I’m writing this post from our hostel in Xi’ning, the provincial capital of Qinghai at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Our hostel is on the 16th floor of an apartment building and so it has a spectacular view over the city. Specially at night, I think we even saw a neon lit Eiffel tower in the far distance. Quite a contrast with the Tibetan countryside in Langmusi and Xiahe where we had stayed for more than a week.
When we arrive in Langmusi, a small town on the border of the Gansu and Sichuan provinces, the first that attracts my attention is the development that’s taking place. Dozens of new housing blocks are being build. “Not again.”, I’m thinking. Obviously even a small Tibetan mountain village can’t escape the Chinese expansion drift. But as we drive further into town I am put at ease when I see that the old town has kept its charm even though the main street is under construction and there is a crane or two.
I’m still recovering from the fever/flu/traveller’s diarrhea that caught me in Dunhuang. And the two days of travelling hadn’t done it any good. So we decide to base ourselves in Langmusi for a couple of days. We had travelled a lot the last two weeks so we could use some rest. And it’s nice to have some fresh mountain air after all the cities we stayed in. Besides that, at 3300 meters this is also a good place to acclimatize for our Tibet trip. But fresh it certainly is at this height. Our Tibetan hotel has no heating and getting a hot shower is kind of a challenge too. Luckily, the new down jackets we bought in Jiayuguan a couple of days ago prove to be a wise investment.
The next thing we have to deal with is the upcoming National Holiday in the first week of October. Hotel room prices double, bus tickets sell out quickly, tours fill up, etc. Total madness was coming our way and so we must anticipate. We decide to book a 2-day horse trek starting the 1st of October. Out to the countryside to escape the crowds.
We laze out the days until we have to start the horse trek and it’s nice to just take it easy. We visit the local monastery. We hike up the canyon. We spend hours having lunch or dinner at our favourite Tibetan restaurant. Roger (we met him earlier in Kashgar) comes by and we have some nice conversations over a beer. It feels good to spend a couple of lazy days in this pleasant town, just reading a book or writing a blog post while observing the daily life of the Tibetans and the monks.
We also meet an Israeli guy and he shows us a video of a sky burial he had attended that morning. Which is kind of special because they are not very keen of letting tourist observe this ceremony. A sky burial is an ancient Tibetan death ceremony. Tibetans belief that by being food for the vultures, they can pay back the karmic debt for all the animals they have eaten in their lives. They take the body up to a sacred hill, cut it up and leave it for the vultures to eat. The birds can then fly high in the sky and take the soul to heaven. Hence the name sky burial (click here for a video).
It’s horse trek day. I looked forward to doing something active again after all the sightseeing we did so far in China. But now that the day has come I’m a bit nervous too. I did a little bit of horse riding in Kyrgyzstan before but now we were going on a multi day trip with about 4 hours of horse riding a day. The guides give good instructions though. My horse is rather big but he seems nice so I’m quite confident. The first day we ride along the river, crossing it several times and going up and down some hills. Every now and then my horse goes into a trot but never for long and somehow I have it all under control.
The surrounding area is beautiful. Large grasslands full of grazing sheep and yaks. A bit like we saw around Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan only now without the lake. And there are yaks instead of horses. We cross the grasslands towards our nomad camp in the far distance, our stay for the night. The horse riding made up well but after a couple of hours I’m still happy that we reach the camp and my butt has a bit of rest.
With a Belgian couple, an Austrian/Dutch couple, a Canadian girl and a German girl we have a nice international group of people. And there’s only one Chinese couple, obviously the Chinese are more into sightseeing than outdoor activities. There’s a yak theme tonight: sitting in the yak hair tent, eating yak yoghurt and drinking yak butter tea. Later that night making the beds becomes sort of an awkward situation because we want to make our own beds while the guide wants to tuck us in like a baby. But we sort it all out and thanks to our fancy air mattresses we have a comfortable night.
The next morning it’s freezing cold and I’m very happy with my Tibetan coat that I rented. The views of the sheep and yaks laying in the white frozen and foggy grasslands are amazing and we watch the morning rituals of the Tibetan nomads: milking the yaks, collecting yak shit (which they use as fuel), making yak butter. At around 10 the sun has warmed up the air and we continue our horse trek back to Langmusi. More grasslands to cross but the surroundings aren’t as spectacular as on the first day. And my butt isn’t in the same condition either. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to but so far horse riding isn’t really comfortable. So I’m more than happy when we finally reach Langmusi 🙂
In the meantime Langmusi is flocked with visitors. The roads that were almost empty the days before are now totally blocked. Chinese tourists wearing fake North Face jackets and huge photo cameras have occupied the streets. Restaurants that we didn’t even know existed are now full of people. And even more people are waiting outside to get a table. National Holiday is worse than we expected. Luckily we had booked our room before otherwise we definitely would have had a problem.
From Langmusi we catch the bus to Xiahe, another Tibetan mountain village and famous for the Labrang monastery. Surprisingly Xiahe doesn’t seem as invaded as Langmusi. But appearances are deceptive because all accommodation appears to be sold out. We are happy that we made a reservation for two dorm beds. Our Belgian friends Eva and Roel are less lucky as their reservation hasn’t come through and they have a strange night sleeping next to granny in a home stay.
The next day we visit the Labrang monastery, one of the six major Tibetan monasteries in the Gelugpa order. That’s the Yellow Hat sect in Tibetan Buddhism and the one that the Dalai Lama belongs to. There are 1800 monks living, working and studying in this monastery and when walking around you can feel this is a sacred place. But there’s a lot of money going around too, with many yuan billets on every shrine. And with lots of monks playing with their iPhone I guess life in the monastery isn’t as tough as it used to be.
Later that day I walk the kora, the 3 km long pilgrims path that encircles the monastery. And when I’m turning the endless squeaking prayer wheels among Tibetan pilgrims, old monks, mothers with babies and other shabby nomads, I’m impressed by the devotion of all these people. Some of them doing this day after day. For the rest of their lives. I’m just a tourist that walks like a Tibetan. For this once.