Yushu prefecture adventures

Mountains above the Hot Water Ditch (e.g. hot springs paradise valley)

This is a continuation of the former post, I just wanted to separate my reactions to the earthquake from my travels in the region. Earthquake reactions are in the post prior to this one. For pictures, go to my picasa or facebook sites.

After spending a thoroughly depressing day in the earthquake-ravaged town of Yushu, I walked to the edge of the valley to hitch a ride to the south. I immediately got picked up by a friendly young Tibetan family who took me to the Princess Wencheng Temple 文成公主庙, a temple complex about 15 kilometers south of town where they were going to pray and, later, have a picnic dinner. They dropped me off at the temple entrance and, after looking around and wandering through the web of prayer flags literally spackled across the cliffs and atop the impossibly steep spires lining the gorge, I walked up the road which led uphill from the temple into a broad, grassy valley. Parked cars dotted the valley floors, picnickers from Yushu taking advantage of the beautiful weather and the opportunity to get out of town. Dogs wandered aimlessly, but not threateningly, along the meadows, which were just starting their eventual full-on burst into technicolor bloom. I wandered past fields of grazing yaks and up towards a small village where I met a group of young locals who said they enjoyed coming here after work. In the village (more a slightly denser cluster of houses amidst the grasslands) was a place advertised as a “hot springs” and could be more accurately described as simply a “spring-fed swimming pool.” But the location was lovely, and I sat out in the open and admired the view and wrote in my journal. Finally, the sun started to drop and the wind picked up; I needed to find a place to camp. But Kim’s tent was not too amenable to even a slight breeze, so I spent the next hour and a half finding the least windy spot in the valley. I finally found it in a field heavily populated by yaks, and I fell asleep to the sound of contented, grassfed grunts.

The next morning it was raining. Raining and snowing and hailing, actually; a full-on East-Coast-style “wintry mix” had invaded the valley. I made it to the Wencheng temple just before the wintry mix started falling hard, and, after spending some quality time with a mute pilgrim in the temple doorway, I got a ride to the main road. After some refreshing 方便面 (instant noodles) and a photo shoot with the local kids, I got a series of rides to the town of Nangchen, 180 kilometers away to the south.

Nangchen, formerly the capital of an independent kingdom stretching from Yushu almost to Derge in western Sichuan, is the southernmost county of Qinghai. Bordering on the TAR, it is centered on the valley of the Za-Chu, a river otherwise known as the upper Mekong. With a varied topography and climate, Nangchen county is a wonderland of massive snowcapped mountains and deep broad valleys and precipitous shadowy gorges and vast skytouching grasslands and dense birdsongfilled forests. In short, it is totally beautiful. And to complement the natural beauty is a rich and relatively intact Tibetan culture (100-plus monasteries in the county!) of which the locals are rightfully proud.

I don’t want to sound too much like the Nangchen tourist bureau (if such a thing actually exists), but the place is frickin’ awesome. The county town of Sharda (香达) has grown considerably in recent years, most recently absorbing an influx of migrants from Yushu, but remains a small, friendly, deeply provincial little trading town. The monasteries surrounding town are all under reconstruction, so there’s not much in the way of “sights,” but is that really why we go to these places? I wandered up and down the streets, absorbing the atmosphere, buying some Tib music VCD’s, relaxing on the hilltop above town, talking with locals. In the afternoon, to my surprise, I saw two other foreigners across the street and ran over to say hello. Dutch, they were waiting for their TTB permit to come through in Xining and wanted to travel a bit in Qinghai. I helped them out and shared a dinner with them before going to the edge of town to try and hitch to a spot in the grasslands to set up my tent.

I was picked up by a man in a large van who addressed me in broken English: “What are you doing in Nangchen?”

The last time I was asked such a question, an undercover police officer in Banma was trying to intimidate me out of her county. So I was a bit nervous as I responded I was just here to travel. But I was disarmed by his friendly, easygoing demeanor and his definite lack of specific purpose in asking questions; he was simply curious, he didn’t want to arrest me. When he learned I was planning to camp, he turned his car around and said he was driving me to his home.

