So this is how Tibetans survive the darkened boredom of bitter, unrelenting winters. I watched a 70-80 year old man harvesting a couple towering plants growing in downtown Kangding, Sichuan Province, China. I am sure these shrub like weeds are used for a variety of purposes, its edible seeds, making rope, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from large yak populations, or as ground cover for erosion prevention.
Some things you can find out about Kangding County, China from the internet. It is home to Kangding, a ‘quaint’ Chinese town of 100,00 people and the capital of communistically named Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The internet will tell you that Kangding was for centuries an important trading town to which underpaid coolie laborers lugged massive loads of brick tea up and up and up from Chengdu, 200 kilometers to the north-northeast, to trade for Tibetan wool. A search for Kangding County will lead to Zhilam Hostel (which is probably the best hostel in Kangding, and highly recommended by this author), and to lists of mountains, elevations, regional ethnic histories, and available activities.
What the internet can’t communicate effectively is the sheer mindblowing geographical vastness of the place. I can tell you (right here, via the internet) that transportation is often contingent upon weather and road conditions, but its impossible to know if you’ll end up snagging a ride with any local drivers so brave/foolish/spiritually assured they’re willing to simultaneously pass multiple vehicles uphill around curves in unlit, unpaved tunnels. One of my drivers possessed enough ambition to barrel past a line of trucks in the outside lane on a curve above a 200 meter precipice – in whiteout fog conditions. The internet can tell you that Kangding County is at the extreme eastern edge of what is customarily considered Tibet, at the foot of the Himalayas and the true Tibetan Plateau. But it would hard for me to fully explain what its like to stare out at an ocean of grass and rivers and young peaks that tower over their middle-aged American counterparts and feel pleasantly, justifiably unimportant. It is positively Stegnerian in its unbroken emptiness, if you’ll permit my application of an Amero-centric adjective to an ethnic and geographical area entirely different from the Western United States.
I encourage you to seize upon any opportunity you might have to visit the Tibet regions of Southwest China. I barely touched the edge, escaping just a few bus rides from the megacity provincial capitol of Chengdu and it was spectacular. An 8-12 hour bus ride from Chengdu (depending on traffic delays) gets you to Kangding and from there the opportunities for backcountry, off-the-grid, yak derived foodstuffs, giant mountain adventuring multiply to seemingly infinite dimensions. TaGong, DanBa, Litang – theres a long list of places you can head to from Kangding, all worthwhile, all small, tucked into the phenomenal landscapes beside rivers. Homestays with nomadic herders are popular, as is hiking, and for the truly hardcore there are plenty of peaks available for bagging. Just go and wander around for a few weeks if you get the chance, and remember, from Kangding west it only gets better.