[Originally appeared in Silk Road Magazine, the in-flight magazine of Dragon Air, Oct-Nov, 1994]


Sichuan's Western Paradise

by Pamela Logan

Question: When is Tibet not in Tibet?

Answer: When it's in Sichuan. This populace province of west China includes a good fraction of the Tibetan plateau, and more than 800,000 Tibetans live here. Sichuan's Tibetans are nothing like the rice-growing Chinese who till the province's sweltering eastern half; but they have everything in common with their neighbors in Tibet Autonomous Region. Their high, sweeping homeland is known as Kham, and its people are called Khampas.

Perhaps you have never heard of Khampas, but if you lived on the plateau you certainly would have. Once Khampas were notorious as a race of bandits, their reputation for mayhem spreading all over the Himalaya. They made a fearsome impression on outsiders, like Michel Peissel, an anthropologist who met them in 1964: "[The] Khampas stood a good six feet in height,... wore great heavy boots and flowing khaki robes that flapped like whips as they walked, advancing with their feet slightly apart as if to trample the grass to extinction....Unlike Tibetans of Lhasa, their features were not Mongoloid, but straight, with large fierce eyes set beside beak- like noses, and long hair braided and wound around their heads, giving them a primitive allure."

When Khampas strayed outside their homeland they were held in awe and fear; but Aten, a native of Kham, relates another side of his people: "My mother was a very religious woman. When she worked, she constantly murmured prayers, and she gave generously to every beggar and pilgrim who came to our door. I remember those cold, dark winter nights when wolves howled mournfully in the snow. I would wake up in great fear and, crying, would rush to my mother's bed. It was considered to be very unlucky to hear a wolf's howl and my mother would solemnly say, 'throw dust in the wolf's mouth and strike a peg in his eye.' This incantation was supposed to ward off bad luck."

In these two contrasting images--one a fierce warrior, the other a generous, devout parent--lies Kham's essential paradox. To be sure, nowadays banditry has been all but eliminated. Yet the proud Khampa spirit remains, and their rugged land still defies outsiders. Those who surmount Kham's barriers are rewarded by a mountain paradise virtually untouched by the outside world.

Your journey to Kham begins in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. Proceeding west across fertile farmland, you soon reach Ya'an, a tea-growing center. Tea is Tibet's favorite beverage, and Ya'an was the start of an ancient trade route that carried it to the high plateau. Nowadays that caravan trail is a ribbon of smooth concrete, but sixty years ago was quite another story.

Marion Duncan, an intrepid American missionary, transported his family to Kham in a caravan of animals, coolies, and armed guards. His wife and children traveled in sedan chairs while he himself rode horseback. "The tea road to Tibet," he wrote, "is one hundred and sixty miles of hot, red, muddy trail in summer and chilly, red, dusty track in winter. Stones, laid perhaps a thousand years ago, form a great road...upon which shivering blue-clothed coolies and bony, staggering ponies tread with caution. Once the stones were packed firm and level with red earth, but now uprooted they protrude like unnumerable ant-hills, and if the unwary foot slips off, it plunges deep into a slimy sucking hole."

Nowadays that parade of sweating men and suffering animals is long gone, and consumer goods are trucked to the plateau in a single day. As the road climbs slowly into mountain jungle, cultivated land gives way to a tangle of trees and underbrush. After hours of tortuous switchbacks you reach Erlangshan, the first of many passes you will cross. Descending, you see a glittering vista of snow- covered peaks. The greatest of them, Gongga Shan, is a titan 7556 meters in height--to behold it is said to be worth 10 years of meditation. Spearing a sky of high-voltage blue, it beckons the traveler onward.

Kangding, known to Tibetans as Dartsendo, is the largest city of Kham and a surprisingly dense metropolis squeezed between high valley walls. As you enter its outskirts, imagine the town fifty years ago: an ancient gate leading to a warrenous labyrinth of ramshackle wooden houses. Then Kangding was a wild and rustic outpost, and although it has been cleaned up and modernized, it is still the free-wheeling gateway to Tibet. Through Kangding's center pours a deafening torrent of whitewater; crashing and foaming against stone banks, it symbolizes the untameable Khampa spirit.

The wise traveler spends a day or two in Kangding acclimating, for it lies at cool 2500 meters above sea level, and the road ahead climbs even higher. There is plenty to do here: visit Kangding's four Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, climb to the top of nearby Racehorse Hill, and explore the bustling street market. It is here that you will see your first Khampas: men who walk slowly and deliberately, impervious to the throngs. Proud and aloof, they disdain to bestow even a glance on the bedazzled stranger.

After Kangding, just half a day's journey takes you onto Kham's grasslands. With a monsoon climate, Kham is the greenest part of the Tibetan plateau, and at these middle elevations it supports both herdsmen and farmers. Tibetans here live in huge stone houses--looming and impregnable, like castles of some medieval fairy-kingdom.

Drop in for a visit and you may be confronted with the following riddle: snow falls upon the ocean, and four dance upon the snow-- what is it? The answer is tsampa--flour of roasted barley, the mainstay of the Tibetan diet. First your hostess will fill your bowl with a butter-tea "ocean." Butter-tea, you will find, is rich, salty, and fortifying--perfect for cold weather. When you have drunk your bowl to the half-full state, she will drop a handful of tsampa "snow" into the broth. Then four come to dance in your bowl--your four fingers as they kneed the mixture into dough. When you're done you have a filling and convenient snack, although most agree it is definitely acquired taste.

