Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tibet's Mountaintop Ganden Monastery

Mountaintop monastary

Three years have passed since I visited Tibet. For a long time, I was hesitant to write much about our travels there. In contrast to how most bloggers would react, I wanted to hold the journey close inside my heart and mind. Keep it private. Not share too many details. It was as if writing about the trip would chip off a little piece of the treasure to give it away to each reader, leaving me with only a fraction of what I started with. Maybe it's like Fight Club. The first rule of Tibet is "You do not talk about Tibet."

In many ways, this is what China prefers. While visits from local Chinese tourists is booming, the Chinese government tries to shield Tibet from foreigners. We had to get a China visa, then a separate Tibet visa. We were required to have an approved guide accompany us everywhere. Like Hugh Conway from James Hilton's Lost Horizon, I was surprised to find that our guide spoke English fluently. If you identify yourself as a journalist or government official? Forget about doing anything other than a Chinese propaganda tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. There's a reason why the Dalai Lama is a refugee in India. He's not welcome in Tibet, and it's not something that the Chinese government wants you to spend much time dwelling on or investigating.

Looking down into the Kyi-chu valley from the monastary

One standout memory of our trip to Tibet is our visit the Ganden Monastery. The man that everyone refers to as "the Dalai Lama" is the 14th person to hold this title, and Ganden is the monastic university that he graduated from. The name means "joyous" in Tibetan.

As we drove out from the center of  Lhasa, the capital city, we passed construction cranes building one modern apartment block after another. Ethnic Tibetans are fast becoming a minority in this area as the Chinese government encourages Han Chinese to move into the region, and those new arrivals need a place to live. We journeyed 40 kilometers (25 miles), passing small villages and yak herds strolling down the highway, oblivious to passing cars.

Homes by the roadside checkpoint

We split off from the main highway and turned onto the narrow road winding its way up Wangbur Mountain to the monastery. Strangely, the van stops at a roadside checkpoint, but only my husband and I are required to get out and have our backpacks scanned. My children are permitted to remain in the van, and nothing is said about their bags. In fact, I'm not sure the guard even looked at the screen as my items passed through the X-ray. It felt like a pointless procedure.

Along the way, we gained 310 meters (1000 feet) in elevation until we are standing 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level. If I thought the air was thin in Lhasa, it was even thinner on this mountaintop. The effects of the altitude on our body worsened, breathing became more labored, and we realized we wouldn't have more than an hour up here before we needed to head back down. Thank goodness we had brought mini oxygen cans with us! Other visitors who are better acclimatized to the altitude often spend an additional hour hiking the kora, a pilgrim circuit around the monastery that takes them higher up to where the ropes of prayer flags stretch to the peak and flutter in the sky.

Red robes and red buildings

As we began to walk around Ganden Monastery, I realized we were the only foreigners there. Judging by their clothes and facial features, the only other people around were Tibetans. The Chinese tourists that we'd seen in Lhasa were nowhere to be found. Our guide told us that since it was the end of October, the harvest was over and many locals used this time to help the monks with maintenance on the monastery.

Monks and villagers prep saffron yellow, white, and red paint for the buildings

While the monastery looked positively ancient to me, the buildings were only a few decades old. The original monastery was founded in 1409 and grew over the centuries until more than 5,000 monks called it home. In 1959, the Tibetan people revolted against Chinese control, and the government retaliated by destroying Ganden. Fearing for his life and freedom, the Dalai Lama managed to disguise himself as a soldier and escape to northern India where he still lives in exile. There, he created a settlement also named Ganden Monastery which teaches a similar curriculum to what was taught in the original before the revolt.

The Chinese Red Guard shelled Tibet's Ganden Monatery with artillery in 1966 and forced the monks to dismantle whatever was left. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the buildings were dynamited. Uninterrupted rebuilding began in the 1980's, and 400 monks were residing there at the time of our visit. In 1996, one hundred monks were arrested and a couple died after rioting in response to a new ban on pictures of the Dalai Lama. The monastery was temporarily closed to tourists during this tumultuous time. Finding out this history made me truly appreciate the dedication and perseverance of the villagers and monks who knew that this place could once again be destroyed if they stepped too far out of line.

Repainting the white chörten (stupa) on the left and a pole covered in prayer flags on the right.
See the religious wheel flanked by two deer that are the standard rooftop adornment of Tibetan temples? 

The most prominent building is the imposing, red structure in the center of the complex. It serves as Tsongkhapa's mausoleum. He was the founder of this monastery, and his body was entombed in a silver and gold stupa after his death in 1419. During the Cultural Revolution, Ganden monks were forced to burn his mummified body, but they managed to save some parts from the fire. What I was looking at is the reconstruction of the original building and what is left of Tsongkhapa is housed here today.

