Journey into Eastern Tibet

Shang Shung Institute UK Insight Tours recently organized a unique tour of important sacred sites in East Tibet. The tour, which took place July 31 to August 10 2017, was led by specialist tour guide Dr. Jamyang Oliphant. Will Shea, one of the pilgrims, shares his experiences of his travels with readers of The Mirror. Photos by Maria Simmons, Jamyang Oliphant, and Scott Diamond.

journey eastern tibet

We arrived at the end of July and for the first two days we stayed in the southwestern city of Chengdu, (population around 14 million) to rest and adjust to the time zone after our long flights. The city has its charms, with a laid back feel, friendly people, good spicy food, parks and greenery. This Shang Shung UK trip was led by Jamyang Oliphant, who co-organised it with Romeo, a Swiss vajra brother who has been living in Chengdu since 2011. They entertained us for a few days before the departure for Kham. We visited the ancient Bao Guang Mahayana temple, went out for some classical Chinese cuisine and to a very loud Tibetan nightclub where singers performed Tibetan hits including some familiar Khaita songs. It was a lot of fun. The Tibetan population in Chengdu numbers in the hundreds of thousands and is the largest concentrated Tibetan diaspora in the world, living harmoniously with the local Chinese.

journey eastern tibet

Live music in Tibetan dance bars and Sichuanese hot pot where one deep fries meat and vegetables

We made the compulsory visit to the huge Giant Panda conservatory, which was interesting, but mostly memorable for the sweltering heat and hundreds of people jammed together to photograph the pandas. Chengdu in the summertime is hot and humid, with heavy traffic, and standard Chinese air pollution. This added to our eagerness to reach the Tibetan region.

On day three we hit the road to Tibet. We departed in our minibus with twelve on board, including a driver and our young Tibetan guide and translator, Stella. The bus’s air-conditioning system needed repair after a couple of hours of driving. We found a hillside tea house and watched an old Kung Fu movie on TV for an hour or two while the repairs were being made. Later in the day, we walked across an iron bridge made by Thangtong Gyalpo at Luding. The site is now commemorated as a place where the Chinese Maoist forces had pushed back the Nationalist Koumintang in their struggle for power in the 1950’s. We ate our first Tibetan meal of the trip and spent the night in Dartsedo, a border town marking the beginning of the Tibetan cultural area of western Sichuan province, a.k.a. Khams. We slept deeply in the fresh mountain air, already being at 2,550 meters.

journey eastern tibet

Mantras on the hillside written using white cloths and Om mani padme hum mantras painted on rocks

Day 4. We crossed our first high mountain pass -4,600m – and visited the first Sakya monastery built in the area, the ancient Lhakhang gompa. As we drive along there are countless stupas and enormous Om Mani Padme Hum mantras written, by laying enormous white stones, on the hill sides. We reached Bamei -3,500m- after a long ride along lush green hills and roaring rivers, a surprise to those expecting the desert like climate that western Tibet is know for.

journey eastern tibet

Lungta flags on the mountain pass

Day 5. A team member became ill with a combination of stomach and altitude sickness. Jamyang stayed behind to attend and they caught up the next day after a quick recovery. Asides from this incident we coped relatively well with the altitude, using a portfolio of specified drugs (Diamox), herbs (rhodiola), vitamins and supplements. Checking and comparing our blood pressure became an evening ritual at the higher elevations, where one’s blood pressure can soar up.

journey eastern tibet

Yihun Lhatso lake

We drove seven long but scenic hours to the village of Dzogchen. Along the way, jagged, snow capped mountains had begun to appear. We stopped for a short hike, with some opting for a horse ride, to the gorgeous Yihun Lhatso lake. Clear dark blue waters surrounded by high peaks and mantras carved on the shores. We arrived after dark to the family compound of our guide Stella, a native of Dzogchen. Upon arrival some were worried as it was quite basic, no showers and one common and very basic toilet. Rudimentary toilets and frequent bus stops for outdoor peeing along the road were a special feature of the trip, especially since we were advised to drink a lot of water to combat altitude sickness.

