Ganden Ganden
(60 kilometers east of Lhasa in Dagze county) is one of the most magnificent monasteries in the world and is one of the Three Great Monasteries of the Lhasa area, along with Sera Monastery and Drepung Monastery. Not as many people visit it as the other two because it is farther away from Lhasa and harder to get to.

Reached by a road with 17 hairpin turns and built in the side of rocky mountain, Ganden was founded in 1409 and became one of Tibet's most influential monasteries, producing the dynasty of Dalai Lamas, who ruled Tibet from 1642 to 1950. Ganden Monastery was destroyed by explosives in the 1960s. Its 3,300 monks were scattered, killed or imprisoned. In late 1980s monks and local volunteers began rebuilding the monastery.

The Ganden (Gandain) Monastery is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) Sect. The halls of the monastery spread across the top of the Wangbur Mountain give the impression of a mountain town when viewed from a distance. Ganden means “happiness” and “contentedness” in Tibetan. The first and most prominent Gelug monastery, it was built under the supervision of Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug Sect. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The main buildings include the Coqen Hall, the Chamber of Tsong Khapa, and the Yangbajian Zhacang (colleges for studying the sutras). The three-story Coqen Hall is the monastery's main hall, large enough to hold a gathering of 3,000 lamas, who use the hall for sutra recitation. The main hall was not completed until 1417, two years before Tsong Khapa died, but after having announced his disciple, Gyeltsab Je, as the new leader of the Gelug Sect or Ganden Chiba.

The name Ganden Chiba refers to the head abbot of the Ganden Monastery. Since the Ganden Monastery is the ancestral monastery of the Gelug Sect, the Ganden Chiba is also the head abbot of the Gelug Sect. By some measures, he is the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism behind the Dalai Lama and the Pachen Lama. Dama Bergin, a disciple of Tsong Khapa, built a silver stupa that now contains Tsong Khapa's remains. It was the 13th Dalai Lama who rebuilt this stupa and wrapped it in gold leaves.

Tsurphu Monastery: Seat of the Karampa Lama

Tsurphu Monastery (70 kilometers northwest of Lhasa in Gurum in Doilungdêqên District) is a 12th century monastery in the Drowolung valley in central Tibet. It is the traditional seat of the Karmapa Lama, the head of the Karma Kagyu (Black Hat) lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The last Karampa Lama was enthroned in a ceremony here.

Tsurphu (Curpu) Monastery sits at an elevation of 4,300 meters (14,100 feet). Built in the middle of the valley facing south with high mountains surrounding the comple, it is a 300-square-meter (3,200 square-foot) complex with walls up to four meters (13 feet) thick. The gompa, the traditional seat of the Karmapa lamas, is about 28 kilometers (17 miles) up the Dowo Lung Valley on the north side of the river. The original walls of the main building were up to 4 meters thick and 300 meters on each side (90,000 square meters or 970,000 square feet). The monks' residences were on the eastern side.

Built in 1187, Tsurphu Monastery is the main monastery of the Black Hat Group of the Kagyu Sect and has been the residence of the Karampa (Gar maba) Lama for several generations. The Black Hat sect is properly known as Kagyu Karma, Garma Gagyu or Karmapa sect. It is a suborder of the Kagyupa (Red Hat) order and is led by the Karmapa Lama. It was once Tibet's most politically powerful sect but it was supplanted by the Yellow Hats of the Dalai Lama 350 years ago.

The Tsurphu Monastery sits at the foot of the holy Baima Qoinzong Mountain, and there are mediation cells on the peaks flanking the monastery. There are numerous legends related to the mountains, water, and land in the monastery area. The stone tablet, erected in the main hall during the period of the Tubo Kingdom (629-846), is a valuable material for the study on Tubo politics, economy, and culture. In winter and spring each year, a sorcerer's dance is held at the Tsurphu Monastery, constituting one of the major religious activities of the monastery and the surrounding area.

History of Tsurphu Monastery

The Kagyu Karma order is credited with inaugurating the tradition of passing on leadership through the reincarnations of lamas when Dusim Khyenpa (1110-93), the abbot of Tsurphu Monastery, announced he would keep his position after death in a reincarnated form as someone else. The Black Crown is the symbol of authority of the Karmapa Lama. Said to have been woven from the hair of female angels, it was presented to the 5th Karmapa by the Chinese emperor Yong-le in the 15th century. The 16th Karmapa Lama deposited it at Rumtek Monestray in Sikkim.

