Ascending on the Tibetan plateau towards Tagong, everything we’ve seen of China changes. There are two ways to get the one-road town in the grasslands, and we choose the higher of the two, pushing from 4000 to 4400 meters (14,400 ft) --up as far as we’ve ever been. This high up the whole world is compacted: the clouds, sharper and more defined than I’ve ever seen, loom close and comforting to the earth. Towering over innumerable rounded green mountains the air slips thin but fresh in our lungs; the bikes pump with ambition flying through the highlands. In only half an hour of driving here I can see why the people here find this land so holy. It’s overwhelming beautiful –it feels so close to god. We float past ever-nearing ranges of Snow Mountains, and dip down curves in the grasslands dotted with nomad tents, some black and pressed to the earth, others white and more raised. Bathed in the afternoon sun, I feel so alive.
Tagong itself is a very small place. There’s only one main road and no street lights. The population is about a third monks, a third cowboys, and a third stray dogs. Another third is nomadic. It’s also nestled in the deepest green grasslands the plateau can offer and surrounded by four different major monasteries and nunneries, and a orphanage set up by the living Buddha. It’s a veritable paradise for exploration and thick with Tibetan culture.
After finding a place to stay in Tagong at an extremely nice family guesthouse, we decide to drive into the grasslands. Jie takes a nap next to the bike while I hike up into the hills on a path littered yak skulls and yellow and purple wildflowers. Halfway up I wander through one of the many groupings of prayer flags stuck into the side of the hills, the spaces left between them filled with rocks craved with prayers. Our host, Jya Drolma tells me later that night that people put up these flags because when the wind blows it’s like the prayer is being read. The hillsides of Tagong are literally covered in them. On the ridge directly opposite town they form into small sets of perfect triangles; by the nunnery outside of town where they perform sky burials, they literally cover the entire hillside.
Ascending this high, this fast can have serious consequences too. On the first day we arrive in Tagong Jie begins to feel sick. Twenty minutes later, he’s already throw up and now lying on the bed. I head out to find oxygen bags at the local hospital, unmarked and unstaffed by 6pm. After a couple of aimless calls of “is there anyone here,” the main doctor –one of two doctors in the city— both less than three years older than us, comes out of her room to meet me in a blue navy blue sweatsuit. She fills me three blue and yellow pillows of oxygen and tells me not to worry. “If you need anything, just come back here and yell: Doctor! Doctor!” she says with a smile and a heavy Sichuan accent. When Jie doesn’t seem to be getting better (and severe altitude sickness can be dangerous) I do just that. As I jump the fence to the clinic at midnight the only sounds in town are a chanting session going on on the fourth floor of the building next door. This time both doctors come over to the guesthouse and bring Jie to hospital to do tests of oxygen levels in his blood. Everyone is very relaxed and comforting –maybe they just see this all the time. After it’s clear he’ll be ok, the doctors, owner of the guesthouse and me all take turns using the finger monitor to see what our own oxygen level is. We all laugh and the doctor says goodnight to us, “come back by and say hi!”
Virtually everyone in town seems this caring. When there are earthquake tremors the next night, Jya wakes up all the guests in the house and has everyone come outside in the middle of the night. “We had a big quake last year,” she says, “nobody thought it was a big deal and just stayed inside. By the time it came they couldn’t get out. I just wanted us all to be safe.” The friendliness of her and the other people in Tagong (and Tibet as a whole) is part of what makes this place so great. Jya acts like our Tibetan mother in Tagong. She sees me up one night at 4:45 when she wakes up to go to temple and asks what I’m doing. I say I’m getting ready to go to Kangding, because Jie is sick and he needs to rest; I tell her we’re going to catch the earliest bus. Later that morning, she comes into our room at 9, where we’ve fallen back asleep and wakes me up. “Didn’t you say you’re taking the early bus, what are you doing, you’ve got to get your stuff together and go!”
The other major selling point of Tagong is its connection to nature. Tibetan culture is very close to the outdoors. Nomads roam the hills, camping in spots higher than it looks like you could even walk to, and everywhere along the road you see people in groups of three or four having picnics, often with umbrellas. Life in Tagong is no different. Around the town there are multitudes of opportunities to get out into nature, for a short wal by the river, where it feels like almost every rock and boulder is hand carved with the Om mani padme hum, or for a long multi-day hike in the hills
In Tagong we go on two hikes. The first, I go on my own. It’s a straightforward walk up the first ridge in town and over the grasslands towards the monastic school under the snow mountain. From there you can make your way down the hill to the nunnery (和平法会).
As I come over the hill that overlooks the town in the rear and the snow mountain to the front, Tagong’s grasslands are all laid out in front of me. Closer to town, Tibetan men are leading Han tourists on horse rides while the military (brought here because of worries of unrest) do training drills –all in the same square kilometer of grass. Even if the map I’m given, drawn by coco at Kamba café, doesn’t really seem to make sense, the walk itself is straightforward. Once over a small bridge where oncoming motorcyclists wave to me as they speed by, and nomads jump out of their car to fling rocks a their horses, I cut a path directly towards the school in the distance. Wandering through soft grass lush from recent rains I traverse through flocks of skittish yaks and well-fed horses as curious about me as I am about them. Monks wander the plains in the distance, some driving on a dirt road that I can almost make out in my periphery. I stop often, sometimes just to sit in the grass, one time shaken awake by the alien sound of a plane cruising terribly close; the walk should take three hours but I do it in six.
