Another incredible monk city at 4,000 m (Seda)

The weather was uncertain last night and I asked myself what a sprinkle of rain down in the valley could turn into at the height of the pass. There was no reason to worry, however, because the road was as good – or as nasty – as it was when I came the first time with clear weather. Only the mountain view was affected by a cloudy sky and a sunless day.

The big bus I’m travelling on does not stop at the pass, but only has a lunch break at Maniganguo. At Ganzi I get a bed at the Tibetan house I had stayed at and, surprise! as I was sipping some tea in the courtyard, in came the French couple I had met days ago at this very guesthouse. They’re back from Baiyu and are heading to Seda tomorrow, just like me. We have a stroll together around the noisy but vibrant town centre in the bright afternoon light that makes Ganzi such a lively scene.


The bus to Seda is full from the start, but I’ve bought a ticket which secures me a regular seat. Other excess passengers are accommodated on loose stools in the aisle. The ride is a long one, starting with a last farewell view to the beautiful valley and its gorgeous mountains from a high ridge.

A couple of hours later, we halt at a spot that is completely overwhelmed with festoons of prayer flags. The reason seems to be a sacred spring where an old nun is sitting scooping water into the visitors’ bottles.

Because of this stop and a few others this journey is more like a pleasure trip that a regular bus ride. Along the road we find occasional settlements, some of prefab houses, but overall the population density in these mountains is very low. After many more hours than we expected, we catch sight of an extraordinarily large group of red houses occupying the side of a mountain. The blot of red looms into view from a distance and seemingly it’s a town all made of monks’ cabins spread over a vast area.

As we get off the bus, a policeman in plain clothes meets us and warns that we foreigners are not allowed to stay at the guesthouse or at any other place in the monastery town. I try to coax him, but he’s irremovable. We can’t understand why, but a few days later I hear the news of a monk having immolated himself in protest for the independence of the Tibetan people and this could have borne a relationship.

Owing to the ban, we have to move to the modern settlement of Seda, about 20 km away, but if we are made to decamp, we’ll do so as best as it’ll please us, leisurely walking down the long road and taking in impressive views of this incredible place. The police van escorts us in front, but they finally get bored at our deliberately slow pace and get lost.

The new town is in sharp contrast with the monk settlement. The central square boasts the pathetic gilt statue of a rampant horse surrounded by flower beds overgrown with weeds. You wonder what a modern ugly town like this has to do at the inhospitable elevation of 4,000 m. It is likely that this modern Chinese settlement was artfully set up to remind the nearby centre of Tibetan religious nationalism that they are still irremediably under Beijing’s rule, and there’s no escape from that.


The next day we go back to the monastery. Amid the sea of red wooden cabins, a few big concrete buildings stand out: a conference hall, a large hotel and a temple, plus several chapels along the ridge. Moreover, there are several buildings under construction, which witnesses to the vitality of Tibetan Buddhism.

As you cross the town, it’s best to pinch your nose if you don’t want to let the stench of sewage revolt your stomach. Sanitation is absent, the only drain being a trickle of fetid water flowing down the valley. We climb the mountain in search of the sky burial site, but at the top there is nothing noteworthy, apart from an entanglement of prayer flags that mark the summit and a sweeping view over the town.

A little over the top there is however something remarkable. On a steep meadow overlooking the valley are gathered an incredible flock of vultures. They rest here ready to spring into a flight by just letting themselves fall into the void, because on flat ground they are the clumsiest animals I’ve ever seen. They cannot manage their wings and are obliged to hop forward like awkward turkeys with clipped wings.

If you look at the sky, you see myriad moving dots that these large birds turn into when they lose themselves in the distance. I sense the sky burial must be near but, however commanding our view may be, we cannot locate it. I am determined to walk back, when I come across a few monks whom I ask about the site. They are going there too, so we start a mad rush down the slope and get to a place that looks like a natural arena designed to offer the crudest spectacle of death.

The undertaker monk is liquidating the remains of a skeleton of which only a section of the sacred bone with attached spine are left. I get too near to be able to put up with a disgusting reek of death. Clots of blood and body liquids from the long series of burials held here every day smear the slab of stone and the earth around it. As much as us, some onlookers have flocked attracted by the mix of fascination, disgust and terror that death exerts on all. We need to exorcise and demystify it, see it work on others in order not to feel attacked by it, but knowing in the end that the battle was lost from the start.