Built by the first Living Buddha Karmapa, Doisum Qenba, Tsurphu was originally small monastery has evolved into a town of lamas, spread across the mountain slope. The system of succession to grant the Living Buddha began here and has become popular among various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The 17th Living Buddha Karmapa was enthroned in September 1992. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The Living Buddha Karmapa and Tsurphu Monastery in which they lived once had great influence on the political and religious situation in Tibet. The 2nd Living Buddha Karmapa, Karmapashi, worked to promote Buddhism in the imperial court of Genghis Khan. The Mongol Khan Monge granted him a gold seal of authority and a gold-rimmed black hat. From this time onwards, the sect that the Living Buddha Karmapa belongs to has been referred to as the Black Hat Sect. The 3rd and 4th Living Buddha Karmapa both maintained good relations with the Chinese Imperial Court. The 5th Living Buddha Karmapa, Yinshiba, even visited Nanjing, the capital of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where he gave Buddhist sermons.

Karmapa Lama

The Karmapa Lama is the third highest lama after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. He heads the Kagyu Karma, or the Black Hat sect — the oldest of Tibet's four allied schools of Buddhism. Karma Kagyupa is a suborder of the Kagyupa (Red Hat) sect. This is because the leader of the Karma Kagyupa, the Karmapa Lama, is often referred to as the Black-Hat Lama because that is the color of his ceremonial crown. Karma Kagyupa is Tibetan Buddhism's wealthiest sect. It has property and assets worldwide worth $1.2 billion.

The Karmapa wears an eight-inch-high crown woven from the hair of holy women. Kagyu Karma was the first Buddhist sect to adopt reincarnation as a means of choosing its leaders, and over the centuries bloody battles have taken place to choose who would ascend to the position of Karmapa.

The present and 17th Karmapa Lama is a teenager formerly known by the name of Ugen Thinley Dorjee. The son of a poor shepherd, he is the only high ranking lama who has been approved by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. Approved by both in 1992, he was the subject of a German movie called "Living Buddha."

Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje lives at Gyuto Ramoche Temple, the residence of the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. He has been called a "living Buddha" with movie-star good looks and an iPod, who rubs shoulders with Richard Gere and Tom Cruise and is mentioned as a successor to the Dalai Lama.

The Karmapa Lama is young, handsome and charismatic. He could play a major role determining the direction Tibet will take in the 21st century after the Dalai Lama dies. He could also play a roll unifying the Yellow Hat and Black Hat sects.

Lakes Around Lhasa

The lake region of Tibet extends from the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, Lake Rakshastal, Yamdrok Lake and Lake Manasarovar near the source of the Indus River, to the sources of the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze. Other lakes include Dagze Co, Namtso, and Pagsum Co. This wind-swept 1,000-kilometer-wide desert is called Chang Tang. Chang Tang Reserve in northern Tibet is a 247,120-square-kilometer (115,000-square-mile) conservation area in one of the remotest areas in the world.. Larger than Arizona, it is the second largest nature reserve in the world after Greenland National Park Chang Tang is covered mainly with high pastures and is uninhabited except for a few nomadic yak headers. The average elevation in the reserve is between 15,000 and 17,000 feet. There are no trees or shrubs and the temperatures in the winter can drop below minus 40̊F. There are no river outlets. The mountain ranges are spread out, rounded, disconnected and separated by flat, shallow valleys. The reserve is designed to protect three species of animals: the Tibetan wild ass, the wild yak and the argali sheep. Chang Tang means “northern plains." Largely unexplored, it is home to snow leopard, ibex, Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan wild ass, bharal or blue sheep (nawa na), black necked crane, wild yak, lynx, wolves and very rare Tibetan brown bear.

This part of Tibet AR is freckled with large and small lakes. Some are freshwater but most are salty or alkaline, intersected by streams. The spotty permafrost over the Chang Tang creates bogs with tussocks of grass that resembles the landscape of Siberian tundra. In dried lakes there are deposits of soda, potash, borax and salt. The lake region has numerous, widely-scatted hot springs that are known for producing columns of ice, where boiling water froze while rising out of the ground.

Siling Co Lake (300 kilometers northwest of Lhasa as the crow flies) is the second largest lake in Tibet and the third largest salt lake in China. In Tibetan, Siling Co means "devil lake." The lake covers 1,640 square kilometers at an elevation of 4,530 meters above sea level. The lake is part of a national nature reserve for black-necked cranes. The grasslands around the lake are vast and have traditionally used as grazing land.

