Amchok Monastery & Achu

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Amchok Monastery

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My second visit to Xiahe was so that I could get a lift to my Tibetan friend’s family village but during my stay I was also offered to be taken to Amchok Monastery. I scored a ride late one afternoon with a monk who was returning from Lhasa and had to get back to the monastery that evening. It was a bumpy 6 to 7 hour drive through the back country of Gansu and Sichuan provinces and we arrived at about 1am. The monk led me in the pitch black through the laneways of the monastery and through a gate into a courtyard where he proceeded to yell out to the guesthouse owner of where I would be staying. Dogs then started barking and I’m sure everyone in the area was woken up. My host came down the stairs with a big smile on his face and showed me to my bed which they had set up for me in the livingroom/kitchen.
IMG_2074Three monks, an old lady (the mother of one of the monks) and a young boy were all staying there as well. They were very kind and we all tried to communicate with the help of a Tibetan English dictionary that they had tracked down the day I arrived. My host took me around the monastery on a couple of occasions and took me into a couple of the closed halls. I was very excited when on the first morning when he took me into one of the gompas. There was a huge line of Tibetans flowing from inside who were all there to see and make offerings to a sand mandala. This was something that I had hoped to see while on my trip and felt very fortunate that I was able to visit and see it here. A sand mandala is, as it sounds, made from sand. They are extremely intricate and take weeks if not months to complete. Once again, just like the yak butter sculptures, soon after it is completed it is then destroyed during a ceremony as a symbol of impermanence.

One evening there was a big congregation of monks in one of the monastery courtyards and I was taken along to it. I wasn’t allowed in at first, but once they had finished their initial chants I followed a few local Tibetans in and we all sat on the ground toward the back of what seemed to be ceremonial activities. I was unsure what the ceremony was for, but it was nice to sit and listen to the chanting.

Over the three days I stayed, I took time to explore the monastery and the surrounding mountains and just took it easy. From here it was a 1 hour drive to Achu village where I would visit my friend’s family.

Achu Village

IMG_2108I left the monastery early in the morning by car with a few other locals – climbing through the surrounding mountain roads up and out of the valley.  We crossed snow covered mountains and then descended into a vast grassland valley on what was a beautiful sunny day. In this valley during summer the locals have large festivals with horse races and polo matches. The village was a bit different to what I was expecting and I was unsure about the history of the area. To my surprise the houses were all modern in appearance.  Each and every one was painted a creamy lemon colour and had Tibetan symbols painted on them. My friend’s family were great and were constantly trying to feed me. They took me out to the grasslands to visit the yaks, we climbed up a small hill on the side of the village were you could witness some amazing views and my friends young nephew, an amazing artist, showed me around the village.

My time in China was running out.  After spending 3 days in Amchok, I only had 1 day available to stay in Achu village as I knew it would take 2 or 3 days to travel by local bus (the only option for travel) to reach Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve.

IMG_7497I spent the night in Achu and then the next morning I awoke to a snow wonderland, the place had been transformed over night from green to white. After breakfast the father took me down to the main road and we hailed a car to take me to the next town where I would be able to get a bus out of the area. I got a lift with no problem, and the kind Tibetan took me to Hongyuan for free. He dropped me in the middle of town and I then started to walk to the bus station. It was here that I had my second run in with police.

While walking an unmarked car pulled up beside me and the passengers asked where I was going, I told them the bus station and they then asked for my passport. Not willing to hand over my passport to complete strangers I asked why and they pulled out their badges. They then asked me to get in the car, I hesitantly got in and they took me to the bus station. Once we had arrived, we found out that there were no more buses to my next destination, Songpan so they took me to the police station. I was questioned as to what I was doing in the area, where I had come from, where I was going and if I spoke Tibetan. They then dropped me off at a hotel, waiting until I was checked in before leaving. I then explored the town and walked down to a monastery in the Tibetan village. The monastery was partially in ruin but was being rebuilt, I think the damage was caused by the 2008 Sichuan earth quake as there was lots of damage between here and Chengdu.

The next day the police arrived at the bus stop to ensure I was on the bus and on my way out of the area. On the way to Songpan the bus was stopped at a police checkpoint where I had to get off and I was questioned (in chinese). None of the officials were happy I was in the region, the Tibetans on the bus were getting a bit angry at the police for singling me out as well. I made it to Songpan in without any further altercations and after one night in the small town I was able to get a bus to Jiuzhaigou.

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