Culture of Mystery
Experience the sights, sounds, and smells in the worlds second largest Buddhist institute. Full of mystery and simplicity, this place is unique in its Tibetan identity.
Be the first to receive Subscribabout sales, events and exclusive offers.
By Kevin McFarland
Visited October 2016
We were cramped in a small minivan packed with 6 other Tibetans, driving higher and higher on a road becoming more frozen and dangerous by the turn. Down the embankments lie abandoned vehicles that have steered off this winding, frozen road. The air is thinning and bitterly cold from the heightened elevation; we ascend to 15,700 feet (4800 m). Summer is over and winter is on the horizon; brown and white are the only colors we see in this altitude. Atop the highest pass, though, we are greeted with an array of colors. Red, green, orange, yellow, and blue prayer flags are draped across the road, flapping in the wind, completely oblivious to the elevation. Our vehicle comes to a halt atop the mountain, and our fellow Tibetan passengers add more strands while chanting Buddhist scriptures. Back on the road and only a couple hours from our destination, we are heading to a small valley 13,100 ft (4000 m) high. We were off the beaten path days ago, but now we are venturing to a place completely off the map, and almost entirely unknown to the outside world. That is, unless you are a Tibetan Buddhist.
We are travelling to Yarchen Gar, the world’s second largest Buddhist institute consisting of numerous gilded Monasteries, hundreds of prayer wheels, and a river separating the monks from the nuns, totaling over 10,000 devotees. Tibet, due to its daunting terrain and natural borders, is seeped in ancient traditions, with centuries old monastic structures occupying the land. This monastery, however, is far from ancient. At only 36 years old, Yarchen Gar is already one of the most important centers for Tibetan Buddhism on this planet. This Buddhist encampment encapsulates this culture so succinctly, it is an experience unlike any other and reminiscent of time-travelling to an ancient civilization lost in the records of history.
Upon arriving in Yarchen Gar, we are caught aghast at the glimpse of their living conditions. The inhabitants all dwell in shacks crumbling apart, stacked on top of each other. They are all painted in Tibetan red, a color that, despite being so overused, works so well in this region. The smell of Buddhist incense is mixed with sewage, enriching yet plaguing the air. The living spaces are so cramped, ironic because of the endless, uninhabited grasslands surrounding the area. The gaudy temples and golden prayer wheels are erected besides piles of trash. Yet despite these conditions, hundreds of pilgrims arrive daily, hoping for a chance to meet a lama. Thousands of monks are vying for spots on the grasslands to hear the teachings from the sages. Countless other monks are either in meditative stages perched atop the hill or inside a square box no larger than 3 ft by 3 ft. The remaining monks who recognize our presence are friendly, but bewildered at our sight, clamoring when trying to snap a photo of them. The atmosphere is alive here, and our eyes don’t know what to focus on. Atop the hill, the view of the monks and nuns living quarters separated by a river is unlike anything we’ve seen. Behind us is a giant golden statue of Buddha with monks and pilgrims circumnavigating its perimeter. Beside us are a group of curious goats, whom are quite lucky to be living here as the monks practice a vegan lifestyle for the most part. Off in the distance are endless grasslands fringed by snow-capped peaks. Very few places on the expansive Tibetan plateau really captures the Tibetan Buddhist culture as does Yarchen Gar. Taking in all the sights, we can’t help but to wonder at this culture of mystery.
The weather in the morning was splendid, with the high sun shining on the yellow grass so gracefully and the reflective gold of the monasteries enhancing its majesty. By noon the clouds rolled in and out, casting constantly moving shadows over the monasteries, encampments, and hills. By two in the afternoon, though, the weather took a turn for the worse; the temperature quickly dipped below freezing and flurries fell from the sky. In what minutes before was a peaceful contemplation atop the hill suddenly turned into a frantic scurry to find warmth in the form of food. There is a restaurant specializing in Sichuanese dishes, indicating we are still in China. Sitting in the restaurant, we were observing in amusement the local Tibetans in awe of the small and outdated TV playing some version of China’s Got Talent, yet another indication of China. The Chinese military presence was not seen here as opposed to other Tibetan towns, most likely due to its remote location. Recent history suggests Yarchen Gar is not immune though, as its neighbor, Larung Gar, recently received demolitions from the government and indefinite closure to foreigners.
High altitude creates some dramatic temperature swings, so we decided to make our way back to Ganzi, the nearest town, before it gets even colder. We walked for the last time through the institute, silently trying to digest all that we have witnessed. Life on the roof of the world is both simple and mysterious. We found a driver, who was quite amused to see us so out of place here, and headed back. Seated next to us was a young Tibetan nomad who recently sold most of his possessions to make the pilgrimage to Yarchen Gar. He enthusiastically shared his experiences while simultaneously attempting to convert us to Buddhism. His devotion was contagious, and although we will not falter from our own religion, we appreciated his sincere commitment. Many Tibetans, such as this young nomad, unnervingly display this level of devotion. Often, I ponder why I do not towards my own faith. I find there are too many distractions around my life, often fogging my mind to focus on what is truly important. Recently, I have been longing for a simpler life as observed in Tibet.
MAKE IT HAPPEN:
GETTING THERE: Yarchen Gar can be reached in two-or-three days travel from Chengdu, the Capital of Sichuan Province. In Chengdu, first catch a bus to Kangding, the former capitol of the Kham Tibetan region of China. This journey takes 8 hours and will put you back 111 Yuan (as of 2017). The next morning take a bus to Ganzi, the largest city in the wild west regions of Sichuan. This costs close to 100 Yuan amd a seven hour journey. From Ganzi, charter a minivan to take you the remaining three hours to the Yarchen Gar Monastery. This costs 45 Yuan per person for a seat in the minivan. These minivans are not difficult to locate if you are in the center of town. For us, the owner of our guesthouse arranged the driver and minivan for us.
LIVING THERE: We spent only one day in Yarchen Gar, which was enough considering the main sights can be taken in a day without rushing. However, if one wants to stay overnight, there are a couple extremely simple guesthouses that will take in travelers at a modest price in the range of 100 Yuan for an own room. From what I have heard, it is a very basic room with little to none facilities. Ask any monk and they will point you in the right direction. In addition, as with most places on the Tibetan plateau, tenting will most likely be fine. But be forewarned Yarchen Gar is in extremely high elevation and can experience freezing nights even in the middle of summer.