Yarchen and Sertar, Sichuan, China ཡ་ཆེན གསེར
Home to two of the biggest Buddhist monasteries in the world, something is going on here and no one’s talking.
Access to Sertar has just begun to be prohibited for foreigners, but there’s a feeling that Yarchen may suffer the same fate soon. Since I’m technically not a foreigner, I was able to waltz right into both places. (As with Tibet province.) Plenty of domestic tourists. Nothing felt amiss.
I took two overnight trips while based in Garzê: first, to Yarchen Gar (Chinese: Yaqing Si 亚青寺), a sprawling monastery city where everyone’s a monk or nun. Well, mostly nuns — way more nuns than monks, in fact. The view from the hilltop is a sight to behold.
Garzê, Sichuan, China དཀར་མཛེས་
Tibet isn’t just the Chinese province of Tibet. Despite having parts annexed into other provinces, Tibetan culture is still well and alive in Sichuan and Qinghai, where Tibetan-majority autonomous areas exist — in some ways, you could say it’s even more Tibet than Tibet.
Garzê (Chinese: Ganzi 甘孜) is probably one of the more famous areas, with domestic and foreign tourists (often those who can’t enter Tibet) alike, but even then it’s hardly a hotspot, with its somewhat remote location in the far west of Sichuan 四川 province. Eschewing any further package tours from Lhasa, few to none of which stop in Garzê, I chose to head to Garzê the local way: wait six hours for a share taxi, then sit for 40 more hours (of Tibetan pop and rap, Bon Jovi, that Vengabus song from the 90s, Bollywood music, and Tibetan covers of western music) as it heads through beautiful but gruelling roads that don’t even exist on the map, crossing rivers, pushing the car up muddy slopes, sleeping in the car as drivers alternate and continue through the night. Everyone was so tired the second night that we gave up and stopped at a guesthouse for all of seven hours.
We were split into a two-car caravan, with Sonam driving the car I was in, along with his wife and two kids. Being stuck in a car together with people you don’t know for three days makes for either massive awkwardness or a quick friendship — and luckily, the latter happened. His young children were remarkably patient and well-behaved (or just sleepy) in a very bumpy and long car ride, and I got to know them a bit — Sonam’s from the Garzê area, his wife Wamu from Shigatse where they live, and they’re heading over to visit his family.