Our two nights in Kanbula Forest Park (坎布拉国家森林公园) ended up being one of our fondest memories in Qinghai. Arriving in the early evening from Xining with no place to stay, we ran into a friendly Tibetan man and spent the night in his village with him and his wife. That evening we explored the surrounding terrain, which was nothing short of stunning. Steep mountain cliffs covered in trees enveloped a valley of green crops that funneled into a hilltop Tibetan village. The scene was picturesque to say the least.
Walking home that evening we ran into a young Tibetan thangka painter, who was of course covered from head to toe in paint and was just finishing several months of work painting the village temple. We picked his brain on what it was like to be a 20-something-year-old thangka painter until the sunset forced us back to our home for the night.
The second day we hiked down the valley to a nunnery. The hike itself was beautiful and the nunnery we found was idyllically nestled into verdant rolling hills. We found a lone nun, who was running the nunnery while everyone else was back home on holiday. Despite having a cold and toothache, the nun took us in and was as kind and caring as you could imagine a nun would be, and more so. Hiking around the nunnery was again breathtaking, awarding us with that magical feeling of smallness, insignificance, and fulfillment all at the same time.
On the third day we drove out of the park, winding down a road that most tourists come in on. Treated to new views of the massive lake centered in the park, we were happy that we’d spent two nights in the park. While the tourist access road, which takes you to a handful of beautiful viewing decks, it definitely only gives you an abbreviated impression of the park.
The following is a detailed account of our two magical nights at Kanbula.
Departing from Xining
Per instructions from our hostel, we got to the Xining bus station at 8:00am, ready to board the 8:30am bus to Kanbula. Of course, there was no 8:30am bus and the next one wasn’t until 12:30pm. We walked back outside to begin negotiating with the army of drivers shouting “青海湖，塔尔寺，青海湖！” We found one guy who was ready to go. He quoted us 250RMB per person for a round-trip, including stops at Gui De (贵德丹霞地貌) and Kumbum Monastery/Ta’er Si (塔尔寺).
We explained that we only wanted to go one-way and that we didn’t want to make any other stops. Unfortunately the other people in the van wanted to make the stops and had paid 250RMB each, so going non-stop wasn’t an option. We eventually negotiated the driver down to 180RMB per person. For our experiences at Gui De and Kumbum, check out our earlier post.
Note that if you do take the bus (and I think there are days with earlier morning departures), you’ll be dropped off around the main entrance near the famous Lijiaxia Hydroelectric Power Station. Tickets for the bus are 25RMB one-way. Once in the park, your entrance ticket will get you access to the park buses that shuttle you around to different viewing decks.
Arriving in Kanbula
Heading south and crossing the Yellow River (黄河), we eventually arrived at the western entrance of Kanbula by about 4pm. The western entrance is actually the park exit towards Guide (贵德). Prior to entering the park we’d stopped somewhat randomly on the road while our driver got tickets from some guy sitting on the street. When we got into the park a guard collected our tickets and our driver said we wouldn’t be able to get the tickets back (we received no stub or anything). Clearly something fishy was going on, but at the end of the day we ended up not paying for the tickets so we didn’t ask any more questions.
Bordered by the Yellow River (second-longest river in Asia) and containing over 11,000 acres, Kanbula is massive so there’s no way you’re going to see everything. That said, based on some helpful tips from the travel agency Tibetan Connections, we opted to spend two nights in the park so we could really get a feel for it.
The road into Kanbula’s western entrance is stunning. The road winds up the mountains through dozens of hairpin turns. I can just imagine a Top Gear episode being filmed here. Eventually, you’ll reach a small exit that leads into the park’s main thoroughfare.
A Night in Dehong Village
Initially we were planning to stay in a hotel, which a couple different people had clued us in on. However, when our driver dropped us off, we quickly discovered that the hotel was abandoned. In fact, it hadn’t been open for years, and was surrounded by Cujo-like dogs (The dogs were thankfully chained up, but if those chains broke we’d be in serious trouble. We’d learn later to always carry a handful of rocks when traveling near Tibetan villages, as they frequently have vicious dogs used as protection against wolves.)
Luckily, we ran into a friendly Tibetan man on the road who offered to let us stay in his house for the night. The village he lives in is called Dehong (德洪村), which was just a short walk from the hotel. His two kids were away at school so there was plenty of room. He charged us 40RMB each for the night, including dinner. Our room was a very typical bedroom you’d find in almost any modern Tibetan courtyard home.
After we settled in, we headed back out to explore Dehong while we still had some daylight. We found a set of stairs that led up a small hill and continued along a ridge-line. We followed the stairs up the hill to a small pagoda, and then continued down the valley. We hiked as far as we could until we hit some dense forest, although the stairs did continue onwards.
