Behold, the striking view that I see out of the window of my cozy, yet chilly room. This is Litang (pronounced lee-tawng), a relatively small and incredibly Tibetan town in the western portion of China’s famed Sichuan province. With its surrounding valley and high altitude of 4,014 meters (13,169 feet…which, I might add, is even higher than Lhasa, the Tibetan capital!), this is not an easy place to get to. For me, it was a rather epic journey from Kangding, one which took a whopping 10 hours, considering that I’m only about 300km away (186 miles)!
As we left Kangding at the ungodly hour of 6:30am, snow was falling and as we began to climb out of the deep valley, chains were added to the tires, giving the bus a nice jingling sound as we rolled through this winter wonderland (never mind the fact that it’s officially spring!). Higher and higher we went, passing truly breathtaking snow covered peaks and eventually reaching the point where trees no longer grow!
The road was in truly awful condition and barely paved at most points! The bus bumped along the road, as I literally got bounced out of my seat on numerous occasions! Fortunately, I had been warned of these bad road conditions by a Slovakian traveler I’d met in Kangding, who simply remarked, “Well, what do you expect? It’s Tibet.” And for all intents and purposes, it really is.
So, why 10 hours, you may ask? Well, aside from the road quality and immensely high altitude (some peaks we crossed exceeded 4,000 meters!), we had to stop on at least 6 occasions for the driver to fiddle with the engine! Always reassuring. Fortunately, we arrived in Litang in one piece (thankfully, I didn’t need the Life Insurance blurb attached to my ticket!)
When I say Litang is very Tibetan, I really mean it. Nearly identical stone Tibetan homes surround the entire town as incredibly friendly (and wryly haired) Tibetans constantly give you a warm “Tashi Delek” (hello) in passing. The elderly, much as their Bhutanese counterparts, wander the streets clutching their rosaries, spinning their prayer wheels and muttering prayers to themselves. Very imposing looking, yet very warm, Tibetan men are frequently seen donning Chubas, traditional woven coats lined with fur that bear an amazing resemblance to the Gho, which Bhutanese men wear!
Aside from boat loads of charm and astonishingly beautiful scenery, this town’s star attraction is it’s monastery, which is set up on a hill overlooking the town. The sprawling complex contained three main structures, two of which appeared to be newly constructed (new temples…in China? Well all reconstructions after they were all destroyed in the Cultural Revolution!). I know this is heresy, but I would venture to say that the carvings in the new structures by far topped even the most beautiful dzongs we saw in Bhutan!
Women sat in the fore room of the first stunning structure sifting through ground organic material by hand to pick out large pieces. They were surrounded by Buddhist iconography in every possible form, including the demonic-looking “Wheel of Life” and a beautifully carved rendition of “The Four Friends” (an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird working together to get fruit off a tree).
A couple of young boys decided to follow me around, practicing their English, though they only seemed to know the alphabet and how to count to 10. Together we entered what appeared to be the oldest structure, where the monks were doing their ritual chanting. Once I was through at the temple, they insisted on cash for being my “guides,” though I refused to give them any as it only propagates the problem for the next foreigner who appears at the temple gates.
From this wonderfully remote Tibetan village, I start to make my way back towards the unfortunate tourist trail. This afternoon, I take a turn off the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and stop at a little town called Xiangcheng, where I will spend tonight. Then tomorrow it’s on to Yunnan province!