Day 1 - Abstract = After the morning flight from Chengdu-Chamdo, we cross 2 passes before descending the Mekong to Drayab where we stop for lunch. In the afternoon we visit its monastery and go up the Mekong to Chamdo, the regional capital of Kham (in the East of Tibet).
Chengdu, Potala Hotel. Gao Li kiang wants us to arrive at the airport two hours before the scheduled flight departure so we awake at 5h30. After having quickly made our ablutions and gathered our luggage we go down to have, for the last time, a short breakfast in this large dining room which resembles a small theatre and whose scene represents an immense fresco with Potala in relief. Our friend awaits us in the hall and we leave in the small agency minibus. In the airport, the personnel present form small groups while waiting for the beginning of service! We are the first to register our luggage then we leave our Chinese friend who has done everything to make our stay pleasant in Chengdu. He has the serene look of the Dalai Lama but was almost 1m85 tall which is very unusual in China. We made heaps of promises together.
We wait in the vast gray hall which resembles a smaller version of the new airport in Hong Kong. We have time to have a coffee; Olivier makes a better choice than I, which satisfied with an ordinary one to which I add, as usual, on journeys some pinches of "Nestle Cappucino". We move to the end of the hall with our luggage then reach on the left the departure lounge nb 40. The Boeing 737 looks very small, but we are next to a window.
The first part of the flight is over a landscape of low hills with terraced cultivation but gradually we climb above a sea of mountains whose summits, close to 6000 meters, are covered with snow. The shear size of of the mountain makes us realize why access to Tibet and its culture is sttill so difficult. After half an hour's flight above these snow capped summits, we can see some of the N-S valleys and the plane plunged sharply to the left, to follow the axis of a broad valley and land.
The sky is blue and the temperature is fresh, close to 10 degrees. We are in a small airport. The guide and the driver greet us with great smiles. They tell us that the South road is again cut but that it will perhaps reopen in a few days. We do not react however as we are so happy to be here. They came by the North road after having left Lhasa one week earlier. After collected and loaded our luggage we take the road to Chamdo. Half-way a junction leads to Drayab. As Drayab is scheduled in the program, I suggest to them we visit the monastery of Drayab today before reaching Chamdo. My proposal is accepted.
The valley that we are traveling through is rather broad and devoid of any visible vegetation. After 20 minutes, it narrows quickly. We cross a bridge which carries us to the side of the river. We go up the river then the valley veers to the right. We reach a crossing which shows the way to Luolang in the W. We travel in a north-easterly direction and the road starts to go up.
We reach a small pass then we take a magnificent valley towards the E and we climb.
A series of wide bends leads us to the Chomo la pass which is 4475m high. The snow-covered summits appear. The temperature is close to zero!
While descending the pass, a new series of bends cross several hamlets which have all the name of Yuche until we reach the bed of a river that we follow first to the right then to the left. The valley is V shaped and relatively narrow. There are some trees, barley cultures and isolated farms.
Ten kilometers further, we come to the village of Kyitang and then later we cross the Ser chu river which goes up towards the N.
We follow it for a moment then precede upwards. The road climbs on the eastern side the Ser chu valley towards the last pass for the day. There are beautiful landscapes to photograph on our left.
The road crosses, by a furrow, the rock line which separated us from the valley of Mekong and we descent linearly almost 10 kilometers towards the bottom of the valley. We come upon a spectacular view of the Mekong valley below. The valley is entirely deserted, except for some rare oases of green fields, located at the E of the river.
At the bottom of this descent we join the road which follows the bed of the Mekong river and leads to Chamdo to the N or to Drayab to the S. We give up the good road to take a rough track which skirts the river in the direction of the S; the valley remains always in a pronounced V shape.
We pass three affluants of the eastern bank of the Mekong. To the intersection, these side valleys widen and some terrace cultivation surround the Tibetan villages. Small metal bridges 1m broad cross the Mekong make it possible to reach the village from the new road.
We can still see the old track which skirts the river to the E side and see several groups of Tibetans leading laden yaks on this bank. We cross the Mekong at the Drentsa Druka Bridge, the road still follows the river for a few more kilometers before turning to the left. We cross a valley which starts from the E at the village of Towa. The road a little later leads into Drayap.
We pass some modern buildings on both sides of the road before arriving in a city in construction whose level is approximately 1 meter above the existing road. We enter this city while following the bed of the river. We stop the vehicle to lunch but one needs a ladder or use steps to reach the level of the shops! The monastery is 300m in the northern direction, on the left. After tasting our first Tibetan lunch, we cross back Drayap and take a track which leads to the entry of the monastery.
The monastery was built in1640. It is called Magon or "Mother Monastery" as it is the first of a series of 18 built in this area. Its full name is Drayab Tashi Chödzom.
After having crossed the gate and a first courtyard, we arrive at second one where we see the main temple or Dukhang. Here the Rinpoche (the superior of the monastery) is in exile in Germany whilst the monks who are reduced in numbers and do their best to restore, maintain and rebuild new buildings. We also visit the first floor chapels.
The monks show us a photograph of the old monastery and offer us some Tibetan tea and sweets in the kitchen. The building is austere which shows well that all was rebuilt as the original. By leaving the monastery we take a last glance at the city.
We then leave Drayab to take this rough road up to Chamdo junction. There is very little traffic. We pass one truck! We finally find the concrete road which meanders along the river and a rather wild valley.
We pass three villages and cement works before reaching Chamdo in the evening. The old city was located at the intersection of the Mekong and Ngom chu rivers. The modern city overflows on two other banks. The Chinese built many towers which disfigure the landscape and mask the monastery buildings.
We cross two bridges entering in the new suburbs located S-E of the city. We find rooms in a small hotel and dine in a small restaurant nearby. In evening, as on the following days, I write a report of the day and note GPS points, often under uncomfortable conditions. That takes one to two hours at least.