Tibet: the secret festival and the eye of the state

February 2016

Part one.


Sometimes I question why I continue to land in places like this. I'm in a nondescript ghost town called Zoige, which sits at 3500m on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, surrounded by frozen grasslands, where the temperature is swiftly plummeting towards a nighttime low of -20'C.


Apologies for my short sojourn. The last two weeks has taken me on a multi-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, to the top of the holy QingCheng Mountain, to abstract mountain villages and to the city ...of Chengdu (where my beautiful fiancée Emma came to visit for a few days). Tech problems have rendered my photos trapped on my camera, so all I can offer is this shot of my crumpled face with my poor excuse for a beard.


Now I'm back on the mountain trail. I'm trying to head to a remote village named Langmusi, 75km north of here, where the rocky fallouts from inner Tibet grow out from the grasslands once more. It's a place of monasteries, divided Tibetan cultures, mysterious sky burials and surrounded by a mountainous colosseum. Everything I'm looking for. But I might be trapped in this ghost town with time against me. The bus ticket seller says 'No bus tomorrow,' and I can't afford to lose a day. I've 8 days and counting to travel 2500km through this country's more 'sensitive' regions before my Chinese visa expires and I'm collared by the local cops.


So tonight I sit around a stove in my primitive hostel with a friendly Tibetan nomad - my new ally and noodle-sharing chum - believing that my Chinese adventure might not be over yet.


Part two.


These have been the two most extraordinary days of my trip by far.


So, for those who read my last post, I left you as I was talking with my Tibetan nomad friend by the stove in my ghost town hostel, wondering how I could reach the fabled Langmusi. I eventually learned that the nomad was in fact a Tibetan reporter, under close watch by the state (that's another story). He reckoned the 'no bus tomorrow' response I'd been given was unusual. There are buses everyday. When he men...tioned that there may be a festival in Amdo-Tibetan Langmusi the next day, I guessed at what strange forces might be at play...


The next morning, I walked to the bus station at 6am through a freezing snow blizzard. Here I met my reporter friend, who speaks good English. I asked him to go to the desk and try to buy me a ticket to Langmusi. He returned a minute later, ticket in hand - no problem. Tibet and the outer Tibetan regions typically go on lockdown to foreigners during all their major festivals. I was not welcome there (by the state, that is). But I had my ticket, so I was going. I still didn't know exactly what was happening in Langmusi.

The bus drove two hours north through the blizzard, occupied mainly by chanting Tibetan monks. The driver dropped me and one monk at the roadside, 4km from the village of Langmusi. Fortunately, the monk and I managed to hitch a ride with two locals for the rest of the way. The temperature must have been -15/-20'C. With my snood wrapped around my face, we cruised past two police checkpoints and into the village.


After finding a place to stay, I added an extra jacket and followed a long chain of local worshippers towards the monasteries where they were headed. Here I found the most captivating scene. There were men of all ages hurling prayer flags into the air and howling into the snowstorm. There were costumed Buddhists dancing around a monastery. There were fireworks, horns, drums, chanting, great fires, hundreds of monks and hundreds more locals - some praying, some swinging prayer wheels. I was constantly mobbed or greeted by friendly locals, delighted to welcome the only foreigner to their Tibetan new year festival. The celebrations continued for 8 hours or more until the sun burned through the blizzard and set the colours of the town alive. I felt so privileged to get a rare glimpse of this incredible event.


Today, I was drawn beyond the monasteries and into the mountains which surround the village. A placid stray dog (whom I named Nomad) latched onto me and guided me for the first three hours of the way, until the terrain got to steep for his short legs. But I continued to reach the summit of Huagai Shan (4102m) from where I could see far across the grasslands to many more mountains beyond. I descended a long and steep snow-gulley to complete a 9 hour trek and arrive back in Langmusi, where the fireworks were flying once more.


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© Oliver France