One of the main reasons for us both looking forward to reaching Litang was the prospect of potentially meeting some other travellers.
However great it is to get off the tourist trail and spend the evening trying to communicate with the locals (armed with your smart phone and dictionary app), occasionally you crave a more ‘fluid conversation’.
Apart from our couple of nights with JK and a brief evening with some people during our trek in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Paddy and I had spent the last 28 days being each other’s sole connection to conversational English.We were in serious need of some fresh topics of conversation!
Litang didn’t disappoint, and we not only met other travellers but also managed to meet a number of other cycle tourers.
We met a French cyclist, Jerome as he cycled into town looking for a hostel. Jerome has been on the road for a long while having cycled all the way from France, through the Pamir, down into Pakistan and up into China.
We also met another French cycling couple, Emelie and Romain, (also been on the road a long time) while they were trying to extract cash from an ATM in town. They ended up staying in the same hostel as us.
To complete the group, JK, our South Korean friend who we had last seen on a snowy mountain 5 days before turned up at our hostel on the eve of the first day.
We didn’t do a huge amount of touristy stuff while we were in Litang. We were all recovering from our epic, week long, cycles over the mountains from Shangri-la. Instead, we spent most of our time either servicing our bikes, talking about bikes, writing blog posts about our bikes or shopping around town (usually on our bikes!)
We also enjoyed eating scrummy Tibetan dinners together and having our early morning oatmeal breakfast parties…
Paddy, JK and I got up early one morning to attend a sky burial which we had heard was taking place on the hill above town at 7.30am.
For those who haven’t heard of the sky burial (or Jhator) before, it is the final act in the Tibetan funeral ceremony.
In an area of the world where soft ground and timber kindling is hard to come by, ordinary Tibetans are instead, honoured through Jhator.
The body arrives having already gone through a number of rituals and ceremonies. It is taken to the offering site which is home to a large pack of vultures.
I expect you have guessed what happens next.
Although this custom initially sounds very alien to us, it’s not as macabre as it sounds. When you stop to contemplate it, there is something quite philosophical, even poetical about the concept – you are (quite literally) returned to the sky.
We cycled up to the site and a couple of other travellers were also there with a local guide.
The colony of birds were all sitting up on a nearby hill. At around 8.30am a number of cars arrived. A group of around 12 monks sat facing the hill reciting prayers while one car drove up onto the hill and a group around 45 men (there were no women present) gathered around the vehicle. Naturally we sat a respectful distance away and once the car arrived we didn’t take any more photos.
We weren’t sure what to expect but, compared to funerals back home, it all felt quite informal and, well, matter of fact. Everyone was dressed in normal everyday clothes and apart from the monks, there didn’t seem to be any ritual to the proceedings.
It’s a bit of a shock when suddenly the group of men stand aside and you see the group of vultures urgently flock towards a point on the ground but thankfully we were too far away to see anything ‘detailed’.
The only other point of interest in town was a quick visit to the house where the seventh Dalai Lama was born.
Sadly JK wouldn’t be able to cycle the next stretch with us as he was heading straight to Chengdu and Jerome had headed off a day earlier than the rest of us, but Emelie and Romain would be heading north to Ganzi (where they hoped to renew their visa), so the good company would continue for the next few days at least.