Traveling in the land of the yaks

In October 2018 I was traveling in Kham and Amdo. Kham and Amdo are big Tibetan areas in the Chinese provinces Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. While Kham, for the most part located in Sichuan province is very mountainous, Amdo is for the most part located in Qinghai province on high plateau and has vast grasslands. And on those grasslands still many nomads are living and they have big herds of yaks. So when you are driving over these grasslands you see yaks everywhere. And you have to be very careful with driving because these yaks are also walking on the roads.

Big kora

My travel again started in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. I made a big round trip of three weeks with my Tibetan guide and driver (with car). We called it a big kora. From Chengdu we went west to Kangding, on to Yushu and north to Xining (the capital of Qinghai province) and from Xining to the south-east to Xiahe (Labrang) and ending in Songpan, where I stayed for about a week. After Songpan I took a shared Van to Chengdu. And with that my kora was completed and I flew home again.

During this big loop we visited many places. And I saw so many beautiful landscapes, monasteries, people and so on. Oh yes, and many, many yaks! I really wanted to do this trip because it meant for me that I would see a new part of Amdo. A part that is very remote. This part is called Nangchen and is not visited very often by foreign travelers. Also on this trip I would visit the town of Yushu, that was also new to me. As was the whole road from the little town of Manigange to Yushy, Nangchen and north to Xining.

Chengdu to Yarchen

As said my travel started at Chengdu and from there I went west. So the second day of my travel in China we went in the direction of Kangding. Most of the road to Kangding is already a highway (already to the city of Luding). But the last part still is not. So then we slowed down mostly because of all the big trucks on the road. But Kangding wasn’t our destination for that day. We had to go a little further and we had to cross the high Zheduo Pass (4,298 meters), situated a little distance after Kangding.

When we left Chengdu it was raining a bit. And the whole day it kept raining a little bit. It was raining also a bit when we started climbing up to the pass. But when we came higher, the rain became snow. It became totally a white world and it became very slippery on the road. And the result was that all traffic came to a stand still. A real traffic jam with normal cars but also many big and heavy trucks. We hadn’t reached the top of the pass yet, when the traffic jam started. And we stood still for about five hours. After some five hours the police got the traffic driving again (not the big trucks though). Fortunately my guide and driver had snow chains in the car and the put them on the wheels. So after five hours we could slowly drive up to the pass and descend after the top. When we came lower the snow chains could get of and we drove to the village of Waze and arrived there in the dark. In Waze we found a good hotel and we could have a well deserved rest.

The next morning it was a totally white winter landscape at Waze. We started driving through this beautiful winter landscape and I could make some beautiful pictures. But when we drove trough a tunnel, we came in another valley and the world was green again. And it was lovely, sunny weather. That day we drove to the town of Xinlong. I had been there 4 years earlier, but today we drove to our destination over another and small road. The views were excellent and the villages were lovely. Halfway the afternoon we arrived at Xinlong. After a late lunch/early dinner we walked up to the monastery (Zera Gompa Monastery) above Xinlong. It was beautiful there. Unfortunately we were too late to see the inside of the Gompa. It was closed already.

The next day we drove from Xinlong via the town of Garze to Yarchen Gar. The landscapes were stunning again. And we had a long stop at Garze (Ganzi). Garze is beautifully located in a green valley and is surrounded with white mountain tops. In Garze we visited the great Stupa. And we wanted to visit Garze Monastery. But the monastery was closed because there was a special event. This monastery had a new, big Stupa and they celebrated the fact that it was ready for use. So all the monks were at the celebration. And also lots of people were there. So it was special to visit this new Stupa and the celebration.

