Something is wrong. I can tell by the flight arrival board that my photo tour group has arrived long enough for them to go through customs and get their bags. By now they could have even stopped for a leisurely meal. I’m standing on tip toes and craning my neck just in case they didn’t go to the other exit gate. Then I see him by the baggage carousels—Ron Nickel, the Digital Media instructor for Prairie College in Alberta, Canada, waves his hands. He approaches. The rope barricades keep about 40 feet between us. Ron yells, “our bags didn’t make it.” (Not a great way to start a tour in Tibet). We fill out forms and cross fingers (that the bags arrive before we leave Chengdu in two days). Then, our fourth annual Prairie Digital Media Eastern Tibet Photo Tour commences as we head to the hotel. Despite missing their bags because of a too-tight connection in Beijing, the group is in high spirits.
The hotel is warm, welcoming and serves an amazing international buffet breakfast. So, after a good sleep and hot shower, the group is cheerful and excited for the Giant Panda Research Breeding Center tour scheduled for the morning. Throughout the day our operations manager calls the airport every couple of hours. Still no bags. We plan to leave the next morning for Kangding. We hit Jinli Walking Street for hotpot and Sichuan Opera dinner-theater style. Even after seeing it dozens of times, the face changing performance amazes and bewilders me. Just like that, we are kids again at a magic show. Delighted and slightly overwhelmed by the sensory overload of the Jinli commercial atmosphere, we weave through tens of thousands of tourists who have descended upon Jinli for the May 1st holiday. My phone rings. The bags are at the hotel. Relief.
The next morning, we load the van and sing “The Greatest Showman” tunes on the way out of Chengdu. Spirits are very high. A Million Dreams and expectations flutter through our imaginations of what we may encounter when we reach Eastern Tibet. Thanks to a newly constructed highway from Ya’an to Kangding, our driving time is kept to under four hours. This is Ron Nickel’s fourth trip and he and I are the only ones who know how fast four hours is. Four years ago, the same leg took 13 hours due to a landslide and traffic accident. The song Come Alive keeps us dreaming with our eyes wide open as we pull into Kangding.
The next day we hear there is a monk who has recently graduated from Harvard and is keeping the temple on top of Paoma Mountain. Through Kris, our friend at Zhilam hostel, we schedule a time to interview him, but the climb up the mountain stairway proves that most of us do not yet have our “altitude legs” under us. We arrive over an hour late to our appointment. But Shamba is still smiling as we arrive haggard and catching our breath. Shamba is a handsome man in his late twenties and graciously forgives our tardiness. He gives us a brief tour of the temple and then takes us up to the roof for a breathtaking view of Kangding. It feels like we’re Walking a Tightrope. Shamba turns out to be an avid photographer. Ron and he geek out for a bit on camara bodies and lenses and then he sits for a quick photo shoot.
The next morning we rise early (4:30am!) to drive up to the Yajiagen pass for a sunrise shoot of the mountains. Negotiating lack of sleep for the promise of great time-lapses in the cold feels a bit like getting the short end in The Other Side, but proves to be totally worth it! That afternoon, the staff at Zhilam hostel help us arrange a couple of Tibetan models to sit for a photo shoot. We find a beautiful, old, abandoned, broken-down house that works really well for a backdrop. It starts to rain just as we get set up, so we quickly run down the hill to a new Tibetan guesthouse below the monastery. The glassed-in atrium is a perfect plan B.
After two days in Kangding, feeling full and acclimated, we drive out to Tagong in search of our next adventure. The pass takes us up past 4200 meters. Come Alive beckons us to reach for the sky and to keep dreaming with our eyes wide open. With our eyes wide open, we see Mt. Gongga on the horizon. The peak emerges for about 40 seconds from surrounding thunderclouds—enough time to snap a few pixelated iphone shots. We zoom past an old man on the side of the road and Ron yells, “Stop!…Turn around. I want to talk to that man.” I obey and somehow turn my 8-passenger van around on the narrow road with ditches on both sides. The man is a 67-year-old Khamba nomad and is selling yoghurt. I translate for Ron, “These photographers would like to pay you to take your photo. Is that ok?” The man smiled an enthusiastic yes and quickly shuffled into his little hut. “Where is he going?” Ron asks. “I don’t know,” I reply. After a few moments, the old man comes out wearing his sheep wool Tibetan coat. Now Ron is smiling, “Perfect.”
The next morning, we rise stupid-early, to catch the sunrise over the golden-roofed temple in Tagong. Somehow, Never Enough echoes through my head as we hike up the Tagong hill in the brisk cold of the dark morning: “towers of gold are still too little…”
Khamba Cafe proves to be an excellent spot for a western breakfast. Orders of fried eggs sunny-side-up, toast, bacon, and crepes show up on our table accompanied by steaming cups of hot tea and coffee. A most welcome breakfast. We are all sunny-side-up now. On our way out of town, we stop by the Black Stone Forest National Park. The park has only been open for one year. The wooden bridge walkways still appear new and carry us right into the heart of the Emyn-Muil-esque forest of purply rock outcroppings. Every angle is a beautiful photo op.
We hop back in the van and continue toward Danba. About an hour outside of Danba, we stop beside a swimming hole. We discovered the spot last year and Ron says it was one of his highlights. He came prepared this time with a bathing suit. Nervous about undressing my less-than-chiseled frame in front of others, I remember the lines to This is Me, “I am brave, I am bruised [or chubby around the waist], this is who I’m meant to be,” and finally work up the courage to jump into the still-thawing snow melt…and then immediately yelp like a six-year-old girl as I clumsily scramble out of the water before hypothermia sets in. The shock and the rush of blood to my extremities gives me a sense of relaxed euphoria. We dry off, hop back in the van, and play Come Alive again. Totally worth it.
Danba is a little slice of heaven. It’s the good life. For a farmland town perched high above a river valley, the view is heavenly; the people, hearty; the food, healthy. Ageh, our guesthouse proprietor assures us there are no GMO’s, no harmful pesticides and no hormones given to animals. We believe him because the food leaves you feeling refreshed and satisfied with no sluggishness afterwards. In the course of a meal, our appetites get recalibrated. Who knew that a day in Danba would redefine “food” for us. Ageh’s sister-in-law agrees to be a model for a photo shoot at dusk on the rooftop. The photographers each have their turn shooting and holding flash umbrellas.
Our last full day is spent in Four Sisters Mountain Town in a newly developed boutique tourist section. Newly renovated boutique guesthouses, hostels and restaurants line the streets—all with a wood-log facade that reminds us vaguely of Whistler ski resort town in British Columbia. It’s cute. And still in development. We catch private vehicles up to a ridge where you can see every snow mountain in a hundred miles in every direction. Some of us hike up to 4,500 meters for an even better view. It is both literally and figuratively the summit of our amazing ten-day journey through Eastern Tibet.
As we drive back to Chengdu, we sing From Now On, “And we will come back home. We will come back home…Home Again!” The four-hour drive goes quickly. We reward ourselves with a hefty meal from the Blue Frog in Taikooli. And, yes…it gives us all a food coma and fogs our memories of the heavenly manna from Danba. After a light lunch the next day, we head to the airport, say our farewells and our see-you-next-years. The Extravagant Yak-hosted Prairie Digital Media photography practicum hits another home run and looks forward to doing it again in 2019. If you’re interested in joining an Extravagant Yak photo tour, exploring any area of Tibet, or just singing The Greatest Showman on repeat on beautiful mountain roads, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.