“Xuanguan!” the bus ticket-collecter exclaimed to me when I said I was headed to Luobiao. “Yes!” I exclaimed excitedly, “Xuanguan!”
I paid my 22 yuan and settled into a 2.5 hour bus trip down a river gorge into what felt like the middle of nowhere. I don’t think it was, really, as the bus seemed to continue after I got off it, although to where is a mystery.
I disembarked in the one-street town of Luobiao, in Southern Sichuan province, to see the hanging coffins (xuanguan!) of the now-extinct Bo people.
One thing you may not know about me yet is that I love cemeteries. If I’m traveling somewhere and there’s a cemetery shown on a map, or someone mentions one, I’ll intentionally seek it out, and then wander around for ages looking at all the graves and taking pictures. And really, the more unusual and/or overgrown and neglected it is, the better.
This is why, when I read about the hanging coffins, I knew I had to go.
I dumped my bags and started on a lovely 2km downhill walk through countryside filled with terraced rice fields and thatch-roofed houses.
I eventually arrived at the entrance. The thing is here, there’s a big wooden gate sort of thing, but I don’t think it ever shuts, because there’s a whole village beyond it that people have to get in and out of! So if you arrived, say, after the ticket lady had gone home, I suppose you could go see the coffins for free. In fact, you can see a couple of them before you even get to the gate. But then you would miss out on the museum, and if you’re fascinated by burial spots like I am, you want to see the museum. And the ticket only costs 20 yuan.
Now, for a bit of background.* The oldest coffin found here is about 1000 years old, the newest 400 years, at which time the Bo mysteriously disappeared from this area, possibly as a result of oppression of ethnic minorities by the Ming dynasty rulers. The coffins are each hewn from a single log, but made in two parts, a body and a lid which was usually studded with copper. There are approximately 100 of them, perched somewhat precariously on logs hammered into the cliff face anywhere from 10 to 130 metres off the ground. No one knows exactly how the Bo people got them up there, or why they chose to bury their dead in such a way. Some of the coffins were accompanied by burial objects such as porcelain bowls, knives, and spear points.
I started with a wander along the path to the first set of coffins, accompanied by two local boys on a bike. They showed me where I could walk up the stairs to a viewing platform, then further up into a huge cave with some ruined structures inside it. I was sure they would ask for money afterwards, but all they wanted was for me to take their picture and show them!
I then went back to the entrance and asked the lady about the museum, (in fact I didn’t have to ask, she knew exactly what I was there for before I even said anything!) and she came to turn the lights on for me.
Inside the museum there are some photos of the coffins and other burial sites (one seemed to be a picture of a Tibetan Sky Burial, I’m not sure how it fit in here) and a lot of explanation in Chinese. The focal point was a wooden coffin with a skeleton still inside it.
In many cultures, exhibiting a skeleton in a museum might be kind of a dodgy thing to do. But here, because the Bo people no longer exist, it seems to be ok. It is clear, however, that the locals and visitors do acknowledge the sanctity of death even for an extinct race, as shown by the large number of bank notes left on the coffin in the museum. I, too, left a 1 yuan note here. It just seemed the right thing to do for this poor soul whose body is now on display for all to see.
There were also a couple of skeletons behind glass, with more money tucked into the nooks and crannies of the glass cases around them, a couple of mannequins depicting what the Bo peoples’ clothing might have looked like, pictures of a reconstructed Bo man’s face, and some of the burial objects found in the coffins.
I left the museum and walked further down the road to where 2km on there was supposed to be (according to Lonely Planet) another impressive collection of coffins. I did see a few more, but they were scattered and I wouldn’t have said it was more impressive than the first batch! The walk, as before, was lovely, through a valley between the cliffs, some of which clearly had former dwellings in them (oh how I wanted to get up in there and see!), surrounded by rice and vegetable fields.
There were lots of kids along the way, who were at times curious and suspicious of me!
The walk back to town was equally lovely, and the locals were SO very friendly. I stopped to ‘talk’ to one woman and her baby, took their picture, and next thing I knew I was holding the baby and the woman was taking our picture on her phone!
Further on I passed a family gathered outside their house, and one woman patted the bench next to her, indicating that I should sit down. The road was a steady uphill at this point, and I needed a rest anyway, so I sat with them for 20 minutes or so while we ‘chatted’ using my phrasebook and practiced saying numbers in both Chinese and English. We all had a good laugh at my bad Chinese pronunciation and I snapped a few photos of their smiling faces.
Later that evening I wandered into a restaurant just down from my hotel, hoping to somehow be able to order a typical Chinese dish of scrambled eggs and tomato, along with some rice. Lucky me, the only other customers in the restaurant at the time were a couple of teachers who spoke a little bit of English! (Pretty much nobody spoke any English in this town; I relied on my phrasebook for everything) They’d consumed a bit of beer by this point and were happy to help me order my food and chat with me while I ate. They then insisted on paying for my meal and took me for a bit of Karaoke before escorting me safely back to my hotel. What hospitality!
I’d been told not to bother going to the hanging coffins; that they weren’t very interesting. I went anyway, knowing that if I didn’t I’d always wonder about them, and I’m so glad I did! The coffins were cool but perhaps not terribly exciting if you’re not into that sort of thing, but the experiences I had with the local people made the trek out there and back entirely worthwhile. I left Luobiao with a huge smile on my face and feeling completely pumped up for my next adventure!
Do you enjoy visiting cemeteries, tombs, catacombs, and other such places? Where is your favourite? Or do you find them creepy?
*Information from: China.org and UK Daily Mail Online