Muli Travel Guide, Sichuan
When U.S. botanist and explorer Joseph Rock first visited the Gelugpa Buddhist kingdom of Muli in 1923, he reported finding a beautiful but poor land, home to various ethnic groups, a despotic king, and bandits and robbers who controlled vast parts of the remote region.
Rock was fascinated by the beauty and seclusion of Muli, not to mention the difficulties of travel in the region, calling it "a land where robbers turn from pillage to prayer" in a National Geographic article published in January 1931.
In present day Muli little has changed - aside from the practice of robbery and pillage, that is. Officially opened to tourism a few years ago, modern Muli's only road, planned to connect the Tibetan Autonomous County with neighboring Daocheng, remained uncompleted at the end of 2001, and living conditions are hard. Local government plans include much-needed environmental reforms forbidding logging activities on hillsides, and a determination to attract tourism money that is shared by local residents. For the time being, however, the multi-ethnic region continues to follow traditions that is has done for generations, unchanged by tourism.
Muli lies on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, just north of the famous lake of Lugu. Until 1953, it was a Gelugpa Buddhist kingdom, dubbed "The Yellow Lama's Kingdom" by explorer Rock. Historically, Muli was influenced by the southern Nanzhao Kingdom of the Yi (653-902) and the later Dali Kingdom of the Bai (1137-1253), as well as Mongol intruders under Kublai Khan. Those days are long gone, however, and today Muli is part of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan.
Visitors to Muli are treated to a wonderful land of 17 ethnic groups, breathtaking scenery, virgin forests, and more than 900 peaks that soar to above 4000 meters. There are three Buddhist monasteries, with the biggest one, Muli Dasi, serving as home for the Living Buddha of Muli, who holds the highest status in Tibetan religious culture.
The spiritual center of the region is the Gongga mountain range in western Muli, a holy trinity of peaks comprised of Jambeyang, Chanadorje and Chenresig. Each year in late May when the harvest is completed it's time to embark on a pilgrimage to the mountain range, where the Pumi ethnic group believe the beginning and end of all life is. Since all the souls of the dead will travel to Gongga, it is deemed important to make the journey at least once in a person's lifetime to ensure the soul knows the way.
Homes and Hearths
Built on mountain slopes, the colorful county capital of Muli is a bustling town, home to a fascinating mixture of people who travel to the center for shopping and trade from remote, outlying villages. As most areas of Muli County are not served by public transport, shoppers and the occasional traveler are reliant on local trucks that pick people up from the roadside.
Since there is no timetable, waiting for a ride means hoping a vehicle will pass today, or maybe tomorrow. The ride too is unpredictable, as for the time being the sealed road ends in the small Shimi minority village of Nanman, on the banks of the Shuiluo River. From here, the only way forward is on foot or horseback.
The 80-km long Shuiluo Valley that runs through Muli feeds into Jinsha He (Golden Sand River) to the south, so called because of the gold deposits found washed up on its shores. In the low water season, between October and May, several hundred prospectors enter the valley to work in the gold mines, which take the form of long tunnels dug into the riverbanks. The extracted earth is then washed in the river.
Gold mining is a strictly men-only task, and women are barred from the mountain area due to a belief that it is male semen that pleases the mountain, which gives up its gold as a sign of its pleasure.
Along the length of the Shuiluo River, several thousand people have settled villages, each home to distinct ethnic groups with wildly varying cultures that include the Gami, Shimi, Pumi, Naxi, and Menggu minorities. While they have retained their own cultural identities, however, they share many ideas on religion and kinship.
Those who live under one roof share the same name, and continue family lines that originate with one ancestor. Although the house line should be traced through the oldest sons of each generation, it can also continue through the women, meaning either men or women can choose to assume the name of their spouse. Polyandry (two men - usually brothers - marrying the same woman) and polygyny (two women - usually sisters - marrying the same man) are still practiced, and most seem to prefer marriage within their own village and ethnic group.
Although the Naxi minority people in Muli maintain their shamanistic traditions, most of the region is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, and religious practices determine the everyday lives of the common people. The goodwill of the many deities is crucial for survival in the mountainous region, and a variety of rituals help keep people in permanent contact with the gods.
Since divine spirits are believed to reside in the snowy mountain peaks, a vertical axis topped with white is an important symbol of the communications between mere mortals and those above. The most sacred mountain representation is that of Zambala Mountain, situated beside the holy Gongga Mountains and believed to be the guardian of the mountain trinity. Representations of Zambala can be found in every house somewhere around the hearth. The hearth itself is a tripod shape (corresponding to the Gongga Mountains), and at every meal, a sacrifice is made to the deities on it.
