Langmusi is a small town in the Amdo region of China’s Tibetan Plateau. The town, which rests at 3,345 meters above sea level, is bifurcated by the Sichuan and Gansu Province border.
While Langmusi is best known for the vast grasslands that surround the town, Langmusi also represents a unique dialectic created by all of Langmusi’s opposing, yet coexisting, forces.
Pinyin: Lángmùsì | Chinese: 郎木寺 | Tibetan: Taktsang Lhamo
Location: Amdo Region of the Tibetan Plateau on the Gansu-Sichuan Border
Getting There: Bus from Xiahe, or by car
Where to Stay: Nomad Youth Hostel | Langmusi Hotel
Attractions: Grasslands, lakes, mountains, villages, and temples
The town is home to Buddhists and Muslims, Tibetans and Huizu, government-backed monasteries, Tibetan-back monasteries, the Chinese military, nomadic herders, Tibetans on pilgrimages, and a splash of foreign and Chinese tourists. Mix all of that among a population of less than 5,000, and there you have Langmusi.
We visited Langmusi in late October and found the town under heavy construction. The roads were essentially mud pits created by frequent rain and large scale renovations of the town’s infrastructure. Traffic jams caused by construction and yaks returning home for the night were a common occurrence at the town’s main intersection.
The main attraction in Langmusi is the surrounding natural beauty. Just a few kilometers outside of Langmusi lies an ocean of grasslands, which is home to thousands of yaks, sheep, and Tibetan nomads. We did the nomadic experience in Tagong, and we’d expect that the experience is equally authentic and exciting in Langmusi. In the town center there are a number of touring companies that can hook you up with some nomads. We went to the Black Tent Cafe (located at the town center intersection pictured above) to setup a bike ride and a day trip to a nearby village (Black Tent Cafe Website; phone: +86 13893991541).
The person running the Black Tent Cafe (who also runs the above pictured Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking shop) is a Chinese guy who moved to Langmusi ages ago and has been biking and hiking there ever since. He’s super passionate about exploring the area and is really knowledgeable about all the things to do. On our first day in Langmusi, we ate breakfast at the Black Tent Cafe and badgered him with questions for about half an hour, which was really helpful in planning our activities.
One day 1, we rented some mountain bikes. Our destination was the nearby Gahai Lake (尕海湖; Gǎhǎi Hú), which is a protected area famed for its migratory birds, including the elusive black neck cranes. Apparently over 200 different species of birds pass through Gahai Lake every year.
From the town to Gahai Lake is about a 60km round-trip, which makes for a perfect somewhat leisurely day trip. There’s really only one long hill climb (which ends in a tunnel), and the rest is flat smooth riding on a highway that cuts directly through the grasslands. Along the highway you can off-road it where ever you want and ride along the fields, which are conveniently trimmed by grazing yaks. Just watch out for all the yak patties.
Once you get to the lake, there is a gate (which sells tickets, 20RMB each, but no one was there when we arrived, so we just went in) that leads to a long cement path. As we road our bikes down the cement path we were lucky enough to spot some black neck cranes.
Around the lake a web of wooden walkways makes it convenient to walk or bike over the wetlands. If you’re riding a bike be careful though, as some of the planks are a bit loose. We had a GORP, tunafish, and nan bread picnic by the lake, which was lovely. However, a storm was brewing, which we got caught in on the way home. And while biking in a hail and rainstorm isn’t ideal, we were treated to a very dramatic view of clouds pelting the grasslands with heavy rain.
The Trail Behind Kirti
One of the best walks in Langmusi is through the mountain valleys behind Kirti Monastery. If you head through and past Kirti, you’ll eventually come to a valley trail in between a large stone and a hillside. Ask any of the locals walking around Kirti and they’ll be able to easily point you in the right direction.
