Trekking Tibetan Kham

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map of tibetan areas in china

From Chengdu, we took a 6 hour bus ride west to Kangding in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. This area is part of the historic eastern Tibetan region of Kham, and although not in the TAR, the population is majority Tibetan, and it’s full of important temples and Buddhist schools, cultural traditions, nomads, and yaks. This was the part of our trip I’d been most excited for, and it was truly an adventure!

Kangding

We stayed at Zhilam Hostel in Kangding, which in and of itself was a highlight of our trip. It was very homey & cute, with great facilities, Tibetan decor, friendly staff, and a lovely outdoor seating area. Kangding is in the middle of a steep valley with a rushing river cutting down the center of town. Our first afternoon, we walked down to an old-style square, got a coffee at Himalayan Coffee (the best in town), and visited a monastery, where we befriended the cutest old lady & some monks. We then had our first Tibetan dinner of yak momos and beef curry. In the evening, we walked to the end of the town, saw these beautiful rock paintings in the cliffs, and joined at least a hundred locals dancing in the main square. Finally, we returned to the hostel, sat outside for a while, and planned what to do the next day with the hostel owner, Kris, and one of the Tibetan guides named Patru. Patru showed us lots of photos of his hometown near Mt. Gonga, as well as photos of these caterpillar fungi a lot of Tibetans harvest in the high-altitude grasslands during the summers. We also met two Israeli girls staying at the hostel, Gal & Nitzan, who we would become great friends with over the next few days, and decided to go hiking with them in the morning.

Our first morning in Kangding was amazing. We had the perfect breakfast of french press coffee, yogurt, and granola while sitting outside on the patio, with perfect weather & views of the surrounding mountains. We planned our day with Kris & the Israeli girls, then set off hiking up to the grasslands behind the hostel with Kris’ little brown dog Lucy. The hike up the mountain was really cool, and although really steep, was a fun time bonding with new friends and learning about life in Israel. The views on the hike were amazing as well – small flowers, random horses in super dense forests, prayer flags, and so many clouds. We eventually made it to the grassland at the top of the mountain (3200 m / 10,500 ft) with views of grazing horses and cows, and sat to have an Israeli-Turkish coffee cooked over a little gas pot. Finding the path down was more challenging, but the views were so cool & Sophie even saw a pheasant! Back at Zhilam, Kris let us all use his private kitchen to cook a Shabbat dinner, complete with shakshuka, pita, hummus, tahini, and a cucumber salad. All in all, it was such a fun day bonding with new people.

The next morning started out almost the same – coffee, yogurt, & granola al fresco, this time joined by Gal & Nitzan, some other Israeli guys, and Ojey & Patru from the hostel. Gal, Nitzan, Sophie, & I determined to go to the “wild lake” at Yajiageng, which, at an altitude of 4000 m (13,123 ft), would help us acclimate as we prepared for our upcoming trek. We were joined by 2 Germans in our hired car, and when we arrived, we had to walk along red rocks until we reached the lake, which was so blue, milky, & clear, with green grass, wildflowers, low-hanging clouds, and a herd of yak grazing in the distance. After walking around for a bit, we sat down to have a coffee, paired with goldfish & oreos. Then, we walked closer to the yaks and saw all the baby yaks running around. Sophie & I walked over to talk with the herders, who offered us tea & snacks and told us all about their yak herd. Back at Zhilam, we had yak burgers for dinner, and at night, Gal, Nitzan, Sophie, Kyle & I went out on the town, chilling at bars, singing songs in KTV, and finally getting some late-night noodles.

Angela’s House

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zhilam hostel fam

The next day, we hired a car and set out for the nearby town of Tagong, about 2 hours away. The ride was very scenic and beautiful, with lots of mountains, grasslands, tents, yaks, prayer flags, and stupas, but it was also very windy and bumpy. We felt sad to leave Kangding and our little hostel fam we somehow became so close with over just 3 days. Honestly our time in Kangding was really special and unforgettable — one of those travel memories that sticks out because of the amazing people you meet.

