ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34

A land graced by kindness and colours

In this final part, Nishy Wijewardane reaches alpine Jiuzhaigou on Sichuan’s northern borders and crosses to western Sichuan’s “Wild West” Khamding region to explore timeless Tibetan heritages.

From Songpan, a historically strategic town at 8,000 feet and midway to Sichuan’s far north, it is a bus journey of several hours to China’s best known scenic region, Jiuzhaigou. By late October, the snows had arrived and the northern landscape beyond Songpan at 10,000 feet had acquired the characteristics of a black and white photograph. Gone were the warm autumn colours in remote valleys around Songpan which I crossed by horse (see Part 2 last week); a cloudy off-white brooding skyline merges seamlessly with dense snow-covered deciduous and coniferous forests surrounded by thick mists, with a white foreground of open air prairies, all segments sharing the same shades of white and black.

Exquisite autumn tones in Jiuzhaigou

The air was chilly and passengers huddled in the bus for warmth.The road north crossed simply atmospheric scenery. The high plateau revealed at a distance – on clearer days, as on my return – the rarified snow-capped scenery of Huanglong or “Yellow Dragon Valley”, named for its shimmering gold colour limestone deposits in its waters; it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1992) and World Biosphere Reserve. Inside Huanglong (700 sq km), the picturesque karst landforms and sedimentation from the Silurian geological period have created beautiful sky-blue lakes and white calcium terraced ponds such as Wuchaichi, and other numerous cave systems. Waterfalls link these gem-like ponds of jade blue-green colour, backdropped by towering Xueshanliang (Snow Mountain Range); beautiful grasslands too add variation to scenery. The bus then descended from the snowbound high valleys of the plateau to an altogether warmer range, much to my surprise. The seasonal clock unwound rapidly as autumn returned; the golden colours interjected with red maple leaves came back, like lifeblood returning to a frozen animal. Even green trees, free of snow, stood out as one entered the Jiuzhaigou region.

Watery beauty of Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou valley, named after nine Tibetan villages in its fold, is an extraordinary alpine wonderland of over 700-1300 sq km situated between 7000-15,000 feet (annual average temperature 7.2C), easily eclipsing the best of Europe. It too was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992 and a World Biosphere Reserve. Green, blue and turquoise coloured crystal-clear lakes (114) with still mirror-like reflections and refractions inverting the scenery almost perfectly, high multilayered waterwalls of different dimensions, unique flooded terraced wild orchards reeling with liquid silk waters, gently swaying picturesque reed lakes, stunning blue hued ponds wedged in by endless steep forests, deep blue overhead skies, jagged white snow-capped mountains and pretty Tibetan stockaded villages characterize this enchanted Tibetan land that then changes into a different glory each season.

Names such as Nuorilang Pubu (Nuorilang Waterfall), Xiniu Hai (Rhinocerous Lake), Chang Hai (Long Lake), Wucaichi (Colourful Pond), Wuhuahai (Flower Lake), Shuzheng Waterfall… dot the landscape; Tibetan prayer flags and stone insignia indicate the veneration for this special place and the symbiotic relations these gentle people have had for generations. The valleys were also the homelands of the ancient animistic Bon religion which predated Buddhism and was widely practised on the plateau (still worshipped though now intertwined with Buddhism).

Like many Chinese locals who throng here (foreign tourists are much fewer), I was spellbound by Jiuzhaigou’s beauty; that it is the subject of a well known Chinese love song came as no surprise.

Horses crossing in Mugecuo

Late October was the perfect time to experience this reserve in the throes of autumn, its best mantle, and the mountainsides delicately brushed with soft colourings. However, it is the flow of water that is so captivating, not only here but as encountered across Sichuan’s higher terrain. No where else in the world have I witnessed mountain cascades gush through countless natural fissures and glaciated boulder beds with as silky and flowing a grace as in this province; nature’s vibrancy transformed into pure grace almost in one stroke. One could only speculate that at this altitude a special sub-law of gravity applies to Sichuan.