Salt lakes have significantly larger amounts of salt and other minerals than freshwater lakes. Some of them even have a higher concentration of salt than sea water. When water evaporates from the lake, the salt is left behind, making salt lakes a great place for salt production. If the amount of water that evaporates from the lake is more than the water flowing into it, salt deposits will gradually form and create unique formations.

Yambajan (90 kilometers northwest of Lhasa) is famous for its wide range of hot springs, from ones with the highest temperatures in the country to boiling geysers. It sits in a basin at the foot of Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) Mountains. In the early morning, the town is covered in a white and luminous vapor. The hot springs in Yambajan contain various minerals and are believed to be therapeutic; Admission: 30 yuan (98 yuan for hot-spring bathing). Travel Information: Bringing your own bathing suit.

Namtso Lake

Namtso Lake (180 kilometers north of Lhasa)is one of the three holy lakes in Tibet along with Manasarovar Lake and Yamdrok Lake. Namtso (Lake Nam) means "Heavenly Lake." It is famous for its high altitude and beautiful scenery. The second largest salt lake in China, Namtso covers 1,920 square kilometers and is also the second-highest salt lake in altitude in the world at an elevation of 4,718 meters above sea level. By some measures it is highest major slat lake in the world. Admission: 120 yuan (50 yuan in the winter); Getting There: An organized tour is recommended.

Namtso is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in Tibet. The lake is the center of a popular trekking area. Treks usually begin in Damxung (300 kilometers west of Lhasa). The first day of a week-long trek usually begin with a 3,000-foot climb along a dirt road to 17,000-foot Lanchen Pass. All around are 19,000-foot mountains and a barren landscape.

Along the route are nomads with herd of yaks and sheep, birds and occasional ferrets and marmots. From Lanchen Pass it is a long descent to the lake. On the southern shore in the distance are the two holy mountains of Tashi Dorje. The best time to go is in the summer or on Tibet New Year. Thousands of pilgrims travel a long way to worship here on the Tibetan New Year.

Namtso Lake Pilgrimage Route

Lying at the foot of Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) Mountain, Namtso Lake is the seat of Paramasukha Chakrasamvara for Buddhist pilgrims. In the fifth and sixth month of the Tibetan calendar each year, many Buddhists come to the lake pay homage and pray. Deep tracks are worn into the lakeshore due to this activity. In history, monasteries stood like trees in a forest around the site, attracting large numbers of pilgrims as eminent monks in Buddhisttemples extended Buddhist teachings. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Buddhists believe Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Vajras will assemble to hold religious meeting at Namtso in the year of sheep on Tibetan calendar. It is said that walking around the lake at the right moment is 100,000 times more efficacious than that in normal years. That's why thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world come to pray at the site, with the activity reaching a climax on Tibetan April 15.

Walking around the lake takes a week. Ritual walkers love to burn aromatic plants to raise smoke on Auspicious Island [explain this a little] and throw a piece ofhadascarf into the lake as a token of fulfilled wishes. If the scarf sinks, it implies ones wish is accepted by the Buddha; if the scarf flows on the water or only half sinks, it means one has failed to be honest and something unhappy may lie ahead.

On the four sides of the lake stand four monasteries, which have Buddhist meanings. By the lake there are also two standing stone pillars, each rising 30 meters and eight meters apart. One has a crack large enough to hold a single person inside. Some Tibetans believe it is the Gate God of the Namtso Lake.

Five islets planted in the vast sapphire lake are said to be the incarnation of the Buddha of Five Directions. Every pilgrim walking around the lake will piously worship them. These islets are famous for their topography, covered by weird but vivid stones. Another five peninsula protrude into the lake and represent sites related to eminent monks, such as temples. On the north bank of the lake is the Zhaxi Peninsula, on which stands a forest of strange-shaped stones forged from calcium, among which occur numerous fantastic caves.


Tsetang (200 kilometers southeast of Lhasa) is Tibet's third largest city. Situated on the Yarlung River in the Yarlung Valley, it is the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. According to legend a monkey mediating in a cave was seduced by a female demon who refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey and produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet.

