Home to pandas and spicy foods, Chengdu is, oh, right, you mean Chengde?
Yes. Chengde. Four hours up the freeway from Beijing, not four hours by plane. Chengde doesn’t, and probably never did, have pandas. But as the Qing Dynasty’s summer resort it has beautiful gardens, an impressive replica of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, laid back people and a great vegetarian restaurant. Sounds like a perfect weekend destination.
“Daddy, I don’t want to go to Jimingyi”. Why not, I asked my two year old over my shoulder, while dodging trucks on the backroads of Hebei Province. “Because it’s not good to go in there. It’s very dangerous”. I’m not sure how much my kid really knew about the old walled village that once was an important relay post for the Ming Dynasty postal system, but she seemed pretty convinced. Still, it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous than Hebei’s roads. I’d just done lengthy battle with literally hundreds of trucks, and I was about ready to pull in anywhere. With one last blast of a truck horn on my tail sealing the deal, I swung off the road for the final night in the back blocks of Hebei.
Momentarily lost in the tiny village of Hemis Shupachan, I turned down a stone alley and bumped into an old local. He greeted me warmly and asked where I was from.
“Australia? Which city? Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra?”
“Wow, you know your cities. Have you been to Australia?”
“No! But Ricky Ponting is my friend!”
Tall green trees wave in the wind, blue sky behind them. The call to prayer rises, wafts in through the open window, alluring and mysterious. We lie on the bed, staring out that window, listening to the singing float on that cool wind. Later, as the sun sets over a huge white Buddhist stupa, we sip a fresh lime soda and stare at the Kangri Range. Stok Kangri’s summit, a grey wedge of rock streaked with snow, reaches up 6,137 meters above the range. It catches the last of the yellow evening light. We are in Leh, a mountain town in northern India, and after just one day we already love it. A happy, peaceful mix of local Ladakhis, Tibetan Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims and a sprinkling Indians from down south, this place seems to us to show that people can just get along. It’s stark but beautiful, its people practical, hardy, but above all peaceful, friendly and refreshingly warm.