Tagong: The Wild West of Sichuan Province
It was at the third or fourth landslide of the day, where our van got bogged down for over an hour, that I started to think wistfully about the Yangtze river.
We'd eschewed a planned three gorges cruise in favour of a manic jaunt over the highlands of Western Sichuan, and I was beginning to get second thoughts.
Half the mountain seemed to be trying to get to the bottom of the valley, and with a deadly rockfall in the area only the week before, karaoke and cabin fever suddenly seemed like a very attractive alternative.
My girlfriend and I were on our way to Tagong, a small village in Western Sichuan historically part of the Tibetan province of Kham, and the going was getting tough.
Our journey had already taken us a days travel by bus from Chengdu to the frontier mountain town of Kangding.
Standing on the rain-soaked hillside, just below several of tons of wet earth, things didn't seem to be getting any better.
Suddenly however, the clouds broke and I remembered what it was that had brought us to this remote region in the first place. Just ahead mist was swirling around the nearby mountains. It was clear that we were heading somewhere wild, untamed, and barely accessible.
Clearing the landslide, we continued our climb upwards, then leveled out as we hit the 710-square-kilometer Tagong Grasslands.
As we jolted our way through the plateau, Tibetan prayer flags began to appear, as well as scattered groups of yak and nomad herdsmen.
Now and then, a black nomad tent or stocky Tibetan house, with its sturdy trapezoid shape and elaborately painted windows, offered further signs of life. When we finally reached our destination, it quickly became apparent that the effort had been worth it.
Clustered more or less around one main street, Tagong is a Wild West sort of town populated almost exclusively by ethnic Tibetans.
Life on the edge
The people who live there bear the marks of life on the very fringes of Chinese society. Most of the men wear cowboy hats, their hair long and wild underneath, and roar through town on ornately decorated motorcycles.
The women by in large, wear traditional Tibetan dress, consisting of thick woollen tunics held together by a multitude of sashes. Many are adorned in handcrafted silver jewelry, and wear their hair wrapped upon their heads in a single braid with interlacing red ribbons.
The air is constantly filled with the sound of flapping prayer flags overhead, and one gets the sense that religion and survival are the elemental parts of life there.
At one end of the town, a beautifully constructed monastery sits in the shadow of a prayer flag covered hillside, serving as the spiritual focus of the town and surrounding area.
All day, local residents make an anti-clockwise loop around the complex, turning the one hundred or so brass prayer wheels as they go.
Meanwhile, the wide main street, with its parallel line of colorfully painted open-fronted shops, caters for almost everything else.
Horse rigging, yak meat and cowboy gear feature prominently, while a number of shops offer local crafts to the small but steady stream of tourists who make their way to Tagong during the relative warmth of the summer months.
Nestled in a valley by a fast flowing river, at an altitude of around 3600 meters, it is tempting to think that James Conway had Tagong in mind for the fictional Shangri-La when he penned his classic novel Lost Horizon.
Even the newer buildings in the town follow a traditional Tibetan design (a feat of cultural preservation Beijing might do well to emulate) and the overall effect is very harmonious.
Our base while in Tagong was Sally's Guesthouse. The rooms there have electric blankets and the small adjoining cafe acts as the de facto hub of Tagong's small traveling community.
There, over bottomless cups of jasmine tea and yak stew, we found the perfect place to swap tips and anecdotes with other visitors.
Integral to the action is Sally herself, a friendly local woman and her son, an orange-robed, magnanimous monk from the nearby monastery with excellent English and a ton of local knowledge.
It was also at Sally's that we were able to organise a horse trek through the nearby grasslands.
This proved to be an ideal vantage point to view Yala Snow mountain, a sacred peak of 5820 meters that was still covered in snow in mid-July.
At this time of year the grasslands were covered with minute flowers of dozens of colors, and for a few hours we had the entire place to ourselves.
Our thirteen-year-old nomad guide also took us to eat with his family in their tent high on the plateau, a feast that included copious amounts of yak milk, yak cheese and yak butter.
Afterwards, feeling several pounds heavier, we lay on the grass and played with our guide's little brothers and sisters, a rag-tag troupe of cheeky, ruddy faced tykes who clearly enjoyed showing off for their foreign visitors.
The rest of our time in Tagong was spent in less vigorous pursuits. The town has an atmosphere that makes a supreme pleasure out of simply drinking it all in, the kind of place where you can just read, chat or stroll around without feeling like you're missing out on anything.
Tagong was only the first stop on our Western Sichuan journey, but it was easily one of the most memorable. Later, the road got bumpier, we climbed higher, and we moved closer to the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The town, however, will forever remain the gateway to a world that neither of us thought existed outside of old dentist waiting room issues of National Geographic.
While much of China is creaking underneath a tourism boom, Tagong's very inaccessibility has meant that it has remained for now, relatively untouched.
I just hope I manage to make it back before the steamrollers do.
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