Zigong自贡: Dinosaur & Salt City (updated from 2005)

As you approach Zigong, sculptures and posters of dinosaurs announce that you’re arriving in “Dinosaur City”, as the city is known by the Chinese.

Dinosaur Cake Shop In Zigong

Zigong is a pleasant modern city, built along the banks of the Fuxi River that has so far managed to maintain large areas of traditional and interesting architecture, despite its recent development and prosperity.

Besides Dinosaurs, Zigong has an abundance of sites, and is definitely worth spending a couple of days. The city owes its prosperity not so much to dinosaurs, as to salt and, in particular, the important role this product played during Imperial times.

Salt Factory Zigong

The salt mining techniques developed at Zigong were among the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They included Continue reading “Zigong自贡: Dinosaur & Salt City (updated from 2005)”

Luodai 洛带(Hakka Guildhalls and Teahouses 客家会馆与茶馆)

Luodai Old Town

The ancient town of Luodai near the teeming Sichuan capital of Chengdu is a curious place: when one thinks of the Hakka people (Kejia in Chinese, or ‘guests’, also known as China’s gypsies) the first thing that comes to mind are the amazing round or square earth buildings, the Tulou, of Fujian and Jiangxi. Other Hakka claims to fame are the Taiping rebellion, or the Hokien cuisine, which is found in many South East Asian countries.

Hakka Tulou Fujian 客家土楼福建省

What doesn’t normally spring to mind is an impressive collection of Hakka guildhalls in a far- off small town in Sichuan! But that is exactly what Luodai is all about and why I had always wanted to go there.

The Hakka, originally from Hubei Province, suffered discrimination and persecution, and were forced to disperse; Continue reading “Luodai 洛带(Hakka Guildhalls and Teahouses 客家会馆与茶馆)”

Faces of Kangding 康定

Khampa man in Kangding 2004

Faces of Kangding 康定 (2004)

In 2004, having just returned to Kangding from Danba, we were lucky enough to stumble upon a one-off festival aimed at celebrating Tibetan Kham culture and promoting tourism in Western-Sichuan. The streets of Kangding were jammed packed with proud-swaggering Khampas, dressed up to the hilt in their finest clothes. One could easily have imagined that the entire population of these once warrior nomads, had rolled into town off the grasslands. And like in the wild-west of old, many had come in on horseback.

Khampa Lady and baby

With so much going on, nobody paid much attention to me as I used up roll after roll of film. Kangding has changed and modernised radically since these photos were taken, so I hope you enjoy them. It was a magic moment.

Ganzi甘孜 to Kangding康定

(The end of our route:  Xining 西宁 to Chengdu 成都 2009)
Our Route 2009

Leg One: Ganzi to Kangding

On the move on the Sichuan Tibet Highway

Tired and groggy after a week of sleepless nights due to altitude sickness, I stumbled out of the hotel and we walked into the adjacent bus station. We were taking the bus straight to Kangding as, apparently, Ma’erkang was closed to foreigners. Anyway, I don’t think Margie would have put up much longer with my hallucinations and the incoherent gibberish that I was producing every night. At last, we were heading down and off the Tibetan plateau.

Ganzi Old Town

Five years before, we had done the whole ride from Ganzi to Chengdu in 17 interminable hours on a smoke- filled bus, while witnessing at least 5 fatal accidents and nearly being involved in one ourselves. So, we had decided never to do it again. We thought that by breaking up the journey, it would be smoother and less painful; little did we know what had happened to the road.

Our broken down bus 2004

Most roads in China have improved over the years, but the Chengdu-Tibet highway has actually got worse, for now at least. Admittedly, Continue reading “Ganzi甘孜 to Kangding康定”

Places to visit around Ganzi:Dagei Gompa大金寺, Began Gompa,Beri Gompa白利寺

Places to visit around Ganzi 甘孜

We visited 3 monasteries within a 30 kilometre radius of Ganzi: Dagei Gompa, Began Gompa, or Baigei Si, and Beri Gompa, or Baili Si (all names are approximate).

In order to do this, we hired a taxi for a half day for 250 Yuan. Our driver was a friendly chap who seemed to be of mixed Chinese- Tibetan origin and could speak both Mandarin (of sorts) and Tibetan. More importantly, he seemed to get on well with everybody.

Our first stop, Dagei Gompa, is about 30 kilometres back towards Manigango. The landscape along the way is glorious: lots of grazing animals, imposing mountains and small villages, their houses and walls covered in vertical beige and white stripes.

Dagei is quite large, almost a monastic village. Hidden away above Continue reading “Places to visit around Ganzi:Dagei Gompa大金寺, Began Gompa,Beri Gompa白利寺”

Ganzi /Garze /甘孜 Revisited

Ganzi /Garze/甘孜
(by Margie)

If asked about our favourite place in China, Ganzi would be one of the first to spring to mind.

We have passed through this small town in the heart of Tibetan Sichuan a few times since 2004, and last year was another opportunity. Ganzi has everything – except nightlife perhaps – a traveller could possibly want: wild and majestic mountains rise up just beyond its last houses, offering amazing hiking opportunities; scarcely explored, ancient monasteries dot the landscape in every direction; the large Ganzi Si looms high above the Tibetan quarter, offering great views of the surrounding countryside.

