May 18, 1999
I arrived in Luhuo at around noon. It's a logging/industrial town with none of the charm of Ganze (it's much more Han in character). I wanted to leave for Barkam as quickly as possible, but I soon discovered that people in Luhuo rarely travel to Barkam. The next bus was nine days away and the lowest price I could get for a car was an outrageous 2400 quai.
I decided to try to hitch so I went to a bridge where the road left the town and waited. Groups of young boys surrounded me to practice their English skills (Hello! Hello! Fuck you!). Groups of old men surrounded me and pulled on my beard. Groups of young girls surrounded me and giggled. After several unfruitful hours of waiting, being mocked, and getting sunburned, I was about to give up. Not a single car passed going in my direction. Just when I was ready to break, a wealthy Tibetan invited me to his home to eat. He and his daughter had been watching me quietly for over an hour.
His wife cooked us a big dinner and he promised to help. He said he would drive me as far as was possible and then I could walk from there. The next day we departed in his truck. Very quickly I learned why people in Luhou don't travel to Barkam - the road which on the map looks like any other road, is just a logging path. The snow melt had eaten away large sections of this path and at times it just vanished. The truck overheated about every 20 minutes and we kept having to find river water to cool everything down. We also sprung a major oil leak. As access to the engine was through my seat I was covered with oil almost immediately. We went as far as we could (about 2 hours) and then he dropped me off and wished me luck. He told me I was lucky not to have taken another car, because they would have just robbed me anyway. This was a nice bit of advice to ponder as I began walking in the forest.
I walked all day, through the forest and over a pass onto the plateau. Then I descended into another forest where I met some loggers who offered to take me to the next town... a place called Serba. The road began to improve and soon we began passing lots of small settlements.
Serba is a dream village although when approaching you might feel as if you are in a nightmare. Dead dogs hung by the neck are posted on trees in a large circle around the village. This is supposed to scare away the packs of vicious dogs that roam the forest.
The village itself is a collection of giant stone homes clustered in an idyllic valley. There is no guest house, but the owner of the restaurant will let you sleep on the table. At night everyone in town will come around to check you out. Singing is encouraged, even insisted upon. After being sung a song about a man who goes to look for his horse in the mountains, a large Tibetan demanded I sing a song in return. Not being much of a singer all I could offer was the theme song to Gilligan's Island. I tried to explain it as follows "This is the song of a man who finds himself on an island far from the world he knew before. Luckily is not alone, his friends make the stay bearable. They create paradise on the island."
The road from Serba to Markam is dark and shaded. There are many side roads so always be sure you know where you're going when you get to a fork in the road (there are many). It is easy to get lost.
There are many logging lodges (almost always friendly)… eventually the road improves, becomes paved, and you'll see a steady stream of trucks going your way. None of these lodges requires any of the usual PSB paperwork. All are dirt cheap. Plan on sharing a room. At night these lodges fill up with loggers who sit around telling stories, drinking beer, and watching videos. At night you will share a room. The lodges are made of wood and straw but often use coal stoves for heat (fueled by burning lumps of coal) and candles for light. The drivers also always smoke in bed. Before going to sleep always memorize the exits in case of fire which is a very real possibility.
The closer you get to Markam, the bigger the river and the bigger the Tibetan homes. Once you get within 40km of Markam you'll pass an area with 10 story high stone towers. The entire area is dramatic and worth exploring.
Markam is the type of city many people imagine they'll find in China when they know nothing of China - exotic, colorful and fun. The city has at least doubled in size since my last visit in 1992 but even the addition of blue glass and white tiled buildings doesn't diminish the charm of this place. Despite its growth Markam is still relatively compact and easy to cover by foot. You'll find few cars, lots of cyclos, and a good mix of Tibetans, Han, Muslims, and a smattering other minorities. In the surrounding hills (20 minutes walking in either direction) you'll find fantastic examples of large scale Tibetan stone architecture. There are no sites as such, but you'll not run out of things to see.
There are two major hotels (both over-priced but comfortable), and a couple of trucker-type guest houses.
In a city the size of Markam, you would think you could change money, but it is indeed impossible. I tried everywhere. Most people have never even seen western money and wouldn't know what to do with it if they had it.
Note the bookstore is a fantastic source for propaganda posters.
Four different companies run buses in and out of Markam. If the city you want to go to is connected by road - you can probably get there. Busses leave for Lanzhou (2 days), Chengdu (2 days), Kunming (5 days), Hongyuan (1 day), Zoige (1 day), Kanding (2 days), Litang (2 days) and probably lots of other places. You must show travelers insurance or else you will be forced to pay double or triple.
I was headed to Hongyuan - I went by minibus.
The road to Hongyuan rises rapidly. A few hours out of Barkam the trees thin out, you'll cross a pass, and be back on the Tibetan plateau. The temperature will drop dramatically. I have done this trip 4 times during various months and each time we have run into a snowstorm. This trip was no exception. On the mountain there were near blizzard conditions (the hole in the roof of the bus meant that it the blizzard was also inside the bus). The snow stopped as quickly as it started and a few hours later we were in strong (but cold) sunshine.
This is one of my favorite out-there villages. It is a Tibetan cowboy town with rows of pool tables in the streets and guys on horses with guns strapped to their backs wandering around. You will be the center of attention wherever you go.
Several big Tibetan schools are located here and many of the students will offer to take you to their grasslands. If you get the offer - go.
To get to the guest house walk out of the bus station and turn right. It's at the road junction near the school.
This city is even wilder than Hongyuan. Everyone rides around on horseback or on motorcycle. If you want to see/hang out with horseman, this is the place. The city is very small (you can basically see everything from where the bus stops). The guest house is across the square. Use the bathroom at your own risk.
Zoige has grown up in the last few years. The first time I visited, it looked much like Hongyuan does today, but now someone is pumping money into the place. The long lines of wooden yellow stalls are being replaced by white-tiled, blue glassed concrete stores. Local youths fool around on PCs and the cops drive dark windowed SUVs. Still some things stay the same. The government guest house is there as it always, falling apart piece by piece and slowly being covered by layers of soot and filth. Long lines of Tibetans visit the monastery every day (the monastery is newly constructed)… and the PLA marches up and down the streets harassing whoever gets in their way.
The PSB office is interesting if only for its Stalin poster.
The lonely planet mentions a new hotel but it was shuttered when I was there (April).
While there is no official money exchange, the guys in the post office will eagerly change dollars (at a terrible rate).
Note: there are two bus stations. Guide books sometimes refer to the main station, but neither station is the main station (or maybe they both are). If you can't find a bus going your way at one station, just try the other.
Hitching is easy here.
The minibus from Zoige to Lamusi is almost always an experience. Count on getting up close and personal with lots of Tibetans.
Lamusi is one of the most fun monastery towns in China, don't miss it. Probably the most unusual aspect of the town is the casual way in which monks do sky burials. I was allowed to follow and watch. Unlike the other burial I attended this one almost jolly. The man was a drunk one monk told me. Not a good man.
Much has been written about Xiahe elsewhere so I won't waste your time, but note that if the lovely Tara guesthouse mentioned in the LP is full, you should try the "Tibetan guesthouse" a few doors down. It is equally Tibetan and equally comfortable. The Tara was in the process of adding showers when I was there. They should be done by now.
Also if at all possible visit Xiahe on a festival day. This is probably the best place in the PRC to see unfettered Tibetan religious displays.
From Xiahe I continued on to Linxia, Lanzhou, and then to Beijing. But those places probably won't interest the intrepid folk on this list so I'll shut up now.