At the far edge of the settlement, past the family of black pygmy pot-bellied pigs, I began to climb the hill on the ridge that looked most accessible. It had been peering down at me through the inn windows for days and I wanted to see the view from the top. The air was clearer away from the smoking chimneys, and as I reached the summit I could see the rocks below and to the side of me were partly unearthed, slowly, slowly breaking through the vegetation. Above, the July rain-clouds hovered indiscriminately over the crease where Sìchuān and Gānsù meet. Beneath the rock I had chosen as my look-out post, the valley stretched out and in the middle lay Lángmùsì; scattered over the old river bed, straddling the unmarked border.
Clusters of wood and clay-tiled roofs snuggled themselves, defying the elements, into the soft folds of the verdant green and cumin valley the river had left behind. The hills were their protection. The main street that ran through the centre of the village was a wide but muddy track. There were only one or two vehicles, ancient things, owned by those funded either by tourism or piety. Clothes were washed in the river. It was a thin place, where the layers of noise and busyness plastered so thickly in eastern cities were stripped away one by one. Here was a place you could breathe, where the rain forced you to hear your own thoughts and be still, allow yourself to become aware again. There were no streetlights and I loved walking at night under the endless black canopy that shone with a host of the brightest stars I have ever seen. All about me the sweet scent of wood-fires.
The street signs were dusty, like so much else about the place, but they were the same modern blue and white plaques found the country over. The only difference was that here, below the measured square Chinese characters was a round, swirling script with lines across the top. It was a predominantly Tibetan village of only a few thousand people. Like many rural places with only a handful of houses, one church and two pubs, Lángmùsì had four places of worship -- and no pubs -- that I’d noticed. No one seemed to know or care exactly where the dividing line was, but on the Gānsù side there was a Buddhist monastery whose monks followed the teachings of one Lama and on the Sìchuān side there was one whose monks were the disciples of another. A small convent housed nuns with shaven heads and grey robes. Separately, the Hui community were also served.
The Hui are mostly Muslim. I had been surprised to see the men with their close fitting caps and the women who concealed their hair in white cloths tied and folded neatly like square hats and did not cover their faces. Until then, I had thought the only Muslims in China lived in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where China borders Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and disputed Kashmir. In the Hui district I saw my first Chinese mosque. From a distance the minaret looked like a typical three-tiered pagoda, but getting closer the three metal crescents standing on top became visible. Also it was green: Islam’s holy colour. In this hollow between the hills Muslims observed the muezzin, while Buddhists turned a corridor of golden prayer-wheels and strings of coloured prayer flags petitioned in the wind.
Just as in the Garden of Eden where there was only one tree that could not be eaten from, there was only one hill in Lángmùsì where visitors were told not to go. It was the place where they brought their dead. Naturally, the villagers did not want tourists taking photos and interfering in their ceremonies or their grief. When a Tibetan died, their body was taken up the hill and after final rites, given to the birds. There were few trees on the hilltops, so they came from the forest. Of course they knew what was coming, what was expected of them. They came to release souls. I was told a person’s soul could not enter heaven, or the next cycle of reincarnation while it remained in the body. The birds broke apart the old vessel, setting the soul free to find the new or to leave the wheel altogether*. My Tibetan hosts noted each of these funerals. Once, I watched men and women dressed in layers: long boots and sheep-skin coats that wrapped around their waists held by decorated metal belts, coat-arms dangling or one arm in and one out as they walked to the hill. There must have been small processions to carry the bodies, but I never saw them. I worried about the numbers, in such a small population. At least eight people had died in the last ten days.
Sometimes it seemed that the east-west divide in China was greater than the one between Tibetans and Hui. There were few other foreigners besides myself and we saw little of one another. One morning a group of art students arrived from Beijing. Some of the locals shook their heads as they silently watched forty or so students in their fashionable outdoor clothes climb the hills, scrabbling wildly with their unwieldy easels trying to find a good spot to capture the landscape in graphite and paint. I was glad I had already made my ascent. The air changed; it felt a little heavier than before. The smiles on the shopkeepers’ faces grew tight and then disappeared.
The word had spread (perhaps on wings): the students knew about the ceremony for the dead. In brightly coloured waterproofs, backpacks full of snacks and paintbrushes and charcoal, they sought the forbidden fruit and climbed the sacred hill.
* Years later, I learnt this was known as a Sky Burial.
Fiona Dixon, originally from Yorkshire, now living in Scotland, began her big adventure teaching English in China and went on to teach international students in the UK for over 6 years. She loves food, history, travel, and reading and is returning to writing after a period of the dreaded ‘block’.
"Forbidden Fruit" won first place in the 2017 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. The judge, Graham Mercer had the following to say about the piece:
'Although undramatic this article is an intriguing, well-written insight into the culture clashes that most travellers experience. Ironically the culture clash here occurs not between the foreign observer and the locals, or between Langmusi’s very different Tibetan/Muslim Hui inhabitants, but between the Tibetan locals and young, fellow-Chinese “intruders” from Beijing.
'The quality of the writing makes up for any lack of drama. I liked the economy of words and the freshness of some of the expressions – “It was a thin place”, a “green and cumin valley”, with, after the rain, “steaming hills”. And where, in the Buddhist area, “strings of coloured prayer flags petitioned in the wind”.
'And the writer is specific. To get to the viewpoint he/she has to go not just “left at the cross-roads” or “through the town centre” (as you might do anywhere) but “past the family of black pygmy pot-bellied pigs”. Meanwhile the street signs are “dusty” and the rain-clouds are not just rain-clouds but “July rain-clouds”.'