Yarchen Gar

Four years ago I visited Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar. Since June 2016 Larung Gar is closed to foreign visitors. But Yarchen Gar is open. I really wanted to visit Yarchen Gar again. Because I found Larung and Yarchen unbelievable places. Yarchen lies in an isolated valley at an altitude of about 4,000 meters. The monastery is associated with the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. With more than 10,000 monks and nuns it’s one of the largest concentration of nuns and monks in the world. Most of the people living there are nuns. And especially the nuns live in appalling conditions. They live in very basic and small houses. If you can call it houses. You can’t believe your eyes when you see these houses. But the nuns don’t seem to care.

Compared to four years ago Yarchen had grown. There were also new temples and stupas. And at this moment they were also constructing a new temple. Also new (small) hotels were build and shops. There is now a real “shopping mall” in Yarchen. And they had constructed public toilets. The new small hotels meant that I had a basic but better room then four years ago (although with a shared bathroom/toilet but this was a clean one). We stayed two nights in Yarchen and I loved every minute of my stay. We were lucky to be blessed (again) by the head lama of Yarchen, Namkay Norbu. Although we had to wait some hours on him returning to Yarchen from Garze, where he was for the inauguration festivities of the new Stupa.

On to Derge and Yushu

After visiting Yarchen Gar it was the planning to visit the town of Baiyu with it’s monastery. But because of bad weather (rains) a mountainside near Baiyu had collapsed into the river and was blocking the river. So a lake had been formed and the road was inaccessible and dangerous. So we couldn’t go to Baiyu. Instead we drove back to Garze and from there via Lake Yilhun Lhatso, which lake we visited, to Derge. It was cloudy weather that day and up in the mountains (above 4,000 meters) it had snowed. So the roads were bad. But beneath 4,000 meters the roads were good. On the way I saw many monasteries, some new I believe. We arrived too late in Derge to visit inside the monastery there and see the printing press. But I had seen that already four years ago, so it wasn’t really a miss.

The next day we drove from Derge to Yushu. A long drive. It rained that morning at Derge. But as soon as we were on our way and got at a little higher altitude, it became again a white world. When we drove past Lake Yilhun Lhatso, we could see this lake was in total winter ambiance. From this lake to Yushu the road was totally new for me. The whole day we drove at an altitude between 4,000 and 4,500 meters. It was a great drive. We drove through vast grasslands which is nomad land. We saw many nomad tents. Not only the new while ones but also the traditional black one’s, who are made of yak wool. And everywhere there were yaks, so many, many yaks. And I was amazed by the great amount of monasteries and temples along the road. Big ones. Against noon the snow disappeared and it became a green world again.

At Yushu we had a relaxed day. We visited two monasteries, that we could only see from the outside. The first monastery was some kilometers outside Yushu and was of the Karma Kagyu sect. The second one was in Yushu itself and is situated on a hill overlooking Yushu. From the entrance of our hotel I had a great view on this monastery. This was a monastery from the Sakya sect, which you can easily see at the colors (gray walls with red and white stripes). When you are in Yushu you certainly have to visit the great mani stone wall. A mani stone is a stone with a mantra (prayer) written on it. And there were so many mani stones there piled up together to make it walls. And every day new mani stones are added by pilgrims. And it’s such a peaceful and relaxed place. There are also all kind of nice shops, little restaurants and market stalls. And of course lots of pilgrims.

Nangchen

The next day we went to Nangchen. Nangchen is a very remote area. But it has a lot of natural beauty and a lot of monasteries. When we began driving this morning, it was great weather although it was (again) a white world. But we drove on an altitude of above 4,000 meters, so you can expect some snow. We also drove over some high passes. I had expected the road to Nangchen to be pretty bad, but on the contrary it was good. When we came near the capital of Nangchen we came at an altitude below 4,000 meters and the world became green. We saw (again) beautiful landscapes today. And I also visited a monastery where young monks were rehearsing on their (long) horns. They were amused I visited their monastery and welcomed me and let me take pictures of them. It was so much fun to be there. And I visited a nunnery. Most nuns were working outside because they were building a house. But some nuns were inside the Gompa studying.

