The holy monk long strove to fetch the scriptures,
For fourteen years across the West he strayed.
He journeyed hard and met with much disaster,
By mountains and by rivers long delayed.
Our bus breaks down on the middle of a mud-mired road on a high mountain pass, halfway between Shangri-la and Xiangcheng. A jolt, a stall, a splutter, then silence. The passengers, split between locals given to an air of resignation and tourists in poorly made, broad-brimmed ‘Ronaldinio’ hats exchanging timid glances, sit patiently until the driver has jimmied the ignition for a futile third time, then filter outside. With no town or further road for hours on either end, we sit and pace in anticipation as mountains unspool on every side, and the plunge into vast green valleys begins inches from our feet.
The altitude is high, perhaps over four thousand meters up, although no signpost is handy to offer a precise measurement. High enough for the air to have thinned, curdled and chilled, for the trees on the mountainside to have dropped away, and for a single puff on a cheap cigarette to leave a man steadying himself against a boulder in a fit of light-headed giggling. It seems hilarious at first, even inevitable, but as the mists roll in and rain begins to fall, the interlude grows less endearing. The driver pries open the internal hood, lays down blankets to shimmy beneath the bus and dices seat-belts to created a series of ropes using an impressive machete, previously lodged for safekeeping behind his seat. SUVs skirt around the dormant bus, outer wheels precariously poised on the precipice, but none have enough vacant passenger seats to ferry us all.
Three hours later, with the input of another passing bus-driver and multiple forays in the mud beneath the front tires, our driver will turn the key with great ceremony, and the engine will burst back to tenuous life. In another five hours, we will reach Xiangcheng, just as the sun has sunk below the distant hills. Yet for the next week every high mountain pass will carry with it a naked threat; perhaps it will be the one to claim us.
“The Buddha of the West lives in the Great Thunder Monastery in the land of India, one hundred and eight thousand miles away from here. You’ll never get there, just you and your horse, without a companion or disciple.”
The Tibetan Highway in western-most China, winding towards that perpetually-restricted border, has been a well-travelled route for millennia. It was along this road, passing through today’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, that for centuries Chinese traders ferried vast quantities of tea, in exchange for prized Tibetan horses (which suggests that business acumen may be an enduring national trait). The most intrepid, or foolhardy, could press on further, towards the central Asian plains to the north or Nepal and India to the west. In the 9th Century, a famed Buddhist Monk named Xuanzang did just that, embarking on a quest to retrieve copies of the original holy sutras for the monasteries in eastern China. His path was shrouded in mystery and synonymous with danger, to which a 16th Century Chinese author adapting the legend would have no compunction about adding gods and demons. Wu Cheng’en gave us Journey to the West.
The roads seem to have improved little in the intervening centuries, even if the lands beyond now lack their old mystical cache. Yet even as the march of progress in China sees river rerouted, hills levelled and cities arising as if from the dust, the vast mountains of the west remain undaunted. Gazing upon those great peaks, I can see how the imagination conjured beasts, battles and feats of adventure. My route was less ambitious, and not so much to that mythical west than glancing through it, with a copy of the adventures of Sunzang and his disciples – the Monkey King, Pig and Brother Sand – at my side. The mountain roads took my companions and I from northern Yunnan, and the opportunistically-renamed Shangri-la (once just a humble mountain town called Zongdang, before the tourism bureau had a branding brainwave), northward to Xiangcheng and Litang, one of the world’s highest towns, before pressing east.
They had been travelling for the best part of a month, when the Master and disciples saw a mountain in front of them that touched the sky and blotted out the sun. “I’m sure there must be evil creatures lurking on it to catch us, so be on your guard,” said the Master.
On a downhill stretch, a trailer full of fattened pigs has collapsed into the curve. The driver sits, forlorn, on a boulder by the roadside, as half of his charges wade about in the muck, and the others, still trapped behind the steel bars, give half-hearted squeals as yet another car passes without pause. Crumbling roads, tight corners and pungent pit-stop toilets may lack the poetry of a tiger demon lurking within a mountain cave, but they’ll just as reliably make short work of a traveller.
At the foot of the valley the Tibetan towns take shape. From a distance they could be villas from the south of Spain or coastal Morocco, but draw closer, and one can see the trapezoidal windows and 2nd storey courtyards. Only the homogeneous solar panels perched on every roof remind us that these aren’t century-old relics, but active shelters against the encroaching winter. For now, the streams are pastel blue and the steppes a golden hue open to the horse and the yak. This idyll lasts for mere months, and yet the people endure.