When we arrived in Tagong, we dropped Gal & Nitzan off in town and said our goodbyes, then our driver took Sophie & me to Angela’s Khampa Nomad Ecolodge outside of town along a little river in the Drokpa cold-season pasture of the Lhagang grasslands. Angela, who runs the place & organized our trek, wasn’t in when we arrived, but we got settled in and ate a delicious home cooked meal of yak & eggplant, brown rice, noodles, and vegetables. Reading about the place she’s built there and how sustainable & integrated it is with the local community was really inspiring — finding ways to connect Tibetan nomads with international travelers for real, in-depth, personal & cultural learning, combining rural, nomadic lifestyles & cultures with modern amenities, & helping support the local economy. In the afternoon, we sat outside on the porch for a while, chatted with Angela about our upcoming trek, and went on a walk nearby. We had an assortment of momos for dinner, and also went in the sauna. The whole place was beautiful and relaxing, and honestly kind of luxurious in a rustic sense. We really felt deep within the Tibetan grasslands, and both excited and nervous for the trek the next day.

The Trek: Day 1 — Nomad Camps

The morning of our trek, Sophie & I realized just how underprepared we truly were. Luckily, Angela let us borrow a bunch of essentials, from rain pants, to thermals, dry bags, coats, and everything in between. After breakfast, we set off from the lodge in the pouring rain for our big adventure! This day was unguided, so Angela gave us a map to follow. We had to take a big detour in order to go over a bridge due to the rain, and found ourselves really struggling on an incline on the side of the mountain in the rain with our enormous packs weighing us down. We struggled to get back on the trail for almost an hour and a half, and honestly, that first huge incline to 4150 m (13,615 ft) was the biggest struggle of my life. We considered quitting, but pushed ourselves to keep going despite the pain. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain, the rain stopped, and we sat down to have lunch. That moment was beautiful for so many reasons. After that, we kept going along the “green road”, passing by yak herds, a few nomads on motorcycles, and many dirt tufts in the bogs, with nice views of the snow mountains behind us. We finally met up with “the kid” sent from the nomad camp to come look for us, and we followed him the rest of the way at a much more accelerated pace.

He was the oldest (15 yrs old) of our host Soko’s four boys. We made it to the camp around 3:30, and chilled in the big, black, yak hair tent for a while before we joined the boy and a little girl to help herd the yaks in for the night. Soko said they have 50 yaks and 8 horses, and it was cool to watch all the different families find their herds, whistling and running around. Back at the camp, all the little boys went to catch the baby yaks & tie them up inside the white tent for the night. They also tie up the young yaks, but the big ones just chill around the camp. After that, we played for so long with the littlest boy — Sonam Tenzin — who was so full of energy and was so easily entertained by everything. Later, Sophie & I took a nap in the tent, and when we woke up, it was time for dinner with the whole family, in the dark with one light bulb, charged during the day by a solar panel. Dinner was a very basic noodle soup that we ate with a literal stick, and it was nice chatting with the family by translation from the older boys, who learn Chinese in school, or by means of gestures and a few English words.

Sometime before bed, we heard all the scary guard dogs barking, and the boys went out to investigate, followed by lots of hoops & howling. Turns out, our guide for the next day had just arrived at camp. We finally went to sleep, comfy & cozy under so many blankets, but I did wake up a few times during the night to some strange noises. Upon turning on my flashlight, I saw big yaks inside the tent, rummaging around! Then Soko would wake up, hiss & shine her light on them, and they would shuffle out all embarrassed.

