It was a glorious feast for the eyes, and a banquet for the soul.
Our bus choked and spluttered as it began its journey along the The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: an ambitious name for such a puny road studded with potholes and random piles of rubble. The carriage was thick with a noxious cigarette fumes. Buckets of live fish splashed and sloshed with every bump, soaking my my legs and saturating my socks. Meanwhile, the Buddhist monks to whom the fish belonged sat quietly, admiring the passing scenery.
I looked around at my neighbours, and wondered what it was that brought them on their journey to Ganzi. Were they, like me, following a path to self discovery? Were they working away in order to provide for their families? Were they beginning a pilgrimage? Or were they here just because some guidebook particularly recommended a visit? Whatever their motivation, it really didn’t matter. After all, we were all aboard the same bus, breathing in the same smoke contaminated air, and each cavity in the road shook all of our bodies equally and without discrimination. United by circumstance, we continued upon our journey.
This was China, but hundreds of miles from the cut-throat economic development of it’s pulsating metropolises. In the world’s most densely populated nation, our bus was trundling through an immaculate mountain wilderness, untouched by the human desire to ‘improve’ upon its surroundings. No Yangtze Dam would be found here. Nor Grand Canal diverting nature’s preferred course. Why does progress look so much like destruction?
The Tibetans on the other hand, are people irresistibly at one with their environment. Their hand-built homes in western Sichuan Province, at ten thousand feet altitude, are quite literally castles in the sky. Huge yet unassuming buildings, perfectly adapted to their location, and sturdily built for longevity using the huge rocks quarried nearby.
Sixteen hours after commencing its epic journey we arrived in Ganzi, much to the relief of my travel-weary companions. It was a fascinating mess of people, architecture, and nature. Local Tibetans and Khamba rode past on their twenty-first century horses — motorbikes decorated with red and yellow ribbons adorning the handlebars. Monks strolled by, elegant and serene in their exquisite crimson robes. Chinese women paraded themselves in tight jeans, high-heeled shoes and a face full of meticulously applied make-up. Bright-eyed, brown-faced Tibetan traders proudly displayed their craftsmanship, which included magnificent daggers and finely crafted prayer wheels. Meanwhile, they all seemed to stare inquisitively at the overwhelmed foreigner, who stuck out like a sore thumb in her Ray-ban’s and walking boots, GoPro camera in hand attempting to capture forever a portion of the magic from that moment.
Ganzi’s old town sits on the slope of a hill overlooking the new town and wide river valley just beyond. The mud-walled buildings huddle together, as if for shelter against the harsh weather, creating a maze of narrow alleyways leading upwards towards the temple sitting at the top of the slope. Smoke from coal fires filled the air, while the heart-warming sounds of rosy-cheeked Tibetan children giggling and laughing played like music to my ears. The maze of alleyways eventually got the better of us, and whilst we knew that the temple stood just ahead of us, the path to it proved elusive. Fortunately, an elderly Tibetan gentleman named Dawa came to our rescue. His face had a sincerity and openness unlike any i had seen before. He spoke softly, with a calm resignation, and his face held a perpetual smile as if painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. As he led us on the correct path towards the temple, he appeared to float through the landscape as if he were an organic part of it. He spoke of his simple life, growing up with wild animals, and claimed that he was probably close to ten before he first heard a mechanical sound. He was not just an observer of his world but connected to it in the most primal sense. His was a different world than mine. I felt a great sense of gratitude, realising that he was imparting knowledge learned by his people throughout centuries. I found my attitude towards them shifting from “These poor and impoverished people” to “These incredibly happy and contented people.”
We arrived at the temple. It was bustling, vibrant and flooded with incredible thangkas (Tibetan religious paintings) depicting Buddha, Gods of Destruction, Creation, and Compassion. Glorious golden statues of Buddha and his disciples could be found in every room. On our exploration we stumbled upon a group of meditating monks, reciting a sutra alongside a musical accompaniment of sacred horns and bamboo flutes. The overpowering smell of yak butter candles, the stunning aesthetic beauty and the enchanting sounds of music and prayer combined to overwhelm my senses.
As we left one of the temple buildings, we found ourselves upon a large outdoor terrace overlooking Ganzi and offering incredible views of the whole valley. A group of twenty young monks were dancing majestically, their robes floating and swirling through the air, their steps timed to the beat of drums. Lost in a blur of bodies and crimson cloth, the monks danced, swayed and spun with happiness radiating from their jubilant faces. Far in the distance Chola Mountains could be seen soaring into the heavens, while the cloudless blue sky played host to the majestic flight of eagles. In that breathtakingly beautiful and profound moment, everything made sense. I was not a tourist, a foreigner or an outsider and the monks were not Tibetans, nor strange and exotic dancers. We just were. We were all connected and participating, one way or another, in this same heart-stopping incredible moment, all part of nature’s beautiful creation, and all profoundly appreciative of her richness and might. Something, even if for only a fleeting moment, united everyone present. As I learned to slow down and listen, those sounds began to emerge. The earth was playing a symphony.