Visiting Monasteries in Rural Tibet
"While most tourists come to Tibet to see the religious dedication of the old pilgrims, such as those we pass prostrating themselves on the road as they slowly circle holy sites, we suspect that many young Tibetans would probably prefer to be riding in a Landcruiser wearing a polo shirt and Oakley sunglasses like our guide."
Tibetan pop music is barely audible over the rattling of our SUV as we bounce along one pockmarked dirt road after another on our journey south from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Periodically we slow as herds of sheep, goats, and yak engulf our vehicle while being cajoled by our car horn and their herdsman to let us pass.
There is little other sign of human life except for the occasional primitive looking villages and the ubiquitous prayer flags spread across the surrounding hills. The stark contrast between the soaring snow covered Himalayas in the distance to our left and the arid river bed on our right only adds to the profound feeling of isolation and remoteness that is characteristic of rural Tibet.
We have left Lhasa behind and are headed out to spend five days traveling to the small cities located within a 200 mile radius of the Tibetan capital. Although our trip was limited to a relatively small area, there was a remarkable distinction among the landscapes we encountered.
On our first day, we traveled through the sand dunes south of Lhasa along the Brahmaputra River to Samye. While the town is made up of little more then a couple of hotels, a few houses, and mostly empty storefronts, the purpose of our journey is to see the ancient Samye monastery.
A Buddhist Ceremony
The oldest monastery in Tibet, Samye is surrounded by a circular stone wall and laid out in the shape of a mandala, a concentric design with spiritual significance in Buddhism.
As we entered the main temple with a small group of Tibetan pilgrims, we found ourselves in the midst of a Buddhist ceremony. Barely illuminated by the yak butter candles and partially concealed by the smoke from the burning incense, 20 or so monks were arranged on red floor cushions with the monastery’s abbot perched above them on an elevated platform.
What began as a low murmur of chanting steadily grew in volume as a crescendo of cymbals joined the deep bass of a pair of Dung Chen, 10-foot-long Tibetan horns expertly assembled minutes before from their various parts.
The monks had added their ceremonial orange headgear to their standard red robes as they rhythmically recited from traditional Tibetan scripture books. As the only Westerners in the temple, the experience was surreal for us,as it had none of the staged feel that equally genuine ceremonies can elicit when inundated by tourists.
The next morning we groggily piled into our car after a difficult night’s sleep. We were first disrupted by the pounding of wooden bowls onto tables as locals in the courtyard of our guest house played a traditional Tibetan gambling game and then later by a rooster who was apparently unaware that crowing should only begin once the sun actually rises.
After briefly retracing our path from the day before, we continued south on the comfort of a paved road. The arid landscape gradually gave way to mountainous terrain that better reflected our preconceived notion of the Tibetan plateau. Our Landcruiser resolutely worked its way back and forth across the mountain as we climbed narrow switchback roads up the Gamta Pass.
Despite two lanes, our driver seemed to prefer the side reserved for oncoming traffic and appeared genuinely and repeatedly surprised when his conversations with our guide were interrupted by oncoming buses of Tibetan pilgrims.
Despite the perilous drive, the scenery was breathtaking, with the craggy mountain peaks set against the brilliant, cloudless blue sky. We were rewarded at the summit with a spectacular view of Yamdrok Lake.
Wrapped in a circular fashion around a central mountainous island, the lake is surrounded by yak casually grazing along the steep slopes.
The temperature dipped slightly as we gained altitude but we welcomed the clean, cold mountain air that was all the more gratifying after a week in smoggy China.
As we distanced ourselves from the heavy Chinese military presence in Lhasa, we were able to engage our guide in an increasingly frank discussion of Tibet. Our guide’s insights touched on some of the nuances that the Western press fails to capture of the centuries old Tibetan and Chinese relationship.
His words were genuine yet somewhat measured as he balanced his feelings for his own people against his dependence on the Chinese Government that issues his tourism license and monitors the entry of visitors into Tibet.
Old and New
He contrasted the well-documented Chinese abuses with the ways in which Tibetan life has improved with the modernizing effects of Chinese rule and the elimination of the feudal system under which some Tibetan peasants had lived.
Regardless of the Chinese, there is an obvious push and pull between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. While most tourists come to Tibet to see the religious dedication of the old pilgrims, such as those we pass prostrating themselves on the road as they slowly circle holy sites, we suspect that many young Tibetans would probably prefer to be riding in a Landcruiser wearing a polo shirt and Oakley sunglasses like our guide.
The Gyantse Valley
After winding down another mountain pass, we first caught sight of the valley enclosing the town of Gyantse. Encased by high mountains, the area is dedicated to agriculture and the land’s fertility was conspicuously different from the stark landscape we had passed that morning.
The valley is dominated by a centrally located hill with an ancient Tibetan Dzong (fort) precariously clinging to its rocky outcrops. Spread out beneath, the town appeared to be equally divided between the non-descript cement store fronts set along wide roads in the more modern Chinese section and the winding alleyways crammed with traditional Tibetan cinderblock buildings.
In the midst of the Tibetan area is the Palkhor Choede Monastery, the highlight of the town. With its various buildings climbing partially up the foothills leading to the Dzong’s perch, the monastery remains are surrounded by a wall that was partially damaged during the 1904 British invasion.
The intimacy of the Samye Monastery was missing here, as Gyantze serves as an overnight stopover for the popular tour group journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa along the Friendship Highway.