“No!” I protested. “I don’t want to bother you and your family. I will just camp somewhere.”

“If you don’t want to stay in my home,” he said, “I will take you to a hotel and pay for it myself.”

“Absolutely not!”

“Then you will stay in my home,” he said. “I must welcome foreign friends to Nangchen. It is my duty.”

And with a true sense of duty he drove back down the main street, through a narrow web of alleyways to a large iron gate which opened to a small courtyard.

Lobsang’s home (again, name disguised for protection) was surprisingly large, modern, and comfortable. The region had been without electricity for a week, but had it been on we would have been able to print out two-meter-long images on his professional-quality printer, watch his flat-screen TV, listen to music on his surround-sound system, or do any number of things. In short, this guy was pretty loaded. I asked what he did for a living.

“Business,” he said. “I often take the car to Xining, Chengdu, or Beijing for business trips.”

I was curious, and had to know more. “What kind of business?”

“虫草” (chongcao), he said. Or, in English, I was staying with a national-level caterpillar-fungus mogul.

We talked about caterpillar fungus, about the Yushu earthquake, and about his family when his wife came in. A Chinese teacher at the lower school, her impeccable putonghua made communication almost effortless. We chatted for hours in the gathering darkness which obscured all of the house’s modern frills and fittings in a prehistoric gloom; the sense of moving backwards through the centuries was only heightened as Lobsang’s wife cooked over the open fire, occasionally feeding the flame with cakes of yak dung. Surrounded by modernity and luxury, this young couple was still living just as the people of the region always had, with candles providing light and a yak-dung stove providing cooking-power and heat. I went to bed as the stove flickered out, falling asleep to a chorus of dogs barking outside beneath a canopy of ever-brighter stars illuminating the unpolluted skies.

The next morning, I left with the couple as they went to their respective jobs and wandered down to the new bridge which arched in an elegant parabola over the turbid Za-chu below town. I wandered across the bridge, staring down at the brown waters flowing towards Yunnan, then Laos and Thailand and Cambodia and finally the sultry tropical delta in Vietnam where, laden to the limit with sediment, they poured out into the warm palm-rimmed seas. I wondered what the waters would pass along their way, what would be their experience, and what would be my experience as I crossed the bridge from the county town and entered a remote, little-traveled area, with a few dots on the map as general goals but no definite aim or plan in mind.

I wandered down the road in the early morning sunlight, which here (unlike in Xining) is bright and clear and not the least bit hazy. After a meditative while, I got a ride in a van driven by a newlywed couple returning to their home village, all of their possessions piled in the trunk. From the crossroads where I was dropped off I got another ride, this time from a group of middle-aged men from Xining. Wealthy tourists, they were on a drive through Nangchen prefecture to look at the scenery. They smoked expensive cigarettes, complained about the scenery and people in perfect putonghua (“that mountain is normal for Qinghai, nothing special”/”why are people so shy? I’d like to take a picture but they keep running away”/”why are we stopping to take a picture? this grassland isn’t even green yet!”) and were dressed for the country club rather than backwoods Nangchen. While their comments annoyed me, they were amusing to talk with, and a couple of them were even related to my students at Shida Fuzhong!

After driving over a 4900-meter pass in airconditioned comfort and down through beautiful meadows with yaks peacefully grazing below clearblue skies, the road turned the corner around a rocky spur jutting riblike into the valley and we suddenly were in the center of the small township of 毛庄 Maozhuang, or Da Sumang/Zurmang in Tibetan. Rising high above the ramshackle adobe-concrete houses were the golden roofs and multicolored prayerwheeldraped temples of the massive Zurmang Namgyeltse monastery, dwarfing and lording over the town in both literal and symbolic fashion.

