The Tibetan Plateau and the Sky Burial – Litang, China

Our main goal in coming to China was to experience Tibetan culture, but travelling to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is not cheap.  You need a special visa, and you have to go on a guided tour.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t in the budget.  When we started to look into other options, we leaned about the ancient Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham.  Never heard of them? We hadn’t either.  A brief history lesson is in order for this all to make sense.

Historically, Tibet consisted of three regions – U-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham.  After China’s Communist Revolution, the region were divided up between the Tibetan Autonomous Region (the area that is politically known as Tibet nowadays), and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai.  

Thanks to Wikipedia for this helpful map! While the Tibetan Autonomous Region is the only area to officially have Tibet in its name, large parts of Sichuan and Qinghai are culturally Tibetan.

This presented an enticing opportunity: we could travel through the part of Kham (and maybe Amdo, if time permits) that is located outside of the TAR and experience Tibetan culture without the hassle and costs, not to mention the potential moral issues, of going to the TAR.  But we wondered how much Tibetan culture we actually could see in Kham.  Was there a reason this area was left out of the TAR?  Maybe the culture had been stamped out following the integration into Communist China and the Cultural Revolution.  

We left Shangri-La the first of two long bus rides, first travelling 8 hours to a town called Xiangcheng.  The paved roads ended shortly outside of Shangri-La, and the rest of the ride was on some shockingly bumpy dirt roads.  And we nearly had several yak-related bus crashes.  But the views were spectacular, and as we gained elevation it looked like travelling through the Rocky Mountains or the Alps.  

Views on the bus ride north from Shangri-la. The roads leave little room for error and thankfully our bus went slowly.
The valleys are dotted with farms, many of which seemed to be growing wheat or maybe barley.
Approaching Xiangcheng, our stopover for the night. The town itself was nowhere near as nice as the scenery.

After overnighting in Xiancheng, we hopped on a very early bus headed north, towards the town of Litang.  Again, the roads were back-breakingly bumpy but the views were jaw dropping.  At one point to road goes over a mountain pass at 4600m, and when we came down the other side the scenery had changed from the Rocky Mountains to the Tibetan Plateau.  Snow capped peaks with pine forests transitioned to grass covered hills/mountains and sweeping grasslands dotted with the white tents of the nomadic peoples.  We even started seeing fields of what looked like heather. Suddenly it felt like we were in Tibet.

The grasslands west of Litang. At over 4000m in elevation, this is the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. To put the elevation in perspective, wikipedia says there are only 19 mountains in all of Canada that are higher than 4000m.

We pulled into Litang, and found a room at the Potala Inn nearby the bus station.  It was a nice guesthouse run by a Tibetan family, and thankfully we got a room with hot water and a western toilet. 

Litang is the largest town in Western Sichuan (Eastern Kham). While the main street appears very Chinese, the people and the older parts of town are very Tibetan.

This is what we mean when we say the main street is Chinese – new developments, ignoring the local architectural styles and generally devoid of any architectural interest whatsoever.
A traditional Tibetan building.
Even a small hill takes your breath away.
But it’s worth it once you reach the top.
Walking back down into town.
We keep going on and on about the altitude in our China blog posts. Well just to give you an idea about how difficult it can be, stores in this region sell bottled oxygen!

It didn’t take us long to learn the Tibetan greeting “Tashi dele!”, because we ended up saying it to pretty much every person in town as we walked around.  There were only a few other westerners in town, and to say we were a novelty would be an understatement.  Nearly every person looked (stared) at us as we walked aroud town, which admittidly was a little intimidating at first.  But after we greeted them with a hearty “Tashi dele!” the stares quickly turned to smiles.

Tibetan women in their traditional dress, taken just outside our guesthouse.
The younger children often shy away from us, but once they hit maybe 4 years old they are very curious.
We tried telling this kid he should have a Talbot jersey on, but he didn’t seem to know what hockey is. Where he got a Lundquist shirt from we have no idea.
These women were happy to have a very one sided conversation with us, in Tibetan of course. Like all the Tibetans, they were very friendly.
A common mode of transportation in Litang. This one could use a new tire though.



