City in the Sky
Resting 4000 meters in elevation, Litang is one of the worlds highest towns. Everything here seems elevated, from the intense devotion to gruesome sky burials.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited October 2016
At 4,050 meters (13,300 ft) high in the middle of a vast grassland lies a peculiar town of 50,000 Tibetans full of flavor, authenticity, and tension. Geographically, this place holds little importance and is remote even in Tibetan standards, but it is here where activity, culture, and religion takes center stage. Birthplace and hometown to some of Tibet's most influential people, such as the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas, origin of Tibet's greatest legendary hero Gesar, and the center for many revolts and protests, Litang, the city in the sky, has made quite a name for itself.
Litang is in fact the world's second highest town, but it isn't just the elevation that will lose your breath. On the Eastern edge of Litang lies a centuries old Monastery still lived in and circumambulated by hundreds, if not thousands, of monks and pilgrims every day. Reminiscent of walking into a centuries old holy city, you can smell the religious devotion, along with the dust, in the air. The Monastery, chortens, and stupas all exhibit a rugged and worn down feel, but it is in this state of decay where the sights really comes alive.
The pilgrims, some dressed in jewels and others in rags, do not lose their gaze upon what lies before them. You can hear the mumbled chants of scriptures each pilgrims mutters as they slowly walk clockwise around the walls of the Monastery, each spinning prayer wheels in their hands. Both young and old, and rich and poor take this journey together, without any noticeable signs of superiority that plagues other parts of the world, even Tibet. I am tempted to snap portraits, but resist to respect their culture.
Whenever I come across a Tibetan monastery, I find walking the perimeter is most interesting, and it is here, outside the walls, you really get a sense of Tibetan life. This Monastery is also entrenched in beauty, with green hills and plains as the backdrop. We've been to other Tibetan monasteries, and two stand out. Labrang Monastery of Amdo in its grandeur, and Litang Monastery in its authenticity. Tibet is changing by the day, so it is rare to come across their culture almost unchanged as in Litang.
I am always tempted to explore beyond the beaten path, where that is often you come face to face with an unscripted experience. We experienced one such moment beyond the Monastery, up north towards the hills, where there lies a tiny gated community. We followed three pilgrims here, and they cheerfully invited us into the village's monastery. They treated us like royal guests, for no reason except that we definitely didn't belong there. They tell us that this room we were sitting in was the Dalai Lama's private room before his exile. If this is true or not, we do not know, but we were grateful for their hospitality.
Litang is also known throughout the region for another cultural practice: the sky burial. Quite frankly, this is their version of our funeral, yet much more grotesque. Tibetan's who have died throughout the region are transported great distances to the hills beyond the monastery, where their flesh is cut and torn to pieces, scattered over the earth, and then devoured by vultures. In their religious beliefs, this fulfills their life as a state of reincarnation. One nomad expressed to us that this was the greatest act of compassion, where the Tibetan surrendered their lives to be food to the birds. Only in Litang can you find wandering nomads, pondering pilgrims, grand temples, and carnivorous vultures all living in harmony.
This is Litang, the city in the sky.