Tibet, Yarchen Gar the final part – 8,000 nuns, a naked lama and passing out

Yarchen Gar was such an unexpected place. We had never even heard of it only a week ago and here we were, two of the very few foreigners to have seen and stayed in the place. It is described as the world’s largest Monastery with 8,000 Nuns staying here but also about 2,000 Monks, quite simply it’s a huge sea of Burgundy robes!


After we had a first glimpse of the place and its enormous scale there were so many unanswered questions. Like how do they all eat? who pays for it? How do they get such good 4G coverage on their Iphones? Do they own and build their own shacks? Are there more rats than monks leaving here? Will the Chinese pull it all down like they are currently doing to Larung Gar in Sertar? However where do they all go to the toilet was soon answered as we walked carefully across a field then later alongside some structures hanging over the side of the river.
It’s fair to say this place was rough around the edges with a large amount of shanty town chic but nonetheless such dedication to learning and religion regardless of the living conditions amazed us.
In the foreground of the picture are small white cubes these are used for isolated meditation, tiny in size the nuns or monks sit here for days on end. The vast temple was open open space inside and despite being relatively modern it had a calm spiritual feel to it.
Hidden at 4000m you really wouldn’t expect anything on this scale to exist or survive here. As we arrived we continued to ride up the hill to get this view of the place:

The light was perfect for photography with the sun setting in the west providing a golden shadow over the City. On this small hillock we had a view of each corner, before us a religious shanty town punctuated by vast temples.

While admiring the view we saw two young monks come wandering over, they were drawn in by our bikes. The bigger boy looked tall enough to ride Marion’s so we let him have a spin to his delight. With the little one left on his own I didn’t want him to feel left out and pushed him around, they both had huge smiles as we sped about.

After a while I realised it would be a lot easier if I pedaled and the smaller monk sat on the seat pack, this meant we could go a lot faster and pull some sick skids which was met by even more excitement!
Not sure this is what Apidura packs are designed for nor the Tripster bike but they survived! I was completely shattered, unsurprisingly carrying a large kid on you bike at 4000m is a solid work out!

We finally retreated to set up camp for the night. By the entrance there is a small hotel for visitors but it was apparently quite expensive and coming here to stay in a hotel felt like it was trivializing the place to just a tourist attraction.
We set up camp near the edge of the Monks quarters to get a better feel for the place. We collected water from one of the stand pipes, it was already well below freezing and the taps were left running. The tent outer was frosted white within an hour of putting it up. The water was finally boiling but at this altitude we left it a while longer to kill the bugs. (The boiling point gets cooler the higher you get, so much so you can stick a finger in and not get scalded). Earlier on the trip we found that near 5000m the MSR stove struggles to burn petrol with the atmospheric oxygen around, here it was still OK.

Just as the noodles went in the pan a kind monk came over and offered us a place to sleep. Initially I said no thanks because we were all set up, but the thought of a warm, condensation free shelter was too attractive. We carried the sleeping bags and tent over to his place. Behind a gate was a small overgrown yard. His basic house was two rooms with a meditation ‘cube’ on the roof. It was very snug and a well insulation place with cloth shoved in every crack. We finished cooking on a portable electric hob he kindly donated to us. After settling down he went off to pray in the room above, this is where he would also sleep. We layed out our stuff in the prayer room with pictures of Lamas and other Buddhist decorations. Here is Marion in front of the room:

I went outside to the communal toilets which were 6 holes in the floor of a large wooden shed. No partitions between the holes because the monks can preserve their modesty by using their long robes as they squat!

When I got back to the house Marion had been handed a cappuccino in a disposable cup as an after dinner treat from the monk #random. It came with a sachet of some gel like Aloe Vera in consistency, we had no idea what it was, it was fairly tasteless. We didn’t add it in! The monk then handed me two picture cards of his two main Lamas, they reminded me of the football stickers I used to collect at school! He then handed me a ceremonial dagger. A great honour and really touched us both, this old worn antique dagger was maybe 3 inches high with a face on the handle. It was to symbolize our marriage I think, but it was hard to know. All I had was a large pomegranate so I gave him that in return, I acted as if this was a normal gift for the British to give to their host. He seemed perplexed but pleased.

