Death in Litang

The town of Litang lies in the middle of extensive grasslands at high altitude. Around it there are no rocky summits to be seen, just the relief of undulating hills covered by grass and no trees. These days of early August are the time when an important horse racing festival is held around the town, calling nomadic people from a large area to take part in, or be a spectator of the sporting events.

While having breakfast accompanied by rich butter tea, a Japanese traveller and I make plans for the day. Yaseku is desperate to know the exact starting time of the races, as if it he was talking of a train expected to depart on the dot, but the contradictory answers he receives are an obvious sign that there is no schedule. I tell him, but he goes on undeterred and becomes all the more frustrated by unaccountable as well as deplorable vagueness. In the end I manage to talk him into finally taking a taxi to the racing grounds, leaving behind schedules and other fetters inherited from a mindset that doesn’t go hand in hand with the local conception of time and plans, maybe of life itself.

A camp lies at a distance of about 20 km to one side of the road. Several white tents of different dimensions are scattered around a large central pavilion under which people are intent on praying. Most tents are made of plastic, and there are motor vehicles as well as horses to accompany a nomadic life enhanced by some modern comforts. We’re soon invited to join a group of young men sitting on mats in the grass next to the open door of a car with music playing on the radio. Yaseku is poured a glass of butter tea, and I, to my great discomfiture, am given the “privilege” of a soft drink, once more to underline the bizarre mixture of lifestyles ancient and modern.

They are a family of eight children. One proudly announces he ranked second at yesterday’s races, but today, he informs us, we are not to see any. Yesterday, a tragic event happened at the camp: a 14-year old boy was found hanged under the big tent after being told off by his parents because of a row he’d had with his little sister. Now the whole community is in mourning, which explains why so many people are gathered to pray under the white pavilion pervaded by a sad quiet murmur. No races will be held today, nor any dances, but I feel content with sharing moments with these hospitable people, and even their sadness, while observing a day of their annual meeting.

As we gad around and draw near one tent, we are beckoned to go in by its occupants. The white tarpaulin creates a very luminous interior that makes the face of a young mother shine with beauty. Sided by her two daughters, her expressive lineaments tell the story of her harsh life lived on the highlands between the searing summer sun and the freezing winter months. She welcomes us with an open heart and pours us tea. She can’t speak Chinese, but another woman can a little. We spend some time in contemplation of this peaceful family scene, the calm expression on the mother’s brow, the simplicity of her ways. We are then given bowls of rice and stewed meat in gravy.

Back in Litang I walk to the monastery, past street groups of people playing cards or passing the time of day or turning a big prayer wheel. The temple is decorated with awe-inspiring statues representing the complicated Tibetan pantheon with cruel scenes of torment in which demons torture their victims in the flames of hell or sit on women creatures to give birth to monstrous beings.