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Cross Dola Rangmo/Mt Qilian

following the footsteps of Sakya Pandita, a revisit of the North Silk Road in connection with Tibet.

  • Day 02 / མཆོད་རྟེན་ཐང་དགོན་པ། Chortentang Monastery / Tiantang Si 天堂寺

In front of the main temple in Chortenthang monastery. photo by Tashi

80km west of Huzhu County along the Mt. Qilian range, at the north bank of Tathang river, རྟ་ཐང་ཆུ Datonghe in Chinese, is Chortenthang monastery, under the jurisdiction of Chortentang (Tiantang) town, Huare (Tianzhu) Tibetan autonomous County. The area is the religious center of Huare homeland. The Tibetans living here are called Huare (Pare),དཔའ་རིས།, the heroes or the warriors, believed to be the descendants of the dispatched border guards during the time of Tibetan Empire.

View of the valley. photo by Tashi

It must have been a place of tranquility, surrounded by the forestry-covered mountains like lotus petals. The river flows in front of the monastery with a history of nearly 1200 years.

shop signs

Now it’s a bustling town, touristy (or how else to describe it). Rows of newly-built two-story buildings line up on the both side of the streets. The uniformed shop signs, in same colors, fonts, design, hung on the uniformly designed buildings. The font used for the Chinese scripts is one of the recent invention, mimicking a Tibetan style of writing (at least for the designer’s eyes), giving somehow a leg-dragging Tibetan / touristy look. The smaller Tibetan scripts appeared on the top, align with the decorative frame. The boards, buildings, colors, lamp posts are all in uniforms, brand new and odd.

Ali Baikok

At the entrance square, the vendors wait for the tourists to try on the colorful cheap-material costumes for photo souvenirs. The little boy and girl dolls put on “Tibetan dress” standing next to the fake animals looking “young and naïve”. The bunting, the noise, the colors, the collective drive for something instant, is the layer one needs to cross and arrive at the gate of the ancient monastery, which also seems to be newly renovated and slogan-ed up.

It started out as a site of Bon (Tibetan pre-Buddhist religion) monastery built in early 9th century, and believed to have existed for over 500 years. The old Bon tradition then declined facing the competitive spread of Buddhism here and elsewhere on Tibet proper.

A Sakya monastery was built on the ruins of Bon Yongdrong monastery གཡུང་དྲུང་དགོན to receive the greatest scholar of the time, Sakya Kungka Gyaltsen, ས་སྐྱ་ཀུན་དགའ་རྒྱལ་མཚན, more commonly known as Sakya Pandita (Pandita as the title for great scholar in Sanskrit). Sapan (as in abbreviation) arrived here in 1245 and stationed at Chortanthang before meeting the Mongolian Godan Khan in Liangzhou, ལུང་དྲུག, the Khan’s royal base just 200 km down eastern.

A century later, the fourth Karma Rolwedorje, ཀརྨ་རོལ་བའི་རྡོ་རྗེ, head of the Karma Kagyu sect, passed here en route to Beijing to meet the Yuan Emperor in 1360. The legend was that the area had suffered from the flooding Tathang river, so he had 108 Stupas built to pacify the river spirit. The place was subsequently renamed as Chortenthang (the land of Stupas), and the monastery became Kagyu sect.

Following the rise of Gelugpa sect across Tibet, the monastery once again converted into a Gelugpa academy, expanded to a large institute where the State Preceptors Changkya Rowedorje ལྕང་སྐྱ་རོལ་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེ and Tukun Choekyi Nyima ཐུའུ་བཀྭན་ཆོས་ཀྱི་ཉི་མ once received education here. It was renamed as “Tashi Darje Ling” by the fifth Dalai Lama who crossed the region en route to Beijing in 1652.

The change of linages and names of this particular site corresponded with the rise to and declining from the prestigious status in religious and political power, of the Tibetan Buddhist sects in history.

For a relatively small religious institution, its more direct involvement with the royal courts of Yuan, Ming, Qing dynasties in their religious attainments and dealings with Tibetans was largely due to its location as a critical point of conjunctions in ancient border land.

This border land of periphery clearly has beaten the acute pulse with the religious and political centers, to say the least.

We didn’t know before this trip that the monastery is affiliated with Dongkor Monastery སྟོང་སྐོར་དགོན. Dongkor Rinpoche is the head of the monastery, while Dongkor (Huangyuan) the area eastern to Lake Kokonor (Qinghai Lake) is one of the most important hubs on the Tibetan branch of the Silk Road.

It’s also the home monastery of the 6th Dorshi Rinpoche, དོར་ཞི་རིན་པོ་ཆེ།, the well-regarded scholar and professor of Buddhism, Tibetan grammar, Logic Studies of Northwest Uni. of Nationalities in Lanzhou, as well as the prolific author, Dharma translator and revered teacher of Tibetan Buddhism for Chinese language readers and audience.

Je Tsongkhapa Temple. photo by Tashi

Before 1956, the monastery, although had suffered from periodic destructions, expanded to a large institution with 17 Lamas and nearly 1000 monks in house, and the grand size of 4000 rooms, and 1500 acres of land. Its full destruction came in 1956 and on ward. In two decades between late 1950s and late 1970s, the monastery was only left with a few of its treasures while the most structures and statues were totally destroyed. The efforts of renovation started in early 1980s. The Tsongkapa Temple now stands 35m tall and houses the 23m in height, gold-gilded wooden statue of Je Tsongkapa.

Tiny Potala. Photo by Tashi

A very interesting building is Potala Palace. Yes, as the Potala Palace in Lhasa. This stone-based, cement-enforced structure makes an effort to provide the pilgrimages and the tourist-alike a tiny Potala, the Tibetan headquarter for religious and political affairs in history, well at least, in spirits. The essentials are there.

The last time when Tashi visited here was in 2000 accompanying Christoph Baumer, on his book research trip of Eastern Tibet: Bridging Tibet and China, an essential reading of the area.The author wrote eloquently on Tibetan and Chinese borderlands, the Silk Road, and the central Asia.

During that last trip Tashi actually remained to regard this monastery in traditional Tibetan perspective. It’s one of the five major pilgrimage sites of Northern Amdo (Shangge Gonchen Nga). This time, we are more consciously mapping it out as a major connecting point on the Northern Silk Road, as it has been.

The last time when MLK visited Huare was in 2003, for an educational program aiming at improving the Tibetan as instructional language in the county’s Tibetan schools. The plan was abolished due to the circumstances. This revisiting of Tibetan sites along the Dola Rangmo and Hexi Corridor is really exciting and educational one for us.

We stayed overnight at Namla Hotel (南拉宾馆). Overall it’s clean and quite, even with our window facing the street side. The lobby is very small but the room is quite spacious. At this time of the year, the hotels / hostels in town are fully booked. Here’s their link on Ctrip (Xiechen Wang):

There are three bus lines from Lanzhou, Gansu province, and Xining, Qinghai province to the monastery. Lanzhou – Tianzhu County – Tiantangsi; Lanzhou – Huzhu County – Tiantangsi; Xining – Huzhu County – Tiantangsi. Expect 5 hours in total.

Tomorrow we will head to Wuwei, the place where the Liangzhou Peace Talk between the Mongolian ruler and Tibetan intermediator took place in 13th century.

To be continued.

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