We slept well after taking in the beautiful room, when not listening to the rats running down the walls and across the roof. In the morning he popped his head through the window and said “All OK” and left us in his house. We never saw him again as we bolted the door behind us. This was the view back across the houses:

We wandered across the monastery in the frosty early morning. Our breath showing as we pedalled.

At one point we saw a Toyota Landcruiser emerge and it was mobbed, a famous Buddhist who was inside and the people wanted to be blessed or touched by the man it seemed.

We ventured back up to the hillock with the amazing view, in the sun Marion sat down to write her diary and this girl was fascinated by her every move. We gave her some Chinese sweets we had bought that we found disgusting but she seemed to eat them OK! They were pastry outside with a paste inside that was almost meaty but sweet at the same time, not the red been paste we had been hoping for when we bought them.
Here she is looking over Marion’s shoulder:

We soon got invaded by a herd of goats and this monk was chatting on his Iphone. Why do monks have Iphones? Because Steve Jobs wanted to support text in Tibetan apparently, Android want to keep China happy and don’t support Tibetan text on their phones. Interestingly all Monks had Iphones real or fake probably for this reason.

Over on the other side thousands of monks had gathered in a field to listen to someone talk it looked like #monkfest2016. I assume it was the guy in the Land Cruiser talking. It was an impressive sight to see so many burgundy robes in one spot:

As ever I rode over to investigate, here is a picture of lots of monks in a field but closer up than the last photo:

On the way I passed many Nuns and Monks dotted in the field on their own sitting down away from the gathering. It seemed odd until I realised they were all squatting and going to the toilet using their invisibility cloaks. See those cloaks are practical and warm.

As we rode back down towards the centre we stopped to buy and eat some dumplings, vegetarian of course. Then the mass exodus started and we were stuck in a traffic jam of burgundy.

I like the faces in this one, some starred bemused while others smiled and said “Tashi Dele” to us:

I love this picture looking back to a small temple or shrine building and the lines of monks flowing back towards us:

One side of the river was the Nun’s side and the other was for monks. We ventured over the bridge to the Nun side but got shooed back, maybe because we were visitors or because I was male either way we weren’t supposed to be there it seemed. Nuns can visit the Monks side but the Monks can’t visit the Nuns side we learnt. Both have shaved heads and the same robes so it was easy to get confused.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away from the most photogenic place of the trip and got on the road again from Yarchen Gar to the North. We were told the road was rough here and we hitched a ride for a few KMs to protect Marion’s sore Shoulder, she’s still not supposed to be MTB’ing yet after surgery! Little did we know the next few days would be the most eventful of the trip, things were getting surreal….

The next pass was probably the most dramatic of the trip the light was perfect with dark skies behind and sunshine illuminating the rock faces of some very dramatic peaks:

This was the road when it was smooth tarmac again:

The long descent led us into Garze where it was time to get some hot Yak meat dumplings again from our favourite restaurant and recharge a bit!

From Garze (AKA Ganze) we were headed to Tagong a few days riding away. Guess what along the way we passed some more cool remote mountain villages and monasteries like this one:

Or this one which had a herd of Musk Deer in the grounds:

We were getting tired and needed somewhere to sleep. There was no real flat land about in the valley to cmap and the villages seemed pretty quiet. Eventually we saw a big sign in Tibetan and Chinese pointing up a small track. If they bothered putting a sign up there must be something here we figured.
At the top it was strange, the Chinese had built a model Tibetan village in the middle of nowhere. Small well surfaced and well lit streets led to modern houses built in the traditional style. They had then resettled some Tibetans here. However there were Yaks and wild dogs all over the place with associated mess. The clean sanitized model village was not all going to plan it seemed but the Tibetans had some nice new houses to live in! We met a friendly local and asked about sleeping here. We were taken to the biggest building of all. It looked like a visitor centre. After a mobile phone call another guy turned up and opened the doors. It was an unfinished fancy hotel inside. The vast unfurnished marble floors were covered in an odd yellow dust and some off cuts of stone and cables lay about. We left the bikes in a room downstairs and were led to a bedless bedroom on the first floor. It had an en-suite completed but no electricity or water yet!
We showed him we had a mat and sleeping bag and the guy let us stay for free, he even provided a room key to us. We cooked outside and as we sat his wife delivered a car battery and light to use in the room.
Later on the gaffer tape holding the light up failed and it smashed glass everywhere and scared the living daylights out of us, but the gesture was nice. We left some cash to buy a new bulb!

