Due to the sensitive nature of the material in this blog I have waited until after our departure from China to publish this post. Thanks for waiting…
There’s only one thing wild enough for the road from Kangding to Litang: Jim Morrison, The Doors. I spun the control ring on my iPod hoping that the shitty piece of technology wouldn’t crack up in the high altitude. So far it was holding up better than my head.
Next to me, Richie was bolt upright in his chair, avoiding eye contact with the gaping chasm a meter from where the rear wheel of our bus was spinning. Somewhere on the mountain roads between here and Kangding he’d perfected the art of cracking sunflower seeds, spitting the shells onto the floor and munching the crisp kernel: crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach-crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach… So far, it was proving an effective mode of distraction. I shuffled my feet amid a sea of discarded shells, trying to restore the circulation of blood to my lower body.
As we rounded the corner of a hairpin-bend tighter than the ‘Z’ of Harry’ Potter’s lightning-bolt scar the control ring of the iPod spun and the track I was looking for appeared in the viewfinder. Click. Select… this one’s for you Dad:
Poor Otis dead and gone
Left me here to sing his song
Pretty little girl with the red dress on
Poor Otis dead and gone.
I’ve got the running blues back to LA.
I’ve got to find the dock on the bay
Maybe find it back in LA…
Mercifully the kilogram of seeds held-out all the way to Litang. The gear in the back of the bus fared considerably worse than the bags on our laps. Clouds of dust rose comically from my backpack as I beat it mercilessly before an audience of riot police. The cops gazed curiously from where they sat, taking in the last of the afternoon rays and the two silly foreigners who had their camera pointed their way. We knew they’d be about, but not in these numbers. We wondered whether it was the result of a recent crackdown in Tibet, or merely life as we know it in China-occupied Kham. It was enough to make me wanna cry.
As we did the rounds looking for a cheep hotel room there was no way of denying the omnipresence of Chinese cops and military in Litang. Policeman were posted on every street corner, bracing automatic weapons against their hips and chests. Police cars did endless laps of the streets, spouting propaganda from roof-mounted megaphones. We looked on, bewildered, as officials confiscated a local youth’s ID card.
Images of the Dalai Lama were conspicuously not present. A few people went so far as to whisper his name to us, but no more. A young man who spoke a little English was kind enough to show us to a suitable guest house but when we asked him to stay and drink tea with us, he mysteriously melted away into the darkening streets. What’s going on here?
During our second day in Litang, still giddy and breathless with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, we set out on foot in the direction of the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery. Midway there we were drawn by the sound of cries to the door of the soup kitchen where we were taking lunch. Outside a contingent of armed military marched past in formation: stern, intent, unyielding. We glanced backwards and forwards at the faces around us, looking for a sign of how to respond to the performance. Beatific smiles, passive nods and cries of ‘Tashi delek’ were all we observed in the way of retaliation. Unlike us, locals seemed unfazed by the military posturing and seemed more intent on greeting friends and doing the weekly shopping than making a scene. They did not pause long enough to dignify the spectacle.
Life at the monastery appeared considerably more peaceful than on the main street. Novice monks picked on smaller novice monks; the sound of childish games resounding through the otherwise empty courtyard. In the shade of a portico a group of five women were taking tea. They invited us to drink with them, sitting cross-legged on the floor. After draining our cups a second time, they pressed us to take more biscuits, bread, noodles, tea. Guessing at what we meant, each of the women in turn held up the numbers of fingers corresponding to the number of children to whom she had given birth. My age and childlessness made them giggle. We bid them goodbye and thanked them for their welcome.
After visiting the monastery we spent most of our time in Litang observing life at the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Away from the watchful eyes of the Chinese government, the chorten grounds was the most relaxed and convivial place in town to sit and be. After doing a circuit of prayer wheels we lowered ourselves onto a stack of logs within earshot of a group of picnicking locals, offering segments of mandarin and apples to their children, and admiring the graceful way their fingers flexed and gripped the perpetually turing hand-held prayer wheels.
The chorten grounds were Litang’s answer to Hyde Park and Fitness First combined. Every individual had his/hers own way of perambulating: chaotically, ducking and weaving between slower pilgrims; or slowly, methodically, with utter absorption and serenity. It was beautiful to see: intact spirituality, and the expression of centuries old tradition, culture and worship.
Apart from the chorten, the thing that impressed us most about Litang were the Tibetan cowboys.
“Look at him!” Richie panted in admiration.
“Bloody cool!” I agreed. These guys were charisma on two wheels, with prayer beads and fur-lined long-sleeved wraparound chubas to boot. The one over there, leaning against the wall, looked like he could peel yak skin with his teeth! The old Khampa cowboys were equally impressive: they swung in from out of town on their bikes; burnt brown, long grey hair and every bit as laid back and fearless as a modern-day Easy Rider. Even more impressively, to Richie and me, was that some of them had very likely defended their homes and monastery against Chinese attack during the invasion of the 1950s – Kham was where some of the most persistent and relentless battles had been fought. Hardy individuals, the closest thing to Lizard King cool I’ve ever seen.
You’ve got to be a bit hardcore (or stupid) to visit Litang in November. It’s cold! If you’re not careful, you’ll get a dose of sun stroke with your altitude sickness, which is what Richie and I did. Hapless bunglers! After three days ogling Khampa cowboys, silently repudiating the Chinese government, and immersing ourselves in the peace and friendliness of the chorten community, we decided to cut our losses and come down a rung to Daocheng – somewhere below 4000m. It was blatantly clear as the bus crested the top of a prayer flag-strewn peak marking the way out of Litang that that our 3-day visit would not succeed where over 5 decades of Tibetan struggle had failed. Tibet was still not free… but it does exist and shall do…