Among the sights in Tsetang (also spelled Tsedang, Zedang and Zetang) are monkey caves with stamped characters and the First Field and the First House of the Tibetans. The First Field, north of Tsetang , is where Tibetans have traditionally believed that god bestowed a field for the first cultivated crops. The First House, in Nedong County near Tsetang, was built for the first ruler of Tubo Kingdom. It is a good place to sample Tibetan butter tea and barley wine.

Tsetang is home to around 100,000 people. It is large enough to have a significantly large Chinese population, many of them vendors and construction workers, and its own red light district. Nearby the People's Liberation Army has a large base, guarded by soldiers with bayoneted rifles and fronted by a sign that reads “Maintain National Unity, Safe Guard Territorial Integrity." Website: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet and Lonely Planet

Road between Gyangze and Tsetang (beyond Lhasa airport) is spectacular. The route passes through three passes — Gonsidi La, Dunga La, and Shuge La — which range in height from 14,000 feet to nearly 18,000 feet, making this the second highest road in the world. The road also goes near Lake Yamdrok, one of the largest lakes in China. A steep narrow road from Tsetang leads to the ruined palace of Yambu Lhang which, according to legend, was built by the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsanpo, and is reputedly the oldest structure in Tibet.

Yumbu Lakhang: Tibet’s First Palace and Building

Yumbu Lakhang (192 kilometers southeast of Lhasa, nine kilometers southwest of Tsetang, Lhoka prefecture) is said to be the first palace and the first building in Tibet. Perched atop a small hilltop on the eastern bank of Yarlong River and facing west, it is an ancient structure in the Yarlung Valley. According to legend, it was the palace of the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, who is believed to have descended from the Heaven. . Yumbu Lakhang (Yungbulakang, Yumbu Lakhang) is said to have been built in the 2nd century B.C. by King Nyatri Tsenpo. "Yumbu" means female deer, describing the resemblance of the mountain around the site, and "Lakhang" means holy palace. Yumbu Lakhang means "the palace on back legs of a doe" in the Tibetan language. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Legend says that in the 5th century, a Buddhist sutra fell from the sky onto the roof of Yambu Lakhang. Nobody could read the book. However, a sage predicted it would be interpreted between 7th century to 8th, so the sutra was safeguarded in the palace. Youmpu Lhakang became famous after Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng spent their summer holidays here. It became the summer palace of Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng. These legends really fascinate a lot of people from home and abroad.

Yumpu Lakhang became famous after Songtsan Gambo and Princess Wencheng spent their summer holidays there, making it their summer palace. After Songtsen Gampo transferred his capital to Lhasa in the 7th century, Yumbu Lakhang became a chapel and was converted into a Gulugpa monastery during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama (17th century).

Yumbu Lakhang consists of three parts: a tower, some chapels, and some monk living quarters. Tibetan kings and their ministers are enshrined in part of the main chapel. Upstairs is a small chanting hall, which houses Sakyamuni and Chenrezi. A mural gallery above tells of Nyatri Tsenpo's arrival from the sky and stories about him as well as Tibetan history.

Samye Monastery: Tibet's First Buddhist Monastery

Samye Monastery (in Dranang, 30 kilometers west of Tsetang) is the oldest monastery in Tibet. Situated in the Yarlung Valley, it is said to have been built where the Tantric yogi Padmasambhava built an enormous mandala to exorcize evil forces from the area. At the center of the main temple is a large golden Buddha with four corners.

Although the Samye trove has an extensive collection of artifacts, its murals are prestigious throughout Tibet. Samye has many valuable murals. They include murals telling of Padmasambhava's life (ground and second floors of Utse), the history of Samye (south cloister on the second floor of Utse) and other murals reflecting the local folklore. The Samye murals are actually an encyclopedia of Tibetan culture and religion.

Samye means “Unimaginable” in Tibetan. It was said that when King Tritsong Detsen asked for suggestions about the construction of the monastery, Padmasambhava, exerting his magical powers, showed the king an image of a monastery in his palm. That is the origin of the name. Padmasambhava chose the construction site while the design was done by Santarakshita. After the construction was completed, Buddhism became the official religion in Tibet. Learned monks from inland China and India were invited to Tibet to translate Buddhist sutras into Tibetan. Trisong Detsen selected seven nobles to be the first monks in Tibet. Thus, Samye became the first formal monastery to establish triratna (refer to the Buddha), the Dharma and the Sangha, or Buddhist priesthood. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

