Kia Ora Tibet

I'm a Kiwi who's currently living on the roof of the world in Lhasa.
These are the stories and photos of my adventures in Tibet: learning the language, exploring the country, discovering the culture, and meeting so many wonderful people.
All content is original, and questions are welcome.
copyright kiaoratibet2014.

The Library at Sakya Monastery

The Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism are renowned for their academic abilities and have historically produced some of Tibet’s most famous scholars. It comes as little surprise then that their library is immense and possible the biggest surviving collection of texts in Tibet. 

Somehow Sakya’s southern monastery was saved from most of the destruction of the cultural revolution, so it is now regarded as having the largest collection of Tibetan Buddhist artefacts in Tibet. You can tell just by looking around how much of a difference there is between being here in a preserved ancient monastery with real ancient artefacts all around as opposed to a rebuilt one. 

Sakya’s library consists of hundreds of thousands of volumes including multiple versions of the Kangyur and Tengyur: the teachings of the Buddha and commentaries on these teachings. In a glass box at the far end of the library room is one of the largest handwritten sutras in Tibet, written in gold ink on a scroll made of leather. 

Our monk guide told us that apparently when all of the scriptures were put into these shelves they were neat and orderly, but the way that they now sit is a reflection of the state of world affairs. When the world is in a state of peace the scriptures appear straight and level, but as bad events occur the volumes tend to slip and become messy and uneven. 

Along the main wall of the library room some scriptures could even be seen protruding from the main stack by 30cm or so, which we were told happens only when a major negative world event occurs. Our monk guide pointed out a couple that date back to the world wars, and have been left sitting in that way because when at first they were pushed back in somehow the scriptures came out again the next day. The monks believed that this was an auspicious sign that they should be left like that, and have hung ceremonial silk scarves on the end of them. 

Stories of magic such as this are common in Tibet, and not a touch of doubt is held by the devotees who come here that these stories are truth. Of course the scriptures move of their own accord, why shouldn’t they? 

Note: Photography is usually not permitted in the library room, and there are several signs in multiple languages that remind visitors of this. However, I asked special permission of the monks in charge and they kindly allowed me to take photos here. 

A sand mandala and torma offerings inside Sakya monastery

A sand mandala and torma offerings inside Sakya monastery

Sakya - My Favourite Place in Tibet

I visited Sakya in 2011 on my first tour of Tibet, and I loved it. Something about being there makes me feel perfectly at home, like I belong, and I feel so happy. Since being back in Tibet this time around I’ve been dying to get back there and explore it once again so when the opportunity arose with some friends going to Shigatse - only a few hours drive away - it was perfect. 

While driving from Shigatse  to Sakya that morning a couple of members of our travelling party called some friends who had contacts at the monastery, so when we arrived we were met by a monk who had been living there since he was a boy and was excited to meet foreigners with such an interest in his monastery. He took us room by room around the huge Southern monastery, explaining every statue and every painting, and telling us many magical stories - the like of which are common in Tibet - about each image.

Our tour took hours and only managed to cover the main rooms due to the depth of information we were being told and some translation difficulties. The monk would speak in his native Shigatse-dialect Tibetan, of which I understood a good amount but not all, then a Tibetan friend who was travelling with us would translate what the monk had said into Chinese (because his English is good but not great), and then our Singaporean friend would translate from the Chinese into English for the rest of us. It was a long, sometimes tedious process, but worth it to hear all that the monk had to tell us. 

At times we attracted quite a following of locals who began by just staring at us and wondering why these foreigners had a monk as their guide, but then they too would get caught up in listening to the magical stories that the monk would tell, that were much more detailed than any tourist book or guide could explain. 

Ponderously our group made our way around the main rooms of the monastery, deciding at last to take a lunch break after several hours when our brains were starting to go into overload and an energy boost was needed. We farewelled the monk and tried to offer him money in thanks, but he refused it, saying that he was happy enough just to be able to meet foreigners with such an interest and knowledge about Buddhism, and to be able to teach them a bit about Sakya. 

The sun was shining and most of the snow gone by the time we came back out of the monastery. I honestly wished that I could have stayed there longer to check out the smaller chapels, maybe wander the northern ruins, and just explore the area, but I was happy to have just been here at all. 

Anonymous asked: Hello and Tashi Delek ! I have been enjoying your wonderful photography for some time now. However, in your recent posting, I find the watermark to be quite distracting. I do respect your desire to keep your work from unauthorized use, but could you be so kind to choose a much smaller font for the copyright that won't be obtrusive. Thank you ever so much.

Hi Anonymous, 

Unfortunately I have had to begin watermarking my photos after a couple of recent incidents that involved people stealing my work for their own sites without my permission. I found this quite upsetting, and wanted to make it very clear that just because something is posted online does not make it free to use. 

This is the first time I’ve had experience with something like this, and I’m currently trying to work out the finer details of watermarking photos. I hope you’ll understand and be patient as I try to get it right. 

Thanks for your support and suggestion, 


noutsering asked: If you had to describe life in tibet in one word, what would it be?

མི་རྟག་པ་: This means “Impermanence” and I chose it because life here changes every day: new technology, new rules, new people to meet, new lessons to learn … From one day to the next here things are never all the same. 

