In part 4 of a journey through the Kandze region of Kham, Carol Brighton, artist and longtime Tibet traveler, takes in the spectacular Dzogchen Monastery, and reaches Kandze/Gandze.
On the Road from Manigango to Dzogchen
More bumpy roads, more yaks, more water running off the mountains. Running in little streams into wet marshes and joining together into rivers flowing into a wide array of water controls — diversions and dams. And then there are the big trucks hauling goods and fuel up the mountain and logs down the mountain.
The driver’s English lessons go on: “The sky is blue, the clouds are white, the trees are green, the grass is yellow.”
And deep turquoise blue is the sky, and bright sparkly white are the high clouds so quickly moving across the mountains, and deep dark green are the trees. Except the trees that are now logs and stacked on flat bed trucks as they get hauled down the mountain. And the grass is yellow in some of the wide open places but often it is dark and velvety green.
We stopped behind a long petrol truck stuck on a hair pin turn going uphill. The other side was a steep drop down to the valley below. The driver just couldn’t get enough traction to get up the hill and was backsliding to the edge of the cliff, wheels spinning in the mud from last night’s rain. He stopped just before going over. He maneuvered enough space to let us and a smaller petrol truck pass around. They rigged up a chain so the smaller truck could pull him up the hill. Our driver wanted to get away quickly — he couldn’t help and it was a hazardous circumstance. As there was no subsequent ball of fire rising out of the valley below, they must have been successful.
Driving on through landscapes — amazing scenes of rare beauty.
The Dzogchen monastery is preparing for a special teaching. The feeling is high with the friendliness of a community gathering and the excited anticipation of the spiritual teaching about to begin. Monks and nuns are unloading thousands of brown-paper wrapped texts from the side of a truck, hand over hand the texts fly into the gompa.
The place is spectacular — the grounds are well designed with wonderful details. Mini stupas line the low wall around the main assembly hall, each with gold decorations, and larger stupas flank the walls surrounding the building. There’s power in repetition; a printed mantra repeated thousands of times is inside each stupa, with a ceremonial consecration. Knowing the intent is more than decorative, that they hold prayers for all of us, is a powerful awareness.
There’s a lot of Chinese support here. Lots of donations showing up in the gold roofs and elegant details. This is private support, not governmental. Tibetan Buddhist monastics of Chinese descent are here for the teachings, and the surrounding fields are filling with tents and kitchens for the lay people.
The entire center, with prayer hall and surrounding buildings and guest houses, is deep in a valley. One wouldn’t know it is there from the outside – only discovering it after a long drive curving into this far end of the valley. It’s beautifully placed against green hillsides, embraced in green.
I could have stayed there forever.
On to Kandze (Garze)
Another bumpy ride all afternoon.
At the comfortable Golden Yak hotel, a breakfast of steaming fresh bread with peanut butter and a hard-boiled egg. Then on to Kandze monastery up on the hill outside of town, with its 400 monks.
In the main hall, lots of brightly colored clay statues of the deities line the back wall up to the high ceiling. It’s kind of gaudy, even in terms of the brightly colored displays that usually make up Tibetan temples.
On to Lamdrag nunnery — named after the Rinpoche who founded it. There are 100 nuns in residence, including one nun who is 42 and has been living here for 20 years.
This is a pretty place, up on a hill with a long drop off on one side and wide deep views. White stucco walls reflect the bright light. Passing the old well and through an arched entry we end up on a mud deck looking out over the valley. Our nun shares a room on one side of the deck. Two beds, a desk and an altar, the altar elaborately laid out with essential images, water offerings and flowers.
Kandze has 90,000 people and a third of these are Chinese. On His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday the locals hiked up to the top of the hill for celebrating and lighting incense. The military police came and pushed them all away and wouldn’t let them stay at the top. One monk fought them.
Sitting and soaking for an hour in a sulphur hot springs bath soothed the road weariness. Shopped a bit at the large fruit market with lots of everything. Szechuan province in all its farming glory gets trucked in here at higher altitude. Locally they grow barley, radishes and potatoes. We’ve had a lot of fried potatoes.
On a hill outside of town overlooking the whole valley is Zhoa Zha Kowa, the great Stupa. It’s five years old. I walk around, see the valley and the incense burner on the small bluff next to this, walk with some older pilgrims circumambulating in the morning light.
The valley is a bowl with monasteries all around on the rim. In places om mani padme hung mantras are laid out in white stones so they can be seen from a long distance – read, spoken, and silent, echoing across the valley.
Early breakfast and to market for fruit and more peanut butter. Local bread and peanut butter have been breakfast for many mornings.
After visiting the great stupa, we get back on the bumpy roads to Luo He (Luhuo), passing big trucks full of goods on the way to Kandze (Gandze).
Prayer flags in the wind — red, yellow, and blue — point to the sky.
We stop at Takgo gompa, with its 300 monks, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a gift of a Shakyamuni statue with relics inside. There is a long set of prayer wheels in a covered walkway on the slope of the hill. Elderly Tibetans turn the wheels, slowly making their way up to the gompa.
In the prayer hall, monks are saying medicine Buddha prayers – chanting the mantra for a woman from the village who is sick. Up the hill there is a smaller building with a two-story tall Buddha. Beautiful.
On the way out of Kandze there are a lot of pilgrims — a couple of different groups prostrating along the muddy road. They wear long plastic aprons and wooden paddles on their hands. Their plan is to prostrate all the way to Lhasa. One group is nuns, and a man pulling a cart of supplies. Another group is monks. We stop and give them some of the fruit and bread we’ve bought in the market that morning.
Luohe to Bamei
Luohe to Bamei is a long six-hour drive. The roads are the usual mess, muddy from last night’s rain and bumpy. Lots of stop and go with road workers directing the traffic.
I have lost some weight — that feels good. Today we finally got a meal that was pretty good, and I ate too much for lunch. We’ve had lots of eggplant and tomatoes and lots more potatoes … sometimes tofu. We’ve found some good fruit in the last couple days too.
Bamei has a nice guest house, big rooms and bathrooms, lovely staff. We drive to the stone forest, where slate stones in odd shapes strangely appear out of grassy hillsides.
The gompa has been rebuilt, and is a short walk behind the guest house. There’s a fenced work yard that has parts of the old building that have been saved — rooftop spires and broken statues. A new two-story brass prayer wheel is housed inside a glass room where it reflects cascading light and the molded mantras on the windows.
A row of big white stupas line the main road, now all dusty from the traffic.
Back to early dinner at the guest house — the same ingredients well made. Early to bed and sleep.
View more of the Kham: Notes from a Mountain Journal series:
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By Lobsang Wangdu