journey eastern tibet

Dzogchen monastery view from above

Day 6. We woke up to a gorgeous view of the glacial mountain behind nearby Dzogchen monastery. The spectacular views now made everyone happy with the simple but clean accommodations. We ate meals in a kind of nomad tent in the courtyard and had the best momo dumpling experience. We explored Dzogchen Monastery, a huge, dazzling place (Dzogchen Mar a Lago as Scott Diamond put it). Incredible amounts of gold and huge gonpas in the beautiful compound that fills a small valley, with a glacier towering above. In the afternoon we hiked up the mountain to a cave behind the monastery where Paltrul Rinpoche had written ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher’. Serendipitously, the 7th Dzogchen Rinpoche (there is another emanation residing in India) was beginning to give the last teaching and rlung of a retreat he had been giving on the text ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher’, sitting outside of the cave, and we fortunately joined. Dzogchen Rinpoche said very appreciative things about Chögyal Namkhai Norbu when he learned who we were, and gave us a long life khatag silk scarf as an offering to him. Those attending the retreat were mostly from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Beijing. Throughout eastern Tibet large numbers of Chinese Buddhist on pilgrimage can be seen.

journey eastern tibet

The 7th Dzogchen Rinpoche giving teachings on The Words of My Perfect Teacher which was written in the cave in the picture, above Dzogchen monastery

In the evening we visited a “crazy yogi”, a reincarnation of Do Kyhentse, who used to be a khenpo (abbot) but renounced his role and started behaving eccentrically. He’s been given a small house in Dzogchen village and is very much venerated by the local people. Tales of his healing powers and clairvoyance abound. We brought the recommended gifts of fresh fruits, cigarettes, and alcohol. We all, including a young Chinese boy, were offered and invited to smoke a cigarette with him. He redistributed our gifts and later we tried to ascribe some meaning to what we each one of us had received, but mostly could just laugh.

journey eastern tibet

Old ladies studying Tibetan language in Galenting

Day 7. A long drive, over a 5,000m pass on a somewhat precarious road. We soaked our feet in a sulphur water hot spring, and in the early afternoon we arrived at Galenting, the monastery of Rinpoche’s uncle Khyentse, featured in the film My Reincarnation. It is somewhat neglected and in disrepair, yet the gonpa is quite beautiful, with an authentic feel and ambiance, off the beaten track. In a smaller gonpa, a group of older Tibetan ladies were learning to read Tibetan. A local lama had told them that it is never too late for learning and so they all took to heart studying their own language. They were very friendly and we chatted with them for some time, then continued on to Derge, 3,200m. We had a Chinese style dinner and walked around town, then retired for our first shower in two or three days. We were happy to be able to access the luxuries of hot water and to have choices of different foods. Instead our Chinese driver was unfazed, he was like a machine, with great focus for long drives most days over difficult roads, he ate and drank little (though copious Red Bull consumption was suspected), never stopped to pee and just smoked a cigarette during breaks.

journey eastern tibet

Woodblock printing press in Derge Parkhang

Day 8 – Derge, a small metropolis. It has been the cultural capital of Khams for centuries. We visited the Derge Parkhang the celebrated wood-block printing house. Countless volumes of the great Tibetan master’s collected works have been printed here and it is said that around 70% of all Tibetan literature that has been printed is kept there. The Derge king’s enlightened attitude towards all schools meant that works of all four Tibetan Buddhist schools as well as Bonpo ones have been printed here. We shopped for deity prints like sharks in a feeding frenzy, using torches on our mobile phones to search through piles of posters in the printing house’s dark attic.

We also visited the nearby Derge Gonpa, where Rinpoche received part of his education. We tried to visit a small temple in town honouring Thangtong Gyalpo, but it was packed for the full moon tsok (puja), with an overflow of Tibetans sitting in the courtyard. We didn’t have time to wait so we moved on.

