Soon To Be Lost Forever: Larung Gar, the Largest Tibetan Buddhist University

Since the 1980s, Larung Gar, nicknamed ‘The City in the Sky’ has been the epicentre for The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhist Study.

Not only did it contain the largest Tibetan Buddhist University in the world but it was also a settlement that took in Buddhists from all sects during their pilgrimages to make merit.

In June and July of 2016, the Chinese government demolished up to 50 % of this once thriving populous of 40,000 peaceful devoted Tibetan Buddhists. 

In May of 2016, the last known foreign photographer made his way from Chengdu, China into this remote hidden settlement and captured the last days of Larung Gar.

Photographer Jesse Rockwell is no stranger to, well… to put it lightly extreme ‘off-the-beaten-path’ travelling.

He grew up in Nepal and has travelled to some of the most unknown and remote regions of Asia. I’d say best-kept secrets but this guy literally discovers places that turn into best-kept secrets.

If Vice ever creates a travel channel Jesse should be at the helm. Fortunately for you and myself, he has brought his camera and a keen eye for capturing moments that make travellers like us lust for our next trip.

His journey to Larung Gar is one of the best parts of his story. Back in LA as he was planning his trip he received a random email. A woman in Chengdu China had seen an article about an LED-illuminated milky way photograph he made. The woman asked for help so she could attempt to make one herself. Jesse happily obliged.

He informed her that, strangely enough, he’d be going through Chengdu in a month’s time on his way to Larung Gar. She happily invited him to stay at her abode and helped him arrange his transportation into Larung Gar.

The Chinese government doesn’t provide transportation into Larung Gar. 

Pilgrims, teachers and students are only able to take the Tibetan operated vans on a 22 hour-long journey from Chengdu to Larung Gar.

At 3:30 am Jesse got into a fold-down seat in the back of a Toyota 4Runner. With his 50 lbs. bag on top of his lap and two other packs around his legs resting on the floor the drive would be less than comfortable.

After 16 hours of driving through empty mountain regions and valleys, a small Tibetan town appears and the less than friendly driver kicks him out and points down an alleyway.

A young Tibetan man comes out of an alleyway and motions for him to come. He goes into a van to continue on…

Not far from the village, they arrive at the only Chinese military checkpoint.  This checkpoint is the starting point for entering into the Eastern region of Tibet, now formally Sichuan Province.  It took an hour for them to let him in and his ride to continue on, but not after forcing him to sign a document saying he would not sleep inside the settlement.

Finally, around 1 am he makes it to Larung Gar. However, he isn’t allowed to sleep inside the city.

The driver spends upwards of an hour trying to find him somewhere he can stay and with a bit of luck, he finds a small guesthouse about 30 kilometres away. A strange metal door guarding the guesthouse is the only sign marking the newly found accommodation.

Jesse knocks and the door flies open where a happy young Tibetan man who “spoke great English” greets him and welcomes him in. The hot shower his room provided was more than a surprising blessing after an excruciating 23-hour tightly packed mission of dice-rolled attempts at reaching his destination.

The next four days Jesse spent photographing the settlement, its University and its people.

The first thing you notice when seeing pictures of LG is its multi-coloured housing structures that look endless.

“The size is impossible to convey in two-dimensional images. It feels like a theme park because of its collective scale and the massiveness is disorienting to be in the middle of” Jesse explains.

He managed to arrange an afternoon with a local Buddhist Lama. Their only way of communicating was on a Chinese app called ‘WeChat’ which offers English to Chinese translation on-the-fly. The Lama was in training to become a professor at the University.

At the end of his visit to Larung Gar, with the help of a few Chinese travellers, he stumbled across a bus ticket that was to leave at 3:30 in the morning back to Chengdu. After purchasing his ticket, he had one more night left.

Climbing to one of the peaks overlooking the city, Jesse was able to get a once in a lifetime shot of the city as the night lights came out and the sun disappeared.  This shot is the last photograph you will ever see of Larung Gar as a whole. 

He left at 3:00 am and proceeded to walk to the van station at the end of his road. A truck pulls up next to him, a young Tibetan man rolls down the window, smiles, and says “Chengdu?” Jesse smiled back and happily accepted this ride.

Having shotgun on a 22-hour long ride with three 50 lbs bags is worth its weight in GOLD. (Oh, Jesse is 6’1 as well just to put this in context.) Now having shotgun he chalked up his paid for van ticket to the road because nothing is greater on a journey than legroom.

Once back in LA several publications picked up his story of Larung Gar.  A local college student contacted him after seeing his pictures in the paper and asked for help getting from Chengdu to Larung Gar. She was doing her thesis on Tibetan Buddhism. Jesse gave her the 1-2 1-2 and she was off.  16 hours later she was turned away at the same checkpoint run by Chinese military that Jesse had gone through.

A week later the Chinese government announced its plans to demolish the settlement and shrink it down by size. They say that it has become overcrowded and that its population must be reduced to only 5,000 people by October 2017.

The belief amongst some, notably the ICT (International Campaign for Tibet), is that this settlement, as well as Yachen Gar, another Buddhist settlement in Sichuan province, is being downsized and primed to become a tourist destination. The Chinese government see the uniqueness of these destinations and want to reduce the population, whilst maintaining some of the unusual architecture, to make way for tourists, hotels and everything that comes with it. Read more here.

To this day no foreign traveller has been permitted entry into Larung Gar.

Jesse was able to capture the beauty of this once bustling Tibetan Buddhist hub of education and spirituality before its forced demise.

This article was written by Ian Campbell, a friend of the photographer. For more information about Jesse Rockwell, you can visit his website here.

The photographer, Jesse Rockwell, in Larung Gar.
The photographer, Jesse Rockwell, in Larung Gar.

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