As the sun started to weaken behind the clouds, we headed back to the village. On our way, we passed the newly built village temple. A skinny young Tibetan guy walked up to us and said hello in very passable Chinese. He quickly introduced himself as the man-in-charge, stating that the others working on the temple were all his 徒弟 (apprentices). He proudly ushered us into the temple to get a closer look at his handy work.
His Chinese name is 才项 (Cái Xiàng) (and if you ever need a thangka or temple painted you can call him on any of his three, yes three, cell phones: 15352935558, 18397032008, 13619733551).
The temple and its thangkas were painted beautifully. He explained that he’d been working on the temple for about a year and had another month to go before it was completed. Only in his early twenties, he was seemingly quite accomplished, as the temple looked fantastic. He is the youngest of four and the only one to become an artist. His elder siblings had all gone off to various cities to 打工 (do manual labor). At an early age he learned to paint thangkas from his grandfather, who had supported a family of five kids by selling his paintings. Needless to say, the guy spoke very nostalgically about his grandfather and you could tell he was proud to carry on the tradition.
We talked about a bunch of random stuff, from how he learned Chinese by living and working around Beijing’s Panjia Yuan (a famous antique market) to how he proudly only brushed his teeth once a month (and still managed to have super white, albeit not sparkling, teeth; he also boasted that he hadn’t showered or changed his clothes for weeks). We’ve met a lot of young people in our travels, and many of them are struggling to make it in China’s competitive job market. This was one guy who was perhaps making it (though he was by no means wealthy), but genuinely seemed happy with his job and life. Covered in paint, literally all over his face and on his clothes, he looked every bit the part of an artist.
Eventually his youngest apprentice joined us, an adorable little kid who just smiled but refused to speak (granted he couldn’t speak Chinese). Cai Xiang then led us into his temporary studio/home. He showed us a bunch of his thangkas and gave us the full rundown on his materials, costs, and hours to finish various thangkas. The guy was all smiles and clearly just happy to have two interested thangka-novices pepper him with questions. As darkness crept into his studio we scurried back to our home for the night, trying to avoid all the barking dogs in the shadows.
That night we were treated to the standard and delicious 面片儿汤. With full bellies we huddled into our sleeping bags and called it a night.
The Road to the Nunnery
The next morning we woke up early to pack and get ready for a hike to our next destination, a Buddhist nunnery, which we hoped would be our home for night two. We’d planned on asking our host for directions on the hike, but he refused to wake up despite his wife’s best efforts (his wife couldn’t speak Chinese so we couldn’t ask her for directions unfortunately). Like a kid pushing away a parent urging him to get up for school, the man simply refused to get out of bed. With our image of Tibetan men rekindled, we set-off to find our own way (a common theme to our travels in Tibetan areas is young Tibetan men lazily sitting around and generally being unhelpful at home; of course that’s a vast generalization, but still, ask almost any Tibetan woman and she’ll tell you that you’re not far off from the truth).
If you want to get to the nunnery from Dehong Village, you’ve got two options. One option is to follow the ridge-line stairs down the valley and eventually back out onto the park’s main access road. From there you can try to hitchhike or catch one of the park’s buses that will get you near a dirt road that leads to the nunnery. The other option, which is the one we took, was to hitch a ride on a motorcycle to the dirt road (any local will know what you’re talking about if you tell them you want to go to the nunnery). From the dirt road we walked about an hour to the nunnery.
The walk along the dirt road was nice and eventually you’ll come to a fork. A sign states that straight ahead is “the Dock of Nanzong Trench / 南宗沟码头景区 1.7km” and to the right is “Aqiong Nanzong Monastery & Nanzong Nunnery / 阿琼南宗寺，南宗尼姑寺 2.0km.” So if you take a right the nunnery is just up the hill.
The nunnery is perched on a mountainside in about as picturesque a position as possible. As we got closer, we realized it was oddly quiet. We noticed a couple construction workers, but that’s about it. We later found out that the prior day basically all the nuns had gone home for holiday. I’d never really thought about being a nun as a job that was granted vacation days, but of course it made sense that the nuns should have time to go home to be with their families.
The one nun we did manage to find was the eldest nun at the nunnery. She came to the nunnery when she was 15-years-old and 30-some-odd years later she’s still there. Initially she was a bit cold and seemed distraught when we asked if we could spend the night there. However, this later made sense because she actually had a cold and a toothache. As we’d quickly find out, she’s actually an incredibly friendly and thoughtful person.
She ended up putting us in her own personal quarters and made us feel very welcome and at home. Of course this is a nunnery and not a hostel or hotel, so there was absolutely no obligation on her part to take us in. We didn’t talk about money and she never asked for any. We just made sure to give a nice donation to the nunnery before we left.
