The Wild West – Litang

Deep in China’s west, Litang really seems like the Wild West. Except horses have been traded in for motorbikes, adorned with stickers, tassles and a loudspeaker blasting out Tibetan tunes. And it’s getting colder. Men ride round in full face balaclavas. Only their eyes are visible, and a cigarette dangling out of mouth holes, pinched between yellowing teeth. Yesterday, we were caught in a snowstorm that lashed around us at the pass top, some 4600m high. By the time we’d made it down, my beard was one solid snow block, our fingers and toes were all but numb and bikes were encased in a coat of ice. We melted ourselves a little in a simple traveller’s restaurant, around a metal drum filled with charcoal, tucking into a bowl of steaming rice and a plate of fresh mushrooms and pork, washed down with endless cups of tea. By morning, the skies had cleared and the surrounding rolling hills were smoothered in snow. Winter feels like it’s closing in.

Our ride into Litang, past grazing yak and over one last prayer-flagged pass, was met by yells of Tashi Dele (the Tibetan greeting) from the motorbike cowboys, and enquisitive eyes as we pulled into a guesthouse that promised hot water and a shower. I like this place; it’s rough and ready. It appears out of nowhere, a great sprawl of Tibetan cuboid houses mushrooming out of this vast plain, framed by rolling snow covered mountains and overlooked by a gold encrusted monastry. The mountains look low – it’s easy to forget that here at 4000m, everything is high, even if it just looks like a rolling Welsh foothill. Of course, there’s a Chinese influence – a big, new square with fake palm trees – but it’s plain to see that here there’s a Tibetan majority. A relative metropolis, Litang sits on the southerm Sichuan Tibetan Highway, a stopping point for travellers on their long journey to Lhasa, a meeting place for nomads picking up provisions and tough Kampas from the nearby plains, their wicker rucksacks stuffed with fresh veg from the market.

Scrubbed and (relatively) clean, we step out onto the main street. It’s sunny and the weekend, so everyone is out and about, poking their way through shops crammed with saddles and ropes, or haggling with tailors, or fixing motorbikes parts and tractor engines. The men are tall and handsome, with surprisingly long dark hair. Sometimes it looks freshly washed and glossy, like a shampoo advert, or else its matted and straggly from the wind, or half hidden under cowboy hats and huge fur hats with ornately embroidered red and gold trim. The women are also tall and strong, a marked difference from the Chinese ladies who tend the strip of restaurants, yelling to each other, striding round in their tight jeans, high clompy heels (even on the precarious, ice encrusted pavements) and puffer jackets. Old men shuffle past, watching the world drift by, their glasses as thick as my finger, thumbing prayer beads. Others wear oversized 70s-inspired sun glasses, protection their eyes from the high altitude rays.

Some families might well have come straight down from the mountains for their Sunday lunch and some window shopping. It takes them a full five minutes to unravel all their layers, as they gather around steaming hotpots, slurping on tea and gossiping away; lots of smiling. Both men and women have solid silver headresses to tame their locks, set with globs of amber and turquoise. They wear hefty rings, with dirty fingernails and rough skin. Some women have babies strapped to their backs, their wispy baby hair already dreaded, heads bobbing about, cheeks chapped by sun and wind and snow. It’s a great place to people watch. Each face is a story of life in this harsh environment. Even better, I don’t don’t feel too bad ogling them, because they stop and stare at us too. When we sit down, a crowd gathers, so close we can smell their yak breath, awaiting our next move, or simply eyeballing our clothes/hair/legs. Tashi Dele, I smile with a nod. Tashi Dele they beam back, before trotting off again to allow room for some other onlookers.

Lunching in one of the restaurants, an old man comes and sits down next to me, staring, smiling, a real twinkle in his eye. He pats me heartily on the back, gives me the thumbs up, motions for me to drink up my tea. The men here wear enormous duvet-thick cloaks and jackets lined with fur, that sprouts out like hairy chests. The sleeves are ridiculously long, out of which they pull provisions, like magicians. From his comes an old Limca bottle, filled with a dubious substance which he offers to me, before heading over to the table where his family are sat around their hotpot. A Tibetan busker wander in, and plays a folk tune for us all on a small, lute-like instrument. Everyone delves into their pockets to pull our a few grubby, crumpled Jao notes. Then a Han chinese begger/traveller siddles over, scrounging for some spare change. His face is noticeably different, his goatee long, his straw hat widebrimmed, and his walking stick well used. An old canvas ruckasck is slung over his shoulder, and his military plimsols shoes are almost threadbare.

Back in the street, Mad Max-style tractor-trailers rumble past, towing a cargo load of people/thick-necked dogs/kindling wood/bags of shopping/anything else they can lash on. The sun’s setting and it’s getting chillier, so we retreat to our hotel room for yet more layers.

Yep, I like this place…


2 Responses to “The Wild West – Litang”

  1. 1 Christian November 11, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Great entry Cass. Sounds like you are properly on your way now after your visa shopping trip. Make sure you retro-blog some photos when you get home so I can get even more jealous – life back in the UK is sooo dull after my quick trip on the OTB magic carpet ride.

    Best to Cara, stay safe guys.

    P.S. The reason the locals look at you with the “inquisitive eyes” you describe isn’t because you’re a westerner – it’s the 29er they’re looking at…

  2. 2 otbiking November 12, 2007 at 3:35 am

    Thanks Christian. It’s been simply fantastic riding here. You’re right though. There was I thinking everyone was staring at my hairy legs. But it’s those big wheels…

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