If Zhongdian felt like the end of the line at the edges of the frontier, Litang was more like the fur trading fort a thousand kilometres beyond it, truly in the wilds. It was bigger than I’d expected, but outside of the main street almost all of the buildings were tan coloured rammed earth Tibetan style. Yaks wandered the dusty main street, stopping to try and nibble on street trees that had clearly been specially selected for their unpalatability to yaks. Each block held four or five feral dogs lazing in the sun. People everywhere were dressed in the thick wraparound cloaks and cowboy hats that seem popular everywhere in Tibet. And everywhere you looked were old men and women spinning prayer wheels or fingering prayer beads. Litang was at the very heart of Kham, one of the traditional three provinces of Tibet (the easternmost.)
A crow perched on top of the Litang monastery
Though it was a very out of the way place, Litang had an astonishingly well equipped backpacker hostel, with an English speaking owner, free wifi, cheap, comfy dorms with huge windows, and very helpful travel advice. Our monk/driver knew exactly where we were talking about and dropped us there with no fuss before heading off to find passengers for a return trip.
We set our packs down and went out for a look around town. We checked out the local market which sold, amongst the usual meat and vegetables and clothes &c., huge blocks of yak butter, rounds of yak cheese and 1m diameter wooden drums. Our fellow marketgoers were an interesting bunch, most wearing the traditional Tibetan outfits described above. Those who weren’t thus attired were the Buddhist monks, even more distinctive in their maroon robes and “head roofs,” odd, flat visor-like hats in gold or orange. The monks weren’t just distinctive. They were common too. It seemed as though every third male in town from about 10 years of age on up was a monk.
Before leaving the market to continue with a look around town we also picked up a snack of a round flatbread, folded in half, stuffed with potato, mint and other herbs then deep fried.
A typical crowd of shoppers at the market. The idea of monks buying knockoff purses seems kind of incongruous
Mmm… deep fried dough!
Yak butter (top) and cheese (bottom) for sale in the Litang market
We wandered at random through the old town. As in Xiangcheng, virtually every building in the old town was in classic Tibetan style. There was a different twist on Litang’s buildings, however. Zhongdian’s had been huge two story tan structures with balconies and massive columns. Xiangcheng’s were smaller scale, but still fortress-like whitewashed homes with brilliantly coloured window frames. Meanwhile Litang’s were yet smaller, earth coloured structures that lacked the whitewash but maintained the beautiful window fittings of those in Xiangcheng. Many homes had yaks or hairy black pigs corralled in the front courtyard, and almost all had guard dogs that were, thankfully, chained up inside their gates.
A typical home in the old residential part of Litang
Before continuing, a few words about Tibetan dogs, as my feelings towards and relations with them form an important part of our time in Kham:
Most dogs in China were small and docile. Think Pekingese or Pomeranians. Those in Tibet were another story altogether. Most are descended from the Tibetan mastiffs that were bred by nomads as guard dogs for their flocks, tents and families. As such they’d been bred to be big and strong, then trained to be vicious and fearlessly attack anyone who wasn’t their master or his family. The dogs in town subsisted on garbage and scraps and so had become lazy and docile. But those out in the countryside guarding nomad encampments were just as described above, and their feral brethren had much in common with them. Thus I’d been very nervous about any dogs we encountered in Tibet, especially as we hadn’t had rabies vaccinations before leaving for this trip.
Our walk through the old town eventually took us to the base of the monastery. Outside was a beautiful old shrine whose outer wall was made up of a ring of prayer wheels. Tibetan Buddhists believe that spinning these wheels inscribed with prayers around their circumfrence will bring them closer to nirvana, as will walking around shrines in a clockwise direction. Thus it’s very common to see people making multiple circuits around suck places, spinning the dozens of prayer wheels along their route as they go.
Around the shrine were more Tibetan Buddhist icons, bright white chortens (or stupas or reliquaries depending on what language you’re speaking), lines of colourful prayer flags (printed with prayers, these are meant to flutter in the breeze and thus carry the prayers to heaven) and manis (walls made of flat stones inscribed with carved and painted prayers in Tibetan.)
