Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong Pt 2

In all my years of travel, no other land has touched me more deeply than Tibet. And it’s easy to see why travellers are so enamoured of this part of the world. Few destinations can compare to the majestic snow-capped mountains, the cold Himalayan weather, the grasslands, the people, their religion, and the fiercely individualistic nature of their ethnicity, never mind the fact that China has always maintained that Tibet has always been part of China … and always will be.

Life is held in high regard here, as would be expected of a people who believe that in their next life, they could come back as an ant or, if the heavens should so ordain, a Dalai Lama. The chase for good karma is a never-ending one, and one can never accumulate too much of it. It also explains why serious crime is uncommon here.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more days to spend here. If I did, I would have travelled further inland and perhaps, try to wrangle my way into a Tibetan home to stay a night, preferably a nomadic family living out on the open grassland in a tent made of spun yak hair. I had seen one of these in Tagong, but it was on the other side of a long fence.

Tibetans are distinctly unique in the way they look, talk and dress, so people-watching is a great pastime here. But of all the Tibetans I have met, none was more captivating than the woman who manned the public toilet in Tagong’s town square. She would sit all day outside the WC (that’s ‘water closet’ to the uninitiated of this rather archaic term in the British lexicon), as proclaimed in big bold letters in red.

As I observed her (the toilet is not far from Snowland GH), she would move from her perch in the sun to the entrance of the toilet and back again. I gestured to her that I wanted to shoot her portrait but, as is usual with such situations, she made the universal sign for mullah, rubbing her thumb and forefinger at me. I obliged.

Her deeply tanned face was beautifully wrinkled with lines that told a thousand stories, and her rheumy eyes were a striking contrast to her well-cared for teeth, still intact and of good colour despite her years. Her face so struck me that I could only wonder at her life. In spite of her lowly occupation, she looked very dignified.

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A great pun if ever there was one...

This was another beautiful specimen of a Tibetan woman that I came across in the monastery. Her clothes and demeanour seem to suggest a higher station in society.

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Here, she’s with her daughter who, going by what I saw in town, was clearly the most well-dressed woman around.

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Never one to waste a good sunning opportunity, Sally Kham (left) and a friend warm themselves outside the GH.

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Might as well boil some water while we’re at it. These solar contraptions are quite amazing.

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The old dude wasn’t waving a hello, he was telling me to sod off and not take their picture.  Some Tibetans are not particularly happy when a tourist points a camera at them, so sometimes I would do the next best thing — shoot from the hip while looking the other way.

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The new generation Tibetan. There was nothing traditional about him, including the round boom box behind the seat. They would ride around with music blaring at full blast, making a racket, and a nuisance of themselves.

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A friend of Sally’s dropped by for a chat and was surprisingly quite accommodating when I pointed my camera at her

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Laghang monastery was next on the list of things to see. Despite the 20Y entrance fee, it was worth it. The main courtyard was a little messy — they were carrying out some renovations, adding on more buildings to the complex. I climbed up the steps to the main hall and entered a totally different world. My objective was the main prayer hall, the inner sanctum of the monastery. Cameras, unfortunately, were only allowed into the smaller halls and not the main sanctuary where it was the most striking in its colours and experience. So, I’ll try to describe what I see …

As I pushed aside the curtain, I walked over the threshold and entered a kind of ante-chamber. Here, there were 3 devotees doing their Tibetan Buddhist thing. First, they would stretch their hands straight up above their head; then they would get down on their knees and stretch their bodies forward, prostrating themselves fully on the floor. Then they would raise themselves up to their knees again, in reverse, stand up, stretch their arms up in the air, and repeat the entire action — again and again and again, for Buddha knows for how many times.

As I tore myself away from this riveting spectacle, I stepped into the main sanctuary. I was immediately engulfed by warm air, laced with the unmistakeable scent of yak fat which was the main source of fuel for the hundreds of burning candles and oil lamps. The place was dimly lighted by the warm glow of these lamps. It was beautiful. I had never experienced anything like this, and it was quite surreal. All around were every imaginable likeness of figures of Tibetan Buddism, many of which were unrecoqnisable to me.

On the main altar, a huge figure of Buddha loomed over the hall, and here and there monks were about their duties. Something else captivated me as well — Yuan notes stuffed into nooks and crannies everywhere, not just the offering boxes. There was a small fortune here… multiply that by the days of the week, month and year and it could come up to a pretty penny.

The exterior of Laghang monastery

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The main courtyard. The building on the left seems to be newly built.

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The main entrance to the main hall. Notice the black curtains..

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One of the smaller halls where cameras are allowed. The intricate designs and colours are mind-boggling.

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A lot of effort went into the buidling of this monastery. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

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Truly, the yak is indispensable. No other type of fuel will do except yak fat.

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Look carefully and you can spot the Yuan notes stuffed here and there.

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As I walked around exploring the monastery’s many outhouses, I was floored by this sign, or rather, the huge word on it. ‘Reliquary’, according to Mr Collins, is a ‘ receptacle or repository for relics, especially relics of saints’. Never thought I’d improve my vocabulary in a Tibetan monastery.

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Tomorrow, I make my way to Luding, a very Chinese town straddling the banks of Daduhe. Of course, I won’t be riding all the way. There’s a massive 4,300m pass to to cross, which I’m told, is very, very cold, and this was from  from Sally’s mom. Hearing this, I did not hesitate to ask Sally about public transport to Kangding. Sally was an angel, promptly arranging a seat for me in a van going to Kangding the next day. Kangding is 97 kms away from Tagong, and 54 kms away from Luding, most of which will be downhill. Just the ticket, as there was no way I could keep to my schedule otherwise.

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Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong, Pt 1

Tagong is cold.

