Over the past 8 years, I have traveled quite extensively across the Tibetan Plateau. I have been to nearly every county in Amdo, have traveled from Lhasa to the Nepal border along the Friendship Highway more times than I can count, have been through the remote reaches of the Changtang, have explored the side roads throughout Chamdo and Garnze, have spent significant time in the Himalaya's along with many other regions of Tibet. I get a significant amount of emails each month with many of them wanting advice on how to travel in the remote, off-the-beaten-path regions of Tibet. I am surprised by how many people still think that Lhasa is as remote and difficult to reach as Heinrich Harrer described it over 60 years ago. Same with the Friendship Highway....people are surprised to hear that most of the route is now paved and receives tens of thousands of travelers each year. There are few places, if any, in central Tibet (Lhasa-Shigatse-Nepal border area) where travelers haven't been to before. Tourism is quite well developed in this region and has been for well over 20 years.
While in some very remote Tibetan areas, I have thought to myself "there is no way anyone else has ever been here before". Though sometimes I have been right, other times a monk or a local resident has told me that travelers had been there before. A few weeks ago, I traveled to a remote region of Kham where, as far as anyone knew, no foreigner had ever been to before. I met with the 83 year old rinpoche of Shari Monastery ཤ་རི་དགོན་ who has lived in the region his whole life and he said several times that he had never seen a foreigner anywhere in the region. Though this has happened a few times in my travels through Tibet, it is always a special feeling knowing that you are in an area where no other foreigner has been to before.
Shari Monastery is located in Chumarleb county ཆུ་དམར་ལེབ་ in remote Yushu prefecture. There is no public transportation to Shari and before 3 years ago, the only way to reach the monastery was by horse or to hike 35 to 40kms from the nearest road (it could also be reached by motorcycle during the winter when the ground was frozen). Sitting near the banks of the Yangtze River འབྲི་ཆུ་ at an elevation of 4300m, Shari Monastery has around 75 monks. It was heavily damaged by the Yushu earthquake so now all of the monks are living in tents and the main assembly hall has also been moved to a tent. Dozens of Himalayan Griffon, pictured above, live on the grasslands near the monastery. These huge birds, which feed mostly on sky burials, are like pets to the monks. The monks can actually pick up these birds and pet them like a dog!
When I first arrived at the monastery (I have my own 4WD vehicle), all of the monks gathered to meet me. They all thanked me for making the long drive there and began making lunch for me. The graciously made me some excellent noodles along with dried yak meat, yogurt and milk tea. One of the head monks owned a camera and took several pictures of me. After lunch, we (a monk, a Tibetan friend and myself) hiked up above the monastery. From the top of a nearby mountain, we could see a sweeping view of a bend of the Yangtze River, pictured above. Along with the river, the monastery sits on a huge expanse of grasslands. Though extremely remote, the setting is amazingly beautiful.
Getting to Shari Monastery is not easy. The only way to reach it is by private vehicle. From the prefecture capital of Jyekundo, drive 150kms (about 3 hours) northwest to the small nomad village of Lixin, which is in Drido county འབྲི་སྟོད་. From Lixin, you need to drive another 1 to 1 1/2 hours north to the Yangtze River. The river serves as the county line between Drido and Chumarleb. Three years ago a bridge was placed over the river so the monastery could be reached by road. Before the bridge was built, you had to drive about 6 hours north of Jyekundo and then hike at least 35kms from the nearest road.