China and Tibet on unbeaten path: sky burial, the Tibetan funeral where birds connect Earth and Heaven

Unboring Borders - An unconventional trip in the ancient Tibetan culture, still alive nowadays among the Tibetan villages between Tibet and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Gansu. This is the ’celestial burial’, where bodies in decomposition are ‘carried’ to Heaven by the carrion birds for the last goodbye from the Earth.

China / Tibet / Langmusi / / by Alessandro Cormio

On October 2016 I was going to hitchhike from the Chinese province of Gansu, a few kilometres south of Xining, from Xia’he (Labrang) to Langmusi (Langmusizhen or in tibetan - Taktsang Lhamo -); which is next to the border with the famous “foodie” province of Sichuan. There you can taste some of the most delicious authentic Chinese food, different from Cantonese food, which is more popular in Western Countries.
This small village is mostly populated by 2 religious majority: the muslim ‘Hui’ and the tibetans (mostly) ‘Amdo’. In my personal humble opinion this unique town become a perfect stop if you want to travel around the Tibetan China, just great for some amazing mountain views, trekking on foot and horse-trekking, with really few tourist (Chinese and not) around.

When I was here it was high season however there were very few tourists (mostly Chinese): a place totally off of the beaten path - but still really worth to visit for its culture - and easy to reach by backpackers and hitchhikers (yes! you can do hitchhiking in China even if you don’t speak Chinese, give it a try!).
Usually the monks around the village are quiet, peaceful and happy to see some respectful foreigners (wai guo ren in Chinese). When compared to other Asian Buddhist cultures (as Thailand, Laos and Myanmar for example) the monks seems to dislike to be pictured BUT a nice ‘Tibetan hello’ - tashi delek - will be answered back with a warm smile.

I got a lift to the last cross road just before getting into the city on a small truck with 3 funny locals so I decided to stop at the - Tibetan Barley Youth hostel - where a bed in the dorm can cost you only 35/40 RMB.
On that day I was hitchhiking with some friends: one of them from Spain, which I have met a few days before and my Chinese hitchhiker friend Kelly who was traveling in another car with other two Chinese people.
I met a couple of local friends who told me about the Sky Burial, still practiced nowadays in some Chinese Tibetan towns around the provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Inner Mongolia and a few nearby countries such as Mongolia, Buthan and Nepal. However it's nearly impossible to get to see this unique funeral except in Langmusi – where you can have a chance to take part to the sky burial within just few meters of distance.

Sky Burial: what is it?

It is a funeral practice in which the human body in decomposition is placed on mountaintop (in this case I had to climb up till 4000mt from the main town).
The body is dissected and eaten up by dozens of carrion birds which eat the body and ’transport’ the soul to the sky, where the best part of the - new - life can start. This is a specific practice of excarnation, used by 'Vajrayana Buddhist' for the transmigration of the spirits. Once the person dies, for them there is no point to keep the body as it is an empty vessel, so it gets burned along with all the clothes and personal belongings.

Members of the family and close friends can witness the celebration, tourists are allowed but they can only stay back. In Langmusi, up until October 2016 tourists were allowed to participate standing 10-15 meters away from the burial.
During the ‘event’ it is strictly forbidden to make videos or take pics: what you can see here comes from the moment just before and after, pictured by myself.
I can still remember the sound of the word - ongmanibiemiehome -, which is repeated several times during the celebration, a kind of best wish for the new great life just started.

If you have a chance to be near this beautiful small town during your trip, I would recommend to stop here and take a chance to see some of the most beautiful landscapes and temples in the area. See below the next steps to get some really useful infos and try to take a part of this unique cultural experience:

- Before sleeping make a wish: someone have to die - ops(!) -;
- Wake up and get to the main temple in the center of the town at around 5.15AM during the summer season (or 7AM if you are there during winter);
- Bring a torch light with you, since it will be almost dark when you start to walk to the top;
- Head to the temple which is a 5 mins walk taking a right from the Tibetan Barley Youth Hostel;
- From the temple to the top of the mountain with a normal walking pace (for our western standard :-) ) it takes about 45 Minutes (or around 1 hour for Asian standard). Try to get to the following coordinates:
- 34°06′06.29″N 102°37′34.5″E (you can use Maps.me as GPS app, even if it is not so accurate like the Chinese Baidou but still really useful for hitchhiking all around even in China). When you see the classic colorful Tibetan stand (see photos) just stand there, wait and live this unique experience fully, if you are - NOT – weakhearted.

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