Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 11 - 16: Tibetan Plateau, Western Sichuan

Our adventure into western Sichuan, across the Tibetan plateau began in the town of Shangri-La.  Emblematic of the Chinese tourist industry's way of blurring fiction with history with reality to attract the most yuan possible, the town was named after the fictional location descried in the novel The Last Horizon and not the other way around.  Although not quite living up to the mysticism and paradise embodied in its name, Shangri-La was a pleasant stop over for a few nights.  At 3,200 meters, it helped us acclimatize for the journey ahead and we enjoyed some delicious home cooked dinners at our guesthouse outside of town.

We spent three of the next four days - 29 hours total - on public buses.  Each journey took us over harrowingly beautiful mountain passes and came complete with their own special mini-adventures.  Day one featured two sections of the road that were massively under construction where 6 foot deep holes had to be temporarily refilled so that our bus could pass by.  On day two, the driver needed to pull over every hour to air smoke out of the engine (which was inside the bus) and refill its water supply.  On our final journey we were blessed with an especially chain smoking / spitting crowd as travel companions.  The guy across the aisle had a routine of one cigarette followed by two massive halking spits, set on repeat every 15 minutes.  We estimated he worked his way thru 35-40 cigarettes during our 9 hour trip. 

But our 36 hours in Litang half-way through the journey made every minute on the bus well worth it.  Litang sits at 4,000 meters making it one of the highest towns in the world.  Although technically outside the "Tibetan Autonomous Zone", Litang is just about as Tibetan as it gets -- and without any of the travel restrictions or mobs of tourists that accompany a visit to Lhasa and its surroundings.  On our first afternoon we explored the grounds of the local monestary, wandering up to a structure covered with prayer flags waving in the wind against the bluest sky you can imagine.  The four monks handing out on the hill as we approached created an image that would almost seem too cliched if it wasn't the real deal.

As if our afternoon with the monks, prayer flags and Tibetan sky wasn't enough, we had the priviledge of witnessing a Tibetan Sky Burial the next morning.  This was, without a doubt, the most intensely unique cultural experience either of us has ever seen.  To "bury" their dead, Tibetans bring the body up to a hillside and watch as vultures eat every last scrap of meat off the bones.  When this is finished, they grind the bones together with a flour paste and let the vultures have another go at it until all the remains have been consumed.  As a testament to Tibetan buddhist belief in the cycle of life, this "burial" makes a great deal of sense with the passing of one creature nourishing another.  A benefit of being the only four tourists in town meant that we were slowly welcomed into the ceremony by friends and relatives of the dead.... which means that we have some pictures to prove it if you're skeptical that we saw what we said we did (warning, they're a bit graphic)..
Our afternoon and evening were spent getting to know the people of Litang a bit more, playing with kids around the local stupa and hanging out with some nomads over beers in the evening.  This town has a truely wild west feeling to it with rough and tumble but at the same time beautifully kind people. 

Thinking about the expense and hassle of a travel to Lhasa, we feel very lucky to have stumbled upon this authentic Tibetan experience as an alternative.  Thanks also to Sonny for being a wonderful travel companion this week and for tipping us off to the adventure.

1 comment:

  1. HI allison and nader,
    Thanks for sharing your great adventures with us all. Look forward to seeing you at Dian's wedding. XX Carolyn and Hugh cleland (25 george street) recent guests of the akhnoukhs.