In the high town of Lithang
Often enough the borders of the political map do not align with the territories defined in the hearts and souls of the people. The Kingdom of Tibet once spread far beyond the borders of the modern day Chinese province. The small city of Lithang, situated in present-day Sichuan Province, remains a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the birthplace of two previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama. In the hearts of Tibetan people it is located in the eastern region of the classic kingdom of Tibet.
Lithang was the primary destination along our backcountry bus tour, and the only stopover where we intended to stay for some time. After an 8-hour morning on a bus, we rattled over a final pass and slowly descended upon a high valley awash in golden light. The commotion on the bus indicated that we had finally arrived at our destination.
The bus stopped in what appeared to be an empty lot, and we were swept off and left standing in the dust with our bags. Once again we were immersed in the uncomfortable but addictive feeling of having no understanding of, nor context for, a new a place. Immersed in something unknown. For lack of a better option, we shouldered our bags and started walking along the dirty road. Step by step waiting for familiarity through future experience to unfold.
Soon enough we found a clean and simple room to drop our bags, then set out to see the town. After just a short walk along the streets, I was doubled over with sickness from the altitude. We were only at 4000 meters, but with little acclimation on the bus the simple act of walking was enough to set me off. Caroline, on the other hand, seems to be immune to altitude and was completely fine. Tsampa (barley flour) noodle soup, focused breathing, and complete immersion in Tibetan vibration quickly healed me so that we could head for the hills.
The Lithang monastery offers a fairly un-molested vision into what Tibetan monastic society is all about. It also offers magnificent aesthetics for a photo-oriented westerner.
Touring the surrounding valleys
Another day we went for a tour of the surrounding region with the proprietor of our hotel whose name was ‘Long Life’. At a pristine alpine lake a few hours out of town, we encountered some local kids out for a cruise on their decorated motorcycles. There was a moment of tension as we sized each other up for mal-intent, but it quickly broke in a fit of mutual smiling friendship.
We goofed around on their bikes, and they showed us how they could ride out into the flat –bottomed lake. Further and further out they rode, until one fumbled and dumped his bike in the drink! It took all three to lift it out of the icy water and get it to shore. The motor was drowned with no hope of re-starting. Dejected, they left us with a sheepish wave as they towed the bike back to their village.
Prostration along the road to Lhasa
On the drive back to town we encountered a group of Buddhist pilgrims who were prostrating along the road en-route to Lhasa.
While some of the crew were casually covering ground, others were measuring themselves against a sharpened discipline and progressing every single meter with a prostration.
Each prostration involves: a salute towards the heavens; three forward steps; a bow down until knees / belly / forehead touch the earth; return to feet; then finally standing tall in prayer pose to begin anew. The prostrating pilgrims wore pads made of old tires on their knees and elbows, a thick padded apron, and wooden plates on their hands. For the stronger pilgrims, the three forward steps are an opportunity to accelerate in to a belly slide. The further one slides, the fewer prostrations lie between one’s position in space and the center of Tibetan Buddhism – the Jokung Temple – in Lhasa.
We later mapped it out and determined that from where we encountered this group, it was nearly 1,500 kilometers to Lhasa!
For many Tibetan Buddhists, this pilgrimage is the defining event of their existence. Often it takes a lifetime of savings to prepare for the journey. Old ladies who have not yet had the opportunity will forego the prostration but hobble the entire way on worn and hard-worked bones. Pilgrims carry little more than the padding on their body, and receive alms and food offerings along the way. It is good fortune for all to offer alms, food, or lodging to a passing pilgrim, and in every Yak-herder’s tent along the route there are extra mats for a weary traveler to rest.
Lacking the tiniest shred of the discipline and devotion of these pilgrims, we climbed in our minivan and drove back to town where we went to a local hot spring to heal our (not so) weary bones. Surrounded by the filth of a land devoid of waste-removal infrastructure, each small hot-spring room was kept immaculately clean. As a seasoned hot-spring veteran (I’ve been soaking since I was 6 days old), the water was too hot to handle for more than a minute at a time.
In search of elemental-sport potential?
Speedflyers looking for new adventure: this region has endless perfect speed flying potential. The terrain appears to be ~1000 meter steep grassy mountains reminiscent of Sun Valley, Idaho. There are awesome rock features mixed in to make it interesting and vast landing fields all around. But with valley elevations above 4000m bring a big wing and some serious lung power- the thin air is sure to fly FAST and all the approaches are hike-to. First d’s beyond number.
The cloud base was too low while we were there to show signs of good paragliding potential, but the terrain could be highly conducive if the weather conditions were right.
‘Long Life’ also said that he had helped people to ski in this region in the past. Although nothing jumped out as extremely easy or obvious, there were some peaks beckoning from deeper back in the next layer of terrain that showed good potential.