Asia | China | Tibet | Langmusi – Sky burial and the ‘Kidnap’ Experience
The spear bundle atop the hill in the center of town exuded a mystical holiness as its prayer flags waved under the blue sky, calling for the blessings of the god of the rain. One section in Gansu province and the other in Sichuan province, the magnificent temples on the green hills straddled the soot-covered town.
A Tibetan village lived peacefully by the spear bundle. Three kids ran to us just as we set up the tripod to photograph the spectacular scenery. Unable to communicate, the youngest boy, about 5 years old, walked between us and pulled each of us by one hand. Compared to the yaks he was used to pulling, we were a piece of cake to drag along. So we were forcefully invited to their yak-butter scented house and got introduced to mommy and grandpa and grandma, who all showed a cool indifference to their kids taking strangers to the house. Then he took us to their tent and pointed to a mat on floor. Amused by this close encounter of the 3rd kind episode, I stood in place smirking. My immobility must have made him impatient, as he gave me a strong push, and my butt landed right on the mat. I sat staring at him with my mouth open, not knowing whether I should laugh or be embarrassed that this little kid had been throwing me around at his free will from the minute he saw us.
They earned their photo-ops by performing some free-style dancing and a yak-chase for us, and were highly entertained when I sat on the poor young yak as they told. It was time for us to head back, but they looked at us pleadingly and pulled on my hands with enough strength to dislocate my wrists. Daniel and I swung the youngest boy up into the air to cheer them up, hoping we would earn their mercy. But he enjoyed the game so much that it gave him more reasons to keep us in captivity. Finally I engaged them in a game of tug of war, and we ran down the hill while they were not looking. The yak-chase turned into a foreigner-chase, as they ran after us until we were in town.
Langmusi is one of the few places outside Tibet where sky-burials can still be witnessed. The ritual of chopping up the corpse and feeding it to the vultures originated from the belief that ones body must be entirely eaten by the birds for his soul to ascend to heaven. If any pieces of the body were left untouched, it would mean the person had done bad deeds during his life. No one was to be buried today, and I thought that the sensationalism about the sky-burials was exaggerated anyway. Seeing the burial platform alone would be enough.
I marveled at the temples scattered along the hill with their new glazed tiles glistening in the sun and banners hanging off the beam rolling in the wind as we walked up the hill. A couple bends later, a slope covered in old prayer flags came into our sight. Daniel said the strange smell in the air belonged to dead flesh. My heart was beating fast. I said that the air at such altitude was thin, and that I couldnt believe that all the hype about the sky-burial lay in the inconspicuous gravel pit beneath the prayer flags. The smell and the bone fragments around us must have belonged to the sacrificed yaks.
Then, less than a yard from my feet, there it was. A human skull. And a few steps from it, a half-rotten trunk. I couldnt deny anymore. Vultures flew above the prayer flags. Old clothes were strewn about the slope, and the town was no longer in sight. Ghostly, I thought, and I felt my chest getting stuffy. But a fascination kept me in the same place. When we finally went around the hill and saw people on the trails and the bright temples again, I felt I had just returned from a detour to another world.