The following day we were still traveling in the Nangchen region. I wanted to visit Gaden Monastery. But everyone my guide ask about this monastery didn’t know it and couldn’t say where it was located. I finally had located this monastery on my mobile on MAPS.ME. So we could navigate to this monastery on MAPS.ME. My guide had a Chinese navigating app on his mobile but that app did give another, longer route to the monastery. It turned out MAPS.ME navigated us to the monastery on a very small and mostly unpaved road. But it was the shortest road.

So we took this road that led us over a very high pass on a very small dirt road. But it was beautiful and my driver was luckily a really good and safe driver. We encountered so many beautiful landscapes on road to Gaden Monastery. I asked for a lot of photo stops on the way and that was no problem at all. And yes, we found the monastery, that is beautifully located in the bench of a river. At the end of the day we reached Yushu again, where we stayed the night.

On to Xining

After leaving Yushu we went north, in the direction of the big city of Xining. But after 570 km driving we stopped at the town of Xinghai (Ziketan). At the start of the day we drove at a very high altitude. Above 4,300 meters. That’s why there was snow on the mountains. Below this altitude the world was mostly green. It was a drive over the high plateau with vast grasslands and on the horizon mountain ranges. At the town of Xinghai we visited at the end of the afternoon a small temple. The visit to Xinghai was also a family visit as relatives of my guide and driver live there. So we were greeted warmly with white kataghs. And had a welcome dinner the first evening and a family dinner at the second evening at Xinghai. So nice!

The second day at Xinghai we visited an important but not often by tourist visited monastery. This monastery, called Drakar Tredzong (Serdzong) Monastery, is ocated about 30 km south of the city of Xinghai. To get there we drove over the grasslands till we reached a canyon. We drove down into this canyon and into a side canyon, drove through it and on the other side drove up to the grasslands again and into the mountains. In the mountains the monastery is located. At the monastery there are 500 monks and 13 lama’s living.

The next destination was the big salt water Qinghai Lake. The weather wasn’t that great. It had rained and there were low hanging clouds above the vast grasslands. In the afternoon we arrived at the lake. At first I thought the weather wasn’t good for a visit. But when we arrived at the shore of the lake it became totally sunny. Now I must say, the visit to this lake wasn’t one of the highlights of this travel. But it’s a famous lake and I absolutely wanted to see it. I think in spring with all flowers blooming it will be lovely at the lake. The lake is situated about 100 km from the big city of Xining. And that means you can easily make a day trip from Xining to the lake. And that’s a reason the lake is a tourist attraction. Especially of course for the many Chinese tourists.

After visiting the lake it went to Xining. Near Xining is the important Kumbum Monastery. It is important because it’s build on the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Bhuddism. This monastery doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere because it’s very (Chinese) touristic and making photo’s isn’t allowed in most buildings of the monastery. But I was lucky. We had the Tibetan family of my guide and driver with us and they knew an important monk there. And thanks to this we were allowed to to visit the second floor of the Grand Hall of Golden Tiles, where an 11 meters high stupa marks the spot of Tsonghkhapa’s birth. On the second floor you can see the upper part of the stupa with in it the statue of Tsongkhapa. Only we were allowed to go up and see it.

Rebkong, Xiahe (Labrang), Hezuo, Langmusi and Tangke

After Xining in went south. But now we traveled on the eastern route from Xining on to Rebkong, Xiahe (labrang), Hezuo, Langmusi and Tanke. In Rebkong we were welcomed by Tibetan friends and we spent the late afternoon en evening at their house having a late lunch/dinner and drinks. It was really cheery. The next day I visited two monasteries in Rebkong: Longwu Monastery and Wutun Monastery. The visit to Wutun Monastery was only a short visit. I visited these two monasteries also during a travel in October 2016.

