Blog: Where the lines of Tibet become blurred

Tibet - Assessing the horses
Assessing the horses - Photograph by Rebecca Mayoll

17th June 2016
Guest post by Rebecca Mayoll

Perched upon the border separating Tibet and China’s Yunnan Province there was no checkpoint, no police presence but just a small shabby sign that warned “FORBID FOREIGNER”. With no transportation available, Prue and I had cycled 50 km of gravel paths from Bingzhongluo just to catch a glimpse of this forbidden land but our journey would be no more than a glimpse. Just like all the other access points into Tibet, China had said NO.

OK so it wasn’t spelled out quite so clearly. Yes I could enter Tibet if I was on a pre-booked, fully inclusive tour (spending way over my budget), if I was travelling in a group of people who possessed the same nationality as myself and if I had been approved. That was too much to ask of me and so I decided to get as close as I possibly could without breaking the rules.

After my cycling expedition in Yunnan I was to learn that, in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Tibet has spilled over its ‘boundaries’ and could offer us a less restricted window into this beautiful and ancient culture. As we travelled from Yunnan to Sichuan we literally stumbled across it when we reached Litang, a town that sits amongst the clouds on a plateau at 4,100m.

Litang - a city in the clouds

It is this altitude which has the Chinese government in a twist - they know that their people cannot live here but they refuse to give it to someone else who can, namely the nomads who for centuries have roamed across the land. With their herds of cattle they are far more suited to the altitude than settled people who need rather more fertile soil to survive.

While travel was less restricted it continued to be fraught with Chinese corruption and frequent police checkpoints. Time and time again we had to proclaim ourselves as tourists and not journalists, bus stations would refuse to sell us tickets and we had to get creative. Haggling with minivan drivers, getting locals to buy our bus tickets and hitchhiking were our ways to get ourselves into the heart of the prefecture and in our whole lives there has never been a trip more worth the effort.

Our timing was perfect - the day we arrived in Litang the plateau was strewn with a thousand canvas tents that signified a great gathering. Tibetan nomads had gathered to partake or spectate in the yearly horse festival. Apparently, this year was ‘lucky’ because China had not used force to stop the celebrations. Perhaps China was nervous of the event because it gave Tibetans a voice, a voice that echoed through the plains as hooves thundered, crowds cheered and monks chanted. While Tibetans tried to engage us in conversation, two police vans lurked on the perimeter. Upon our arrival they had charged over to us accusing us of being protesters and having banners in our bags but after that they left us alone. We were free to stare wide-eyed at the Tibetan cowboys, decorative horses and red-robed men spinning prayer wheels.

Tibetans engaging in a horse race

This had to be the most colourful day on Earth. 

Two days later the tents had been disassembled and the plains returned to a whisper, the honking of a vehicle horn was once again carried by the wind and could be heard miles away from Litang. Thanks to the altitude, walking amongst the crevices of green took our breath away but day by day we gathered our strength and our ability to walk from the town and into the hills. It was not uncommon to stumble upon a small patch of land strewn with colourful flags and know that this was a sight of prayer, or hundreds of vultures flying in a vortex above our heads, signalling that a sky burial was taking place.

One day we found ourselves in the presence of a majestic Buddhist palace, its gold and red staring proudly at us.

Perhaps it had been recess because hundreds of red dots flowed from its innards and toward the golden archway. By the time we had reached the entrance of Litang Chöde Monastery all was still, even a long line of golden prayer wheels sat silently in place.

Close by, we stopped to appreciate a small house but not because it was the most majestic house in the neighbourhood - like all the others it was made from slate grey stone and adorned with deep red paintwork. Instead, we offered our respect because this was the birth home of Kelzang Gyatso, the 7th Dalai Lama, who was born in 1708.

Our arrival in Litang marked our introduction to an area that we call Tibet and China claims as its own. We had intended to stay in the region for one week but couldn’t draw ourselves away. One month later, with our visas draining to a few last days we succumbed to taking transport out of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, content that we had not allowed China to continue saying NO.

About the author: Rebecca Mayoll is a passionate traveller and writer. Since completing a two year overland from Australia to England (without taking any flights) she continues to explore herself and her surroundings through her world travel blog StraightOnDetour.com.