This post is only a little more than a year late in coming. I’m not exactly certain why I have been so remiss about writing this: possibly because it was a wonderful experience that both demands and defies a good discussion. In the course of the trip and in the months since it, I have come to feel a special connection to this place and the people that live there. It’s hard to capture that in a blog post, but I guess it’s still worth trying.
I was able to make this trip thanks to the kindness of a friend and colleague who was heading that way to do some research and asked if I wanted to tag along. I did my best with my limited Tibetan and familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, history, and culture to be of use, but I know I was mostly just talkative baggage. In addition to this friend, I also want to thank our driver who has become a friend I wish I could see more frequently. I don’t mention anyone’s name here unless I’m certain they don’t mind, but they know who they are 🙂.
Getting to Dege (སྡེ་དགེ་ “Deh-geh” in Tibetan, 德格 “Duh-guh” in Chinese) is not easy. I was told by friends there that the trip can be made in one non-stop drive of eighteen hours, but the route I’ve taken has always needed at least twenty. Given the altitude gain–Dege sits at a little above 3000m/10,000ft–going straight up from Chengdu (about 500m/1700ft) would be hard for almost anyone who wasn’t born at high altitude, so I’ve broken all of my trips over two to three days. To be honest though, there’s no really good way to break your trips into Western Sichuan or Kham ཁམས་ as it is traditionally known. There are too many mountains, passes, valleys, rivers. Short of walking, you simply can’t avoid ascending more rapidly than you really should.
But the road to Dege really is no small part of the trip’s joy. The variety of scenery is endlessly inspiring: from the Sichuan Basin through the low hills and mountains up to Dartsedo དར་རྩེ་མདོ་/Kangding 康定–traditionally, and even now, the gateway to Kham–and then over high mountain passes and down into valleys–some devoted to pastureland, others to fields of barley–divided by rivers winding their way down through the mountains.
Leaving behind the last towns, the approach to Dege brings into view mountains higher than any yet seen. Even in August they were capped with abundant snow. Coming from the east, there is only one way into Dege’s valley: across a 5050m/16,600ft high pass. Just below the pass, in a grove of evergreen trees and half-circled by snowy peaks that seem to rise almost vertically from the surrounding land, lies the sacred lake, Yilhun Lhatso ཡིད་ལྷུན་ལྷ་ཚོ་. It is undeniably one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The water reflects the mountains and sky like a blue mirror, and the mountains in their vastness seem to make all human cares diminish by contrast. But no words of mine can capture the beauty of that place; hopefully the pictures will speak more clearly.
Dege itself sits in a deep valley surrounded by high mountains. Tibetan legends and religious literature speak of “hidden lands (Beyul སྦས་ཡུལ་) often valleys that can only be entered at the right time, by people of high spiritual attainment, or in dire need. Traveling through Kham it’s easy to imagine such places. Dege itself could easily be an archetype.
Somewhat reluctantly leaving Yilhun Lhatso, we quickly climbed up the pass. The grasses and trees of the valley quickly fell away and we found ourselves in a rocky and barren land with high peaks all around us. The top of the pass was cold, and the air thin. Even walking left me winded. But on the other side of the pass the world changed completely.
The valley we had left seemed green in comparison to the barren heights of the pass, but the valley in front of us, Dege, made that valley seem lifeless by comparison. Dege valley sits about 200m/660ft lower than the valley on the other side of the pass, is surrounded by high mountains, and watered by numerous small rivers. Warmer and wetter than the surrounding land, Dege seems to teem with life. The whole valley would be one forest if humans hadn’t cleared some of the land, and it exudes a feeling of abundance. The road descends from the pass and into a rounded valley in an endless series of switchbacks, then sets off following a newly sprung river through a tall slot of a canyon that barely leaves room for the road and the river. When the canyon finally opens up, you’ve arrived in the town of Dege. Fortuitous roadwork trapped us in the canyon for more than two hours giving me plenty of time to wander about and take photos. The same roadwork had also given us an almost solitary (and therefore unspoiled) ride over the pass, itself a three to five hour trip.
A tunnel under the mountain is supposed to open any time now (though that’s been true for at least a year). When finished, it will shorten the trip and make it far easier in winter and rough weather, but travelers will miss some spectacular scenery.
The town of Dege is crammed into a narrow valley, leaving only two directions for growth, along the line of the valley and up its steep sides. In spite of having a population of only 60,000 or so, traffic can be terrible if anything blocks the main road–the only road that goes beyond the town. The construction that had held us in the canyon had created a massive backup of traffic in the town and it took another hour just to get through the snarls to our hotel. But there was some interesting people watching to do along the way!
Given it’s layout, Dege is made up of long roads following the river and short ones steeply climbing, sometimes by stairs, the slopes in between them. There are now a lot of apartment buildings in the central part of town, as well as a well-stocked market, but most of the more traditional houses sit up on the mountainsides at times stacked one upon the other.
Our main purpose in visiting Dege was to talk with Tibetan doctors there. My friend had been introduced to two doctors and through her I got to know the local Tibetan medicine hospital and some of its doctors. The hospital was in the midst of a large renovation, adding a number of new facilities for teaching and preparing medicines. For me, the highlights were the herb storehouse, the medicinal pill storage room, and the medical thangka (ཐང་ཀ་, traditional Tibetan painted scroll) room.