A lot of people think that life in Tibet must be traditional and that people’s lives are ruled by Buddhist belief, but in reality these days all of this is changing with modern influences and exposure to Western ideas. In a way I guess my life here is changing in the opposite direction: I’m being changed by the traditions and Buddhist teachings that I’ve been exposed to, and each day something new comes along that affects me again. From one day to the next I’m an adventurer, a pilgrim, a tourist, a student, a teacher, a socialite, a hermit, an artist … Nothing is permanent. 

That was such a hard question! It’s something I’ve never really had to think about before, so thanks for the challenge. I hope you enjoy my answer, Becky. 

Sakya in the snow

We arrived in Sakya township on a snowy morning which felt quite fitting considering that “sa-kya” ས་སྐྱ་ means “white place”, named for the white clay earth on the northern hillside above the monastery. 

The snow had stopped falling when we arrived, but there was still enough around to have a few snow fights, and even the police officers and monks were getting in on the fun! 

Looking north to the mountain the snow seemed to highlight the edges of the ruins of the monastery there. Sakya used to have two monasteries: the northern sprawling one that was spread across the mountain and the southern fortress that we were about to enter. The northern monastery was destroyed by the cultural revolution, but the southern one remained untouched. 

The white of the snow also made the traditional Sakya colours stand out boldly; the stripes of deep blue/black, white, and red. Monasteries belonging to the Sakya sect and houses owned by Sakya followers are all painted in this distinctive style to represent the protector deity Phurbu Dorje (lit: dagger-thunderbolt) who has a body in the shape of a ritual dagger topped by three heads - one red, one white, one black. 

Sakya is one of the main four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Some kids help their parents at a roadside teahouse between Sakya and Shigatse

A brief speeding stop between Sakya Monastery and Shigatse. This little hermitage on a small cliff was home to only one monk, supported by a small farming village at the base of the hill. 

Yungdrungling - a Bon Monastery

For years I’d been wanting to visit a Bon Monastery. Bon is the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, but nowadays has been reduced to a minority that is little known or understood by the outside world. Even within Tibet debates go on about it: Buddhists will claim that Bon stole this-or-that tradition from them, while Bonpo claim that Buddhism appropriated much of their symbology and rituals. 

The majority of our travelling group were Buddhists, but we had one Tibetan Bonpo with us, so this should get interesting. 

From initial appearances the monastery looked like every other Buddhist monastery that we’d been to in Tibet. We had to consciously remind ourselves to visit the chapels in an anti-clockwise direction, rather than the now instinctive clockwise as Buddhists do. 

It turned out to be very lucky that we had a Bonpo in our travelling party, because our first request to be let into the main chapels was denied. The head monk said that he did not want to let in “just tourists” who had no knowledge or respect for the monastery. We tried to explain that we were pilgrims, not tourists, but it took our Bonpo friend to talk the monk around to letting us in. 

Once actually inside the chapels it was like playing a game of spot the difference: the protector gods and other statues looked extremely similar, as did the murals and thangkas, all except for a small detail - the swastika symbol (also known as a yungdrung in Tibetan) turns anti-clockwise. 

Both the Bonpo in our party and one of the more learned Buddhists tried to explain different images in the monastery, and only a couple of times got frustrated with each other’s “biased” explanations. In the end it was easier to agree to disagree regarding which religion has claim to particular traditions. 

As someone who has visited a lot of Buddhist Monasteries and knows the iconography fairly well I found it so interesting being able to discover all the minor details that tell a Bon Monastery apart, because it really was only minor details. To a casual observer they would probably look identical. 

At the end of the road up the Dode Valley, north of Lhasa city, sits a rusty old dam that’s no longer used. Tibet’s water sources have been drying up over the last few decades: the river that would have once flowed through here has been reduced to a mere trickle. 

The drying up of Tibet’s rivers has serious implications for the rest of Asia considering that some of the continent’s greatest rivers originate on the plateau: the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Indus, the Yangtze, the Sutlej, and the Yellow River. 

Exploring the Dode Valley, North of Lhasa city

About three hours into my walk up the valley - a scouting mission to find possible hikes for the future - I stumbled upon this hidden hermitage. I don’t know how long it had been deserted for, but it still looked in fairly good condition from the outside. It was only upon peering through a hole in the door that I knew for sure that it hadn’t been lived in for a while. 

The monastery sits atop a small hill above the villages of the Dode valley, at the end of the paved road. Looking further up the valley I couldn’t see any more houses or buildings, only a dusty trail that lead into the mountains - which definitely gets a place on my “to hike” list. 

A local pilgrim takes a break from her kora around the Potala Palace to water some flowers 

A local pilgrim takes a break from her kora around the Potala Palace to water some flowers 

A storm moves towards Lhasa city from the Western mountains, while here by the Potala Palace it’s still bright and sunny

A storm moves towards Lhasa city from the Western mountains, while here by the Potala Palace it’s still bright and sunny

Incense smoke from a chorten rises up to hide the Potala Palace above it

Incense smoke from a chorten rises up to hide the Potala Palace above it

The old West gate to the city of Lhasa, now a traffic obstacle