26.09.2012 - 23.10.2012 10 °C
Unfortunately, the Chinese make it virtual impossible for penniless travelers like myself to enter Tibet. In order to obtain a permit, one must find five others of the same nationality and book an expensive organized tour. Luckily, several of Tibet’s bordering provinces contain areas which still lie on the Tibetan plateau but are not officially within its borders. Thus, the culture, architecture and people are Tibetan but the land is not off limits. These areas are commonly referred to by travelers as the Tibetan Back-Door. They allow budget travellers the opportunity to get a taste of Tibet without the permits. One such area is western Sichuan, an ancient province in the far west of China. In fact, until quite recently the government would not even allow foreigners into this area. Fortunately, the ban has recently been lifted and I was able to plan a route through the plateau on my way to ChengDu.
The Journey began in Shangri La where I was hanging low and waiting for a visa extension. For anyone who thought Shangri La was just a fictional place described in the book 'Lost Horizon', well you're right. The Shangri La in northern Yunnan is actually a city called ZhongDian. The Chinese renamed it Shangri La ten years ago to attract tourists. It worked. ZhongDian hosts tens of thousands of Chinese tourists every year. The ridiculous side to the story, however, is that ZhongDian is nothing like the Shangri La described in Lost Horizon. I read the book on my way to Northern Yunnan. The plot is built around the idea that a group of plane crash survivors are marooned in an impassable Tibetan valley, a majestic paradise surrounded by mountains so high that they are unable to leave. ZhongDian, however, lies in the middle of grassland with just a few rolling hills surrounding. It is certainly a beautiful area but in no way impassable. In fact, the terrain is quite easy to navigate. I guess not many Chinese tourists have read the book.
I arrived in ‘Shangri La’ during Golden Week, one of China’s two major holidays. The place was overrun with domestic tourists and prices were soaring. The day the holiday began, the fee for a single bed in my dorm went from 25 RMB ($4) to 100 RMB ($15). I managed to find a great little family run hostel in Shangri La for a decent price but I was desperate to escape the crowds. My solution was a trip up to Deqin, a mountain town straddling the Burmese and Tibetan border. The area was supposed to provide stunning views of Yunnan’s most majestic mountain, Meili Shan. The town was an eight hour drive from ZhongDian by means of a windy mountain road. I thought surely this would be a good place to avoid the holiday migration. I was wrong.
Upon arrival, I quickly realized that Meili is actually one of the most famous mountains in China. The town was tiny but busier than Shangri La. Once again I had to pay $15 for a three bed dorm that usually costs $3-4. To make matters worse I had to share this small frosty room with three sixty year old photographers who snored louder than ban saws. The room only had three beds but these guys were so desperate for a place to sleep that two of them shared a tiny single. Earplugs and a valium were a necessity that night. Due to bad weather, I only got a few glimpses of the mountain. It was indeed beautiful and majestic as the name suggests but continually shrouded in a thick fog.
While warming myself next to the stove in the guesthouse lobby one evening, I met a very nice local Chinese couple, Aibo and ManMan. They were shocked to find a foreigner wandering through northern Yunnan alone and even more surprised to find one who could speak a little Chinese. They treated me to hot pot and insisted that I join them on a glacier walk the following day. This was becoming a common trend in China. When locals noticed that I could speak a little Chinese, they began lining up to buy me dinner and take me somewhere interesting.
The guidebook described the trip which Aibo and ManMan spoke of as a simple thirty minute walk which afforded fantastic views of a large glacier. It was too cloudy to see Meili Shan from the guesthouse so I decided to join the trek.
I met Aibo and ManMan for breakfast early the next morning. They were quite surprised to see that I was wearing only a sweater, had no raincoat and had not brought any snacks for the trip. I was surprised to see them so over prepared for such a simple walk. After all, my guidebook described the trip as ‘short and easy’. I assumed they were just being overly cautious when they rushed off to buy me a disposable poncho and a few bags of chips for the journey.
Once we started on the trail, however, I began to understand why they were so concerned. It was not a relaxed walk. It was a four hour hike up a steep and muddy path covered in donkey shit. Ten minutes after setting out on the trail, it started pouring. It was only late September but we were hovering at an altitude near four thousand metres so the rain was bone chilling. The disposable poncho could only do so much to fend off the relentless downpour. By the time we reached the trail’s summit I was drenched.
The toe of the glacier was immense and beautiful. A sheer cliff of ice stood in between two steep mountainsides. Even though I grew up next to the Rockies, I realized that this was as close to a glacier as I had ever been. As we sat admiring the giant river of ice, we heard a thunderous crack and witnessed a large chunk break away from the glacier cliff and tumble into the valley below. It was exhilarating to watch.
