Pandas and the Prairie

It was with only mild surprise that I opened one eye to see our driver hunched over the open engine block inside our bus, tightening the front strop holding the motor in place of the 30 seater. The man across from me pulled out an old silver lighter. Smoking on a full bus is part and parcel of a journey at 6am in south Sichuan. In front of me sat numerous farmers wearing corduroys with cowboy hats and four monks, one with a flamboyant maroon cap, reminiscent of William Tell. A man with crates of yak cheese piled them onto the bus. Everything smelled of yak, and the dust formed a paste in our lungs. Yvonne struggled with sleep next to me as we wound our way through small Himalayan villages.

Two days before, we were living a life of comparative opulence in Chengdu. A city that was most memorable for its lack of dramatics. Life was easy. No mean feat for major city in China to a couple without language. As we would find out in a few days it could be very much a challenge.

For Chengdu, the hospitality, the mouth blistering hotpot and the baby pandas had conspired together to create some of the most enjoyable days so far. A pile of 6 month old Panda cubs learning to walk stopped us in our tracks for over 45 minutes. Single handedly eclipsing every online cat video for tangible cuteness.

But we chose to leave, to make journey along the Tibet highway towards the west. Involving 5 full days on destitute busses through mountain passes, plus days for retiring our sore bones in the villages along the way.

As we got deeper along the highway, a loose description, given the speed of our vehicles. We found a village at the breathless height of 4200m called Litang. Predominantly Tibetan, but officially outside the state, the main road was a mix of cowboys on motorbikes laden with carcasses, wrinkled Tibetans with perpetually spinning prayer wheels and an oversupply of zealous Police. For the first time in two weeks we were greeted with smiles by strangers in the street.

We soon learned that the surrounding prairie was home to a nomadic group and natural hot pools. I’ve never hailed a taxi to a prairie before, and never regretted not getting a drivers phone number more than when we arrived and the driver left. We forewent the hot pools, as we arrived to what looked more like a prison cell with single light bulbs hanging over baths of mud water in a concrete box. Rather, we walked west, into someone’s back yard as it turned out. We declined the offer of another hot pool and carried on swept up by the romantic notion of the unknown. Optimistically equipped for the trek, it was a hill that provided our first challenge. Not a big hill, but at altitude, enough of a gradient to make the lungs and legs burn of a tri weekly netball player.

As the skies darkened around us we found some nomad yak herders, a grandmother and her granddaughter. They were beautifully warm, we exchanged the few words we could and they pointed us toward the distant tent village of their home. Convincing the now wheezing Yvonne it looked close enough, no more than a walk from Roseneath to the train station, we set off.

Clearing a ridge enroute, we spotted two groups of Yak coming together. Making our way toward them, it was only as the Yaks started barking we realized they were actually wild Himalayan dogs. Backtracking quickly, we rounded the pack of behemoths, one eye continuously behind us.

Sometime later, tired, dusty and feeling very far away we finally crossed the last swampy marsh to the cluster of tents. The people, somewhat surprised, welcomed us kindly. Yvonne stepped into the main tent, from which we could hear children chanting.  This proved quite distracting for the young monks inside. It didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t the best time or place for female visitors, and as the chanting became disorderly through the giggling and glancing of novice monks, we retreated before being chastised by the elders.

Outside while talking to a young family two dogs began attacking a small herd of sheep. It was biblical, as a young maroon robed monk ran toward the herd I followed. Quickly finding a use for the rocks I was carrying, making a good hit on one of the marauding predators. They ran, the sheep though injured we’re alive, and I returned feeling prehistorically satisfied.

On leaving I regretted that. With two km between the nomads and the nearest houses we made our way from the tents. In no man’s swamp one of the yak size dogs began barking, we kept walking. As the dog came towards us, and eagles circled above, I wished for more stones, as the second dog came, I wished for a Landover.

Dogs are scared of people, someone told me that. But when your 5 foot 7 and three quarters, making yourself as big as you can, and the dogs continue coming closer, with their hair on end, saliva dripping from their teeth in between barks, you question that.

With the sun going down, in the middle of nowhere being alone on the prairie had become more visceral than romantic. Yvonne walked behind me, now with both arms raised, rock in hand. I kept my eyes locked on the two bear like dogs in front with one approaching from the side. Our minds wondered where was the larger packs we had seen just hours ago.  3 dogs, 2 rocks, and only 1 way home. Run? Probably a bad idea.  At the point in the standoff when the teeth and barking got as close five metres, feigning throws of our rocks was the only thing between us and them. At least that worked, barking back certainly didn’t. After an eternity of tense sidling we came close to the houses and road. Eyes still locked with the snarling dogs, we began to leave them very gradually. Leaving their territory. It wasn’t for another 300 metres that we were able to turn our backs on them, and even then not for long.

It was at least another hour before we found a way back to the village, but it was also that night we discovered the 2 dollar bottles of spice infused dark spirit. We called it Christmas for its taste, but after that day it just tasted like celebration.

Written by Mickey