On the third day we take another bus ride, just a short 3 hours through more awesome scenery – from alpine meadows of pine and grass to high plateaus where huge boulders are scattered.
When we arrive in Litang it has an unprepossessing look to it. The streets are dusty and the detritus of incomplete roadworks lies everywhere. Walking on the pavement is a risky business, deep holes appear at unexpected places. But what it lacks in style, Litang makes up for in personality.
It’s a wild west town; filled with Tibetan cowboys, nomads and monks.
The men wear their hair long; the older ones tie it up around the side of their head with bone clips, the younger let it fall loose. All wear cowboy hats, trousers and most wrap their torsos in heavy capes.
The women are tall, regal and often strikingly beautiful with high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. They wear long sleeveless brown or grey dresses that fall to their ankles with colourful long sleeved tops underneath and broad aprons of patterned silk about their waist. Many carry prayer wheels that they swing, almost subconsciously, as they walk along.
As we walk along the back streets it begins to rain heavily and eventually we seek shelter in a small shop. The shopkeeper, seeing that we are wet, immediately invites us into his home to dry off and warm up. He pulls back a curtain and we walk into a room where his wife and children are sitting.
The room is perhaps 5x5m square. Along the rear wall are two beds piled high with neatly stacked colourful bedding. On the right wall is a shrine to the Dalai Lama, with many pictures and candles and to our immediate right is a wood burning stove and small kitchen space. On the left wall is a bench that runs the length of the room, in front of it is a long table, almost the length of the room, with a heating element built in at one end. It’s here that the family make tea and cook their Szechuan hot pot, the local speciality. We are ushered on to the bench and tea is poured and then, deprived of a common language, we sit and look curiously at each other in silence for a few moments.
Eventually, through sign language and a small phrase book we learn something about each other. The shopkeeper is 45 and his wife 36. They have an 11 year old daughter and 6 year old son. ‘Have you met the Dalai Lama?’ they ask us. We shake our heads, no. They smile proudly and tell us they met him when they travelled to Nepal some five years ago. They pull out their passports to show us the stamps and their mobile phone to show us the pictures.
I ask about a picture on the wall; is it a grandfather? ‘No, no.’ He sends his wife to find a book and shows it to us; the picture is of a Tibetan resistance fighter who opposed Chinese rule in the 50s?.
He talks about the situation in Tibet today and says police have harassed him and his small son. ‘They hit,’ he says, making a punching motion with his fist. There’s real anger in his voice.
When the rain eases we take our leave. As a parting gift they give us a good luck charm, small red bracelets that came from their visit to the Dalai Lama. I attach mine to my smiling Buddha charm.
My headache has been worsening all day. By 3pm it feels like a band of steel is being rapidly tightened around my brain. My stomach churns, my breathing is shallow and I feel utterly exhausted. Half an hour later I’m prone in bed with altitude sickness. Another traveller shares his altitude tables with me but for the rest of the day I can’t move. I simply lie there, clammy, nauseous and feeling every noise reverberate in my head.