In mid-July, my family and I set out on a 1 month, 5000 kilometer adventure through the Kham and Amdo regions of Tibet. This was a trip that we had been planning since shortly after the April 14th Yushu Earthquake. After putting a lot of time and effort into putting together a great itinerary, we set out in our own 4WD vehicle. From Xining, we headed out for the monastery town of Xiahe, known as Labrang in Tibetan. From Xining ཟི་ལིང་ to Labrang བླ་བྲང་ is about 225kms on relatively good roads. The drive only took about 4 hours and went through some great nomadic grasslands. There were many hundreds of nomad tents on the Gangya grasslands that lie on the Qinghai-Gansu border. The yaks and sheep were so numerous that they were impossible to count.
While in Labrang, we stayed at the Overseas Tibetan Hotel, which is owned by our friend Tsering Losang. We have been to Labrang many, many times over the years, but we still enjoy going there and walking around the massive monastery. Hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims were walking the 3 kilometer long kora that goes all around the outside of the monastery. Many were prostrating while nearly everyone was chanting mantras.
After just 1 night in Labrang, we drove 190kms south to Taktsang Lhamo. We took a short detour to the Amchok grasslands, located about 1 hour south of Labrang, to visit a good friend of ours named Dorje and his family. Dorje's father was recently killed in a car accident so we wanted to have a meal with him and see if there was anything we could do for the family. In traditional Tibetan hospitality, the family cooked us a great lunch of yak meat momo's, fresh yogurt and plenty of milk tea. After spending a few hours with Dorje and his family, we were back on our way to Taktsang Lhamo སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་, known as Langmusi in Chinese.
Taktsang Lhamo, which straddles the border of Gansu and Sichuan, sits at 3200m and lies in a partially wooded valley with 2 large monasteries close by. The area offers amazing hiking as well as horse trekking. We stayed at the Langmusi Hotel, which is owned by our good friend Kelsang. Kelsang is also the co-owner of the Langmusi Horse Trekking company. Early the next morning, I went on a hike up the valley behind the Sichuan side monastery. The mountains were amazing and there were a couple of nomad families camped far up the valley.
After 1 night in Taktsang Lhamo, we continued south to Tangkor ཐང་སྐོར་. Tangkor is 120kms southwest of Taktsang Lhamo in western Zoige / Ruo'ergai county in far northern Sichuan. The Tangkor grasslands , elevation 3400m, are arguably the most beautiful in all of Amdo and are full of nomads and yaks. Our friend Sonam lives in a remote, quiet corner of the Tangkor grasslands and he invited us to camp with him and his family for a couple of nights. We found a soft patch of grass to set up our tent. The grasslands were an undescribable shade of green while the skies were so blue that they didn't look real.
Our two boys, Tsering age 3 1/2 and Norbu who is almost 2, had a great time running around the large expanse of grasslands. They have been around a fair amount of yaks in the past, but still had a great time seeing them up close. They rode horses and had a fun time playing in Sonam's black yak wool tent. We ate plenty of yak meat, tsamba and of course, drank more than our fill of milk tea.
Our two nights on the Tangkor grasslands were amazing. Living among Tibetan nomads for even a short time gives you a real appreciation for their toughness and a real respect for their difficult lifestyle. Early on day 5 of our trip, we set out from Tangkor to Barkham, known as Ma'erkang in Chinese. About 70kms south of Tangkor, we stopped in Hongyuan and met our friend Namchen for lunch. He informed us that the main road to Barkham འབར་ཁམས་ was closed for repairs and would not be open again for at least 2 days.This left us two options: wait it out or take a detour through a 100km stretch of extremely rough road. We choose to take the detour.
The detour was extremely rough. It took us over 7 hours to cover the 100kms or so. There was heavy rain for most of the drive and the "road" was very narrow and full of deep potholes. Much of the way followed the route of the river which meant that one wrong move would put us 50m to 100m into the fast flowing currents. It was a very bone-jarring experience taking the detour, but the scenery was some of the best I had ever seen in Amdo.
The area in and around Barkham is historically referred to as Gyarong རྒྱལ་རོང་. The Gyarong region speaks its own unique dialect of Tibetan that is not understood by either the Amdo or Kham people that live in the general area. Their style of dress is also unique. Their houses are massive and are built of stone. They rise 3 or 4 stories high and are some of the biggest homes I have ever seen among Tibetan people. Finally, after driving all day long, we finally arrived in Barkham at around 10pm. We stayed at the 5 star Gyarong International Hotel. This hotel was a huge surprise as it had a large Western quality room and had internet and a decent breakfast. It was by far the best hotel we stayed in on the trip.
The next morning we spent several hours exploring the streets of Barkham. Barkham is quite nice and I am surprised that it is not listed in more guidebooks. It lies along a river in a valley at 2600m above sea level. I found an ATM there that accepted a foreign ATM card which also surprised me. After lunch, we set off to Danba, which was 185kms away. The road was quite good in some spots, but as we got closer to Danba, known as Rongtrak in Tibetan, the road became worse. After about 4 hours of driving, we arrirved in town. Later that day, we heard that a bus from Chengdu crashed into the river near Danba and at least 10 people were killed.
Danba was a very spectacular area. It is actually quite low lying being at only 1875m. The area, also inhabited by Gyarong Tibetans, is stunning with huge castle-like houses everywhere with tall watchtowers spread out across the region. There are few yaks in this area as most of the Tibetans here are farmers who grow corn and barley. While in Danba, we stayed at the Zha Xi Zhuo Kang Hotel which had clean double rooms with attached bathrooms for Y80...a very good price!
Through the first 7 days of the trip we covered a little over 1000kms from Xining to Danba. We took our time for the most part and saw the area in detail. The roads were not always so good which made for some longer-than-expected days, but overall the first week of our trip was awesome!
This is the first of 4 posts on our 1 month trip through Kham and Amdo.