The monastery was absolutely magnificent. While the main assembly hall was still under construction, the monastery has a number of other large and impressive buildings, including a towering Zangdok-Pelri style temple done in a style which can only be described as flamboyant-Gothic-revival meets Tibetan Buddhism (and possibly a dash of Disneyworld’s magic castle thrown in for good measure). The five-story structure, painted in gloriously tacky pastel colors, is sited atop a steep hillside overlooking town, making its pyramidal form even more imposing. I expected the interior to be similarly tacky, but I was in for a surprise. After making it past the eight (!) large stray dogs guarding the entrance, a feat only accomplished with the help of a tottering old man at least eighty years old (and walking with the aid of a cane, which proved extremely useful in dog dispersal), I pushed back the heavy cloth curtains and stepped inside.

Entering, I was immediately engulfed by a glowing warmth similar to the feeling of sitting by an open fire, and was permeated, then saturated by the rich fragrance of yak butter candles. Chanting rose to my ears, and I looked around. Beneath a vivid array of thangkas and murals, beneath a glittering canopy of plastic flowers tumbling from the distant ceiling to a few meters above the floor in an endless technicolor shower, illuminated by rich glowing light pouring inside in luxuriant waves from the arched windows high above, rows of elderly worshipers, some singing at the top of their voices, some only managing the occasional groan, some chanting the six syllable mantra of Avalokitesvara under their breath, om mani padme hum, filled the hall with an outpouring of emotion which was at once grief and rage and frustration and hope and utter happiness. Prostrating endlessly onto the richly carpeted floor, rising back up once again onto their tired yet tireless ancient treetrunks of legs to lift their hands and hearts upwards before falling back down to earth once again, they dipped and rose as water, waves covering the floor, rising and cresting in a flood of life before crashing down to earth and restarting the cycle. I was mesmerized.

My experience inside the temple is impossible to truly put into words. I have no idea how long I stayed in the temple; the endless mantras, the continual rising and falling helped me turn off my mind and simply be; the cyclical chanting and movements kept me in a single moment for what felt like an age and yet like no time at all. When I finally got up and wandered out of the temple to emerge stupefied into the sunshine beyond, I felt as if I suddenly completely understood my existence and, at the same time, doubted its reality – and that of my own experience – like never before. I have been in numerous halls of chanting monks, yet I’ve never experienced anything so powerful, so transformational, as the congregation of elders I had the privilege of joining at Zurmang Namgyeltse.

After exploring the monastery and getting chased by more than a few large stray dogs, I went down into town to find a place to eat. After drinking some nasty fake Coke (which nevertheless had an identical red-white label and picture; only the name itself was different) I found the only restaurant in town: the 雪城餐厅 (“Snow City Cafe”) which charged 30 kuai for a 砂锅 (earthenware pot-cooked) dish! I got some delicious peppers, which turned out to be my last real meal until I got back to Yushu five days later. I was heading for the boonies.

I decided to head east, through the valley of the Zi-chu river and over a pass to the region of Xiao Sumang (Zurmang), fifty kilometers away in Yushu county. I got a ride into the Zi-chu valley, crossed a bridge over the river, and started walking uphill towards Xiao Sumang.

While walking up the canyon for the next four hours, I was passed by exactly two vehicles. One was an SUV with Beijing plates, possibly a rich tourist, while the other was a truck filled with construction materials. Neither gave me a ride. The road on the other side of the gorge had an a more frequent stream of vehicles (read: every fifteen-twenty minutes there was a car) but it was far across the wide and deep river, and my map showed no connection upstream to the road I was traveling on. I was starting to despair that there would be no traffic all the way to Xiao Sumang, that I’d have to walk the fifty-odd remaining kilometers and that I wouldn’t have time to make it to a hot springs near Yushu I wanted to visit, when I suddenly arrived at a hilltop and saw a bridge spanning the river below a large monastery. Stupid. Of course there were vehicles heading to Xiao Sumang; it was my map at fault.

