Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Return to Kangding after 30 years: trip report

 Over Easter I made a brief visit to Kangding from Chengdu, where I was doing a bit of digital nomad working. It's been about seven years since I was last there and yet again there have been major changes to this Sino-Tibetan border town. 

First of all, it is now ridiculously easy to get there. Four hours on a coach from the usual bus station in Chengdu, via the 318 Highway Expressway. The bus station is still next door to what used to be the old backpacker haunt of the 'Traffic Hotel' - but this has now been given a facelift to an upmarket boutique hotel, like much of the rest of China. It's now called the Hanbai 'M' Hotel (瀚柏酒店) and no longer offers backpacker dorms. 

The 318 Highway is now all modern motorway and there was a 20-minute stop at a very flashy new service area which was more like a Westfield Mall. It had a food court, outdoor gear shops (selling oxygen aerosol canisters) and other retail outlets, many with a '318' theme. The service area was also notable for having multiple EV charging stations that were in use by many cars and trucks, not just for decoration.

Thus the journey was very different from the arduous two-day bus journey on bone-rattling switchback mountain roads that I undertook on my first visit in the 1990s. Back then (and until recently) the only stops en route were at fly-blown grim roadside halts offering bowls of noodles and stinky toilets.

Arriving in Kangding, I'd already booked my hotel ahead via AliPay/Ctrip - about 200 RMB a night at the nice and friendly Tibetan run Yunzhi Hotel. I picked it because it was just a couple of minutes away from the bus station. I'd previously stayed at the US-run Zhilam Hostel, but I later found his has now closed down. 

The Zhilam had been set up by an idealistic American couple from Colorado - one of them the son of former Christian missionaries in China. When it opened, the Zhilam Hostel was seen as a trailblazing gamechanger for China's hospitality sector - bringing western sophistication and a progressive/benevolent/environmental approach to what was then still a rough and ready frontier mountain town. They employed and trained local Tibetans, they showcased local culture and products, did things in a sustainable way and they provided western levels of service and western-friendly fare.

When I hiked up the steep back road to visit the hostel the next day, I found the building closed up, and now crowded out and overshadowed by about 20 other upmarket guesthouses, homestays and designer hotels on the same high road above town. The new occupier of the former Zhilam Hostel building told me that the American managers had left some years before the covid pandemic, which had been the final nail in the coffin for the western-led tourism market in Kangding. She told she ran another hostel that was 'much nicer', up the road. I went to have a look and found it was one of many very stylish and comfortable guesthouses that all seem to  have a kind of 'IKEA Asia' vibe: modern, clean, bland.

This made me reflect on 'progress' and western influence in China. The Zhilam seems to be like many western ventures that enter China with high hopes and a bit of media hype (Starbucks, Tesla ...). But then after a few years they fail to catch on or fall out of fashion and are abandoned or become sidelined by more competitive local alternatives.  Even the successful western ideas become localised and assimilated to local tastes (KFC, Communism ...).

On my first evening in Kangding I walked up to the top of the old town, still relatively unchanged along the banks of the raging Zheduo river. The town square was still full of Han and Tibetan 'aunties' doing their synchronised dancing. There were quite a few Chinese tourists on the streets, including many independent travellers on bikes, heading for Lhasa. I saw one guy with the same folding bike model as mine. How he would get to Lhasa on a 20-inch wheel 8-gear Dahon Speed  - and barely and baggage - I don't know.

At the top of town, where the old Black Tent hostel used to be, there is now a swish cafe and shops attached to the renovated monastery. The building was not new, but I went in the cafe and had a German beer for old times sake, remembering the creaky wooden floor boards, stale, hard beds and flimsy plywood partition walls of the dirty old Black Tent guesthouse.

Across the road I revisited the not-so-new tourist zone with its many souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. The Himalaya Cafe was still there, and it became my go-to place for coffee and wifi during my brief stay in town. Just down the road I ducked in to the new LiNi supermarket, which was had a better range of products than your average suburban supermarket in Australia (though that isn't saying much).

My interest was in the beer and wine section, where I found a huge range of local craft and imported ales [most from Germany, some from California). They also had an impressive selection of wines, including a Penfolds 2018 Bin 28  Shiraz (368 RMB) that must have predated the China boycott of Aussie wines. Video here.

On my first full day in Kangding I flagged down a [shared] taxi and went up to see the Nanwu Si and Jinggan  Si Tibetan monasteries at the top of town. En route, I noted that my map showed a major new expressway bypass planned to cross above the town - and the construction of this was ongoing, meaning that cablecar access to the famous Paoma Shan hill was suspended.

It was a sunny day and the monasteries looked glittering and newly renovated. There were a few monks about, and a number of Tibetans sitting in the shade of spring blossom trees doing their picnic thing. After revisiting the temples I chatted to a couple of monks who were practising their Tibetan script while sat underneath red umbrellas in the courtyard. I didn't breach any 'sensitive' questions [Dalai Lama etc] but they seemed happy to talk about general monastery stuff and what they were doing in their daily lives.