We drove along mountains ridges on to Dzongsar monastery; it is not huge, nor glitzy, but not neglected, with a genuine, strong vibe. We visited the gonpa, a small upper chamber housing the remains of previous Dzongsar Khyentses, and the residence of former and the current Dzongsqr Kyhentse. The lamas were gracious in showing us around and allowing us to practice in the shrine rooms. From the monastery we admired the sweeping views out across the valley.

When we started to drive out of the monastery, we discovered that large wood planks had been dropped on the road, blocking the way. We spent some time moving enough of it to pass by and soon after had to stop at a collapsed concrete bridge in the lower valley. We got out of the bus while the driver dared to drive across.

As a consequence of the delays, and perhaps some lingering here and there, we arrived at the next hotel after the 10pm bus curfew, which resulted in a prolonged shouting match in Chinese between the driver and our guide Stella. She seemed to hold her own pretty well. We later gave the driver a few packs of our crazy yogi cigarettes to help him cool down.

As we approached our hotel in the village of Yarchengar, we noticed in the distance a huge, flashing neon statue of Guru Rinpoche. There was also a beautiful golden stupa next to our hotel. It is said (and chronicled by Tetsu Nagasawa in the Sharro Festschrift book) that yogi Achu Lama attained the rainbow body just a few years ago. We joked that he had rainbow bodied to escape from our dilapidated hotel. In defence of the hotel, it was most likely the best, if not the only one in town.

journey eastern tibet

Nun and guardian dog in Adzom Gar

Day 9. We had hoped to visit sites associated with Nyala Pema Dudul, an important master of our lineage who attained the rainbow body, but recent floods meant road conditions prevented us from doing so. Instead we visited Adzom Gar, the seat of Adzom Drukpa. This was a spiritual highlight for many of us. The gonpa was perhaps the one of the few visited during the tour which had not been destroyed and subsequently rebuilt in the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution. A resident lama generously showed us around the gonpa and the reliquary stupas of Adzom Drukpa Pawo Dorje and other important lamas. On the top of the hill we visited the retreat cabin of Adzom Drukpa Pawo Dorje and hung numerous lungta flags.

We had been moving at somewhat of a breakneck pace and thought of slowing down, adding a day or two to the trip, but our hotel itinerary had been submitted to the governmental tourist authorities beforehand and it would be too difficult to change it.

Day 10. There was news overnight of a 7.0 earthquake not far from Gyarong, our next destination. With no other feasible route to proceed on, we drove onward despite the possibility of aftershocks. We were stuck for an hour at a roadblock while earthquake rescue vehicles were heading to the area, but otherwise we weren’t affected.

The Gyarong region is on the fringe of the Tibetan area, with a unique architectural style and its own dialect. It is also known for its ancient stone towers, which Rinpoche has had dreams of.

journey eastern tibet

Tibetan picnic party and dancing

Along the way we saw a large picnic with dozens of Tibetans dancing. We stopped, and to the surprised delight of the Tibetan dancers, a few of our Khaita dancers joined in. This was a festive highlight of our return route to Chengdu. We also stopped at a luxury hot spring Ramada resort for a soak. Jamyang made sure to photograph us in the luxurious surroundings for use in future SSI-tour promotional materials.

Day 11. We returned to Chengdu for a last dinner together, lasagna and bubbly, before some of the party departed for home and others stayed on for further activities in the region.

The Kham tour was a deeply felt experience, which was still sinking in after our return to Chengdu. It was wonderful to visit the places associated with Rinpoche’s youth and other potent spots. These sites, the people, and the land itself make the whole region feel like a kind of bayul- hidden sanctuary. Jamyang proved to be a capable and compassionate guide without compromising his love of a good time. Despite long bus rides and variable amenities, this is an important and rewarding journey for anyone interested in the Dzogchen teachings. The special qualities of the places and the inability to visit some of our desired destinations suggest that a follow-up tour may be forthcoming.… keep August 2018 free in your calendars and await details!

journey eastern tibet

Nomad woman at work