East of Lhasa

Features Issue 15 Aug, 2010
Text and Photo By Jill Gocher

While everyone has heard of Tibet and Lhasa, Kham is still a bit of a mystery. Lying outside the boundaries of the Tibetan Autonomous region, Kham is The Tibetan Wild West and one of the most Tibetan areas in the country. 800,000 Tibetans (or Khampa) live in Kham, the Tibetan name for a region once filled with warring chiefs and petty fiefdoms. The imposing stone houses built like impregnable fortresses, are testament to their need for protection, as are the enduring stone watch towers that still stand like silent sentinels in parts of the country. Although Kham never followed Lhasa’s rule, the people are devout Buddhists and their independent spirit endures against all odds.

In the 1950’s Kham was incorporated into China and it now covers a large part of western Sichuan, and smaller parts of the Chinese provinces of Northern Yunnan and the southern reaches of Quinghai. The region is dissected by four of China’s major rivers. The headwaters of the Yarlung, Mekong, Yangtze and Salween all originate in wild parts of the Tibetan Plateau before starting their long journeys southwards.

In earlier times, Tibet travelers or explorers making their way to the forbidden kingdom of Tibet would risk their lives passing through this feared region. The Khampa were known as brigands and few outsiders were safe from their predations.  Travelling caravans lived in fear of the sight of these wild unruly horsemen who would appear like a terrifying mirage as they galloped like lightning towards their latest quarry. Victorian era explorer and seeker, Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel, described them as the “Gentleman Brigands” and in spite of their toughness, they hold a curt, yet courtly appeal. And in spite of their colourful past, the Khampa have always been devout Buddhists and were amongst the first Tibetans to fight against the Chinese invasion.
Today the Khampa put their warrior skills to more peaceful purposes like breeding fine horses, and farming. Trading is another of their skills and visit any of the towns within Kham or within the Barkor in Lhasa and you will see groups of red twined Khampa standing armed with great chunks of lustrous corals, turquoise or amber, ready to sell to the highest bidder.

The journey to Kham begins from the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, (although it is also possible to ride overland from Lhasa). A day’s ride west from Chengdu, brings visitors from the smoggy hazy cities and fertile lowland farms of the Han Chinese with a steep climb up the Erlangshan through virgin mountain terrain to a huge tunnel, circumventing the first of many passes to come. While the tunnel cuts the drama, it also cuts miles, hours and a thousand feet of altitude from the once arduous journey.

In the distance stands a range of  glittering snow covered peaks, dominated by Gongga Shan.  Standing at 7556 metres, it guards travelers for many days.

Kanding, or Dartsendo to the Tibetans, is the beginning of another world. Squeezed into a deep mountain valley, this growing town is fast changing character, as the blue glassed high rises - symbol of modern China, obliterate the old wooden bazaars. A wild, rushing young river, contained only by heavy stone walls, courses through the centre of this traditional transition town between the highland Khampa and the lowland traders.
It makes sense to spend a day or two in Kanding to acclimatize to the increased altitude. At 2,500 metres, it is already quite an elevation above sea level, and it is only the beginning, as coming days will encounter passes at over 4000 and 5000 metres. From Kanding, it is a short step to Kham and a few hours over a high 5000 metre pass is enough to reach the grasslands.

The summer festivals see Kham at its best - a time when the melting snows feed the plains, turning the grasses green and bringing on a proliferation of wildflowers. Everyone is dressed to the hilt. Women adorn themselves in their best jewellery of amber and corals, turquoise and silver. Their robes are trimmed with furs, their blouses of silk. But it is the men who capture most of the attention. With their red braided locks wound around their heads, decorated with enormous silver rings of turquoise and red coral and huge chunks of ancient ivory, sometimes with long dangling earrings, and tiger or leopard trimmed chupa, not to mention their black leather cowboy boots, and foot long silver daggers, they swagger around the festival sites, horses in tow, their rugged glamour  is inescapable.

Each district holds its own small summer festival, happy, intimate gatherings attended by the local people who come together to celebrate, meet with old friends and reaffirm their culture. They celebrate with dance performances. Monks from the nearby monastery will perform pujas and lamastic dances.  It is a different matter in the bigger urban centres.

In true Chinese style, the regional festivals have transformed the summer festivals  into enormous celebrations, with displays of Chinese military might in parades of soldiers and martial exercises and Tibetan style aerobics displays.

Not only do the Khampa love to dress up stylishly, but get them near their horse and they are reborn as they meld into saddle, becoming one with the animal.  At festival time they compete to perform tricks guaranteed to draw a gasp or two from the crowd. Other horsemen stand by watching the riders and small spills are greeted with laughter, but if a serious problem occurs, men are there at hand instantly to field a runaway horse or rescue a fallen rider.

Of Kham’s thousands of monasteries, most were destroyed or badly damaged during the bad years but recent changes have seen a major surge of activity as some of the more important institutions have been rejuvenated and even rebuilt. Funding come from international Buddhist groups and sympathetic organizations outside China and it is heartening to see once devastated ruins being brought back to life. The skills of craftsmen live on and new gompas are being decorated with  superb carved pillars and painted beams as young generations learn the skills of their fathers.

Kham is a big adventure and a big land but as with all parts of the new China, it is changing character fast.