Backpacking Western Sichuan: China's Other Tibet

Culture | by Cornell White
Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Updated: February 14th, 2012 | Comments
  Backpacking western sichuan Looking for a way to experience Tibetan culture without having to run a gauntlet of travel permits and pay out the wazoo while doing it, American shoe-string traveler Cornell White heads off to Western Sichuan to experience Tibet on the cheap. The journey takes him from the frontier town of Jiayuguan to the most remote section of China's Great Wall, from climbing the desert sand dunes near Dunhuang to remote Golmud, from sipping yak butter tea with friendly monks in Tongren to horseback riding in mountainous Langmusi. My pretty princess and I started our trip at Jiayuguan, a frontier town featuring a rebuilt portion of the Great Wall, the westernmost section of it to be exact. Jiayuguan was China's traditional boundary. Beyond the wall and the large fortress lay Xinjiang, Tibet and the ever changing borders of the western frontier. Jiayuguan is a fairly dirty, sleepy little town with only the Great Wall and Jiayuguan Fort to entertain tourists. A glacier is also within sight from the fort, but after talking with a taxi driver, we decided to skip it. Too far, and he wanted a lot of loot for the drive. We hired one taxi for all sites and paid him 100 kuai for the day.  This was recommended by Lonely Planet. It was a total mistake. The sites were all close by precluding any need for wheels. More annoying were his constant calls to my cell phone to hurry us to the next destination so he could get off work.  One particularly intimate moment on the Great Wall was interrupted by the sounds of our driver’s car horn echoing off the mountains. Jiayuguan Fort was overpriced and boring.  The only redeeming part about it was that we were there in October, so there were only a couple of red hat tour groups to avoid, rather than having to fight off the masses, as you would have to do in the summer. The reconstructed Great Wall was great, but mainly because we were alone on it. That blew my mind! Alone on the Great Wall! When my princess and I found ourselves alone on one of the Seven Great Wonders of the World, we took full advantage of the privacy to share an intimate moment.  I hope to do the same on the other six.

From Jiayuguan, we hopped a bus to Dunhuang (Cornell's Dunhuang photos here), the famous site known for its cave paintings.  Dunhuang was a cool, livable little town.  It is surrounded by desert and dunes. There are a couple of Western restaurants, the Friendship Café was good, serving the usual backpacker staples: banana pancakes, French fries and the likes.

We were able to take the local shuttle to the caves.  It stops down the street from the Western restaurants. It's much cheaper than taking a taxi.  The Dunhuang Caves were worth the hefty price of admission, RMB 150, but that comes with a helpful English translator. Only some of the caves are open at any given time.  For the most famous caves, like the tantric cave, which are closed, the museum next to the caves offers replicas of the caves paintings for your viewing pleasure. I thought this would mean a replica of what the caves might have looked like a thousand years ago, before erosion and aging dulled the colors and cracked the walls, but astoundingly that ain’t the case.  The replicas were actual replicas. Replicating the cracks, water and air damage, faded colors and all. The caves were remarkable, and offer insight into the lives of the Buddhist monks that painted them long ago.

After the caves, we rented bikes from the Friendship Café and rode out to the Crescent Moon Lake dune, an unremarkable oasis that has been transformed into a red-hat-tourist-camel-riding carnival.  We decided to skip the entrance fee and hop a fence to sit on the dune.  From the top of the dune we could watch all the manic Chinese tourists enjoying a camel ride adventure with 50 of their best friends and colleagues.

From Dunhuang, we hopped an overnight bus to Golmud. The ride was terrifying, flying over a steep, winding, frozen mountain pass at mach speed. Golmud is the last stop in Qinghai for the train to Lhasa. It's a dirty industrial and agricultural city without much besides a backdrop of crazy snow-clad mountains. In Golmud, we tried to secure permits to Tibet, which we discovered would be impossible without a letter from my company in Shanghai saying that I was not a reporter or a separatist. So, we decided to visit the parts of Tibet that you don't need a permit to visit: namely Qinghai and northern Sichuan—areas of China on the Tibetan plateau, historically and culturally Tibetan, but different provinces on the map.

We started with Xining, the capital of Qinghai. Xining is quaint and small for a "big" city, with some pollution, friendly country folk and many minorities among them like Tibetans, Hui and Salas. Xining is pretty modern, with its share of malls and McDonalds, but it had a relaxing feel to it. There are big city comforts, like pizza, without the big city pace.

Not much to see in Xining. Qinghai Lake is a few short bus rides away, and the Kumbum Monastery is a few kilometers outside of town. The Dalai Lama was born just outside of Xining, although I'm sure his house has been razed to discourage pilgrims and those seeking autonomy.

