The Wild West
Finding Solitude Among Yaks and Monks in the remote highlands of Kham Tibet.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited October 2016
Before us are endless grasslands occupied by grazing yaks. In front of us are towering mountains covered with radiant snow. Above by day is deep blue sky; above by night are strands of the Milky Way and shooting stars. Nearby are hot springs, wonderfully counteracting the freezing temperatures. The only other humans within sight are three friendly monks who kindly offered a bed to us in their humble abode. We are in the wild west of Sichuan, deep in the heart of Kham Tibet. This is the version of Tibet I have dreamed about since young, and now, in the midst of solitude with yaks and monks, it is a reality.
We are 30 miles from the nearest town of Ganzi, a lively and eventful place filled with markets, motorcycles, and Tibetan cowboys. This town is well known in the region for two important temples: nearby Ganzi Monastery and further away Darjay Monastery. We traveled to the latter. Upon arriving to Darjay Monastery, we are awestruck by its size and grandeur. It takes at least half an hour to circumambulate its perimeter, and within its walls are intricate and detailed paintings, craftsmanship, and architecture. It has an ancient appearance and the monastic inhabitants are focused, devoted, and friendly.
However, we did not travel here to visit every hall and corridor; our focus were the grasslands surrounding Darjay in all directions. We heard stories of being able to bunk with hospitable monks in the middle of the grasslands, somewhere on the outskirts of this monastery, with only one known detail, it's name "Dala Gong." We eagerly set off to find this abode, which turned out to be one of our most satisfying and authentic Tibetan experiences. While searching for Dala Gong, we were amazed by the scenery; yaks grazing, green grass beginning to turn yellow for the upcoming winter, gently sloping hills, and the bluest sky. Then, after walking around the plain for 20 minutes, we saw an old structure off in the distance.
Could this be Dala Gong? Well, being one of the only structures around in miles, we were willing to bet on it. We enter the courtyard through its back door and wandered its quarters, rooms and upper floors. Not a soul was found; we had the whole place to ourselves. Atop the roof, we rested on our bags, gazing into the expansive see of grass. The serenity in this moment is exactly what we were after. After 30 minutes in peaceful contemplation, we exited the perimeters to walk the grasslands and greet its only inhabitants, the yaks. It turns out they weren't so interested in us though. Over the hills, a nomadic Tibetan on his motorcycle zoomed by us, herding his wayward yaks. He stopped by to greet us, but as he spoke no Chinese, the most we could do was nod and smile. To our avail, he never heard of Dala Gong...
Nearing sun down, we headed back to the small monastery. It still looked empty, but suddenly appearing from one of the rooms was an elderly monk, delighted at our appearance. It turns out, this was fabled Dala Gong. He kindly gave us a tour of his humble living spaces, finished by asking us to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and instant noodles. This monk was in his 60's and an avid listener and learner. He spoke near fluency in Mandarin and even knew a few English phrases, thanks to other intrepid travelers before us. He shared his daily life as a monk, while we shared our's; a striking contrast, yet so refreshing. This monk was full of grace and calmness, speaking in confidence and humility. It was a fascinating to hear about his daily life and personal history.
The day quickly turned to night, and he told us of a nearby natural hot spring we should visit before it becomes much colder as we are nearly 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) high. It was pitch dark so we have no pictures from here, but I can assure you it was a treat to experience the natural heat in such a cold location.We returned back to Dala Gong, and climbed to the roof where we watched in amazement the countless stars. Never have we seen a sky so lit up before. Our new friend soon found us on his roof and invited us back into his room to share some yak milk tea together. This old man was so friendly, and eagerly desired our company. He then took out his ancient Tibetan scriptures that he had carefully wrapped in a yellow cloth. We were shocked how he handled these scriptures with such care, love, and passion. Multiple times everyday he would read these psalms, and after each time carefully wrapping the contents together, much more care than I have ever wrapped a Christmas present. In the world of this humble and gracious monk, these old pages were everything to him, the most precious objects of his life. We left that evening with a vivid memory, one we would never forget.
The next morning we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise of the early morning sun shining on the grass, giving the appearance of gold. We spent that morning on the balcony, reflecting on our where our journey has brought us thus far. We were in the wild west of Sichuan, the cultural heart of Kham Tibet, and it is here where we found peace among yaks and monks. To our old friend, thank you for your hospitality and kindness. I hope we can meet again.