Kangding - Then & Now

Kangding - Then & Now



Part IV

In the early 20thcentury Kangding 康定 (or Tachienlu, as it was then more commonly known), or དར་རྩེ་མདོ།Dartsendo in Tibetan, was very much a frontier town. It was here that the tea porters from China met and traded with the yak caravans coming from Tibet. It was a melting pot of trade, culture, and religions. Alongside the Tibetans and Chinese who made their livings there either as permanent or transitory residents, there was also a sizeable foreign community too. For the most part these foreigners were missionaries (some of whom were also medical doctors), but there were also traders, consular officials, academics (anthropologists; botantists; geologists, etc.), and various other independent travellers. The missionaries were predominantly French Catholics and American Protestants, all of whom made Kangding one of their permanent bases, and from here they would travel out to their smaller mission stations scattered across the region.

The French Catholics even built a sizeable church which can clearly be seen in this photograph of the town taken by the botantist, Joseph Rock, published in one of his articles for The National Geographic Magazine (October 1930). Rock was one of several noted travellers who passed through Kangding en route to eastern Tibet. Quite a few of these independent travellers published accounts of their journeys through the region, but a great number of their fellow contemporaries did not or if they did many of these accounts now languish in obscurity – in contemporary newspapers, magazines, private diaries and photo albums. I’m fascinated by all of these travellers and their motivations for making these journeys at such a turbulent time. None of them it seems were much put off by regular skirmishes between the various factions of the Chinese and Tibetan armed forces, as well as episodes of lawlessness and banditry on the isolated roads and mountain passes. There were times when towns as substantial as Kangding itself came under direct threat and even actual attack (see here).



As one might well expect, much has changed in Kangding since those days around a century ago. The once impressive town gates are now gone, and many of the low wooden buildings with their grey tiled roofs which were typical of Tachienlu have given way to modern concrete apartment blocks, some several stories high, and the bridges which span the river that runs through the town are now more numerous and more solidly built too. But elements of old Tachienlu remain. There are still quite a few old wooden and stone or brick built buildings with tiled roofs to be seen, particularly on the hillsides and at the outer fringes of the town; and, not least, there is the traditional architecture of the three large and fully functioning Tibetan Gombas (of which I shall write about in more detail in my next post). During my visit though I found a large part of the old town centre had recently been levelled and a huge excavation was then underway as part of a new development for a large modern shopping centre.