We put our bags down and at the recommendation of the nun and went to explore the surrounding area. Our first stop was “the Dock of Nanzong Trench”, the place where the earlier sign had pointed to. This little excursion to the dock proved to be quite interesting, as the dock was abandoned a couple years ago and the whole area looks like the set from The Lost World.
The road to the dock eventually just turns into a rocky stream, which is still walkable if you have some waterproof shoes. From there it opens up into a small inlet, but without a boat you can’t really get a good view of the Lijiaxia Reservoir (李家峡水库) on the Yellow River, which was our ultimate goal.
What you will find is a lot of wreckage, from boardwalks that are falling apart to decrepit Styrofoam office doors to a half sunken boat. Apparently the nuns used to use the dock to get supplies and tourists could take boats out into the lake from the dock, but for one reason or another this particular spot was abandoned and no one bothered to clean anything up. In any case, the walk to the dock is itself fun, but doesn’t really get you to any great views.
On our way back to Nanzong nunnery we ran into a friendly and quite frankly adorable pack of donkeys. As city-slickers, we found ourselves oddly enamored with these guys. I mean who doesn’t love rubbing furry ears. Locals passing on their motorcycles probably thought we were crazy.
With a couple hours of light left, we decided to walk up Nanzong Peak (南宗峰). Located just past the nunnery, the peak overlooks the valley and has a nicely built staircase up the entire hill. Unfortunately, park funds don’t seem to be spent on trash collection, and there was large amount of plastic bottles and wrappings strewn across the stairs. The trash, our fishy entrance ticket, the Jurassic Park dock, and the abandoned hotel all led us to suspect that park funds were being mismanaged and/or embezzled, though that’s pure speculation.
As we made our way up the stairs we ran into a couple monks from Nanzong Monastery and some local Tibetan men making their daily rounds. We then realized we hadn’t seen a single other tourist the entire day. While the Nanzong nunnery and monastery certainly aren’t a secret, and indeed other tourists foreign and domestic do visit them, the foot traffic is according the nun who hosted us very sparse. The Chinese tourists who visit tend just to drive in and out, while it’s usually the foreign tourists who spend some time there. Only a handful of people spend the night or camp.
At the peak there’s a small temple and some fantastic views of the valley. We also noticed a massive amount of construction on the neighboring hilltop. Later the nun suggested that a rich Living Buddha (known as a 活佛) was building some kind of monastery or temple, but she wasn’t exactly sure. True or not, rich monks building concrete temples and stupas was a theme we’d see over and over again through our travels. While we’re not close enough to the community to judge the merits of such spending, this kind of seemingly frivolous spending raises many questions regarding how religious-related money flows through the Tibetan community (we’ll report more on this later in our Rebkong post, which is where we had a long discussion on this topic with an elder monk at Longwu Monastery).
We spent the night cooking with our host and learning about the nunnery. The nunnery is apparently one of the most famous and well respected nunneries in the region. As of our stay, there were about 150 nuns living there, which means it’s at maximum capacity. In fact, they’ve had to turn some girls away, which is rare given that being a Buddhist nun in Tibetan areas of China is not exactly a glamorous pursuit for young girls today. The nuns there currently range in age from about 15 to 45-years-old.
The nuns at Nanzong do okay. They raise money from local donations, but don’t receive anywhere as much as the monks at the big monasteries. The status of Buddhist nuns is unfortunately unjustly low in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, and it has everything to do with gender prejudice. Nonetheless, our host was very happy to be a nun, as her faith clearly outweighed all the hardships she lived with on a daily basis.
The next morning we got up early to try and get a good glimpse of the lake that we tried to see the previous day. At the instruction of the nun, we walked up the mountains behind the nunnery. For anyone who wants to camp in this area, the hills behind the nunnery are a fantastic place. After just a 30-minute hike we reached the lake and found some of the best views of our entire Qinghai trip.
Our host helped us arrange a car to take us to a bus station where we could catch a bus to Rebkong (actually we just got dumped on the side of the road, but that’s another story…). The man who picked us up was Huizu, and the nun had a very high opinion of him, which was nice to see as you rarely find a Tibetan actively endorsing the personal qualities of a Huizu (albeit she is a nun).
All in all our Kanbula experience was fantastic. We’d urge anyone who has the time to spend at least a night or two inside the park, as there’s really a lot to see and plenty of kind and interesting locals to meet.
Lastly, we want to give a shout out to these two girls, whose blog helped inspire us to visit Kanbula. We saw their blog post on the nunnery while we were doing research in Xining and that got us super excited (we really didn’t find much other information on the nunnery or over-nighting in the park). As it turns out, Tashi at Tibetan Connections had a letter from them that the girls wrote for the nuns they met last October. It was great to be able to deliver the letter in person for them when we got to the nunnery.
Finding Kanbula on a Map