Daytime temperatures hover between 15-20°, and at night it drops to below 10, so understandably, not many people wander around at night. The wind blows constantly throughout the day; sometimes it’s gusty but mostly it’s just light breezes. Regardless, the wind is always cold. But, in spite of it, I really like this town; it’s as Tibetan as they come, which is something I’ve been looking forward to experiencing as a cycle-tourer.

I’m not leaving town today, so I take it easy. In any case, it’s a bit of a struggle trying to crawl out of a warm bed when the morning air is sharp, crisp and oh-so-chilly.

Sally’s mother is there waiting for me as I make my way to the dining room. Since I’m in Tibet, it’s only appropriate that I eat something Tibetan, so I ask for the barley pancake that was in the menu. She’s also having her own breakfast so I decid to join her. She is making her own breakfast of tsampa (barley flour mixed with tea and also yak milk, I think), yak cheese and bread.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and its surrounds. I especially enjoyed walking up a small hillock just on the edge of town, giving me a clear view of Tagong and beyond (see video below). I considered hiking up the other hill behind the town, the one bedecked with thousands of prayer flags arranged in a triangle but thought better of it. Even this small little hill had left me a bit breathless. The oxygen level, though not as thin as at the high passes, was thin enough to discourage lowlanders like me to go hiking.

Another very encouraging aspect of this town is the lack of tourists; something the locals lament … not that I’m complaining. Along the main street, almost every pedestrian, motorcyclist and driver was a Tibetan, including a few deeply tanned and tough looking specimens complete with gold teeth, ear-rings, high boots and one side of a long sleeve hanging by the side. No wonder this part of the world is sometimes referred to as the Tibetan wild west, what with the huge expanse of grasslands where the only real way to get around is by horse.

Note: Tibetan jackets feature really long sleeves, a design that does away with gloves. When it’s not as cold, they simply let one of the sleeves hang out, allowing one arm full freedom of movement.

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Sally Kham’s mother having her own breakfast after serving me mine (the piece of barley flour pancake in the foreground).

The bowl on the left is the barley flour. Tea is added slowly to make it a sort of soft dough and is eaten plain. The curly thing on the piece of bread is yak cheese. She gave me a bit to try … it was stringy and tasted sourish.


The view of Tagong town from the hillock. On the right is Laghang monastery. Facing the top left corner of the monastery walls is Snowland GH.


From the top of the hill I was on, a steel cable stretches across all the way to the hill on the other side, holding  hundreds of flags flapping and releasing the prayers inscribed on it to the wind.


(click to see full-sized pic)

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I couldn’t quite make out these slabs engraved with what must be prayers. They were piled up on top of the hill.


A chorten, a Tibetan stupa, stands majestically on this hilltop.


(click to see full-sized pic) An inspiring sight — in the foreground is the famous Nyingmapa monastery built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to commemorate the Han Princess Wencheng’s visit. If you look carefully, the 4 small towers in each corner sport a different colour each — green, red, yellow and white. Lining one side of the wall are 100 chortens (close-up below). The white peak far off in the background is the 5,800 metre Mt Yala, covered in snow all year round. It’s also the source of the Yala River which flows down to meet the Dadu River, which I had already crossed at Danba.

Video: 360° view of Tagong and its surrounds. You can hear the wind blowing in the background.

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Prayer wheels line one entire wall of the Laghang monastery. As the faithful laity walks around it, they chalk up more merit by spinning these wheels.

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Takes quite a bit of effort to get these wheels rolling. Naturally, the lubrication of choice is Yak fat.

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One of Tagong’s hotel/restaurant. This one is facing the town square. The chef seems to be sunning himself in between customers.

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It doesn’t look like much but that stuff on the floor is caterpillar fungus or yartsa in Tibetan. Worth its weight in gold, I was told the best quality yartsa can command up to USD18,000 a kilo! Crazy, when you think that it’s just dried mummified caterpillars unlucky enough to be attacked by some microscopic fungus. The ones in the box are already brushed clean while the newly picked ones are on the floor. No prizes for guessing which country is the biggest market for yartsa.

Here’s what wikipedia says about these expensive worms. Fascinating stuff::

In Tibetan, it is known as དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་ yartsa gunbu [Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu, “summer herb winter worm”], which is the source of the Nepali यार्शागुम्बा, yarshagumba, yarchagumba. The transliteration in Bhutan is Yartsa Guenboob. It is also known as keera jhar or keeda ghas in India. Its name in Chinese dong chong xia cao (冬虫夏草) means “winter worm, summer grass” (i.e., “worm in the winter, [turns to] plant in the summer”). The Chinese name is a literal translation of the original Tibetan name, which was first recorded in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje. In colloquial Tibetan Yartsa gunbu is often shortened to simply “bu” or “yartsa”.

The caterpillars prone to infection by the fungus live underground in alpine grass and shrublands on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,000 ft). Spending up to five years underground before pupating, the caterpillar is attacked while feeding on roots. The fungus invades the body of the Thitarodes caterpillars, filling its entire body cavity with mycelia and eventually killing and mummifying it. The caterpillars die near the tops of their burrows. The dark brown to black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in spring or early summer, always growing out of the forehead of the caterpillar. The long, usually columnar fruiting body reaches 5–15 cm above the surface and releases spores.

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A vendor with only 3 articles of (fly swatter?) for sale — it can’t be anything else except yak or horsehair.


Nice hat. Exclusively for use by Tibetan monks.


Dusty main street, Tagong.


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Butt crack! The ubiquitous split baby pants are everywhere. This little fella has got to feel the cold wind biting his butt.


Off to hard labour. Those stones look pretty hefty to me.

More about Tagong in pt 2…