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The Ghost Monastery

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 22, 2009 with 1 Comment

“We stay in Shigatse, okay?” said Nima.

I was happy that we were going to follow the original itinerary after all.
During breakfast, I met a couple from Holland as well as an American girl named Sara who was traveling solo. Although we hired different travel agencies, we are following the same route. They were all staying a night in Shigatse, too.

On our way to Shigatse, we left the Friendship Highway and followed a dirty road that took us to a small, isolated monastery built in 1040 by Chetsun Sherab Jungnay, a Tibetan scholar. Although it looked simple on the outside, the inside housed some extraordinary murals.

The monastery was empty except for a few monks and some Tibetan pilgrims. I met a very young monk—probably only eight years old—washing dishes outside a chapel. He seemed fascinated by my camera and camcorder. I asked if I could take a photo of him, and he was happy to pose. An older monk asked if I could send the photos to them. I asked for an address, but the monastery didn’t have one. I decided to send the photos to Tashi; he would find a way to deliver them to the young monk.

Little Monk

Little Monk

As I roamed the monastery, I came across the Assembly Hall. It was dark, silent, and cold. The red, wooden columns were old and weather-beaten. The soft light of the candles enhanced the mysterious atmosphere. It was hauntingly beautiful.

“Nima, could I take a photo here?” I asked.

“Yes, give 20 Yuan to the monk,” he replied.

I gave the monk 100 Yuan. He came back with the change in hand, but before he gave it to me, he spit on his right hand and started counting the change in front of me. He smiled. I found it disgusting, but I couldn’t help smiling, too!

“Good?” the monk asked. He gave me the bills, wet with saliva.

“Yes, thank you!” I replied.

I continued to visit each chapel that surrounded the hall. They had smoke-blackened ceilings and were decorated with old mandala murals and hundreds of Buddha statues. I entered a small door into one of the chapels and found huge deities surrounding me, as if they were looking straight at me.

I distinguished Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha), and Chenresing (the Compassionate Buddha), along with protector deities such as Dorge Jigje—who had eight heads—and Nagpo Chenpo, who sported fangs and a skull necklace.

“Come here. Important!” Nima called from outside the chapel. “You must see this Buddha. It is for longevity. Very old Buddha.”

We walked into another chapel. The Buddha inside was actually very small, and placed within a golden shrine. “Now, longer life for you,” Nima assured me.

On the second floor, there were more temples, more Buddhas, and three monks chanting mantras.

Nima and I left the monastery through a side exit. He insisted on taking a photo of me there. “This is unique. No photo like this anywhere, very Tibetan,” Nima insisted.

The background? A dirty road with two dirty cows and some damaged houses that didn’t look Tibetan at all. But to please Nima, I posed just as I had the day before with the ornamented yak.

The road from Gyantse to Shigatse was a straight and easy drive through a dry plain.

“Almost in the city,” said Nima.

As we approached Shigatse, large military compounds rose on each side of the road. Nima told me that the city is a military base.

Both Gyantse and Shigatse looked more Chinese than Tibetan, full of China Mobile stores, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese supermarkets.

When we arrived at the hotel, Nima said, “You go to the monastery; I go to the police for the permit. Need your passport.”

“No problem. See you tomorrow,” I said.

The couple from Holland would be going to the monastery with their guide. Sara would be with her guide as well. I was thrilled to be going on my own!

I dropped my backpack off in the hotel room and started walking around town. I ran into a street market with all sorts of souvenirs.
When I arrived at the entrance of the monastery, it was closed. It would re-open at 3:30 pm. I had some time to kill, so I decided to do the videos to post in my blog when I get back home.

Recording myself on camera has been a frustrating task on this trip. I wish my cameramen friends were with me! Tibet is so stunning that I keep imagining the incredible stories a cameraman and I could have made together here.

I walked to a nearby square and placed my tripod on a bench. I fastened my mic on and stood in front of the camera.

“Three, two, one. A popular route . . .” I started talking to the camera. Suddenly, about ten people swarmed around me. They wanted to see what I had just recorded. They also wanted to see themselves on camera.

Tashi Lumpo Monastery

Tashi Lumpo Monastery


One of them had no idea what I was saying, but he wanted to make sure I looked my best and made me fix my hair a couple of times.
“Thank you, you are my Tibetan field producer!” I told him.

Throughout the day, I had company every time I turned the camera on: a random local, a Tibetan pilgrim, a nursing woman, a child, and even some monks!

When I returned to the monastery at 3 pm, it was already open. At the entrance, a blind Tibetan man sang and played guitar, with a box at his feet for donations. Although I didn’t know the words, the song struck me as sad. The man had no eyes, and his face was expressionless.

I was about to give the man money when I saw a woman grabbing some Yuan from the man’s box. I was outraged, and I gave her a nasty look as she passed by. I put two ten-Yuan bills in the box, hiding them underneath the smaller bills to make sure no one took them.

It was time to explore the famous Tashilhunpo Monastery, another of the six most important monasteries of the Gelugpa Order or the Virtuous School of Buddhism.

Constructed in the fifteenth century, this monastery has been the seat of the Panchen Lamas, who are second only to the Dalai Lamas.

Buddhists believe the Panchen Lamas are the manifestation of Manjushri, or the Buddha of Insight, just as the Dalai Lamas are the manifestation of Chenressig, the Buddha of Compassion. Currently, there are two Panchen Lamas: one identified by the Dalai Lama, and another who was approved by the Chinese.

Tashilhumpo looked like a huge, old city, full of whitewashed buildings and narrow passages.

I meandered through the cobbled lanes, trying to reach one of the ochre temples topped with gold.

Although it is supposed to be the largest functioning monastery in Tibet, it looked like a ghost town. I saw more monks walking the streets of Shigatse than inside this monastery!

As I continued through the complex, I encountered a used condom on the ground . . . disgusting, but more than that, very awkward considering I was in a monastery!

At the monastery

At the monastery

Silence reigned in the monastery. I finally heard something in the distance and followed my ear. I ran into old Tibetan pilgrims walking clockwise around two giant stupas. They mumbled mantras and touched the prayer wheels.

Although there were many chapels in the monastery, the Chapel of Jampa particularly impressed me. It contained a gilded statue of the Future Buddha that was 26 meters high! The Panchen Lama’s huge throne in the center of the Assembly Hall was also impressive.

Through a dark passage, I discovered the Kelsang Temple. Two young monks played and fought in the courtyard while an older monk guarded the temple’s entrance and talked on his cell phone.

I kept walking around, finding more lonely passages. I searched for more signs of life, but I soon gave up and left the monastery. The blind man was still singing at the entrance, two hours after I arrived!

Tomorrow, I am heading to the Everest Region, a step closer to the Base Camp!

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  1. Hello, you have made a great work, and I wanna thank you for it!

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