Chimph’u and Samye: Expect the Unexpected

Chimp’u Nunnery

 As I planned this trip some months ago, I learned of a special event at Samye Monastery on July 9. My request to the tour agency scheduling my activities was that regardless of any other activities, they should plan for me to be at Samye on July 9. On my way to Samye  I learned there was indeed a ritual dance planned. I was excited. What I did not realize was that everyone within miles of the monastery would also be aware of this event and would plan to attend.

We arrived at Samye from Lhasa in late afternoon after detouring to visit a government office in Zedong to have our tour documents validated and to receive permission for our visits outside Lhasa. Then we had to take a detour back to Samye because we learned a bridge on the main approach road had been washed out. There is also major highway construction in this area with an extension of a super-highway opening soon, not to mention multiple other small culverts washed out along the way as well.

Chuba–Tibetan traditional dress.

There was a good deal of activity in the town surrounding the monastery, many small vendors set in temporary booths. I don’t know if this is normal or whether it was because of impending special events. Given the exertion of the day, I had little interest in further ventures.

Unlike most other locations I’ve visited, Samye is located on the flood plain of the Yalu river. Thus, it is surrounded by mountains on three sides instead of being up on top of one. Samye, though founded in 765 by King Trisong Detsen and sanctified by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), is technically not the oldest monastery in Tibet. There are older temples, but Samye was the first to establish a monastic culture—monks in residence. It has been severely damaged multiple times in its history by fire and conquest as well as damage by the Cultural Revolution, but it has survived.

Its grounds and layout may not seem as grand as others, but the design is a symbolic representation of the mandala of the Buddhist cosmos. Mt Meru, the main temple, is at center (Buddha’s palace), surrounded by stupas representing the four continents (lakhangs) at the cardinal directions, with 8 smaller lakhangs on each side of the four. The Sun and Moon were represented by two temples (now gone) along with four chortens at the corners to the east and west of the central temple (Utse). The Dalai Lama’s teaching throne (Utse Vihara) is at the center of the complex.

Vairotsana, the first Tibetan translator and the first Dzogchenpa, was the founding abbot of Samye. There are about 300 monks here; but again, far short of the thousands residing here before 1960.

Our plan for the day was to go to the Chimph’u caves early and get back to the monastery before the dances at 12:30. Chimph’u is the location of a nunnery and a large number of caves, which were used by some of the historical Buddhist luminaries such as Guru Rinpoche himself. It is also a place where Longchenpa wrote some of his best known work and where he died in 1363. On that very ⇑day, it is said that the earth shook, that flower petals fell from the sky and roses bloomed in winter. Chimph’u has long been high on my list of places to visit.

Without using telephoto, the small shrine at Longchenpa’s cave can barely be seen far up the hillside at approximately the 1:00 position.

Silly me, I thought we were leaving early because it was far. Nope. It’s rather near Samye, and the nunnery isn’t even very far up the mountain. It’s the climb up from the nunnery to the caves that takes time. Looking up the mountain face and seeing the reality, a small building far up the mountain face above the nunnery, I was daunted, particularly since I had not fully recovered from the previous day’s climb at Gangri Tokar, I did not feel the same compulsion to go all the way up.

Full-on telephoto.

The nuns were assembled and performing ritual; we were allowed to file through. There was one notable item for viewing—a rock in which the shape of a lama had “naturally appeared.” It was painted, but the underlying image emerging from the rock was detailed enough and sufficiently improbable, with no signs of human influence, to suggest a true natural occurrence. These sorts of occurrences have been reported in multiple places throughout Tibet for centuries. Such assertions may strain credulity, but I have no reason to disbelieve them.

After touring the nunnery, we headed up the hill, again a winding stone path with many steps, passing residences, small vendors, tea shops and the occasional cow, I simply went as far as I was comfortable going. I could have exerted myself further, and may well have done so if we did not have another commitment at the monastery later. I wanted to see the dances more than I wanted to reach the top of Chimph’u.

We stopped at a small teahouse along the way, tended by a woman whose shining weathered face, like that of so many older Tibetan women, was a complex map of a deeply lived life. Every contour spoke of stories I could only imagine. The flickering light of wisdom shone from a depth behind her eyes, the labors of a long life, motherhood, the sacrifices, all in addition to the losses of three generations, the incursion of a foreign ideology and culture that, having lost its own soul, seems incapable of officially acknowledging what has taken millennia to grow here.

Perhaps it was all a projection on my part, but I was shaken out of it when a few nuns coming down the hill told us we would not be able to get into the caves today anyway because they had recently been occupied by a large number of nuns and monks for practice. Just as well. This will have to wait.

The crush waiting to get into Samye

Back at the monastery, there were signs of an impending big event. Traffic control. Streets blocked. Heavy police presence. Controlled entry. Security screening. We discovered the dances had been postponed until tomorrow because of a special visit by a high lama. Thousands of locals were arriving and already filling the monastery grounds, forming a long and circuitous queue for expected blessings. As tourists, since weren’t waiting for any special blessings and weren’t jumping the line, we were allowed in to browse.