Near the beginning of the trail, you’ll pass a stream with little bird feeder-like box houses mounted over the stream. The box contains a prayer wheel that, like a music box, chants when it is turned by the stream’s current. You’ll also come to a tiger statue. ‘Taktsang’ (the Tibetan name for Langmusi, means ‘Tiger Cave’, which the tiger, wrapped in katas, represents.
The trail leads into the mountains and eventually to other villages. This route is perfect for a relaxed day of walking, as the flat path isn’t so much of a hike as it is a walk over rocks and streams.
Eventually you’ll come to a grass clearing. This is a perfect spot for a picnic or just to lounge around. The clearing reminded me of the Shire and would be a sweet spot for a cabin. From the clearing you can continue into the mountains and eventually arrive at a Tibetan village (we did not do this, but heard from others that it’s more of the same in terms of views, which is a good thing). Round-trip from the town to the first clearing will only take you maybe 2 or 3 hours.
Zhagana Village (扎尕那村, Zhā gǎ nà cūn) is about an hour outside of Langmusi by car. En route to Zhagana, if you’re lucky (we weren’t), you’ll see a local species of deer that is endangered. Ask your driver to help point them out. The drive to Zhagana is really nice. You weave in and out of the mountains, and if you go during the fall you’ll be treated to some excellent foliage.
Once you arrive at Zhagana, you’ll see that the village is strewn across the bottom of a series of large stone mountains. We spent the better part of the day walking around the village and exploring paths leading into the mountains. Farmers use the paths into the mountains to herd cattle through, so you can ask them where they lead. The village is quite picturesque (save for the large cell tower plopped smack in the middle of it). There is a temple at the top of the village, and you’ll most likely see elderly people walking around stupas while chanting prayers.
If you’re feeling a bit sore (which our butts were after the bike ride), exploring Zhagana is perfect for a relaxed non-hiking / biking day. Though if time is tight in Langmusi, I’d definitely recommend bike riding and trekking over visiting Zhagana.
Tibetans on Pilgrimage
On our way to Langmusi from Tagong, we passed a couple on the side of the road. From a distance, they looked like snails inching their way forward. The husband and wife would take three steps, kneel, bow down to the ground until their bodies were flat on the ground, and then roll back up onto their feet, take three steps, and repeat. They were on their way to Tibet, a journey that would take no less than three years. And this was their second time making the pilgrimage.
To protect themselves, they wore leather aprons over their chests and wooden planks on their hands. Two pieces of thin aluminum were mounted on the bottom of the wooden planks to help them slide forwards.
Criticizing people for blind faith is easy, and sometimes deserved when that faith affects other people in negative ways. But, when you meet people such as this couple, a deep feeling of respect and awe is all I could muster. They sleep on the side of the road or in any home that will take them. They get money from anyone passing by who is willing to spare some change. We even saw a monk stop in a car to offer the couple some money. Seeing that the person offering was a monk, the husband refused, but the monk insisted.
I can’t say whether I lead a more or less meaningful life than that couple, but I can say that I’ve never done anything with that level of conviction. And while that level of conviction, to faith in this couple’s case, scares me a little, it’s also undeniably inspiring.
Kirti and Serti Monastery
The two main temples in Langmusi are the Kirti Monastery, located on the Sichuan side, and the Sertri Monastery, located on the Gansu side. The division between these two monasteries is not simply geographic. There are strong political associations with each as well. Local Tibetans explained to us that the Serti Monastery was sort of fake, in that Serti is funded by the Chinese government, and the monastery in turn supports China’s appointed Buddhist spiritual leaders.
The fruits of Serti’s allegiance were loud and clear, as the monastery shined with gaudy golden roofs and was undergoing major renovations and expansion. That’s not to say the monks at Serti were frauds or in any way fake, but nonetheless separating religion and politics is pretty much impossible when it comes to Tibetans and Buddhism in China. Below are pictures of Serti Monastery. In the last picture in the set, you can see a common device used by those walking in prayer around a stupa or temple to keep track of how many laps they’ve done.
