yak attack

Many months ago, keen observers of our Flickr page may have noticed our deliberations over the best route to India. Given the expense of our original plan to go through Tibet to Nepal, we threw a whole stack of other options open for consideration.* And consider we did. In fact, we agonised over this question daily for several weeks before eventually deciding to stick with our original route. So we never really viewed China as a destination but, rather, a means to an Indian end. And in a way, this kind of characterised what we loved most about China – the amazing journeys, rather than the destinations themselves. Our meanderings through ethnically-Tibetan Western Sichuan were an awesome way to get from Shangri-la to Chengdu, especially given that we weren’t at all sure whether the area might be closed to tourists, as is has been in the past.

In 2001, the Chinese government rebranded the dusty frontier town of Zhongdian as the much-more-mystical-sounding “Shangri-la” in an effort to drum up tourism. On arrival, we agreed this was a little akin to rebranding Port Hedland as “Atlantis”. Nevertheless, it was our introduction to the Tibetan world and it heralded a few firsts: first sighting of a flock of Tibetan monks, buying chocolate at the supermarket; first genuine fear that the weight of our bodies might compromise the structural integrity of our bed; and our first brush with serious altitude, which left us very thankful for the fleeces hurriedly purchased in Lijiang, despite the fact that the only available XXL was in a bright orange hue which makes Linds look like a freakishly oversized carrot.






The cold weather was all the excuse we needed to up our daily calorie intake, so we religiously ingested a mammoth breakfast at Helen’s each morning, waited upon and entertained by the charming Marco who would not be at all out of place hamming it up on the floor at our beloved Maurizio’s. And we started seeing a lot of yak, both in the fields and on our plates.



October 1 is the National Day holiday in China and this year was a big one, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding the the PRC. As far as we could tell, National Day is not celebrated in any similar fashion to Australia Day, although we did see a group of youths carting a huge bottle of moonshine off to guzzle in the park. We watched some of the huge military parade on TV in the morning, later learning that Beijing was in lockdown for most of the day and that government scientists had chemically altered the weather to ensure that no one rained on their parade. Ha.

A definite highlight was our nightly visit to the square in the old town where locals of all shapes and sizes would turn out in their droves for a bit of Tibetan circle dancing. Apart from being the ultimate in people-watching opportunities, we both found ourselves quite touched by the strong sense of pride and community on display. It’s a special place where skinny jean-clad boys enthusiastically get their groove on alongside their nanas. Linds did a great job humming and shuffling out some steps in the CD store when we wanted to ask about buying the music. Must have been the practice he got pretending to be an elephant when we wanted to go to the elephant park in Lampang.

When the time came for us to leave Shangri-la, we found out the hard way that our alarm clock was running half an hour slow. Chinese buses are prompt, but thankfully not that prompt as the bus had only managed to make it 300m down the road. The ride to Xiangcheng was beautiful although unfortunately, the same could not be said for the town itself. As we followed the guesthouse tout up a dusty road, over a wooden walkway, through a rusty gate, down a gravel path, past a smelly outhouse and through the ground floor/rubbish dump of an unmarked building, we wondered if we were being led into some sort of house of horrors. Instead, we emerged into an Aladdin’s cave of a dorm room with every surface covered in intricate and gilded Tibetan patterns. Beautiful? Yes. Unexpected? Definitely. Waterproof? Uh… no. We were woken around midnight by the sound of dripping water and calls for help from upstairs residents who later had to seek asylum in our room.



Apart from a bootful of water, our stay in Xiangcheng also yielded a fruitful relationship with some Kiwis, James and Betsy, and Yanks, Dan and Brandon. Drawn together by adversity (being refused tickets by the notoriously unhelpful bus lady at 5am – the woman still works with an abacus, for goodness’ sake), the six of us formed a happy, if slightly delirious, travelling party for the next few days as we rattled around in a series of vans.


The first leg to Litang was stunning and we were glad to have the opportunity to pull over at the peak of a 5000m pass to frolic in the snow. Not much of a novelty for the others, but we were like giddy schoolgirls. Nomadic Tibetans surround the area and there was much reciprocal staring between us and some seriously cool-looking people – wild, dreadlocked little urchins; graceful young women with long braids and wide-brimmed hats; burly yak-herds on motorbikes.

Another thing you can’t help but notice in this part of the world is that a lot of Tibetan monasteries are only now just being rebuilt after their destruction in the Cultural Revolution. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the damage done, not just in Tibetan areas but throughout the country. So ersatz antiquity is big business in China.



We knew we were in trouble on the road to Kangding when we realised that the person directing traffic through 19km of roadworks was in fact a 5-year old child. His mother did appear to have the job, but he was the one wearing the high-vis vest and playing with the walkie-talkie. We amused ourselves by observing the antics of a manically-driven little blue truck that we dubbed “Zippy”; repeatedly piling in and out of the van; telling other drivers that they were very silly; and trying out a few choice Chinese phrases such as “laowai mafa” (“foreigners are trouble”). Four hours later we finally rolled into Kangding and scored what must have been the last mattress in town, which all six of us shared on the floor with a lone Chinese cyclist. Thankfully, Kris at the wonderful Zhilam Hostel had a little more space for us the next night. We cocooned ourselves there for the next few days, as Kris fed us like an Italian grandmother and we renewed our visas. Huge props Zhilam – absolutely the best budget accommodation of the trip.



*At one stage, we were going to put all these options out for a popular vote on the blog. On further consideration, we decided against it after realising that our dearest friends would most certainly elect to send us to our deaths along the Karakoram Hwy into Pakistan, just for gags. Or that our mums would rig the vote so that the option of “Other: Come home immediately” enjoyed a landslide victory.


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3 Responses to “yak attack”

  1. Toblerone Says:

    Not just mothers baby.

    Tobys and Sarahs too.

    Or should that be Tobies?


  2. Kris Rubesh Says:

    Thanks for the note. We are in Chicago on a little break. Read through your blogs and great to see your faces again! All the best.


  3. and the winners are… « beyond bagot Says:

    […] on ground – Zhilam Hostel, Kangding We’ve already sung the praises of this place, but it deserves another shout-out. Dare I say it, Kris could charge […]

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