Down below, in the town centre, there are quiet, old streets of wonderful traditional architecture, bustling shopping streets, lined with colourful shops selling a whole array of exotic Buddhist paraphernalia, a hidden temple or two, as well as a cool Continue reading “Ganzi /Garze /甘孜 Revisited”

Serxu to Manigango & Dzogchen Gompa / 石渠 到 马尼干戈 与 竹庆佛学院

Serxu to Manigango & Dzogchen Gompa

石渠 到 马尼干戈 与 竹庆佛学院

We pass quickly through Serxu Xian, the modern administrative town, 35 kilometres after the huge Serxu monastery. Our driver seems concerned that the local police may look for an excuse to fine him, just because he has Qinghai number plates.

It feels like a long drive now. Progress is brisk, as the road is paved and in reasonable condition, but in general, signs of life are few and far between; we pass a few Tibetan villages with the odd monastery.

In some places the landscape is a bit less harsh; we pass a large lake, surrounded by soft, green hills.

Soon after, there is a succession of passes and the landscape changes abruptly. Suddenly, Continue reading “Serxu to Manigango & Dzogchen Gompa / 石渠 到 马尼干戈 与 竹庆佛学院”

Yushu (Qinghai) to Serxu (Sichuan) 15/8/09玉树到石渠

Yushu to Serxu

I could see the doubt in the driver’s eyes. Either he thought Christmas had arrived early, or, more likely, he was contemplating some grim and rapid end to his life. What we had proposed was the following: Yushu to Manigango in a day, with stops at Serxu Gompa and Dzogchen Gompa.

His reservation: his claim that Sichuan Tibetans were not honest like the Tibetans who lived in Qinghai. The word ‘Manigango’, he repeated it several times with distaste, evoked some kind of hellhole from which you’d never return. “Bandits, the lot of them; what if I just drop you at Serxu?”, he protested.

His incentive: The 1,000 Yuan I was offering, plus food and accommodation in Manigango.

I pointed out to him that we had been to Manigango in 2004 and found it quite safe. Even though we too had heard numerous stories of pillaging bandits around Manigango, these seemed to belong to an era long gone. Still, I remembered that Manigango had felt like a real Wild West frontier town in 2004.

The main problem was that I had no option: the altitude sickness was playing havoc on my body; five days without sleep and the Tibetan medicine and the oxygen tank were having little or no effect. Serxu, at 4,200 metres above sea level, is another 500 meters higher than Yushu; lingering around, counting on dodgy bus schedules, didn’t appear to be the best option. So, basically, the upshot was: “Either you take us or we’ll have to hire another car”.

The first leg of the journey
Price agreed and the driver’s mind set somewhat at ease, we set off at 6.00 am.
The road followed what was now familiar territory, passing the Mani wall, Domkar Gompa, the turn- off to the Leba gorge and finally Continue reading “Yushu (Qinghai) to Serxu (Sichuan) 15/8/09玉树到石渠”

A Tale of two Towns: Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉

Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉

Pingle and Songji are two traditional ancient towns in the South West of China. The first, Pingle, is a couple of hours away from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, while the second, Songji, is a mere two hours from the metropolis Chongqing. The architecture in both towns is similar: the houses have black slate roofs and white walls supported by dark wooden beams; the streets are narrow and cobble- stoned. Moreover, both towns share a riverside location: while Pingle is built along both banks of a river, the streets of. Songji run downhill towards the Yangtze. As for village life, drinking tea and playing board games are still the favourite pastimes of the locals. However, after that the similarities stop. Pingle has become a hugely popular tourist destination for Chengdu residents and domestic tourists visiting Sichuan. As a result, it is full of souvenir shops, its streets lined with teahouses, inns and restaurants. Songji on the other hand is a slightly melancholy, time- forgotten town without a single souvenir shop, just one hotel and a few local restaurants and traditional teahouses. We visited both this summer and here are our impressions, taken from the Diary:


… First impressions aren’t good. The toilets at the otherwise modern bus station that necessity has forced us to use are high up on the ‘Worst in China’ list: they are piled high in shit, there’s no water and the stench impregnates the station and beyond. Outside a steady drizzle is falling.  The next realisation is that Pingle is far from being a hidden gem; in fact, Continue reading “A Tale of two Towns: Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉”

Excursion to the Palpung Gompa (Babang Monastery or “Little Potala”).

Palpung Gompa

I asked the friendly monk what they ate in winter when the snows came. He smiled and pointed to the scraggy dogs scrounging around for scraps and the forlorn looking mules that wandered aimlessly in front of the monestary. I looked at him to see if there might be a slight trace of a grin that would confirm he was joking. There wasn’t any grin, he just affirmed that they were quite tasty. I looked out over the mountains and valleys, more remote you could hardly get, I began to believe him.

View across the river to Tibet

On our third day in Dege we hired a jeep with a driver to take us to Palpung Gompa, Babang in Chinese, otherwise known as “Little Potala”, due to its resemblance to the palace of the Dalai Lama.

Palpung Gompa is only 70 or 80 kilometres away from Dege, but the situation of the roads is such that it takes us about 4 hours of infernal bumping to cover the distance. The first half an hour, from Dege town down to the Tibetan border, is sealed and easy. After that, Continue reading “Excursion to the Palpung Gompa (Babang Monastery or “Little Potala”).”