Ganden & Norbulakhang

Although Ganden is one of the six principal Gelug monasteries in Tibet (of which I have now visited 5) and the location of Tsongkapa’s burial stupa, its distinctive feature is not so much what’s inside the grounds, but what’s outside. Resting as it does on a peak with a commanding view of the Tsong valley, with many villages and cultivation below, korra at Ganden is both a 360° tour of that view, but more importantly, a chance to regard many “natural” phenomena appearing in the rock as evidence of the spiritual significance of this place.

Ganden was shelled by Chinese artillery during the Cultural Revolution.

The walk itself, which takes about an hour, extends well beyond the walls of the monastery itself, circumambulating the peak on a path that at times skirts the edge of infinity and felt very precarious to me. It is mostly quite safe, and thank goodness it was dry. Locals passed me with the aplomb of frisky mountain goats compared to my plodding placement of every step.

Stone markers on the way denote the presence of at least a dozen images that appear in the rock, Tara, a handprint, Buddhas, various religious signs. And sure enough, they are there, plain as day.


This is not the only place where such occurrences are known. There is the footprint in the hermitage high above Tsurphu, the image of a Karmapa at the Chimp’u nunnery, the handprint of Padmasambhava in stone at one of the caves he used. There are many more claimed across central Tibet. It’s difficult to know what exactly they are, but the ones I’ve seen show no obvious human sign of deliberate construction. I don’t know how their authenticity might be determined. They are simply taken on faith to be real, just as real as the terma (hidden teachings to be “discovered” in future lives) unearthed from stone over many centuries.

Regardless of their authenticity, they are reminders of the ultimate view of Buddhism that materiality, formlessness and time itself are all mutable. They are regarded as a sign that their creator, the one who instigated their manifestation, in this case Tsongkhapa, had authentically attained such a state of consciousness and generated proof of his attainment, perhaps even long after his physical death.

There is much more to Ganden than I was admitted—or taken–to see. The small portion I did see were temples devoted to Tsongkhapa, Maitreya Buddha, all the dharma protectors, the spiritual sons of Buddha, the Indian arhats and, of course, Tsongkhapa’s burial stupa.

Tsongkhapa’s cave

Mindroling and Norbulakhang:

The next morning, I expected to be visiting Mindroling, the only Nyingma monastery on my itinerary. But shortly after departure, we received news that Mindroling was closed to foreigners. There was a large event there just as there had been at Samye. No one but Tibetans were allowed. There really wasn’t any choice in the matter, so we headed back to Lhasa to see Norbulakhang, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.

It’s a sprawling complex of distributed chapels and personal quarters built for a string of Dalai Lamas stretching back to the VIIth. It’s surrounded by shaded lawns, including 100 different species of trees and bamboo. The VIIIth Dalai Lama built a library here housing 36,000 sutras and philosophical treatises. The VIIth Dalai Lama surrounded himself with dozens of thangkas of his favorite subject, White Tara, every one his own creation.

In fact, he was such an accomplished thangka painter himself, he could produce a completed White Tara in a single day. Knowing this as one views his work in his private chambers leaves one awestruck at his skill. I seriously doubt there’s a person on earth who could do that once, let alone twice.
From a second floor window overlooking a large stone patio and beyond to the shaded lawns, compartmentalized by low rock walls, on one day every year the XIVth Dalai Lama would appear at the window of his personal meditation chamber to view the ritual Opera Dance, while hundreds of adoring citizens would picnic.
It was always a sweet time of holiday spirit, an exchange of mutual admiration, a celebration of kinship in the dharma. All of that was when the Dalai Lama was still quite young. The holiday is still observed, the dance is still performed. The families still come to picnic. But the Dalai Lama has not, and will not return. He left at 9pm one night in 1959. A clock on the wall halfway up the stairs to his personal quarters stopped the moment he left the building. To this day it still says 9:00.

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.