History of Samye Monastery

Wenbin Xiong wrote in “Tibetan Arts”: “After fighting against the Bon cultures for a long period, Buddhism eventually won its steady position during the reign of Trisong Detsan in middle of the 8th century. As a landmark of the victory, Samye Monastery, the first monastery accommodating, training and cultivating songhas in Tibetan history was inauagurated in 763 A.D. in Samye region, in today's Shannan prefecture. From then on the Tibetan architecture art of Buddhism has gone a further step crossing from the temple architecture stage to the monastery architecture stage.[Sources: “Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005)]

Samye Monastery was probably founded in 767 under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen, with the work being directed by Indian masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita. Construction was completed in 779. Although Buddhism had been transmitted into Tibet at that time, there were no formal Buddhist priests or Buddhist rituals. Tubo King Trisong Detsen decided to invite Santarakshita and Padmasambhava, both Buddhists from India, to promote Buddhism in Tibet.[Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The plan was supposedly modeled on the design of Odantapuri in what is now Bihar, India. There are many traditions about Samye compiled after the tenth century. One of the few documents belonging to the eighth century proper — but not carrying an actual date — is an inscription on the stone pillar preserved in front of the temple. This records the building of temples at Lhasa and Brag Mar (i.e. Samye), and that the king, ministers and other nobles made solemn oaths to preserve and protect the endowments of the monastery [Source: Wikipedia]

One of the key events in the history of Samye was the debate between Buddhist schools hosted by Trisong Detsen in the 790s. The great debate of the Council of Lhasa between the two principal debators or dialecticians, Moheyan and Kamalaśīla is narrated and depicted in a specific cham dance once held annually at Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai. After that Samye Monastery experienced many ups and downs over the centuries. It was destroyed in the late Tubo period because Buddhism was banned. In the early 10th century, the Sagya Prince of Dharma rebuilt the monastery.

Samye Monastery Architecture

The monastery combined Chinese, Tibetan and Indian architectural styles. The layout was designed completely according to the ideal universe found in Buddhist scriptures. Wenbin Xiong wrote in “Tibetan Arts”: “A monastery architecture is a large sized building complex consisting of temples and halls, residence quarters of monks, stupas and several colleges. In terms of shapes, it can be divided into three categories: temples, cave temples and stupa temples built surrounding the main hall. Samye Monastery is a typical representative of it. According to documents, the construction of Samye Monastery was up to the universal model described in the Buddhist doctrines. The main hall in its center, called Uze Hall, has three stories, incorporating three architectural styles: Tibetan, Chinese Central Plain and Indian ones. Frescos are full of inner walls and Buddha and deities are enshrined in it. The inner structure is en evolution from the earlier temple structure, which symbolizes the Mount Sumeru in the Buddhist world.

“The layout of the buildings around the main hall is according to the layout of four continents and eight subcontinents in the Buddhist world. Four groups of constructions and four dagobas of different colors, green, black, red and white, are located respectively at the east, west, south and north sides.” |=|Southwest of Utse is the sutra translation center, where hundreds of translators from Tibet, India, and inland China translated huge volumes of sutra into Tibetan. Murals in the center record the grand event. It is now a college where lamas rest and debate sutras.

“The monastery is enclosed by a fencing wall, representing the Mount Cakravda (meaning Mount Iron Fencing). The entire complex plan is a representation of the mandala of the Buddhist world. The construction units of different heights and sizes are arranged harmoniously. The main hall is prominent but coordinated with the surrounding subordinate buildings. The subordinate buildings are symmetric and balanced. Thus each construction unit becomes an inseparable part of the whole. Samye Monastery today, though the renovation and extension respectively during the reigns of Sakya Sect and Regent Razheng, still keeps the basic style of its original constructions. Since 1980s, under the patronage of the government, the monastery has been renovated again. The previous outlook are basically restored, and the previous layout and style are represented perfectly. |=|

“The layout and construction pattern of Samye Monastery has given significant influence on the later Tibetan monastery architectures. Toding Monastery located in today’ Zanda County, Nagri Prefecture fully followed the features of Samye Monastery. It was built in the middle of the 10th century. The Gyasa Temple in it is an imitation of Samye Monastery. The temple is east facing and consists of two circles of buildings: an inner one and an outer one. In the inner circle, there are five Buddha halls, arranged in ‘+’ shape. In the center is the main hall, representing the Mount Sumeru; in the four ends the other four halls represent each of the four continents respectively. Around the four Buddha halls, there is a circular corridor know as ‘circumambulating passage’. In the outer circle, apart from the east side which is used as the gateway, along each of the other three sides, there are three Buddha halls. At each of four corners of the outer circle, there are two Buddha halls and one dagoba, representing each of the four continents and eight subcontinents. In this way it concentrates successfully the layout and concept of the huge building complex of Samye Monastery into a single building, setting a brilliant example for the monastery architectures. In 1999, the state government invested a large sum of money to renovate the buildings of Toding Monastery, especially the Gyasa Hall, restoring its previous brilliance.” |=|