The west is Tibet in all but name – if the architecture and darker complexions don’t clue one in, the portraits of the officially-reviled Dali Lama concealed in the less-travelled corners of temples and family kitchens would do it. Development is coming, of course – the highland route reveals new mines being cut into mountainsides, and an unbroken trail of roadworks will ensure a paved surface and the occasional barricade for precarious corners. Yet the reverence for ancient traditions has hardly dimmed, Three days every week, the ravenous vultures that make their home in the crags can still expect to feast on the bounty of the Tibetan sky burials held in the hills behind Litang.
“Don’t worry master, and don’t be so anxious. Just take it easy and carry on. You’re bound to succeed because you’re such a trier.” Master and disciples strode forward, enjoying the mountain scenery. Before they realized it the sun had sunk in the west.
The sky looms large on the plain, larger than I have ever seen it, and it yields the most blistering hue of blue. At night, the canopy is afire with stars. By day, the earth similarly dances with hundreds of gleaming white gers, erected upon this stretch of flat yellow land between the single-lane highway and the cloud-grazing mountains that ring the valley. The nomads have come from across the steppes for the annual Litang Horse Festival. It was cancelled last year, and for four of the last five years, by order of the Chinese authorities, and the uptake this year has been tepid as a consequence. Gatherings of thousands of Tibetans (for western Sichuan was once the Tibetan Kingdom of Kham) tend to stir nationalist sentiments and talk of a certain exiled Llama, and the government is not prone to risk-taking.
But if such a pall on proceedings exists, one would never know it from the preening, proud riders and braying, jubilant crowds. The horses are dressed up in all their red, purple and gold finery, and their masters are no less geared towards spectacle. They are young men with wide smiles and steely gazes, riding for pride rather than glory. Their black hair coifs upwards, in spectacular perms, and stray whiskers sprout from above the lip and below the chin. Two great lines of spectators have formed; families sheltering beneath rainbow umbrellas, monks in ceremonial red and orange housed within a crimson tent, teenagers perched upon the roofs of 4WDs guzzling warm beers and tobacco.
There is no signal. When the riders are ready, they roar and they soar across the field. The young and the novices simply race, happy to revel in their speed. The veterans clasp a bow in hand, and send an arrow careening towards a small earthbound target as they hurtle forward. More remarkable feats follow, as riders dip their bodies off their steeds, sweeping their torsos down far enough for their fingers to run along the beaten grass. They hold the position for seconds, then without a single foot in a stirrup manage to pull themselves back up onto the horse to continue the ride. Later, the track is strewn with small palettes of soft drink, secured by a silk ropes, and the strongest and most co-ordinated amongst the riders throw their bodies off the horse, clasp the rope and haul up their prize, never once slowing as they course along the plain. The crowds gasp and cheer, and the unsuccessful merely tug on the reins and prepare for another gallop.
When the day’s festivities are over the riders will return to their family ger, to find a yak stew brewing on the stove. With a little luck they’ll have brought a small palette of coke for the children to guzzle. We incongruous visitors will linger about the 4WDs, and try to wrangle a lift back to the distant city on the edge of the plain. We’ll stick out our thumbs, a door will swing open, and we’ll carry on.
When the womb-born flesh and body of blood is cast aside,
The primal spirit finds kinship and love.
On this morning of actions completed and Buddhahood attained
The thirty-six kinds of dust from the past are washed away.
The vultures arrive at the burial site at the same moment as the convoy of four-wheel drives. They approach from the east, the cars from the west, and the enormous birds take their places in silent vigil on the high crags of the mountainside. The vultures may be hungry, but they are patient. They know what is coming. They know better than we do.
A small band of us arrived not long after dawn, armed with vague directions and the assurances that we were welcome guests for this most grave of rituals. Traces of the ceremony thread the grass on this shallow incline: a rusted knife, a tuff of stray black hair, a tooth caught on the underside of a girl’s shoe. We sit above the fray, amid the shards of finely wrought stone and pottery bearing Tibetan prayers, watching the edelweiss sway.
