The morning dawns clear and sharp. The pills seem to have worked. My headache is nothing but a dull pulse and I can face food again. But at this height, 4100m, the air feels thin and the sunlight has a sharpness to it, even at 7am. I’m glad I’m feeling better because we’ve been invited to witness a local sky burial, which takes place on one of the mountains that stand sentinel around the town.
A driver collects us and drives us to the site, a grassy slope with views across the valley to the mountains to the west. A few local men are already gathered around a fire, brewing tea and chatting. They smile at us, welcome us with 'tashi deleg' (the Tibetan catch all meaning hello, good morning, nice to see you) then sit companionably beside us. All around the views are breathtaking.
The grassy, flower covered slope we’re sitting on slides gently downwards for 50 metres or so, then rises on the other side for another 100 metres. Across the valley that spreads out far below us are more mountain peaks and directly behind us are high mountains and craggy stone cliffs. Up high we spot a flock of vultures, sitting still as stone, barely distinguishable from the rocks they’re perched on.
On the slope opposite us, some 100 metres or more away, lies the body, wrapped in white cloth. Four or five men squat beside it, waiting. After 10 minutes or so a monk, also dressed in white rather than the traditional maroon, approaches the body. The burial is about to begin and the men we are sitting with turn to watch the proceedings.
The monk unwraps the body and removes the clothes. From our distance it’s possible only to see the basic shape – arms, legs, torso – of the person. Then the men assisting the monk gather close around the body and we lose sight of what happens next. But, above us on the mountain top, the vultures take flight and float slowly down, their vast wings open wide to catch the warm currents. They look magnificent, regal even. It’s only when they land and, with their typical ungainly hop, approach the group around the body that they suddenly appear vulture-like again. In total 20 or more birds land on the hillside opposite and approach the group around the body.
The men move back in a wide circle to keep the birds at bay and we can see what it is that’s attracted them. The monk has started to dismember the body. From our distance we can’t see the details just that his small saw is moving over the body.
After about 15 minutes of sawing, at a signal from the monk the men move back and the birds descend. The body is obscured by a flock of birds, squawking and fighting for position. Wings flap and birds waddle in and out of the fray.
It feels unreal to be watching this. Some part of my mind knows this is a burial, a human body; another relegates the spectacle to nothing more than a performance. Writing now, the description sounds shocking and macabre, but actually the whole ceremony is remarkably tranquil. The men sitting with us are calm and more relaxed than people are at Western funerals, and the soothing sound of their voices and the beauty of the surroundings takes away from the violence before us.
Another five or 10 minutes pass then the burial party move in and scare the birds away. One bird drags meat with him; an attendant chases him off and brings the remains back to the body.
This time the monk has a small axe. He gathers together what remains of the body and begins to chop. He chops for the best part of an hour; it’s important that everything is crushed and that no distinguishably human elements remain. I watch the axe rise and fall and can hear a soft chunk as it makes contact. It has a mesmerising and, from this distance at least, almost meditative effect. Once again an aura of disbelief descends on my mind.
Up on our side of the hill, the fire is restarted. Food is brought out, tea is brewed and bottles of Coca Cola and Sprite are passed round. We squat in a circle around the fire and eat flat unleavened bread and dip our chopsticks into a communal dish of potatoes and peanuts. We chat about where we come from and ask about their families. A few of the men joke around; it feels as if they are letting off steam, as if a hidden tension within them is being dispersed.
After about an hour the sound of chanting drifts across the valley. Most of the men stand and wander over to the burial party on the other side; a couple stay to keep us company. A saffron cloaked monk has arrived to bless the final element of the funeral. He sits and chants and the friends of the deceased (relatives do not usually attend this element of the funeral) sit in a semi circle around him. Behind the monk, as respectful as a church full of worshippers, perch the vultures, in a semi circle of their own. For the next 10 minutes or so the birds ignore the other monk (who is still chopping away) and it seems as if they too pay their respects to the deceased.
When the ceremony is over the funeral party again gather in a circle around the white robed monk. He mixes barley in with the remains. The birds return. The funeral party steps further away from the body and then breaks the circle, allowing the birds their final feast.
It may seem like a grisly ritual but sky burials make sense in a mountain environment. Trees don’t grow at this height so there is little in the way of natural fuel for cremation and, particularly in winter when temperatures dip to -20c, burials in the ice covered land become impossible.
Still, as we leave the burial every detail around me – the colour of the sky, the small white clouds, the wind whispering in the grass and the bright wild flowers – seems heightened and in technicolour.
Our driver drops us back in town. There’s a wedding going on, he tells us, and it seems we (along with the rest of the population) are invited. When we arrive the bride and groom stand in front of a monk who is blessing them with rice. They’re obscured by a crowd of well wishers and family. Young men are laying crackers in a wide semi circle around the group and, at a signal from the monk a great shout of joy rises from them. Streamers fly in the air and the crackers are lit; soon the couple and their families are surrounded by smoke and a cacophony of loud bangs.
As the smoke fades the entire audience pushes joyfully into the village hall; brightly decorated and filled with tables covered with food. We’re ushered to a table and cajoled to eat steamed dumplings, fried pork, chicken and sweets. Yak milk tea is served, along with coke and water.
Everyone mills about shouting Tashi Daleg to each other. After about half an hour of feasting groups of the younger men and women form and tour the tables singing to those still seated. They sing beautifully; in tune and clear and from the heart. I find out later that they are singing songs in search of love. As they sing to our table we’re told to stand and salute them with our yak tea and, at the end of the song, toast them with the inevitable Tashi Daleg.
Naturally everyone is dressed in their best clothes and the bridal party are spectacularly dressed. The groom wears a heavy gold brocade wrap around jacket and bright pantaloons of maroon. His hair is pinned up and his hat is also gold. The bride wears a dress so heavy that attendants have to help her to the toilet.
Usually both men and women pin their hair up but for this occasion the women have their hair plaited but hanging down, rather than pinned around their heads as it usually is. The younger women have hair so long that it falls to their knees.
After an hour or so we quietly take our leave; awed and inspired by the hospitality and openess of the Tibetan people of Szechuan.