Most of the local men dress like cowboys, with leather jackets and cowboy-esque hats.

Sometimes when we were sitting in restaurants people would walk by and then do a double take, coming back to look at us.  We had more than a few people walk into the restaurant and stand by our table until we greeted them, after which they would eventually move on.  Its our impression that the people are just very curious, especially young people who are eager to show off the few English words they know.

Speaking of languages, this sign has Tibetan (top), Chinese and English. The Tibetan text looks vaguely like Thai writing.
The market is always a great place to learn about the local people.
Despite the number of vegetables for sale at the market, it’s surprisingly hard to get them in a meal. Mostly they come fried or boiled to death.
How much pork would you like?
There were groups of men all over town, huddled together trading something that looked like beans. We thought it might be some kind of pepper. It turns out they are trading a type of caterpillar that has been killed by a special fungus. These dead caterpillars are found in the lands near Litang, and are worth a fortune in Chinese medicine.

Like so many people we have encountered so far on this trip, the Tibetans are intensely religious. Buddhism is deeply woven into the fabric of life in this part of the world. Most of the “sights” in Litang are Buddhist temples, monasteries, or in some other way related to the religion.

Litang Gompa, the local monastery.
This group is performing the morning “kora” at Litang Gompa. This involves walking clockwise around the various structures, while praying and spinning prayer wheels.
The monastery an important site of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese Communist Army during the revolution, and as such much of it was destroyed. It is still being rebuilt, and everyone helps out.
Endless rows of prayer wheels. Our right arms were sore from spinning them!
The heavy prayer wheels didn’t slow these women down.
The view from the top of the monastery.
Buddhist monks here can drive motorbikes, unlike in Burma.
Inside the monks’ living quarters.

The Sky Burial

When a Tibetan dies, their body is returned to nature by way of a sky burial.  Apparently this practice began because the ground is too hard (rocks and/or frozen), and there isn’t enough wood for cremations.  So, when someone dies their body is taken into the grassland and consumed by vultures.  Sky burials are common in Litang, and after asking around we learned that travellers are able to attend. 

Family members do not attend the sky burials. It is our understanding that the sky burals is more of a practical method for body disposal a rather than a funeral ceremony. That being said, we wanted to be as respectful as possible.  We kept our distance, and didn’t take any photos during the actual burial.  The Chinese tourists were not quite as respectful, as they were up front and centre video recording everything.

What follows is a description of what took place during the sky burial. We understand it isn’t for everyone, and fair warning that it might sound a little grusome. But it’s a part of Tibetan culture and we feel lucky to have experienced something so unique.

We got up at 5:45, and began walking to the site at 6am.  We had gone to the site the day prior to find out how long it would take to walk.  We went with a couple from England, and a girl from Ireland.  We got to the site around 6:30, and right away noticed the ridge above the site was lined with vultures.  


We sat down and waited to see if there would be a sky burial today.  We had been told at one of the hostels in town that they usually happen, but there is no guarantee.  

After around 30 minutes of waiting, a SUV drove down into the site and 4 men got out of it. They lit fires in two stone chimneys (looked like chimineas) and then sat down and waited.  After another 30 minutes, we walked down closer to the men to try and get an idea what, if anything, was going on.  Finally two more SUVs showed up, and a monk got out of one and went up the hill to do some sort of blessing on the site.  

The sky bural site.

Once the blessing was done, the monk got back in his vehicle and the men laid the body out on the hillside. All the while the vultures kept moving closer, and had to be constantly chased away.  

This photo was before the burial started. It’s just to give an idea as to how big the vultures are. Their wingspans must easily have been 6-8 feet.

Eventually the men finished their work and the vultures were allowed in.  We estimated around 80-100 vultures.

After ten or fifteen minutes, the vultures were once again chased away and what was left of the body was chopped / ground up.  Apparently they mix it with corn meal and feed it to smaller birds.  It may sound grusome, but for the Tibetans its a practical way to dispose of a body.  And there is something to be said for the entire body going back to nature.

– Doug and Emily / June 19, 2017 @ 3:34pm / Tagong, China @ Himalayak Guesthouse



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