Continuing deeper into Kham you crest pass after pass, and plunge into valley after valley. Kham has been designed as if on purpose to keep out eastern intruders. It is sliced by mighty rivers: the Yarlung, Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween, all flowing north to south in deep parallel tracks--"magnificent corrugations" as they were called by one early explorer. Valley walls are lined with ancient pines (although these are dwindling as China's need for timber grows). The fertile bowers at the bottom of these gargantuan cracks have made Kham into Tibet's breadbasket. Thus Kham is a stupendous mix of lush valleys, alpine pasture, and frigid, snowy heights.

Mid-summer, when the grass is tall and Kham's wildflowers are at their rioting height, is festival season. Every district has its own: a time when Tibetans abandon their chores, come down from the high pastures, and don all their finery. Women bedeck themselves in precious stones, fur, silk, and silver. The men are no slouches either when it comes to fashion. With their elaborately braided hair, knee-length boots, and long silver-sheathed daggers, some Khampa men eclipse even their sisters in eye-catching attire.

The Western visitor cannot fail to notice something familiar about Khampa's broad-brim felt hats. The style was introduced by an American cowboy-turned-Asian-adventurer named Fred Schroder, who was sent to Tibet on behalf of Mongolia to negotiate with the Panchen Lama in 1913. The august lama so admired Schroder's crush- center Stetson that Schroder gave it to him, and it was later copied in local felt.

But the costumes are merely a backdrop when the entertainment begins. Khampas are consummate horsemen, and they love to show off their prowess. They streak across the fairground at breathtaking speed, performing stunts that leave them barely attached to their saddles. Yak-riding, too, is another indigenous skill, and you'll be amazed at the agility of the huge animals when controlled by an experienced rider. Later on you'll see Tibetan folkdance: teams of men and women competing with one another for the showiest costumes and most graceful movements.

Surrounding the fairgrounds is a canvas city. Tents are pitched not only by visiting nomads, but also by townspeople who move out of their homes to join in the three- or four-day party. Peek inside a tent and you'll see everything needed for domestic life: beds, carpets, chests, blankets, cookpots, and sacks of food. Traders' tents are grouped together to form a temporary shopping district. Here you can stock up on Tibetan essentials like tea- churns, sheepskin robes, and prayer-boxes.

After a raucous festival you will doubly appreciate the atmosphere of peace and contemplation found in Kham's many monasteries. In halls rich with brocade draperies and serene statues, you can witness ceremonies that are undoubtedly the most colorful and esoteric of any in the Buddhist world. Chanting monks make an unforgettable sound; as explorer Andre Migot wrote in the 1940s, it is "a simple, touching melody, enriched at times with subtle modulation but always reverting to itself--a clear, passionless, gently-flowing volume of sound, expressing simultaneously the essence of human suffering and of the peace that lies beyond it."

The serenity of Buddhist meditation makes a startling contrast with the frescoes on the temple walls, as another French adventurer reported: "It is a kind of mixture of the sadistic and the macabre...frightful deities riding rough-shod over the naked bodies of men and women, whose agonized attitudes seem intended to inspire sensuality rather than terror. Occasionally one sees the act of copulation nakedly portrayed, with gods twining their many arms cruelly and passionately around their Shakti, their female counterparts, whose outlines are lengthened lewdly and out of all proportion, their bodies bent backwards, their legs folded under their straddled thighs, their waists gripped by clenched hands with pointed nails which dig deep into their flesh."

You might wonder what sort of people live among these images of carnal violence. Never fear, Tibetan monks are a jolly lot, much given to laughter and jokes, who will playfully wheedle for presents as they show you the monastery's many treasures and serve you butter-tea. Don't forget to leave a small donation at the altar, for most monasteries are striving to rebuild and expand, and are in dire need of cash. Besides, Tibetans believe that a contribution will help you to a better rebirth.

Festivals and monasteries are all very well, but perhaps the truest, most authentic Kham is found where people are few and buildings are nonexistent: on its vast grasslands. Here you can experience the essence of Tibet by abandoning your car and mounting a sturdy Tibetan pony. A Tibetan folksong says:

A good steed is like a swift bird,
A golden saddle is like its feathers,
When the bird and its feathers are together
Then the highlands are easily crossed.

Riding across a flying carpet of grass, you are traveling like explorers of old--and modern-day traders and nomads. Stop in a yak-hair tent and meet people who, although poor by our standards, are unfailingly gracious and hospitable. Emerge again, and ride on. With a fine horse beneath you and limitless vistas beckoning exploration, you may never come down again.

Travel books that include some mention of Kham include Sichuan by May Holdsworth, The Guidebook Company, Hong Kong; Tibet: A Travel Survival Kit by Robert Strauss, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorne, Victoria, Australia; or Southwest China Off the Beaten Track by K. Mark Stevens and George E. Wehrfritz, Passport Books, 1988, Lincolnwood, Illinois, U.S.A.

More information about travel in Kham is posted by the Kham Aid Foundation.

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