting to take us to town. There’s no taxis up there, so haggling with private drivers is your only option.
You could drive there from Chengdu, as our friends did, but it’s three hours or more we didn’t want to spend crammed on a bus on the Jingkun Expressway.
We’d originally planned the trip around the Mugecuo Scenic Area, just half an hour north of Kangding by car. The local tourist industry concentrates there, fixed around the 7,556-meter Mount Gongga. Travel companies like Third Pole offer days-long treks up this “King of Sichuan,” while the more adventurous simply hire a guide and horse from nearby Gexi Pasture.
Decidedly less intrepid, I’d planned to stay closer to the ground, with one of the bus tours that bring passengers to Mugecuo Lake and the surrounding Red Sea Grassland. The nearby Rhododendron Valley sounded scenic and we could just catch the end of its April-July blooming season.
We might even have time for the pagodas of the 1,000-year-old Tagong temple, set against the sacred Yala Snow Mountain and the vast Tagong Grassland. It’s also a short drive from Kangding, with buses heading there as well.
But that was not to be.
A health crisis followed us to Kangding, laying my companion low as his allergies exploded into fever and chills, ultimately diagnosed as a sinus infection made worse by the elevation. The town, we’re happy to report, boasts a quite respectable new hospital for all your emergency needs (may you never need to see it).
Kangding, within Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is most of the way up to the Himalayan ceiling of the world, and marks the start of ethnic Tibetan areas. So brace yourself. I didn’t feel ill from the altitude, but your mileage may vary. My companion’s certainly did.
So, despite all our plans, I was alone in this town of 100,000 with two days on my own. I couldn’t even travel on to join our friends, if I’d wanted to abandon my companion. Our hotel manager reported that the mountain pass was impassable. Whether because of the time of day, the weather conditions or some political sensitivity, he did not say. So I resigned myself to stay put. I was sure I would have a dull and miserable time.
I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
To begin with its most impressive feature, consider the Zheduo River. This sluice of amazing force courses though the center of Kangding in endless froth and fury. It takes 13,000 steps to trace the river, past glass-bottom bridges that let you feel briefly swept away. Though the city boasts cafes, eateries and tourist shops, few are located along that river walk. The constant roar is too much, so we’re left to seek quieter nooks for rest and contemplation.
Those abound, especially in the form of splendid, gold-capped temples that ornament the city and the mountainside. Havens of Tibetan Buddhism, reflecting roughly half of Kangding’s population, they mostly welcome tourists, but be sure to remove shoes and be polite. These little sanctuaries may be some of the most peaceful places in China, when they’re not intoning their prayers. At all times, the scent of incense wafts into the brain, helping to soften the roughest edges of the world.
Hikers, of course, will find quiet spaces of their own, out in the arboreal expanse of the mountains. If you’re inclined that way, you can make Zhilam Hostel your base camp. They offer advice on routes, as well as basic supplies and expat-friendly meals before and after your journey.
But the less intrepid of us are still in luck. Mount Paoma, tucked alongside Kangding, boasts a fascinating and worthwhile mix of nature and Chinese tourist bric-a-brac – and a gondola to let you sit in comfort, rather than hiking two hours to ascend. The cost is minimal and well worth it for the view, provided they don’t seat you with one of the many loud families that make the same journey. But if you get anxious about heights, or just need time to acclimatize to the altitude, the leisurely hike is the better option.
When you reach the gondola’s end, you can hang around in that flat area, or you could climb the many sets of stairs that meander toward the peak. You can imagine which I chose.
After an easy climb I was rewarded with a beautiful temple, open to the public and free. From its mountaintop vantage, the whole of Kangding lay splayed out below. The people, the traffic, and even the river were quiet and calm from that perspective.
Inside was empty, save the maroon robes of the monks, curled and waiting to be donned for prayer. All around, incense burned and prayer flags whipped in the high winds, brilliant hued and threading the uncaring forest with familiar trails. In the unpeopled quiet, the mind at last can relax from its clenched strain. There’s peace to be found there.
As the sun began its slow descent, I followed and returned to the hurly-burly of the raging river and the people below. But for a while, I could carry some of that peace with me, whether in one of the agreeable cafes like Himalayan Coffee or at Malaya Tibetan Restaurant over some local fare (think “yak” and “yak butter”). I passed another temple, down in the old town, with the great golden wheels of prayer and the devout making their holy circuits. The flags, the wheels, the beads: These trinkets and tokens felt like useful reminders of a broader perspective.
I know a holiday or a visit to a Buddhist temple won’t fix all my problems, or yours. But things like that do help to make us more patient and more peaceful, in the face of a world of virulent stress and troubles. And that’s exactly what we need right now.