Utse, the Great Hall of Samye Monastery

Utse, the Great Hall symbolizing Sumeru in perfect the Buddhist universe, is the largest structure at Samye Monastery. It is circled by the sun chapel and the moon chapel. Four stupas of different styles — red, white, black and green — represent four Heavenly Kings, and stand at four corners of the hall. Four larger halls and eight smaller ones, evenly distributed around Utse, are deemed the 12 continents in that universe. The monastery is secluded from the outside world by a circular wall, with thousands of Buddha statues sitting on it, representing mountains near the border of the universe. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Wenbin Xiong wrote in “Tibetan Arts”: “The main hall is composed of several units: the central Buddha hall, sutra hall, circumambulation passage, inner circumambulation passage, side halls, circumambulation passage outside the hall, circular corridors and so on. The Buddha hall is the center of the entire construction, enshrining Vairocana, the head of the Five Dhyani Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas and deities. The sutra hall is for monks to study and gather. The arrangement of the circumambulation passages is for people to prostrate before Bhudda, the bodhisattvas and deities at any time. [Sources:“Tibetan Arts” by Wenbin Xiong (2005)]

Utse is a unique building with three floors. The ground floor is Tibetan, with a turning wheel cloister full of extraordinarily splendid murals. Before the hall, visitors will see a stone stele[explain this word], which was erected to memorize Trisong Detsen's vow of his piety to Buddhism. Inside there are several chapels in which different deities are enshrined. The holiest one is a Sakyamuni statue carved out of a huge rock from sacred Mt. Hepori. The second floor is a sutra hall in Chinese style, which houses about 472 Chinese stone Buddhas. The southeast corner is an apartment Dalai Lamas used to live in during visits to Samye. The Indian-style top roof houses Arhats of Indian features. The hall is totally covered with murals, depicting the lives of Sakyamuni, Padmasambhava, the Great Fifth, Samye's panorama layout and Tibetan history.

Traveling in the Samye Monastery Area

Xiao Dong wrote in the China Daily: There are many ways to reach Samye Monastery, Tibet's first Buddhist monastery that dates back to the 8th century. In the past, pious pilgrims would start from Ganden Monastery in Lhasa and climb the mountains for three days to reach the sacred site in Chanang county, Shannan prefecture. When a bridge was built in 1995 in the town of Tsetang across the Yarlung Tsangpo River, visitors could reach the monastery by taking buses from Lhasa or Tsetang. To devoted pilgrims, though, completing the trip in a few hours was akin to seeking instant gratification. [Source: Xiao Dong, China Daily, February 1, 2009]

“Many travelers favor crossing the river by ferry from a port along the Lhasa-Shannan road. Nowhere else is the Buddhist metaphor "sailing from this shore to the yonder shore" more appropriate. In ancient frescoes, the ferry at Samye Monastery is depicted as a rectangular boat with a flat bottom and a gallant horse head at the prow. But the ferry we took looked no different from others in inland China, powered by a diesel engine and lined with rows of wooden boards as seats.

“The boat can take up to 50 people, each of whom pays less than 8 yuan. Sandy shoals separate the Yarlung Tsangpo, and our helmsman narrowed his eyes as he searched for a zig-zag way through. No one was in a hurry. The elderly counted beads, murmuring the six holy words in Tibetan Buddhism and smiling as we neared the holy site. Young mothers proudly exposed their breasts and fed babies, while deep-tanned men chatted and smoked.

“We struck up a conversation with two nuns, Tenzin and Dawa, who had traveled some 1,000 kilometers from Qamdo in northeastern Tibet. They were not heading for Samye Monastery but for the famous Chimpu Buddhist retreat, about 8 kilometers away from the monastery. The young women had dreamt of this pilgrimage for years but had only just received permission from their parents. Intrigued, we decided to follow them to the retreat.