The Tibetans alight from their SUVs, a small party bearing the corpse wrapped in white plastic and tape. The tourists back away, but a man in an olive T-shirt beckons us closer, towards the swollen, yellow body being cut free of the plastic and laid on the mustard grass. A portly man with a clear sheet of plastic strung around his midriff strolls by with a short axe slung over either shoulder, and bends over the corpse. It begins without prayer or observance. The birds feast first with their eyes, tawdry necks outstretched, as the first incisions are made in the palsied flesh. She has become meat, filleted until she resembles a Chinese prince’s jade plate armour. The howls of rabid dogs echo from the nearby pass. They have none of the vultures’ patience, but they are not welcome. It is a wonder they come at all; the birds are thorough.
The portly man, bellows for the assembled to stand back. His blade drops. At once the vultures descend; a colossal burst of upturned wings, and then an impenetrable circle of grey feathers – lashing, convulsing, heaving as one. The frenzy lasts mere minutes, until only a cluster of bones and a pristine white skull lying on its side, jaw agape, remain. The rogyapas (‘body-breaker’) swats the last birds away, but this time they only withdraw a few metres. He passes the second axe to his assistant, and they begin the longer, more arduous task of grinding up the bones for the second and final course. Chaff is scattered upon the remains between strikes, to make the resulting dust and marrow more appetising.
The mind grasps for words to make sense of it, a thought to cling to in the scattered void conjured by each crack, splinter and snap of bone by the relentless axe-heads, and at last all that I can seize are the Dane’s words words words, and as we watch a woman become carrion, sliced and stripped and savaged down to the bone, my own skull rings with “what a piece of work is a man?” The too too solid flesh is melting, and the infinities of human experience have been reduced to mere meat, and are finally ground down to a powder, mixed with chaff, and fed to the vultures. Every piece of man’s physical self emptied out, until all that is left is fit only to be carried on the wind. “And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
And yet as we anguish, the gathered Tibetans, who knew and loved the deceased woman, can still proffer a smile or a joke over the dull thud of the axe-head. They consider her struggle in this body long done. The soul has flown, just as its final vestiges will too soar away in the belly of a bird.
Gently and strongly the Buddha pushed off the boat, at which a corpse came floating downstream to the horror of the venerable elder. “Don’t be frightened, Master,” said Monkey. “That’s you.” “It’s you, it’s you,” said Pig. Friar Sand clapped his hands as he put in too, “It’s you!” The boatman gave a call, then also put in, too, “It’s you! Congratulations! Congratulations!”
Sanzang’s disciples see his mortal body’s passing, in sight of Vulture Peak, to be a cause of celebration, not horror. They are quick to admonish fear – as heavenly creatures they know the passing of their master’s physical form is merely another part of the greater journey they have been engaged upon. The odyssey to the west may be measured in a miles, but it absorbs too the spiritual and metaphysical travails necessary for enlightenment – balanced, of course, with elaborate battle scenes. It is perhaps why the novel, ostensibly a series of comic adventures, has also been embraced as a classic of Buddhism.
Sky Burials (jhators) are only practised today in a few parts of the world; Tibet, the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Tibet Provinces of Western China (Qinghai and Sichuan) and Mongolia – the homes of Vajrayana Buddhism. The particulars vary; on the Mongolian steppes the practice is commonly less hands on, with the body being deposited on a mountaintop where it will not be visited for three years, allowing the birds and elements to have their fill away from prying eyes. Whereas today cremation, similarly a traditional Buddhist funerary practice, has become more affordable and thus popular within Tibet, Sky Burials have grown more common in western China following the easing of bans put in place during the Cultural Revolution that sought to eradication the tradition entirely.
The Tibetan Buddhist conception of death can seem unspeakably foreign to those of us used to solemn words uttered over a wrought oak box. An entire industry contrives to preserve the body after death, to better withstand our gaze and provide a simulacrum of the deceased for us to farewell. To see a corpse be left to rot, then sliced, diced and ground, feels like a defilement. Yet the Sky Burial is no act of mutilation. Rather, it is conceived as a final gift from the dead. She has no need of these flesh and bones. Rather, she grants it as food for the natural world. Arising from a place on earth above the tree line where wood is scarce and the earth below impenetrable beyond a few feet due to permafrost or stone, birds have been seen as the apt beneficiaries. Those in attendance have no need to mourn; once the ceremony has ended, the blades cleaned and the vans repacked, they will feast together on the hillside, the deceased’s son leading the toasts.
“Do not go far to see the Buddha on Vulture Peak; Vulture Peak is in your heart.” “According to that quatrain the thousands of scriptures all come down to cultivating the heart,” said Sanzang.
