Published: September 8th 2009September 4th 2009
We raised our newly purchased Tibetan Prayer Flags and declared the lands around the Sichuan-Tibetan Highway as the new province of Yakistan. The lands of a thousand Yaks. Lands of nomads, monks and strange Tibetan customs. A place that would become our most memorable journey through China.
Imagine giving a 6 year old a pack of crayolas and asking him to draw and colour in rolling green hills, blue skies and white fluffy clouds. Throw in a few monasteries, rustic crumbling old homes and 100 yaks, and you have Litang. I travelled to Litang with 5 awesome fellow travellers; Hadas and Navid from Israel, Mike from LA, Maria from Spain and Shelley from Holland. We took a public bus to Xiangcheng from Shangri-La, a trip that took us through the worst roads I have ever had the misfortune of travelling on. I held my breath for the entire 10 hour journey in fear that the bus would slip on the muddy ground and plunge the 1000m or so over the cliff to the bottom of the valley. We slid many times, and bounced so hard and so often I ended up on top of the guy sitting next to me
who hopefully wasn’t getting any funny ideas. How awkward. After the horrendous journey the 6 of us organized a private minivan to take us to Litang. It ended up being the perfect idea, as the scenery was absolutely spectacular, like a mixture of New Zealand, Canadian and French countryside all rolled into one, and we asked the driver to stop countless times for photos ops! We were all instantly impressed with Litang but the first thing we all noticed was how thin the air was. Litang sits over 4000m above sea level which makes any amount of physical activity difficult. Climbing one flight of stairs left me completely exhausted, even blowing my nose was difficult because I couldn’t take a deep breath before blowing into a tissue! It was such a bizarre feeling. We invited ourselves into the monastery on the hill which had once been the home of two Dalai Lamas. All the monks we encountered were so friendly, they gave us a personal tour, and allowed us see where they ate, where they slept and where they prayed. As we left we heard the sound of trumpets being played and we looked up to the top of the
monastery and saw 3 monks, each wearing their robes of bright red and their heads adorned with a gold hat shaped like a giant mohawk blowing into long golden horns. We sat there listening to them for 10 minutes or so feeling extremely privileged to see and hear such a thing. As we wandered back to our hotel a lady and her 2 children stopped us and we were invited into her home for tea. Her house was very basic but homely, with simple yet beautiful wood carvings surrounding the kitchen and rugs of all kinds of colours and patterns surrounding the sitting room. She gave each of us a large bowl of yak butter tea, and I don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful, but it was quite honestly the most horrible thing I have ever had in my life. It tasted like thick melted margarine that had been dosed with 10 handfuls of salt. She then offered us grounded barley that she put into our tea and with chopsticks we were told to blend them together and eat. It didn’t make it any better. In fact, I think it made it worse as you can knock back a
revolting drink with a few gulps, but a whole bowl of porridge like barley tea requires serious effort! I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t finish it, and being the terrible guest that I am, left nearly the whole bowl. Shame.
Lonely Planet recommended a visit to Mr Zheng for the best travel information in town. We didn’t get travel advice from him, but we did get fed by him, 3 times a day for the 3 days we were there. His food was quite simply the most amazing food in the world. Pork dumplings in peanut sauce was the best meal I have ever had and his amazing ability to cook for over 30 people at a time by himself and still find time to chat to his customers makes him an absolute legend. He kept offering us tea and Snow Beer while he chatted about his cooking training in Beijing and France and helped us ward off the Tibetan musical acts who came in playing guitars and wanting money despite us not wanting to hear it in the first place!
The following morning we awoke early to attend a sky burial. Maria refused to come, being
adament that it was culturally insensitive for us to attend something akin to a stranger’s funeral back home. We all saw her point, but at the same time we were all respectful of the customs and traditions of the lands and wanted to witness something that we would never, ever see back home. It was quite gruesome and morbid, and I stayed well back so I didn’t see much of what went on. In Tibetan Buddhist culture when someone dies, rather than be buried or cremated as in our culture, the flesh of the body is given up as food to the vultures, a way of continuing the circle of life, and the bones are crushed together with barley flour and scattered over the lands. A man who appeared to be a type of master of ceremonies and donned a blue and white robe covered himself with butchers gloves and plastic wrap and using a massive and very sharp knife to cut into the flesh of the body until it was removed from the bones. Being at a (very) far distance from the scene, I couldn’t help but think it looked just like an episode of Dexter. The vultures flew
around the body and were kept away by other men at the scene, and once the cutting was complete the vultures were allowed in to do their job. It lasted about an hour and as disturbing as it does seem, it wasn’t as hard to watch as I imagined, although suffice to say I wouldn’t want to see it again.
After the sky burial we travelled to Tagong, where we planned to travel by horseback to stay with a nomadic family for a few days. That plan quickly fell through after our guide who was to take us to the family didn’t come through with his promise to take us the next day. So we instead wandered around the small town, and climbed a smallish hill with views over Mt Zhora and the golden monastery and had a picnic listening to Billie Holiday on Mike’s portable ipod speakers. It was a fantastic afternoon, and despite being stuffed around by guides and bus drivers, I really enjoyed Tagong.
I loved Yakistan, but a week of awful roads, rip off minivan drivers and no western toilets made me crave for “easy-to-travel’ China. It was fabulous though, to experience Tibetan life
and culture without the drama and cost of actually being in Tibet, and would love to go back one day. And I do miss yak.
There are more photos below