“We paid a brief homage to Samye Monastery with its four distinctive red, white, black and green pagodas on the four corners of the main hall. We didn't pause for long because we had to reach Chimpu before dark. Few people go there and we had to wait an hour before a truck picked us up. Even then, we struggled to get in, as pilgrims wrapped in heavy, dust-clayed fur already weighed the vehicle down.

“The mountain road was terrible and everyone was shrouded in dust but Tenzin and Dawa smiled happily. Even in early winter, the valley's beauty was beyond description. Greenery enlivened the retreat, a thin coat of ice had just formed on the streams and colorful banners written with scriptures fluttered in the wind. The young nuns soon calmed down because they had to find a shelter to finish the day's religious studies. No one is a stranger in the haven. Several nuns came and pointed out a vacant shelter.

“Following the chanting of scriptures from caves dotting the mountains, we found two empty cottages with a cave higher up in the mountain. Giving 200 yuan to the person taking care of the caves, the two nuns took all the furnishings inside-two small carpets, two foam mattresses and a cupboard. Even though one can barely stand up straight in the caves, the nuns were content. They put up on the wall a tangkha, a religious painting for meditation, and carried clean water from a spring to offer to the Buddha.

The two sat down and discussed shopping essentials. They needed to travel 40 kilometers to Tsetang to get pots, bowls, rice, salt and other supplies. Apart from their families' donations, their neighbors had also contributed some cash. Supporting nuns and monks in their religious pursuits is seen as a way of accumulating merit among Tibetans. The wind roared outside but the cave was quite warm at night. The nuns carried on their discussion and talked of the possibility of finding some mentors in the valley. When we reached Tsetang the next day, we did some shopping, Tenzin and Dawa bought two luxury items: a small mirror and a box of lotion.”

Incense Making at Mindroling Monastery

Mindroling Monastery (near Samye Monastery) is a 1,000-year-old monastery known for making traditional Tibetan incense using more than 20 kinds of spices, medicinal herbs, gold, silver and rare minerals.. Zhang Yuqian and Gao Xiaotao wrote in the China Daily: “Burning incense is one of the most common scenes on the Tibetan Plateau. By chance, I witnessed the legendary perfume being made. Tenzin, the lama in charge of making incense in the temple, ushered me into a northern chamber of the monastery where several villagers were grinding herbs like saffron, Chinese licorice and Dolichousnea longissima, a kind of lichen. Monks used to do all the work but recently more villagers have become willing helpers. [Source: Zhang Yuqian and Gao Xiaotao, China Daily, February 1, 2009]

“Tenzin said it had also become hard to get quality spices and he had to shop around between many suppliers to get the best raw materials to ensure high-quality incense. Several days later, all the materials were ground and ready for the next step: stewing. Villagers poured the powder and water into a huge copper pot that was carved with scriptures. After a whole day's stewing, the concoction turned crimson. Villagers filtered the juice with gauze, then mixed it with the powder of sandalwood and other materials. Men and women sat in a circle on the floor of an empty hall, mixing the hot stuff with bare hands. The hall was filled with the pleasant, refreshing fragrance.

“The finely mixed powder was left in a room to dry for two days. It was covered in two layers of heavy cotton quilt and the room was tightly sealed to protect it from the sun. When I came back on the third day, I found the monastery crowded with locals watching lamas staging a religious dance. When it was over, people took the lotion-like material out of the room and put it into yak horns with a tiny hole at the end.

“The lotion was thrust through the hole to make a thin line on the floor. It was dried and cut into strips, and finally, the Tibetan incense was finished. Back in Tenzin's dormitory, he lit an incense of the finest quality for me. Just a few hours ago, the monastery had been full of excitement. The curling smoke and enjoyable scent soon transported me into a world of peace and tranquility. Most people say Tibetan incense can prevent and cure physical illnesses. I believe it can also nourish one's soul.”

Between Lhasa to Shigatze

On the third full day of my six-day Lhasa-Everest tour, we took the long-scenic route from Lhasa to Shigatze. Stops along the way included viewpoints from the tops of passes and places along Lake Yambdrok, We also stopped at a large mountain glacier not far from Lake Yamdrok.