I spent some days in Jiuzhaigou, travelling daily to the reserve. Transport inside is by internal buses that pick and drop visitors at its many scenic spots, albeit according to drivers’ whim, making planned long walks a little haphazard (no English help is available). Good roads and beautifully constructed terraced wooden pedestrian pathways criss-cross the landscape in accessible areas which stretch about 15 to 33 km from the entrance. I stayed in a humble hotel for locals in the town, a pleasant settlement divided by a swift flowing river.

Sichuan’s Citizen No. 1: the Pandas

As part of the stunning Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan, this is also prime panda country. Although Sichuan’s pre-eminent citizen, these solitary creatures live in high bamboo forest and are rarely encountered. Dependent on bamboo for which a special thumb for grasping has evolved, the pandas are vulnerable. Thus, despite a long fossil record, a special - and successful - breeding centre has been established outside Chengdu, which I visited earlier. It becomes immediately obvious why this animal is so endearing worldwide; besides its chubby looks and comic markings, the roly-poly playful nature, its slow movements and waddley sit-ups - so childlike - exude enormous affection and empathy. Human incubators in a sterile room held several 8 inch panda babies and staff carefully turned each baby over to its side every few minutes and fed them milk (their natural survival is too precious to chance).

Pandas in the north in Aba County also share the terrain with the so-called “Red Panda”, not a bear as revealed by recent DNA analysis but a member of the raccoon family. This animal is also related to snakes and lizards, testing for scents with its tongue. Takin (the national animal of Bhutan), a peculiar high altitude goat-antelope resembling an incomprehensible combination of an elk, buffalo, goat and antelope, with moose-like forehead to boot, also live here, as do Jiuzhaigou’s golden monkeys.

After my fill of this scenic beauty, though I longed to see it in winter, I returned horizontally to Chengdu on a fast and furious 12 hour “sleeper bus” ride (wedged in a 5 person bus-bed at the far rear, sandwiched by friendly and bemused locals). Re-crossing the Huanlong plateau, the breathtaking views of the chains of snowy peaks (while laying on my back) had even the local passengers from the area scrambling for their cameras. I then turned west on another lengthy bus ride to other Tibetan regions around Khamding, yet another scenic area on Sichuan’s western flank.

On the Kham Plateau

The long winding journey up from Chengdu to Kanding (410+ km) consumes the whole day as the bus creaks and groans its way to 8500 feet up the Eastern Tibetan plateau, arriving at a gorged confluence of Zheduo (Dar-chu in Tibetan) and Yala (Tse-chu) Rivers.

Kanding (Khamding, Daijianlu, Lucheng – depending on your historical time-point) sits, for centuries as today, at the borderlands of Han Chinese influence, a vibrant trading entrepot between two cultures and a vital staging post for Lhasa. Historically, Khamding was the heart of the more independent minded people of Eastern Tibet known as the Kham, and the capitals of the kingdom of Chakla, and between 1939-51 that of a short lived province of Xikang. For centuries too it has been part of the 4000 km Tea-Horse Trail (akin to the Silk Road) whereby caravans traded Tibetan horses, furs and musk for Yunan’s favoured Pu’er tea, sugar, salt and even Burmese produce. Today, though significantly a Chinese town (but once renowned as the wildest settlement in all China, and reminding me of Kashgar), it thrives with a Tibetan soul, full of lamas and colourful Tibetans in its pleasant centre, divided as in Jiuzhaigou by a river. This is where today Chinese consumer durables meet yak butter tea and tribal produce, still in exchange by wild cowboy-herders with an acute resemblance to Rastafarians of the Caribbean.