After that Xiahe, where the big Labrang Monastery is, was on the program. After arriving there I walked in the afternoon the kora around the monastery. The next morning we visited the monastery itself. At one of the buildings of the monastery we waited for about one hour on the high lama of Labrang to come out and give his blessing. There were many pilgrims waiting with us. And after about one hour, we were directed to a small courtyard and the lama was sitting in a chair. Of course we offered him a katagh. A monk took the kataghs. And then we bowed our head for the lama and the lama gave us a little blow with a scripture on our head. This way we were blessed by him. The lama was a young man of about 20 years. He is the Khunda Lama and his name is Lobsang Gelek. I think he looked a little surprised to see me among the Tibetan pilgrims he was blessing. Xiahe and Labrang Monastery are often visited by foreign tourists. So for the first time on my trip here I saw foreign tourists again.

My guide didn’t have it in his planning. But it was 21 years ago when I was there. And I really liked to see it this time. I was curious how it was now. We were very close. So I asked my guide and it was no problem. So after leaving Xiahe, we took another road and went to the city of Hezuo to visit the Milarepa Temple there. It’s a 9 story high building. And we climbed all up to the 9th floor. On our socks of course because you had to put out your shoes at the entrance. I really liked to revisit the Milarepa Temple. But what I didn’t know was that it was part of a big monastery complex. Or maybe the monastery halls weren’t there when I visited in 1997. I think it the last is the case.

After spending the night at Hezuo it went further to the little town of Tangke. On the way we visited the town of Langmusi. I had been to Langmusi in 1997 and was keen to revisit this town with it’s two monasteries. It turned out that I barely recognized the place. I had in mind it was a very small village with small houses and (then) only one bigger building with more floors, the very basic hotel we stayed at that time. But Langmusi had grown immensely with now many modern higher buildings. All thanks to tourism I think. My guide did me a favor by making it possible for me to visit Langmusi. He himself didn’t want to visit because in the monasteries they worship a bad god. Langmusi has two monasteries, who are located in different provinces. Serti Gompa is located in Gansu province. I couldn’t visit inside the Gompa because they were reconstructing the Gompa. The other monastery, Kerti Gompa, is located in Sichuan. I did visit this monastery but did this alone as my guide and driver were waiting outside for me because of the reason I gave before.

Our trip ended that day in the little town of Tangke. Here we saw the nine bends of the Machu River (Yellow River). In the afternoon it had become cloudy, rainy weather. So I doubted if we would have a beautiful view on the nine bends. But while we climbed the hill to have a good view on the nine bends, the weather cleared and we got some sun and saw the beautiful landscape of the Machu River. I had visited Tangke also in 2016. And in Tangke we revisited the monk-friend of my guide and had a nice dinner with him.

Songpan

As in the last two years, I ended my travel with staying about a week in the small and ancient town of Songpan. My guide and driver brought me there and together we visited the nearby amazingly beautiful Huanglong NP with it’s colorful chalk water pools. Huanglong was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992. The day after visiting Huanglong my guide and driver went home. During my stay at Songpan I also visited Mounigou NP (including Zhaga Waterfall). It was the third time I visited this park. And every time the park looked different. This time it was a park in wintertime. It had rained a few days ago and that meant snow in the park. The day I visited Mounigou the weather was cold in the morning but it was a clear blue sky and totally sunny. The park was so very beautiful! The reflection in the lakes was amazing and colorful.

As I did during the previous two years I stayed in Songpan at Emma’s Guesthouse. Emma has become a very good friend and it was a real joy to stay with her and her family again. Emma took me on the trip to Mounigou NP but also on a trip to a Tibetan village and to the opening of a new hotel near Songpan. But most special was that she and other members of a volunteer group took me to a sporting event of 10 schools at Songpan. It was so great to see the kids (aging about 8 till 12 years) doing all kind of sporting exercises, competing to eachother and enjoying it so much.

If you visit Songpan I can advise you to stay at Emma’s Guesthouse. Emma and her brother David speak excellent English and can arrange almost everything for you. For instance a horse riding trip or a (shared) car to visit the surrounding parks. And their cozy restaurant serves delicious food (Chinese and European).

