In the Hollywood blockbuster, 2012, a global mega-disaster predicted by the Mayans brings the end of the world. A worldwide flood reaches as high as the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, submerging Rongbuk Monastery, the highest temple on earth. Cho Ming, mankind’s final refuge in the film, is only fictional, but Rongbuk Monastery is the real deal. But Rongbuk Monastery is not a top China tours destination.
At an elevation of 5,154 meters, Rongbuk Monastery grips the slope of the Himalayas, facing Mount Everest. The sky-high monastery sheltered by the world’s tallest mountain didn’t see many visitors until a decade ago. As increasing numbers of pilgrims start making the trek to reach it, the once-tranquil monastery has become more and more bustling.
The earliest outsiders to visit were mountain climbers, both from China and abroad, who took advantage of its convenience as a base camp before embarking up the hill to Everest. As the mountain became a hotter tourist destination, great numbers of visitors from every corner of the world could be found there. Some came to pay homage, some sought adventure, and others were lured by curiosity for a mysterious land. Whatever their reasons for making the journey, all of them took refuge in Rongbuk. In July and August, peak months for Everest tours of China, the monastery accommodates more than 100 tourists at a time. Pilgrims leave piles of mani stones under a white pagoda just outside the monastery, along with a few Christian crosses and stones etched with a wide variety of languages including English, Japanese, and Italian.
I visited Rongbuk last October. At the foot of the snowy peaks, the monastery gave off a particularly peaceful and serene aura. Although the temperature had already dropped, the sun remained generous. The moment I entered the courtyard of the monastery, my eyes met several lamas and nuns enjoying the afternoon sun, chatting with each other in their dark red robes. Although their language was totally unintelligible to me, their peaceful smiles communicated plenty. Dozing off under the sharp rays, a puppy leisurely rested at their feet. A moment later, a flock of pilgrims streamed into the monastery, and I guessed that they finally concluded an epic journey from the excitement and piety in their eyes.
Erected in 1899, Rongbuk Monastery was founded by the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. When measured against Tibet’s other famous temples, its history is comparatively modest. The five floors of its primary structure grace the north slope of Everest, but only two levels remain in use. In its heydays, the temple was a labyrinthine complex with more than 20 halls, housing 300 monks and 300 nuns. Now, only 20 permanent residents live there.
After scaling a stone staircase, I reached the Prayer Hall. Murals flanking its gate stunned me with striking colors and realism. As I entered the hall, however, the murals became even more vivid, covering all of the interior walls. In 1983, the murals were touched up to ensure the colors remain vibrant. Their most eye-catching figure must have been the god of wealth. Virtually every Chinese visitor, either Tibetan or Han, is compelled to bow to the god to pray for blessings.
To the right of the Prayer Hall, a stairway leads to another hall that houses a golden statue of Padmasambhava, the founder of the Nyingma sect. Rays of sun knifed through the windows, lighting up the entire hall. When I entered, a lama was carefully adding fuel to ghee lamps in front of the statue.
Adjacent to the Prayer Hall is the Sutra Library. Its layout is similar to that of the Prayer Hall and its walls are also decorated with murals. A row of bookcases containing Buddhist sutras rests in the front. When I arrived, a lama was studying sutras wrapped with yellow cloth.
The fifteenth day of the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar marks the birthday of Buddha Sakyamuni. On that day, Rongbuk Monastery becomes packed with people ready to celebrate. Nearby Tibetans arrive a day in advance. They bring zanba (roasted barley flour, a Tibetan staple) and butter tea, set up tents outside the monastery, and decorate them with colorful banners and prayer flags that flutter in the wind.
Lamas celebrate Buddha’s birthday by performing the traditional Cham Dance. The dance begins with long trumpets played by monks wearing yellow, cockscomb-shaped hats. The lama who appears first wears a huge red mask and plays the majestic Buddha. When he reaches the center of the monastery’s courtyard, he stands and begins beating a gong. Then, ordered by age, other lamas enrobed in beautiful gowns emerge. As they dance around a tall pole decorated with prayer flags of yellow, red, and blue, the audience bursts into thunderous applause. Accompanied by trumpets, horns, and gongs, every lama immerses himself in the movements.
A rumor holds that an older monastery also called Rongbuk is hidden higher in the mountains. Only if that rumor were true could such a high place exist with greater peace and tranquility. The monastery is right for your hiking and trekking included in your China travel packages.
Mount Everest is strikingly visible near Rongbuk Monastery. In fact, many professional mountaineers consider the monastery the best place to view Everest, especially at dawn and dusk. A two-hour walk or 15-minute drive will get you from the monastery to Everest Base Camp.
In addition to a nearby hostel run by local Tibetans, the monastery (although not suitable for China travel deals) also offers accommodations for tourists. Each bed costs 30-40 yuan, but tourists are suggested to make reservations in advance during the peak season from May to August. Renting a car is the best way to reach Rongbuk.
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