Chapter 21 – A Feast of Human Flesh
During my last day in Kangding in China’s Kham Tibet region, I’d been sitting around the lobby of Zhilom Hostel trying my damndest to stay connected to their erratic mountain-ass internet connection so I could research where I wanted to spend the next ten or so days before heading back to the east side of the country. When the service was down, I ended up asking Kris, the American who owned the place, about any suggestions he might have in regard to my next move.
“It all depends on what you’re looking for,” he said. “There’s great hiking all over, some towns have really spectacular and really authentic Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and one town even still performs sky burials.”
“A sky burial?” I blinked while asking. “The image that comes to mind when I hear this is that of a dead body being launched out of a cannon. Tell me, how far off am I?”
“Eh,” he grinned, “you’re pretty far off. A sky burial is when they lay the corpse of the recently-deceased out at a special burial spot up on the top of a mountain and leave it there for vultures to eat.”
“Are you kidding me? People actually do this?”
“Yeah, they still do it in a town called Litang.”
“Why in the world would they do that?”
“Well, for a number of reasons. Litang has an elevation of about thirteen-thousand feet. The ground is rocky and frozen so what we consider traditional burial is not an option. Also, since it’s so high up, Litang is above the tree line. You’ll notice if ya go, there’re no trees around at all. Everyone in the town is quite poor and to import lumber up there is really expensive, so burning the bodies is also impractical.”
“But wait, if these people are as poor as you say, I’m guessing they don’t have electric or gas powered heaters. And without wood to burn, how the hell do they stay warm during the winter at such a high altitude?”
“Nice observation. They do import some wood, because – you’re right – they need it for the winter. But what they use in addition to the wood is quite interesting, actually. Most of the people’s homes in Litang are made of stone and it’s not unusual to see the exterior walls of these homes completely covered in yak dung.”
“What? They insulate their houses with shit?”
“No. But what you’ll see is the women from the town walking around in the fields with baskets strapped to their backs, picking up any and every big old pile of yak shit that they come across. They then carry it back to their homes and throw it against the wall that gets the most sunshine. It sticks there when it’s fresh but when the sun has sufficiently dried it out, the dung will peel off the wall and fall to the ground. And that’s when the people know it’s ready to be burnt for cooking and/or heating purposes.”
“Wow. Who knew shit could be such a valuable resource? And to think, we just flush it down the toilet every day.”
“Well, yak dung is a bit different than ours.”
“I know. I’m just messin’ around,” I repositioned myself in my seat. “So, back to the sky burial. They can’t burn the bodies, they can’t bury the bodies – what made them decide that feeding the dead to vultures was the best option out there for disposal?”
“Well, Tibetan Buddhists are very in touch with the earth the way the Native Americans are back home. I guess they even dress quite alike too. You’ll see some people in towns like Tagong and Litang wearing cowboy hats and ponchos. It really does look a lot like the Wild West.”
“Yeah. But what I’m talking about is far beyond clothing. They feel strongly connected to nature. They feel that everything is one. Hmm…this isn’t the easiest concept to explain,” he paused while rubbing his head. “They don’t like anything to go to waste – no wood being burnt, no flesh rotting in the ground. It’s a circle of life thing. The death of one it may be, but it’s seen by them as a renewal of life and a freeing of the spirit. The spirit is no longer confined to a lifeless material vehicle once it’s been selflessly given to the birds to sustain their being. Does that make sense to you?”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. That’s pretty cool. But, uh, you know how birds always have a knack for shitting on cars, right?”
“Don’t you think it would be weird if one of those vultures took a shit on your windshield when you were driving and there was like, I dunno, a partially digested human nose in it or something?”
“Yeah,” he laughed, “I have to say that’d be pretty weird.”
“And, uh, you say they do this in that town Litang quite often?”
“Every time someone dies. And I’ve heard that they even let visitors come and watch the ceremony if they’re so inclined. Buuuuuuut,” he looked over at me with solemnity in his eyes and a somber tone in his voice, “even though it’s a great tradition, I honestly can’t understand why anybody in their right mind would wanna see another human being get eaten by vultures.”
“Oh no,” I nodded my head in feigned agreement, “me neither. That sounds pretty messed up.”
As soon as Kris and I had gotten done having our chat and after I’d thanked him for his advice, I started researching how I could get to Litang.
I really can’t explain where I was mentally at the time when watching a bunch of winged beasts go Jeffrey Dahmer on a random-ass Tibetan corpse was something that I had to see, but just like it was for Gordie LaChance and his three buddies who set off to find the body of Ray Brower in the movie Stand By Me, encountering raw mortality like this had become an end-all, be-all mission on my journey through Asia.
