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Published: November 18th 2006
My last update saw me just having arrived back at Chengdu after a very special trip to Tibet. However, I still had 3 weeks or so before I had to be in Saigon (to meet Danielle :-) ) and I'd heard of an adventurous way into Northern Yunnan and was toying with the idea of taking it, when I met up with Janet, a Kiwi who I'd originally met in Hanoi a couple of months ago. We thought we'd probably bump into each other again as our routes would cross over, so it was especially good when she mentioned it and asked if I fancied joining her to do exactly that trip! With a day to get the boring admin jobs out of the way - like buying food and sending a box of Tibetan goodies home, we got prepared and took a bus the next day to a town 9 hours away called Kanding. The route through western Sichuan is also called the route to Tibet or the backdoor to Yunnan and involves 7 days of bus journeys to travel past remote Tibetan villages, over high mountain passes and through forests that reminded us of Chile, New Zealand and The
North American Rockies all rolled into one. The alternative was an 18 hour train trip to Kunming - and where's the fun in that?!
The route has only been open to foreigners since 2003 and we saw only a handful of other travellers in the week or so were there. In some areas it's very similar to Tibet - with the black yak tents and beautiful scenery, but the difference I found was that there were far less Han Chinese - it felt even more like a different country than Tibet had.
The remoteness of the route we were taking soon became clear as our bus had to negotiate around landslides - including one that had just happened - so rather than wait for it be cleared, we drove around it - on the edge of a huge drop to the river below. This quickly set the theme for the journey - you can't have the magnificent views without climbing to the top of the mountains first! We arrived in Kanding and found our accommodation (yet again somewhat different from the good write up it received in the Lonely Planet - so that's the last time I use
On The Road To Litang
More of those scary mountain passes!
their recommendation!). Several panes of glass were missing from the windows so that night was spent in complete winter clothes - 2 fleeces and a hat with gloves on standby! The next day we toured the town - visiting a monastery and chorten at the top of the nearby hill (ok, we cheated and took the chair lift) and then sat watching the people walk past in all their different types of dress - the women with the coral in their hair as I'd seen in Tibet as well as the men in their sheepskin coats getting their shopping before heading back to their villages.
We later caught the bus to Litang and although a shorter journey by a couple of hours, the scenery was the most spectacular yet. We quickly climbed to clear passes at 4800m and past the snowline and whilst we drove, the Tibetans onboard sang folk songs or listened to the Compassion mantra - Om Mani Pedme Hom on a small speaker they carried with them. Just when you thought you couldn't get any higher, we rounded another hairpin and saw prayer flags marking the summit. We picked up several people along the way and
Our hosts inside their tent
dropped them off seemingly in the middle of nowhere, whilst at one point we stopped to help another bus that had broken down on the steep mountain roads. We seemed to swing around the bends as though we were on rails which was just as well given that there we rarely any barriers to stop you plummting over the edge - so we just sat and took pictures and enjoyed the experience!
Litang is described as the Wild West of China and given that most of our fellow passengers were wearing cowboy hats, it's easy to see how it could get that name! It's situated on a huge plain nestled next to some snowy mountains and as we walked through it, we saw the many pilgrims and nomads walking the streets - spinning their prayer wheels or buying goods not available in the countryside. We found a place to stay and wandered the streets - we were at 4200m and the altitude was beginning to tell - sore heads and not much appetite. It was also bitterly cold in the shade and at night but as we walked the streets, lots of locals said hello and gave us broad
grins. We bumped into a man who asked if we wanted to leave town for the day to visit a monastery and see some nomads. We were in 2 minds and tried to find a way of travelling out independently and on realising it was impossible, decided to head out with him - and it was one of the best decisions I've made on this trip.
We were taken out to what he described as a monastery but what was actually a large white tent, encircled by about 50 small white tents and a bit further away, a gathering of black, nomad tents. As we parked, we were surrounded by nomads peering into the car as we emerged and we were led into a large black tent, made entirely of yak hair. We sat to the right of the stove and we given cups of milky tea, followed by large hunks of warm, extremely chewy, yak meat. They gave us some sharp knives to work our way through the meat, along with some bread and as we looked around, it became clear that the family were as interested in us as we were in them. The children (I managed
to scare yet another one simply by smiling, a continuing theme!) sat and stared at us as we stared back and quickly the room was full of 3 generations - small children being nursed by their mothers, who sat next to their own mothers, chewing on the yak and drinking tea. Our guide explained that we'd come along during an annual, 20 day festival, where monks from all over Sichuan congregate to pray with the lama from Litang. The nomads from the same area supply all the food and drink that they need and it was they who lived in all of the black tents that surrounded us. We were clearly very lucky to be in this area at a time like this and yet again, privileged to witness some amazing scenes.