The Litang monastery off in behind the homes of the town residents. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are typically built on hillsides above their towns so that they (figuratively at the very least) dominate life in the town
One of the stupas out front of the monastery
The monastery was nowhere as old as most of these. At least in its present incarnation. There has been a monastery on the site for hundreds of years. However in the 1950s when the Chinese army invaded Tibetan areas to liberate/conquer (depending on your perspective) them, sentiments in Litang had run high against the Chinese, and it had been the starting point for armed resistance against them. As such the monastery was directly involved in the conflict and before it was over, had been demolished by Chinese artillery fire. The new monastery was mostly finished, but parts were still under construction when we visited.
The main buildings were at once imposing and beautiful. Only one had its doors open, but we were welcome to visit almost every part of it, from the beautiful main prayer hall up to the roof, which had expansive views out over the rest of the monastery, the town and the broad valley containing them.
The monks we ran into were friendly, smiling and asking us where we were from, and if we’d like to take photos with them. And even the dogs were peaceable enough (though I’d read stories about one nasty biting one who lived there.)
Two young monks in the courtyard in front of the monastery buildings. They were taking turns pulling one another along on a skateboard by the sashes of their robes
The grand exterior of (two of the three) main monastery buildings
The interior of the main prayer hall. It would have been a peaceful place in any case, but all the hanging tapestries and rugs on the floor deadened even the few sounds that made it in were deadened without any echo
Sarah atop the monastery
Me with one of the cheerful monks at the Litang monastery. A few minutes later we saw another monk (in a less cheerful mood obviously) throw a rock at a dog who was barking at him (not that I hold that against him.) I’m uncertain of the truth of this story, but aside from reasons of self preservation I’d heard that monks often treat the mutts hanging around monasteries poorly as they believe they’re reincarnated monks who lived wicked lives previous to their reincarnation as dogs
A cute baby yak with a (yaklick) that we saw on our way back from the monastery
The streets of old Litang were a bit convoluted, so by the time we got back to our hostel it was almost dinner time. We got a restaurant recommendation from a German cyclist staying in our dorm and went to try out some Kham food. The names were familiar: momos (dumplings), thukpa (noodle soup), and zhou (yogurt) from our time in Nepal. But the details differed. The momos we had were huge things, filled with potatoes that tasted like they were part of a roast dinner, then pan fried ’til they were crispy. The yogurt had a faint tinge of yak flavour to it (yak milk has a distinctive flavour to it, just as goat’s milk does, but milder) and was sweetened. But it was all delicious, and the portions so generous that one plate of momos and two bowls of yogurt was more than we could eat.
Sarah looking at her loveliest. A plate of jaukok (potato) momos looking at their loveliest too, with yogurt on the side
The next day Sarah and I decided to take a wander out of town. There weren’t really hiking trails as such, but given that there was nothing but grassland and bare hillsides as far as you could see, there wasn’t really any chance of getting lost. We headed out along the main road, turning off onto a rough track through the grasslands as we left the final “suburbs” of town.
The grand tramp that I’d planned across the plains and up one of the mountains was easier said than done. First was a stream that Sarah felt a bit uncomfortable crossing and needed a fair bit of coaxing and handholding to make it across. Then came the realization that the direct route to where we were headed crossed a couple of fenced pastures. The less direct route took us past several nomad tents, no doubt with their attendant guard dogs. And the least direct route was , we realized now that we’d walked out in the grasslands a bit, actually very long indeed. So in the end we contented ourselves with sitting on a low ridge, admiring the view of the plains, mountains and herds, drinking our Sprite and eating bananas in what was probably one of most hostile places on to their cultivation.
The road out of Litang to the west
The village where we turned off the main road. This was of very modern construction, but still in traditional regional stylen
The view out over the valley where we sat eating our banana
We carried on across the plains, never straying more than a km or so from the road, and eventually found our way to a small village complete with its own little monastery and chorten surrounded by prayer wheels. We poked around a bit, saying hello to very surprised looking children and skirting around barking dogs.
After a bit of this, Sarah decided she’d had enough walking and decided to head home along the main road. I planned to walk up the nearby hills and follow the ridgeline back to behind Litang monastery.
Unfortunately splitting up was something of a mistake. Dogs that are wary of two large mammals (like people) are much less fearful of one alone. On her walk back through the small village, Sarah was followed by a barking, growling mutt that refused to leave her alone. The old trick of stooping as though to pick up a stone didn’t disuade it, and she finally had to throw a rock at the thing. Even this didn’t send it running. It just became a bit more wary and kept its distance until it finally left her alone when she’d reached the main road.