Now on the road heading out of the canyon towards Xiao Sumang, I walked a few kilometers through a beautifully forested gorge, cliffs liberally bedecked with prayer flags and images of bodhisattvas painted on the walls, which opened into a wide valley with lush evergreen forests and wide yakfilled meadows scattered across its floor. I soon got a ride from a young guy on a motorcycle, which led to another village where I got another motorcycle ride, then another; each rider displayed me like a trophy to the village before passing me off to another rider, as if I were a human baton in the 4xXiao Sumang relay. Finally a friendly young guy with perfect putonghua dropped me in a narrow alpine valley below his family’s tent and, as the sun was slowly dropping and the scenery was nothing to sniff at, I decided to camp in the vicinity. After being visited by seven giggling children and hundreds of much quieter sheep, I rapidly fell asleep to the sound of the nearby stream, carrying snowmelt from the peaks above slowly towards the distant tropical delta of the Mekong.

The next morning I walked up the road towards Xiao Sumang which quickly ascended to a 4600-meter pass at the head of the valley, from which there were spectacular views into the Xiao Sumang grasslands. While on the pass a guy on a motorcycle stopped for me, offering to give me a ride into the valley below; I agreed.

What I didn’t know is that he would quickly eschew the switchbacking road for the more direct motorcycle trail, which plunged straight down the fall line, over boulders and streambeds and iceslicks and mud and shifting pebbles, into the valley. The gradient was about that of the side of a stick of asparagus propped up vertically against a wall, and we took it at full speed. I screamed continually, much to the delight (and mild annoyance) of the driver.

I thought things would be better when we returned to the road at the valley bottom, but I was mistaken. The road, which had looked smooth from afar, turned out to consist primarily of potholes and large jagged rocks; we accelerated accordingly to a velocity I had thought only achievable by spacecraft. Thankfully,  ten minutes later we arrived at an intersection, where the driver stopped.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Here,” I said, and got off the motorcycle so fast it was almost rude. I said goodbye and, as the motorcycle accelerated into the distance, breathed a sigh of relief that I was still among the living.

I walked a bit and got a ride from some friendly Amdo guys to the monastery of Zurmang Dutitsil, located about 15km downvalley. The TAR border ran atop the chain of peaks looming above the valley to the east; by road, the TAR was only ten kilometers further down the valley. I was shocked that I had not been bothered by the police, or that I had not even seen a police car in the region. Half of the cars, however, had 藏 (Tibet) licenseplates.

The monastery was much smaller and less impressive than Zurmang Namgyeltse, to which it is linked. This apparently has not always been the case; the monastery was historically quite large, which – when compared to its current small size – gives a sense of the scale of destruction that must have occurred here midcentury. Further destruction was evident, this round induced by the earthquake, in the recently built and destroyed assembly hall at the center of the complex. The building’s exterior walls were partially intact, but the roof had collapsed inward, showering the sanctuary with rubble. Amid the piles of broken bricks, stone, and glass, below the jagged edges of half-collapsed walls, sat three brilliantly golden statues, the Buddhas of the three times, glowing magnificently as if true deities alighted temporarily to this altar from above, forlornly surveying the damage and destruction around them while remaining separate, above, alone.

A new college was under construction below, and the hillside was dotted with hermitages, stupas, and prayer flags below yet another ruined structure, this one of greater age. The hermitages were two stories tall, their lower story, intended for the animals, built of fieldstone, while their upper story made of wood panels, beautifully carved and painted in geometric patterns. I wandered around the complex, as usual fending off stray dogs and circumambulating the mani wall with pilgrims, but my mind kept returning to the image of the three Buddhas alone in their ruined hall. Despite the life I felt in other areas of the monastery, this postapocalyptic image, profoundly sad, kept coming back to me, as if the place’s heart had been torn out forcefully and abandoned on the sidewalk. Rather than be depressed for the rest of the day, I decided to leave and walk upvalley.

It was a beautiful day and I really didn’t mind that I had to walk for four hours or so before I was able to get a ride. Along the way I passed monks towing horses to market behind their motorcycles, another mani temple with elderly women circling endlessly, and friendly herders who invited me into their tent for some tea (which by now, I have neglected to mention, was becoming quite a regular occurrence; not to mention Yushu yak-butter tea is quite mild and much better than the rancid and incredibly strong Amdo variety). Finally I got a ride from a trucker all the way to Xiao Sumang, where I wolfed down a bowl of instant noodles (which was fast becoming my staple, along with tea) at a store before heading out of town again.