Following about four days of hitchhiking along unpaved roads in China’s Wild West where the lack of infrastructure makes cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in the east feel like you’re in an entirely different world, I arrived in Litang sometime in the early evening. After a bit of aimless wandering down the town’s main road, I came across a place called Potala Inn and walked inside. No one in there – no locals I encountered in the entire town over the course of three days, actually – had known enough English to form a complete thought. But fortunately, the hotel did have WiFi. And I used Google Translate on my iPod Touch to communicate with the girl behind the desk.
“Do you have any rooms available?” I typed, translated to Chinese and passed it over for her to read.
She nodded and indicated that I follow her. She showed me the room and I again got to typing out my message.
“How much yuan?”
She typed a price which had been the equivalent of about ten US dollars per night. With a nod of the head, I let her know that I’d take it.
“Do you know if there are any sky burials taking place in the near future?” I passed her the iPod and she read the message on the screen. She then led me back to the front desk and scribbled two Chinese characters next to the time “7:00” on a piece of paper.
“Not tomorrow, but day after tomorrow,” she used Google to translate. “Show paper to taxi driver. Early in the morning.”
“Xie xie,” I thanked her verbally, snatched my device from her grasp and headed up to my room.
I got up around quarter to six the day of the burial and stepped out of Potala Inn. There were no streetlights in the town and when looking up at the sky through the below freezing air, I’d never seen so very many stars in all my life. I began wandering around the blackened corridors occupied at the time by nothing but roaming packs of tattered-looking dogs that’d been howling as they scrounged through random piles of trash for scraps of food. I had no luck encountering any taxi drivers and ended up stumbling around in the dark for close to an hour, fearing that I was going to miss the main event.
By about quarter to seven, all the children had been making their way to school. The sky had been beginning to brighten when I was finally able to hail down a cab. I showed the guy at the wheel the slip of paper given to me by the girl at the desk and he nodded. The man drove for about ten minutes until the road ended up in some highlands overlooking the tiny town.
“Is this it?” I asked. “Where are all the people?”
He took the slip of paper I’d given him with the girl’s writing on it and scribbled several more Chinese characters then handed it over to me. Without WiFi connection to serve as a communicative intermediary between us, I was completely lost and could do nothing but stare blankly back at the man in return. He laughed and pointed forward through the windshield, indicating that I get out. After paying him, I reluctantly did just that.
It was quite cold up in those mountains. To stay warm, I decided to climb to the top of one of the nearest hills which the sun had already began to touch and melt away the overnight frost that’d covered the ground. At the top of that hill had been a teepee-shaped structure which’d consisted of a wooden pole in the center – perhaps ten feet tall – from which layers and layers of Tibetan prayer flags had been draped, running all the way to the bottom, down near where I’d been dropped off.
Prayer flags are a series of rectangular pieces of cloth attached to a long string that always alternate in the order of blue, white, red, green and yellow. Blue symbolizes the sky, white symbolizes the wind, red – fire, green – water and yellow – the earth. On each of these flags are depictions of Buddhist symbols as well as prayers and mantras. Traditionally, the flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. When the wind hits these flags and blows ‘em around, the prayers and mantras are said to be carried to all pervading space, benefiting all around them.
As images fade from old flags when exposed to the elements, Tibetan Buddhists believe that the prayers once written on them have become a permanent part of the universe. And very much in tune with what that guy Kris had told me back at the hostel in Kangding, in mounting the new flags next to the old, they acknowledge that life goes on and will always be replaced by new life – that all beings are part of a greater, ongoing cycle.
While at the top of the hill, soaking in all the good fortune the wind from the prayer flags could blow on me, I dropped down and started doing push-ups to maintain warmth, all the while wondering when in the hell this thing was gonna start. I mean, why would the chick from Potala Inn write seven o’clock on the sheet if the burial wasn’t at seven? Or had the burial been at seven and I was just in the wrong place? I was beginning to get quite anxious.
About an hour and two hundred push-ups later, from my eagle-eyed view of the whole area, I could see another vehicle coming out of the town and making its way up to the burial site. When it arrived, three dudes and one chick had gotten out. I’d recognized one of the dudes and the chick to be a couple of Israelis named Emit and Mya I’d met the day before while wandering around Litang. I didn’t recognize the other two guys and went to go make their acquaintance. After clambering down the hill and greeting them, I’d learned that the two unknowns had been Alberto and Jose who hailed from Spain.
