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Tibetan culture

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang at 4100m in the high Tibetan grasslands. Brown hills rising over flat-topped roofs, dust swirling in the streets. Nomads on motorbikes with long wild hair, gold teeth, greasy shearling jackets hanging off their shoulders. A fine market with fruit, butchered meat, dry goods, shoes and clothes. Police, of course, everywhere.

The old quarter of town up on the north edge of the city still feels like Tibet, unreconstructed or improved. I wander the dirt streets behind houses with outer walls of mud and straw, old women spinning prayer wheels at small temples along the way. The Gelugpa monastery at the top of the hill is all new, bricks and lumber still piled around the courtyard. This is China: everything is in the process of being built.

More touristy than expected, Litang, with signs in English on the main street and a few westerners in my hostel. They hold sky burials here still west of town. From here on the road turns north, deeper into Kham.

 

Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Most of the information you'll find calls this superb market town 'Garze', but most of the locals call it 'Ganzi'. No matter what you call it, though, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place to relax for a few days on a tour of Kham. Like most of the ethnically-Tibetan towns here on the Plateau, the ratio of police to residents here seems to be about 1:1, but practically what that usually means is big groups of 20-something cops standing around chatting with each other, driving around going GRNK! GRNK! at traffic with their sirens, or occasionally just napping in lawn chairs on the street. Johannesburg this is not.

Regardless, the real attraction here comes in two forms. First, the looming, sharp, snowcapped mountains of the Gongga Shan range rising in a high grey-white wall to the south of the town, as pretty as anything you've ever seen. And second, the enormous Khampa Tibetan community resident here, including hundreds of monks from the monastery in the old quarter up the hill, populating the streets, shopping for sneakers or mobile phones, or just hanging out in restaurants drinking tea. Like pretty much everywhere I've gone in Tibet, the welcome is noticeably friendlier than you get in many of the culturally Han parts of China --  the number of 'Tashi Deles' you'll get just walking down the street typically numbers in the dozens. Beyond that, there are good supermarkets, restaurants, street food and -- thank god -- real beer, a welcome respite from the watered-down 2.5% stuff sold everywhere else. 

Set in the high Tibetan grasslands, Ganzi is exceptional. Visit and you'll probably end up staying longer than intended.

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian, the city in northwestern Yunnan province cynically rebranded as 'Shangri-La', is a giant construction zone like so much of the rest of China. The Old City was largely destroyed in a fire in early 2014, and while much of the northern part of the Old City has been rebuilt, the southern end of the quarter remains a warren of half-finished buildings and half-laid streets, making it easy to see how manufactured the experience of Shangri-La's 'Old City' really is. That said, I can't be too hard on Zhongdian, with its backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Even if it's manufactured and touristy, the Old City is still an incredibly pleasant place to wander, and this is the first real stop on the Yunnan tourist trail where you can experience a bit of actual Tibetan culture, being the jumping-off point to the Tibetan Plateau itself. There's dancing in the streets at night (somehow all the locals seem to know the steps) and some very picturesque temples and what I'm told is the world's largest prayer wheel, though such designations are nearly always apocryphal. If you're interested in Tibet and Tibetan culture start your trip in Shangri-La, don't end it here. But for an accessible peek and a pleasant place to spend a few days, you could certainly do much worse.