Though I have lived and traveled across the Tibetan Plateau for nearly 9 years, there are still a few places I have not been to yet. One of those places was Sertar. I was finally able to visit Sertar last week and I was not disappointed. Sertar གསེར་ཐར་, also spelled Sertal, Serda and Seda, is a remote county found in Garnze Tibet Autonomous Prefecture. Though most of Garnze Prefecture དཀར་མཛེས་ཁུལ་ is considered to be the traditional Tibetan region of Kham, Sertar is technically an Amdo speaking area. It was considered to be part of the Golok region for many centuries.
Sertar is remote, difficult to reach and is often closed to foreign travelers. The main attraction in this high altitude, nomadic region is the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute. It is the largest Buddhist Institute on the Tibetan Plateau with between 40,000 and 50,000 monks, nuns and lay students. In the late 19th century, the site was home to a small Nyingma sect hermitage. In 1980, Larung Gar was founded by the late Kenpo Jigme Phuntsok ཇིགས་མེད་ཕུན་ཚོགས་. The institute is well known not only among Tibetans, but also among ethnic Chinese. Roughly 5% of the students at Larung Gar are ethnic Chinese from across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. These Chinese students pursue degrees in Buddhist philosophy, astronomy and medicine. Most of the Chinese students wear either the maroon clothes of the sangha (monk-hood) or long traditional style Tibetan robes (chuba).
Larung Gar sits in a valley, about 4kms off of the main road and about 15kms before reaching the county town of Sertar. Huge prayer wheels mark the entrance to the institute. The campus is enormous...much larger than I ever imagined. Houses for monks and nuns sprawl all over the valley and up the surrounding mountains. A huge wall through the middle of Larung Gar separates the monk side from the nun side. Monks and nuns are not allowed out of their designated areas. A common area open to both monks and nuns is found in front of the main monastery assembly hall. The houses are all built in a wood style that is traditionally found in this region. The houses are built so close together that they are almost on top of each other. How the monks and nuns find their specific house among ten thousand plus houses is beyond me!
Sertar and Larung Gar Buddhist Institute are sensitive areas that are often closed to foreign travelers. It is difficult to predict if the area will be open or not. I asked several of the Tibetan owned travel agencies that I associate with and they said that, for the most part, they did not have any problems taking groups of foreign travelers to the Sertar area this year. They knew of a handful of groups that were denied entry, but that most were permitted to enter. What the situation will be like in 2011 is impossible to say. I went during the winter. The air temperature was -20C (-3F) when I was there in December. The few police that I saw in the area were probably more concerned about staying warm than keeping an eye out for foreigners. Larung Gar sits at 4000m / 13,100 feet so make sure you are acclimatized before going there. Summers are pleasant, but winters are deathly cold with temperatures regularly reaching -25C (-13F).
In addition to nearly 50,000 monks, nuns and lay students, Larung Gar also attracts thousands of pilgrims, especially during the winter. Pilgrims from all over eastern Tibet arrive during the winter months to worship at the monastery and to hear a lecture from one of Larung Gar's many famous teachers. Getting to Sertar and Larung Gar is not easy. The Buddhist Institute is well over 600kms (375 miles) from Chengdu along horrible mountain roads. There is occasionally a direct bus to Sertar from Chengdu. Otherwise, you have to take a bus to Garnze (Ganzi) and then take a bus to Sertar. Keep in mind that Sertar often closes to foreign travelers.
If you have any questions about Sertar, Larung Gar Buddhist Institute or about any other region of Tibet, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org