pilgrimage sites

Hidden Caves of Tibet's Wild West

Last year our Beyond The Clouds team member Becky travelled to Tibet to visit the two most important monasteries in Amdo – Labrang and Langmusi. Part one followed her experiences in Labrang Monastery. Part two here carries on that journey, now with the company of a friend, in Langmusi.

Our shared car travelled south from Labrang, chasing the border of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. It was evening by the time we arrived, and threatening to snow again. Being April, it was still too early in the season for many places to warrant being open, knowing that tourists wouldn’t brave the cold to venture out here. Langmusi was a ghost town.

We found our way to one of the few open guesthouses, up on a hill facing the dramatic red cliffs, where we settled in for the night (thank goodness for electric blankets to keep us cozy), and looked forward to exploring the monasteries the next day that we could only peek at in the dimming light today. 

Known in Tibetan as Taktsang Lhamo, Langmusi was not at all what I was expecting. It was like we’d arrived in a Wild West village – Tibetan cowboys rode their horses down the main street of town, a cool wind blew off the snowy peaks forcing monks to shroud themselves in heavy robes, stray dogs roamed in search of a meal. Maybe it was the dark morning weather or maybe it was the fact there were no other tourists around, but I felt like I’d stumbled into some moody, disquieting film set.

All these illusions were shattered as soon as people started to notice us – two white faces with fair hair sticking out like sore thumbs – and we received an onslaught of morning well wishes, smiles, and offers of service. I’m sure the real Wild West wouldn’t be this welcoming to strangers.

The red cliffs at sunset.

The red cliffs at sunset.

Monks walking through town.

Monks walking through town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Langmusi is a curious town, straddling the border of two provinces, and with a sizeable monastery on each side – Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side, and Sertri Monastery on the Gansu side. The sun was hiding so out came the compass to figure out which direction was which, and off we set for the Gansu Sertri Monastery.

Although it’s the smaller monastery, with only 350 monks versus the 750 on the Sichuan side, Sertri Monastery has the advantage of being built up into the hillside, allowing it views over the town and the other monastery. Unluckily, when we visited it was all locked up, so there was no chance of seeing the assembly hall or any of the chapels – or even finding anyone with the key. (Note to self: next time get a tour guide! )

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

The only people in sight were other pilgrims performing kora, so we followed their lead. After skirting past the front of several elaborately decorated temples we came to a dusty, worn trail that snaked up into stunted forest behind the monastery. A scrambling steep climb brought us to the lip of a cliff, from where we could look back down at the two monasteries, and further afield to the dramatic cliffs at one end of town and the winding road that led into the middle of nowhere in the other direction.

Although I was breathing heavily – still getting used to exerting myself at high altitude – the views were worth the effort. As we took the opportunity to sit and breathe in the views around us, the sun came out and the golden rooftops gleamed brightly below. From up here, the village below looked almost European, with its steep-roofed houses and quaint alpine feel. It really was beautiful when the sun came out – transformed from the Wild West to a miniature Switzerland.

Heading back down, following the trail, we found ourselves back in town and starving for some good warm comfort food – Tibetan noodle soup is what we needed. Two giant bowls of steaming, flavourful, freshly made noodles arrived at our table in the teahouse and were quickly drained. After a little stilted conversation with the teahouse owner, he offered to show us around for the afternoon, as he was insistent that we’d miss the highlight of Langmusi if we didn’t know our way around. I soon found out why.

The highlight of Langmusi is well hidden and unsignposted, and I’m sure there are many visitors who’ve missed it over the years. Behind the Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side of town, across a field at the back of the final outlying temple, there’s a narrow gorge through the cliffs that is really the highlight of Langmusi.

This is the Namo Gorge, which hides several caves and is so narrow at parts that you can touch both sides with outstretched arms. A shallow stream runs through the middle of it, which soon becomes the path to follow as the bank on either side narrows and disappears.

Here is where the name Taktsang Lhamo, “Goddess of the Tiger’s Cave” really comes from – the first cave we encounter was the Tiger’s Cave, inside of which are several impressive stalagmites and stalactites that represent the shape of goddesses. The legends vary regarding the origins of these goddess formations – some say they arose naturally, and were recognised as sacred forms, some say there was a real goddess who tamed tigers and then transformed into a part of the cave, some say the goddess and the tiger were one and the same, living in the cave and then becoming part of it.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Further up the gorge, I couldn’t resist the temptation of a rope trailing down from a second cave, high above us in the cliff. Doing my best Indiana Jones impression I gripped the rope and began heaving myself up (note that our teahouse owner/new guide managed just fine climbing up next to me without anything to hold onto). At the top was the relic of another old stalagmite, although it was almost unrecognisable under the layers of white silk scarves that’d been wrapped around it as offerings.

After sliding carefully back down to the bottom of the gorge, we made the difficult decision to call it a day – the sun had disappeared again and the rain and snow was threatening to return, bringing darker skies with it.

I would love to return to Langmusi in warmer, sunnier weather – I’ll definitely plan for summer next time, and I’m sure I’ll see it as a whole new town. Langmusi is popular with intrepid travellers for its awesome hiking opportunities and multi-day horse treks in the surrounding mountains – that’s certainly on my list for next time. Still, I’m glad I got to experience it in all its deserted Wild West glory without the crowds. It just whet my appetite for more.

Becky in Langmusi.

Becky in Langmusi.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Yaks behind the monastery.

Yaks behind the monastery.

If you’d like to visit Langmusi (in hopefully better weather than I did!) contact us today to start planning your trip. We have itineraries that take you through a range of off-the-beaten-track sacred and stunning locations in eastern Tibet – see more about our Authentic Amdo journey or our Mountains, Myth and Magic epic road trip of the southeastern regions. Or you can add a deeper significance to your adventure by making it a Spiritual Journey, and visit Labrang Monastery too.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Looking to combine your next adventure with a spiritual journey? Explore these well and lesser-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The Buddhist power-places of Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal have many possibilities.