We were told we were allowed to take pictures of certain members of the family as well as the Buddhist shrine at the head of the tent, after which we left them and walked over to where the monks were boiling the yak butter to make the tea. Large vats sat atop a fire, containing either boiling butter or lumps of butter as it boiled down. It
was a chaotic scene of fire, smoke, steam and the sweet smell of butter - with people shouting as they carried the boiling pots out to cool off, barging you out of the way. We stood and watched for a while, as people around us ran, shouted, prodded the fire and stirred the butter with long sticks.
After a few minutes of watching, we headed towards the main event. The white tent contained about 150 monks of all ages sat in lines in their orange robes. They were all chanting mantras and we were led into the entrance to sit and watch. It felt very similar to the monasteries I'd visited in Tibet - the same energy and sounds. Some of the younger monks smiled and waved and even pulled faces by sticking out tongues when we took pictures, then giving us broad grins and a wave.
Outside the tent, pilgrims sat and prayed whilst spinning their prayer wheels. In one area, they sold some food and drinks - the only shop for many miles around, whilst vultures soared above us. The Tibetans practise Sky Burials here, where the dead are cut up and offered to the vultures
who are revered in Tibetan culture.
We were descended upon by lots of children, keen to see their picture on our cameras after posing. They followed us around - even leading Janet on the Kora, the circuit of the monastery tent. She even did it 3 times for extra good luck! They all looked so happy and it was clear that they all lead very hard lives, outside in all temperatures - their constantly running noses proof of that (and I went down with a heavy cold soon after meeting them!).
After a while of sitting and watching the monks pray whilst the pilgrims milled around, we were told we'd been invited to an audience with the lama! We were led into his small white tent and sat down to face a beaming, friendly-faced man, sat high on top of a charpoy, bedecked with lots of warm rugs. We were quickly offered tea and through our guide, he welcomed us to the festival and asked where were from. He was the lama for the Litang region and answered our various questions about Buddhism and told us that the monks had travelled long distances to be here. They pray
between 6am and 6pm, eating and drinking very little. We then asked him if he had any advice for us in our day-to-day lives and we left after saying our goodbyes. It struck me that the whole day had been another one of those amazing experiences that I never dreamed could have happened. We'd been witness to an event that was happening regardless of whether we were there or not - and apart from the children following us around, nobody cared if we were there or not. We never felt as though we were imposing - indeed, the lama said he was pleased that we'd visited and we were made thoroughly welcome. We headed back to our guesthouse, our heads buzzing with what we'd seen and our ears ringing with the sounds of the children laughing as they waved us goodbye.
We caught a bus the next day to Xiangchieng where we had to stay the night before leaving early the next day for Zhongdian - marketed as Shangri-La (as in James Hilton's book, The Lost Horizon). The bus trip itself was yet again, beautiful. We passed through some dramatic scenery and although not a high as previous trips,
it provided a particular highlight when a fellow passenger leaned out of the window and threw out a handful of prayer flags at the summit of each pass for good luck. We were starting to descend altitude now and the town was full of Chinese tourists exploring the newly-built old town, complete with a huge prayer wheel. It seemed a strange concept to call it Shangri-La when that refers to an outstanding area - which is actually on it's doorstep, rather than the town itself, but I guess it brings in the tourist Yuan and that keeps the town going.
When we left Zhongdian, we headed on to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge and then further south to Laos. I'll cover that in the next blog in a few days. At the moment, I'm in Pakse in southern Laos on my way to Cambodia to get a visa for Viet Nam. I've spent the last 2 nights in buses so it'll be good to sleep in a proper bed tonight! When I look back at the events of the past few weeks, I really can't believe how lucky I've been in the people I've met along the way - my
travelling companions, the locals and the sights that I've seen. Who knows what further adventures are around the corner?
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