In an attempt to avoid a large group, we made our way to the Kumdrum, the spectacular Chorten (a stupa like structure) that stands eight stories tall and is divided into 77 chapels decorated with over 10,000 murals.
We slowly climbed to the top using wooden ladders in the dimly lit interior of the 15th-century building. Reaching our destination, we stepped out onto a circular platform that surrounded the top of the Chorten to a brilliant 365 degree view of the town, Dzong and the surrounding valley.
Following another scenic and relatively comfortable drive, we arrived at Shigatze, our next overnight destination. Shigatze is Tibet’s second largest city with a population of around 80,000 and is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama.
For the most part, Shigatze is non-descript and resembles a typical provincial Chinese city; however, we were lucky enough to be there on a holiday dedicated to the celebration of children. Villagers dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing had descended on the city from the surrounding areas and were picnicking in a large public square in front of the Tashil Lhunpo Monastery.
We wandered amongst colorfully attired groups sitting on the ground in circles, drinking homemade beer, socializing, and listening to impromptu musical performances. As the afternoon progressed, the beer took its effect and dancing started as we somewhat reluctantly turned our attention to the monastery.
As the seat of the second most powerful religious leader in Tibet, it was no surprise that Tashil Lhunpo was the largest monastery that we had seen outside of Lhasa. The highlight of the monastery was the Maitreya Temple.
Pushing aside large wall hangings woven from yak wool and designed to protect the murals from the harmful effects of the sun, our entrance into the temple was punctuated by the sound of a large bell being rung by Tibetan pilgrims to mark their arrival at the shrine.
With the sound of the bell reverberating in our ears, we first caught a glimpse of an immense statue of the Maitreya Buddha. Standing 86 feet high and weighing over 330,000 pounds (over 600 of which is gold), it was only after taking a trip to the third floor that we could take in the whole edifice.
Like most monasteries in Tibet, the monk population was only a fraction of the pre-1959 level (the year of the Dali Lama’s departure to India) and gave the sprawling complex an empty, almost museum-like feel.
Perhaps the most profound absence for the Tibetans was that of the Panchen Lama himself. In what can only be considered a harbinger of a future battle over the next Dali Lama, the Chinese arrested the young boy who was declared the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by the Tibetan exile community.
With no sign to this day of the original Panchen Lama, the Chinese selected their own reincarnation from a pro-Chinese Tibetan family. With little popular local support, he has spent most of his life in Beijing. The monastery that traditionally would have been his home is filled with his childhood pictures and those of his non-controversial predecessors. The tremendous political and religious ramifications of the picture seem far beyond its subject who, after all, is just a small child wrapped in ill-fitting ceremonial robes.
The next morning we left for our final overnight destination of Namtso Lake. After a seven-hour drive winding through valleys and mountain passes our driver finally pulled over so we could get our first sight of the immense body of water.
Emerging from our car at the pinnacle of the last mountain pass, we navigated around small patches of snow as we labored up a small embankment in the noticeably thinner and considerably cooler air. With prayer flags whipping around us and a strong wind making the near freezing June temperatures conspicuously colder, we marveled at the immensity of the lake.
Surrounded by snow covered mountain peaks that seemed to rise directly from the brilliant blue lake’s shore, Namtso stretched before us as far as the eye could see. After snapping a couple pictures, we retreated back to our car to begin the descent down to the Tashidorp Peninsula where we would be spending the night.
Having passed herds of grazing yaks and the tented camps of nomadic herdsmen, we finally pulled up to a small encampment on the shore of the lake. Our home for the night was a U-shaped camp of assorted corrugated tin buildings around a large patch of dirt.
Packs of menacing Tibetan dogs and bored-looking yaks wandered amongst the haphazardly assembled collection of buildings. With the road from Lhasa only completed in 2005, Namtso has only a semblance of a tourist infrastructure. In retrospect, this added to its allure, but at the time we must confess that we would have preferred the relative comfort of the drab but clean Chinese hotels in Gyantse and Shigatse.
Despite our long drive, Tibet’s location on the far west of the single Chinese time zone allowed us ample time to explore before the 9:30 pm sunset. Stopping every once in a while to catch our breath, we hiked to the top of a small hill overlooking the camp and lake.
At approximately 15,500 feet above sea level, Namtso’s altitude was nearly 3,500 feet higher then Lhasa’s and despite our acclimation time, we struggled to catch our breath following any type of exertion.
Compounding our altitude related discomfort was a joint decision to forsake water in the hopes of avoiding a run in with the camp’s dogs during a late night journey to the outhouse. After admiring the view and snapping pictures, we descended and embarked on a two-hour hike around the Tashidorp Peninsula.
The Peninsula was composed of rocky cliffs separated from the water by a small flat area that served as our path. Various shrines filled small caves and, with the exception of a couple Chinese Army officers snapping pictures, we appeared to be the only tourists at the site.
Making it back just before dark to the makeshift hut that would serve as our sleeping quarters for the night, we huddled under warm yak wool blankets and dreamed of the comparable luxury we would be returning to in Lhasa the next day.
The signs of the long-simmering conflict between the Chinese and the Tibetans are inescapable in Lhasa. Whether it is the unmistakable evidence of widespread Chinese migration, the visible military presence, or the uneasiness of our guide to answer certain questions, the symbols of the clash have at least partially obscured the welcoming nature of the Tibetan people and the extraordinary wonders of the city.
It is only by journeying outside of Lhasa that the traveler is able to start to comprehend the beauty and isolation of this hidden mountain kingdom that has captured the imagination of visitors for centuries.
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