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Inaccessibility, both geographical and political, keeps many travelers from visiting Tibet. Those who do manage to make it to the “roof of the world,” the “third pole,” will pay for the experience: Between transportation, accommodation, food, and the hefty permit fee levied by China, US$500 is about as budget as you can get for a week in the region.
I was traveling in China recently, and Tibet was always on my mind. Not having that kind of money to spend, I wondered: Is it really necessary to pay all that in order to access Tibetan culture? The answer is no, as many towns on the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region retain a strong Tibetan identity. Almost 90% of the populations in these border towns are Tibetan. On this trip, I decided to visit Shangri-La (Yunnan province), Daocheng, Litang, Ganzi, and Tagong (Sichuan province).
For those looking to mimic this itinerary, set aside at least two weeks to do so — road conditions are poor, and the trip can’t be done in a hurry. In return, you’ll get a solid introduction to Tibetan daily life and social customs, Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the most intense landscapes on Earth.
In the countryside outside of Shangri-La, I found this woman collecting manure to use as fertilizer for her crops.
Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling
At the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery in Litang, a monk enters a back door of the temple to pray. The monastery can be seen from far away because of its colorful walls. The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, founded it in 1580.
In a region of extremely variable weather, some days you'll find yourself besieged by snow or hail, and the next could be cloudless and warm. For almost a week, Tagong was socked in rain. When the weather finally broke, I ran into this monk on his way to the river.
I found this woman performing the kora (a type of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that involves circumambulating temples, monasteries, or other sites) at the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery.
Walking with his mother
Tibetan children usually go with their families to do the kora. This child was walking around the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery with his mother. He is wearing a typical Tibetan jacket.
Ganzi Monastery is home to more than 600 monks, with many classrooms where young monks receive lessons. They have to memorize the prayers and religious songs, and repeat them over and over again. This young monk was writing one of his lessons in front of his teacher, who was checking the student’s book to see if the prayer had been written correctly. From the young man's expression, I don’t think he was doing well, and while repeating prayers he forgot the words many times.
I wanted to capture the beauty of the interior of Litang Monastery with a monk in it for context, so I waited for an hour until one crossed the frame.
More circumambulation. The number of times you're supposed to walk around a site in prayer (always clockwise) depends on what you're asking for.
Litang is a city in western Sichuan. It sits almost entirely above 4,000m, 350 meters higher than Lhasa. The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, originally built the Litang Chode Monastery in 1580. The majority of people in this city are Tibetans, which makes it one of the best places to experience Tibetan culture. I found this monk walking behind the monastery, where most of the monks' houses are located.
Daocheng is located at an altitude of 3,750m. Many travelers stop here for a night before continuing on to Litang. The town isn't much to look at, but the surrounding countryside is gorgeous, with plenty of trekking options and opportunities to visit small villages. Near a temple in one of those villages, I found this young girl waiting for her mom to finish praying.
An old Tibetan woman circles a temple in prayer and rotates its prayer wheels, cylinders made out of gilded bronze. Similar wheels have been made for many centuries in a wide range of sizes and styles. On the outside of each cylinder are inscriptions and Buddhist symbols. The traditional prayer wheel practice is to spin it in a clockwise direction, while reciting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.
Three young monks
Outside of Litang Chode Monastery, these three young monks were playing, running here and there. As I sat waiting for the right moment to take their picture, their teacher came to tell them to go inside the temple. The composition came together just in time.
Mountains surround Daocheng. While hiking one of them, I came to a small village where I found a mom and her daughter sitting among some rocks. As I approached with the camera, the girl ran away, and her mom tried to get her to come back. Once she was convinced I was not a threat, I took this picture. She and her mom laughed pretty hard when I showed them the shot on my camera.
It's common to find families resting and waiting on the roadside for the man of the house to stop working in the fields. As I walked by this family, they called to me and had me sit next to them. I took a couple of pictures of them and rested a bit before continuing on my way.