The Samye Monastery Pilgrims were Lovely Except for their Hospitality!

Samye, Tibet

So I left Lhasa a little later than expected. We were supposed to depart at 9:00 for Samye Monastery, but my guide did not show up until 9:30. He apologized without explanation after I told him he was 0 for 2 with me in terms of arriving on time (he had been late the day before as well).

Once we loaded my luggage in the van we were off. It took about a ½ hour to finally escape the traffic and new construction of the Lhasa suburbs before we were traveling southwest towards Samye Monastery. However, we had no sooner got in the car and started our trip than I noticed my guide starting to nod off. What the heck? I have traveled all over the world and never had a guide fall asleep on me. Hank was not scoring points with me.

Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley

We were almost one hour into the trip with Hank was still sleeping when my driver pulled over to the side of the road for a cigarette break (the men in China, including in Tibet, love their cigarettes). It was at this point that I decided to have a come to Jesus talk with my guide. I woke him up. Told him in a very even tone that in all my travels I had never had a guide fall asleep on me. I said he had been late to pick me up two days in a row. We had been driving for almost an hour and I simply had no idea what scenery I was looking at, could not read the signs and needed a guide who was engaged and actually interested in doing his job. I told him I was very close to calling the agency and asking for a replacement guide. Hank apologized and promised it would not happen again. However, he gave me no explanation for his behavior.

I accepted his apology and decided to give it one more go. The trip to Samye was only two hours from Lhasa so if worse came to worse, I could simply tell them to take me back to Lhasa where I could get the agency to give me a different guide. Fortunately, as the day wore on it became apparent my little chat had the desired effect on Hank.

So with Hank now engaged, I was able to learn a little bit about the scenery we were passing. First off, the long waterway we had been paralleling since turning west on the highway was Yarlung Tsangpo River, the longest river in Tibet. It served as the original source of water for much of Asia (never knew that!). We would follow the river all the way to Samye Monastery.

Stone house ont he hillside

The road we were driving was recently built by the Chinese, but remained a work in progress. Part way through the two hour trip, the new two lane highway ended and we were diverted back onto a two lane road that wound through little villages with stone houses, hillside temples and lots of cattle wandering the roads. Some of the stone houses built into the hillside were used by nomadic farmers (although the nomadic life is dying as kids move to the cities).

Sand dunes by the Yarlung Tsangpo River

The terrain surrounding the road could best be described as high desert with huge mountains on either side of the road covered in scrub brush, rock and and sand. And speaking of sand, about an hour and a half into the trip, the banks of the river became covered in huge sand dunes. The river valley was gorgeous with sage brush and these crazy sand dune against a high mountain backdrop. The scenery was quite beautiful.

Just over two hours into the trip we drove into the village of Samye, home to the Samye Monastery. Now the Samye Monastery is Tibet’s oldest monastery at over 1200 years old. Much of the monastery and its artifacts were destroyed in the 1959 Tibetan uprising, but the monastery is slowly being restored.

Samye Monastery

So we parked the van, and Hank and I checked in with the local police (all foreigners have to check in) and then proceeded with our visit of Tibet’s oldest temple and monastery. Now the story goes that some time in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche battled demons to introduce Buddhism to Tibet. In fact, as you enter the site, there is a proclamation that Buddhism is the official religion of Tibet by order of King Trisong Detsen and dates to 779. As a result, the site is hugely significant to the faithful from a historical and religious perspective.

Protectors at the entrance of Samye Monastery

Anyway, we visited the main temple which was comprised of three floors (oh joy more climbing) each done in a different design: Tibetan, Indian and Chinese. On the ground floor we visited the assembly hall, then up the stairs to a chapel. On the second floor we visited a room that depicted the story of Guru Rinpoch slaying the demons. This floor was pretty cool because it contained a number of gorgeous murals. The final floor was apparently a new addition, and quite frankly, I did not see the point.

In each of the rooms we visited, the smell of burning yak butter permeated the air, the rooms were exceedingly dark (perhaps the darkest of any temples to date) and the walls were covered in thick dark char from the ever present burning incense and yak butter. In addition, the rooms all contained shrines, deities and numerous pilgrims all chanting, praying, giving offerings (yak butter seemed to be the most popular) and walking clockwise through each room).

What I found most fascinating about the pilgrims is that they were all dressed differently coming from different regions of Tibet. Sure there were the Chinese tourists (I saw no other Anglos), but the vast majority were Tibetan who had travelled great distances to visit Samye.

