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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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