The kindness of women

It was on my long ride to Kanding that I savoured extraordinary kindness. For many hours, I (a grubby bearded South Asian traveller the like of which I had not seen since Hong Kong) sat next to a smartly dressed petite long haired Chinese lady of indeterminate age, presumably in her 30s. Incrementally, we exchanged pleasantries, in sign language, until she was confident enough to share her food with me and I my MP3 player with jazzy Sarah Vaughan tinkling in its earbuds. Towards Kanding, however, our friendship grew and at some point a border was crossed; she then indicated that she was fond of me, inviting me – with extraordinary generosity– to stay with her in Kanding. My surprise was unbounded, more especially as the bold, deliberate offer was from a pleasant woman. I pondered frantically as to how to respond and what the consequences or cultural sensitivities might be, mortally afraid of hurting her feelings and our friendship. Somehow I managed to thank her and imbue a notion that I expected to stay at a “hotel” – I had no idea of my accommodation in Kanding beyond a bus ticket. My companion betrayed no emotion, and I sat uneasily for the remaining journey.

Daughter and mother, Huanjin and Liuming

At the dank Kanding bus station, however, Liuming, as I later came to know her, simply took command of my life, curtly dismissing with authority numerous hotel hawkers. She hailed me a taxi, getting into the front, and indicated (to a surprised driver) that she was with me and we proceeded into town, presumably to her house. The taxi then halted - to my relief - outside the Black Tent Guesthouse, a $2 Tibetan dormitory. Accommodation arrangements aside, its female receptionist then acted as a translator in broken English between me and my friend. Anxious to convey my gratitude with some Ceylon tea, I was then told by the struggling receptionist (with an uncertain giggle) that Liuming hoped to be my “mistress” during my stay in Kanding, though I sensed that something was perhaps lost in translation. At this point, a fellow traveller from Hong Kong also emerged and he offered more reliable communication.

Liuming had an endearing mind of her own. With decisive vigour, she walked us both into town, excitedly chattering in Chinese while translations spewed back and forth. She insisted then on feeding us in a traditional Tibetan boutique with great steaming soupy bowls of yak meat and dumpling. Later, in pouring rain and getting thoroughly soaked (she, not us), she painstakingly negotiated a taxi fare from a roadside Tibetan driver, to assist me, and told me that at 7 a.m. next day she would come for me. I had murmured my intentions of travelling alone to the Tagong grasslands and monastery, many hours out of Kanding, but this seemed the best way of reaching it.

The following cold morning, as I waited for my vehicle, I observed an attractive girl seemingly monitoring me. The lookout was none other than Liuming’s daughter, Huangjin. For the next few days, Liuming, who was a teacher and government servant of Han origin from Leshan, and Huangjin, the daughter from a gentle Tibetan father who was an art/dance instructor (in a literal marriage of the ethnic and cultural melting pot of Sichuan), accompanied me around the region. Liuming’s son, Hanlu, offered invaluable translation services and conveyed his mother’s fussing over me via mobile, where possible, as we sped across landscapes. I was to spend time in their cosy riverside apartment, a world apart from my unheated dormitory room which I nevertheless frequented. Such was the kindness that my Hong Kong friend, who tried to alter his own schedule to partake of my good fortune, left me with a degree of good humoured jealousy, telling me that my luck was truly remarkable…

The Tagong Grasslands

About 110 km north of Kanding lie the beautiful Tagong (Lhagang) grasslands, a vast open space at 12,200 feet surrounded by velvety hills festooned in places with hundreds of fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. To reach Tagong, it takes a morning’s rugged driving on terrible potholed roads; symptoms of altitude sickness quickly emerged as I crossed dizzying mountain passes. With no breakfast, the nausea was barely controllable but once we crossed the highest peak, and began our descent, the symptoms similarly subsided. The landscape was harsh, beautiful and pristine but it was the breathtakingly blue sweeping skies above me that consumed me. The earth and the heavens were divorced spectacularly, as if two separate images had been artistically superimposed. Standing on the grasslands, my head craned skywards, one felt like the last human on earth, awaiting some beautiful cataclysmic event…