From Xining, we went to Tongren (Repkong in Tibetan)  and fell in love with the place (Cornell's Tongren photos here). The goodness began right when we got there. The hotel we found for RMB 30 a night did not require a deposit or advanced payment.  We could pay when we checked out. Amazing! For travelers grown weary of being swindled by the Chinese, Tibetan honesty, hospitality and laid back culture is a welcoming reprieve.

Tongren is an amazing little secret. This small town is the art capital of the Tibetan Kingdom. There are several temples— the Upper and Lower temples, Long Dai Temple, and Gomar Monastery. The coolest thing to do around town is check out the art: sculpture and embroidery, especially the thangkas, they're the dopest you'll see anywhere.

Thangka painting is everywhere in Tongren.  Monks and laymen both paint full time. In the neighborhood across from the Lower Temple, every man is a Thangka painter. Thangka painting is a blue collar art form. It takes time to develop your skill and patience. It requires a great deal of experience and technical skill and relies less on creativity. Artists can work 10-12 hours a day for 6 months or more to complete a single painting, slowly and meticulously creating the composition one fine line the width of a single cat hair at a time. The quality of Thangkas is easy to judge and one can become a connoisseur in an afternoon. It's simple: the smaller the lines and greater the detail, the better the quality. The Thangka reveals the artist's level of patience. Like monks meditating, the novice will often loose his concentration and peek at his watch. The master never wavers, sitting, concentrating and painting—seemingly without end. Being able to see the difference in degrees of Thangka quality is especially useful because some of less scrupulous monks sell cheaper rip-off Thangkas from Nepal. The Nepali ones are cheaper and of inferior quality (i.e. the brushstrokes are bigger). The original Tongren produced Thangkas are affordable. I was surprised to find that on my meager backpacker's budget, I could afford a world class work of art.

Things to do in Tongren besides looking at Thangkas: eating breakfast at the Lower Temple. Every morning the local townsfolk get together with the monks and eat hard Tibetan bread and yak butter tea at the temple. It's quite an experience. And if you ask, or are pushed by a happy monk, you can go inside the milk butter tea making room to see a giant vat with lots of yak fluid. The monks chant before breakfast. They create a wild sound with their throats. It sounds like they are speaking the language of earthquakes and floods.

To get to the temple or anywhere outside of the town center, take the minivans, (mian bao che). The minivans are parked just up the street from the bus stop. It costs RMB 1.5 to get to the temple (RMB 15 by taxi). To return to town, hail a passing minivan. From Tongren, we bounced to Langmusi (Cornell's Langmusi photos here), a beautiful mountain town on the border of Northern Sichuan and Gansu. Langmusi was a little tough to get to because it was closed to foreigners due to last summer's riots. It is open now so shouldn't be a problem to get to. If you are having trouble getting through, here's how to get around it.

First go to one of the crappy bus transferring towns (Hezuo from Qinghaior, Ruoerge from Sichuan) and stay the night. Go to the bus station first thing in the morning to check departure times. Try to buy a ticket. They won't sell you one because it's closed to foreigners, but, its worth a shot. Board the bus without a ticket. Once the bus leaves, buy a ticket while on board. That's it. Don't worry, they know what you're doing and don't care. You'll be there in a few hours.

For Langmusi, Lonely Planet was surprisingly spot on. But that's due more to the simplicity of Langmusi than any super-sleuthing on Lonely Planet's behalf. But we stayed at the Langmusi Bingguan and it was great. Nice people, cheap price, comfortable and clean. Langmusi is a Tibetan town with horseback riding, sky burials, and a wild man named Tashi that takes people on overnight tours of a Tibetan village (you stay at his mom's house). Tashi's tour comes highly recommended. It was kind of hard travel to get there, but worth it for all the beautiful mountain loveliness. Tashi's friends were a lot of fun if a little reckless. The 15-year-old drunkard who howled at the moon all night was particularly endearing.

Horseback riding was very cool but a bit unfortunate. There was only one company in town that offered horseback riding treks, a Han Chinese couple that rented Tibetan guides and horses. The company charged a high fee, over RMB 200 a day. I asked the Tibetan tour guide how much he made out of that. It wasn't much.

A better plan for horseback riding is to talk to Leesha at Leesha's Café, a great friendly place for Western food in the middle of town. She has plenty of Tibetan friends with horses that could take you on a trekking adventure—an under the table trekking adventure. Horse riding is highly recommended. It's beautiful out in the country and seeing a little of what nomad life is like is amazing. The air and water is clean, and among the surprising things I saw (there were a few) was a boy of no more than 15 dwarfed by the giant yak on which he was galloping along bareback. It's a different world... Cornell White currently resides in Shanghai and spends most of his time dodging the foreign devil crowd to better focus his attention on learning Chinese, and honing his Muay Thai skills. All photos by Zareen Khan.
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