How lucky we were to attend a Tibetan Festival at the famous Kandze Monastery! Indeed, the traditional event occurred just as we arrived from our travel to Garzê (or Ganzi).
On the day of the festival, Tibetan clad in traditional clothes, high in colors and decorations, gathered in the early morning hours. A constant flow of families with kids, groups of nuns and monks, or elderlies, walked by us. The dirt path went up the Tibetan part of the town, sneaking up the hill towards the Garzê Monastery. As we passed by small houses, many of the Tibetan would greet us with the traditional Tibetan “Tashi Delek.” Always accompanied with a smile, a nod of the head, or a hand wave.
As we reached the top, the way changed into steep flights of stairs, leading to the central courtyard in front of the gompa. The area was packed with people, mostly Tibetan coming for the festival. Indeed, there is more to the Tibetan culture than Tibet as most of us know it. Even though we were in Sichuan, Tibetan culture is strong in that region, traditionally known as Kham Tibet.
The courtyard was decorated with prayer flags dropping from the top of the Monastery, with the belief that the wind spreads the words of the mantras to the world. Tibetan music resonated through the Monastery, monks playing hand drums, cymbals, conch shells, and long four-meter-long Tibetan horns.
A Tibetan lama wearing a tall yellow hat and red robe, following the Gelugpa Tradition, started the ceremony, waving colorful stripes as the music rhythm increased. Several monks commenced their religious Cham Lama dance, following the bit of the drums and horns. They wore the traditional Cham masks, imposing and heavy masks designed to keep evil spirits and demons away from the monasteries.
Other traditional Tibetan Festivals in the Kham Tibet region include the Litang Horse Racing Festival.
Other dances performed included the Black Hat Dance and the Skeleton Dance where the monks are dressed as skeletons and wearing skull masks. Dances in Tibetan Buddhism are sacred rituals, not simple performances. They are based on tantric secrets, with each gesture, move, and expression with a specific meaning.
As we watched the different rituals, we could feel the depth of the believers from the watching crowd as well as the engaged monks. The music tended to be repetitive and is part of the ritual, as dancers become more entranced the longer it goes.
Towards the extended music performance, we explored the Garzê Monastery, the largest of the Kham Tibet region. The second and third levels featured beautifully decorated hallways, with wooden panels in bright colors, red poles framing the tall mountains of the Himalaya in the background. Monks in red robes walked by or watched the ceremony below. A couple of small rooms hosted deities and statues of Buddha, also featuring rich ornaments and decorations.
The third floor of the Garzê Monastery offered unobstructed views of Garzê Town as well as the Tibetan plateau and the mountain ranges. The golden roofs shined brightly across the blue sky thanks to a sunny if not a warm day.
Depending on the documents, the Tibetan temple is also listed as Ganzi or Garzê Monastery. Tibetan call the complex the Kandze Gompa. Ideally located on the mountain top a little over a miles (2 km) north of town, the 15th-century monastery offers sweeping views of the city below, the high Tibetan plateau, and the Himalayan mountain range in the background.
The Kandze Monastery once hosted 1,500 monks and is still the largest in the region, even if only 700 monks reside in the gompa now. The renovated monastery features a golden-roofed Assembly Hall, as well as several other halls where images and statues of Buddha and of other deities.
A new stupa is being built on the hill opposite the Monastery. A small path leads from the Gompa to that new structure. Even with any festival, the Garzê Monastery is worth a visit!
Tibetan Buddhism is active in the Kham Tibet region, and gompas (monasteries) can be found in many villages. Believers move around the prayer wheels from left to right, gently setting the wheels in motion. Many wear beaded malas dangling from their fingers or wrapped around their wrists, as they hum the traditional Tibetan mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha.”
The Buddhism practiced at the Kandze Monastery follows the Gelug (or Gelugpa) Tradition, recognizable by the yellow hats monks wear.
As the morning festival proceeded, boys probably under ten-year-old wearing jingle belts and colorful clothes came running down the gompa stairs. Their performance was stunning. Saluting to the crowd, throwing flower petals, dancing in a line, jumping, laying, twisting, and contorting, all in sync and with broad smiles on their faces.
The Festival winded down shortly after that, with families, monks, and followers grabbing some food by the side food stalls. From spicy potatoes, sweet sausages, and dumplings, along with hot tea, were up for sale for the hungry.
Watching the Tibetan Festival at the Ganzi Monastery was one of the highlights of our Kham Tibet trip.
Where to Stay in Garzê (Ganzi)
Garzê Town is not a most popular tourist destination so don’t expect a wide selection of hotels. However, there are good lodging options, from a few guesthouses and hostels to more upscale accommodation.
How to Go to Ganzi Kham Tibet
Garzê is located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China. Many maps and references also often call it Ganzi. Tibetan, who account for about 80% of the local population, called the town Kardzé. The city sits in the historical Tibetan Kham region, now part of an autonomous prefecture of West Sichuan, China.
Though the city shares the same name than the prefecture, the capital is Kangding. The busy town is the central hub and stepping stone from Chengdu. As Sichuan’ principal city and capital, most travelers will arrive at the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport.
There are three options to go from Chengdu to Garzê, or Kangding to Garzê, depending on your journey.
The cheapest options and with several buses running throughout the day from Kangding but only one direct bus from Chengdu. Note that tickets for public coaches cannot be reserved more than a few days in advance and in person at the bus station. On the return journey from Garzê to Chengdu, you can only reserve the day prior. You might check whether your hotel can help, though a passport is required to book. Buses usually make a stop at gas stations and food stalls for lunch and dinner. However, pack some snacks in case the bus driver doesn’t take any break. Though buses are supposed to be non-smoking, the interdiction is seldom followed. In this case, breathing masks could be useful, as well as earplugs against blasting music.
- From Chengdu Xinnanmen Bus Station to Garzê:
- The ride leaves between 7 am, and 10 am (check at the bus station for more details) and takes about a day for about 230 RMB.
- If you miss the daily bus, one option is to go and overnight Kangding first, then take another bus from Kangding to Garzê. Staying in Kangding is probably the best option as it not only breaks the long journey, but it also helps acclimatize and limit the risk of altitude sickness. Garzê sits at 11,155 ft (3400 m) and Kangding at 8,530 ft (2600 m)
- Ride from Chengdu to Kangding:
- It takes about 5 hours (from 6 to 8 hours depending on the bus and the road conditions) to drive the 220 miles (350 km). Cost is about 110-140 RMB and runs from early morning through early afternoon.
- From Kangding Bus Station to Garzê:
- The ride lasts about 6 to 10 hours, and costs around 110-140 RMB
These minivans are readily available and tend to be cheaper than the buses. However, their departure times are unreliable as they only depart when full. So you might be seated in the van for a while, waiting for the driver to find more customers. They usually don’t do the whole road either, and you might need to change (and play the waiting game again) in another town. You can find these in most cities and they can be your only option if you don’t want to wait or missed the regular public buses.
Most of these private tours are organized from Chengdu and will take care of everything. While they are convenient since they usually manage hotels, food, and visits, they are however on the higher price range. They would be convenient if you need help moving around, carrying your luggage, or are short on time and don’t want to be dependent on the public bus or minivan schedules.
Want to read more about adventure travel in China? Check our posts about in Turpan, Xinjiang Province, and Dali Old Town in Yunnan. For more posts on traditions, click here to read our posts about Crocodile Dance in the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, staying with the Tsaatan Reindeer Herders in Mongolia, or to find other festivals around the world.
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