Bordering the land of snows
Due to a lack of both, money and time couldn’t enter Tibet proper this time, as we had neither the time nor the money to purchase the special entry permit and required tour to obtain it. Fortunately there are still vast territories in other Chinese provinces where Tibet is alive in anything but the name. It’s the former Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo, located in today’s provinces of Sìchuān, Gānsù and Qīnghǎi.
Our Tibetan route stretched across the track from Chéngdū to Lánzhōu, Gānsù’s provincial capital, passing through the small towns of Sōngpān, Zoigê, Lángmùsì and Hézuò. It led us onto the Amdo plateau, with the highest point of our route at 3900 meters altitude – and yes, even seated in a bus we had some trouble breathing.
Driving more and more up into the mountains, temperatures began to drop, the air became thinner, but fresher – our first moments in China without air pollution. The weather became more and more capricious and unpredictable: if at one moment we were driving through radiant sunshine under a blue sky, behind the next hill dark skies awaited us and few kilometers further, the river was still frozen and the grasslands covered with snow.
For the first time China we experienced something we then felt we had been arduously looking for, but didn’t find during the previous week: emptiness. Wide, deserted land without any construction crane of half-finished bridge pillars. Further we got, more and more the hills framing the routes were decorated with hundreds of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, many of them washed out from rain and sunshine and tattered by the strong mountain winds. We learned during our stay in Lángmùsì, that prayer flags, have always to be hung at the highest possible point of the surroundings, so that the wind would take away the pleas pronounced by the person hanging them. The flags may never be removed, but only be accompanied by a new one hung next to it – which explains why many hill tops on our Tibetan route resembled a mountain of tatters.
Once entering the grassland plateau, the streets were lined with herds of hundreds upon hundreds of Yaks, the Himalaya equivalent of a European milk cow for Tibetans. They produce butter and yoghurt from Yak milk, use Yak hair to make the tarpaulins of their summer tents, dry their meat to preserve it during the whole winter and eat it in the soup and sell them if there is need for money.
The yaks grazing on the planes and hills around us were so many that they from far away they appeared like ants. We had seen some individual Yaks grazing on the mountains around Sōngpān and had already been preparing ourselves for a steep ascend in order to get a closer glimpse on them. Fortunately, we had our marvelous gusthouse host, who told us with a big smile and some very excentric gestures: “No necessary, when you drive to Lángmùsì, everywhere you look: Yak!… Yak!…Yak!” – and it wasn’t an exaggeration. But we didn’t get tired of seeing them and even after the ten days we spent in Amdo, we were still delighted about the scenery each time we got out on the grasslands.
Not as numerous, but also a very emblematic sight along the road were small colonies of nomads’ tents or minuscule villages of nomads’ winter houses, traditionally built of a mixture of hay, adobe and red bricks.
Deeper we penetrated into the highlands, more we felt as if we entered another world, a world from another century, far away from the explosiveness of modern China – and if it wasn’t for the omnipresent electric cable towers encompassing the grassland areas like giant cobwebs, and the new, spotless highway we were rolling on, one could certainly maintain this romantic image – as long as kept far from the cities and villages, where cranes, dump trucks and drilling machines re-emerged.
Besides the villages we were heading at to visit, we had to stop twice in cities on the road to change buses, in Zoigê and Hézuò. Both not particularly appealing places from the plain city point of view. For us, Zoigê, a city surrounded by nomads’ territories in the middle of the grasslands, was however a very impressive first contact with Tibetan highland street picture, marked particularly by very distinct clothing of the locals. Women in long dresses, the heads covered by scarves and, the most remarkable piece, the traditional Tibetan wool coat, wrapped around the wearers body with a piece of patterned red tissue. This piece of clothing would save our health during a very icy night on the grasslands, only some days after we first saw it and were wondering whether this heavy, uncomfortably looking wrap of tissue was actually useful… it is, very much so!