I, meanwhile, gave the village dogs a much wider berth. My paranoia had reached the point that I wouldn’t walk anywhere near them. I twisted and turned ’til I found myself on the edge of the countryside with not another living thing in sight. This turned out not to be quite true. Eventually I found a few yaks grazing off in the distance. And lots of little prarie-dog like creatures scampered around the brown countryside, always keeping a safe distance from me and never straying too far from their holes.
At one point during my wander the sky suddenly darkened and though it had been hot and sunny minutes before, snow was soon falling on top of me 1and dusting the surrounding hillsides. I started back towards town (still not too far away), but then just as quickly as it had started it became clear that the storm would soon be spent, so I carried on.
It was at this point that I had my dog incident. I was nearing a small ravine, preparing to cross, when I spotted a lone large dog about 200m away on the ridge above the ravine’s far side. I immediately changed my mind about crossing the ravine and headed back the way I’d came. Happy that I was in a stony section of the plains, started arming myself with a handful of fist sized rocks. The dog stared at me, and was soon joined by a pack of three more canines. They stared trotting down the ridge towards me. I quickened my pace, walking (I hoped) confidently away, but not running and giving the appearance of prey. Sarah and I had tried a little target practice earlier and I knew my aim wasn’t good. If they all ran at me at once there was no way I could hit them all. I’d certainly be bitten and seriously hurt or worse. I started looking around for big heavy stones that I could bludgeon them with while they mauled me if it came to that.
What could have become of me if the pack of feral dogs had got ahold of me
Thankfully it didn’t. I made it over a small ridge and well out of sight of them before they’d crossed the ravine. I walked quickly away, taking a look over my shoulder every couple of seconds, still dreading that I’d see the pack following. My heart was pounding, over 100 beats a minute, and my legs felt like jelly. I didn’t feel entirely safe until I was back at the main road, half an hour and 2km later.
At this point things took a turn very much for the better. As I headed back to town I passed two women on the roadside trying to load a roll of fence onto the back of a pickup truck. Evidently it had fallen off the truck as they were driving. I offered them a hand, and they beckoned me into the truck to sit beside the male driver. I thought they were just giving me a ride back to town, but they pulled into their driveway and opened the gate to the courtyard. I helped them unload the truck and then we all headed into the standalone kitchen in the courtyard’s corner. They offered me bread (great stuff, with a crispy crust and soft inside) and sweet tea with just the faintest hint of milk in it. We sat and nibbled and drank while a parade of guests came and went. With them speaking pretty much no English and me even less Tibetan there wasn’t much to do other than for them to smile, laugh and gesture at my beard and for me to smile and laugh right along with them. Eventually I took my leave, the lady of the house coming out with me to stand between me and their guard dog as I went.
The family who took me in. Lots of Tibetan men had long hair, so my flowing locks fit right in (even if the huge beard didn’t exactly.)
By the time I got back to town and met Sarah again my fear from the canine adventure were mostly behind me, I’m happy to say.
Our final day in Litang Sarah woke feeling ill and had to spend the whole day in bed resting and recuperating, poor dear.
This was especially sad as it was probably the most memorable and exciting (though that’s almost certainly not the right word) one I spent in Litang. That morning I headed out of the hostel with Mike, another Canadian who was staying in our dorm, and who was motorcycling across Tibet and western China. Our destination was the sky burial site on the edge of town.
Tibetan soil is frozen for several months of the year and hard and stony when it’s not. So burying the dead is not a particularly useful option. Wood is in very short supply, so cremation is out as well. So over the years the Tibetans have learned to deal with death in harmony with their environment.
We’d been told about the sky burials by the staff at the hostel. They explained that they took place on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays (oddly regimented), and that we’d be welcome to go and watch, provided that we were respectful and didn’t take photos. The time was up to the family and the lama officiating, but we were given clear directions and told to head out around 9 in the morning.
As it turned out I was very happy to have Mike with me. He had previously lived in China and spoke good Mandarin, so he was able to talk a bit with the family members who were there. Yes, this was the right place. Yes, it would be starting soon (though as it turned out we really were quite early.) No, they didn’t mind us being there, so long as we didn’t take photos.