“Glad to see you made it,” I said to my Hebrew homies. “I didn’t think anybody was gonna show up.”
“No,” Emit said, “no way we were going to miss this. When does it begin? Do you know?”
“Nah man. The girl at the front desk of my hotel said seven. And it’s way past seven now so I don’t know what the fuck’s goin’ on. But uh, what’d you guys end up doing last night after I saw you?”
“Well,” Mya said, “we went over to the market to buy some food and we saw some guy slit the throats of live chickens and toss their bodies into pots of boiling water right away to de-feather them. It was crazy. Have you been over there?”
“Ah yeah,” I replied, “I checked that out yesterday. Definitely a solid pregame for the sky burial.”
“You said you were in Kangding before this, right?” Emit asked of me.
“Yeah, yeah, about four or five days ago.”
“Did you visit the yak butcher shop while you were there?”
“Nah, I missed it. Was it sweet?”
“Well, it depends on what you think is sweet. The butcher there just saws the yak’s head off then throws it on the floor and skins the whole thing right there in front of you. It was a pretty wild thing to see.”
“Sounds like it,” I laughed. “Well, if we’re in the right place, I think that today we’re about to see some shit even wilder than that.”
Over the next several hours, the sun had fully risen, bringing a tolerable level of warmth to the sky burial site. During that time, the only people we’d seen had been a pair of women who’d been, as prophesized by Kris, patrolling the wide open fields for piles of yak shit and tossing them into the baskets that’d been strapped around their backs.
Sometime after eleven, an SUV drove out of Litang, pulled up to the site and parked right where the gravel road ended. Three middle-aged men emerged and one of them popped the trunk. My heart beat fast and my breathing momentarily ceased at what I thought had been the guest of honor making his arrival. But it turns out there was no dead man in the back of that vehicle. The trunk had contained several large rolls of brand new prayer flags, most of which two of the men grabbed and carried to the top of the hill where they began stringing them up to the aforementioned teepee-shaped structure.
Meanwhile, the third guy popped a squat in the grass about sixty feet away from us and started building a small fire. Once the thing had gotten going, as the smoke billowed up into the air, he looked over and began making faces at us. I remember feeling confused as he proceeded to wave us over to him. We all apprehensively heeded his call.
Like pretty much everyone else, he didn’t speak a word of English but was a very animated man. After having made our hesitant approach, the guy drew the machete that’d been attached to his belt, first pointed it at us then turned it around, pretended to stab himself in the stomach and faked his own death. After lying there for about half-a-minute, feigning the end of his days, the dude suddenly shot up, arms flailing like a giant bird, yelling “CAW! CAW!” as he mimicked the more gruesome aspects of the sky burial procedure. He chose to end this sequence by rolling around in the grass, laughing hysterically to himself.
Once he regained his composure, he walked over to the SUV and grabbed the remaining bags of prayer flags from the trunk. He handed them to us and indicated that we follow him up the hill where the other two men continued to do the hanging. As we walked behind him, the guy picked up a big smoky grey-colored feather from the grass, held it up for us to see and once again started cawing and pretending to eat a dead body before laughing his ass off at the macabre imitation.
While up at the highest point of the hill, we all did our best to help the men string the lines of prayer flags from the top of the teepee thing all the way down to the bottom of the mound. During this time, I don’t know if it’d been the smoke from the fire the one man lit, our mere presence at the burial site or some sort of spiritual intuition, but the vultures began to arrive from every direction despite the absence of a dead body.
Shortly after the last prayer flags had been securely tied up, the three men hopped back in their SUV and we once again were left by ourselves. Nevertheless, the vultures continued to fly in over the peaks of the nearby mountains and glide around in the sky above.
About half-an-hour later, several more vehicles arrived to the burial site. In them had been a bunch of older women and older men. The men all formed and sat down in one circle in the grass and the women made another one nearby. The men had been wearing outfits that looked similar to what Clint Eastwood wore in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. All of the ladies had been wearing traditional-looking Tibetan outfits and a few of them had been spinning handheld prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels are cylinders that can be made of any material in any size with mantras inscribed on them that are set on a spindle on which they can rotate. In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s said that spinning a prayer wheel around has the same merit as verbally reciting a prayer.
None of the cars during this wave of arrivals had contained the body. Nevertheless, the birds continued to pour in from all directions.