From Lhasa, the Tibet-Nepal Friendship Highway follows the Kyi Chu river for about 60 kilometers (40 miles) up to the confluence with the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) at Chushul. The main route continues along the Yarlung valley up to Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city and formerly the home of the Panchen Lamas. A subsidiary branch crosses the Yarlung Tsangpo at Chushul and crosses the 4,800 meters (15,750 feet) high Gampa La, passes along turquoise Yamdrok Yutso lake before crossing the 5,045 meters (16,550 feet) high Karo La at the foot of Noijin Kangsang, and following downstream the Nyang Chu valley through Gyantse up to Shigatse. [Source: Wikipedia]

Gyangze (230 kilometers west-southwest of Lhasa, 100 kilometers southeast of of Shigatse) is the forth largest city in Tibet. It contains 68 chapels, 15th-century murals, a dzong (fort) attacked by the British in 1904, Kumbum (a lovely stupa built in 1440) and the Palkhor Monastery. Baiju Monastery in central Gyangze is a monastery that embraces all sects of Buddhism. Inside is Wanfo Pagoda, which took 8 million man hours to build and has 11 stories, 108 doors, 77 halls and shrines and walls containing tens of thousands of murals and inscriptions. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Palcho Monastery (in Gyangze) is very different from other monasteries. Situated at the foot of Dzong Hill, it was founded in 1427 and completed 10 years later. The compound housed approximately 15 different monasteries, made up of three different sects (Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Kahdampa) in a rare instance of tolerance amongst the Tibetan sects ofBuddhism. It is the only monastery that housed monks from different sects in harmony. As a result, its structural style, enshrined deities, and murals are very special. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 27, 2005]

Palcho Monastery (also called Palkhor Monastery) features a Bodhi stupa (Kumbum in Tibetan, meaning hall of 10,000 Buddhist figures). Deemed as the symbol of the monastery, the spectacular stupa (Buddhist shrine) consists of hundreds of chapels in layers, housing about a hundred thousand figures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Vajras (thunderbolt symbols), Dharma Kings, Arhats (enlightened Buddhists), and disciples and great experts of different orders in Tibetan Buddhist history. The stupa also contains roughly 3,000 statues of outstanding figures in Tibetan history such as Songtsen Gampo and Trisong Detsen, so it is also called Myriad Buddha Stupa. Covering a space of 2,200 square meters, the stupa has a total 108 gates and 77 chapels, each of which has a dominant religious figure and murals. The cylinder, 20 meters in diameter, has four chapels inside. The elegant structure is worth a visit.

Lake Yamdrok

Lake Yamdrok
Lake Yamdrok (60 kilometers southwest of Lhasa and 150 kilometers east of Shiagtse) snakes in between mountain slopes and has delightful turquoise color, freezing only a few weeks in the year (usually in February). There are fish in the lake but nobody fishes there due to the Tibetan custom of water burials.

Yamdrok Lake is one of the largest lakes in Tibet and one of the three scared lakes in Tibet along with Manasarovar Lake and Namtso. The largest inland lake near the northern part of the Himalayas, it covers 638 square kilometers. Snow-capped mountains surround the lake, which is fed by many small streams. Within the lake are small green islands that act as resting grounds for groups of wild birds. Buddhist followers believe the water can wash away "five malignancies of the human soul (greed, anger, craziness, sloth and jealousy)" and can remove uncleanliness from human skin. As a result, the holy lake is crowded with people who come to take a bath there every year. These people also carry water from the holy lake on their long journeys back home, and share it with their relatives and friends. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Four bathing gates lead to the holy lake: the Gate of Lotus Baths in the east, the Gate of Sweat Baths in the south, the Gate of Filth-Removing Baths in the west, and the Gate of Belief Baths in the north. The holy lake also has four headwaters: Maquanhe River in the east, Shiquanhe River in the north, Xiangquanhe River in the west, and Kongquehe River in the south. The four rivers are named after the four supernatural animals in paradise — the horse, lion, elephant and peacock. They are are also the origins of four well-known rivers in South Asia: the Ganges, Indus River, Sutlei River andYarlung Tsangpo River. Mapam Yumco Lake's reputation as mother of the rivers in the world was probably established due to this.

The water of the lake is regarded as dew bestowed from heaven. Drinking it or dipping oneself in it helps build up healthy qualities, removes annoyance and prolongs life. Tibetans deem all fish or feathers they take from the lake or lakeside as gifts from the Dragon King. This is why people who come to take a ritual walk around the holy mountain Kangrinboqe also walk around the lake. Many tend to prostrate themselves and then crawl to complete a circuit in a week. Admission: Yamdrok Lake: 40 yuan; Best time to visit: May to September

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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