From this strange overnight stay we rode past open grassland and monasteries it was the same but never monotonos:

We inquired in a village about sleeping here and we ended up being pointed to in a large house that was essentially a homestay with a few spare beds. It was an amazing house constructed over 3 floors using entire trees as supports and beams, no wonder there were no trees left on the hills. A vast stove was roaring in the kitchen where we drank butter tea and had fresh bread. A monk arrived and later a Chinese girl too. She used translate on her phone to tell us the monk was very famous. He spoke a bit of English which was a big help. He had traveled to Switzerland, Singapore, Indonesia, USA and more to spread Buddhism teachings and was a very humble and friendly man.

For dinner we had super spicy hotpot with yak, sausage, fish, vegetables, tofu all mixed in. It was great but I suffered because it was insanely spicy, Marion had a separate vegetarian one like the Monk, but being a lady she couldn’t share the same pot. It later turned out I shouldn’t have been drinking the crazy hot broth and they all laughed at me and my red eyes!
After dinner they wanted to show us the local hot springs, everything was hot here it seemed! Eight of us squeezed into the car and we drove up a remote gravel track in his 4×4. It was a clear starry night and we went in the nicely warm men’s/women’s separate hot springs. The protocol was naked but I wanted to wash some clothes so took some in with me! There was another monk already there, he was using some Head & Shoulders to wash his hair under the hot waterfall it was like a scene from an X-rated advert. Then things got quite homoerotic as the man from the homestay gave the Lama a full body soapy rub down. A lot of naked flesh going on, they then took it in turns with the soapy rubs, i declined enjoying stretching my tired legs in the hot water alone feeling tired and bemused by what was going on.

After a good sleep we had butter tea for breakfast, another large dollop of butter was added then some strong dried yak cheese, it was a potent drink that woke you up! Not quite to our taste though! Fresh bread and hot soya milk was far more happily consumed! Out of politeness I had 3 cups of cheesy-feet-smelling butter tea.

The ride was now towards Tagong and super scenic. At lunch time we passed some kind of local Tibetan festival or event. It was just ending as we walked up to investigate what it was all about. Most people were leaving, headed off on motorbikes. We were shown into one the black tents and lots of pretty and very well dressed young women were heading in and out. It was intriguing as to what was inside…

When inside we saw 5 men sat at the far end and in front was a huge table laden with food. It was the feast tent and we were in luck! We were asked to sit down and so much food was brought out. Butter tea was the first thing provided. Then Yak dumplings, weird small sweet potato tasting roots in hot butter, plain cooked yak flesh, nuts and seeds and on the table were cans of red bull, bread and bananas.

After we finished the dumplings we had yet more butter tea topped up and finally a lady brought a bucket of homemade yoghurt to be served up, it looked like a bacteria fest but what the heck it would be rude to say no. It was tasty thick yoghurt served with caramelised sugar chunks and we only had chop sticks to eat it with. This baffled us but actually it was so thick we managed to eat it OK.
Outside the tent the teenage boys wanted to ride the bikes about!

Tagong itself was beautiful, but busier with Chinese tourists as we neared Kangding and the 318 main road again. The mountains here were holy ones and just stunning:

The town itself was really cool located in the bend of a river:

The second monastery in the fabled Tagong grasslands wins the prize for most scenically located I think:

From here we cycled towards Kangding on a back road. We hoped it came out where we expected it to as it didn’t link up on the map! Along the way we saw some cool stupas over across the grassland, so dodging the Yak we detoured over to look more closely:

Then around the corner was a hidden village and another monastery just in the middle of nowehere it kind of sums up what Tibet was like – so many hidden treasures around every corner all different but equally amazing. This was me descending the grass towards the hidden monastery village in the background, note the apples in a bag from our kind hosts:

I had started to feel quite tired out and we saw some horses, I was working on convincing Marion that it would be cool to borrow some and ride up to the next pass as I was feeling a bit wiped out. The lady wouldn’t let me off the leash nor understood a word I said so we took some photos and waved goodbye!

