The heart of Sichuan, the grasslands of Tagong

After the mountains of Yading it was time to head further East. We leave our hostel early to catch the bus that will take us to the highlands of inner Sichuan. Our final destination of the day: Tagong, the Buddhist center of the Sichuan province. But first a six-hour bus ride to Xinduqiao. On our way to the bus station we meet some familiar faces, the French guys we met during the bus ride to Daocheng are now heading to Tagong too. They offer us to share their car to the bus station, which we are happy to accept at six in the morning. The bus trip is quite comfortable, once you think away the alcohol breath of the two Chinese men behind us. Straight from the bar into the bus through the mountains, some call it brave, some call it crazy. But nothing an extra bottle of whiskey can’t fix… The scenery is beautiful and it sometimes brings back memories of our time in Mongolia. The green hills, the herders, and the yaks. It looks very similar. The big difference is the architecture, instead of Gers we now see rigid, square Tibetan houses. After a few stops along the way, we stop at the side of the road, apparently we have arrived in Xinduqiao. Here a driver approaches us and he keeps on saying ‘Angela?’. We assume that this is the guy who is supposed to pick us up. We decide to return the favor to our French friends and share our car to Tagong. By the time we arrive in Tagong, the driver wants us to pay for the full car, like discussed with Angela, and wants to charge the boys on top of that. Of course we refuse and after a long debate he gives in and takes us to Angela’s guesthouse, around 11km out of town. Angela is an American woman, who has lived in Sichuan for the last 20 years. She started the popular Khampa Café in Tagong center, but has sold it a few years ago to fulfill a dream of an upmarket eco guesthouse in the valley, where she can be closer to the nomads. We can’t blame her, Tagong is a charming town but the true beauty is in the surrounding grasslands. We drive through a green valley, where we can see some nomads herding yaks and after about 30 minutes the Khampa Nomad Eco Lodge appears. We are welcomed by a small dog that listens to the name Kipper and we find Angela in a big open kitchen. The house is cozy, with a lot of Tibetan influences: a lot of wooden details and Tibetan paintings on the wall and a fantastic open kitchen with a wooden bar. We love it. The guesthouse has four spacious rooms, which are decorated with a lot of eye for detail. From our comfy bed we overlook the valley and the view is truly magnificent. Angela explains us that she designed and built the house herself. We have a really nice bathroom, but the shower is not yet working. But in stead we can shower by heating up water in the sauna in the garden. Yes, a Finnish sauna in remote China, how awesome is that!!!

In the afternoon we decide to go out for a walk and we take the dog with us. The landscape is stunning, but walking is tough, since we are still above 3500 meters altitude. When we arrive back at the house, the smell of Irish Yak stew enters our noses, it smells so good! Before dinner we jump into the sauna/shower and we relax a bit with a Brewdog beer. We discovered this beer in Lijiang and are happy to hear that every day a beer is included in the room rate, together with dinner and breakfast.

After a good night of sleep and a huge breakfast it is time to explore the area by bike. There are two options to reach Tagong. One is the paved road we took with the taxi, the other one is crossing a mountain pass. Why take the easy road? We opt for the scenic route through the mountains. We take two old racing bikes and hit the road. After about half an hour we arrive at the switchbacks that we will have to take in order to reach Tagong. Holy shit, bad call of judgment, there is no way we are able to bike the first part of the switchbacks. The road is very steep and already one tough cookie by foot, let alone by bike. Koen is brave enough to take the two bikes by the hand and we walk uphill. Once we arrive at a less steep part we decide to give it another go, but it remains hard work on the unpaved road on those super thin tires. At the highest part we look at our app and see that we have reached an altitude of 4125 meters. No wonder we are out of breath, we must be crazy to cycle in this part. We still have over 15km ahead of us and we are already 3 hours on our way. Time to start our descent. I find this quite scary, since it is my first time on a racing bike and immediately we have to race downhill over a gravel road. Not my kind of fun, but it is all going well. On our way down we have to stop occasionally to let a herd of Yaks pass by. We notice that the nomadic life in these Sichuan mountains seams a lot harder compared to the Mongolian way of living. Where the gers looked stable and well build, the people here live in fragile tents. Winter must be hard! After descending for about one hour we reach the first outskirts of Tagong. Finally! Hallelujah! We pass a huge Buddhist complex, the university for young monks and after another kilometer downhill we reach the town square. All we now want is something to drink and eat, no sightseeing for us today. We still need to cycle the full 11 km back to Khampa Nomad. On our way back Koen sometimes has to push me like a little child. Fully exhausted we reach the lodge, where Angela is waiting for us outside. Apparently she got worried since we stayed away for so long. It turns out we were the first to do this route, so we explained that the actual distance is longer than she explained about 35 km, in stead of 25km and that it was harder than we expected. Luckily the sauna was hot and steamy so we jumped into the warmth immediately. Inside the lodge the smell of Tashi making his famous vegetable curry promised for a fantastic dinner. The curry, homemade dahl, with yoghurt and cucumber and the fried cauliflower were super delicious. Maybe the best curry we have ever eaten. We were able to sit down and relax, while treating ourselves on a Brewdog beer or two, we deserved it.

