William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Hidden high on a 4,500m mountaintop above the Lhasa River, some 40km eastward of Lhasa, capital of Tibet, sits the great Ganden Monastry, rising phoenix-like from its own ashes.
Ganden’s setting is extraordinary: nestled around a semicircular bowl at the head of a small side-valley, the monastery faces down its valley, across a poor little village far below to high pasture, dotted with yaks, on the next spur climbing from the deep main valley. The monastery’s great buildings line the high ridge, surveying the great sweep of the Lhasa River valley hundreds of feet below.
The monastery was founded in 1417 by the universally revered Tsongkhapa, reformer of the Gelugpa (“joyans”) order, often known as the “Yellow Hats”, Tibetan Buddhism’s most recent, and, before the Communist takeover, dominant order. Its abbot, the Ganden Tripa, was head of the Gelugpa order, and it was a commensurately huge and grand place, once home to more than 5,000 monks.
Ganden was a prominent casualty of the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, selected, along with many of Tibet’s greatest cultural gems, for destruction – annihilation in its case: it was shelled until there was nothing left except desolate rubble. (Interesting parallel between the Taliban destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas and Maoist’s of Ganden – both extreme fundamentalists, both deliberately by shellfire.) I still remember seeing as a child a photograph of the ruins of great Ganden: there was nothing left but grey rubble on a barren mountain slope. I knew nothing of Cultural Revolutions, Tibet, or even China, but have never forgotten it.
Monks are back at Ganden now and the monastery is being rebuilt. Official policy has changed, and religion is now tolerated, although closely watched and controlled. Many of the most important buildings are standing again, and look to the inexperienced eye to be authentic, if rather brightly coloured. In fact they must be ersatz recreations of the ancient structures, no doubt using different materials and evidently still missing the ancient treasures which were looted or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Teams of weather-browned, cheerful monks were labouring on the reconstruction when we were there, but the new buildings still sat amid the rubble like diamonds in a muddy seam. The strength of the Tibetans’ faith, and the importance of their culture to them, is truly humbling (a much over-used word, but wholly appropriate in this case). Given the poverty of most Tibetans - nomads or subsistence farmers struggling to live in the harshest of conditions; tough little valleys never less than 12,000 feet high between dry, barren hills; long, savage winters - it is amazing how the funds for the huge rebuilding programme have appeared. Some help has come from China, but the bulk seems to have come from the dirt poor Tibetans themselves.
We visited Ganden on a bright day in late September, with our guide, a spare, reserved man with a gentle manner and kind eyes, and our driver, a cheerful soul and evidently a keen trenchman.
The Lhasa River valley was almost painfully beautiful; the quick-flowing grey waters diffused in many channels among the tussocks and boulders of the wide valley floor. Golden autumnal willows shimmered behind goats foraging in the remains of the barley harvest. Hamlets nestled under the hillsides, children playing in the lanes, their mothers looking on from the doorways of their little courtyard homes.
High above huge hillsides of scree and crag, the jagged ridges scraped a clear blue sky – which managed to be simultaneously fierce and produce sensuously golden light.
On a grassy bank by a racing channel, a large circle of pilgrim monks were eating their lunch. They were poignant in their red robes in the wide green emptiness. A monk who was dipping dusty feet in the stream looked up and waved.
The track to the monastery labours up a long, dry hillside. The great buildings had been invisible from the valley bottom, other than a small huddle on the ridge top, and remained out of sight for most of our ascent, until we rounded a corner and found them nestled in their hilltop cradle.
We walked down a long stone alleyway past small lodgings, a dodgy-looking eating house, and the smashed walls and rubble heaps that still constituted the desolate bulk of the site. We emerged into a high terrace, the columns of the entrance to the great hall of the monastery on one side, a wide view over roofs and valley on the other.
There is a shortish uphill trudge toward the start of the perhaps 3km kora, the sacred path which circles the outside of every monastery and which is an essential part of every pilgrim’s progress. Every uphill step is a struggle in the 4,500m (15,000ft) air until you are thoroughly acclimatised.
We laboured over broken walls and among crazy piles of stone, avoiding the little congregations of turds in the sheltered corners. A couple of recently rebuilt “colleges” sparkled incongruously amid the wreckage.
The saddle was flat and scuffed, litter eddying in the breeze. Groups of monks and pilgrims were burning paper, its ashes drifting down on us. I picked up a scrap and saw that it was roughly printed and that these were prayers that were being sent to the skies.
High up the ridgetop to the south-east, prayer flags were shimmering, whole ropes of them billowing when a strong gust washed over the ridge. Smoke wafted away from bands of tiny figures. This was the “high” kora, which time and altitude exhaustion were putting beyond our reach that day.
The main (“low”) kora starts at a fissure in the ridgetop. Across the path and all around it was one of the densest, brightest assemblies of prayer flags I have ever seen, an overwhelming display of reds, blues, greens, yellows and whites, each printed with a prayer which was repeatedly dispatched heavenward as the flag fluttered in the breeze.
As we crept under the flags, the full glory of the Lhasa River valley opened up, a huge view, cliffs and slopes falling away to the wide, flat, valley, over which many channels snaked around great banks of rocky detritus. Tiny villages nestled amid their fields and trees. On the far side, barren dun hillsides, all crags and scree, soared to unkind peaks. A wide, relatively fertile-looking side valley retreated between these walls, dwindling into unforgiving mountains maybe 10 km away. Above it all, the empty, indifferent sky infused everything with a sharp autumnal light.
The kora was a rough, narrow path winding round the hilltop behind the monastery, returning to meander through its outer buildings back to the prayer flag orgy on the saddle where we started.
We followed the kora clockwise, as is customary, with a thin but constant stream of pilgrims - there was always a crimson robed figure, or a sheepskin coated one, somewhere in sight. As is the case everywhere in Tibet, the monks were always the cleanest and healthiest figures we saw, but always lean and bright-eyed. The other pilgrims were all peasants from high valleys and nomads from the rocky grasslands of the plateau. Most would smile at our greetings, raise a hand or start a conversation - to our embarrassment, as our Tibetan never got beyond preliminary words of friendship. Some shuffled past without looking up, muttering their prayers, immured in their devotions.
Small devotional cairns, often just four or five stones, were piled precariously, one on top of the other, on slabs by the path. Little piles of juniper twigs smouldered somewhat threateningly in the wayside grass. The smell hung on parts of the hillside.
Every few hundred metres, we would step round figures hunched in prayer, or sitting, trance-like and silent.
The path edges above precipices and sidles under cliffs, although most of the time it traverses a steep grassy hillside. As it swings away from the long slope facing the Lhasa valley, it passes through a notch in the ridge. Prayer flags again decorate this rocky little pass. The path is now on the lee side of the ridge, and small autumnal trees now crowded the hillside.
After a whitewashed shrine, the kora loses height rapidly, stumbling over rocks and sliding down smooth-worn dusty chutes. Then you are back at the bottom end of the monastery. The path seemed to divide, and we struggled back up a steep slope of rubble and dirt, apprehensively skirting a pair of vicious-looking, snarling Tibetan dogs. Rabies corner.
We wound along a high-walled, blank little alley and issued out into the blinding sun of the grand terrace by the great hall. As happens after every close Tibetan encounter, my heart bulged with admiration for their faith and simplicity, and I resolved to live a better life.