The center of the house also resides in the hearth, where people cook, eat, sleep, gather, worship, and welcome guests. The space is well defined, with people divided by gender and seated according to age, social status, and degree of kinship around the hearth.
The rest of the house is similarly divided into designated spaces: the ground floor is for livestock, the second floor for family, and the roof for deities. Houses are usually robust, with walls of nearly half a meter thick studded with small windows ensuring protection from potential intruders (as described melodramatically by Rock) and the elements. White signs on the walls protect the house from ghosts.
Everyday across the region, morning rituals are carried out in the homes of Muli. The household's eldest man (or the eldest man fit for the task) stands on the roof and starts a smoky and fragrant fire. Blowing three times into a large shell that makes a hoarse resonating sound, the smoke and noise rise up to the heavens, pleasing the deities and inviting them to descent from on high and protect the people.
After an important family member dies, mani stones are carved with prayers and heaped up, with a white stone topping off the pile to make that all-important connection with the Gongga Mountains where the spirit is heading. Every two weeks, ceremonies are held to worship deities and ask for protection, and flagstaffs are erected so that the wind can carry the prayer messages inscribed on the bright cloth up to the deities. The mani are encircled in a clockwise direction to strengthen the message of the Tibetan mantra "Om mani padme hum."
A more profane connection is made to the Gongga Mountains by drinking liquor: before drinking, drops of alcohol are flicked over the left and right shoulders, and dabbed on the forehead - three drops for three mountains.
The monastery at old Muli, 120km north of the county seat, once housed more than 700 monks. It was originally built in early Qing Dynasty, took 12 years to build and was completed in the 17th year of the reign of Qing Emperor Shunzhi, around 1600. It was modelled on important lamaseries in Tibet and is said to have contained an impressive golden statue of Gyiwa Qamba Buddha over 10 metres high.
Since 1987 the Muli monastery has been partly restored and now has about 80 young monks in residence. It is near a modern small town called Wachang, located high up on the western edge of the Litang river valley, at about 3000m altitude. The other monasteries at Kulu (now known as Kangwu)and Waerdje are still in ruins.
When the time for the annual post-harvest pilgrimage comes around, an auspicious day is chosen, a pig slaughtered, and a horse packed as pilgrims head west to the mountain forest. While the Pumi have no written language, oral traditions are alive and well among the older generation, telling compelling stories along the way about every mountain, river, and cave.
Travelers find themselves spending nights on alpine slopes, where several Pumi families keep their yak herds, and alcohol is traded for the essential yak butter. At every pass, pilgrims sacrifice liquors and cereal grains, hanging colorful paper flags with prayers printed in coal.
Most of the residents of the remote region - who are largely herdsmen, hunters, and collectors of medicinal herbs and mushrooms - are happy to talk to the seasonal visitors as they pass through, and share cups of wine with the pilgrims. The most frequent hazards in the region, it transpires, are getting drunk and falling off horses.
For most from the Shuiluo Valley, the pilgrimage to a plateau overlooking the three Gongga Mountains takes around four days. Standing in front of the breathtaking view, pilgrims throw themselves to the ground and begin to prepare rituals. Here is the beginning and end of all life; here is also the border from the familiar living space to the unknown vastness beyond Muli.
In essence, very little has changed since Joseph Rock traveled through.
Best time to go
From June to July, when the mountains are dotted with flowers; September to November, when the autumn colors is intensive.
Getting there & around
The best way to reach Muli is to take a train from Chengdu south or Kunming to Xichang. More than 20 trains run from Chengdu to Xichang every day, 560km / around 10 hours / Y130-200 from hard sleeper to soft. Most depart at night and arrive in the morning of next day.
Kunming to Xichang Trains Timetable:
|No.||Departure||Dpt. Time||Arrival||ARV. Time||
In Xichang, you can stay at the Wumao Hotel for Y20/bed in triple dorms. Buses from Xichang to Muli leave between 6:30-7:30, Y60 / 250km / arriving 7-8 hrs later.
Depending on your budget and destination, jeeps are available for rent in Muli, and guides are also on hand for hire. If you want to visit Gongga Mountain, you will need a guide and horse, both of which you can hire in any of villages in the Shuiluo Valley.
Hiking in Muli is going upstream the White River from Shuiluo county, through Shuiluo Gongga, around three sacred mountains into Yading, Daocheng. Along the way, forests, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and snow-capped mountains compose a marvelous highland view.
- Shancheng Binguan -Y10/bed in trpl, Y15/bed in dbl, Y30 for a single room, all with shared facilities
- Muli Xian Zhaodaisuo - the most luxury hotel in town, the cheapest lodging is Y20/bed or Y50/room