Mountains, Monks, and Monasteries

Garze, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture
This is a place worth visiting.

If Wikipedia can be trusted, the Kangding Airport is the third highest airport in the world at 14,022 ft—a mere 400 feet below the world’s highest airport, which is also in Tibetan China. In fact, Tibet lays claim to all four of the world’s highest airports. For reference, the Lhasa Gonggar airport doesn’t even make the top ten, standing at a mere 11,700ft—it takes its place at number thirteen. For obvious reasons it’s not a great idea to fly directly into Kangding from Shanghai—or rather Chengdu, which is where most direct flights originate. The actual city of Kangding, a small mountain metropolis of only 100,000 people, sits in a valley at 8,500ft, more than an hour away from the airport. A few years ago one Shanghai-based international school naively did fly its students directly into Kangding Airport for a trip to the Tagong Monastery, also at 14,000ft. Shortly after arrival, they canceled the trip and flew back to Shanghai. Most of the students were altitude sick.

The better option is to do what my colleagues and I did: fly to Chengdu and make the 8-hour scenic drive through the mountains (there was a faster highway option, but it was under construction at the time, and the mountain drive was a more scenic route). After a day visiting Buddhist temples and acclimating in Kangding, we made the drive to Tagong.


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Altitude sickness is easy to avoid. Food-borne illness not so much, and I spent an unfortunate 24 hours in Tagong strategizing how to survive the possibility of fainting into assorted rudimentary squat toilets (“toilet” is used as hyperbole here). Unfortunately, there was also a large Ebola outbreak that had spread outside the confines of Africa and caused anxiety at the hostel and rooming establishments when I showed up. The takeaway? There is no Tibetan or Han word for Ebola. EBOLA sounds exactly the same in every language. Internet hypochondria is ubiquitous.

This area of China was formerly the Kham region of Tibet, now called the Garze Tibetan Prefecture—permits required for entry. Kangding plays host to both Han and Tibetan populations, but the Tagong region is all Tibetan, including nomadic tribes whose white tents and scattered herds of yak dot the grasslands. I posted two photos of the stupa at Zheduo Shan Pass (14,000 ft). When I say it’s a “popular” destination, I do not mean to suggest that you will see western tourists. We did not see a single westerner anywhere on this trip. The Lhagang Monastery and Tagong Temple are a two and a half hour drive from Kangding, across the Tibetan Plateau. The temple has a nearly 1,000-year history and was built in reference to the formidable Mt. Yala (19,000 ft) rising just beyond. The Buddhist monastery includes a school, and the photos of men cooking were taken inside the monastery “kitchen”. The Himalayan range stretches right into this region—I won’t feel deprived if I never get to Lhasa.

The most incongruous sights in this remote area were the phone towers that really left blemishes on the open landscape (probably used to spread the word of the westerner with Ebola). We had better cell reception in Tagong than in some places of southern Utah. The trip also included a host of new foodie experiences. Yak was notable. I never need to eat blood tofu again, thank you—I blame it, along with some indiscernible hot pot ingredients, for my illness. As the meats were plunking into our Kangding hot pot, our Chinese and Tibetan guides launched into an unsettling conversation about identifying meat in China—the talk moved quickly to a competition about who had eaten various rodents, including rats, (I could only compete with squirrels—an homage to that kid in my 7th grade Home Ec class). Yum.

Although we did not fly into Kanding, we did get to fly out. Even with the stomach bug, this was a 5-Star trip.


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