China to this day remains one of my favourite countries and I have thought many times about going back there and starting a hostel or teaching English or anything that allows me to explore it further. I saw most parts of China, avoiding the westernised east coast, and found that the Tibetan towns on the Chinese side of the border were some of the best.
We entered Langmusi with two things on our mind, seeing a sky burial and visiting Leisha’s cafe. Leisha’s got nothing but rave reviews from the lonely planet and was famous for its Big Mac yak attack burger, a huge meal made from the local Yaks(similar to cows). The sky burial is an ancient Tibetan tradition that had been banned for many years by the Chinese Government and was only recently allowed to take place again.
We had a walk around the town to get our bearings and to see what we could explore over the next few days and then headed for Leisha’s to get all the information we could about seeing a sky burial. Leisha was a great lady from the Xinjiang region of China and as such was a Muslim and quite different in culture to the other locals in town. She owned her cafe with her brother, who we thought was her husband, and it was the backpacker hangout in town. We asked how we could see a Sky Burial and she said that there is no set way to see one, you just have to head to the monastery at 7am and wait until you see a tractor driving up the hill with a body in the back.
A tractor with a body in the back took a little bit of the shine of the magnificent spiritual event that we were hoping to see but oh well, if that’s the way they do it that’s fine. I ordered my Big Mac yak attack and tried hard to beat the 1.5hr record set by an American guy but to no luck. By the end I wasn’t full and even considered ordering some chocolate cake, I was just sick of the taste of Yak meat and Potato.
Next morning we were up and looking for the tractor at 7am but by 9 nothing had happened so we headed to leisha’s and spent the day playing cards and drinking milkshakes. We tried again the next morning and still nothing so we explored town and the local monastery and headed into the hills for a hike, where the diarrhoea I had developed from the Yak Burger took full effect and I had to rush of for a few emergency squirts.
We decided that the third morning was the last and that if there was no burial today then we would get the 11am bus out of town. We all crossed our fingers and headed for the monastery and took vigil waiting for the little tractor to start its drive up the hill. I headed off with one of the girls to scour the monastery for information about a burial. It is very difficult and probably very funny to try to explain to a Tibetan monk in sign language that you want to go and see the birds eating the dead body. We spent 5mins explaining to him and he just kept pointing to the hill and shrugging so we gave up.
It was getting late and we had all but given up hope and headed back to see the others, on the way we heard a yell and rushed to them to find they had all gone. We looked up the hill and there it was, the little blue tractor with three bodies in sheets bouncing around in the back. Jackpot, we were off. I started running after the tractor along with the others but it was hard. We were at altitude and heading straight up into the hills, still we persevered and kept running because we just had to see these vultures eat those dead bodies.
It probably sounds really morbid and in some ways we felt a bit morbid watching it but once the ritual started to take place and we stood at a distance in silence and watched as the men sliced open the backs of the dead people and cut the tops off their heads, it felt like a very special experience.
The whole time these two men were preparing the bodies the vultures, about 2.5 feet tall, were beginning to sit in the hills around the pit waiting for their feed, some even came early and had to be chased away. It only took a few minutes preparation of the three bodies before the men walked away and the 30-40 vultures swooped down from the hills and started chowing down.
We asked the locals we were with if we could take photos and they said it would be better not to so we respected the family sitting near the bodies, burning the bones of the dead as the men bought them over, and kept our cameras out of sight. The idea of the burial is that the person’s spirit is given to the birds to move to the sky to wait for its time to be reborn, something like that anyway.
The ritual seemed very spiritual and we stood sombre until the guys moved in with their little axes and started hacking up the bodies and throwing parts all over the place for the vultures to continue eating. It was a little harsh in its own way to see a guy hack off a human leg and toss it through the air and see two birds fight over its flesh. That was the way it was for them and I could only think that it is maybe a better way to go than being buried in a box and eaten by worms.
The ritual had been going for around 25 mins and most of the vultures had left the pit and only a few remained when a Dutch tour group turned up and stormed past us straight to the pit and started taking pictures, What a bunch of knobs was all we could think from where we were. We did however wait for the last vulture to leave before heading in ourselves to take some photos.
I looked to the family and didn’t really know what to say or do, in a way we could have been disrespecting their culture but most of the time they didn’t seem too bothered by anything we did. The best I could come up with was to place my palms together under my chin and bow to them in the way you do to other Tibetans on meeting them. I don’t know if it meant anything to them but it made feel better at least showing some respect.
It was great experience and one that anyone who has the chance should go out of their way to see. The pit was a sight and a half with bones and jaws lying all over, I even saw a full spine with half a skull attached in there.
We quietly and happily walked back down to Leisha’s to give here the good news about seeing the burial and she gave us all high fives as we left to get our buses onto the next town.