8:15 am. Danba, high in the mountains of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. We ready our packs, go downstairs to the hostel’s common area and cross the town’s one street to grab some pork and veg-stuffed steamed buns for breakfast. The hostel-owner’s son toddles around the lobby in his blue split-pants, the kind that allow Chinese babies to “go” whenever and wherever they need to.
8:30 am. A small, red van with a red and black vinyl interior pulls up shouting for passengers heading toward Bamei and Tagong (our destination). There are several golden Tibetan charms and two miniature drums hanging from the rear-view mirror, tied up with a white cloth. The driver is a bearded Tibetan man with a smiling, mountain-sun-darkened, deeply wrinkled face. He is wearing a hot pink, textured polo shirt with the logo 361, a popular sports brand, under a very dusty, navy blue blazer, ripped under the armpits so you can see the pink polo when he reaches. One look at our bags, and he motioned to bring them over so he could strap them to the top of the van.
9:40 am. The driver and now five passengers set off, having strapped three more parcels to the top of the van. There is now a large burlap bag of corn overflowing between my feet, a welcome footrest.
10:00 am. We pick up one more passenger. His wife and daughters see him off at the bottom of the hill. He has on his best traveling clothes including a straw hat. All in, three of the men light up cigarettes, filling the van with smoke. After he finishes, one of them proceeds to spit several times on the floor. Fortunately, he’s in the back row.
10:20 am. We make a stop to pick up a giant white bag that looks heavy: contents unknown. It takes three men to lift it to the top of the van, where it’s strapped on top of everything else that has accumulated above. The road from here on continues over dirt, rock, and rubble. It is brain jarring and bone rattling, but the scenery is lovely. We follow the rushing river for over an hour, with small waterfalls and grassy cliffs interspersed with the dusty construction areas and their associated tent communities.
12:30 pm. We pull over in the middle of the road and everyone gets out. The driver looks at me and says, “peepee.” Whew! Just in time. I walk the opposite way of the men and squat in a gully. We’ve climbed quite high, and the breeze is chilly. We’ve started to see more and more prayer flags and yaks.
1:00 pm. Bamei Town. Our driver orders everyone out, and we get shuffled to another minivan. Apparently we have reached the end of his route. The new driver puts our packs in the back of his van. It’s an upgrade, bigger and cleaner. There is a lady in traditional Tibetan clothes and headwrap with her two daughters already in the van, but they get out as we approach. The driver makes some sounds and hand motions that we take to mean we will leave after they eat something, so we wait. We imagine the van is probably also not full enough to leave.
2:05 pm. Sure enough, when 10 are crammed into space for 8 max, we set off again. I sit on one hip and thigh trying to avoid a piece of metal sticking out from the seat. The saffron-robed monk in the front seat listens to his iPod.
2:35 pm. We arrive at last in Tagong. The hills are green and lush, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The monastery dominates the landscape. Rows of glittering prayer wheels are sent spinning by pilgrims and local residents. Colorful prayer flags wind their way up the mountain. Yaks wander through the main square. Amidst all the activity there is an overwhelming sense of peace. I think we’re going to like it here.