The site of the Horse Festival has grown barren. With the final day’s contests and dances ended, the first flash of a storm and intimations of a further deluge crossing the plain has left only a dedicated troupe and their quivering white tents in attendance. Beneath the rolling dark, the yak of local herds have once again begun to stray onto the territory, in search of a fresh patch of low grass to munch on. The remaining festival-goers have gathered in a small span between the tents, huddled together on the trampled earth.
They begin to sing.
The melody awakens with a small cluster of older men rising to their feet, warmed after a bowl of fermented yak’s milk apiece. Their tune is soft, even melancholy. Perhaps a ballad, and an old one. Their wives quickly join them, then the children, and finally the teenagers perched upon the hoods of of family vans. They hold one another's hands in a ring that fails to close and sing. The circle sways, and the growing rush of winds cannot bury their voices resounding together, and it is as if they are but one family, reunited at the edge of the world.
Despite the unyielding warmth of these people adorned with rhinestones, teased perms and fraying leather, perhaps the moment is too intimate for the straggling traveller. The road back to town is long, ramshackle and lined with grey, but we must be gone. We pass the yak herds and lone farmsteads, and the rain holds off for a time. And when it does come down, who should pass us but a Buddhist monk behind the wheel of a pristine Japanese car, clad in his red and orange vestments, and offering a ride into town. We crowd into his car with gestures and effusions, and putter along in silence. There are questions we wish to ask – about those pesky vows of poverty and monastery philosophies – but we lack the words, and will make do with smiles, then wave and wave on as he continues without us into the storm, west beyond Litang.
“As the old saying goes, ‘Mount Tai is as easy to move as a mustard seed, but a mortal cannot be dragged away from the earthly dust.'”
The disciples of Journey to the West are all mythic beasts of great power, and yet they each fail to take the easy route and simply leap, fly or ride a cloud across the globe to reach Vulture Peak and retrieve the Buddhist sutras themselves. There is, of course, a plot-hole-plugging explanation – that their master must be the one to do the deed, and Sanzang, being a mortal, cannot be carried away from the earthly dust like a god or demon. But the more apt answer is that for this motley crew, it is the journey itself – replete with battles and pratfalls and bickering – that matters, more than the sutras. The journey offers the disciples their chance for redemption through action, and Sanzang his opportunity to gain the wisdom needed for enlightenment.
Today, we are all blessed with the power of the Monkey King, able to soar through the clouds to distant lands, covering thousands of miles in a single day to alight at the site of our pilgrimage. But nonetheless we opt for the buses and the thumb, for the fickle roads and desolate overpasses. Perhaps the beauty lies rather in the spaces and people between places – in the florid gestures, the snacks of questionable origin, the trundle of distant yaks and the tightly wound prayer flags aflutter. We are not going to find the wisdom or adventure of the mythic pilgrims, but we may yet savour a new sight or a new song.
The cordoned Tibetan Highway is as far as we will go, only a fraction into the journey of Sanzung and the Monkey King. At the break of dawn we will hear the tempting cries of “Ganza! Ganza!” on approaching the bus, but let them fade as it steers eastwards, where the roads grow smoother and the air thickens. In Kangding the people will gather in the town square to dance in great rings as they did in Shangri-La, but find themselves doubly encircled and illuminated by neon spruiking the latest Samsung mobile and KFC meal deals. Along the first leg of the old tea road into Tibet the office blocks and boutiques have risen. The new streetlights are topped with a small turbine and solar panel, product of a nation determined no longer to be at the mercy of such unpredictable stray gods and elementals, though the workers depart for the day before clearing the rubble from across an elderly couple’s front door. Further east the great city of Chengdu beckons, with its smog and traffic and high-rises that tower like the mountains of old.
An enormous cliff-side Buddha, however, is only another short, beguiling journey away. They say he has grown so large that he could catch a Monkey King in the palm of his hand.
“Tell me, Monkey! How long will it take to reach Vulture Peak?” asked Sanzang. “If you went from childhood to old age,” said Monkey, “and from old age back to childhood again, and you did it a thousand times over, you’d still find it hard to get there. But if you see your true nature, are determined to be sincere, and always remember to turn your head back to enlightenment, then you will have reached Vulture Peak.”
First Published in two parts on 15 August & 30 October 2013 on Now, Voyages