November 10th I had three friends arrive in Xining who wanted to check out some nomad areas in the northern Kham region of Tibet. I had been planning this short trip with them for over a month and was very excited. Anytime I can get off the beaten paths across Tibet makes me happy. I had arranged to rent a car (a Hong Qi...an Audi rip-off that is made in China) from a company in Xining. Since I have a Chinese driver's license I am able to rent cars without any problems. I took along a good Tibetan friend of mine on the trip named Sonam Gonpo (aka "Bill"). Bill comes from Nangchen on his mother's side and from Trindo on his father's side. Since my Tibetan is far from fluent, Bill would act as our translator among the nomad families we would be visiting. Bill can speak his native language of Kham Tibetan, but also speaks Chinese fluently and his Amdo Tibetan and English aren't too bad either.
On November 11th around 10:30am we began our trip. Since my three friends from back home (Rima, Patrick and Adriel) weren't acclimatized to the altitude, we decided to take two days to drive down to Jyekundo, the capital town of Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture. The drive down would take us to just about 5000m in a couple of different places, so taking time to properly acclimatize was important. The drive south was full of adventures. Only about 30 minutes west of Xining there was a rockslide that came down and buried 3/4 of the 4-lane highway. An army 4WD vehicle was badly damaged in the rockslide. The road was covered in huge boulders. We safely navigated our way through the rocks being thankful that we weren't there when the slide actually happened.
Ninety-five kilometers southwest of Xining we reached the 3400m/11,152ft Sun Moon Mountain Pass (Nyima Dawa La in Tibetan). This mountain pass is considered the cultural border of Tibet and China to many Tibetan people. The Tibetan side of the pass is quite different from the Chinese side. Farmlands turn into grasslands full of yaks. Ni Hao (Hello in Chinese) is replaced with Cho De Mo (a typical gretting in Amdo Tibetan). Milk tea or butter tea is served instead of green tea. To the Chinese this is Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. To the Tibetans this Amdo province, Tibet. We stopped for a few minutes at the top of the pass to gaze on the grasslands of Amdo.
From the pass we continued to head south to the small Tibetan town of Tsigorthang. Tsigorthang (Xinghai in Chinese) sits at 3300m/10825 ft so it would serve as a good place to spend the night before crossing the 5000m passes the next day. We found a decent hotel for Y25/$3 a person. The hotel had heat which was important since night time temperatures here got down to around -13C/8F. We found a decent Chinese restaurant and had an early dinner before exploring the town. Not many foreigners make it to Tsigorthang so we were stared at plenty by the locals. A lot of nomads were in the town buying supplies. We walked through a local market that sells a lot of nomad supplies and literally everyone stopped to look at us. There is a small monastery on the outskirts of town so we made our way over there. I have been to countless monasteries across Tibet so I was fairly unimpressed with it. There were quite a few local Tibetans walking around the large stupa in front of the monastery chanting the classic Tibetan prayer "Om Mani Padme Hum". We went to bed early since we had a long day ahead of us.
We left around 8am the next day. The sunrise was beautiful as it rose above the snow-capped Amnye Machen range. It was cold, but we were happy to be on our way. About an hour after we left we came across a family of Amdo Tibetan nomads. We stopped and they happily greeted us. They allowed us to take a lot of pictures and to freely walk around their camp. They had around 120 sheep and at least 50 yaks. They lived in 4 tents that were set up close to each other. All together there
were around 12 people living in these 4 tents. Since it was still early, they had yet to take their sheep and yak out to graze. We stayed with the family for around a half an hour before getting back on the road.
After we left, the nice paved road turned into a not-so-good dirt road that lasted for about 45km/28 miles. Not far into it we not only blew a tire, but the muffler fell off. We quickly changed the flat tire, but fixing the muffler was a bit more difficult. We had no wire or anything to tie the muffler back on. Someone found a shoe string to use, but it only held the muffler for about 10 minutes before it fell off again. After it fell off the second time, we found some wire and Adriel crawled under the car and tied the muffler up again. When we reached the next town (over 90 minutes away) we found a mechanic who fixed the muffler and patched up our blown tire. He charged us Y50/$6 which I thought wasn't too bad for an hour's work. After eating some disgusting noodles, we were back on our way.
After the 45km stretch of dirt road, the road became paved again so driving went by fast. We quickly cruised through the Amdo region of Tibet to the Bayan Kala mountain pass. There were three signs listing the elevation for the pass and all three were different. My altimeter read 4950m/16,236ft which was in the middle of the three elevations listed. This pass marks the border between Amdo and Kham. North of the pass is Amdo. South is Kham. We stopped there to take some pictures of the pass and the view from the top.
From the pass the road barely drops in elevation. Most of the highway through here sits at around 4500m/14,760ft. We found a nomad family camped alongside the road so we stopped for a visit. The men were actually out working. The mom and daughter were left at the tent to work. I walked in their black yak hair tent. The top flap of the tent was open to allow the warm sunshine in. The outside temperature at 4500m on the northern Tibetan Plateau was cold, but the bright sun made it feel a lot warmer. A couple of us sat down and the women poured some yak milk tea for us and offered us some food. We politely declined the food, but drank the tea. Using Bill as a translator, I asked the family a few questions. They were nomads from the Domda area of Trindo county in northern Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture. They weren't rich, but weren't poor either. They owned around 70 yaks. The young woman was 18 and had never attended school in her life. Her family had never even traveled to the prefecture capital of Jyekundo. The two women let us take a
lot of great pictures and we thanked them many times for their hospitality and kindness. I told them that I would bring them a copy of the pictures I took next spring. I look forward to meeting them again at that time.
