Tagong: Motorcycle Monks and the Yak-men

Bridge in Tagong

Intro to Tagong

In this high-altitude land of snow-capped mountains and grassy plateaus, priorities revolve around what helps you to get by. Here, two of those things are spiritual beliefs and yaks. We spent most of our time in Tagong wandering. Our hikes took us most of the day, each day, and were worth every sweaty, lung-challenging step. In town, people gathered to buy and sell, and for transportation. Tagong has got budding tourism as well, though it’s still quite laid-back.

The region’s history, from the  limited amount I picked up, is one of fierce independence, resistance against the Han (and others) and rugged strength. Long ago, people lived under loose fiefdoms, but with so much space were largely left to themselves. Families tend to be large and extended, and close-knit. This Kham region is the easternmost part of the Tibetan Plateau.


Visiting Tagong

This is the Ganzhi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, but, unlike most of the rest of Tibet, a special permit isn’t required to visit here. In some ways, Tibetan culture and lifestyle seems little influenced. On the other hand history and location mean that there is military and police presence close-by, and rules can be made and enforced at any time. Further west, we heard they were sending tourists back saying the area was now closed to tourists. While we were in Tagong, there had been a self-immolation by a monk in a town not so far away in protest, we assume, of the situation of Tibet. The incident was being kept quiet, but the police were on edge.


Hikes around Tagong

One morning we set off from town through the main square in front of the temple that brings people from far and wide to pay respect, spin the prayer wheels and ask for favors. It’s a very important temple, and those who can’t go to Lhasa feel this may be the next best choice. Down the main street, we dodged minibuses calling out for passengers to Danba or Kanding and people selling fruit, Tibetan breads and snacks. Down a side street and over a bridge we pass a more residential area, with typical stone houses and yards.


Pigs wandered in the fields across the street. In front of the monk’s university high on the hill, there were dozens of tents/yurts set up from a gathering a few  days prior.  A few yaks and horses wandered this area too.Where the road turned completely to dirt, and the only signs of activity was a couple of guys with a machine breaking and loading rocks, we head into the hills. All of the slopes were covered with a colorful variety of wildflowers, which kept changing as we climbed higher. The hike brought us eventually to the top of one of the highest nearby peaks.


As we got close, we noticed a huge bird of prey checking us out. We later learned it was most likely a Himalayan Griffon.  Two notions instantly rushed through my mind. One was an automatic flashback to the experience we had being menaced by a big bird in Argentina. (There is definitely a post on THAT experience.) The other was that sky burials are sometimes practiced here, and maybe this guy had a taste for flesh. He was waiting for us to keel over. Buddhists here don’t care much what happens to a body after death. They may cremate, but they may just as likely put the body in they river or have a sky burial, bringing the body to a peak and cutting it to pieces for the birds to take. This can demonstrate the idea that the physical body no longer has any connection to the soul. When we descended a bit, the bird lost interest and disappeared…whew! The views from the top were magnificent: blue sky, puffy white clouds, green hills forever, and the backdrop of snowy Mt. Yala.


We wound our way through the thickening grasses, following a small stream back down another side of the mountain. We could see a road from the top, and eventually made our way to it. On the long walk back, a group of guys who seemed to be taking a break from some heavy labor, invited us to sit with them for a bit. We had some laughs over photos on our camera (we took one together too). They were especially intrigued by the handheld gps we were carrying, recognizing the lay of the land right away when it was zoomed all the way in. Also they were quite interested in Donny’s body hair as most men here have very little. So after a brief show and tell we head back to town.


Another day we took another ridge, following a stream most of the way up to a more forested area. Up and over the ridge, on a plateau far below, were half a dozen tents. There was smoke coming out of a couple of them, and you could just make out people coming and going on the tiny paths that connected them. The hills were dotted with lots of yaks, and at one point we could see a big group of them move as one further down towards the plateau. We couldn’t tell if there was a nomad herding them, or if they’d just been spooked by a loud noise, since there was some thunder rumbling in the distance. It’s possible to arrange visits out to stay on the plain with the nomad families and their yaks, something that might be a good trek someday…


Yet another hike took us much longer than we expected, and was totally different from the others. On the way we saw a number of marmots watching us from close to their holes in they hills. We saw another rounder, larger animal with stripes on his face…still trying to identify that one. Our goal was a monastery, far out on the plain. We could see it from above, but as we got lower, and presumably closer, it seemed to get further and further away. The mirage was shiny white and gold with a big wall around it. Hours later we finally made it and spent some time resting and looking around the impressive building and more modest grounds as maroon and gold-robed monks went about their daily chores. Another 10 or 15 minute walk from the monastery is a nunnery town with some important relics and histories. Towering over it is a hillside covered with a higher density of prayer flags than we’d seen anywhere else. This was another sky burial site.  We improved our time on the trek back, having learned from our mistakes, but still had to muck across the stream a few times.

Khampa Cafe

One factor that strongly contributed to our enjoyment were our meals at Khampa Cafe, where we also stayed in a comfy, snuggly warm bed. Angela, the owner, is American, and married to a Tibetan guy from the area. They have a smart and beautiful 4 year old daughter who loves to play. Angela’s mission is to provide healthy dishes made with local ingredients, allowing people to try Tibetan food or get a taste of home while still supporting local farmers. The food was amazing, hearty, warm and filling. Highlights included the ubiquitous momo (dumpling) filled with either yak meat, potato or vegetables; a juicy, tender yaks steak one night; tsampa (stew); and a Tibetan cheese sampler so ample and rich that we ate it for two days. On a side note, herders would much rather have their yaks alive than dead, so slaughtering them here isn’t all that common. Plus, Buddhists don’t believe in killing at all. The yak meat in the momos we had were from an animal butchered after having been killed by a lightning strike! There are also local clothing/jewelry/bags for sale through the Khampa Nomad Arts, a cooperative of local rural artists.


About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.