Tibet 2014 - Dungkhar and Piyang

Tholing 11 September.

We managed to get visas to see Dungkhar and Piyang, two villages in a valley about an hour’s drive to the north that at one time were the main monastery sites in Guge. We leave early to catch the morning light, dense black clouds cover half the sky but lift with the sun to illuminate deeply shadowed canyons. The light is constantly changing, revealing, then hiding, new facets of this incredible landscape. We walk over to meet a lone photographer standing on an outcrop, from his vantage point he’s looking down on a Chinese film crew in the canyons. They’re making a film about Western Tibet to be called the Warp of the Land. He’s got all the gear yet I’m not sure if he’s Chinese or Tibetan.


We take the road to the east until a smaller track drops north down into a peaceful green valley with grazing yaks and goats. Ahead, perched on a rocky outcrop over the river is the our first view of the small monastery of Dungkhar. There’s a steep path up to prayer room with an inner kora passageway; we don’t see any statues, wall paintings or thankas, just a few small clay votives in a niche on the outer wall. The small hilltop also has a white painted stupa and some partly built new wooden buildings which could be lodgings or rooms for monks. An old woman leads us up a new concrete path to the caves in the rockface behind the cluster of houses below the gompa. The first is small and round with mere remnants of blue and red paint on the walls. The path leads along to two more impressive caves with wooden doors: cubes cut out of the hillside, the walls and ceilings entirely covered with painted mandalas. We use our iPhones to take photos in the poor light. In the centres of the rooms are broken stupas or possibly plinths for Buddhas. Statues of Boddhisattvas have been removed from the niches on the walls in front of the Buddhist murals.


Back outside, the light is almost unbearably intense under a deep blue sky. Lines of whitewashed chaityas, small stupa like structures, on the opposite hillsides remind us that Dugkhar was once of great importance. Driving down towards Piyang we stop the car next to some ruins above the road in the middle of the valley floor. We scramble between old walls and collapsed stupas; where the outer walls have fallen away you can see the inner corridors, narrow passages that may have been filled with texts or sacred items. A startled rabbit leaps up from the path beneath my feet. In the centre of the complex is the ruin of a massive stupa, only the base and lower levels remain but it must once have been impressively large.


From a gap in the walls we can see across to the village of Piyang, set under another cliff face topped with red painted monastery ruins and dotted with meditation caves. A larger village complex than Dungkhar, it has a welcome tea shop. An old woman sits in the corner with her grandchild. All the signs are in Chinese. A small dog scampers around and the crew eat noodles. Our sirdar, Mr Sarosh has joined us for the day and sleeps in the back of the car. Yesterday’s German group is travelling in the opposite direction and is about to leave for Dungkhar. Two groups in the same morning is too much for the caretaker who remains grumpy as he leads us up to the ruins and tells us where we can’t go - up to the ridgetop ruins which look dangerous but intruiging. The main caves are in poor condition, the central plinths are not much more than rubble. The most curious thing is the final, small cave which has a wide flat screen tv! Is this the guide’s home? A curtain leads to an inner cave with damaged wallpaintings which seem to have been burned. Piles of local money have been left by pilgrims. The small gompa lower down the hillside is closed but has a freshly painted entrance.


We calculate that the caretaker must have been a young boy when the Red Guards came here on their orgy of destruction. I try to imagine being here in this remote valley hearing the stories of the oncoming wave, hoping they were hidden away and wouldn’t be found. I suppose people were tortured to reveal the location of these ancient monasteries, these sacred places with their Buddhist treasures, the cultural hearts of Tibet. I’d like to think that some of the thankhas and statues were removed in good time and hidden away. We try to ask him what he remembers but people have learned it’s wiser to say nothing.


We drive down the valley to take a more direct route, on a rougher track, back to Tholing again passing through this extraordinary landscape, parts of which resemble New Mexico. I’m feeling blasted by the sun and relax at the guest house while Bev and Guy have a look around town.


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