Prayer wheels at the Sezhi Monastery in Langmusi, in China's Sichuan province. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
See the region on your own terms
Last Updated September 24, 2007
by Vawn Himmelsbach, CBC News
Dream of seeing Tibet, but not interested in those five-grand, four-day package tours? If you’re willing to rough it, you can see the Kingdom of Tibet on a reasonable budget, on your own terms – and without ever crossing the Tibet border.
In its heyday, the Kingdom of Tibet expanded much further than its current incarnation to include parts of the modern-day Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. For those who want to experience Tibetan culture without the bureaucracy (you’ll need a permit from Chinese authorities to enter the region), China’s Wild West offers a viable alternative – and I did it on about $20 a day (not, of course, including the flight over there).
Vawn Himmelsbach during a trip through China.
I arrived in Langmusi in late spring,right in the middle of a snowstorm.Ihuddled inside a local café, drinking yak butter tea, playing cards and trying to stay warm beside a coal stove. Through the frosted window I could see Tibetan children playing in the snow, laughing and biting into Popsicles.
I had arrived here during a Buddhist festival, and the weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of the locals. Women wore their finest chupas – traditional wrap-around robes with brightly striped aprons – and braided their hair with elaborate turquoise jewelry. Men with long tangled hair rode into town on horseback wearing heavy coats with sleeves that hung to their knees. Monks in saffron robes trudged through the snow in cheap running shoes, as though it were a warm summer day.
While Tibet has opened its doors to tourism, it still maintains an aura of isolation and inaccessibility. But in this day and age, that has less to do with geography than red tape, permits and police.
In Langmusi, life goes on pretty much the same way it did hundreds of years ago, though this village is now part of the Chinese province of Gansu. Originally it was the Amdo region of Tibet, one of the cultural cores of Tibetan civilization. Life still revolves around religious activities at the village’s two monasteries, which dominate the landscape with their decaying beauty.
A Buddhist monk in front of the Sezhi Monastery in Langmusi, in China's Sichuan province. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
Langmusi is a typical Tibetan village, still relatively untouched by tourism – and much more accessible than Tibet itself. While Tibet has opened its doors to tourism, it still maintains an aura of isolation and inaccessibility. But in this day and age, that has less to do with geography than red tape, permits and police. Officially, tourists are required to travel with an organized tour, many of which are restrictive and overpriced.
Since fewer touristsvisit Langmusi, you may find it offersa more authentic experience. It’s also possible to hook up with groups heading to Tibet – and it’s going to cost you a whole lot less than if you booked from Canada (I paid around $750 for a flight and permit into Tibet from Chengdu, Sichuan).
From Langmusi,spend half a day traveling in a localbus through the barren hills of Gansu – barely a tree in sight – to reach Xiahe. This Tibetan town is famous forits Labrang Monastery, one of the six monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism (four are in Tibet).
Here, you can boost your karma by walking the kora – a circumambulation of an object or place of devotion – around the monastery. Trail behind a group of elderly Tibetan women, their backs hunched and faces wrinkled from a lifetime of exposure to the harsh Himalayan elements. Theywalk the kora every day, spinning the golden prayer wheels that line the three-kilometre path around the monastery – all 2,500 of them. Spinning a prayer wheel is equivalent to saying a prayer, so for Tibetans, this is like saying 2,500 prayers.
Buddhist monks enter the Sezhi Monastery in Langmusi. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
The path climbs a hill overlooking the monastery, whereyou can appreciate the sheer size of this religious centre and college – second only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. At one time, it was home to 4,000 monks, but today there are about 2,000. It still serves as a college with six institutes of higher learning, including Tibetan medicine, Sanskrit and astronomy, and is home to 60,000 Buddhist scriptures and thousands of rare religious relics.
A visit to this still-functional monastery – with monks studying scriptures and Tibetans on pilgrimage – is a must. So is trying the local fare, like momos (dumplings filled with meat or vegetables). Or try a bowl of Tibetan soup, called thukpa, made with thick handmade noodles and yak meat, and a glass of chang, the local beer. On the main street in the Tibetan Quarter, you can buy everything from singing bowls to herbal medicine to traditional clothing.
To get here, fly into the Chinese capital of Beijing, then book a plane or train ticket to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. In Lanzhou, you can catch a local bus (you’ll probably have to switch buses in the town of Hezuo to get to Langmusi). You can also hire a taxi in Hezuo to take you to Langmusi for about $100, but don’t expect a luxury sedan.
From Langmusi, you can continue by bus to western Sichuan, known as the Tibetan area of Kham.
Geerdeng Monastery during a Buddhist festival in the spring of 2004 in Langmusi, in China's Gansu province. The town of Langmusi lies on the border of the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu, so one of the local monasteries is in Sichuan, the other in Gansu. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
Litang, a town nestled high in the mountains near the Tibetan border, still retains a frontier atmosphere, where nomads walk the streets with silver swords hanging from their belts and horses are more common than cars.
Further south, in the province of Yunnan, is the Ganden Sumsanling Monastery, built in the 17th Century by the fifth Dalai Lama.
Many of Tibet’s important cultural and historic sites lie outside of its political borders, and a trip to these rarely visited areas is equally as impressive as a trip to Tibet itself, with much less hassle. There are long roads involved – and the potential for blizzards – but just imagine what it’s doing for your karma.
Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She has spent years travelling abroad, often adventuring off the beaten path alone.