The Trek: Day 2 — Yibei Lake

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Soko helping us pack

In the morning, amidst breakfast of tsampa (barley flour) mixed with yak butter and tea, Soko told me the yaks often come in the tent in search of salt. She was an amazing host — so hardworking, literally always on the go doing something, whether it be taking care of her boys, the yaks, or us, and all with a good attitude and kind heart. We gradually got our stuff together, ate more yak yogurt, and our guide, Dorje, came to help us pack up everything & load it onto the 2 pack horses (white horse & brown horse). Sophie & I were so relieved not to have to carry our packs anymore. We set off with Dorje, who we soon recognized as the most crucial figure in our trekking experience.

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yak whisperer

Dorje is 18 years old, and we bonded with him pretty well over our time together, and really enjoyed his company. His family is from that nomad camp too. He started working to support his family at 16, and taught us a lot about the nomad life, such as the seasonal changes (living in homes during the winter & tents in the summer), Tibetan culture (like sky burials & different attitudes towards things like karma & life), and of course the yaks, which they don’t kill for meat usually, but raise for milk & cheese (they usually only eat yak meat when the yak dies on its own). Dorje also totally saved our lunch picnic when a yak herd surrounded us looking for food. They even started eating our backpacks!

The morning trek was nice — so many sunny grasslands, grazing yaks & horses, hovering vultures, and nomad camps in the distance. In the afternoon though, the going got harder. It started to rain & there were a lot of upward hills to climb. The rain just made everything worse, and when we arrived at Yibei Lake (4450 m / 14,600 ft) we were so freezing, despite putting on all of our layers. I hid under an overhanging rock to try and escape the downpour, but I was shivering so much I couldn’t move (the variance in temperature was very extreme throughout the trek). In the meantime, Dorje went out to find firewood, set up our tents, and started cooking dinner. I have no idea how he did all that in those conditions, but I was so thankful. We had a rest inside the tent — a nice respite from the rain, although we were still freezing. At 7pm, Dorje told us to come eat, and although we honestly didn’t want to go out into the cold, his potato soup and hot fire warmed us up from the inside, and we had a lot of nice conversation.ย We were already so thankful for everything Dorje had been doing for us. It felt like a parallel to Everest climbers & their sherpas — for us, this experience was one of the most challenging things we’ve done, but honestly without Dorje we could not have made it. His knowledge & skills were invaluable & much appreciated.

The Trek: Day 3 — Ragni Lake

In the morning, we woke up to no rain, which was nice, but everything of ours was so wet. We had a nice breakfast, and as we ate the sun came up so we could see the mountain ranges (Yala & Gonga) in the distance. After Dorje packed up the horses, we set off for our next spot — Ragni Lake (4300 m / 14,107 ft) — crossing more beautiful grasslands, this time with lots of mountain scenery. We passed by many herds of yaks, and the going was chill, since we stopped a lot to let the hungry horses graze. Along the way, a small dog started following us, and came with us all the way to our camp, since Dorje fed it noodles at lunch. The grasslands were full of beautiful flowers and so many lakes. We arrived at Ragni Lake for lunch, and Dorje told us the “black” lake is supposedly very deep, and it’s said if you throw something in into it, it will appear somewhere else. During lunch, we chatted a lot about life as a Tibetan, and the various hardships and challenges. I got the impression that life is tough, and many inequalities persist. After lunch, we walked further to a big grassland to make camp, and Sophie & I went to check out some carvings and paintings nearby. It was such a pleasant difference from the night before, and we laid out in the sun enjoying our fair weather before dinner. After dinner, Sophie, Dorje, & I sat under a make-shift, open-air tent by the fire and chatted, even after the sun went down.

