If you’re under the impression that the only way to experience Tibetan culture is to visit Lhasa and surrounding towns; this is what the Chinese government would like you to believe. They have, after all, turned ‘Tibet’ into an autonomous region of China, rather than allowing them to remain their deserved separate country. Now that flocks of tourists are heading to Lhasa and beyond, the Chinese are making millions from visas and train/plane fares into the area.
I was all set to go to the Tibetan autonomous region earlier in 2016, but had to cancel last minute due to visa issues. I should have been really disappointed. Not only had I been planning this trip for almost 6 months, but it was because of my own errors that I could no longer go.
However, when the realisation finally hit home, I was at the visa centre in a place called Kangding – aka the gateway to Tibet. I’d left a place called Tagong 4 days early in hope to sort the visa issue, and was left standing only saddened by the fact that I’d walked away prematurely from one of the most culturally beautiful places I have visited. A place, I believe, to be one of the few left that represents what many think of when they hear the word Tibet.
Tagong is a tiny Tibetan village another 4.5hrs west of Kangding, accessed only by public bus and shared taxi. It is still part of the Chinese mainland, situated in Sichuan province, but as you will read, the culture here is far from Chinese. The road that gets you there reaches altitudes of over 4000m and landscapes change from lush green to desolate brown. As far as the eye can see Yaks cover the mountains, like black spots on a blank canvas. In the distance, the mighty Mount Gongga (7556m) stands tall above the clouds.
The people that live here are 100% Tibetan. The area itself is part of the Kham region, and many of the locals are nomadic yak herders. The main road through Tagong is home to small businesses selling anything from Monk robes, street food and yak fur clothing. Every other building is a family run restaurant, and if you’re lucky enough to make it there before the Monks, your options are everything Tibetan: momos, tsampa, yak butter tea, yak burgers, yak yoghurt; the list goes on.
A 2hr walk north from Tagong lies a secluded Buddhist nunnery. The path that leads you there undulates over open grassland, past yet more Yaks and the odd nomad’s tent. Passing faces offer nothing but a warm smile and a heart-felt ‘Tashi delek’ as they open their palms to you as a sign of respect. Don’t be alarmed at the women and children running your way, they just want you to ride their horse in exchange for a small fee.
Young nuns wander the narrow pathways around their houses, seemingly angelic in their movements. All that can be heard are the turnings of large prayer wheels over the hilltop, and low murmurings between friends. This isn’t a tourist hot-spot, and no one here is doing anything to impress – it is a simple way of life. Mothers wash their clothes in the nearby river, and folk with deep-set wrinkles turn the wheels, simultaneously twisting beads in their delicate hands. Dressed head to toe in traditional Tibetan clothing, these old souls have many stories worth sharing, if only to be able to speak the same tongue.
For now, the Kham people of this region are practically untouched. Not many foreign faces endure the 12hr bus ride to get here from the city. Perhaps this will change once the construction of a Chinese railway is finished. Those that do venture to Tagong do so with little hassle – there is no need for permits or tour guides, just an open mind and willingness to observe. Tibetan people are very modest and do not enjoy the camera, and I highly doubt they are ready for people to flock to their world en masse.
It was a privilege to enter such a world, such a harmonious culture, and be welcomed by such warming people. The faces I met welcomed me not only in to their village, but in to their homes. Without the need for words, we enjoyed each others company by sharing food and laughter over the most monotonous things.
One day I will re-book my visit to the Tibetan autonomous region, but by no means do I feel like I missed out by having to cancel my tour this year. Just because the Chinese choose not to call it so, Tagong is completely and 100% Tibetan.