After a week it was time to say goodbye to Emma and her family and I took a shared Van to Chengdu. After one more relaxing day in Chengdu I flew home again. With a lot of photos taken but more important with so many good memories on what I had seen, done and all the friendship and kindness shown towards me.

This was the itinerary of my trip in Kham and Amdo in October 21018

Day 1

Flying from Amsterdam to Chengdu.

Day 2

Arriving in Chengdu and spending the night at a hostel in the Wuhou District. Visiting Jinli Street in the evening.

Day 3

Driving from Chengdu to Waze via Kangding and the high Zheduo Pass. On the pass we had bad weather (snow) and a traffic jam for about five hours.

Day 4

Driving from Waze to Xinlong trough a beautiful landscape. Visiting the Gompa at Xinlong at the end of the afternoon.

Day 5

Driving from Xinlong via the town of Garze to Yarchen Gar. Visiting two big Stupas in Garze. Exploring Yarchen Gar in the afternoon.

Day 6

Staying at Yarchen Gar en exploring Yarchen Gar.

Day 7

Driving from Yarchen Gar to Garze and further on to Derge. Visiting Yilhun Lhatso Lake and a Stupa (near Derge) on the way. Visiting the monastery at Derge at the end of the afternoon (but not the inside with the printing press because we were to late and it was already closed).

Day 8

Driving from Derge to Yushu, landscape with many yaks, nomads and monasteries (long drive).

Day 9

Relaxed day at Yushu, visiting two monasteries and the great mani stone wall.

Day 10

Driving south from Yushu to Nangchen trough a beautiful landscape and visiting two monasteries on the way.

Day 11

Driving from Nangchen to Gaden Monastery over a very small road with a high pass and driving back to Yushu.

Day 12

Driving north from Yushu to the town of Xinghai (Ziketan), spending time with family of my guide and driver there and visiting a monastery at Xinghai in the late afternoon.

Day 13

Spending the day at Xinghai and visiting Drakar Tredzong (Serdzong) Monastery (about 30 km south of Xinghai).

Day 14

Driving from Xinghai to Xining and visiting Qinghai Lake on the way

Day 15

Visiting Kumbum Monastery near Xining, do some shopping in Xining and driving from Xining to Rebkong. Spending the late afternoon and evening at the house of Tibetan friends in Rebkong.

Day 16

Visiting Longwu Monastery and Wutun Monastery in Rebkong and driving from Rebkong to Xiahe. At Xiahe walking the kora around Labrang Monastery.

Day 17

Visiting Labrang Monastery and driving to Hezuo and visiting the Milarepa temple at there

Day 18

Driving from Hezuo to Langmusi and visiting the two monasteries there. After that visit driving from Langmusi to Tangke and seeing the nine bends in the Machu River (Yellow River).

Day 19

Driving from Tangke to Songpan. Staying at Emma’s Guesthouse.

Day 20

Visiting Huanglong NP near Songplan with my guide and driver.

Day 21

Saying goodbye to my guide and driver. They left and I stayed on in Songpan.

Day 22

Staying at Songpan and going to the opening of a new hotel near Songpan.

Day 23

Staying at Songpan, visiting the meat and vegetable market and walking around in the town.

Day 24

Staying at Songpan, relaxed day.

Day 25

Staying at Songpan, trip to a Tibetan village near Songpan.

Day 26

Staying at Songpan, visiting Mounigou NP.

Day 27

Staying at Songpan, helping the volunteers at a sporting event of ten schools.

Day 28

Taking a shared van from Songpan to Chengdu, staying at a hostel in the Wuhou district. Visiting Jinli Street.

Day 29

Relaxed day at Chengdu, visiting the Wuhou Temple and Peoples Park (and the tea terraces there).

Day 30

Flying back from Chengdu to Amsterdam.

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