In the late afternoon I arrive to the monastic school made up of three buildings: classrooms, a temple, and a dorm, all equally as nice. As soon as I enter, a young monk, who turns out to be the same age as me, beckons me over to take a seat with him and his classmates. We begin talking about how I got here, a usual conversation opener in China, and an older worker –a fourth building is under construction—brings us all ice cream. The young monks are less curious about me, but they are very interested in my camera and the xiaoyi camera I’ve brought with me. I show them how to take photos and that you can control the camera with your phone. They love it, especially the youngest monk in the group, a nine year old with good mandarin, who takes tens of pictures of the other monks, the wall, a plane that fly’s by, and records a video that begins with himself picking his nose –- I never got a chance to ask if that was on purpose or not.
As I’m getting ready to go they ask for my wechat (the most popular form of communication in China) and ask me if I’ve been able to get on the internet.
“no,” I mutter “it’s blocked isn’t it...”
“haha me neither,” one of the boys says with a smile as he holds up his phone. “This thing is useless. How much is an iphone in America?”
We don’t really talk about how they got here, but as I walk away I wondering. The guy my age came when he was twenty, and the younger boys have been here since they were ready for school. I keep thinking, what does a monk think about all day? Is it at all similar to what I do? Throughout Tibet I’m wondering, but I always forget to ask.
The second hike we do the four of us all go –Jie, Brendan, Lucas and me. On an overcast afternoon, we drive out to the nunnery on our bikes in search of a trailhead to the lakes that are said to be at the base of the snow mountain. Jya’s son has given me a general path to follow, but he’s also given me a warning “those lakes are said to have been made by a dragon…it’s best to not go in the water, if you disturb the surface it’ll rain for three days.” I ask if any of the other lakes have stories behind them. He tells me that there’s another lake up the hill that is said to be the tears of the wife of Tibet’s greatest warrior.
When we get to the nunnery we don’t really know where to start. A local Tibetan guy says we can park the bikes at his house and he’ll show us they way, but he’s going to charge us. We decline and continue to try on our own; “you’ll never find the road without me,” he yells to us as we drive away. Over the hill we find a beaten path through the grass that looks likely and being to drive on it. Every day in Tibet we see people driving straight through the grasslands, around cliff edges, and literally up mountains all the time. Our bikes don’t seem cut out for it. Jie’s road tires twist like a fish in the grassland mud, and my underpowered 125 can’t make it up the first big incline. We turn the bikes back and decide to put them at a nomad tent where a yellow motorcycle is parked outside. Jie asks later and apparently the motorcycles sold here are tuned for the altitude. I still think there’s a certain amount of difference in skill. Tibet abounds with motorcyclists; it’s by far the vehicle of choice. Boys, monks, and nomads all fly by us on every iteration of paths, wearing long, draping Tibetan cloaks and wrapping everything but their eyes in a scarf to block out the wind, some still donning cowboy hats. Where the motorcycle is cast aside by many as a lesser option in the rest of China, here it reigns supreme. The iron horse of the grasslands. A beast that local Tibetans ride as with life like it was more than machine, swiveling and pulling up over bumps and crags, sliding and sometimes even toppling over sharp downhill’s just to pick back up an continue completely nonchalant. I could spend days just watching how they ride. The wild west of motorcycling.
We find a path and take the hike up a river valley, over a steep mountain ridge. On the other side we’re accosted by the ever-present Tibetan guard dogs that keep watch on the tents that dot the hills, the owner not seeming to be phased by the guttural bark of the mastiff. Up the next incline and it’s starting to rain, the wind is picking up and the altitude, now at 4000+ m, is dragging on our lungs. We decide to stop at the closest nomads’ tent to ask if we can hide from the elements.
Inside are three generations of women, a grandmother, mother and daughter, none of whom speak any mandarin (Tibetans only learn Mandarin in school, and often comment on how my “Han” was so good). We use what Tibetan we have –a simple tashi delek (a greeting something like “best wishes”) seems to go a long way— and they welcome us excitedly, laying down rugs for us to sit on, and starting a fire with brush and cow dung. They boil up water as we all try to string together a conversation, and bring out what turns out to be the ingredients for tsampa : ground barley, yak butter, yak cheese curds, and sugar that you mix with water into a doughy mixture. The ingredients are almost half of what is in the Tibetan diet is: yak meat cooked multiple ways –in noodles, dumplings, or fried—all forms of yak dairy –including some of the best yoghurt we’ve ever had— barley, and wheat. They pantomime how to mix it up and eventually we figure it out. The grandmother, seemingly pleased at our excitement, lets out an “oh yeah,” something we all laugh at and begin to repeat back in agreement, pointing at different things we like: “Oh yeah. Oh yeah.” Later, when we’re in a household with a Tibetan that speaks perfect mandarin, we found out that “oh yeah” is actually a Tibetan phrase, the Chinese equivalent of hao de, meaning “ok,” “yes,” or “good.” We leave them with some money for lunch, and I draw a thank you card for the daughter, who must be about 3 or 4. She’s not impressed. Smiling, we pop back out into the open grassland and push up to the lake.
We don’t stay long at the lake because rain is picking up (not our fault, we didn’t go into the water), but on the way back down we get an unbelievable panorama of Tagong: greys curling in blues as small shafts of light break through, highlighted different parts of the hills. Further down the hill, we’re doused in sun showers as we skid the bikes back across the grass toward the nunnery. As we make it on to the path, the sky changes its mind. A rainbow comes heralding out of the sky in front of the monastic school. I scamper up the side of the mountain the nunnery is on the get a better look and am absolutely overwhelmed. The low sun warms the reds of the nun’s houses as the winds whip prayer flags that stand taller than me.
The sheer beauty of this place is crushing.