Tagong is home to its famed isolated Tibetan monastery, said to be the second holiest after Lhasa’s and with considerable divine power, and its August horse-racing festival attended by thousands of outlying Tibetan herders. In the scenic cobbled monastic courtyard, three hall structures are erected; in the oldest, a gilded statue of Lhasa’s Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha is said to have been carved in situ as the original passed its way to Lhasa in the 7th century AD. Together with my companions, I entered the sacred hall, descending into the enchanting dark, cool and silent chapel lit by hundreds of yak butter oil lamps. Beautiful gilded statues of Tibetan saints surrounded the main Buddha statue, in its distinctive Tibetan form. While Liuming performed a Tibetan puja, a monk in a dark corner chanted prayers, much as in temples back home. Memories of such visits to similar remote mountain temples of Bhutan flooded into my memory as I too said my prayers, thankful again for the privilege of reaching here safely. One was humbled by the thought of centuries of unbroken worshipping, by poor herders and lamas who toil and cross this extremely harsh landscape and its elements, that have accrued to this holy place, a reflection of extraordinary dedication and human spirit. Later, a memorable picnic took place with the triangular and holy Zhare Lhatse mountain (19,200 ft) framing the huge grasslands we laid on.

The blue of “Wild Men’s Lake”

On another day, and another journey, I visited the beautiful Mugecuo Lake (“Wild Men’s Lake” in Tibetan), home to wild wolves, leopards and, by name, the yeti. Travelling for some hours through a remote silent wooded reserve, we climbed up to a perfectly still, blue high altitude lake, bounded by forest. With frozen watery lakesides, we awaited the warming sun. The extraordinary blue of the overhead sky contrasted against the striking yellow leaves of treelines; the stillness only broken by two local horses walking by.

Of mystic mountains (Emei Shan) and a giant Buddha

From Kanding, other journeys were planned but the worsening weather damped my spirits and worldly commitments elsewhere beckoned me. Travelling south from Chengdu by bus, however, I made my way to Emei Shan (another World Heritage Site (1996)), one of the Middle Kingdom’s four famous holy Buddhist mountains on which a chain of interlinked old monasteries resides, dating from the advent of Buddhism in China. The pinnacle of Jin Din (Golden Summit), reached by a cold, strenuous, mist shrouded climb, offers a rare stunning view of the Sea of Clouds underneath. An equally rare atmospheric phenomenon of a rainbow (“Buddha’s Aureole”) sometimes forms around climbers’ shadows, enticing earlier ardent believers to assume that it was the beckoning of nirvana and jump off the mountain. The ghostly temple that greeted me at the summit was striking but alas I had not acquired enough merit to witness the view.

Some hours away, a different riverine scenery unfolds near the world’s biggest (but not its most elegant) Buddha statue, the Giant Buddha of Leshan (Da Fo) (World Heritage Site). Carved out of a large red cliff on the confluence of Dadu He and Min He rivers, this 235 feet rather robotic Tang Dynasty Buddha sits gazing at old Leshan. Each ear is 23 feet in size and the big toe alone is 28 feet; the gigantic proportions seemingly being the attraction in contrast to the exquisite beauty and colours of Gandharan and Kuchan depictions I had seen on the Silk Road from Peshawar to Dunhuang (Xinjiang). A Buddhist monk, Haitong, began this statue in AD 713, with completion 90 years later. The statue is flanked by two denuded guardians visible only from the ferry which I took; clearly here the Buddha’s gaze was a blessing as all my attempts to pay for my journey were unsuccessful.

Sichuan - from the little I witnessed for now - amply fulfilled its enigmatic attraction to me, and left me with many kaleidoscopic memories. However, it was the extraordinary grace of water over its terrain, and the elemental blue plateau skies, in as much as the moments of mortal kindness, that will forever linger on in me.

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