Tag Archives: Tibet

Larung Gar, Sertar – Discovering Another World

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.

tibetan village north sichuan smuggled into sertar

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.

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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.

larung-gar-houses

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)…

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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.

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Practical Information

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.

Lovely Little Langmusi

Arriving in Langmusi from Xiahe felt like a step deeper into Tibet. The town was small, surrounded by towering green hills, grasslands, and prayer flags. You could walk from one end to another in five minutes. There were two large, impressive monasteries, which the rest of the town had been built around. Several guesthouses, restaurants and shops now line the main road, it was apparent the town had a fledgling tourist industry, still in the early stages of development – but Langmusi on first impression felt nice, really nice.

We found a lovely little Tibetan run guesthouse, ran by the loveliest Tibetan family. Our rooms were new, modern and comfortable – and great value at 160 RMB per night. It’s just as well, for in coming days I would later be thanking my lucky stars for our nice, comfortable room, hot shower, and clean, usable western toilet!

Our first afternoon we walked up to one of the monasteries. We climbed the hill, and admired the lovely views below; of the town, surrounding landscape, and the marvellous golden roofs of the monastery.

langmussi views langmussi-monastery1

We carried on walking up, and soon the town was out of sight. The landscapes were dramatic. I was reminded of home, as the wind shrieked around the lush, rolling green hills and drops of rain fell from above.

In the distance, we could see some kind of shrine on top of one of the hills marking something out. We decided to head towards it. When we got there, we found a lot of prayer flags, but also, to our surprise and initial amusement, bottles of alcohol.

langmussi-landscape

“What was this?”, we wondered.

“Maybe this is where the local Tibetan youths congregate on a Friday night and get lashed.”, I joked.

It didn’t take long for us to actually work out what it was. We quickly realised the alcoholic bottles were dotted around an area of scorched earth, where someone had clearly lit a fire and burned belongings of some sort.

We then looked to our right, and saw numerous axes, saws and an array of other instruments, presumably used for dismemberment, littering the area. Then we saw a skull. A human one.

“Urgh… is this what I think it is?”, I asked Amelia.

“Urgh, gross. I guess it is.”, she replied, weirded out by the sight before her.

It was unpleasant, slightly disturbing and not something we had planned on seeing, having read about it was enough for us – but as we were here, and had stumbled across it by accident, why not have a look around? You know, when in Rome…

So, naturally, that’s what we did – albeit, for not very long. We counted four or five human skulls, too many instruments of dismemberment to remember, and dozens of other bone fragments, and even thigh bones, some that still had flesh on. The smell wasn’t great, so we soon retreated.

In Tibetan culture, they don’t bury their people into the ground when they die, or cremate them. They take their bodies to a local mountain-top, dismember the body into small pieces and leave it there for predatory birds and other wildlife to devour.langmussi-skyburial

We had accidentally stumbled across one of these places, known as a Sky Burial site.

“Now that was interesting”, I said, “But pretty grim”, Amelia added, as we walked back into town, reflecting on what we had just discovered.

We spent our first night with our new friends; Wayne, the coolest 68 year old I have ever met, from Australia, and Valentine, a young French backpacker, putting the world to right whilst eating fairly rubbish, over-priced food at the Black Tent Cafe.

Our second morning in Langmussi, the weather was atrocious; cold, windy and rainy. We had planned to go for a walk, but didn’t fancy it given the weather conditions. After a morning of doing nothing, we decided to go out and brave it, for we were getting restless.

So off out of town we went, walking up a long, deserted mountain road. We wanted to go further, for the scenery was becoming increasingly beautiful, but we had been told to be extremely wary of the local dogs. We’d heard bad stories, and to be quite frank, we felt nervous. The nomads and local people had huge Tibetan Mastiff guard dogs, which were rarely tied up. We’d been warned that they have been known to attack and maul passers-by. In the end, we didn’t walk very far, for we didn’t want to get mauled, or worse, by an overtly aggressive, possibly rabid dog, when the nearest even half-respectable hospital is a fifteen hour drive south in Chengdu. So day two was a disappointment as we made our way back to town…

Day three, supposedly our last day in Langmusi, started off great. Amelia and I, plus Wayne, went for a hike into one of the gorges. I could write an infinite number of superlatives to describe how great it was, and it still wouldn’t do it justice. It was a wonderful walk, and we had a great day, despite spending the first two hours walking around in circles trying to find the correct starting point!

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Unfortunately, my run of three years in Asia without getting full-on food poisoning was up. As we walked back into town in late-afternoon, I was beginning to feel pretty rough, and wanted to get back to the hotel. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was so exhuasted and felt so terrible, I had resigned myself to the next 24-48 hours being spent snuggling up to the toilet. Little had I realised, when I abandoned Amelia and Wayne in my rush to get back to the hotel room, that Amelia still had the key.

I was frantic as I tried to explain to the hotel owners through pretty ridiculous body language, hand gestures and (very) broken Chinese that my girlfriend had the key, I was going to throw up / shit myself any second on their lovely, clean, white tiled floor, and that I needed them to open my room with the spare key as a matter of URGENCY.

They seemed to understood that I was ill, didn’t have a key, and needed the toilet urgently – but they just stood there, gathered in concern for the poor, distressed white guy, but doing nothing, they didn’t know what to do. And they didn’t have a spare key either!

