Aged freight trucks sped by, kicking up clouds of dust and debris while we stood on the side of the highway. The busy Tibetan town of Ganzi spread over the hills behind us, with red roofs and timber frames bunched together in haphazard design.
We had spent the night in Ganzi, wandering the streets from market to market, exploring temples, sipping on chai with locals and gorging ourselves on yak meat momos. The town itself was pleasant enough when you could get away from the hectic traffic, but we knew the real beauty lay out in the high alpine grasslands where town ended and the plateau began.
It was mid-morning and we had waited for the frigid air to warm before hiking out towards the highway. Winter had just ended, but the days were still short in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, occupying Western Sichuan. We had spent the previous weeks hitchhiking and catching buses from Shangri-La, trying to take the “backdoor” to Chengdu.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries had become our fascination, along with the hospitable culture of the local people. Ganzi had one of the most spectacular temples in the region just 30km from town, and this was to be our next destination.
We stuck our thumbs out as truck after car flew by. All of the drivers and passengers stared, but none had the desire or will to pick us up. Two backpack-wielding Australians sporting a hula hoop and miniature guitar provided a curious sight for the locals, but not interesting enough to warrant a ride.
Anxious to reach the Darjay Gompa monastery we started hiking west. We kept our thumbs out as cars drove by, and soon a tiny hatchback pulled over in front of us. Bursting with excitement we ran to the car and were instantly surprised by our soon-to-be savior.
Bald-headed and dressed in a flowing red robe, a Tibetan monk beamed a huge smile at us. “Tashi dele,” he greeted us with, and we returned the hello.
“Darjay Gompa?” I queried and he nodded enthusiastically. I pulled out our Tibetan phrasebook and found the section for transport. “Can we have a free ride?” I attempted to say with poor pronunciation, showing him the cryptic script at the same time. The monk read it, stared at me in the eyes and nodded with an enormous grin.
Ecstatic to be escaping the cold Alesha jumped in the back while I rode shotgun. For the next 30 minutes I practiced saying random phrases in our book; asking how the weather was, confirming the time and working out which direction the closest momo restaurant was. The monk laughed along and we enjoyed our brief friendship.
Darjay Gompa suddenly appeared on our right and he pulled over outside the gate. We thanked him profusely and when we went to jump out of the car he grabbed my arm.
“Excuse me?” I asked while smiling and reaching for the phrasebook again.
“Money,” he repeated, while holding his hand out.
Alesha and I were confused, and I quickly thumbed to the phrase, “Can we have a free ride?” and showed it to him. He laughed, nodded, then said “money” again.
Not really knowing where to go with this, I pulled out my wallet and offered him 20RMB ($3). He took it, then pointed at Alesha. “Money!” I was in disbelief that this monk was still asking for money, but wanting to receive as much good karma as possible I pulled out another 20RMB. I handed it over, he took it out of my hand, then he asked for more money.
At this point we grew tired of his games, so we smiled and kept repeating “thank you” while backing away and heading towards the monastery. The monk drove off and we shrugged at the strange ride we had just received. At least he got us there safely.
The Darjay Gompa was more beautiful and intricate than we could have imagined. We walked into the grounds, passed the classrooms and sleeping quarters for the monks, and made our way into the main temple.
For the next hour we wandered around listening to the Buddhist chants and scriptures occupying the halls, sat and watched novice monks playing basketball and ping pong, and gazed at the yaks walking freely between the alleyways.
When we had seen the last building we found an older monk and asked him where Talam Khang was, and he pointed behind the monastery.
Talam Khang is a small temple that we had heard welcomes guests who wish to stay the night, and we had hoped to pitch our tent there for the amazing experience of camping in a Tibetan monastery.
We thanked the monk and walked towards the exit before he could ask us for money.
A short 15-minute walk led us to the walled complex. We circumnavigated it but found all the gates to be padlocked shut. There was no movement on the inside, and we assumed that perhaps the temple hadn’t yet opened after the long winter. Just as we were about to give up hope Alesha spotted someone in a far window and we quickly made our way towards the figure.
The man caught sight of us and came outside. Also wearing the traditional red robe of a Buddhist monk he opened one of the gates and let us in with a cheerful, “Tashi dele.”
We made our introductions and he welcomed us into his small, private quarters inside the teaching rooms. Sitting on the ground he poured us some yak milk tea, gathered a bunch of biscuits and bread and offered them to us to eat. We graciously accepted and admired his room, decorated in Buddhist scriptures and images of the Dalai Lama.
Using hand signs and our phrasebook we asked the monk if we could sleep the night at his temple. He laughed and nodded with enthusiasm. He stood up and led us to a small dormitory next door to his bedroom.
“No no, we have a tent,” we said, and showed it to him. He looked at us with confusion, and we pointed outside. “We can sleep out there.” We then pulled out our wallet and offered him some money. He shrugged, accepted the cash, and walked outside with us.
We began pitching our tent, having a hard time hammering the pegs into the frozen earth. The monk ran off and returned with a hammer, then got down on his knees and started driving them into the ground. Once we were set up we crawled inside and showed him how small it was. He laughed, then suggested we sleep inside the building again.
He became quite persistent, pointing up at the sky, waving at the tent and shaking his head. We promised him we would be fine and he gave up with the pleading. He took our phrasebook and found the section about bathrooms. He underlined a few phrases, then motioned back towards the main building, indicating that if need be, the bathroom was inside by the dormitories.
The monk then mimed washing and pointed behind the monastery. He bent down and drew a map with his finger in the dirt. Apparently there was a hot spring close by, so we headed off to find it.
