Published: September 5th 2007August 24th 2007
Perched at 4014 meters(13,246 feet-- 314m higher than Lhasa!), Litang is an absolute gem in so many different ways. The town is surrounded by livestock-dotted rolling green hills, and there is a range of large mountains towering over the town from the south. The town has a wild west feel and reputation, long known as a rebellious enclave of Tibetan nationalism. While home to a significant number of Han Chinese, the town is still predominantly Tibetan, and possesses a distinctly Tibetan "feel". Yaks and pigs wander through the dusty streets as farmers cruise by on deafening tractors and monks and long haired Tibetan men speed past on loud Chinese motorcycles. Traditionally dressed Tibetan women wash clothes on the curb or stroll the sidewalks with their plum cheeked little kids in tow, looking at drying mushrooms and other crops layed out in the sun on sidewalk blankets. The sound of clinking hammers is incessant, and numerous street front shops sell prayer flags, sheepskin coats, farm equipment, and horse tack. The cacophony of noise emanating from the street gets Brett and I up no later than 8.
While not lying within what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region(TAR), Litang is significant in
a stop on our way up to the Monastery above Litang
Tibetan history as the birthplace of both the seventh and tenth Dalai Lama, both of which died young and accomplished virtually nothing. More importantly, Litang houses one of the most grand Gelugpa(the Tibetan Buddhist sect from which the Dalai Lama belongs) monasteries, founded by the influential third Dalai Lama. The third Dalai Lama is credited with spreading Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia and some of what is now part of the various Central Asian "stan" countries. The conversion of the powerful Mongol tribes to Tibetan Gelugpa Buddhism dramatically altered East Asian history and led to the military/cultural/political and religious ascenstion of the Gelugpa order and to cementing the Dalai Lama as the religious and political "ruler" of Tibet. The Mongol conversion also led to the suspicious and controversial birth of the fourth Dalai Lama reincarnation in Mongolia, which is the only Dalai Lama to be born out of historic Tibet.
In recent history, due to considerable local Tibetan guerilla resistance against the Chinese, Litang was the site of one of the worst Chinese massacres of Tibetans in 1959. Borrowing a passage from Thomas Laird's superb history book, The Story of Tibet,
"In February 1956, after a Tibetan attack on
is that a hawk?
didn't even see her first time round.
a Chinese garrison in the eastern town of Lithang, in today's Sichuan Province, Chinese troops surrounded the monastery, where the Khampa freedom fighters had retreated. After a sixty-four-day siege, the Chinese killed several thousand Tibetans during an aerial bombardment of an ancient monastery. Any success that the freedom fighters had against the Chinese - and the Khampas repeatedly cut the road to China in 1956 - was paid for with terrible retribution. Such events vindicated the Dalai Lama in his view that to resist through violence would only lead to the death of his people. When, appalled at the course of events, he sent letters to Mao reminding him of the promises that had been made about autonomy, they went unanswered even as the violence spread toward Central Tibet." pg. 330
As recently as this past July, at the Litang summer horse festival, a few men took the stage and loudly denounced Chinese rule over Tibet. This story has been a hot one on the backpacker rumor circuit, entailing everything from a riot ensuing to the activists being executed. We have learned that there was not really a riot, nor any widescale police brutality, but the fate of the
with dynamite blasts in the distance we were reminded of the freedom fighters that stood their ground holding the monastery..
outspoken seperatists has not been determined and many people doubt that they have been treated lightly. Protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet is serious business to Bejing, and perpetrators(unless they are internationals) receive long jail terms and "re-education sessions"(euphemism for torture).
While I'm on the subject of the Chinese occupation, Litang houses a huge military barracks and Brett and I spent some time watching through the gate dozens of young Chinese soldiers doing crazy military exercises in sync. We were also able to get the stone faced, "look straight ahead" guards at the gate to crack into laughter with our grins and butchered Tibetan words. They might have gotten a few extra laps around the barracks because of us.
The monastery in Litang is not only large, but absolutely gorgeous. The monastic complex is set prominently atop a hill, looking over all of Litang. Over 1000 Gelugpa monks reside at the monastery, and monks can be seen at virtually all times anywhere in Litang. Despite being largely destroyed by Chinese aerial bombardment in 1956 and probably even more destroyed by commie diehards during the Cultural Revolution, the monastery is a beautiful bastion of Tibetan Buddhism. Brett and I
spent hours wandering around the grounds, playing with cheerful young monks and watching elderly, traditionally dressed Tibetans circumnavigate the huge complex while reciting mantras and spinning prayer beads. Many of these people doing laps around the monastery walls slowly struggled while hunched over canes, and others lead their small herds of yak around the beautiful, sacred building. In the rolling hills surrounding the monastery are multiple prayer flag draped stupas, some of which are used as sites for Tibetan sky burials. Brett and I spent a beautiful sunny afternoon under the flapping flags reading and watching a soaring hawk, with the monastic complex and its circumnavigating worshippers and yak herders below us.
Much of the monastery is still being built(or rebuilt), and Brett and I were invited high up onto the scaffolding by some painters to watch a dozen or so Tibetan artists meticulously paint Buddhist deities and traditional village scenes in a massive mural upon one of the building's concrete walls. It was incredible to be 40 feet in the air upon rickety scaffolfing with the many friendly, talented, and devoted artists who work 12 hour days to paint this holy building. It was also a novel feeling
to be in such a vast, holy space while it is under construction, as the cellphone ringing, spitting, littering, and Chinese pop music blaring from the radio coupled with the gorgeous images and fading natural light for a bizarre religious experience. Another bonus of our monastery experience was that we did not see another tourist the entire time we were there, hopefully the building is equally deserted when we visit our buddies up on the scaffolding tomorrow...
Our afternoon wasn't complete without a game of football with some local youngsters- on a walk through adobe and stone walled homes we came across this group, a deflated basketball was quickly produced, and the next thing we knew we were taking on a small army of Tibetan kids in a match... our 'field' dotted with yak pies we maneuvered around passing women and monks attempting to keep the score close- evetually we had a bit of an audience as laughter filled the air and Brett and I attempted to fill our lungs with the oxygen depleted air... i think we probably lost, but we made some great new friends and learned the proper pronounciation of 'tashi delay' (sp?). A new ball
slow and steady this woman made her way around the complex humming her prayers
might be in order next time we're in the neighborhood-
There are more photos below