At the base of the glacier was a colourful Tibetan monastery where we were able to warm up with a hot bowl of noodle soup. The hot noodles fought bravely in the battle against the damp cold invading our bodies but soon we had to begin the return trek down the mountain for fear of catching pneumonia. Once back in town, ManMan, Aibo and I sat next to the fire for a good two hours before we were warm and comfortable again.
The following morning, once the holiday had finally concluded and the hoards of Chinese tourists had returned to work, I shared a minibus back to Shangri La. I checked into a cozy hostel called ‘The Long Journey’ on the outskirts of town. It was a large colourful space with sixteen beds scattered throughout. As I laid in bed sorting through recent photographs, a young German backpacker settled into the bed next to mine. We were the only two only foreigners in the dorm and, naturally, we began chatting. He introduced himself as Sascha. He had been floating around East Asia for the last seven months and recently stumbled into China. His travel resume was full of interesting destinations and he was full of interesting travel stories. He was quick to tell me that he had not only spent a month traveling with a German playboy cover girl in New Zealand, but also spent a month traveling with a former Ms. Jakarta in Indonesia. Lucky bastard.
Like me, Sascha was a no plan traveler. He went wherever the wind took him and was undecided as to where to go next. He seemed friendly and easygoing so I invited him to join me on a tour through the villages of Western Sichuan. I told him quite honestly that I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that the area was remote, fascinating and would be a lot more fun to travel with a buddy. A few beers later, he was not hard to convince. Bright and early the next morning, we were on a bus bound for Tibet.
Fours hours into the journey, the paved road leading away from ZhongDian became a rocky trail as we began our ascent onto the Tibetan Plateau. The bus chugged up the sides of mountains, hugging cliffs and manoeuvring around landslides. At three thousand five hundred meters, it was clear we had entered unique territory. From the bus window, we could see large, castle-like homes built of stone and adorned with various colourful patterns. These estates were organized into small plateau villages perched above blue rushing rivers and surrounded by small fields where crops were grown and yaks roamed. On shop fronts and signs was a strange script which looked more like Sanskrit than Chinese. Villagers wore colourful traditional clothing. They had dark complexions and distinct facial features. Many held colourful prayer beads between their fingers. This was Tibet.
It was not until we reached XiangCheng that we experienced the region’s more modern edge. The town was small but had a newly built main square, a couple fresh white apartment blocks and a reception tower in its center. On the periphery were more traditional buildings and farms. On a hill overlooking the town was a large gold and red monastery complex. In the late afternoon, it acted as a second sun reflecting rays down onto the town.
As we took our first walk through the streets of XiangCheng I was taken aback by its imposing police presence. The town could not have had a population of more than twenty thousand and yet the streets were littered with men in uniform. This is something that we would encounter in every town we visited along the SiChuan-Tibet Highway. When I was living in Yantai I very rarely saw a police car. In western SiChuan, even the smallest towns had large vans equipped with CCTV cameras and police roaming the streets. It looked like an occupation. I guess in many ways it was.
As expected, Sascha and I were the only foreigners in town. The locals were both surprised and happy to see us. We found an old Tibetan guesthouse near the bus stop and settled into our beautiful decorated room before heading out for dinner.
After sunset, XiangCheng came alive. The streets were full of locals, both young and old, eating and drinking well into the night. Sascha and I found a small curb side restaurant and downed quite a few beers ourselves. Curious passers by often joined our table for a drink. Although they all spoke mandarin, the Tibetan accent was too difficult too decipher and I had trouble holding a conversation.
At about midnight, we were stumbling our way back to the guesthouse when we heard the distant thud of a techno beat pulsating from a dark alley. It sounded like a club. Could this remote little hamlet actually have some sort of discotheque? We entered the dark alley to investigate. As we delved further, the music grew louder and louder. Eventually we found ourselves outside a large steel door which thumped to the beat of powerful speakers behind it. Sascha swung the door open and, much to our surprise, before us was a small club complete with tacky decor, a disco ball, two large speakers and a dance floor. Positioned around the dance floor were several tables filled with Tibetan youth laughing and drinking the night away.
Everyone stopped what they were doing as we entered. Some looked pleasantly surprised by our presence, others just looked horribly confused. The bartender struggled in English to inquire what we were doing there. I told him that we wanted a drink, of course. He grabbed two bottles of lager from a cooler at his feet and set them on the bar. Before we had even reached for our wallets, a young Tibetan woman approached us, told the bartender to put the beers on her tab and invited us to join her table. She was with a rambunctious group of young locals. Some were siblings and some were cousins, but they all seemed to be related in some way or another. No one looked older than twenty and I got the feeling we had crashed a high school party. Regardless of age, these locals knew how to drink. They would not be satisfied until their new foreign friends were plastered. They ordered beers by the case. A fresh beer was already waiting in one hand before we had even finished the one in the other. Once we were sufficiently smashed, they ushered us out onto the floor to dance to Tibetan techno.
As if to embarrass us, the DJ put on a traditional Tibetan song. Costumed dancers joined the stage and everyone took part in some strange circular line dance. Sascha and I tried to keep up, but it was not an easy routine. Eventually, we had to retire to the sidelines.
Back at the table, we continued pouring back the drinks. The opportunity to make a toast circled the group. The Tibetans did their best to say something in English but usually failed. When it was Sascha’s turn, he stood up and yelled out “Free Tibet!” thinking it would go down well with our new friends. While no one spoke English, everyone understood this slogan. The crowd immediately went silent and began looking worriedly from side to side. Woops… touchy subject. Nobody knew who could be listening. The mishap was quickly forgotten, however, when the next round of beers arrived. It was about four in the morning when we finally emerged from this strange cultural experience. The street side vendors were still open so we grabbed some spicy barbeque before bed.
The following morning, Sascha and I contemplated our next move. We wanted to reach a national park called YaDing. The only way to get there, however, was through a town called DaoCheng. It was not far but the buses were unreliable and infrequent. Since Sascha had done some hitchhiking in New Zealand and I had heard that Tibetans were quite sympathetic to travelers, we decided to hitch a ride. We searched the market for some cardboard and a thick black marker. I found the translation for ‘DaoCheng’ on my phone and did my best to copy the characters onto the cardboard. Then we gathered our bags and found a comfy spot on the side of the highway. It was about an hour later that an empty minibus pulled over and waved us aboard. Since it was a domestic tourist bus I assumed the driver was going to ask us to pay, but he told us he was on his way to DaoCheng to meet a tour group and we could tag along for free.
The ride was comfortable and the scenery was amazing. The bus passed through three biomes in only a four hour drive. We began the journey in rugged mountains, soon found ourselves in a marshy wetland and finally arrived in a highland plateau full of green rolling hills. The driver dropped us off at a hostel before meeting his tour group. We thanked him profusely for all his help. My first real hitchhiking experience could not have gone better.
DaoCheng was more modern and clean than I expected. There were quite a few Chinese tourists around since it acts as the jumping point for reaching the nearby YaDing National Park. Indeed, this park is the reason why almost everyone makes the trek to this secluded Tibetan town. I had never read a guidebook which mentioned YaDing national park and I had never met a foreigner who had been there, however, I had heard from several locals that this area was one of the most beautiful in all of China. If you could stomach the journey, it was supposedly well worth the trouble.
The following morning, we shared a minibus with a few other tourists to YaDing village, the gateway to the park. Our driver was eighteen years old and had a death wish. He drove ridiculously fast with complete disregard for road blocks or construction. He sped through accident zones where trucks had recently collided and blindly passed on sharp corners. We were all terrified.
He forced us to stop at his friend’s overpriced restaurant in a small town along the way then, in YaDing village, he dropped us at his brother’s hotel and began aggressively selling us a room. When we refused, he became angry and increased the price of our journey by twenty yuan. That was the last straw. Tempers flared and an argument ensued. He even threatened to get physical. Eventually, we threw some money on the ground and left. We were a little worried about the whole situation. The village was tiny, there were not many other options for accommodation and this cowboy was clearly off his rocker. I recalled the large hunting knife he kept wedged between his seat and the gear shift in his minibus. We decided it was best to find accommodation outside of the village. We had heard from a Chinese tourist in DaoCheng that there was a monastery in the heart of YaDing Park which allowed overnight stays. It was a risky proposition. If we couldn’t find the monastery we risked sleeping outside in sub zero temperatures. Nonetheless, we aimed to make it our destination and set out into the mountains in the early afternoon.
It was cloudy and the beginning of the trek was not particularly exciting. After a couple hours on the trail, however, the fog cleared and the beauty that is YaDing Park was revealed. The scenery was unlike anything I had seen before. Grassy valleys were surrounded by massive snow covered mountains and dissected with crystal blue streams. The forested areas were a mishmash of vibrant reds, yellows and greens. Various trails led to secluded glacier fed ponds and frost covered fields. I was in awe.
We found the monastery in the late afternoon. It was a small white brick building perched on a mountainside overlooking the valley. Inside, several monks sat around a fire stove reading and meditating. I politely asked if it was possible to stay for a night but the monks simply smiled and shook their heads. I was confused. As far I knew, monks were obligated to offer a bed to those without a place to sleep. Apparently this was not the case in Tibet. Unsure of what to do next, we walked out with our hearts quickly sinking. Before we reached the trail, however, a monk met us at the outer gate door. He spoke mandarin in a thick Tibetan accent and I found it difficult to understand exactly what he was saying. I gathered that he wanted us to return after dark. He kept motioning to a video camera which sat on one of the temple walls. I soon began to appreciate the situation. This was a Tibetan monastery and Tibetan monks are typically denied contact with foreigners by the Chinese authorities. Even in this isolated monastery high in the mountains, the government was still watching. It was clear they were taking a risk by hosting us. We just had to avoid being seen by the camera and hope for the best. When we returned later that evening, the monks had arranged a couple beds for us in what appeared to be an old storage room. They charged us ten dollars a piece for the accommodation and a dollar each for a bowl of noodles.
A couple hours after sunset, the temperature dropped significantly. We were, after all, over four thousand metres up. There were plenty of thick blankets in the storage room but blankets can only do so much in sub zero temperatures. It was a long cold night.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise and went into the prayer hall to warm up. Standing in the middle of the room, admiring the artwork was a mountain goat. I assumed he was a Buddhist. He stood there, unconcerned by our presence until a monk chased him off.
As the sun began to peak over the horizon there was not a cloud in the sky. The snow capped mountains surrounding the monastery were on full display. Overnight, a thick frost had covered the landscape which now sparkled in the morning’s first rays of sunlight. While Sascha warmed himself by the fire, I hiked up to a glacier fed lake to watch the rest of the sunrise. I had the entire lake to myself. Mist settled like smoke on its glass like surface. Small creatures began to stir in the surrounding woods. The sun slowly turned the side of the snow white mountain before me bright yellow. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
When I returned to the monastery Sascha was ready to continue the trek. I assumed that we had already experienced the best YaDing had to offer. The area around the monastery was simply stunning. Nonetheless, as we followed a clear blue river into the woods, we soon descended into another even more alluring grassland valley. It was flagged by jagged snowy peaks and brightly coloured forest. In the distance, there was a giant white triangle shaped mountain. The locals named it NiuNaiShan or ‘milk mountain’ since every inch of its steep slope is covered in bright white snow. It looked like an apparition. I found myself constantly checking to see if it was still there. It was not until we reached its base that I was convinced it was real.
We sat in NiuNai’s shadow admiring its beauty for well over an hour. Once the sun was directly above us, we began the trek back to YaDing village. The journey out of the valley was just as spectacular as the journey in. The only difference was that we had to look behind us to reaffirm NiuNai’s existence.
Six hours later, we were back in the village, sitting in a hole in the wall restaurant and still buzzing from our experiences in the park. It already felt like a dream. The cook brought us a plate of spicy shredded potato and rice. We chatted with a Chinese couple who were sitting opposite us as we ate. They offered us a cup of tea by lifting a large thermos full of recently boiled water onto the table. I graciously accepted by pulling it towards me. As I lifted the giant thermos of the table to pour water into Sascha’s cup, however, I heard a sudden crack and the bottom of the thermos broke off. Scalding hot water poured out of the bottom and onto my leg.
I was shocked at first. I did not realize what had happened. Then the pain struck like a hundred needles in my thigh. I jumped out of my seat and tried remove my pants and left shoe, both of which were full of the scalding liquid. But by the time I was finally able to remove the affected articles of clothing, the damage was already done. I still wasn’t sure what had even happened. All I knew was that I was in intense pain and I needed to see a doctor. The cook quickly ran out of the building to look for help. She returned only a moment later with a pale of ice cold water and a tube of toothpaste. YaDing village was tiny and there was no clinic, no doctor and no medical supplies. The best burn ointment available was toothpaste.
The pain quickly worsened and it was clear I needed to get to a clinic. With my pants in Sascha’s hands and me in nothing but my underwear, we walked out into the road to flag down a ride. A group of local men stopped and agreed to take us to DaoCheng for $5 each. The pain was intense and I was not sure I could stomach the three hour journey back to town. I begged the driver to take me anywhere close by where I could get some type of medication. He detoured to a larger village which had a clinic.
The clinic was a small two level building right off the highway. Inside, the doctor took a quick look at the burn but concluded that he did not have the proper ointment for a water burn. All he had to offer was a topical anaesthetic and recommended I see a doctor in DaoCheng. I told him to give me anything that would make the pain go away. He spread three tubes of transparent cream over the burn with q-tips. Ten minutes later, I could not feel anything on my thigh at all. It was a welcome relief.
Although the pain was gone the appearance of the burn only worsened. By the time we reached DaoCheng my thigh and ankle had turned purple and developed big yellow blisters. The Tibetans dropped us at DaoCheng’s only hospital but it appeared to be abandoned. The front door was open but there was no one to be found in the lobby. Unsure of what to do, Sascha went searching for a doctor while I searched for a toilet. The building was filthy. The lobby stunk of urine and rotten food. Trash cans were overflowing with medical garbage and strange fluids were scattered about the halls. I found a bathroom but its floor and walls were smeared with shit. I decided to hold it.
Sascha soon returned with a man in a white coat. He said he was a doctor but he looked younger than me. I was sceptical but let him look at my burns anyways. It’s not like I had any alternatives.
The young doctor popped and drained my blisters. Large amounts of yellow liquid poured out of my thigh and onto the ground of his office. This attracted a group of locals who randomly appeared at the doctor’s office door. He provided me with a Chinese herbal medicine and advised me to apply it four times daily with q-tips. He warned me to never wrap or wash the area as this could bring on infection. He offered me a bed in the hospital but, considering the state of the place, I decided to try my luck at a hotel.
Since most of the nerve tissue had been destroyed, I was in little pain. However, I was very worried about the possibility of infection. Unaware of how much more susceptible westerns are to bacteria than locals, my young doctor did not give me anything to combat it. If a burn of such size had become infected, I could have been in big trouble. I knew there was a seventy two hour danger zone in which I had to be extremely careful.
We really had no option but to stay in DaoCheng. The closest airport was a twelve hour drive back the way we came via a bumpy, unreliable landslide filled road. Unless someone sent a helicopter, Daocheng would remain my recovery zone. Sascha found us a clean double room just off the main strip. It became my sanctuary. I rarely left to avoid being exposed to too much bacteria. The room came with a DVD player and a few English movies so I spent most of my time in bed watching them over and over. Unfortunately, the power supply in DaoCheng is temperamental at best. At times, I was left for up to fifteen hours with nothing to do but lie there, play tic-tac-teo, or eat the snacks which Sascha brought.
The burns had to remain exposed so I did not want to risk too much outside contact. The few times when I did exit the room to revisit the hospital, I had to wear sandals and bright blue short shorts to avoid contact with the burns as well as a thick toque, gloves and two sweaters to keep myself warm. I looked ridiculous. Locals in the streets would see my white face and smile, then my blue short shorts and laugh, then my leg and grimace. Thankfully, the guesthouse was a family run business and had a home cooked dinner prepared by the resident granny every night. Thus, I was treated to some excellent meals without having to leave the building. During one of these meals, the old granny told me it was the first time she had ever eaten with foreigners. This brought a much needed smile to my face.
Two days passed and the burns showed no signs of healing. It was clear that I would have to wait at least a couple more before moving on. This put Sascha in a difficult position as he was stuck waiting around for me to improve. I told him I would totally understand if he moved on without me. He had already done more than enough. Nonetheless, being the stand-up guy that he is, Sascha simply shrugged and said 'I'm a German, this is what I do.' He spent much of his time in DaoCheng fetching me water, food and medicine. I really couldn't have thanked him enough for sticking around in such a tough situation.
The morning after my fourth night in isolation, the burns were showing a few signs of healing. We trudged our way to the hospital to see if it was possible to wrap the leg and continue on. The doctor was hesitant but gave me enough medicine and gauze to last me a few days and sent us on our way. I carefully wrapped the leg in the gauze, threw together another cardboard sign and dragged my bag onto the highway to flag down a ride.
Hitchiking on a bum leg may seem a bit unwise, but given the circumstances it made sense. The buses in western Sichuan are very dirty and are easily stuck behind landslides. Cars, however, are usually more comfortable, cleaner and easier to navigate. The catch is you need to find one willing to take you aboard. I sat on my backpack, tending to my leg while Sascha did most of the hitchhiking work. A few cars stopped with one space available, but we were forced to wave them on.
We waited for over an hour before a van full of Tibetan youth stopped and offered us a ride for a few dollars each. It wasn’t exactly the clean, comfortable and free ride we were hoping for, but it was better than a bus so we hopped in. The scenery was, once again, spectacular as we climbed further onto the Tibetan plateau towards our next destination. We passed grasslands, wetlands and strange rock formations. Eventually we arrived in Litang.
At an altitude of over four thousand metres, Litang remains one of the highest human settlements in the world. However, upon first glance, I never would have guessed it. The town sits upon a barren grassland plateau surrounded by golden hills. It was more like a prairie town than a mountain town.
The streets were dirtier than DaoCheng’s but felt more authentic. I enjoyed the more traditional Tibetan atmosphere. The dusty main road was flanked by shops and noodle joints. Conventional painted stone homes were scattered around the town center. On a hill in the north of town was an imposing golden monastery. Since Litang was the birth place of no less than two Dali Lamas, this monastery is considered quite sacred.
We found another comfortable albeit chilly room just off the main road where I spent a couple more days in isolation. During this time, I managed my first shower in over a week. I was not supposed to get the burns wet but I stank something terrible. I had been wearing the same shirt, sweater and pants since the accident and my deodorant had run out in XiangCheng. With my burnt leg wrapped in plastic bags, I balanced it on the sink and washed all the essentials. It felt fantastic to be clean again.
Once the danger period for infection had passed my burns began to protect themselves with scabs. I was able to leave the room a couple times a day to fetch some noodles or wander the streets.
The healing which afforded me increased mobility, however, came with a price. The nerves in my thigh and ankle were reconnecting themselves to my brain. This meant that I my nervous system was finally becoming aware of the damage that was done to my body. It responded by sending shooting pains through my leg whenever I moved too quickly and a chronic throbbing soreness developed on the surface of the burns. Thus, my travels were often short and full of breaks.
On one of my more ambitious days, Sascha and I took a cab up to the imposing monastery. In the hilltop courtyard, young curious monks sat with us and played with our cameras. Inside the main building, older monks meditated in the prayer hall. As we approached the congregation, one middle aged monk welcomed us with a bow and asked what we were looking for. When I responded in mandarin his eyes seemed to light up. He immediately asked me to follow him to the roof. It was the best place, he said, to watch the sunset. Once on the roof, he began to tell me of his troubled life in Litang. He told me that the monks are often harassed or beaten by the police if they leave the monastery. Just a few years ago, several monks were shot dead at the monastery during a protest. His brethren are constantly subjected to violence and oppression. In fact, he had taken me to the roof because he could not be seen communicating with a foreigner. If the police saw us together, he said, we would both be arrested. I think he viewed our conversation as a rare opportunity to relate the story of the monks in Litang to an outsider. He wanted the rest of the world to know of the troubled situation faced by his people. It was risky, but it was his duty. Our conversation was brief as he was fearful of being seen by one of the many Chinese police officers wandering the area. As I left, I promised to relate his story to my friends and family back home.
When Sascha and I returned to the hotel both the power and water were out. The desk clerk told us they would not to return until the following morning. The lobby was better heated than our room so we sat at one of the tables, enjoyed a bowl of yak noodle soup and played cards. We also took the opportunity to ask the clerk about if it was possible to witness a Tibetan sky burial in Litang. It was one of the main reasons we had traveled to this remote settlement.
The sky burial, we were told, is the most sacred of four funeral services practised by Tibetan people. The other three, from most significant to least, are river burial, cremation and ground burial. The sky burial is reserved for only the most revered in the community. The Tibetans see this custom as a way to unify the souls of recently passed with nature. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what a sky burial process entailed, but I had heard that the experience was quite unique. The clerk informed us that there would be a large funeral ceremony at sunrise the next day and we were welcome to attend.
At five thirty the following morning, we took a cab out to a large frost laden field on the outskirts of town. The sky was still black and the air was dry and icy. The cab dropped us on the edge of town and we were forced to walk through the dead of night to the funeral grounds. About a hundred people had congregated around four large fires by the time we arrived. At first glance, I assumed the fires were there to keep people warm. But upon closer inspection, we witnessed families placing bodies wrapped in white sheets into the flames. The atmosphere was quiet and sober. No one was breaking down in tears. Most just sat and stared in silence while the bodies slowly burned in front of them.
When the sun finally peaked over the horizon, it illuminated a large golden hill to the right of the field. As if on queue, a flock of about twenty hungry vultures gracefully sailed over the horizon and congregated on the top of the hill. This was a tradition for which they were clearly well accustomed. The vultures were much larger than I expected. There wings were long, their hooked beaks were sharp and there bodies were a midnight black, as if they were dressed for the funeral. They had not come to mourn, however, they had come to eat.
Three figures emerged from the crowd. One was dressed in thick colourful clothing, a helmet, gloves and boots. Behind them, they dragged the bodies of a two recently diseased males wrapped in white sheets. Once they were high on the hill and away from the crowd, the protected man was left alone to unwrap the bodies. The vultures stirred with excitement at the sight of the dead flesh. With an axe and a saw, he began dismembering the diseased, cutting them into small enough pieces for the birds to easily manage. The flock inched closer. When he rose and stood back from the carnage, the vultures moved in. The funeral became a feeding frenzy as the bodies disappeared behind the montage of black wings, beaks and talons.
Onlookers sat and watched patiently. Ten minutes later the vultures dispersed to reveal nothing but bones and blood stained soil. The man in protective clothing returned with the axe and began chopping the skeletons into smaller pieces. He offered the last parcels of bone and flesh to the birds as if he were an old woman feeding bread crumbs to pigeons in a park. Eventually, every last bit of the bodies were consumed by the vultures. When they had there fill, they soared up into the sky, bringing the recently departed with them. The diseased had been returned to nature.
After the ceremony, we made our way back to town, numb from the cold and speechless from what we had just witnessed. Although it may sound disgusting, there was something very spiritual about the whole experience. It seemed to make sense in its own unique way.
Once back at the guesthouse, we debated our next move. Our goal was to reach KangDing and eventually ChengDu. However, there was only one road from Litang to KangDing and it was notorious for its unreliability and instability. A recent earthquake had levelled many parts of the trail and we had heard from a few local travelers that the ride could take anywhere from ten to seventeen hours. Hitchhiking was not a good option as few people risked traveling the highway for such a long distance and we did not want to risk being on stuck the road after dark. There was one rattling old bus which left Litang for KangDing once every two days. It was our only option. We booked our tickets that afternoon leaving early the following morning.
The journey was not an easy one. It was not a great distance but the road on which we travelled was hardly a road at all. At best, it was a rocky mountain trail peppered with landslides. The ride was so windy and bumpy that we averaged only fifteen kilometres an hour. Every knock and turn shot sharp pains up my still recovering leg. We endured a few delays while landslides were cleared but, all things considered, we made it to KangDing in pretty good time. Eleven hours after leaving Litang, we were descending into the large mountain settlement.
KangDing was modern, beautiful and set in a dramatic gorge amongst sheer cliffs and powerful rivers. With eighty thousand inhabitants, it was by far the largest town we had visited on the Tibet-Sichuan highway. It was also the town with the most Chinese influence. Depending on which street you visited, you could hear both Tibetan and mandarin being spoken. Next to Tibetan shops selling prayer beads and wrangler’s hats were Chinese shops selling dragons statues and red lanterns. As much as I enjoyed experiencing Tibetan culture, I must admit, the Chinese cuisine was a welcome relief from the mouth dulling yak meat and potato dishes we had endured in most other Tibetan towns.
Our stay in KangDing was short and we spent the majority of our time in our hostel playing board games with young Chinese travelers. Although it was healing well, the burn on my ankle had become quite painful. I found it difficult to walk for longer than twenty minutes. Thus, beyond a few visits to the town market, I stayed in.
Sascha and I were both anxious to reach the warm showers and clean beds which awaited us in ChengDu but one more hitchhiking adventure stood in our way. Eventually, we made our move. Bright and early one morning, brandishing a large cardboard sign which read ‘ChengDu’, we found a comfortable spot on the side of the highway.
There was plenty of traffic leaving the city, but it was a good two hours before the driver of a small sedan waved us aboard. He was a friendly middle aged teacher traveling through KangDing to visit friends. He was also the slowest Chinese driver I had ever met. He putted along the highway at half the speed limit while reciting to us his life story. I only understood about half of what he said but I did my best to maintain small talk. Upon receiving a phone call he decided to stop directly in the middle of the highway to chat while other cars whizzed by honking their horns in disdain.
After only two hours on the road, he received an urgent message from a friend in a nearby town. He apologetically informed us that he would have to detour to LuDing and would not be going all the way to ChengDu. He left us on the side of the road still several hundred kilometres from our destination.
We sat in that spot inhaling truck exhaust for another two hours until a black SUV screeched to a stop in front of us. The car pulsated with beat of heavy Chinese techno music. The man in the passenger seat rolled down his tinted window and, without saying a word, motioned for us to jump in. Both the driver and his friend wore dark aviator glasses and slick leather jackets. To be honest, they looked like Chinese gangsters. Nonetheless, we were desperate for a ride and were in so position to be picky.
If our first driver was a little too cautious, our second was absolutely nuts. He weaved his giant SUV in and out of traffic, blindly speeding past trucks on sharp corners and frequently using the ditch on the side of the road as a passing lane. He nearly rear ended a semi, twice. Half way through this roller coaster ride, a police van took notice of our driver’s antics, pulled him over and gave him a six hundred renminbi ticket. But nothing fazed this guy. He simply shrugged, tossed the ticket into the glove compartment and slammed on the gas.
Driving aside, the two guys were actually much friendlier than their rough appearances suggested. Not only did they drive us all the way to ChengDu, but they also bought us lunch and covered all the toll gate costs. Their unique driving style also meant that we would reach ChengDu much faster than expected.
The moment we merged from the windy mountain trail from Kangding onto the ChengDu express way, broad smiles formed on Sascha and mines’ faces. It was the first time we had seen a smooth multi-lane highway in over three weeks. I had forgotten what it even felt like. Our smiles disappeared behind nervous looks, however, when the SUV’s speedometer passed one seventy. Our new friends were obviously in a hurry.
Since they were not going directly to ChengDu, they dropped us off on the edge of the city. I must admit, I was a little relieved to be exiting the vehicle in one piece. We thanked them for all their help and caught a city bus into town. More than twelve hours after hitting the road in KangDing we arrived at the clean and stylish Lazy Bones hostel in downtown ChengDu. We had successfully hitch hiked the ‘Tibetan Back Door’. Now, it was time for some much needed sleep.
Our dorm was small, comfortable and quiet. We slept for more than ten hours. Upon awaking, we took a little time to walk the city. ChengDu was not as dazzling as Shanghai, or as beautiful as Beijing. We rarely saw the sun as the surrounding mountains keep all of the clouds and pollution trapped above the city. Save for the panda reserve, there are not many attractions. However, for having a population of almost thirteen million people, Chengdu maintains a much more relaxed atmosphere than most other major Chinese hubs. The downtown core was not particularly built up but was quite modern and clean. The weather was mild and the people friendly. It felt like a nice place to live.
When we returned to the hostel, a much needed ‘clean up’ was in order. After three weeks in Tibetan Sichuan, there was much to do. We shaved beards which had been left unkempt for far too long, took thirty minute hot showers, ate McDonalds, bought deodorant, got haircuts and washed our filthy clothes. By the time the evening rolled around, we looked brand new.
We dragged our newly manicured bodies to a dumping party in our hostel lobby that night. They may be dirt cheap, but those little buggers are not easy to make. Ten attempts were required before I successfully completed one. They were delicious nevertheless. After dinner, an exploration of ChengDu’s night life scene was in order. After all, we had not gone out drinking since our random clubbing experience in XiangCheng. In the dorms, we met an interesting Korean girl name Jasmine who had been living in a small Tibetan village for the last couple years as part of her thesis research. Like us, she had just returned from the plateau and was craving a night out on the town. Jasmine had spent some time in the city before and spoke of a club where foreigners drank for free. I was sceptical but she was adamant.
The cab dropped us off in the middle of ChengDu’s vast nightlife area. I was taken aback by the sheer number of posh clubs and karaoke bars which lined the riverside district. It was Friday night and we must have passed a more than a hundred bumpin’ late night joints before we arrived at our destination, the CC club.
Jasmine alleged the club would provide us with all the free alcohol we desired. I assumed we would just be given one free drink ticket or a shot of bad whiskey on arrival. I was pleasantly surprised when the waiters ushered us to our own table, placed two 26 ounce bottles of Chivas Regal in the middle and left us without a bill. Foreigners not only drink for free in ChengDu, they drink well. Not that it would have mattered anyways. As is typical in China, we were offered more than enough free drinks from local patrons. We returned to the same club three nights in a row.
All the free boos, however, made for some tough mornings. We rarely made it out of the hostel before two in the afternoon. When we did, we rarely ventured far. The exception was our trip to the Panda Sanctuary. “You cannot visit ChengDu and not see the Pandas!” the hostel staff would often remind us when we emerged from our dorm in the late afternoon, too lazy to make the trip. To be honest, I was not terribly interested. I had seen plenty of bears before. What so special about these ones? But missing the Pandas in ChengDu is paramount to skipping the Louvre in Paris. You just don’t do it.
I was hungover, the cab ride was long and the admission price was high. When we arrived, we were told that the Pandas were taking a nap and would not be viewable for another four hours. I considered returning to hostel but when the pandas finally emerged I was glad we had made the trip. There is something special about those lazy black and white beasts. They just lounge around, eat bamboo and scratch themselves all day. I was content observing them in these rituals for hours. They are immediately captivating and lovable. No wonder they are the face of wildlife conservation. I left the sanctuary with a furry panda hat and a desire to return the following morning. Nonetheless, after five days of laying low in sunless Chengdu, it was due time for me to move on. There was still so much to see in Southern China and I only had so much time left on my visa.
Unfortunately, ‘moving on’ meant saying good bye to my good friend Sascha. He was heading north to Beijing while I continued east to Huangshan. We had covered some difficult terrain and witnessed some amazing things together. I couldn’t thank him enough to for sticking with me in a tough situation. Many other travelers in his place would not have had the heart or the patience to do so. I certainly felt unlucky to be injured so while traveling, but lucky to have a friend like Sascha at my side. We had made it through in one piece and now it was time for us to part ways. We said our goodbyes out front the hostel before I caught a bus to the train station. It was a sobering moment. Nonetheless, we both knew we would see each other again some day.
Our journey through the Tibetan Back Door was challenging to say the least. The roads were treacherous, the locals were difficult to understand, the electricity and running water were unreliable, the food wreaked havoc on my bowels and clean beds were hard to come by. If that wasn’t enough, I was forced to deal with painful third degree burns covering a good portion of my leg. Nonetheless, this area afforded some of the most rewarding traveling I had ever experienced. The landscape left me in awe, the culture was unique and interesting, the attractions were mind-blowing and the traditional villages and towns full of surprises. Thus, even though it did some damage to my body, the Tibetan Back Door will always hold a special place in my heart.