The bus ride to Kangding was fucking insane. About halfway (to Ya'an), the ride was on a really smooth highway. Past Ya'an, the road became the most dangerous road I have ever ridden in my entire life. It began to go over some very sketchy mountain passes. It was only two lanes wide and in a lot of places, one of the lanes had (oops!) eroded down hundreds of feet into a violently churning Yangtze river. The road was clogged with black-fume-spelching, five horsepower trucks carrying enough bricks with which to build a medium sized city. As these trucks were only going 3 km/h, we had to overtake each one, which our driver did with glee. After overtaking one of these trucks, our driver was rather lazy about getting back into the right lane. At one point, so much of one lane had eroded off the side, there was a tremendous backup as the trucks and buses going in both directions were being coordinated to go over this one lane. It was wait 10 minutes, make a big deal of getting every back on the bus so we could move 200 feet up, and then wait another 10 minutes. During all the waits, I got out and chatted with the logging truck drivers, who were all Tibetan guys making the long haul to Lhasa.
The city of Kangding was a pretty cool. I know, because I was stuck there for four days because the next bus going west left once every four days and I arrived two hours after one of those buses left. The city is a large contradiction. It was made up of a lot of ugly buildings in the traditional bathroom-tile style dropped in the middle of these incredibly beautiful mountains. A powerful river ran through the middle of the town.
There were all sorts of ethnic groups there. There were the Han Chinese who seemed to be there under two capacities. There were Han government officials, who drove around in brand new Isuzu Rodeos (which cost about 40 times the annual income of most of the residents in the city) and plotted the destruction of the native cultures. There were also plenty of Han soldiers. They regularly had military exercises in the middle of town square, mostly to show them who's boss. There were also plenty of random ethnic minorities, like the Yi or the Yao, who wore colorful costumes, but were otherwise indistinguishable from the Han.
But the town was more than half Tibetan. If you were to look at a political map of China, Kangding is smack in the middle of Sichuan, and the political border with Tibet is several hundred miles to the west.
The time I spent in Kangding was much like how most people spend their time in Dali: doing nothing really. There was a nearby hill, Paoma Shan, that I climbed up one day. It had two concentric circles on the top, where they have some gigantic horse racing festival during the third lunar month. Being the sixth lunar month, though, it was deserted save for a couple of surly guys trying to sell horse rides. There were some nearby temples that I went to as well. I walked into one of them while class was in session. There were about 20 teenage monks reciting their prayers with a rather bored look on their face. They would only wake up when the prayers occasionally stopped and someone blew on this longhorn, which, for those of you who haven't heard traditional Tibetan music, sounds like a musical fart. Another day was spent going to a nearby hot springs, where less than a dollar bought an hour-long dip inside my own private room in a comfortably warm but reeking of sulfur hot spring. After leaving Chengdu, this little dip was the only shower I would be able to take until I arrived in Xining two and half weeks later.
The rest of the time was spent doing nothing, mostly because I was feeling lazy. I sat at an outdoor teahouse, munching on peanuts and reading an 800-page book by Gar Alperovitz. The book was about how the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan during WWII wasn't governed by military strategic considerations. Indeed, he presented a lot of evidence showing that the deployment of the atomic bomb was actually hurried. We had intercepted and decoded messages that Japan was about to surrender very soon (by mid-August 1945, only a week after we dropped the bomb) and Truman wanted to use the bomb before they surrendered. Since dropping the bomb would not have prevented an invasion (which was not scheduled to begin until November), Alperovitz argued that we dropped the bomb instead to show off to the Russians that we wouldn't stand communist aggression in Eastern Europe. Intriguing stuff considering how my high school AP American history teacher drilled it into our heads that the atomic bomb saved a half million lives (Japanese as well as American lives) by forestalling an invasion.
I also spent a lot of time in these makeshift movie theatres, which were essentially a room with a few scummy sofas around a TV and VCD machine. For the equivalent of about tweleve cents, you can watch two Hong Kong gangster movies in a room full of smoking, spitting Tibetan yak herders. It was particularly interesting watching people's reactions during one movie that had a sex scene involving a female hitman and her target right before she whacks him. There was lots of S&M and coke snorting off each other's chests.
And finally, I spent an inordinate amount of time at these kebab places, drinking lots of beer and eating random vegetables and animal bits grilled and doused with chili sauce. My particular favorite was huotui, which is a processed meat that is rather like a Spam hotdog. They would skewer it, deep fry it in oil, then grill it over coals, then soak it in enough chili sauce to render your tongue useless for the day. Believe it or not, all this kebab food was dangerously addictive. I think it had something to do with the fact that it was so spicy that my brain dumped a gallon of endorphins into my endocrine system in order to counteract the pain. This, along with all the liters of beer I was downing, combined to form an exquisite state of gustorial bliss.