Just when we were starting to doubt we’d ever fall in love with China, the landscape started to change. The area near the Tibetan Autonomous Region, with its Buddhism, huge mountains, and a cold, arid climate, is a world away from the cities back east. Some will tell you that the towns bordering the TAR have more authentic Tibetan culture than Tibet itself, both because of Tibet’s growing tourism and also because the Chinese government has moved a lot of Han Chinese people to Tibet in an effort to integrate the population.
The TAR was out of our reach due to visa and time restrictions. But Eric had read an article online about traveling to Chengdu overland on the Tibet-Sichuan Highway via towns high on the Tibetan Plateau, and he convinced me it would be a good time. He was wrong. Ever wondered what a chew toy feels like when it’s being launched to-and-fro in the jaws of a rabid chihuahua? That’s pretty much what the roads were like after we left Baishutai.
So the highway itself was no fun. Honestly, sometimes the roads were so riddled with washboards that we felt like we were being repeatedly punched in the stomach. But here’s the thing: If it weren’t so torturous a location the area might be overrun with tourists like so much of the China we saw. This is probably as far off the beaten path as we’ve been on the whole trip, and it was totally worth it.
Two days into our trip to Chengdu we stopped in Litang, perched 13,000 feet high on the Tibetan Plateau. Fun fact: Chinese people really don’t like using heaters. If you’re lucky, the temperature inside shops, restaurants and hotels is the same as it is outside. But I swear sometimes it’s even colder indoors. Up here people wear a lot of yak fur and drink a lot of butter tea (literally melted butter and salt in a cup) to stay warm. Thankfully most hotels provide heated blankets. Which basically means that you never want to get out of bed, but that would be a waste after traveling so far.
Litang is a really interesting city. It’s a major center of Tibetan culture and home to the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery, founded by the third Dalai Lama. The city also tends to be a hotbed of political unrest and protests against the Chinese government, meaning that there’s a noticeable police presence there.
The best part of our visit was undoubtedly the people watching. And they’re incredibly nice, curious people who usually don’t mind striking a pose if you ask politely. They really helped me overcome my fear of asking permission to take photos.
You may have noticed by now that we take a lot of pictures of other people’s children. But it’s only because they’re so inquisitive, expressive, and generally more open to having their photos taken. I promise we aren’t trying to be creepers.
Remember how we visited Shangri-La? If there really is such a place as Shangri-La in China, this is it. Don’t tell anyone though – if the secret gets out the place will be ruined.
One random thing: It’s possible to witness sky burials here. This method of burial (which is really just placing bodies out on the grasslands to be eaten by vultures) isn’t uncommon in areas like this that are frozen and above tree line. We didn’t go see this since something about touring death scenes seems wrong. Pretty fascinating stuff though. (Please note that this link and any Google results will show graphic images.)
Our favorite place in Litang was the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Inside devotees of all ages spin a massive golden and bejeweled prayer wheel. The whole scene – the meditative chanting, the heavy smell of incense, the solidarity of purpose – could be described as spiritual.
Between the dusty roads, wandering animals, and barren plateau of a landscape, Litang is already reminiscent of scenes from the Old West. But on top of the city’s facade, people dress in wide-brimmed hats, ponchos, and tall boots that bring the point home: Being here is like walking through a Tibetan Spaghetti Western.
Some more photos:
If you want to experience a different kind of China (or get a taste of Tibet without the hassle of the TAR), Litang might be a good place to start. Just make sure you dress for the weather!