At the Edge of the Roof of the World: American hostellers in Kangding
Americans Kristopher Rubesh, 37, and Stephanie Rubesh, 35, met on a trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, and from there they started a Tibetan adventure that ultimately led to their opening the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding.
Kangding, the capital of Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, is often described as the gateway to Tibet for travelers, but it's also home to a diverse population of around 100,000 Tibetans, Han Chinese, and people of Qiang, Yi, Hui, and other minority ethnic groups. The city is rich in history, as a stop on the horse tea road, as well as natural scenery; it sits at an altitude of 2,500 meters and within 60 kilometers of the city, there are more than 20 mountains that exceed 6,000 meters, including Gongga Shan (also known by its Tibetan name, Minyak Konka), the tallest of these at 7,556 meters.
How did you get started with the hostel?
Kristopher: We started studying Tibetan at the Minorities University in Chengdu, and we asked our school to give us a month off to practice speaking Tibetan. We ended up staying in Kangding—the old boss where we used to stay would watch football games until 3 o'clock in the morning and wake up at 10 or 11. Meanwhile his couple of fuwuyuan would do all the work. You had to ask if you wanted new sheets between guests. So we thought, you could do a much better job, and if he does it with such a lazy schedule we could put a bit of effort into it. It would be easy and we could get a very nice hostel doing, make some money while we study Tibetan and hang out. We didn't want to work in an office in America eight hours a day, five days a week. We wanted to have some adventure in our life.
It took us about a year to register. We moved in 2007 and opened in October in 2008. It was the first fully foreign-owned enterprise and still is the only one to this day, as far as I know. The government officials were very kind and pleasant, but they didn't know how to register us either, so it took a long time.
Stephanie: We gave the paperwork to the Industry and Commerce Bureau, and the people said we would hear back from them within five days. Almost one calendar year later we finally did.
Kristopher: It was in 2008, a bit of a tough time with the Olympics and the earthquake. We found to make it a really good place it takes a lot of hard work still.
What other obstacles did you have to face?
Stephanie: We've had so many unexpected hurdles, like two summers ago we had a landslide, so we had to close for a long time during the main season.
Kristopher: And if the political situation gets a bit tense they close off the whole area to foreigners, and that reduces our business quite a bit—30 percent of our guests are foreigners. So there is always that issue every now and then. Then there are typical staff issues; of course it's hard to keep a farmer, nomad on an annual schedule working for us. Lots of turnaround. But I can't imagine doing any other kind of business. I love interacting with our guests—all of the guests are wonderful people.
Why did you choose Kangding?
Kristopher: We knew for us to make a business we had to be close to a big city to catch the expats who want to have vacations. Another reason is that to transport goods to our restaurant we can't be too far out. If we moved to a little Tibetan town like Litang or Tagong, we would take all the business from the locals, and we don't want to do that. We want it to be a big enough town where we can fit in the business infrastructure without taking away from one particular group.
Stephanie: We could feel free to compete in the environment and still help out.
Kristopher: We're in a very good place. Other hostels in the area can come to learn new ideas, learn to make their own chocolate cakes. So we help them with their businesses, and it feels very cooperative rather than competitive. We love it.
Stephanie: Our main thing is to help locals develop tourism in a way they can benefit and also protect the environment.
But most travelers don't seem to fancy staying in Kangding longer than overnight.
Stephanie: Actually there is a whole section of traveling that the Chinese do, but the foreigners don't do yet, because it's not published in the guidebooks. The whole Gongga Shan mountain area is very lightly traveled, it's really amazingly beautiful. Climbing, hiking, nobody goes there.
Kristopher: More and more of our guests end up saying, we should stay in Kangding longer, there is a lot of stuff to do.
So what's the best thing to do in Kangding?
Kristopher: Eat some pizza in our hostel and watch a good movie.
Stephanie: [Laughs.] No. The city itself is not that pretty. There are some monasteries.
Kristopher: And like every Tibetan town, Kangding has town dances at night and a few nice bars.
What are must-eats in the city?
Kristopher: You know the Are [Tibetan] restaurant? There's one with the same owner [like the one in Chengdu], there's really nice hotpot and a vegetarian restaurant, and a nice café just opened by foreigners—Himalayan Coffee and Trading Company.
Stephanie: They are the only other foreigners in town—they have a bill at our hostel, and we have a bill at their café.
What are the surroundings of the hostel?
Kristopher: We're surrounded by three mountains. Each one is a different level of [climbing] difficulty. Paoma Mountain, which is the famous love mountain in China, has cable cars going up and a park on the top and a museum at the bottom. It's quite nice for older guests, people with disabilities who can't really walk but want to have some beautiful views. And the second mountain is the one behind our hostel. You walk one-and-a-half hours through some beautiful forest, to get to some grassland with yaks, and see some snow mountains. You can go farther and come to a pristine valley on the other side, and be all by yourself, all day in beautiful nature. The third mountain is called Buddha Mountain. It's quite steep, but there is a trick to it. You can take an old mining road way up the mountain, walk through a mine to the other side of the ridge, and from the top look up to Gongga Mountain. It's beautiful, especially if you get to drive up, not walk up. It's also quite extreme, most climbers end up in the hospital.
Gongga Shan is the 41st-highest mountain, and outside the Himalayas, it's among the top five in the world. On average one or two foreign climbers die a year. It's such a draw for the climbers to come, but it's also quite dangerous. Three weeks ago, we had 30 Swiss mountaineers over to climb Mount Gongga from different sides. We help the climbers get the permit, but we don't take them up. We also rent tents and equipment. There are beautiful areas for a city family to go out—there are hill excursions 15 kilometers from here, by a beautiful riverside. You can set up a big tent, have hot chocolate by the fire.
What kind of guests do you meet at the hostel?
Kristopher: We meet people from all over the world. We've met some of the world's leading mountaineers, archeologists, biologists collecting butterflies have been out there, you name it.
We like Chengdu families coming up. It gives our kids someone to play with, and they get away from the big city. I think our favorite guests are the ones we have personal connections to, maybe we happened to go on a family picnic and invited them to come with us. There are some really precious guests, nice people who are looking for a home experience. When traveling, often that's the most difficult thing to get. The best compliment a guest can give us is "It feels like home."
Have you had any strange guests?
Kristopher: [There was a guest] from Japan, he took the bus 12 hours from Chengdu to Kanding.
Stephanie: He arrived at 5 p.m. or something like that, and he went right to bed, we didn't see him. The next day at noon he woke up and came upstairs: What time is it? 12. Oh, I gotta catch my bus to Chengdu!
Kristopher: He didn't see anything.
Stephanie: He slept the entire time.
Kristopher: We had a guest from Colorado who bought some yaks, and he came up to learn how to raise yaks. He's a 60-year-old ranger. I get talking to him and actually he says he's also the world's leading archeologist for trying to find Noah's Ark (in Turkey, as in the Bible). He tells me all these stories about finding Noah's Ark and being under the old city of Jerusalem. He's an Indiana Jones kind of character.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 67.
Photos 1 & 4 by Dan Sandoval, photos 2&3 courtesy of Stephanie Rubesh.