Kirti, on the other hand, receives no funding from the government. The Kirti temples are made from wood, aluminum, and cement. The roofs lack the loud colors and glam that adorn the Serti Monastery. Most of the Kirti side is comprised of the humble living quarters of all the monks who reside there, quarters you won’t find nearly as many of on the Serti side. The Tibetan pilgrims that walk and bow for months when traveling to Langmusi all go to Kirti, not Serti. In fact, all the major gatherings of lamas and monks happen at Kirti. That’s not to say Serti isn’t worth a visit. But just know that those shining temples come at a price. Below are pictures from the Kirti side.
The Huizu Minority
Langmusi’s population is a mix of Tibetans and Huizu (a muslim ethnic minority). While the Tibetans heavily outnumber the Huizu, the two groups, who have strong prejudices against each other, live in a symbiotic state. There aren’t many towns in China where you can see a mosque literally 10 meters from a Buddhist temple.
Although they segregate themselves to different areas of the small town (most of the Huizu are huddled near their monastery), each minority has shops and restaurants next to each other and they seem to begrudgingly get along. You’ll see monks buying nan bread on the street from Huizu sellers, and you’ll see Huizu eating in Tibetan run restaurants. But, if you stop a Tibetan and ask him or her for an opinion of the Huizu (or vice versa), don’t be surprised if you get a rather bigoted answer. Nonetheless, actual conflicts between the two groups are rare. And all the locals will attest to Langmusi being a very safe place (at least from violence and crime). Below are pictures from the Huizu area of town. The second picture is of Huizu kids going home from school. The last picture shows drying yak patties, which are used as fuel for heating and cooking.
Please beware that the pictures below might be disturbing to some. A sky burial is where the deceased is hauled up a mountain, adorned in prayer wrappings, and left to be taken by the birds. After the birds do most of the work, the body is chopped up and burned. For many Tibetans, a sky burial is an entirely natural and beautiful way to go. I tend to agree and would much rather have a sky burial than be put in some box in field of other boxes. That said, visiting a sky burial site not long after a burial is quite an experience. Before coming to Langmusi, I’d never known what burnt flesh and bone smells like. Needless to say, it is not a smell I need to experience again.
If you walk up past the left side of Serti Monastery, you’ll eventually come to a clearing near a hilltop (ask any local around Serti and he or she can point you in the right direction). The clearing has two boxes of axes and knives, prayer flags, and a pile of ashes. Once the birds are basically done with the main job, the remains are burned. However, not everything makes it into the fire, which means the site is literally littered with skulls, hip bones, and other various bits and pieces. We’d come only days after a burial, so some of the bones even had flesh and skin still on them.
I know it sounds gross, but if you’re curious about this sort of thing, I’d say this is a must see, as chances to experience this sort of thing don’t come around too often. I’ve posted some of the ‘cleaner’ pictures below.
Where to Stay
We spent our first night in the Nomad’s Youth Hostel (Frommer’s Review). The hostel was very typical – hot water, a little heat, simple bathroom. The private rooms are nice by backpacker standards. On the second night a huge group of college kids was coming through, and there were no more private rooms available, so we moved to the Langmusi Hotel (Trip Advisor Review). The hotel was pretty nice. The rooms were very well heated and had hot water.
The second floor of the hotel housed a military installation. Chinese troops on rotation in Langumsi were stationed in the hotel. We woke up to military exercises. We had seen soldiers around the town, and now we knew where they were coming from. Seeing the permanent presences of troops in Langmusi was a reminder of just how tightly locked down China has this area. While the troops looked more like school boys than soldiers, their presence made an otherwise peaceful town feel a bit tense.
- Day 1 – Arrived in Langmusi by car from Tagong; spent the afternoon doing the Kerti Trail Walk
- Day 2 – Bike ride to Gehai Lake
- Day 3 – Day trip to Zhagana
- Day 4- Took the afternoon bus from Langmusi to Xiahe