This was now becoming a nightmarish situation. I was breathing heavily, trying my absolute best to not chunder everywhere and keep it down / in a little longer. “Hurry Amelia”, I thought, but Amelia was no-where to be seen, as she had no idea how ill I felt.

Suddenly, as if god had shone a light on the room next-door to ours, to my delight, I realised nobody had checked into the room next to ours, and the door was open and unlocked. “Can I?”, I asked, as I pointed towards the room, “Yes”, they replied, quite clearly aware that it was either the toilet or the floor that gets it.

And I legged it in, much to my, and probably the hotel owners relief, it was the toilet and bucket that got it, instead of the lovely white tiled floor in the public area. Twenty minutes later, I was able to leave the bathroom and collapse into my own bed.

Amelia later told me, to my amusement, that a Chinese couple checked into the room only minutes later, completely unaware of the destruction that had been wrought upon their bathroom only minutes earlier. We cleaned up of course, but no effort was made by the hotel to sterilise anything before the couple checked-in.

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The next two days were spent in the confines of our hotel room, boredom set-in, and I longed for the developing world comforts of Nanjing again. There was no internet, no English TV channels, nothing.

My days were brightened by Amelia and Wayne, who happened to take this very funny photo one morning whilst walking around the town.

in the man hole 1

For some reason, no manholes in the town were covered. This proved problematic for us, especially at night-time when there were no street-lights, as it was utterly impossible to know where you were walking, it was actually quite scary. On the bright side, at least the locals had difficulties too, even in broad daylight.

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After five days in Langmusi, we were ready to leave. Our next stop was Sertar, only we didn’t know how to get there, or how long it would take us.

Livin’ it Large at Labrang

The Labrang Monastery is apparently the largest Tibetan monastery outside of actual Tibet. Situated in a small town called Xiahe, 3,000 metres above sea-level in south-west Gansu Province, this was our first experience of a Tibetan area.

We spent two days and nights in Xiahe. The town is divided into three sections; Han, Hui and Tibetan. We spent our time in the Tibetan area, nearby to the Monastery. The town had a distinct feel to it, noticeably different to anywhere else we had been to in China, or on our trip thus far.

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Things were different here; the way people dressed, the architecture, the monks, the scenery. And then there was the monastery. There were pilgrims who had travelled from afar to walk the kora (a holy walk around the perimeter of the monastery), locals who walked the kora daily, and of course the tourists, like us, who had come to see what it was all about.

Apart from the general majesty of the monastery, which was fantastic by all accounts; two things stick in my mind about Xiahe:

1 – Poverty

Firstly, there were so many more beggars here than elsewhere in China, many with deformed limbs. Tibetans are poor, very very poor. They certainly haven’t had their fair slice of the pie in recent years.

2 – Shit everywhere, literally

Second, over the last year we have grown accustomed to seeing small children peeing and pooing all over the place in China; be it on the subway, at a super-market checkout or into public bins, whatever, babies don’t wear nappies out here. It’s a fact of life.

But we aren’t used to seeing adults squatting and pooping all over the place, quite like they did in Xiahe, around the Labrang Monastery. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It wasn’t just one incidence either, we saw this more than we care to remember, and people did it shamelessly. One middle-aged lady was quite openly doing her business barely ten metres away from the start of the kora trail, in full view of locals and tourists, and no, she didn’t use any paper. Gross.

The highlight for us though, surely had to be ‘shit street’ as we dubbed it. It’s a bit of a pain to find, but it’s at the end of the outer kora trail (the longer one, where you walk up the mountain), as you are coming down towards town. At first we noticed three young women who giggled as they saw us, and started to walk back down towards town – we questioned what they had been doing up here. Then there was the middle aged man who just stared at us as we walked past, as we tried not to stare back at him, squatting, playing with his phone, and pooping.

And then we looked at the ground. For hundreds of metres, poops littered the entire area. It was as if they had been measured out perfectly, for they all seemed equally spaced. Clearly they were human, and there wasn’t a single trace of toilet paper, anywhere. It would be quite impressive, were it not so damn disgusting.

labrang-shitstreet

One of the worst things about it, most of this ‘shit street’ was actually just a wide channel made from concrete that had been built to channel rain-water off the mountainside, and into the river below, that ran through the town. So the next time it rains, those hundreds, possibly thousands, of little terds that have accumulated over the previous few days, will be washed into the river, and downstream into the rest of China. And this is just one town. Think of all the others, in this nation of 1,300,000,000 people.

And here are some of our, perhaps arguably, more pleasant photographs.

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Western China – Summer 2013

This summer Amelia and I were lucky enough to spend five weeks backpacking around western China.

This trip turned out to be the most adventurous trip we’ve been on by far, and certainly one of the most rewarding. Travelling was at times rough, with numerous horrific long distance bus journey’s, terrible food, and the ever present worry that local authorities will take a disliking to our presence (they didn’t, on the whole). The scenery however, the places we saw and many of the people we met, were quite simply amazing, and more than made up for this.

Over the next few weeks we will share some of our pictures, stories and newly-acquired knowledge for the benefit of other travellers, because quite frankly, there is little to-no information available in the English language about some of these areas, and if we had known some things beforehand, it could have made life much easier for us.

We started in Xinjiang, and eventually headed south-east through Gansu and Tibetan parts of Sichuan, before finishing off in Chengdu. Below is a rough map of the route we took.

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