Ta'er Si

Ta'er Si Travel Guide, Qinghai

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Overview

Lying about 25km southeast from Xining, Ta'er Si , known as Kumbum Monastery in Tibetan, is acknowledged to be one of the six most important monasteries along with the Ganden, Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa, the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse and the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe. Although not nearly as attractive as Labrang, and rather swamped by local tourists, Ta'er Si is nevertheless a good introduction for outsiders to Tibetan culture. Both as the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect , and as the former home of the current Dalai Lama, the monastery attracts droves of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery.  

The countryside around is beautiful: the views stretch away to distant mountains, and you can ramble through hills of wheat, pastures dotted with cattle or horses, and over ridges and passes strewn with wild flowers. Apart from the large numbers of Han Chinese tourists, the people you meet here are mainly Tibetan horsemen, workers in the fields who will offer an ear of roasted barley by way of hospitality, or pilgrims prostrating their way around the monastery walls.

Highlights of the Monastery

The monastery dates from 1560, when building was begun in honour of Tsongkhapa, founder of the reformist Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born on the Ta'er Si estates. Legend tells how, at Tsongkhapa's birth, drops of blood fell from his umbilical cord causing a tree with a thousand leaves to spring up; on each leaf was the face of the Buddha, and there was a Buddha image on the trunk (now preserved in one of the stupas). During his lifetime, Tsongkhapa's significance was subsequently borne out: his two major disciples were to become the two greatest living Buddhas, one the Dalai Lama, the other the Panchen Lama.

Set in the cleft of a valley, the walled complex is an imposing sight. It's an active place of worship for about six hundred monks (ranging in age from ten to eighty) as well as the constant succession of pilgrims. There's a Y21 entrance fee that you may or may not be asked to pay. The ticket gives you access to seven temples (though you can visit more than this if you wish). Just beyond the stupas on the right, there's a primitive old hotel, actually a sixteenth-century pilgrims' hostel , wooden and rickety, with an ancient balcony and peeling murals. It is possible to stay here, though it's often full.

The most beautiful of the temples is perhaps the Great Hall of Meditation (Da Xingtang ; temple no. 5 on your ticket), an enormous, very dimly lit prayer hall, colonnaded by dozens of carpeted pillars and hung with long silk tapestries ( thangkas). Immediately adjacent to this is the Great Hall of the Golden Roof , with its gilded tiles, wall paintings of scenes from the Buddha's life and a brilliant silver stupa containing a statue of Tsongkhapa. The grooves on the wooden floor in front of the temple have been worn away by the hands of prostrating monks and pilgrims. This hall, built in 1560, is where the monastery began, on the site of the pipal tree that grew with its Buddha imprints. You will still see pilgrims studying fallen leaves here, apparently searching for the face of the Buddha.

Other noteworthy temples include the Lesser Temple of the Golden Roof (no. 1) and the Hall of Butter Sculpture (no. 7). The former is dedicated to animals, thought to manifest characteristics of certain deities - from the central courtyard you can see stuffed goats, cows and bears on the balcony, wrapped in scarves and flags. The Hall of Butter Sculpture contains a display of yak butter sculptures - colourful painted tableaux, depicting Tibetan and Buddhist legends. After touring the temples, you can climb the steep steps visible on one side of the monastery to get a general view over the temples and hills behind.

During the year, five major festivals are held at Ta'er Si, each fixed according to the lunar calendar. about one and a half months later than the Gregorian calendar. You will need to check the exact dates. 

January/February at the end of the Chinese New Year Lantern Festival (Yak Butter Lamp Festival)
April/May Bathing Buddha Festival, during which a giant portrait of Buddha is unfurled on a hillside facing the monastery
July/August Celebration of the birth of Tsong Khapa
September Commemoration of the nirvana of Sakyamuni
October Commemoration of the nirvana of Tsong Khapa

Reminder: Photography is prohibited within the monastery.

Getting there and away

To reach Ta'er Si from Xining, go to the small Ximen bus station next to the Xining Gymnasium ( Xining Tiyuguan), just west of Ximen. From here there are frequent buses and jeeps to HUANGZHONG , the small town near Ta'er Si. The ride costs Y5 and takes just over thirty minutes through picturesque scenery - summer sees wheatfields, green hills, lush woods and meadows of flowering yellow rape seed. On arrival, you may be dropped at the bus station 1km short of the monastery, or you may be taken right up to the complex itself. From the bus station, it's a twenty-minute walk (or take a pony cart for Y2) uphill past the trinket stalls and rug sellers until you see the row of eight stupas at the monastery entrance. Returning to Xining, there are numerous buses and other vehicles departing from the Huangzhong bus station right up to late afternoon.

Accommodation

Most travellers just come up to Ta'er Si for a few hours from Xining. By staying the night, however, you can appreciate the monastery unattended by hordes of day-trippers. Accommodation is available at the very cheap and basic Pilgrim's Hostel (up to Y30) in the monastery. For something slightly smarter, there's also the Ta'ersi Hotel (Y30-75), a large, newish place facing the monastery across a gully. It's to the left of the monastery entrance, as you arrive.

You can sometimes get meals at the Pilgrim's Hostel, otherwise try one of the Muslim restaurants on the road between the town and monastery. These are great value, providing huge, warming bowls of noodles with plenty of vegetables and tea for a few yuan.

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