We went straight to the main assembly hall/temple, which was filled with monks performing elaborate ritual with music, offerings, chanting and recitation. The interior is strikingly majestic, having an ostentatious grandeur befitting the stature of this place, enhanced by the presence of so many monks performing ritual. It was also filled with locals tucked into every possible niche, mostly huddled on the floor in anticipation of something, though I had no idea what. I soaked in it for awhile.

The main temple at Samye has three levels, Tibetan on the bottom, India-style above and Chinese-style above that.

Suddenly they were all on the move, circling around and lining up at a particular spot. The sanctuary was closed to further entry. We found ourselves in the midst of the first beneficiaries of the blessing process. But it could not start until the proper ceremonial preparations were completed-something locals themselves rarely witness, let alone this solitary westerner. I would miss the dancing, but this was a very special event indeed.


While it was going on, we simply waited with everyone else—for over an hour. Then the line moved and we found ourselves in an interior hallway behind and encircling the main altar. It was poorly lit, the walls were slanted and at least 6, maybe 8 meters high. There were murals on the walls all the way up to the ceiling that must have been at least 500 years old, so they must have survived the Cultural Revolution. We inched forward until we were all the way around to the other side, exiting into the assembly hall again to be met by 3-4 stages of individual blessing and received other handouts to the multitude.

As we had seen outside, people were lined up all around the grounds awaiting entry to receive what we had just received. And that was true for the rest of the afternoon, a continuous process, the line seeming to renew itself as fast as it moved.

The police presence for this event was heavy. I noticed  four different uniforms: bright orange fire control, unarmed camo soldiers inside for crowd control, outdoor regular dark blue armed police and fully loaded SWAT teams at the entrances. Other groups of camo-soldiers loitered next to their riot gear assembled on the ground: shields, batons and helmets. There’s nothing about this that says “protection.” Everything about it says intimidation. Normally, westerners are not permitted at large gatherings of Tibetans. If any conflict were to arise (and they have), the visitors would be recording it immediately. The government risks having those recordings posted on social media for all the world to see. No dice. Also, in China, one does not want to be noticed photographing police or military under any circumstances.


The approach to Tsurphu is a slow winding 20+ km climb through the green Dowo valley through which the Tsurphu Chu tumbles, or should I say roars, from the higher elevations. The road has been improved a great deal in recent years, cutting the travel time from the main road by at least half and improving the comfort by more than that, I’m sure.

I was mesmerized by the stream, pouring down at a furious rate here in early July. The snows are gone for the time being, but there is plenty of rain. Except for how shallow it is generally, the stream looked like a Class III-IV river. We passed multiple streams of varying sizes feeding from the mountain above. Passing small villages, groups of yak and goats along the way, one can’t escape the sense of abundance here. Looking up the valley, a majestic snow-capped peak easily exceeding 5000 meters oversees-and feeds-the life below. The stream will slow in the coming months, the weather will turn cold and the snows will turn everything white.

Tsurphu monastery was founded in 1333. It is the original seat of the Kagyu order and home to the Karmapa lineage, built against the mountain on the north side of the stream, looking both up and down-valley from its high perch. In 1642, Tsurphu was sacked by Mongols enlisted by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama to subdue their resistance to Gelug dominance. The Karmapa was forced to flee to Bhutan.

These facts provide some insight into the reasons I wanted to come here; this location was added at the last minute to my itinerary. But they cannot communicate the feeling of being here, the unique nature of this particular monastery combined with the impact of contemplating that at least parts of this place were packed with dynamite during the Cultural Revolution and blown to smithereens. Pieces of its buildings and murals littered the grounds for years.


It has been under continuous restoration since the 80’s and largely restored to its former glory, but, as most monasteries, with only a small complement of monks compared to their pre-1960 numbers.

Viewing this 300-meter square complex requires a continuous climb from one level to the next, each housing several small meditation sanctuaries devoted to different persons or deities. These are relatively small rooms, perhaps only 150 sq.ft. They have wood flooring, aged thangkas on the walls, images enclosed in glass, sutras stored in niches and shelves in front festooned with offerings, butter lamps, a bowl for monetary donations.

There was an attending monk in each, some performing ritual or reciting sutra. Common to almost all rooms were pictures of the current XVIIth Karmapa (who resides in the Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya, India under—as I have noted elsewhere– the substantial protection of the Indian government), the XVIth Karmapa (who fled here for Sikkim during the Cultural Revolution), images of previous Karmapas as well as one of the central figures influencing Kagyu practice, Milarepa. There are small stupas, containing relics of previous Karmapas in several of the rooms.

Three doorways on the left open to small sanctuaries.

As in virtually all monasteries, no photos are permitted inside. But as we wandered from one space to the next, the sense of devotion deepened. Here, I made an offering as I have done in most other places and received a blessing from a “monk in a box.” It may seem as if I make light of it, but in truth there was nothing light about it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is like the Chairman of the Board, the Panchen Lama (the second in the order of authority in the Gelug school), would be analogous to the CEO, and the Karmapa would be third in rank. But since there is no Panchen Lama (who in the 80s was kidnapped as a young boy with his parents by the Chinese and has never been seen since), the Karmapa would assume the second rank. To realize the current place of the Karmapa is to be continually reminded that there is no Panchen Lama.

