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Visiting a Tibetan Monastery

Spinning the prayer wheels at Rongwo Monastery - Tongren, China

I have been staying in Xining, Qinghai which sits 2000m high on the Tibetan plateau. Qinghai has some Tibetan autonomous prefectures so we decided to head out into the mountains in search of a monastery. It turns out that it’s really easy.

We started our day at 07:00 with the intention of getting the 07:40 bus from xining long distance bus station out to Tongren 同仁. We missed that bus but managed to make the best bus 20 minutes later. It seems like there’s a bunch of busses out there and our busses had no tourists, just a few other people. As we headed up onto the highway towards Tongren the landscape turned into mountains and road signs changed to Tibetan. Eventually the farmland and trees on the side of the mountains disappeared as we approached 3500m and the bus pulled off the highway towards Tongren town.

We jumped out and bought return tickets. One old Tibetan guy seemed really impressed to see a few foreigners. He was really impressed with seeing a 2m tall white boy with a beard. One young Tibetan guy spoke English and translated for us. This is where I learned to say hello in Tibetan; it sounds like jod-um-un. As we headed to the monastery through the town of Tongren it is immediately clear that we left China and entered into a completely different place; the language, the people, how they dress, the food, everything about this place was different.

The optional carpet department
The optional carpet department

Rongwo Monestary རོང་བོ་དགོན་ཆེན

We approached the outer walls of the monastery. Lined with prayer wheels, we stood and watched the locals walk past saying prayers while spinning the wheels. As we entered into the monastery we saw larger prayer wheels with people chanting as they repeatedly circled the prayer wheels.

It’s we walked the number of temples. It’s clear that Tibetan people know how to build beautiful structures. Each temple is lined with fancy carvings and the whole building will be painted with so much detail. It’s really fascinating to see just how much work goes into one building.

We approached one building with smoke bellowing out of the court yard we saw some guys burning things and chanting. Inside of the temple you could hear drums and chanting so we went inside. There was 7 or 8 guys inside the temple chanting swaying back and forth as they did. One guy was playing a big drum as he chanted. As we watched, the guys that were outside burning their offerings came inside and one by one they kneeled down and selected a stick from a jar. This was their fortune and somebody read out their future from a book written in Tibetan.

One of the buildings in Rongwo Monastery... notice the lack of people - Tongren, China
One of the buildings in Rongwo Monastery... notice the lack of people - Tongren, China
Looking down over Tongren - Qinghai, China
Looking down over Tongren - Qinghai, China

We followed up the hill and found a viewpoint from behind the monastery. It looked like we had missed a temple and there was a big group of people in the court yard, we decided to retrace our steps and find this temple.

It was lunch time and hot so we decided to just sit nearby the guys in the courtyard, drink water and eat some snacks. As we sat the locals asked us to join them eating, we didn’t want to decline and decided to go for it. I don’t think the Tibetans spoke much Chinese but one young guy spoke Chinese. We managed to communicate with the older Tibetan guys with our limited Chinese and they were very interested in talking to us. It was lunch so they pulled the lid from a big cooking pot to reveal what looked like hot milk. They scooped out the milk like food into a few bowls, it tasted like salty milk with some kind of milk noodles and it wasn’t too bad. In exchange for the food we gave our remaining snacks to the children and then took a few photos.

As we entered into the nearby temple you could hear chanting. There was 8 guys in the middle of the room chanting as they read from their books. At first we just stood outside so as not to disturb but one of them waved us in. We stood inside in silence just watching the guys chanting. It really was an amazing experience. Standing in a really peaceful temple 3500m in the Tibetan mountains watching Buddhist monks. I think even visiting Tibet won’t top this moment, it was so quiet here, just us standing watching the monks and nobody else. Maybe in Tibet there will be lots of tourists. Tongren isn’t famous, is not a tourist destination.

Fancy swastikas painted on the roof of a building in the monastery - Tongren, China
Fancy swastikas painted on the roof of a building in the monastery - Tongren, China
Monk outside of Tongren monestary
Monk outside of Tongren monestary

After the temple we explored more of the complex and walked through the alley ways and around the outside wall of the monastery spinning the prayer wheels as we went.

Tongren was an amazing experience, maybe one of the most amazing places I have visited for a long time. We spent about $20 for the day so it really is worth visiting.

As we headed back to the bus station we managed to hitch a ride on the back of a farmers tractor. The culture here is so different to China. People are nice, nobody was shouting, nobody beeps their horns, nobody was spitting in the streets. Tibetan people seem very respectful.

Before Tongren, I had visited a Tibetan monastery close to Xining and while it was impressive, it was a bit of a tourist trap and it didn’t feel so genuine. Rongwo monastery felt very genuine and very surreal. A great day trip into the mountains from Xining.

Walking through the monastery compound
Walking through the monastery compound

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