Like Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine uses a large range of plants, animals, and minerals as medicine. Unlike Chinese medicine, these medicinal substances are usually combined in the form of pills (though powders and decoctions are also used). More importantly, the was a limited medicinal market in most places until very recently, and even now in many Tibetan regions. Where Chinese doctors have for at least a millennia purchased most of their medicinal singles in markets that sold medicines from all over China and the world, Tibetan doctors have of necessity retained the habit and skill of locating medicinal plants in the wild. This results in a different way of understanding the processed herbs and is a chief point of curiosity for me in my exploration of Tibetan medicine.
The medicinal storage room is a large, long room, dimly lit and lined with sturdy metal shelves holding huge bags of herbs labelled in Tibetan with their contents. The next room contains the pills that are the primary end product of these medicinals. Huge vats hold the unpackaged pills in the center of the room and shelves lining the walls hold packages of pills sold by the hospital.
The doctors use primarily medicines made at the hospital itself. They now have a GMP certified manufacturing center for medicines they sell on the market, but still maintain uncertified manufacturing rooms for medicines that are only used in-house.
The thangkas are a set of seventy-two images first created in the 17th century to accompany the famous Blue Beryl (Baidurya ngonpo བཻཌཱུརྱ་སྔོན་པོ་), a commentary on the root text of Tibetan medicine, the Four Tantras (gyü shi་རྒྱུད་བཞི་). The paintings illustrate important points in the text and also serve as a visual method of organizing its contents. The most famous paintings in the collections, the tree diagrams, outline the content of the Four Tantras as roots, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of trees. These are still studied and copied by Tibetan medical students to this day.
Dege was one of the great centers of Tibetan medicine in its heyday, and both the doctors and the local government seem anxious to restore its prominence, but given the distances and difficult travel involved in reaching Dege, I fear it will be difficult. The center of the Tibetan medical world has clearly shifted to Qinghai province, which is far more accessible than either Dege or Lhasa.
One of the nice things about knowing people in a place you’re visiting is getting to eat good food with good company. We were treated several times to excellent meals or tea with our friends in Dege. I get to eat a lot of good food here in China, but I honestly feel that these meals were among the pleasantest and tastiest I’ve enjoyed since coming back.
The main reason tourists and pilgrims visit Dege is to see its printing-house/temple. Constructed in 1792 and the object of the patronage of a series of Dege kings, this scriptorium contains more than 320,000 wood-blocks on which are recorded approximately 70% of the Tibetan literary heritage. Topics include Buddhism, astronomy, medicine, literature, science, history, and just about anything Tibetan’s wrote about. The printing-house is still active, and you can watch the printers in the rhythmic work of inking a wood block, pressing the page on it, and placing the page in a stack that will be flipped over when it’s time to print the reverse side. Photos are not allowed inside the temple, which was carefully constructed to maintain good conditions (dark, good air flow) for preserving the wood blocks. For anyone, like myself, who has devoted much of their life to reading and writing, it’s more than a little awe-inspiring to be surrounded by row upon row of wood blocks containing so much knowledge and literary achievement.
Down the hill a little ways, we were fortunate to find the shop that sells the finished books produced at the temple. We also found the room where the wood-block carvers work, making new copies of wood-blocks that have worn down through use. I was thrilled to watch them at their precise work. I’ve never before had the chance to see wood-block print culture–which dominated not only Tibetan book culture but also Chinese up to the twentieth century–alive in this way.
The following day, I set out on my own to do a little wandering. I started at the small khora (ཁོ་ར་, a circular pilgrims walk surrounding a holy place) around the printing-house/temple, active every morning with pilgrims and locals and then headed up the hill. As I walked past a long row of chortens (ཆོས་རྟེན་, stupas) going up the hill, a mother and her daughter were walking down the hill. Judging by her backpack, the daughter was on her way to school. I wondered as I watched them how it influences a child to walk past sacred structures and temples every day of their lives, to see religion publicly enacted every day of their lives.
Buddhism is certainly everywhere in Dege, the roads have names rich in Tibetan myth and history–the road named after the legendary King Gesar of Ling གླིང་རྗེ་གེ་སར་–said to have lived in what is now Kham–was my favorite. The mountainsides are festooned with prayer flags strung in ways that defy imagination, and the cliff faces along the river are carved and painted with Buddhist iconography.
Above all of this sit the mountains, probably unnoticed by locals, but to my unaccustomed eyes ever-present and ever-striking. You look out the windows of the hospital straight onto a nearly vertical mountainside. Vast upland meadows rest far above the town on the side of mountains seen downstream, and almost every stroll is vertical in no small degree.
We could only spend a few days in Dege. The trip there and back just takes too long. Our trip back to Chengdu was as beautiful as the trip out had been. We were even treated to a light but rapid snowfall while crossing the pass leaving Dege–on September 1!
I’ve been back to Dege once since this trip, and I’ll try to write that post up in a more timely fashion than this one. A surprising amount had changed in the nine months I had been absent, but the people were still as friendly and the scenery still as spectacular. I want to continue visiting this place on a more regular basis, but the time and distance involved makes it hard. Still, I know I’ll be back there again before too long.