But aside from all that, Tsurphu was more striking to me than any of the major Gelug monasteries of Amdo. It wasn’t especially the setting, the view, the stream or the architecture. It was more personal than that. Maybe it was seeing multiple hermitages further up the slope, almost vertical from the main complex, at least 150-200 meters upward, snug against the mountain, isolated, unattainable except by an arduous climb.

Trika to Repkong

Prayer wheels at this monastery are covered in painted yak hide.

 This morning started with a drive from the hotel in Trika to a small local monastery named after the Jokhang in Lhasa. It’s 400 years old and shows its age, but it was quite busy with local people performing prostrations, korra and offering prayers. No photos allowed. We didn’t spend much time there but I was happy we went. It definitely had a community feel to it.

From there we drove to Kamra National Park, the last part of the drive taking us along the Yellow River. When we got to the entrance, we stopped at a ticketing area where we learned that cars were not allowed in the park. They were only allowing people to go into the park on small tour buses that held 20 people each. We were heading to destinations beyond the park so we didn’t want our schedule blown by this surprise. My guide managed to cajole the agent to allow us into the park because we couldn’t come all the way back to the entrance before going on to our destination. The agent relented and allowed us into the park for 100 yuan.

As we are depart the ticketing area and head back to the road to go into the park, we are stopped by a young woman who didn’t believe our ticket was real and wouldn’t let us through. Fortunately, Tenzin was able to guarantee our passage by calling the ticket agent back and having him talk to her.

The road into the park is a long, looping, winding climb that must have taken us up at least 500 meters. We left the river far below, making our way up into a lush valley with grassy hills studded with trees, rocky dry stream beds and the odd walled compound suggesting living inhabitants. Reaching the crest, the road wound further and quickly transitioned into a downhill challenge. But even greater vistas awaited, including mountains rising another 1000 ft or more across a deep canyon below.

From where we stopped to savor the view, it was all green except for cultivated fields of bright yellow, possibly mustard, terracing on the hillside beyond and above that and rocky spires further down the valley below.

Once we got further down into the canyon, we took a turn onto a dirt road that wound along a small stream. Soaring up from both sides were 2-3000 ft mountains. It could have been off-road Colorado. It could even have been Utah, deep in a red rock canyon with spires jutting upward along the way. After crossing the stream a few times, we wound upward into another canyon where we could see the nunnery stepping down from far above.

We stopped opposite the nunnery at a stairway reaching far up into the hillside. At the top is a treasured shrine dedicated to three monks who escaped the reach of Langdarma (838-841). Although there is some dispute about his true intentions,and even whether he was Bon or Buddhists, he is remembered for trying to wipe out Buddhism in Tibet. He wasn’t successful in his short reign, obviously, but the terror that followed his edicts was no small matter. These monks spent several years inside three small caves at the top of this mountain. And here, presenting me with my first climbing challenge at altitude in this Land of Snows, was a 1000-foot stairway leading to the top.


The entire course of this zig-zagging climb upward, was strewn with prayer flags of course, with platforms at several locations for climbers to rest. We rested, yes, but not for long. I was thankful for the time I spent on the stair climbers in the Berkeley YMCA in June, pacing myself as near as I could estimate to the rate I managed there. But this was at 9-10,000 ft. For Tenzin, my guide, this climb is 20 minutes. For me, it was a bit more, maybe 25. OK for a geezer.

At the top was a small shrine, filled with images of Chenrezig. I took a single photo at the entrance and was immediately admonished by the attending nun, “No photo!” I thought, “Lady, I just managed a heart–attack climb to get here and you’re telling me I can’t take a photo?”


Atop the next peak over and above us by a few hundred meters was a huge statue under construction. The steel frame was nearly complete. Rumor is it will either be Tsongkapa (this is his territory, after all, having been born and ordained here) or Guru Rinpoche. I vote for the former. But most amazingly, a long and significantly more grueling stairway coming all the way up from a point on the road well below us, with several platforms for rest, had already been constructed along the ridgeline leading to the statue.

I could not imagine making that climb. Building a road to the top would have been far more expensive. Tsongkapa is best known for showing the way to the top, yet his way would have been the more arduous climb, not the easy drive.

The nunnery itself is perched at the edge of a 150 ft. cliff. This nunnery, Aching Namdzong, founded in 900, is among the oldest in Tibet. The gompa and teaching spaces occupy an uphill position while the nun’s quarters are strung out downhill on a narrowing spit of land with a steep drop-off on both sides. We were escorted by a young nun into the central shrine and assemble hall. As in most all the places I have visited, photos are not permitted inside.

Red Mahakala

Our drive to Repkong from there took us along a winding gradual uphill climb. We stopped at a viewing point. To my surprise, we were now looking down on the unfinished statue of Tsongkapa atop the hill that seemed so high just a few hours before. Coming down the other side of this range, we could see a man made lake, the second largest hydro-power installation of this province.

Tibetan graffiti

From here, we descended to the city of Repkong.



Tibet Now


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