There are so many of them I’ve inadvertently slipped into a slight mediation, walking along the wall of Tibetan Prayer wheels, circumbobulating around the temple clockwise, spinning the wheels clockwise, always clockwise. It’s said you good karma for this, if that’s true, I’ve gained a lot today! I move along the wall behind some local Tibetans who turn and smile at the lone foreigner following them along the line and continue to spin the wheels. I like it here, Tongren, Tibet without actually going to Tibet.
I would have liked to visit Tibet on this trip, but the permit fee is so high, most backpackers on a budget like me just simply can’t afford it. Couple that with what I’ve heard about having to stay with a guide and being quite restricted with what you see, it hardly seemed worth it. There is another way though!
Not all of Tibet is technically in the province of Tibet. Much of Northern Sichuan as well as Qinghai and Gansu Provinces sit on the edge of the Tibetan plateau and are inhabited by Tibetan people. You won’t get to see the Potala Palace, but there are still quite a few significant Tibetan monasteries and beautiful mountain views to give you a taste of Tibet without the permit hassle.
Tongren is a village in Qinghai province, China about 4 hours bus ride from the provincial capital of Xining. The first delightful thing about visiting Tongren is the bus ride there. Once your out of the city the road starts to wind through amazing mountain pathways taking in lakes and if the weather is clear the peaks of the Tibetan mountain ranges rising up in the background. Small monasteries and colourful prayer flags dot the road and giant painted Buddhas adorn the rock faces, it’s almost worth going just for the journey alone.
Tongren is dusty but quaint little town. The population is made up mostly of ethnic Tibetans and the Muslim Hui, with both cultures equally prominent throughout the town. The main feature of the town is the beautiful, and quite large Longwu monastery. Like a lot of monasteries and cultural sites of China it was destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the 1980′s. I don’t want to go to much into the politics of the whole thing in a travel blog, I will just say it is a positive move that many of the destroyed sites are being rebuilt.
Tongren is also a famous centre of the Buddhist art form of Thangka painting. Thangka art normally represents Buddhist deities or Mandalas painted on silk. Actual gold is often used in the paintings. I’ve been in love personally with Thangka art since I first discovered it in Nepal about 7 years ago, so it was amazing to see so many artists in one place working on so many amazing pieces. Just wander the streets of Tongren and you will find many spots to stop and watch these fascinating works being created.
There are many other villages to visit in the Qinghai/Gansu areas to give you a taste of Tibet. I would loved to have had more time to explore the area, but due to an issue with local ATM’s (see ‘things to consider’ below) and a time constraint to get to the Kyrgyzstan border it will have to wait for another trip.
Things to consider
The need to take cash with you
I didn’t take a lot of cash with me. I have found in general in China that the most reliable ATM’s are the ICBC ones. Tongren did not have an ICBC ATM, in fact Tongren did not have a single ATM that would work with any of my cards. The upshot of this was I couldn’t continue on with my journey as planned, as I couldn’t risk the same thing happening in the next town and being stuck without money and not being able to get back. Take plenty of cash with you when leaving major cities
Take a Chinese Language Guide
No one is going speak English. If you want to be understood you will need a Chinese phrase book, or app on your smartphone/tablet. I cannot stress enough how many times this has saved me from complete despair. Communications is the hardest thing I’ve found about travelling through China, and the further away from the cities you get the harder it becomes
The Tibetan issue
I’ve read many times on various forums that these towns are ‘closed’ or hotels won’t take foreigners. From being in the area, this was not my experience at all. It’s probably worth checking, especially around times of Tibetan New Year in March, but generally I think most of that information is quite outdated. When the bus went through one army checkpoint my ID wasn’t even required, so there seems to be no current issues or restrictions on visiting Tibetan towns.
Should you go?
Absolutely! It’s been one of my favourite areas of China so far. Tongren was a delightful town and the area was full of the cleanest air I’ve breathed in China. Scattered with many historic sites and Tibetan towns, I think it’s a great alternative to visiting Tibet itself.