I headed up into the mountains on the back of a 三轮车 – the ubiquitous (in China) blue three-wheeled carts – filled to the brim with broken motorcycle parts. I don’t know how I fit. And I don’t know why I stayed in that cart so long. Imagine hurtling down a narrow, potholed dirt road in a vehicle without any shocks while sitting on top of sharp metal objects, and you’ll get an idea for the luxury and comfort of riding in a motorcycle-laden three-wheeler. The next day, I had bruises all over my body.

But I did get out, and caught a ride with a kind old man who offered his own critiques of the earthquake response management and described the landscape to me. And a spectacular landscape it was; the road would upwards, at first gradually and then steeply into a high valley surrounded by snowy peaks. At the head of the valley were two particularly high summits, one rounded and covered in enough snow to make it skiable even now, the other a strangely phallic pinnacle of rock and ice.

“That mountain,” said the man, pointing at the rounded peak, “is the female deity. And that one,” now pointing at her virile-appearing neighbor, “is the man-peak.”

Crossing snowbanks, the road climbed to a high pass between the companion peaks, which my driver assured me was “well over 5000 meters.” After stopping for pictures, we drove down off the pass into a glorious valley ringed by snowy spires. I decided to get off and camp in the area, so I thanked my new friend and, after bypassing some vicious dogs at a nomad tent, hiked up into a glorious sundrenched alpine valley. The grassy meadows along the valley floor were carpeted in small yellow flowers, the first of the summer, and interspersed with marshes, through which a still partially icecovered creek burbled and gushed soothingly. Above, snowdappled granite spires pierced the intensely blue sky, where ravens and vultures were visible circling far overhead. The entire place was completely idyllic, and so I decided to pitch my tent and enjoy the evening.

Twenty minutes later, it was snowing. Hard. I could see about twenty feet outside of my tent, and nothing beyond. The snow started to stick as soon as it began to fall, and soon there were almost two inches on the ground. I started to worry that I had pitched Kim’s tent, which is designed more for car camping in the forest than for true alpine camping, at too high and too exposed of a spot.

But another ten minutes later, I saw a glint of sun, and peeked out of my tent to see the clouds beginning to draw back, mist still clinging to the granite towers above, but a gradual clearing over the valley. The sunset brought fantastic shades of light to the spires above, still cloaked in swirling mists.

The next morning, after wandering down to the road, I got a series of rides north to the town of Batang, which was pretty heavily hit by the earthquake. Most of town was a construction site manned by laborers from Liaoning province in far northeastern China (coincidentally, the same province to which Brendan’s students were sent post-earthquake). The town was plastered with signs advertising “Batang-Liaoning cooperation” and “Batang and Liaoning are working together.” It seemed an odd partnership; on the one hand, a two or three-thousand person, heavily Tibetan town amid high-elevation grasslands; on the other, a 40-million-strong, vast-majority-Han, heavily industrial province in the frigid forests of China’s northeast. Whatever.

Again, a cup of instant noodles and I rushed out of town, this time to the Batang 热水沟 (reshuigou), a place that literally translates as “hot water ditch” (as on Brooke’s Yushu commemorative playing cards) but should more accurately be labeled “hot springs valley.” After quite a long walk up the empty road leading up to the springs, I got a ride with some fellow tourists to the trailhead. Not the springs. For these springs are not road-accessible; once you have reached the end of the road, you must hike two and a half hours (or else hire a horse or motorcycle) to the springs themselves.

And thank God it’s still this way, and (given topographical challenges and lack of visitors) it will hopefully stay this way for a while. For this hot water ditch and its surrounding area together make up a kind of paradise on earth.