The only sky burial photo. Of the site, well before the ceremony started. You can just make out the incinerator (mentioned later) to the left of the white building
We didn’t want to be TOO close, partly out of respect for the ceremony, partly out of a slight sense of squeamishness, so we moved to what we thought was a slightly more distant hilltop. As it turned out we’d moved to within 15m of the burial site. The lama appeared and changed from his maroon robes into a sort of apron. He walked to a nook in the hillside where he pulled out an axe, then headed up the hill towards us. It was at this point when we realized how close we were, and so were happy to oblige when he waved us away.
We headed down the hill, and were in turn waved towards the family and/or friends that we’d been talking to earlier. They bade us come and sit down with them near their fire (which was welcome as it was still a cold morning) and offered us bottles of water (happily accepted) and cigarettes (politely declined.) We chatted a bit, with Mike translating until the ceremony began.
By this time vultures had been gathering on the hillside above the lama, perhaps eighty of them. They were huge birds, almost waist high when standing, and with a wingspan of close to 2m when airborne. Several young men (there were no women present) formed a semicircle around him to keep the birds away. It was surprising that such a large crowd of such powerful creatures could be so easily held at bay.
A truck drove up, parking on the hillside near the lama. A big, slightly oblong pine box was pulled out of the back and set down on the ground. The lama stood and broke it open with the blunt end of the axe. He removed the top and sides, leaving the body of the deceased resting on the bottom. We were about 60m distant, but it appeared the deceased was a man, slightly stout with short black hair, probably no more than about 50 years old.
The lama tied a red ribbon around the neck of the body and in turn tied this to a wooden stake planted in the hillside. Then he cut open the front of the man’s clothes and rolled his body over, picking up the bottom of the “coffin” and the recently removed clothing.
The lama carefully washed the body of the deceased, then stepped away. As did the bird-warders near him. In an instant the vultures had flown and hopped their way to the body and completely surrounded and covered it. You could see nothing of the body, just a seething mass of brown feathers. At one point a bird hopped out of the crowd with what looked like a long cord or stick in its beak. It couldn’t hold on to the morsel, so it was picked up by the lama and thrown back into the tumult.
The crowd of birds calmed a bit. The lama and his assistants approached the mass and shooed them away. Where the body of a full grown human being had been less than five minutes ago, all that seemed to remain now was a few sticks. Slightly red, but mostly brown or black.
As the lama picked them up it became clear that they were connected by invisible sinews. He brought them over to a large stone and set about the final disposal of the now scarcely human remains. Bit by bit he smashed and chopped the bones with his axe. With the amount of time and energy he put into the process he must have been pulverizing the skeleton into little more than a mush. All through this 20 minute process, the vultures waited, knowing that the second half of their meal would come to them soon so long as they were patient.
When he was finished the lama stepped away and again the formless mass of feathers surrounded the spot he’d been moments before. A few more minutes and the mass started to abate. The vultures hopped away, some still pecking at the odd spot on the ground.
As this was happening, the assistants had brought the deceased’s clothing and the coffin down the hill and were burning them, along with other of his possessions in an incinerator.
“Well, that’s our sky burial,” said one of the family members, “what did you think?”
What did I think.
It was oddly even-tempered. While the ceremony took place many attendees were smoking, chatting away with each other, or even talking on their cellphones. I suppose when one believes in reincarnation as Tibetan Buddhists do, death may not seem like quite as solemn an event. But then you could say the same about belief in ascent to heaven after death, but most Christians manage to be plenty distraught.
What else did I think?
When I sit and consider it, something like this is almost exactly like what I’d like done with my body when I die. Natural, quick and not wasteful.
But then when I imagine it being done with one of my loved ones, say one of my sisters, I feel disquieted.
I know a dead body is not a living person.
But I know it would still feel like her, or at least something recognizable as her.
And the thought of her being there one moment, then half an hour later being gone, being NOTHING, would be hard.
After this I didn’t really feel like doing much else for the day.
I returned to the hostel and kept Sarah company. Trying to nurse her through her illness. And being happy and grateful that she was there.
A mani wall near the Litang monastery
Yaks about town
Tags: China, Kham, Litang, Llew Bardecki, Sichuan, Sky Burial, Travel, Western Sichuan