Ornate entrance to the Assembly Hall

We spent most of our time walking through the Assembly Hall. As with other Tibetan buildings, etiquette requires visitors to step over the threshold into the building without stepping on it. The threshold represents the shoulders of Sakyamuni who founded Buddhism. This seemed like no big deal until I realized how tall and wide the thresholds are. Those are some really sturdy "shoulders." To complicate matters, a banner was hung midway down the doorway, causing us to duck under it while making sure our feet cleared the tall threshold step.

Yak butter candles burn bright in the assembly hall

The inside of the Assembly Hall was awash in the five symbolic colors of Buddhism known as the Five Pure Lights.

  • Blue = Purity and healing
  • Red = Life force and preservation
  • Yellow = Rootedness and renunciation
  • White = Learning and knowledge
  • Green = Balance and harmony

These are the same colors as the prayer flags we saw all throughout the region.

Empty shawls on ornate chairs with money in front of them

Rows of benches had piles of red robes spaced among them waiting for the monks to return for prayer. I'm not sure if they're another layer on top of the robes they are already wearing or if they switch them out. More elaborately embroidered robes were carefully arranged on ornate chairs as if expecting someone to take shape inside them. Money offerings were laid out on the table before them.

One of the many large Buddha statues

Numerous statues in glass front alcoves lined the walls of the Assembly Hall. If you look closely, you can see the gold painting behind it. My guide carefully explained each one, but alas, I did not take notes. You could say that I was living in the moment instead of planning for writing a future blog post.

By this time, the altitude was taking its toll, and I was starting to feel very fatigued and headachy. As much as I wanted to explore further, it was time to head back down. I soaked in the quietness of the surroundings and the wonder of being on a mountaintop monastery on the Roof of the World. Does the Dalai Lama dream of returning to this place when Tibet is free of Chinese Occupation? It's such a sacred place that I imagine he must.

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  1. Tibet is definitely something I wanna do! #wkendtravelinspiration

  2. I haven't been to Tibet, yet. So thank you for sharing your experiences and photography. The colors are so rich, it all looks so incredible. I'm not so sure about yak butter candles though...

  3. I can see why you wanted to keep a bit of Tibet to yourself. It looks like a beyond special place - and definitely not an easy place to visit. I'm not sure I'll ever make it to Tibet so thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you for sharing your visit to Tibet. I knew there were problems between the Chinese government and the people and your description sheds a bit more history on this.

  5. What an interesting trip. I would love to visit Tibet and your post made me want to go there even more. I've heard about the frictions in this region. It's so sad that the Chinese invaded this country.

  6. Lyn - A Hole in my ShoeOctober 29, 2016 at 10:01 PM

    Great to read about such a special place. It looks so colourful but not a very easy place to visit. Not sure I'll get there so thank you for sharing.

  7. I understand why you might want to keep your memories to yourself, treasuring it in your own way, but I am very glad you decided to share this story with us. I am interested in knowing about what altitude were you acclimatized to before heading up to Ganden Monastery? I would absolutely love to visit this part of the world and will definitely refer back to the knowledge gained from your post. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful post. I can imagine wanting to hold the experience close. I've seen documentaries and pictures from the 'cultural revolution' the invasion and it still breaks my heart. What's wonderful is to see the temple still exists and the monks carry on in many ways.

  9. How very interesting, and I get it that what goes on in Tibet, stays in Tibet. I liked your personalised approach to this very much

  10. We were living on the island of Penang, Malaysia at the time. Its elevation is 7m or 23 feet. You can see why we had so much trouble!

  11. They smelled like regular candles... not a bit "yakky" at all.

  12. What an interesting place to visit. I didn't realise you could get into Tibet. I thought it was closed to tourists. I imagine it was a once in a lifetime experience.

  13. I understand what you mean about not sharing, we sometimes feel the same about places we go to. Tibet looks and sounds amazing not sure I will ever get there but your post makes me wish I could,

  14. I can certainly see why you'd want to keep such a special place to yourself!

  15. What beautiful pictures, this is a lovely post. The Ganden Monastery looks absolutely stunning

  16. I came across your Ganden photo while looking for something completely different - house plans(??!!!) I went to Ganden in 1987 when it was still mainly a ruin after the shelling with only a couple of buildings that had been restored and there were only a handful of monks. It is amazing to see it now. I can't bear to go back to Lhasa - it looks so awful now and my contacts say it is a centre of prostitution, corruption, garish lights Las Vegas style and general ethnic destruction. I have been to Kham more recently which was wonderful - but even then the monasteries were being bulldozed. So sad.


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