Around the next corner a motorbike was on its side the owner was OK but had fallen off and his bags of yak dung had gone everywhere. We helped load it back up. The bike was so heavy with dung that I had to hold and push him to let him balance it and ride off. Who knows what happened when he stopped!

It was our last night camping so we looked for the most amazing spot we could find to watch the sun go down.

After a long slog up a narrow path we arrived at a pass giving views to the huge 7000m peaks in the north and south. I think we did well with choosing a camp spot:

Now the down side of camping on a scenic open pass is it gets cold, very cold. You can see the steam coming off Marion’s tea and we hadn’t set up the tent yet!

That night I got sick, something I ate I assume. It started with a bad stomach overnight, and in the morning I couldn’t eat a thing. However today we had to ride out of this valley or face missing the bus to Chengdu and then the flights home. There was little traffic and mostly motorbikes or the occasional small cars if anything. Nothing that could take the bikes and us. We rode slowly uphill I was powered by small sips of Coke and dextrose tablets. It’s fair to say nothing at all stayed inside for very long. I crept further uphill taking each pedal rotation one at a time, we only had 30km to make before it was downhill all the way to Kangding.
As we got higher I was getting worse. I kept pedaling a bit then sipping some drink then a small bite of something but it didn’t help. I was getting dehydrated quickly and even the salt sachets didn’t have time to do much. Finally I stumbled over to a bank and lay down under the sun, the vultures were probably circling overhead. We had broken the back of the climb but the sight of a sign saying 5km more of climbing beat me. I tried to stay awake under the hot sun but I was done and this was the end of my cycling in Tibet.
As if someone had directed it from above, a brand new pick up truck drove past, Marion flagged it down. We put the bikes in the back and got a lift all the way to Kangding. Someone was looking out for us today and luck was on our side, maybe from the Chinese Diamond Sutra book or the lucky dagger or even the silk sash the Lama and our home stay hosts had presented us with.

Down the countless hairpins to Kangding I was concentrating on one thing – don’t make a mess in this kind man’s new truck!
Finally we reached the town. We unloaded the bikes and I celebrated by vomiting eight times behind some bins, it’s fair to say they didn’t ask for payment and quickly waved goodbye. I now had to sleep this thing off and re-hydrate in a hotel room before tomorrows 10 hour bus journey to Kangding!

Our trip had ended on a low, I was destroyed by riding while so sick. Marion found some random Chinese medicine that seemed to help me and we made it back to Chengdu, we saw some Panda’s and managed to fly home.

What an amazing area to cycle and explore we both highly recommend it. However it’s not for the faint hearted, the roads might be smooth but everyday was a tough day, the endless climbing, the thin air at altitude and the lack of reliable information about anything. The people whether Chinese or Tibetans were overwhelmingly friendly always waving, asking for selfies with us or welcoming us to their Monasteries/villages, however beyond this first hello the lack of communication was a struggle. You’ll notice I never mention the Chinese police, we passed numerous checkpoints and police stops, but we never had to stop we could have been invisible to the police something that surprised us. Even in sensitive areas we never had to stop.
If your planning a trip feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

Thanks to everyone reading the blogs and have a great new year!

8 Comments
  1. Hey guys! Really lovely to finally read thru the whole experience from beginning to end! I’m currently looking at a route that goes from Lijiang up thru Shangri-La / Deqen and then into eastern Tibet proper, but am trying to do as much of it as possible on dirt roads or tracks. You have any insight on accomplishing this? I have both the Gecko East Tibet map as well as a bilingual English/Chinese 1:2000000 map of the region, but what I’m seeing is mostly what seem to be paved roads of various descriptions. Thoughts? I have an open schedule, so time and distance aren’t huge issues.

