From the beginning of our trip, we had a dream of visiting the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute. It was a place we had only ever read one article about, here. The pictures had blown us away so much, we felt like we just had to go there. The only problem was, we’d never met anybody who had been there, had ever even heard of it, or if foreigners were even permitted to visit.
In the name of adventure, we decided not to let this deter us. Whilst in Langmusi, we had a lucky break. We met a Tibetan tour guide who told us it should be possible to get there, by bus, but it would take us quite a long time and he couldn’t tell us exactly which towns we needed to go through, but he was sure we would be able to get there. We managed to get hold of a map (which we had obtained from our Australian friend, Wayne) and we figured we had enough time to give it a go before we had to return to Nanjing.
Our journey proved arduous, time-consuming and uncomfortable. It took us two days, two long-distance buses and a final nine-hour ride squashed horribly into the back of a shared mini-van, told to lie down and hide from police road-blocks and checks (I’m not sure it was actually necessary to ‘smuggle me in’) on the most treacherous, spectacular and at times, frightening roads I have ever been on. The road was so bumpy, and the views so limited by the filthy windows, I was unable to capture them on our camera.
For the first time in almost a year in China, we truly felt like we were stepping back in time. Everywhere we have been in this vast country, the roads have always been new and paved, and the Chinese economic boom inescapable. Not in far northern Sichuan province.
The scenery was stupendous, I felt like we were in native America, surrounded by densely forested mountain-sides, serving as a dramatic backdrop to the picturesque stone Tibetan villages which lined the wildest and fiercest river I had ever seen. We navigated the road next to it for hours, often with no barrier to prevent us slipping into the raging currents. The mountainsides had caved into the valley every hundred metres or so, the frequency of the landslips was stunning, but alarming – I had never seen so many. Fallen rocks, mud and branches blocked the road, as we drove around them. There were points where even the road had caved into the river. There were moments we both had knots in our stomach and shrieked in terror, as a convoy of trucks would come hurtling towards us around a blind bend, almost forcing us off the edge, but perhaps strangely, I felt exhilarated.
This was travel, this was adventure, this was exciting.
A few hours into the journey we stopped in a tiny little hamlet for the toilet, and to re-stock our supply of snacks and water. By now, it was nightfall and the stars illuminated the surroundings beautifully. I had never seen so many stars at night, we both got out the mini-van and gasped, “Wow”. You can’t see the stars in Nanjing. Amelia went for a pee in some bushes, before she bailed spectacularly on a rock walking back and somehow didn’t break her ankle, much to my relief, and later (after I realised she wasn’t seriously hurt), amusement.
I then went into a villagers small shop to buy some water, to find the shop-owner and his daughter’s jaws drop, as I casually walked in and asked for a bottle of water (which I can actually do, in Chinese…). I feel like I know how David Beckham must feel, every time he walks into a small shop somewhere. I don’t think the shopkeeper and his daughter had seen a white man before, definitely not in their little shop.
Around about 11pm, we finally arrived to Larung Gar. Again we gasped, what a place this looked. But we had no idea where to stay, or where to go. Fortunately, as was the story throughout the duration of our trip across western China, the people never ceased to amazed us with their warmth and kindness in making sure we were okay and found somewhere to stay. We got a dorm room for 40 RMB a night (£4).
When we woke up the next day it was cold. Our backs ached from the battering they had received on the road here. We were at 4,100 metres above sea-level and you could feel it. We had acclimatized to the altitude by now, and didn’t have too many problems. Although we were taking stairs much slower than usual…
We met some Taiwanese backpackers who had come here to find and listen to their Lama, and to also see what this place was all about. It seemed we were the only people who weren’t here for religious reasons.
The place was abuzz with life, everybody was a monk or nun, and there were 40,000 of them living here. Apparently it is the biggest Buddhist Institute in the world. I’m not going to claim otherwise.
Self-made bungalows were compactly built into the valley-side, one on top of the other. The mountainsides were awash with these small red houses, more prayer flags than I care to remember, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the lush green, rolling mountainsides.
Everybody was welcoming, so many people shouted out hello and smiled at us, it was refreshing to the cold and unwelcoming stares we received in Xinjiang. Nobody tried to rip us off or cheat us, nobody tried to sell us anything. There were almost no beggars, no foreigner pricing, no entrance fee. Everything was at cost-price, this was a place of worship and education, and not a place for profit or greed (a rare thing in modern China). There were no Chinese tour buses, although there were a small number of independent Chinese travellers. There are very few places like this in China, in fact, I think you’d be extremely hard pushed to find anywhere like it, well, anywhere.
If there is paradise in China (although it’s actually Tibetan)…
This is a place that doesn’t feature on maps, guidebooks or tour company itineraries. This is a place that has been almost always closed to foreigners, and only now is word of its existence getting out. It amazes me to think that a place such as Larung Gar could remain so relatively unknown in 2013, but I struggle to see how a place of such outstanding magnificence can continue to remain so anonymous. I toyed with the idea of not writing about Larung Gar, for every blog post and article written about it online, word will spread and its secret will get out.
But then I figured, I’m writing in English and this blog is blocked in China. A few hardy foreign travellers who may have read this article and made such an effort to get there are not going to ruin its majesty. I urge those willing and able to make the journey to go, before Chinese tour groups start arriving by the bus load, and Tibetan culture and Buddhism is further destroyed by the relentless Hanification of Tibet, and its outlying areas in Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.
Experience Tibet and go to these places before it’s too late, and spread the word of its plight. We unfortunately can’t, for doing so could put us in danger whilst we are still in China – but I know, Amelia knows, WE know the truth. We’ve heard and seen the truth.
Facilities and infrastructure may be basic, but Larung Gar for us, is one of the wonders of the modern world.
We arrived in Sertar from Langmusi. We first took an early morning bus from Langmusi to Zoige (2 hours).
We spent a day and night in Zoige before catching a bus from Zoige to Ma’erkang (7 hours).
When we arrived to Maerkang, the public buses were sold out for the next two days. We took a shared mini-van to Sertar for 300 RMB per person (anything from 7-9 hours, dependent on road conditions). In total it took us two days.
There are two hotels in Larung Gar. One is expensive and booked up beforehand, the other is cheaper. The cheaper one is just up the road opposite the main temple. It can be difficult for a man and a woman to share a room together. They may have made an exception for us, I’m not sure.
There are only shared public toilets, which are long-drops. Don’t expect 5* luxury.
We spent two days and nights in Larung Gar, our last night in nearby Sertar (25 minutes away). There are minibuses leaving all the time shuttling people between Larung Gar and Sertar (the closest town).
We had no issues with guards at the entrance, or checking our passports. Our mini-van didn’t stop at the police check-points on the journey there. We walked around freely as foreigners, both in Sertar and Larung Gar, and had no problems with police or locals.
Getting out of Sertar, there are definitely buses to Ganzi and Kangding. You can take a shared mini-van to Chengdu, but I don’t recommend it!
The journey to Kangding took 14 hours, although usually it should be 13.
From Kangding, it’s 7 hours to Chengdu.
Make sure you allow yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude. At 4,100 metres above sea-level, Larung Gar is 500 metres higher than Lhasa. You will feel it.
We travelled at the beginning of August 2013.