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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Journey of discovery

June 29, 2009 - Monday June 29, 2009
By Majorie Chiew

A group of adventurous volunteers took the route less travelled, and was
greatly enriched by the experience.

AFTER their stint in Wayao, the Kham Aid Foundation's volunteer art
conservators journeyed deeper into Kham Tibet to check the state of repairs
of temples on their itinerary.

They travelled through the more rugged and lesser trodden northern route of
the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, once an important yak caravan trail referred to
as Chamadao (Tea Horse Trail). The highway was newly paved and open when
they were there in 2007.

The team made a brief stop at Lhagang Monastery in the Tagong Grassland.
Pusarong womenfolk enjoying a game of snooker. It is a wonder how they
managed to get the table to their village.

Lhagang is said to be located on holy ground surrounded by five sacred
mountains. A replica of the famous Lhasa Jowo (statue of Buddha) resides in
the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple and revered by all Tibetans in

On their way to Derge, the team of seven volunteers passed through many
Tibetan frontier towns and mountain passes that kissed the skies at above
4,000m, with the highest, TroLa Pass, reaching 5,050m. It is customary to
fly prayer flags in mountain passes.

"Typically a horse is featured with prayers and mantras printed on coloured
cloth strung together. By hanging flags in high places, the 'Wind Horse'
will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings," explains Boon
Yap, one of the Malaysian volunteers.

"As the prayer flags fade, they become a permanent part of the universe.
Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, new flags are mounted
alongside the old to symbolise a welcoming of life's changes." Unusual
structure: Trupa Lhakhang is a temple with extensive Buddhist murals in
Pusarong village, Kangding county.The temple's entrance can only be
approached via a 9m flight of steps. - Photos by BOON YAP

Along the way, the team also visited other monasteries. On their itinerary
were the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Palpung and Pewar. Both these
monasteries have great historical, architectural and artistic values, and
are sacred places of worship for Tibetan Buddhists.

The gravel road leading to the Palpung Monastery had been badly damaged by
floods, so the team had to traverse a temporary route while a proper access
road was being built. Their vehicle attempted to ford the river several
times, aided by the placement of stones and logs, before they finally got

Yap says it was well worth the trouble as the steep forested valley suddenly
cleared to reveal a huge red-walled monastery perched on a ridge amongst a
cluster of buildings surrounded by mountains.

"At 3,950m above sea level, perched on a stupendous lookout above the Bei
Chhu River, the main temple of Palpung is an extraordinary structure. It is
the second largest traditional Tibetan building in the world, and known
locally as the Little Potala Palace.

Kham Aid Foundation is involved in the preservation of age-old paintings at
the monastery.

It also helps the monastery to set up and maintain guesthouse facilities for
travellers which the group "tested out".

That night, four of the team members, including Yap, braved the freezing
night air to stand on the roof and soak in the amazing star-spangled sky.

The Pewar Monastery houses one of the finest sets of Buddhist murals in
western Sichuan. The paintings, which were more than 270 years old and
covering 370sqm, survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. The
main temple was built during the reign of King Tenpa Tsering (1678-1738).

Due to the ravages of time, earthquakes and water damage, Pewar needed
considerable reconstruction, and Kham Aid took up the challenge.

"Great care was taken to ensure the preservation of the structure and
paintings was done according to tradition because these are the last
surviving Ga style paintings of the 15th century," relates Yap.

Pewar Monastery is the seat of Pewar Rinpoche, one of the most revered lamas
in Tibet today. He has made significant contributions to the revival of
Buddhism in Kham Tibet, and is credited with preserving the Derge Printing
House and the Derge Gönchen Monastery during the chaotic times of the
Chinese invasion.

The group had an audience with Pewar Rinpoche and sat at the Derge Gönchen
Monastery, while he presided over a chanting session amongst his lamas and

"A visit to Derge's Printing House was likened to a walk through Tibet's
literary heritage. Among the Buddhist classics was the only surviving copy
of the history of Indian Buddhism, all carved as wood block plates. Printing
is still done by hand in the tradition of 270 years ago," Yap says.

Temple extraordinaire

The highlight of the trip for Yap was the discovery of Trupa Lhakhang, an
unusual temple with extensive Buddhist murals painted in a style that was
previously known only in central Tibet.

The temple in Pusarong village, Kangding county, is so remote that it took a
good part of the day to travel the 60km on a dirt road running alongside a
raging river that carved its way through craggy peaks interlaced with golden

Finally, the road seemed to halt at the convergence of three steep mountains
as the river did a right bend to wrap around the mountain. The village was
perched high on its upper slope. The two carloads of volunteers struggled up
a zigzag trail for as high as it would take them until it was only passable
by trekking or horseback.

After making arrangements for horses, the travellers rode along this
precipitous path for another hour before they came across a tower standing
guard like a sentinel. The entrance could only be approached via a flight of
external steps 9m high. On arrival at the temple, it became apparent they
were the first outsiders to come a-calling.

"Upon entering the temple, we were greeted by the amazing sophistication and
elegance of an art style very different from the region. Magnificent
pantheons graced the walls, compassionate Buddhas and bodhisattvas,
seductive and ethereal dakinis intermingled with fearsome warriors battling
demons and ferocious animistic illusions, proclaim a universe of
meta-reality seen only by the mind," enthuses Yap.

It is surmised that the paintings escaped the destruction of China's
Cultural Revolution due to the remoteness of the site.

The temple building itself is wrapped in mystery. It is constructed in an
architectural style unlike others in the region. Details of roof and door
construction, and decorative metal elements on the temple door, suggest
influence by another ethnic group, possibly Naxi. Restoration work has since
begun on Trupa Lhakhang.

The final stretch of the road journey into Tibet was uneventful. The terrain
was rocky, dusty and dry. Except for a guardpost with a couple of guards and
a woman officer, there was little to indicate they were entering Tibet.

"We lunched among the flies while our papers were being examined. As we
crossed the silty Jinsha river, a mural with the characters 'Tibet' painted
on the cliff face was the only indication that we were in Tibet," recollects

The next challenge was in Chambdo, the end of the group's road trip. Four of
the group members extended their tour as they wanted to visit Lhasa because
of its historical significance.

"Modern Lhasa was, as I expected, an unappealing characterless modern
Chinese town, except for the fascinating sight of Potala Palace, a citadel
perched on a hill overlooking the town lost in time," says Yap.

She spent three days in Lhasa visiting the famous monasteries and the
birthplace of Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan king who united Tibet and brought
peace to a warrior nation through his two marriages, to Princess Wencheng of
China and Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal.

The team left north-east Tibet via the newly opened Bangda Airport. "Having
flown close to 2 million km and seen many airports in my time, this tiny
little outpost has the longest runway in the world at 5,500m and is the
highest airport in the world at an altitude of 4,334m," adds Yap.
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