Only 20 minutes away, towards the bottom of a hill, we came across a large pool billowing with faint steam. Dozens of Tibetans were gathered around, scrubbing themselves in the sulphuric water. Further down where the spring exited into a river, locals parked their cars and motorbikes to wash them.
From the moment we arrived all eyes were on us. Everybody smiled and waved, and a few parents urged their kids to come over and say hello. I took my shirt off and Alesha kept hers on as we dove into the water, aiming to maintain modesty the same way the locals did.
Once we had warmed our bones and washed our skin we quickly hiked back up the hill. The winter sun was dropping rapidly and we returned to the monastery to find our robed guardian.
We went and knocked on the monk’s door to say good night. He answered and quickly ushered us into his room, motioning for us to sit by the stove. The temperature was plummeting, and the monk poured us some warm tea.
Surprisingly the monk left the room and came back with two plates of cooked vegetables and soup for us. He had prepared dinner, and we thankfully accepted it as he passed our share over.
Once we had finished our meal we went to leave, and he stopped us. Using his hands he communicated that we should stay inside again. With a look of empathy he kept pointing outside towards the sky and shaking his head. We said thanks, but assured him we would be fine. We didn’t want to be a burden, especially as he had already fed us after our unannounced arrival.
Bowing our heads, we headed for our tent while the monk smiled into the night.
It was pretty cold at this point, and we put on as much of our warm clothes as possible before sliding into our sleeping bags. I found my favourite fisherman pants from Thailand and took solace in their comfortable heat.
The soothing sound of a gentle breeze whistling between the trees lulled us into a deep sleep. Satisfied with our successful mission of camping in the monastery, we crawled deeper into our sleeping bags and acknowledged how amazing the experience had been, so far…
My eyes opened in a sudden rush around 2am. A stabbing pain in my stomach had woke me up, and in an instant I knew something was wrong. I started thrashing about in my sleeping bag, constricted by the layers of clothes I had worn and the hood zipped up tight around my head. The cramping intensified and I feared the worst. Alesha had been jarred awake by my bouncing and groaning, and she asked worriedly what was wrong.
“I’m going to shit myself!”
“……….Well don’t fucking do it in here!” she screamed at me. “Get out!”
Much easier said than done I’m afraid, as I was like a fragile caterpillar confined to an iron cocoon.
I punched my arm through the opening in the sleeping bag and managed to get the zipper down halfway. Flailing in the dark I located the door to the tent and ripped it apart just enough for a hasty exit.
The cramps kicked in again and I sat up like a bolt, tightening my ass cheeks to suppress any leakages. Losing my balance I fell backwards onto Alesha, and in absolute fear of what else might land on her she pushed me back towards the open door. As graceful as an elephant having a seizure, I broke out of the tent and landed straight on my face into a pile of snow.
The heavens had opened up and there was a scattering of white all around, shimmering under a dull moon. With Alesha dutifully encouraging me to get the fuck out of the tent, I squirmed and slid my way out of the sleeping bag, snaking my way into the monastery yard while trying to maintain my dignity.
Lying in the snow I looked around and realised the only bathroom was at the other end of the square, behind a series of doors leading past the monks quarters. I knew I couldn’t make it that far in time. Why oh why hadn’t we listened to him in the first place?
Rising in lightening speed, I managed to get myself upright while squeezing my butt and keeping my body from bending in the slightest. I took a deep breath and looked across the winter field trying to deduce what my options were.
The deep breath was the last straw. Relief started to come across my aching stomach as I felt a slither of warmth make its way down my left leg. I was too late, and any hope of finding a bathroom had diminished.
I quickly noticed the shadow of looming trees two metres from our tent. I hopped through the snow, saturating my socks as I went, and found a spot between the roots. I tore my fisherman pants off and squatted. Then and there, in the centre of a yard in a Tibetan monastery, with snowflakes falling all around me, I released the pain.
Once the business had been settled I drove my head into my hands in shame. Surely there was some sort of horrible karma due to come my way for shitting myself in a monastery. At the very least I doubt the smiling monk would have approved. Standing up I suddenly had a new problem to deal with – the cleanup.
I was now naked from the waste down, with an unsightly mess in all directions. I found a rock next to the tree, and I tried and failed to dig a hole into the frozen ground to hide my humiliation. Defeated, I grabbed my fisherman pants and started gathering everything I could, then shuffled off towards an incinerator I had noticed when we first arrived. In complete disgrace I threw the pants into the metal container, collected some snow off the ground and cleaned myself up.
Returning to the tent I popped my head back in to find Alesha staring at me in horror. “What happened?!” she cried, with just a hint of laughter in her tone. Where would I even begin…
The next morning we were up as the sun was rising. It had stopped snowing, but the ground and our tent was iced over. We packed up our tent in silence, with me wearing a pair of board shorts in the freezing weather. I examined the spot under the tree and took some comfort in knowing I had done a decent job of removing the evidence in the middle of the night.
The monk was already up and he came out to greet us. Smiling, as usual, he invited us inside for some tea. We politely declined, making up some excuse about having a bus to catch back in Ganzi. We said our goodbyes and he went back inside. On our way out I stopped by the temple and left a sizeable donation, hoping that Buddha would forgive me.
An hour later and we had hitched back into town, luckily not with a monk this time. We found a guesthouse that had hot water and heat lamps in the bathroom, and I washed everything that I had come into contact with. Our experience was now over, but it would not be forgotten.
Sometimes when we’re sitting around with a group of people, we get talking about our favourite travel tales. Every now and then, if we’ve had enough beers, Alesha will say, “We once camped in a Tibetan monastery! Jazza, do you want to tell the story….”