In 2016, I spent 10 months backpacking through mainland China and almost immediately tired of the big cities that—to be honest—all looked the same to me.
I thought northwestern China would be a good place to explore. An online search for “trekking” and “Gansu province” brought me down a rabbit hole of options. At the other end was a website for horse trekking in Langmusi.
With resolve and a little bit of luck, a friend and I made it to the base of Langmusi, 9,800 feet above sea level.
Langmusi is a tiny alpine town straddling the border of Sichuan and Gansu. Although it’s in mainland China proper, its inhabitants are mostly Tibetan.
As is typical in towns like this, the Chinese presence is undeniable. Giant Chinese flags flank the roads, and every single monastery tour likes to emphasize that Chinese investment is what made their existence possible.
When traveling to remote and unfamiliar places, there are generally two modes of thinking a person can adopt: that people are inherently selfish and just want money, or that the world is good and people are capable of generosity with no ulterior motives.
They’re not mutually exclusive, and each school of thought has its pitfalls when taken to an extreme.
We found ourselves confronted with these two options at the town’s Sertri Monastery, when an elderly Tibetan woman came up to us, her arms outstretched with traditional beaded necklaces.
“I think she just wants our money,” my travel companion Natalie said, narrowing her eyes at the woman in front of us. “She’s trying to sell us stuff. Her necklace.”
She was holding a long strand of brown beads accented with the occasional drop of turquoise and coral. The other hand was pointing furiously at the verdant hill up ahead. It was so steep that we couldn’t see where it led.
“I think those are just her prayer beads,” I replied sternly, taken aback by my own defensiveness. “I think we should just follow her. It’s not like we have anything else better to do.”
The woman shouted something at us in Tibetan.
“Okay, okay,” I responded in Mandarin, trying my best to assure her that I understood, even though I fully didn’t. “We will follow you,” I said, assuming that was what she asked for.
Apparently satisfied with my answer, the woman began leading us on a dirt path up the hill.
Natalie and Christian, a German friend that we met at a hostel the day before, both conceded. They were reluctant and a bit wary.
The woman wore a white blouse with faint patterned roses. Wrapped around her waist was a thick, navy Tibetan robe dripping with hand-stitched flowers and bold red lines at the edges. She smelled distinctly of yak and butter, and had an array of turquoise and pink coral necklaces draped around her neck.
Pink coral, which was brought over to Tibet from the Mediterranean via the Silk Road, is a precious commodity worth its weight in gold. For Tibetans, it’s an amulet for warding off negativity.
Our group struggled to keep pace with the Tibetan woman. The air was thin at 9,800 feet above sea level. Eventually, a couple of other tourists passed us. Our guide stopped and pulled off another one of her necklaces—a bright pink one—and shouted at the new tourists.
Natalie was right. She was trying to sell us the necklaces.
But before Natalie could publicly claim victory, we spotted another hill with prayer flags just a couple hundred feet ahead of us—a mad array of yellow, green, white, blue, and red flags strung together in a chaotic heap. There were mantras inscribed on each rectangular flag so that the wind could carry blessings to every corner of the surrounding space. For what reason, I wondered out loud, would there be such a large pile?
Natalie, tired of following my lead (and for good reason), insisted on staying where she was and sat on the grass to admire the view. Christian and I walked ahead in curiosity. We had come this far—we might as well check out the prayer flags.
When we got there, we saw a couple of people milling about. Tourists, I reckon, and their guides.
“And so this person died this morning?” I overheard a Han Chinese tourist ask a Tibetan guide. “Man, it really smells.”
I looked down at my feet. There was a clean human skull right next to me, a knee cap with a bit of meat still on it, a bloodied ax, hair, and many, many teeth. I looked up at the sky. There were vultures circling, full from their morning meal.
“Christian,” I whispered in shock. “This is a sky burial site.”
Sky burials are a Tibetan funeral practice where a monk cuts up a body and leaves it for vultures to eat on high mountaintops.
“But first, we leave the body alone for seven days before the burial,” a local Tibetan boy told me earlier that day with conviction, “in case it resurrects. That happens sometimes.”
In Tibet, sky burial is the most common way to process the dead. Cremation is limited to high-ranking monks, and water burials in local rivers tend to be reserved for children.
“So what are your thoughts on sky burial?” a monk asked as we were making our way back to our hostel.
Every summer, the Tibetan monks of Langmusi’s monasteries get to go on vacation, a welcome respite from the flocks of tourists who flood the monasteries during peak season.
Many of them go to the nearby grasslands to forage for medicine. Others choose to use that time to sit and contemplate life.
Three of the monks, best friends since they were 14, had decided on the latter and chose the hill right by the sky burial site to relax that afternoon. One of them spotted us from afar and waved us over.
The friends of the inquiring monk ignored us. One was swiping madly on his phone, and the other kept chewing on a piece of grass while staring out into the distance.
“It’s, um, unconventional,” I said in response to the monk’s question. “But it’s a cultural practice, and I respect it.”
“You know why we do it, right?”
“For the environment.”
“How do you guys bury your dead in America?”
“Cremation or burial.”
The monk paused and smiled.
“We don’t need to take up any more space on this earth when we are dead,” he said. “In our tribe, everything returns to nature.”
“We don’t need to take up any more space on this earth when we are dead.”
An awkward silence fell over the six of us, so elongated that it eventually turned into a comfortable silence.
Unprompted, the monk pointed to his shoes and changed the subject.
“When we were young, we never had to wear shoes out here,” he said. “But now we do because of glass shards.”
He told me that the grasslands have been getting drier over time.
“We monks live a very simple life,” he said. “We love nature. Nature is at the core of everything.”
His phone began to ring. He got up, nodded at us, and wobbled away.
We were left with the other two monks, who didn’t say much. Eventually, we bid them goodbye, the image of trash and skulls emblazoned in my thoughts. The irony of it kept running through my head: how plastic and glass can be so permanent, but humans remains—when dealt with properly—can leave no trace.