The Kham region of  Tibet

The Kham region of  Tibet
One day we were told at school that a select group of us were going to be taken camping in the high foothills of the Himalayas in the Kham region on the Tibet - Sichuan  border.  Mountain plateaus of 10,000 ft in altitude are only 40 miles due west of Chengdu and 100 miles away are already mountains above 10,000 ft high.   Camping was a foreign concept in those days for tents were invariably bulky and heavy, if they existed at all.  The ones we used must have come from army surplus.  About 30 of us, together with quite a few male teachers to act as porters, were loaded onto a bus early one morning while parents waved good bye outside.  Off we went and for some of us it was the furthermost trip we had ever made in our short lives. 

We headed due west followed by a northward turn along the Little Jinsha Jiang, a tributary of Jinsha Jiang, which is in fact renamed the Yangtze Jiang 140 miles south at Chungking.  We were heading towards a region - Kham, which is a very remote region of Tibet.  There, many Buddhist monasteries dot the high mountain valleys which have almost a 50% - 50% mixture of Chinese and Tibetan population.  This region is in fact a treasure trove of Tibetan relics, for whenever there have been political turmoil or conflict in Lhasa in the past, precious artifacts were brought here for safekeeping.   There is one monastery in Dege which still prints books the same way since the 13th century, by using carved wooden blocks dipped in paints of different colors.

Today, this area is open to the hardened and dedicated tourist.  Two US journalists have written about their pilgrimage to these monasteries in the New York Times (Hessler, 3/19/2000).  One tends to assume that over 10,000 ft, there are just rocks and snow which cannot support any vegetation.  In fact, one can find, sheltered from the wind, particularly in the crevasses in the rocks, an amazing number of species of flowers more or less recognizable as dwarf versions of our common garden varieties.  For example, lilac with its beautiful scent grows to just one inch tall, yellow anemone with its almost translucent delicate petals seems well adjusted here swaying in the cold wind.  On patches of meadow or moss, the two journalists reported that:

'The hillsides shimmer with gentians, blue bells, forget-me-nots, edelweiss and orchids.'

All these flowers which I thought were exclusive to the European Alps. Even orchids may have originated from this region of the Himalayas.  Something which may not be generally known - rhododendrons actually come from the Himalayas.  In fact a slightly dwarf version may be found in the wild all over the Himalayas above the 10,000 ft mark.   Climbers on the way to the Everest have often remarked on their beauty in Nepal.  For accommodation, there are simple bed and food in the monasteries, if you like yak milk, that is.  It is in fact possible to go by bus or trek with a local guide like   Yi-Yi  or  Er-Er  (Chapter  2) over the 16128 ft Tro La pass to the Sichuan —Tibet highway #317 on the other side.  This highway is merely a one lane dirt track littered with many wreckage of abandoned cars, but it does take you to Llasa.   It is not uncommon to find Buddhist monks who have done it on solitary treks all the way from Llasa.

The bamboo suspension bridge
After a long day of bumping away on the potholes of a single lane gravel road, we stopped for the night in a school building with our sleeping bundles on the floor of the classrooms.  Next day the bus followed the valley of the Little Jinsha Jiang and we eventually arrived at a big clearing.  The way in front looked like an un-scalable steep wall but as always, a closer examination revealed hair lines with occasional switch backs, evidence of human engineering.  In fact this is a road leading to the 16128 ft high Tro La pass.  I started wondering what was to come next, for surely they are not going to drag me up the Tro La pass, after all I was only 10 years old and most of the children there were older.  Then my eyes came upon a bamboo suspension bridge across the wide river.  People were unloading our tents from the bus and preparing them to be carried across this bridge.   My classmates were given orders to carry bags, but I was too small and slight to be of any use.

I had never seen a suspension bridge before and this one took some understanding.   This is in fact the famous Anlan ancient suspension bridge across the Minjiang river — gateway into Tibet from China through the frontier town of Chengdu.  It is part of an irrigation infra-structure, Dujiangyan, built in 256 BC during the Warring States Period of China by the Kingdom of Qin.   It is extremely beautiful and exotic and can be even traveled by tourists today. (  The floor of this bridge consists of many wooden planks about 5 ft long, 6 inch wide and 1 inch thick, tied together by 2 jute ropes at a distance of 4 ft apart.  Laid out on land it would look just like railway sleepers joined together by the two parallel railway tracks on either side.  The river at this point is about 150 ft wide, although about one third of this is dry, littered with piles of large and small boulders brought in by the torrent when the river is swollen with snow melts.   In the spring, the whole of the river bed is occupied and the river must look really formidable.  To my young eyes, the river in the summer looked fearsome enough as it was, with dashing green waters and large white crests dancing about in the water that is probably no more than 7 ft deep.  Because the building materials of this bridge are just bamboo and rope, both perishable in water and in the relentless sunshine which beats down on it for most of the year, the bridge has to be laboriously re-made every year.  In early winter, when the river is at its lowest level, 4 pylons, each made up of 4 or more very tall and strong bamboo trunks, would be sunk into the riverbed, something which would be done with concrete stumps today.  In addition, there are 2 pylons on dry land, one on either side of the river to form the approaches to the bridge.  The 'sleeper' system, long enough to span the whole width of the river and its approaches are draped on the pylons. Two jute ropes are also draped on the pylons at a height of 3 ft above the floor to form guard rails.

To cross the bridge, one has to walk on the swaying wooden planks with large gaps in between.  Since the jute ropes sag by a large amount between the pylons, one is walking all the time up towards a pylon and then down from it, this repeated 5 times.  When there is a gust of wind, then one is indeed in real danger of falling off into the river because the whole of the 'sleeper' planks forming the floor of the bridge would be making large swings from side to side.   I was probably the youngest in the group of campers and my feet were small.   After taking my first few steps gingerly, I found my foot would slip between the gaps of the 'sleepers'.  One look down at this torrential river below was enough to start me crying.  Luckily, a teacher in front heard me, he turned back and with a no nonsense swing of his arm hoisted me onto his shoulders, while muttering to himself:

"Why they have to bring a sucking baby here, I don't know."

"I am not a baby, the gaps of your bloody f------ bridge are too big!"  I retorted. 

Rather surprised at my swearing, which certainly was not learned at home.

From there on, I was able to enjoy myself and even dared to look down at this frightening river.   As we reached the other side and the teacher put me down, I thanked him and walked away.  Another teacher who was just in front of us turned round and I overheard him saying to the teacher who carried me:

"You shouldn't have said that, you know her father is the minister of education!"

Though I was only 10 years old, and I did not yet know how the world functioned, still, the whole episode left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I hurried to catch up with my girl friends.  I told them the story and almost all of them laughed:

"So, Mr Liu called you a sucking baby?  How funny, Ha, Ha, Ha! ..........."

I regret having ever brought up the subject.