Getting to Sêrtar was probably the toughest journey I have ever made in China. 14 hours of grueling driving with virtually no amenities along the way. The journey was particularly bad because it was done at the peak of the highway re-construction that should make it all pretty straightforward when the road is finished.
Sertar is the nearest town to the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy. The largest such institute in the world which is located in the large but isolated Larung Valley. Some 4,000m above sea-level in the Kham Tibetan region of western Sichuan.
I was traveling with my good Chinese friend Jun Quan and one of his mates Ray, together with his son Rhett – it’s kind of a Chinese fashion thing to take English names, usually from movies they have watched…
Getting to Sêrtar – Ma’erkang to Sertar
We had left Chengdu the previous day and stayed overnight at the city of Ma’erkang where we discovered the local speciality of dong chong xia cao – “winter insect, summer herb”.
The next morning we were up early as it looked like we had a long and difficult day ahead of us. It’s about 250kms from Ma’erkang to Sêrtar. And the road had been earmarked to be upgraded and extensive work was under way along much of the journey.
The Chinese have done a lot of road-building and are generally pretty good at it. As any journey around the country will tell you… However in remote regions there is a distinct lack of any discipline with regard to managing the backed-up traffic caused by the road work.
Most Chinese drivers have a similar lack of discipline. And so the overall situation rapidly turns chaotic when there is a blockage. Turning in to a free-for-all where the driver of the big SUV (which are very popular…) is king and feels entitled to try and force their way through somehow!
The Kham region was historically the eastern part of Tibet before the Chinese “liberation” in 1951 and then when the Chinese government established the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965 it split Kham, with the western part Qamdo merged in to the TAR, while the eastern part Xikang became part of Sichuan province.
Because Sêrtar and Larung Gar are in the Sichuan part of Kham the special permit needed to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is not required. So it feels a bit like “Tibet-Lite” at first, but there is no mistaking the Tibetan influence…
Getting to Sêrtar – MRE’s…
There are almost no amenities once you leave Ma’erkang. So we ended up eating on the side of the road with the Chinese equivalent of the US Army’s MRE’s. Self cooking meals that are “ready to eat”…
Don’t ask me how it worked, but it did and we got by. Unfortunately there were no vegetarian versions available so I had to pick out the bits of chicken in my MRE. But beggars can’t be choosers!
About 11 hours in to the journey we were about an hour away from the small town of Larung Gar. Where you would leave the main road and head up into the Larung Valley for the Buddhist Institute. It was at this point that the guys got a signal on their phones and my very limited Mandarin allowed me to grasp that they were trying to book a hotel – for that night!
I later learned that they had been unable to book a hotel for us in advance. Because the on-line systems were calling out really high prices and had decided to wait till we got there to get better prices…
This was not really news I was pleased to hear. But managed to retain my calm and say nothing as it would only have made them even more nervous!
About 20.00 we arrived in Larung Gar and found the “hotel” that said it had rooms available when they called. The guys went in to inspect the place, but returned about 5 minutes later saying it was “too basic”.
Which I later learned meant a dormitory room and communal showers and toilets. In what could be referred to as being in a somewhat agricultural condition.
So we headed for Sêrtar, about 20 kms further on. Which took another two hours of driving because of the terrible road. But we were rewarded with rooms at the “best” hotel in town…
I knew it would be a classy place when we had to wake up the receptionist from her bed behind her desk! But at 23.00 at night and after 14 hours of driving, a bed is a bed and I was very grateful for it!