Day 17 & 18: Rest in Litang
After three hard days riding through some remote and sparsely populated country it was great to finally arrive in the frontier town of Litang. For over 2 weeks it had been the goal of our every pedal stroke: the end of our ride west, the highest town on the Tibetan Plateau, a place of strong Tibetan pride and culture and one of those very out of the way places that only a few travellers make the journey to. It’s an uncomfortable trip – whether by bus or bike, but one that’s well worth making.
Pedalling through the maze of low-level block-and-rammed-earth buildings, dodging the dogs and inhaling dust and diesel fumes we managed to navigate our way to the Potala Guest House – a travellers’ hostel (foreigners allowed) that had been recommended to us.
We spent two days in Litang; checking out the monastery and town, witnessing a ‘sky burial’, and cleaning and servicing our bikes in preparation for the next (and apparently hardest) section of riding south through the mountains to Yunnan.
Our two days in Litang were hard won though. On our second night there a policewoman (with interpreter) turned up at the Potala and announced that all foreigners in Litang (all 6 of us!) had to leave the next morning. Reason being that ‘the weather was not suitable’ (it had been fine and clear for 2 days). Again, spurious reasons for denial of foreigners in the area, and Chinese tourists or organised tour groups were not apparently being hassled. We talked with the policewoman for a while and convinced her that having ridden all the way there from Chengdu, we needed to rest more before leaving, and that we needed time to service our bikes. It took quite a bit of back and forth, and a call to a superior, before we got the nod to stay and seemed once again like a ridiculous charade.
The Potala Guest House was our home for three nights. It was run by the odd combination of a pretty and immaculately dressed young Chinese woman who spoke good English and a manic 17 year old Tibetan boy. The Chinese woman was apparently the boy’s caregiver, but that didn’t stop him drinking, smoking and turning the stereo (playing terrible Chinese dance music) up to unbearable levels. The water was sometimes hot, the wifi sometimes transmitted, the door to our room didn’t lock, but it was an Oasis.
Next its throat is cut, then it’s thrown into a basket to bleed to death. Once the flapping has stopped the bird is dunked into boiling water and then a mechanical de-featherer. It’s then prepared to the buyer’s request.
Inside the Litang Chode Gompa (monastery). Litang is the birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas. This monastery was built in honor of the 3rd Dalai Lama. With three separate building it’s a lot to behold: incredible paintings, carvings and textiles.
We made a trip out to the fringes of town to witness a Sky Burial (a Tibetan funeral basically). If a low profile is maintained, foreigners are sometimes welcome to see these events. It undeniably has an element of ghoulishness, but it’s also about recongition of the transience of human life both in matter and spirit.
A sky burial is about offering the dead person’s body to vultures; a bird considered sacred by the Tibetans. Firstly the body is secured to a stake, then a person makes multiple incisions in the flesh of the body to help it to tear off when the vultures come upon it. During this process the vultures are kept at bay by stick waving from the other Tibetans in the group. The vultures are then allowed to encroach on the body and devour it. In barely 5 minutes the vultures strip the flesh from the body in a frenzy, leaving only a skeleton. The skeleton is then carefully pulverised and ritualistically mixed with flour, until only powder and fragments are left. The vultures are then allowed back to consume the remains, while the ravens and cows are kept away with the stick!
The Tibetans performing this ritual invited us to witness from close up (we declined!) and afterwards invited us to share yak butter tea and bread with them – then they gave us a lift back to town on their tractor.