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I'm travelling alone and am dressed completely as a Chinese worker, my only giveaways being my passport and digital camera. There are four checkpoints but they merely walk around the bus peering in at the passengers without coming inside and we are allowed to pass unhindered.
In remote areas, minor repairs are done by the bus driver, almost all men.
On the bus are four big, burly Khamba men. With their large, wide faces, aquiline noses and long hair in two plaits, they strongly resemble native American Indians. At each chorten or holy spot that we pass, these rough Khambas would stand up, raise both hands in the air and sing out, "Ho, solo, solo, solo, solo, soloÖ.." to express their spiritual happiness.
As we are boarding the bus in Zhongdian for Xiangcheng, I ask a young Israeli couple if they had to buy Travel Permits to travel between Zhongdian and Litang in Sichuan which was only just recently opened to foreigners.
"Yes," says the man. "We told the PSB (Public Security Bureau) in Lijiang that it was open to foreigners and we should not have to buy Travel Permits. But they said they knew nothing about it being open and we had to pay 50 yuan each for the Permits."
"Thatís odd because I met a Japanese guy last night who came from Litang and he didnít need a Travel Permit."
It is too late now for me to get a Permit. I would simply have to be lucky.
Also on the bus are two Americans: one older woman whom they call Aunt Linda and a man who looks like her nephew. Aunt Linda is the chattiest of the group giving everyone the latest news of south-east Asia (she had been everywhere it seemed) and exchanging addresses and telephone numbers.
The 400 km road to Litang runs along the Tibetan border. Sometimes it ran through wide valleys with herds of yaks, sometimes over high mountain passes from where we have breathtaking views of ranges and valleys stretching to the horizon, the first hint of Tibet, the Roof of the World.
Sometimes we go through cosy villages peopled by Tibetans with sunburnt cheeks and strong faces who gaze boldly at the foreigners. .
Roughly the size of France, Sichuan supports one of the densest rural populations in the world. The name 'Sichuan' means 'Four Rivers' though there are more than 80 large rivers which allowed Sichuan to become agriculturally prosperous more than 2000 years ago. Sichuan is also famous for the giant pandas which live in the mountains to the north. They are China's most loved ambassadors and an endangered specie - only 1000 or so still survive.
A blown tyre on the road sets us back one hour and we limp into Xiangcheng to repair the tyre and rim. We cannot leave before dawn the following day.
Late in the evening I hear the melancholy drone of the dungchen or long trumpets of the Tibetan monasteries in the gathering darkness and with the higher bleating of the kangling or trumpets made of human thigh bone, it is both eerie and moving.
In the morning, the big Khambas are outside in the dawn sun with their palms together face up, singing sutras. I buy an onward ticket from Litang eastward to Kangding, away from Tibet. This little precaution would soon save me 350 yuan. The road rises to 4300m and the old bus wheezes in the thin air. There are water stops at rivers along the way where the radiator reservoir is refilled and the children, some of them quite beautiful, sit at the roadside to look at the people from outside.
"Be careful, take sunglasses," said a friend, Herve. "In September, the Tibetan sunlight is cutting."
It is odd to me. The sunlight is strong enough to give a bad sunburn to exposed skin but the wind is cool and often chilly Ė it is difficult to know how to dress. I had also left behind my lip balm and already my lips are cracked and painful. But in these mountains there is a heady sense of travelling over sacred ground, far from the cares of the valleys below,
We arrive in Litang in the late evening, in time to see herds of yaks being driven through the dusty main street to be locked up in the ground floor of the homes for the night. Tibetan Buddhist monks stroll through the street fingering their chinga (beads) while Khamba men sit in doorways whirling their prayer wheels clockwise. Khamba men and women wear a thick coat called a chuba which in the daytime is wrapped around their waist or worn with the right sleeve hanging down, often trailing in the dust. Many men also wear a head-dress of red string twisted into a coil and a huge chunk of amber on a cord around their necks while the women wear large silver and turquoise hairpins or pendants. I am now on the Southern Sichuan-Tibet Highway, a euphemism for a road that often devolves into a muddy track or completely washed away.