The trail runs along a grassy hillside about 500 feet above the river, dishing up scenery straight from the Alps – albeit with a few less glaciers, yaks instead of cows, and the occasional mani wall to remind you of where you were. After bypassing yet another angry dog, you start to see strange water seepages along the trail, and suddenly a hot springs pool appears below a khata-draped boulder. Then another. But this is only the start; you walk down to the riverside meadows and cross the torrent on steppingstones, then climb a low hillside. And here you find not only more hot-springs pools, but a miniature geothermal wonderland, replete with mini-geysers, bubbling springs and pools and strange mosses and technicolor soil. You strip and enter the water; perfect temperature. It starts to snow.  The pool is shallow; you tuck as much of your body underwater and sigh happily; you can feel yourself relaxing. Life is good.

I spent a while in the hotsprings before I realized that I needed to find a place to camp. I reluctantly left the pool and hiked upvalley, where the scenery grew more and more spectacular by the minute. Finally, I found a sheltered spot under some needle-sharp rock peaks, glaciers winding between the spires above. Again it started to snow, but at this point I didn’t care; it would clear up eventually. After a visit from the local nomad boys, I fell gratefully asleep in this little paradise.

Waking up to see the spires spectacularly touched by the early light, I hiked downvalley and, after many kilometers, I got a ride from a guy in an SUV. I asked him what he was doing up in the valley and he gave me his business card, which was silver, holographic, and adorned in a picture of a fluffy Tibetan mastiff.

“I raise dogs,” he said.

We spent the entire trip back to Yushu talking about the dog business: prices, conditions for raising dogs, customers, restrictions, and similar dog businesses in America (such as the Alaskan husky and malamute). By the time we got to Yushu, I felt like a Tibetan mastiff expert. By this point, I had met both a caterpillar-fungus businessman and a Tibetan mastiff breeder. I was fully satisfied; my trip was complete, it was time to leave.

After a completely confusing few hours negotiating the transportation options back to Xining (the buses leaving from the official station were sold out, there were vans whose drivers said they would leave every so often, but invariably this didn’t happen; only later I realized that there was a whole different semi-official station in a parking lot a few hundred meters away, which had numerous buses leaving for Xining), I boarded the most crowded sleeper bus I’ve ever experienced for the trip back to Xining. I was in a bottom-back-corner bunk, but the bus driver had also placed a bunk in the aisle on both top and bottom levels, necessitating quite a feat of gymnastics every time I wanted to leave my bunk. In addition, the driver spent an hour driving around Yushu and packing the aisles with people (sitting, not lying down, for the duration) just for those few extra kuai in profits. Finally, we left, and (it still being daylight) I got to see why Yushu is considered such a remote area. While in Yushu, the place doesn’t feel remote; it’s a large and bustling town. But to get to any larger city (in this case Xining), you have to cross literally hundreds of kilometers of vast, empty high-elevation grasslands. From near the Yangtze river crossing outside of Yushu to near the town of Xinghai, a distance of about 500 kilometers, the road is significantly above 4000 meters (13100 feet); at its highest point, it reaches almost 5000. These are not the lush grasslands where nomads are everywhere visible tending their flocks of yaks; these are barren snowspecked wastelands where little grows and little can survive. The human population density is extremely low, as there is simply not much out there.

But if you undertake the journey over these grasslands, you’ll find Yushu prefecture to be an utterly amazing place. While the town is an affectingly sad and demoralizing place, a place that moved me to moments of profound doubt, the region – and its people – are still there, and counterbalance Yushu town’s frightening frontier atmosphere with one of calm, serenity, and peace. To run to cliches, the spectacular beauty of the land (as well as its cultural monuments), the richness of the culture, and the unbelievable hospitality and friendliness of the people provided me with many more moments of powerful satisfaction, moments of complete wonder and joy and amazement that, though often forcing me to doubt, did so out of a feeling of sheer happiness that I was in this place at this time; out of a sense of sheer luck in finding myself in such a perfect moment.


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2 Responses to Yushu prefecture adventures

  1. ibuibulai says:

    Wow that sounds absolutely amazing. Not such an elegant response to very elegantly written post, but all the same— wow.

  2. Pingback: Early Winter: October Break in Yushu | Adventures of Jonas

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