The most beautiful place in the world
A family of Tibetans, swollen and plump from thick layers of yak-wool clothing, stare with bemusement from the confines of their stone garden wall. The eldest lady, assuming our direction, points up the hill and mumbles something in Tibetan.
They have small crimson rounds for cheeks from years of biting mountain cold, their skin has the dull sheen of worn leather and their eyes cast a constant look of inquisitiveness. Curious of us no doubt, as we clamber up the dusty path snaking above the modest settlement of sturdy stone and impressive craftsmanship.
Hands on hips and slightly bent over in the glare of the early spring sunshine, we are breathless, from the thin air at 4010m above sea level, and from the phenomenal natural beauty that lays before us. Piercing the horizon is the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world.
It is a strange kind of beauty in the depths of Tibetan Sichuan. Raw and dramatic, with its fearsome grey mountains topped with a delicate halo of snow, they rise so high above the endless grasslands, somehow managing to dwarf the rugged expanse below.
Image by Olivia Toye
As we had wound through the pass to Tagong that morning, the cursive Tibetan script was painted on large smooth boulders along the riverbed. A Buddhist prayer sheet gushing through the valley.
It is an unexplainable feeling to look upon somewhere that is defined by such religious significance, by the perseverance of a traditional culture, by persecution and occupation. Though gone are the days of Genghis Khan’s sword-wielding Mongol armies, the Chinese grip on the homeland of the God King still leaves a thick veil of mystery around the nomads.
Yet in this small Tibetan town in western Sichuan, there is almost no trace of the Chinese. The people are taller and broader. The colours are richer; deep burgundies and burnt oranges replace the brashness of neon red. The gutsy sounds of the Sichuan dialect fade to the melodic rasp of Tibetan, and no one is rushing. It is calm.
We sit outside the monastery watching people come and go, the monks shuffle across the cobbled stone floor from one side of the compound wall to the other, where the large barrel like prayer wheels spin with Buddhist hopes. The matriarchs in their Tibetan dress sit in groups of three or four and chatter, casting a watchful eye on the little ones – nothing but rosy cheeks and grubby little hands poking out from their swaddling.
As the sun comes down on Tagong, the colours intensify in the golden hue; the mountains in all their majesty stand almost in protection of the land beneath them. We have left China behind; the only thing west is the wilderness of the Plateau. We are almost in Tibet.