Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Off the Beaten Track in Tibet

After a busy Christmas writing up Lonely Planet's new Nepal guide, I've finally starting to look back over 2014's travels. My big Asian trip was to Tibet, researching Lhasa and central Tibet for the Lonely Planet guide. I always try to visit a few new places every time I go back to Tibet and there were a few crackers this trip.

Drak Yangzom & Dzong Kumbum
The cave complex of Drak Yangdzom has long been a favourite of mine because there's just nothing else like it in Tibet. Getting into the caves involves climbing a wood and yak hide ladder high up into the mouth of a cliff and then hauling yourself up a narrow, slippery shute into a sacred cave complex before a nun finally drags you by the feet through a tiny opening in the rock wall into the inner sanctum, the sacred cave of a Himalayan saint. It's the craziest excursion in Tibet.

On the other side of the valley is Dzong Kumbum, a less narrow but much longer cave complex of several branches. We joined a group of Tibetan pilgrims for a tour of the sacred marks, stalactites and pools. With a mixture of barely suppressed giggles and hushed reverence, like school kids on a sacred school trip, it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  (Click on the photos for the bigger picture).

Pilgrims in Dzong Kumbum Cave

Exploring Drak Yangdzong Cave
Pilgrims posing for a souvenir photo at the entrance to Drak Yangdzong cave

On Valley
New for the guidebook this edition is this little-visited but surprisingly accessible valley. The main Keru Lhakhang dates back 1250 years and holds some of the oldest statues left in Tibet, revealing an early Central Asian influence. For a bit of adventure, make the 90-minute hike up to the ruins of Samtenling Nunnery and Chodung Monastery

Ruins of Samtenling Nunnery, On Valley

Samding Nunnery
I'd been to this nunnery before but this was the first time I stayed at the on site guesthouse. An overnight gives you time to head up the ridge behind the monastery for epic views over surrounding lakes, all the way to the Bhutan border.

Samding and Yamdrok-tso

Here are some more of my favourite places off the beaten track in central Tibet. For details of all these places see the new Lonely Planet Tibet guide.

View of Yarlung Tsangpo from Shedruling Monastery, near Gongkar airport
Samtenling Nunnery, near Reting Monastery
Reting Valley, en route to Samtenling

Chortens between Nyima Jiangre and Phondo
Sand mandala, Tsurphu Monastery
This toe is the only part left of a giant Maitreya statue that once stood at Jampaling

Painting murals inside a giant stupa, Rabse Nunnery, near Gyantse
Sili Gotsang Hermitage
View from Milarepa's Cave, near Nyalam

Chortens of the Dza Rongphu Retreat, with Mt Everest behind

Little-known hiking trail from Khamba-la pass overlooking Yamdrok-tso lake.


Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

Current Favourite Track