Our journey began in Kangding, capital of Sichuan Province’s Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and after crossing Zheduo Mountain (“bend” in Tibetan language), we continued westward to the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, towards our destination: Dege, the center of the Tibetan Khampa Culture.
Only a few hundred kilometers separate Kangding and Dege, but nearly all the roads and highways connecting them were far from comfortable. Despite enchanting scenery along the way, we endured unexpected difficulties, including scaling the jagged summit of Chola Mountain. After an exhaustingly bumpy ride, with no help from the Jeep’s broken fan casing, we finally realized why Kangding was a historic commodities hub of the Tibetan-inhabited areas. In the past, when modern highways didn’t yet connect the western regions, the Ancient Tea-Horse Road remained the only trade route, on which Tibetan yaks and mule caravans abounded.
Dege is one of three cradles of Tibetan culture in China, along with Lhasa (Tibet) and Labrang (Gansu). The county is particularly famous for Dege Sutra Printing House, which boasts the most comprehensive and complete collection of Tibetan cultural documents along with a host of frescos and printing plates well preserved within an age-old building. In Tibetan, Dege translates to “land of mercy,” and the locale is considered the birthplace of the hero of King Gesar, the world’s longest epic. Historically, Dege was once the capital of a theocratic kingdom with a hereditary line of rulers.
Stuck in a narrow mountain valley along the Jinsha River, Gengqing Township helped the Dege Sutra Printing House survive the test of time. Hidden in shade under green trees, the red-walled, multi-story building in typical Tibetan style includes a scripture library, paper warehouse, printing workshop, Buddhist hall, and sutra chanting room. We visited the printing house on a Saturday afternoon and found many local residents circling the tall walls of the compound, rotating the prayer wheel by hand. They wore traditional Tibetan robes with men in straw hats and female heads topped with colorful adornments.