Following the passing of thirty minutes more, another three or four-car convoy rolled up and outta the town. All except one of them parked where the road ended but a minivan drove up onto the grass and had been parked in a way so that the trunk was left facing both circles of men and women as well as us who stood about fifty yards back as to not intrude on their funerary ritual. The minivan contained three living people – one of whom opened up the back hatch, revealing a big bundle of plastic wrap containing the deceased. The people from the other cars that had just arrived gathered around the back of the van and sat in a half-circle around it. A few from the bunch had been spinning handheld prayer wheels. I’m pretty sure this had been the family of the dead man.
Following fifteen minutes of saying their last goodbyes, those who’d formed the half-circle walked back to their cars and drove away. Once they were out of sight, the three men who’d arrived in the van promptly dumped the body onto the ground and cut away the plastic using a machete. A dead naked man was left laying facing down in the grass. By this time, several hundred vultures – massive ones with six-foot wingspans – had been gathered at the burial site awaiting the ensuing feast.
One of the three men from the van had been wearing a winter cap, a hooded waterproof jacket, a white bloodstained apron and a pair of yellow rubber gloves. Across his face had been what appeared to be the type of mask you might see Sub-Zero or Scorpion wearing in the Mortal Kombat video games. He was the ceremonial “rogyapa” or – as I like to refer to him as – “the butcher.”
As we looked on, the rogyapa took the same machete he’d used to cut the plastic off the corpse to start slicing it from the shoulders down to the feet. During this time, all the vultures from the area congregated nearby. They kept edging closer and closer each time the blade had been stuck into and dragged along the flesh. They appeared ready to dig in, but the two other guys who’d come in the van used their jackets to swing at the birds, keeping them back until the butchering had been complete.
Once all the vertical cuts had been made, the rogyapa then began carving the body from side to side until the entirety of the thing looked like something you’d find in the cooler at your local grocery store. When he stepped away from the sliced-up stiff, the jacket-waving bros had done the same. The birds flocked to their meal and enveloped it like iron particles around a magnet.
For the first several minutes of the wing-fluttering feeding frenzy, all I’d been able to see of the body had been chunks of flesh in the birds’ mouths as they fought one another for a taste of the most dangerous game. A few minutes later, the guys with the jackets went back and once again started shooing the vultures away from the body. When they cleared out, I was shocked to see that nothing but a bloody red skeleton had remained.
At this point, the rogyapa had begun to saw off all the remaining pieces of sinew from the bones of the dead man and toss them in the air at the pack of those that hadn’t gotten their fill during the main course. They’d all jump up at the same time, vying to make the grab.
While that was going on, one of the old women had left the circle she’d been sitting in and began going around with a basket, picking up yak shit. When she came near us out by our viewing area a respectable distance away from the ceremony, she smiled, waved and indicated that we follow her back to her circle. We all shrugged and decided to accept the invitation.
It turns out these women had been having a full-on picnic. In the middle of their circle, they had every type of fruit, snack and drink you could imagine. When glancing over towards the old men’s circle, we could see it’d been a different story. Instead of a feast, the dudes just had a bunch of hard liquor and had been getting hammered the entire time, not even bothering to find a bush to urinate behind but just standing up, walking a few feet away and pissing right there on the ground. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was laughing. There hadn’t been a somber look on a single one of ‘em – male or female. Although I was tempted to walk over and join the drinking circle, I hadn’t yet eaten that day and it was already about one in the afternoon. The picnic circle, I decided, was the circle for me.
Upon our sitting down, the women who hadn’t been busy cranking around their prayer wheels immediately started piling food in front of each of us. For my consumption, the women provided me with a Lipton ice tea, a fruit drink made from what I believe had been cranberries and pomegranate, Tibetan bread, mandarin oranges and rice crispy treats – all of which I began devouring as if I were a vulture stuffing my face with dead body deliciousness. The two Spanish dudes and Emit had done the same. Mya, on the other hand, had no appetite whatsoever.
“How can you guys eat with this going on right there?” she asked. “It’s making me sick.”
I looked up and, at that moment, the rogyapa had the skeleton set on a stone slab and was smashing the ribcage to pieces using a hatchet then tossing bone fragments over to the birds – some of which appeared to have had too much to eat and were too heavy to stay off the ground when attempting to fly away.
I shrugged and kept eating – my only concern at the time being that the women who’d been picking up piles of yak shit had handled my food without first having bothered to wash the poo off their fingers. And when I was done with everything they’d originally given me, they gave me even more. I sat there crushing fuckin’ rice crispy squares and generic Kool-Aid as I watched a man in a mask smash someone’s spinal cord to bits with an axe and – what can I say? – I loved every minute of it. I ended up sticking around there until my belly had been completely full and the circle of life completed.
If you think you can stomach it, here’s the sky burial photographically documented…