The Trek: Day 4 — Genup Gompa

The next morning we set off for a temple called Genup Gompa. The small dog continued to follow us, this time closer than before. Sophie & I started to really love this dog. Our bond with him had just occurred so naturally. Along the way, we saw lots more yaks and prayer flags, and eventually we stopped for lunch with a far view of the temple. During lunch, Dorje went to help another passing nomad get his motorbike down a big hill — good karma & all. After walking a bit more, we arrived at the temple’s grassland and set up camp in the middle of the plain. The afternoon sun was scorching, and Sophie & I took a nap in the sun while Dorje looked for firewood. Probably not the best idea, as the sun at that altitude is dangerous, and our skin got very burnt. When Dorje returned, we walked over to the temple, the small dog following close behind, barking at other dogs to protect us. The lama at the temple even let him follow us into the temple, which was still under construction. Dorje said this temple is their village & one other’s, so when it’s finished, they’ll all come & hold a horse race to celebrate. While eating dinner, it suddenly began pouring, so Dorje, Sophie, & I had to quickly pull a tarp over us until it lightened up enough to run to the tents, where we found the small dog curled up between the rain cover.

The Trek: Day 5 — the way back

The last day was the most tiring of all. We had our normal breakfast & packed up the horses for the last time. Originally, we were worried that with all the recent rain, the rivers would be too full to cross, but we went anyways, up many hills and down one big hill to the first river we had to cross. Dorje crossed first, then brought the horses back across for us to ride over, with me carrying the small dog too, who at this point had fully adopted himself into our little group. After the first river, it started pouring, and we all got completely soaked walking in the rain for hours and crossing many more rivers — this time just walking straight through since we were drenched anyway. I started to feel really cold and tired, and although the sun came back out when we stopped for lunch, I felt exhausted & achy the rest of the way. We crossed so many mountains & plains, but the last mountain was the worst. I had no energy, and on the last huge hill down to the lodge, my knees and feet were killing me. But finally we were there, 14 miles later.

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the rescue mission

At the last river, Dorje told us not to carry the small dog, because he could “cross himself”. However, the dog was distressed at seeing us leave him, jumped in the river, and started getting swept downstream by the current. He managed to pull himself onto a grass clump in the middle of the river, but was stuck there, and Sophie & I implored Dorje to go save him. We had all gotten attached to the dog and his loyalty to us, and in the end Dorje adopted him.

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Dorje

Back at Angela’s we were thrown back into civilization after having struggled all day & been in the wilderness with very few other people for days. People were impressed that we had made it for 5 days, and even more bewildered at the dog who had followed us, but Sophie & I were most aware of how dirty we were after not having showered in so long. After a bit, Dorje left to go home, back up to the nomad camps, and we hugged him & said our goodbyes, knowing this experience would have not been possible without him. We gave Angela her stuff back, and took a car to Tagong town, with Angela giving us some celebratory beers for the road. In the car, Sophie & I were in awe that our trek had so suddenly come to an end.

Tagong

We arrived in Tagong at the Himalayak Guesthouse, run by Tashi — a super cool Tibetan guy who Angela & Dorje both know. We had our first shower in almost a week, which felt better than words can describe. Our muscles finally gave in, and we were sore all over, especially our feet. After eating some momos, we fell into a deep sleep. The next day, we woke up fairly early (still on trekking schedule), but felt very sluggish. It was like all the adrenaline from being on trek had left & all our exhaustion set in. Nevertheless, we explored the one-road town a bit, looking in shops, checking out Lhagang monastery, and chilling in a teahouse for a while. The town is very small, but full of nomads & monks from the surrounding hills. After dinner, we chilled in the hostel lobby chatting with Tashi & other international visitors. The 2 nights in Tagong were great for recuperating & reflecting on what we had just accomplished.

Return to Zhilam

From Tagong, we made our way back to Kangding via 3 hours on public bus along the G318 Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Scenery was nice, passing lots of rock paintings and mountains, but we felt sad to be leaving the crazy nomad town we had just left. In Kangding, we went back to Zhilam, which felt like a return home. It was a rather relaxing night there, since Sophie & I were both still exhausted, and I was starting to feel sick. We had a great time chatting with some familiar faces though, and just enjoying the chill hostel vibes. In the morning, we took the bus back to Chengdu, ending our time in Garze! We had an unforgettable experience, and made amazing memories.

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