From there we continued our journey south. Just outside the small town of Domda (Qingshui He in Chinese) we came across another nomad family. This family was actually related to our Tibetan companion Bill. We were all getting tired and is was getting dark so we didn't stay too long. We were all looking forward to getting to Jyekundo and eating some decent food.
At around 7:30pm we pulled into Jyekundo. We stopped into a new guesthouse on the edge of town and then went out to eat. Since Jyekundo is a big town, there are lots of good restaurants and we were all very hungry after a long day of traveling.
We spent the next two days hiking around the areas around Jyekundo. We drove out to the Batang sky burial site and then up to the Princess Wencheng Temple. From there we drove about an hour or so out a dirt road leading to the Lheba area. We almost didn't make it since we had to cross a small river. We took it nice and slow and made our way across. I had met a nomad family in this area earlier in the summer and I was hoping that they would still be there. They weren't. There was no trace of them. We parked the car and decided to hike up a small "hill". Our car was parked at an elevation of 4600m/15,088ft. We hiked up the "hill" and were rewarded with an awesome panoramic view of the mountains. The elevation at the top of our "hill" was around 4800m/15,744ft. The wind was blowing hard at the top which caused the air to be freezing cold.
After our time in Jyekundo, we went north to the nomadic county of Trindo. It was only 126km/79 miles so we made it into town around noon. Bill's father's family is from this area so he knew many people. He took us over to his uncle's house were we stayed that night. The county town of Trindo is a small, quiet town. Like most Tibetan towns, there was an outdoor pool hall in the middle of town. We stopped and played some pool for a while before walking around town. There is a small Sakya monastery in town that we walked around. I have two good Tibetan friends who work as elementary teachers in the county town. One of them invited us to the school. All of the students went crazy when they saw us! They were all so excited to have foreigners visiting their school. The four of us split up and each taught a 45 minute English class. It was a great time!
After our class, we went to visit some of Bill's relatives who were nomads. They lived about 20 minutes outside of the county town on a dirt road high up in a valley. Bill's older brother lived there along with Bill's grandma and one of his uncles. Together the family owned 140 yaks. Bill hadn't seen his grandma in over 5 years. When we pulled up his grandma came out of the house. She had no idea who we were. We all walked toward her house including Bill. At first Bill's grandma didn't recognize him. Then she realized who he was. She grabbed him and began to kiss him on his forehead, cheeks and lips. She then began to cry. It had been five long years since she had seen her grandson. Bill was a bit embarrassed, but understood why his grandma was so happy. We spent the
next several hours hanging out with different members of Bill's family. They gave us fresh yak milk basically straight from the udder (tasted a lot like yak meat). The family changed into their best clothes and let us take pictures of them. The yaks were all high up on the mountain. Later that evening they were brought down and tied up. When the yaks are brought down, everyone in the family helps with tying them up for the night. Bill's uncle brought out a bigger yak for us to take turns riding. It's always a lot of fun riding a yak!!
After spending several hours with Bill's nomad relatives we had to leave. Bill and his grandma said goodbye in a very traditional way...by pressing their foreheads together. Tibetans are very close with their relatives. We were all a bit sad to see Bill say goodbye to some relatives he probably won't see again for quite some time. From there we went back to Bill's uncle's house in the county town.
When we arrived the family was busy cooking dinner for us. Dinner was simple...some noodles with yak meat and vegetables. We were all exhauseted so after dinner we went to bed.
The next morning we started out early for Mado. Mado is 275km/172 miles north of Trindo and is actually in Amdo. We stopped and visited another Kham Tibetan nomad family near the border between Kham and Amdo. This family was very poor. They owned only 7 yaks and no sheep. For nomads this is extreme poverty. Even though the family was so poor, they invited me and Adriel in for some yak milk tea. They pulled out some mats for us to sit on and we spent some time relaxing with them. After we finished our tea, we were on our way.
The part of the northern Plateau we were driving through is all above 4200m / 13,776ft so it is cold even in the summer. As we got close to Mado we came across two young Amdo Tibetan boys herding their sheep. They weren't too far off the road so Bill and I made our way over to them. I had Bill ask them how old they were. Both of them answered that they had no idea how old they were. It is very common for Tibetan nomads to not know their birthday. In Tibetan culture, birthdays are not observed. I have met many Tibetan nomads over the past few years who don't have a clue when their birthday is or even how old they really are. These two boys were herding their sheep with their big dog by their side. The older boy held the dog by the thick chain around it's neck. They let us take a couple of pictures and then we were on our way to Mado.
Mado is one of the highest towns on the far northern Tibetan Plateau. It sits at 4300m / 14,104ft and is more north than any town on the Changtang. It freezes here close to 300 days a year. When we arrived at 2 in the afternoon it was around -9C/16F with winds close to 50kph/32mph. I have no idea what that put the windchill at, but it was cold. Almost unbearable. That night it got down to almost -18C/0F. That evening around 8pm, Patrick and I went for a walk. We didn't walk far because of the cold. We peaked our head into a restaurant and saw a bunch of nomads sitting around a coal stove. We decided to get out of the cold and join them. The waitress quickly brought us a cup of salty tea. We spent the next 45 minutes hanging out with a group of tough Amdo nomads.
The next day we drove the rest of the way back to Xining. About 3 hours before Xining I hit a big pothole and blew a front strut (shock). That made driving the rest of the way very difficult. The car was wanting to go all over the road. Around 3pm we finally pulled into town. All of us were exhausted and were either sick or just getting over being sick (3 of us came down with giardia). Even though we were only gone 7 days, we all had a great time. In total we met with five Tibetan nomad families. Those three people from my hometown who traveled with me may not be back in Tibet ever again, but I am sure they will never forget those 7 days. This was just another of many great trips I have had through Tibet.