Similarly when I climbed up the hill to investigate the commotion at the top  temple, I found a large number of monks around the entrance partaking in Tibetan monastic debate. This involved one 'challenger' reciting points of logic to a 'respondent' complete with hand claps to emphasise points, and the respondent returning fire with well argued rebuttals. All very animated, and they were happy to let me watch and film their sessions. There's a video on my Youtube channel here.

For lunch, I was delighted to find that my favourite jiaozi restaurant - the Datong Xiaochi snack outlet, was still very much in business 30 years after my first visit. I went in and enjoyed 12 of their wonderful guotie.

I took it easy in the afternoon, finding myself a bit out of breath with the sudden move to higher altitude (2600m). I revisited the Catholic church facing the river, which is now accessed by a dodgy lift to the fourth floor. The caretaker was a nice guy from Xian who was happy - insistent even - about showing me around the church. I was unchanged from my previous visits, but the old missals had gone.

The caretaker said he was surprised to see me as he thought foreigners were not allowed to visit Kangding. He told me that just a few days earlier an Italian priest who had tried to visit the church had been turned back by the PSB when stopped on the highway en route. I told him there were no such restrictions for 'ordinary' foreigners - and I had seen a French couple on the street who had travelled to Sertar monastery further towards Tibet.

I had an early night after a simple meal at the Islamic 'Qingzhen' restaurant attached to the Kangding mosque (it was Ramadan so only open after dark, and the owner seemed a bit grumpy). A bottle of local craft beer (Shangri La Highland Qingker Barley Black Yak ale) went down very well after that.

On my second day in Kangding I had hoped to visit Mugecuo lake, about 20km north of town. I woke early and it was still cold when I hiked down to the bus station at 8am in search of a bus or taxi to take me there. I soon found that there were none of either to be had for a reasonable price for a solo traveller. The pushy Tibetan car hire touts didn't inspire much confidence, and they were asking 600 RMB for a 40km round trip - best travel in a group! I then found that not much opens in Kangding before 9am, which is when I sat finally down in the Highland Cafe for my morning coffee.

After a bit of dithering I consulted my Baidu map, which told me I could revisit my previous mountain hiking start point of Lao Yulin by taking the No. 1 bus. Using my AliPay 'transport' QR code on my phone, I jumped on the next bus, which took me up about 6km and a few hundred metres of altitude through Kangding "New Town" (Xin Cheng). What was once a shabby edge-of-town area had been transformed into a mini-Hong Kong of high rise apartments, public buildings, shopping malls and even a mega church. 

I debussed at what I thought was the edge of town and hiked a further 2km up more of the same, along a busy road that obviously led to a high school, judging by the number of kids in school uniform traipsing past saying 'hello' to me. I tried and failed to find the plain old hot springs building by the river where I had taken a dip about 15 years previously, but it now looked like it had been replaced by a grand Hot Springs Hotel resort complex.

I plodded on upwards past the school, to where I had a better view of the first ridge of the Gongga Shan range of snow peaks. But the April weather was blustery, grey and with passing rain showers, I did not want to linger for long. When I got to what the map said was Lao Yulin, I did not recognise the once rural village where I had hired horses from a Tibetan farmer called GerLer. 


My photo from 1995 showed a simple dirt track winding through a few Tibetan stone homesteads. Now there was a busy highway conveying trucks and tourists in SUVs up a valley dotted with concrete guesthouses and 'minsu' homestays. 

There was also something that looked like a large military barracks, surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and many surveillance cameras. I asked a friendly local woman if she knew of someone called Gerler, and she said "Yes - he's my uncle...". But she then said he had moved away many years ago and had now retired to live in Chengdu.

So after taking a few photos on the same spot where I guessed I had taken the one in 1995, I turned around and headed back down towards Kangding New Town. One thing that struck me was how fit and strong I must have been in 1995 (age 32) to have hiked up all this way with a heavy backpack, at around 3000m altitude - in just over an hour, according to my trip report. Now at the age of 62 I was struggling to do the same journey by bus!

A few local Tibetans greeted me on the way back down and invited me in to their houses to drink tea, but I politely declined. This was yet another instance of where modernisation and development had caught up with and replaced the old traditional landscape and ways. I recalled on my first visit when the locals had been asking me about Bill Clinton, democracy and the Dalai Lama. Now they were asking me if I was interested in staying at their Tibetan 'glamping' site or saying that most locals had moved into posh apartments down in the New Town.

I took the No. 1 bus back down through the New Town, passing the nearly completed expressway junction and tunnel for the new bypass - which also now avoids the spectacular mountain pass of Zheduo Shan. I continued on down back to the old town, where I did a bit more walking round the streets before heading back to the bus station to get a ticket out of Kangding back to Chengdu for the next morning. 

When I was taking a photo on one of the many bridges across the Zheduo river, a local guy came up and asked me what I was snapping. When I explained I had been here 30 years ago, he said that was before he was born. I felt old, and wanted to move on to somewhere new.

You can read about my 1995 visit to Kangding on my Gongga Shan trek blog entry here.