Yak cheese for sale at Samye Monastery

So after the visit to the main temple. Hank and I walked to a local restaurant for lunch. It was at this point I learned the reasons for his tardy arrival and his need to sleep in the car … he had been out partying with friends until 5:00 a.m. I started laughing and told him I had zero sympathy for him. He told me he intended to go home at 11, but he had not seen his friends for a couple weeks because he had been doing so many tours and before he know it 11 passed and it was 5 a.m. He then asked me if I drank or partied. I told him I was a very good partier in my prime, but my 20s were in the rear view mirror so I only party occasionally now. Hank seems like a good soul, he just made a bad judgment call and was paying for it today.

Anyway, we sat down in the little restaurant and Hank recommended that I eat the yak noodles and some sweet tea (the same tea I had at the teahouse in Lhasa). So I followed his recommendation and it turned out to be a great choice. The noodles were in a very spicy red sauce and included some pieces of bok choy. Delicious.

After the lunch, we checked into the hotel and I told Hank to go get some sleep. We were going to meet back up again at 4:30 for a “kora”. A walk around the circumference of the monastery following the route of the pilgrims.

We checked into the guest house/hotel, which turned out to be a rather dreary little place. In fact, Hank apologized for the conditions and said that unfortunately, the place was a good as it gets in Samye. (Actually, it was not surprise to me as the reviews provided me with fair warning.). The best I can say is that the room was clean, although the shower was a little iffy so I expected I would be using my washcloth/sink shower method in the a.m.

Walking the outer wall of the Samye Monastery

Anyway, I ended up taking a little nap and woke in time to meet Hank at 4:30. We took the ½ walk around the monastery and stopped into a couple of small outer temples along the way as well as passing numerous elderly woman making their way around the circuit.

Protector door at outer temple

Once finished, we stopped into a tea house for some tea (although I opted for water) and this is where the fun began. Hank got up to order for us and off in the corner I saw these elderly Tibetan folks waving at me. I waved back, but they didn’t want me to wave, they wanted me to come over. So I got up to pay my respects and once at their table, they motioned from me to sit with them. Then one of the elderly women handed me a potato. It turned out to be a boiled potato that they wanted me to eat so I immediately took a bite, which caused much laughter. Uh what’d I do?? Well apparently in Tibet they peel their potatoes before they eat them, and I was taking a bite skin and all. They motioned for me to use my finger nail to peel the skin … so when in Rome (plus I did not want to offend the elders). Anyway, the next thing I know they are pouring me a yellow frothy substance. UH OH!

I knew immediately what they were serving me … yak butter tea. I had read all about it. Very popular in Tibet made of steeped tea and yak butter. Now I have eaten some pretty strange things in my travels (ants in Uganda for one and dog in China – not intended, but found out it was not chicken). Anyway, I cannot begin to describe the depth of putridness of this tea. I took one taste and literally wanted to throw up. So now I was in a bind. I could not offend these good people, but at the same time, how was I going to finish this cup of tea?

My new Tibetan friends

Fortunately, one of the elderly ladies came to my rescue and gave me a piece of barley bread to dip into the tea and then she added some additional water to the tea. Uh still crappy. So as I munched on the potato and dipped my bread into the tea, I asked for a photo. They kindly obliged, but they demanded that they be permitted to take pictures of me on their cell phones. OK then.

I was still eating when they began packing up to leave. Now this left me in predicament. How the heck was I going to finish the God forsaken yak butter tea. The potato was long eaten and the bread was close to done, but the cup was still close to full of the crappy tea. One of the elderly ladies motioned for me to finish the tea (she wanted her cup back). So … I dipped my bread one last time, finished that off and then picked up the cup and downed the tea. It was all I could do not to spew tea all over these good people. I forced a smile, handed the cup back and as they were leaving gave me three pears and a little brown nut like fruit you had to peel to get to the inner fruit. Even eating the fruit did not take away the taste of the yak butter.

Smiling before the yak butter tea

I waved goodbye to my lovely hosts (and kind of cursed them for the yak butter tea at the same time). When I got back to the table where Hank was sitting, I ended up downing the entire bottle of water and swore to God and Hank that nothing in the world could make me drink that stuff again.

We left the little tea house and wandered past the homeless dogs and wandering cows (yep you read the right). Once back in my room, I discovered that the wandering cows and a couple roosters were parked right outside my room. So with mooing and crowing to serenade me and the taste of yak butter tea still haunting my taste buds, I decided to call it a day. It was only 7 p.m., but I was done in. Tomorrow was going to be a long day and a huge climb in elevation as we proceed on the Friendship Highway towards Everest Base Camp.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

6 thoughts on “The Samye Monastery Pilgrims were Lovely Except for their Hospitality!”

  1. Suffice to say that you will not be serving yak butter at your holiday party?

    Great story, sounds like an interesting day.

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