From Litang, I caught a bus (again, through some stunning scenery) to Xinduxiao where I had to transfer to a share cab going towards Tagong.
Tagong is known mostly for its beautiful grasslands.
It’s a town that has become very popular with both foreign and Chinese tourists because of it’s relative proximity to Kanding, a small city that’s a day’s drive to the southeast. One can easily arrive in town and set up a tour and home-stay with some of the nomads that live in the nearby grasslands.
I actually wasn’t planning on stopping in Tagong, but logistics forced me to overnight and I spent an afternoon and morning wandering around the town. Tagong sits right on a highway that runs far up into the interior of Tibet. In my few hours there, I noticed many fancy SUVs stopping just long enough for the Chinese tourists to jump out, grab a local Tibetan for a photo and spin the prayer wheels the wrong way (please always spin them clockwise!). Unfortunately, I noticed a few foreign tourists doing the same things. I felt that the atmosphere in town wasn’t very friendly. It may have been because of things like this, or it may have just been me, I don’t know.
I talked to other travelers who said the the tours of the grasslands were quite lovely. If I have the chance in the future, I would probably skip the town and do my best to visit them. There are also many treks in the area and a nearby humongous holy mountain called Mt. Jara (5820 m).
My goal was to visit the town of Dawu, a few hours north by share taxi. I remember the Lonely Planet I was using only had about two sentences on Dawu. It basically said that it was a small town on the way from Tagong to Garzê that you could stop in if you had to, but that most people just drove on by. Sounds perfect to me! It’s always nice to get off the tourist trail and explore something new!
The trip from Tagong immediately started off beautifully. I was crammed in a share taxi between a Tibetan monk and a nomadic man who hadn’t had a shower in months. In front of me were three more nomads, one with a chicken in a small cage (I shit you not) this is the stuff dreams are made of!
Upon arriving in Dawu, I asked around for a hotel and was referred to a sort-of home stay behind a restaurant. Without a doubt, this was the best place I’ve ever stayed in my travels. The owners showed me to the most ornately decorated room I have ever seen. It seems that this place was usually used as a late night stop for Chinese tour groups and I had it all to myself any other time. The owners were so happy to have a foreigner, they let me have my own private room, complete with 7 beds!
The town of Dawu itself doesn’t have anything that would attract the usual tourist. There is only one “site”. It’s a big stupa that really isn’t much different from the big stupas in other towns. Even the monastery is fairly boring. But once I dug a little deeper and tried to interact with the local people, I found that Dawu was really was special.
Unlike some of the popular towns like Tagong where the local people seem to be tired of tourists, I found that the people in Dawu were very friendly and willing to spend a long time talking trying to talk to a foreigner like myself.
I used a technique I often use in towns like this and I tried to do what the locals were doing. This is always good advice if you really want to feel that you’re getting involved in the local culture. In Tibetan towns, this means spinning prayer wheels and walking koras.
Spinning prayer wheels is easy. Just walk past some prayer wheels and spin them! It’s very, very important to spin them the right way. Always use your right hand and you’ll spin them correctly… clockwise.
Walking a kora means walking in a big, clockwise circle around something holy. You can walk a kora around a stupa, a holy mountain, a holy lake, a holy city like Lhasa… but they’re usually walked around the local monastery.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that spinning prayer wheels and walking koras help give you good karma. This will give you credits in the afterlife and help you to be reincarnated as something good. Tibetans also seem to appreciate foreigners who really do this. In other words, you have to really put in some work and walk around the monastery a few times before shoving a camera in everyone’s face.
People often ask me how I get as many good travel portraits as I do. They usually just want to know about the technical info: the camera settings, the time of day, etc… But the truth is that if you have a comfortable subject that trusts you, they will look good in any lighting!
I think that, because I used the techniques mentioned above, the locals really started to warm up to me. I found them to be some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met in my travels. It felt great to feel like I was really learning about a culture from the inside and not watching it from the sidelines. I ended up staying in Dawu for a few extra days… just hanging around and doing what the locals were doing…