In the morning, Vicky, a British girl from Hongkong, offered us a ride to town, so we didn’t had to walk or cycle. Perfect, since our muscles were still a bit sore from the adventure of the day before. In town we enjoy a cup of tea at Himalaya’s and have a chat with the owner about the huge amount of police in town. Sichuan is a region in China where the government feels that they have little influence. They believe the citizens are still loyal to Tibet. Buddhism plays a very important roll in this region and Sichuan has a lot of Tibetan characteristics. Main difference is that in Tibet, there a strict rules for foreigners visiting Tibet, with little freedom to explore. In Sichuan no questions are asked, and maybe this brings you closer to the Tibetan way of living. We spend the afternoon walking around the monastery and watch the villagers turn the praying wheels. Monks are common on the streets of Tagong, due to the academy. You sometimes forget that they are still teenagers, until you spot them wearing sneakers and they pass you by on a skateboard. In the middle of the square a group of old women is observing everything that is going on in town. After buying some fruit it is time to start our hike back to the lodge. The road is super quiet. We got the instructions to walk uphill right after the big white stupa. But by the time we reach the Stupa rain is pooring down and we decide to look for shelter first, before we are completely soaked. Local kids, using the Stupa for shelter as well, are terrified of us. So I decide to hide away my camera, although they are super cute. We turn the praying wheels and pray for better weather. After about 20 minutes the sky clears and we head into the hills. We have to look for the path, which is clearly not used a lot. After some climbing, we reach the top and have a beautiful view over ‘our’ valley. During the day more and more nomadic families moved from the mountains into the valley to prepare for winter. We walk between the yaks, carefully avoiding the dogs guarding the camps. Another great day in Tagong, which we finish with Tibetan Momo’s, a sort of dumplings.

After our fantastic time in the mountains, it was time to move on towards Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. The next stop therefore was Kangding. Angela and here family had to go here as well, which meant that we could share a ride. This city is a transport hub between Chengdu and the mountains or vice versa. This means that it’s a great place to exchange experiences with other travelers. Well, if you are healthy, that is.

This first night that we arrived in Kangding, I got really sick during the night and spend most of the night walking between the bathroom and the bed. Koen did not notice and had a perfect night of sleep. The next day I spend the day in bed and the only thing we did was getting bus tickets to Chengdu for the day after. We can’t say much about Kangding, it surroundings are probably very nice, but we did not see much more than the hostel. The bus to Chengdu left early in the morning and it took us the full day to reach the city. Chengdu is huge, with more than 15 million citizens, it is rightfully the capital of Sichuan. Late in the evening we arrive in our hostel Lazy Bones, a really nice hostel recommended by an Italian couple we met in The Great Wall Box house. The next days in Chengdu we spend walking around town, doing laundry and most importantly trying all of the amazing food in Chengdu. After trying some good restaurants, we decided to book a food tour with Lost Plate to taste the famous streetfood. They take you around town in Tuktuk’s and take you to the best streetfood Sichuan has to offer. We especially loved the famous Sichuan dumplings, all the different noodles and in particular the little pancakes with savoury and sweet fillings. We also had the famous Sichuan Hotpot, but this is something we are not really a fan of. Other dishes have so much more flavour. We liked it so much that on our final day we decided to do the food tour once more on foot and have our favourites on more time. At the end of the day it was time to pack our backs and head to the airport.

Our adventure in China had come to an end. We have fallen in love with this crazy country. The Chinese are in multiple aspects far ahead of Europe. The people are hard workers and even though it has been difficult to communicate with them on most occasions, they were always willing to help us. We will never get used to the spitting and the noise they make during eating. But we loved the authenticity of the people. The country is so big and every region has it’s own characteristics. In order to see more of it, we probably have to travel a full year around China to grasp its size and rich culture completely. So goodbye China for now, off to Indonesia for some Vitamine Sea!

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