Jonas Crimm hails from the underappreciated city of Philadelphia. He recently spent three years in northwestern China’s Qinghai province, a beautiful and remote region on the northeastern Tibetan plateau, where he taught at an intensive English program for rural high school students. In addition to working with some of the most fantastic kids imaginable, he was able to travel and explore the Tibetan Plateau and western China. He currently lives in San Francisco, where he builds international exchange programs in China and gets lost running the trails of the Bay Area. More of Jonas’ writing can be found on his blog.
Spirituality can be experienced and processed in many forms, from silent prayer to self-flagellation, whether physical or mental. I have always felt a profound spirituality in movement as well as in the natural world. Judaism, the religion in which I was brought up – or at least in our variant of hippie-Judaism – teaches us to recognize and appreciate the divine in the world around us, a precept that has always seemed to click with my ideas about spirituality. I have never felt more connected with the earth, or an unnamed divine power, than when on a long, meditative walk or a run in the mountains – or when simply being somewhere amidst a natural magnificence of unexplainable but palpable power. This is where I believe in and even feel (to the extent of my ability, given my skeptical self) the existence of something greater.
Fortunately, Tibetan Buddhism acknowledges the spirituality I feel in nature, as well as in movement, with forms of worship like the kora – a clockwise movement around something sacred, whether a mountain range, monastery, stupa, or prayer wheel. The kora is a ritual central to Tibetan religion.
Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to walk many koras through spectacular scenery. Here, completely subjectively, are my five favorite koras in the provinces Kham and Amdo; these are the ones which, even after you finish, you will continue to feel an onwards tug, a desire, even a need, to do again and again.
1. Ganze Gonpa དཀར་མཛེས་དགོན་པ། 甘孜寺, Ganze, Sichuan
This kora is exceptional because of its scenic splendor, as well as for the variety of attractions along the way. Rising high up a hillside above the monastery, the route provides stunning views of the town, as well as the jagged peaks of the Chola mountains. Along the way are prayer wheels, stupas, mini-koras of sacred outcrops, and an interesting venture into the old town. The pilgrims here seem to be exceptionally friendly.
Begin this kora from the concrete road leading up to the west entrance of the Ganzi monastery (left, if you’re looking up at the complex); a set of steps leads up from the road as it switchbacks up a narrow ravine. After traversing the high hillside, the kora descends steeply to a riverbank and, after passing rows of prayer wheels, deposits you back in the center of the village below the monastery.
“If you find yourself at a Tibetan monastery, make sure to do the kora…these circular journeys will help you feel the extraordinary sacred power of movement and of the natural world.”
2. Drakar Tredzong, Xinghai (Tsigorthang), Qinghai
Many come to this sacred site and only visit the Serdzong monastery. In doing so, they miss out on most of what makes this place so palpably sacred. The holy peak of Drakar Tredzong is encircled by a 3-6 hour kora route which crosses two passes and offers access to the mountain’s many sacred sites. Awesome views are on also offer, stretching over vast grasslands and high, snowy peaks. There’s also a good chance of seeing wildlife (often antelope and other ungulates) as this area is quite remote. Start at the large chorten at the far end of the monastery, and get swept ever-onward around the loomingly limestone behemoth of Drakar Tredzong in one of the most beautiful trips imaginable.
3. Labrang, Labrang (Xiahe), Gansu
The Labrang kora is special for the large number of pilgrims who constantly encircle the monastery and lend to its intense atmosphere of devotion. It’s hard not to be swept away by the rapid current of humanity; the fervent muttering of prayers and the desire and hope and belief whirled together in a constant perpetuity of motion. Over 1000 prayer wheels line three sides of this massive monastery, so you’ll get an (admittedly one-sided) arm workout along with your walk.
4. Gyanak Mani, Yushu, Qinghai (and Princess Wencheng temple)
The world’s largest mani wall (a massive wall made up of stones bearing the Buddhist mantra of Avalokitesvara) is an unbelievable sight, despite the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake. The best way to experience this intensely sacred place is to join the seemingly endless stream of pilgrims doing koras around this massive pile of rocks. It is likely that you will meet a family and do countless circumambulations with them; you may also be offered butter tea and tsamba from the massive communal pot at one end of the circuit. Regardless, expect to spend longer here than you had originally planned. Additionally, make sure you do the kora at the Princess Wencheng temple south of town – lots of prayer flags and beautiful views.
5. Monstery, Dawu town, Golog, Qinghai (and Ragya Gonpa)
I’m not even sure of the name of this small temple on the outskirts of Dawu, the capital of Golog prefecture; however, this place is beloved by the local population, and is constantly encircled by a crowd which itself is a demographic cross-section of Golog Prefecture Tibetans. The monastery is small, but above the sheet-metal buildings is a grassy hill covered by a colossal mound of prayer flags, one of the largest displays I’ve ever seen. Encircling this hill in the company of Golog pilgrims, then spinning the massive prayer wheels surrounding the monastery, is an awe-inspiring experience. If you want even more merit, follow it up with a kora at the Ragya monastery, one hour to the north on the banks of the Yellow River. The circuit here offers beautiful views of the area.
There are many more fantastic kora routes in these regions, but these five are, in my opinion, the most outstanding. Other recommended koras include Sershul Gonpa in Sershul, Sichuan; Rongwo Gonpa in Rebgong, Qinghai; Kirti Gonpa in Langmusi (Taktsang Lhamo), Sichuan/Gansu; and Dzogchen Gonpa in Dzogchen, Sichuan. To sum up – if you find yourself at a Tibetan monastery, make sure to do the kora: the simple act of walking can be surprisingly and fulfillingly spiritual experience, and these circular journeys will help you feel the extraordinary sacred power of movement and of the natural world.
Words and photos: Jonas Crimm