I walk along the main street hoping for information on the road west to Batang and Tibet and come upon the Israeli couple and the American man. They have decided to spend a day or two in Litang and I suspect that they are also attempting to travel west into Tibet. I had earlier told them that I am a Chinese from Guangdong and it is useless now to try to get information on the Batang backdoor from them.
Aunt Linda and I stay in the Bus Station guesthouse, a dingy, dismal place with rooms that belong to the early days of the Revolution. I register as a Chinese and tell the manageress that my ID card was stolen in Guangzhou. She accepts this story but at midnight my door is opened and five policemen with torchlights enter. They wake me and question me for twenty minutes. I willingly co-operate with them with my story of having my ID card stolen while waiting in the Guangzhou train station. I show them my carryall with the slashed pocket as proof and further, I show them my bus ticket to prove that I'm leaving for Kangding in four hours. If I were discovered to be a foreigner I would be fined 300 yuan, charged 50 yuan for a Travel Permit and sent back to Yunnan to begin my trip yet again. They order me to get dressed and go with them to the station. I dress and pack and go downstairs with them but out in the street they walk away leaving me behind. One turns around to say, "You may go back now."
In the morning, on the way to Kangding, Aunt Linda suddenly discovers that she has been deserted by her English-speaking friends. I keep my silence preferring my own company rather than listen to her chatter. At the first rest stop she says to me, "Would you find out if we have time to eat and come back and tell me." It is not a request but an order and I realise that she sees me as a Chinese, not her equal but a subordinate, there to look after her well-being.
I go to the toilet and when I return she is still sitting there. "Have you eaten?" I ask
"No," she says stiffly. "You didnít come back to tell me anything so I did not get off the bus."
"Look," I say helpfully. "If you see everybody get off the bus and go to eat, you can also go to eat. If everyone goes to the toilet, you can also go to the toilet."
"But I canít speak Chinese!" she wails. "You can speak Chinese! Itís no fun if you canít speak the language!"
How did she travel through Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Mongolia, China, India and Pakistan with this attitude Iíll never know. When we arrive in Kangding I hurry away leaving her in the bus station.
Kangding (Dardo) was historically the capital of the local Tibetan kingdom of Chakla serving as a trade centre between Tibet and China where yak hides, wool, Tibetan herbs and bricks of tea wrapped in yak hides were exchanged. It is now the capital of the Ganzi (Garze) Tibet Prefecture with a rushing Zheduo River flowing through the middle of town and a towering Daxue Mountain (with clouds rolling up and down its sides) on the northern edge of town.
There are many Han Chinese here but they are easily overshadowed by the more colorful Tibetan monks and Khambas walking through town.
As I walk along on the edge of town I greet a grey-haired Tibetan monk. "Have you been to Nanwu monastery?" he asks. He guides me up a steep road with flower gardens on either side to the busiest monastery in Kangding. I arrive just before the midday service and they kindly allow me inside. They chant sutras, ring bells, blow horns, beat drums and blow conch shells in what seems a cacophony of sounds but it also sounds sacred in a way different from western religious music.
I stand before the 5 meter tall statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, the first Buddha.
"Well, waiguoren," he says. "What do you want of me?"
"I donít know," I reply. "I suppose world peace. Itís what everybody prays for."
"The world is as the world is," he says. "Why do you wish it otherwise?"
"I guess youíre right," I say. "Well then, perhaps I could ask that everyone in the world becomes enlightened?"
The Buddha laughs. "Youíre too clever for your own good, waiguoren. It will happen but perhaps not in your lifetime. Is there anything else?"
"I have a long journey ahead. Will you bless me please?"
"You are already blessed," he says. "Why do you ask for more?"
On my last evening I town I meet my friend the grey-haired monk. He is waiting for a truck going to Chengdu and gives me an apple from his bag. We chat until a truck stops for him.
"Tujay chay," I say. "Tashi dele." Thank you. Blessings on you.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World
Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang
Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon