12 July 2010

Litang, Sichuan: the beginning of the Tibetan world

West Sichuan was the unplanned part of the trip. When Dominika and I were in Shangrila discussing our limited options for the exploration of the northwestern tip of Yunnan as the main road is closed due to construction and immediately rejecting the idea of visiting Tibet (as much as we would have liked to go there, the trip is very expensive and it involves getting a permit and traveling in a tour group). An unexpected alternative presented itself when we discovered it was possible to enter West Sichuan, which is almost as Tibetan as Tibet, much cheaper and hassle-free.
Although the distances don't qualify as enormous, the bumpy winding and sometimes non-existent roads make traveling painfully slow, and in addition public transport is quite limited compared to other parts of the country. We had to break the journey in Xiangcheng, some eight butt-shaking hours north of Shangrila, after climbing over a pass enveloped in fog and plunging into a deep fertile valley full of yellow and green patches of fields and Tibetan villages.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the predominantly Chinese town and climbing the nearby hill with a gompa (Tibetan monastery) and great views over the valley.

Our lodging for the night was in a lavishly decorated guesthouse. This has to be one of the most colorful rooms I've even slept in!

Onward travel proved to be tricky. Nobody would sell us tickets to Litang; all we got from the people at the bus station was a cold stare and "mei you" (a phrase that one hears all the time andcan mean anything from "don't have" and "can't do" to "fuck off". Even Lonely Planet says foreigners regularly have a hard time getting a bus out of there. Well, on that particular day there were four foreigners in town, all eagerly waiting to head north, and we ended up crammed in a minivan at 5.30 a.m., paying an exaggerated price to spend the next five hours on a cold, all-windows-down but very scenic ride.
At the altitude of 4200 meters, Litang was exhilarating in several meanings of the word. Before coming here we had been hoping to see a sky burial, a Tibetan funeral in which the dead body is taken out to the grasslands where it is partly cut and left for the vultures to devour. And right upon arrival we were informed by the nice hotel owner that there was a sky burial scheduled in another hour and that she could take us there in a few minutes. We didn't hesitate; and for the next few hours we were completely fascinated by this primitive yet very logical, back-to-the nature ritual. No relatives were present, just a few friends and a so-called "cutter" who does the gruesome work of cutting the body and later crushing the bones so that nothing is left.

Practically speechless we returned to town and spent the rest of our stay there enjoying the fresh air, beautiful views from the gompa and, mostly, meeting and talking with the locals, Tibetans who against our expectations turned out to be the nicest, friendliest people so far. They do a kora every day, a clockwise walk around a sacred site, usually a monastery or stupa, spinning their prayer wheels. It was such a pleasant change to actually get smiles from people! They greeted us with "tashi delek" everywhere we turned, they were all smiling, and they were eager to have their photo taken. All that makes Litang one of my favorite places on this trip.

Photo by Dominika Osvald
But this was just the beginning...

05 July 2010

West Yunnan: Dali, Lijiang, Shangrila

I'm still alive, just running out of time to select photos, post-process them and write something here. :) The past several weeks have been busy, beautiful and adventurous, and this post was hastily composed, so excuse the poor writing and enjoy the photos.

From Kunming we headed west along the well-trodden tourist trail. It’s difficult not to follow it as it boasts some very interesting historic towns, such as Dali, our first stop. The old town full of traditional houses with grey roofs is surrounded by a wall with several gates. A few main streets are pedestrianized and lined with stores, restaurants and bars. Quite touristy, one might say. I was amazed at how many Chinese people travel: most places we’ve visited so far are full of Chinese tourists and there is only a handful of Westerners. Most attractions now charge an entrance fee in the range of 3-10 euro, which is not cheap at all.

In Dali we walked around old town, rented a bicycle to explore the surrounding area with rice fields and a lake, and ate at local restaurants advertising the food on stalls facing the street and you just pick the ingredients which are then prepared into a delicious meal.

Lijiang, some five hours from Dali (they tell you at the bus station it’s only a three-hour ride :), is another old town, a UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys and canals and bridges. The down side is that it’s completely swamped with tourists, which means elbowing your way through the main streets. Once you delve into some of the side alleys, the stroll becomes more pleasant and you can actually observe the locals doing their everyday routine. I had caught a bad cold in Dali and came to Lijiang quite feverish so I spent two days in bed sweating. :(

Heading further to the northwest of Yunnan we arrived at Shangrila, a half-Chinese and half-Tibetan town at the altitude of 3200 meters. The old cobblestone center is turning into another Lijiang, sadly, but as of now it’s not overly commercialized yet. There is a lot to see and do in town and its vicinity. Locals perform a Tibetan dance on the main square every night at 8 am. During the day the square turns into a big eatery with stalls offering barbecued meat and vegetables on sticks.

Songzanlin Monastery some 5 kilometers out of town is home to about 600 monks and the structure itself is quite impressive. A bike trip to the yellow fields south of town was just as picturesque.

We changed our plan on the spur of the moment and instead of turning back south we hopped into Sichuan to visit the Tibetan part of the province. Couldn't have made a better decision! More about it when I get around to putting a post together. ;)