Hi, I’m Ben, back with my second and final post about photography, travel, and questionable life choices. But this time with less words and more photos!
Earlier this month, thirteen of us took a 14-hour train ride from hot and hazy Hangzhou to the slightly less hot and hazy Chengdu, in what was to the the beginning of our journey through west Sichuan. We rented a minibus in the city and travelled west towards Tibet for the good part of a week before returning to Chengdu to catch the train back. In total, about 50 hours of travelling over 4700km in nine days, reaching altitudes of 3500m above sea level. A lot of hiking, mala-eating, and intense breathlessness was involved.
I was really excited for this trip, since this was my first real opportunity shooting landscapes, and Sichuan is known for its incredible mountain ranges and breathtaking scenery. West Sichuan is also rich in culture and history. Being adjacent to Tibet, Tibetans make up a large percentage of the population in rural west Sichuan. Tibetan Buddhist stupas and prayer flags can be seen throughout the countryside, and the buildings all carry the same distinct traditional style of architecture.
Sadly nine days is not long enough to enjoy what west Sichuan had to offer; recommended trips are anything between two and three weeks. Even so, I took way too many photos, and as usual, the weather was not on my side. While I had hoped for clear skies, the dark clouds serendipitously lent itself for more dramatic shots.
All in all, it was one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had, and it was a pity recess week was so short. I learnt a lot as a photographer during the trip, and I’m really pleased with how my photos turned out. Click on them to enjoy in full resolution!
Changpinggou, Siguniang – One of the three main valleys of Siguniang Scenic Area, Changpinggou borders the western face of Mount Siguniang. The 24km route begins at a Tibetan lamasery and snakes up a mountain pass to the neighbouring valley. The area is named “Four Sisters” after its four highest peaks, the highest ( 幺妹峰; “Peak of the youngest sister”) at 6,250m.
Changpinggou, Siguniang – A few hundred kilometres from Chengdu, Siguniang is deep within the Sichuan wilderness. At over 3,200m above sea level, the altitude sickness become evident even when climbing up one flight of stairs. Anything more strenuous than a brisk walk would leave me breathless after a few minutes. I now know what it feels like to be 80 years old.
Changpinggou, Siguniang – This was the view at our turning back point, because we wouldn’t reach back before nightfall if we continued on. It’s recommended to spend more than two days in the valley, to fully enjoy the entire route. We hoped to see the Four Sisters before leaving, but we were still too far away.
Changpinggou, Siguniang – The host of the hostel we stayed at took the day off to follow us into the valley, and explained how both locals and tourists balance rocks to bring good luck. The higher the stack, the more luck would come your way. Conversely if the tower falls, it’s a sign of bad luck.
Shuangqiaogou, Siguniang – The longest but most accessible of the valleys, Shuangqiaogou has bus stops along the trail, which brings tourists to various scenic spots. Although it rained when we first arrived, it was nothing short of breathtaking, with the mist enveloping the jaggy rock formations. If anything, the rain made everything much more dramatic.
Shuangqiaogou, Siguniang – This Tibetan stupa was was largest of a group at the first stop along the bus route. A place of Buddhist meditation, it is adorned with colourful prayer flags. Each colour has different symbolisms, and have Buddhist text inscribed which can also be seen throughout west Sichuan. While not actually prayers to the gods, the prayer flags are believed purify the air with the mantras and to spread goodwill when blown by the wind.
Shuangqiaogou, Siguniang – While Changpinggou is narrow and filled with dense foliage, Shuangqiaogou is much wider with bare mountaintops. While the four peaks of Siguniang aren’t visible from Shuangqiaogou, many other incredible mountains cover the landscape.
Shuangqiaogou, Siguniang – When the rain finally let up, the valley (literally) took on a new light. The distant snowcapped mountains can be seen even in the summer, and what an even greater sight they would have be with clear skies.
Xinduqiao, Kangding County – Atop a ridge line in Xinduqiao, these horses graze lazily beneath the (for once) blue sky. At 3,500m, we were even higher than our time at Siguniang. Although we only took 10 minutes to hike up the ridge, it really felt like we were going to collapse and die. Nevertheless the view was worth the pain and if it wasn’t for the Tibetan prayer poles in the background, it almost looked like Julie Andrews could have very well be singing how alive the hills were.
Xinduqiao, Kangding County – The day before this shot was taken my friends remarked how starlit the sky was at our Tibetan homestay in Danba. I was unfortunately already asleep. Feeling that I missed a good opportunity, I stayed up at Xinduqiao in my first attempt at shooting the stars. With temperatures dropping to 15°C at night, perhaps shorts and slippers was not the smartest choice. But amidst the clouds, the sky was literally filled with infinite wonder.
Tagong Grassland, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – Located in the historical Kham region of eastern Tibet, the grasslands are surrounded by endless rolling hills. The towns blossom yellow in the summer, thanks to the rapeseed that is commonly farmed around the region. The fields of vibrant yellow could be seen from afar, blanketing the valley.
Tibetan Buddhist rock paintings, Kangding County – Called Mani stones, they littered the side of this hill along the river for several kilometres. We unfortunately couldn’t stop along the road, so I had to take this shot without any proper composition from inside our bus. It was a real sight to behold, and one of the few photos I took not as a photographer but as a tourist.
Mount Yala, Daofu County – At 5,820 metres, Mount Yala is one of the more popular treks in the region. It is covered in snow all year round, and we managed to catch a glimpse of its peak from afar. This was one of the few shots which a clear sky would have made it a hundred times better. Perhaps also being taken from inside the bus does not help.
Bonus photos! If you came for the landscapes, you can stay for the animals!
Wandering around the ground floor of the apartment where we stayed at during our time in Chengdu, this shy tabby stares at everyone with the nonchalance of a typical cat.
Changpinggou, Siguniang – While walking through Changpinggou is a unique experience, the locals also offer horse rides as the less strenuous option. While we saw many horses led by handlers along the trail, we were lucky to find a few wild ones during our rest stop when it rained. This beautiful white mare was also either heavily pregnant or had a giant tumour. Some humans would posit that they are one and the same.
Shuangqiaogou, Siguniang – Changpinggou had so many horses, and Shuangqiaogou had so many yaks. Just like cows, but so much hairier. Throughout our journey in west Sichuan, yak dung littered the streets of rural towns. It was quite a sight (and smell).
Xinduqiao, Kangding County – Stray dogs roamed the town; very approachable and very dirty. A group of five of them visited us at our youth hostel, playing in the nearby flower patch and lazing on the warm asphalt. Clearly not their first rodeo together.
Xinduqiao, Kangding County – A group of us first saw this white mountain dog mix sleeping in a souvenir shop. I seemed to have made an impression on him because he quickly stuck to me, all the way back to our hostel where the other dogs were still playing. Clearly bigger and much older, he appeared to be the alpha male. Perhaps, just for that day, I was the alpha of the alpha?