Snaking down the west side of Sichuan province in southern China is the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. This, if described in simpler terms, could also be called the Tibetan plateau. The biggest draw for me when I discovered such a place, is that the only means of access is by bus from the Panda home of Chengdu city. This seven hour ride will drop you off in the mountainous ‘city’ of Kangding, some 2500m high. Here, a beautiful mix of Han Chinese and Kham Tibetan people live together (seemingly) in peace. Kangding was once the capital of Xikang (a now-defunct province) and remains to be the border between China and Tibet.
On first glance the ugly, grey buildings represent any typical Chinese built up area. Look closer and you will see the essentials that make up city life; a KTV, numerous phone shops and the latest fashion trend. The absence of McDonald’s and Starbucks however, was the kick-starter of a heart-melting stay here.
Every inch of flat-ground has been built upon and the seriously ferocious Zheduo river cuts the town in two, each side aligned with traditional Tibetan and Chinese restaurants.
Tucked behind the main road, I stumbled across two large, golden prayer wheels. Spinning them slowly were several elderly ladies and gentleman, all dressed in beautiful traditional Tibetan clothing. The sound of crunching was the result of prayer and an incessant rubbing of beads between the fingers. A small bell would ding quietly upon every full turn of the wheel. After a modest shake of the head from my request to take a photograph, I was welcomed to sit upon the bench next to a Tibetan fellow. His prominent cowboy hat shaded his deep-set wrinkles from the sun, and I sat listening to his low Buddhist chants. There was no possibility of conversation continuing on from a polite ‘Tashi delek’, and the beauty of it is that it just wasn’t needed.
On route to Dordrak Monastery, a young girl confidently stopped me in my tracks. After much confusion, she finally gave in to body language and pointed at the camera: could she have a go? My reservations to ask more locals for their photograph evaporated as this girl took on the role of photographer and captured her intrigued grandmother and shy brother in such a way, I felt the pang of jealousy at her natural flare.
Pine trees, which cover the mountains surrounding the town, are evidently a perfect place to hang prayer flags. Although I’m someone that appreciates nature for being just that – natural – there is something quite magical about a forest full of man-made colour. To really solidify the beginning of my Tibetan experience, the prayer-flag-forest opened up to rolling mountains, snow-kissed peaks and a shaggy Yak – I’m not sure who was more surprised to see the other.
By night, People’s Square in the centre of town comes alive. Having lived in China for over a year, I would have been shocked not to have seen dancing, but Kangding offers something unique.
Instead of the usual rows of people, a group of around 100 dance in a large circle facing towards a pile of centred bags and coats. Amongst them I see teenagers, Tibetans, Chinese, the old, the young and the odd foreigner joining in with the bouncy music. Above the square small, silver lights turn on giving the effect of a starry night and a bigger light gave the effect of a super moon above the valley – more man-made beauty that surprisingly impressed me.
The time passed quickly as it always does, and the people continued to enjoy life by moving their bodies and smiling. I enjoyed life by watching and attempting to capture this happiness from the sidelines.