    Beyond that, where would be be sure to absolutely visit if you did it again? Where would you give a miss to? Any other thoughts or observations? I’m super-eager for any intelligence that I can get.

    Cheers!
    -Matthew
    (www.goingaroundplaces.com)

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    • Hi Matthew, thanks and glad you enjoyed the blogs.
      To answer your queries, the route you mention is much further south than we went and it’s in Yunnan so I’m not 100% sure. I know that route is popular with tourists both Chinese and Foreign so should be a bit easier and it’s also a popular option for cycling. Yunnan was not part of Tibet like where we went so it will be quite different scenery and culture.
      Where we cycled the Chinese have paved most of the back roads that even a couple of years ago would have been gravel, so it’s hard to find any that actually go somewhere!
      We had that same Gecko Map and almost everything marked is probably tarmac on it if it is actually there! There are many new roads, long tunnels etc. not on it! Google maps is a bit better when fully zoomed in but blocked in China so Cache it offline well first!
      I’m not sure where you mean by East Tibet proper, if you mean Chamdo in the Autonomous Region then I wouldn’t bother, the Chinese will know you’re there it’s too heavily patrolled from what we saw. A lot of the bridges over were no longer in use, we did see maybe one into a village and then a track over the hills but realistically I think you’d be sent back or deported.
      If you mean the area of old Tibet we went to then it’s an amazing place and open to foreigners. Avoid the main 318 road but otherwise everywhere we went was pretty awesome.

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      • Yeah no, not planning on going into Chamdo or any of the Tibet Autonomous Region proper, just into the Sichuan / Qinghai regions that are ethnically Tibetan (Kham / Amdo). =)

        Have a route sketched that heads thru Garze and Manigange, then up towards Yushu (it seems like a lot of this is on G317 — would you suggest trying to avoid this road if possible?), but honestly I’m pretty much flying blind. Will have a good selection of map layers downloaded on GAIA GPS, but still suspect that there will be prominent elements of confusion in the early days in the country. =)

        Anything else I should know about the region? The photos are spectacular, btw. =) What are you using as a camera / lens?

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        • That’s cool, I know some people try to blag getting in the TAR! I like the route you suggest, if we had more time heading to Yushu was on our list. The town is meant to be dull but the road from Manigange would be cool. There’s a few amazing monasteries off the road up there, try to google them and mark them on your map because on the ground you’ll probably miss them.

          The 317 has some trucks on it but was fine, nowhere near as bad as the 318. The military convoys into Tibet use the 318 and they’re pretty huge it’s also a big truck route.

          In terms of tips the cities can feel quite negative on first impressions, like Garze or Litang, but spend a day or two and you’ll find them super interesting in the Tibetan parts. Hard to find homestays so be prepared to camp a fair bit or use hotels. Language is a big barrier but if you’re used to travelling you’ll be fine. We were totally blind when we went, we found out almost nothing beforehand and everything worked out pretty well. The riding is pretty serious in terms of relentless high passes so allow time or train a bit to get the most from it and go light weight. Take lots of sun block!
          Just finishing a blog on Camera and other kit so will post that this week.

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  2. Awesome trip guys! Do you have your route (GPX) available?

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    • No we didn’t take a GPS, it takes the fun out of it! I would probably do the route a bit differently next time too as I think I say in the blog.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your beautiful and adventurous journey. Very interesting and insightful read. I love the pictures. You seem to connect very well with the subjects. I see the blog been posted in January. Was this month that you went to Yarchen Gar ? Is it still open to foreigners as I heard that the Government has imposed some travel restrictions. definately in Larung Gar but not sure about Yarchen Gar. I am traveling to the region in July 2017, not sure yet whether to try going there because of the restrictions.
    Best Regards

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    • We went to Yarchen Gar in November 2016. At that time there were no restrictions, although we cycled there which helped us I think. I understand it may be changing fast this year with the Chinese government looking at the ‘Fire safety hazard’ of the settlement like they did at Larung Gar.

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