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View of the many tiny red houses from one of the streets at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

Sneaking into the largest Buddhist Institute, Sertar (Larung Gar)

You have heard of the Tibetans, the free Tibet movement and the Chinese government oppression of the Tibetans. While many of these “truths” are debatable, there remains one objective fact: the Chinese government does not fancy foreign interference. As such, many areas where Tibetans live are off-limits to foreigners. This includes the Sertar Buddhist Institute, or Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world.

Bird's eye view of the Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar), famous for its red houses.

Sneaking into Tibet is probably a poor decision, with countless police checkpoints all over. Moreover, speaking to a Tibetan in public might call for a patrolling policeman to pull you away. What about sneaking into the largest Buddhist institute in the world? I have long heard about this mysterious place, hidden in the mountains 4,000m above sea level, and I really wanted to see it for myself. I was determined to get in, and so I packed and got ready to sneak into Sertar Buddhist Institute.

Map of the bridge that crosses on the other side of the river, avoiding the police checkpoint.

The night before I was staying some 200km away, analysing the Google satellite map. There was a police checkpoint at the turnoff to Sertar from the main highway G317, at Wengda town (翁达镇). The checkpoint was well positioned: mountains on the left side of the road and a wide and gushing river on the right, with the only bridge across by the checkpoint. There was only one narrow way in. Thankfully there was another bridge across the river, but it was about two kilometres before the checkpoint.

This is the police checkpoint at Wengda town. All vehicles going to Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar) are checked here.

My plan to sneak into Sertar Buddhist Insitute (Larung Gar) went something like this: Cross the bridge about two kilometres before the checkpoint, walk along the river, and cross back to the main road from another bridge about three kilometres beyond the checkpoint. The only challenge was that the entire way along the river was not flat. I had to climb multiple mountains, which had very steep slopes and rocky cliffs.

View of the tent area just outside the main prayer halls of the Sertar Buddhist Institute. Many monks and Tibetans set up tents here so that they can pray at the main halls.

Once I got pass the Wengda checkpoint, I planned to hitchhike my way to the village (Larung village) just before Sertar Buddhist Institute. As there would be another checkpoint at the entrance to the institute, my plan was to sneak in by climbing the mountains that surround the institute. Once inside, I would pitch a tent to tide through the cold summer nights.

Off I went to Wengda town with this rough plan in mind. Luckily for me, I could pass off as Chinese and as such I would not need to cover my face and skin. If a Westerner wanted to sneak in, he would definitely have to cover himselfs for the entire duration of stay in Sertar Buddhist Institute.

I hitched my way towards Wengda town and was dropped off about twenty kilometres before. I stood by the highway, waiting for someone to pick me up. “Sertar” was what I wrote on my hitchhiking card and I waited. The thing about being banned from Sertar was that no public buses would pick you up, nor would any Chinese tourist, as everyone would be thoroughly checked.

After some time, a Tibetan monk pulled over and beckoned me in. He has lived in Sertar for most of his life and was returning after running some errands. It was hard communicating as he could not speak much Mandarin. With some exaggerated hand signs, I relayed that I was a foreigner. He kept his cool, as if it did not matter and continued driving and talking over the phone.

The Tibetan monk kept reminding me with a hearty laugh how many kilometres we were from the checkpoint. Fifteen, ten, five… As we approached, I became more and more nervous, constantly looking out for police or checkpoints. Just before we reached Wengda town, a police stopped us. I was stunned. I did not plan for this checkpoint! Thankfully, the police allowed us to pass after peeking into the car.

As we approached the bridge before the checkpoint, I told the monk that I had to get off here and hike around the checkpoint. It was the only way I would get around the police. However, he did not stop and said something to me in Tibetan. Trouble’s brewing! I only had one shot across the checkpoint. Should the police recognised me, I would stand no chance.

He stopped 100m before the checkpoint, pulled my jacket’s hood over my head and asked me to walk like a local across the bridge by the checkpoint. He said he would wait for me down the road and he then drove off with all of my belongings. There I was, in a drizzle, walking towards the police checkpoint unprepared. I was not expecting this! With each step my heart pounded faster. I never felt so insecure before.

Soon, he drove back and beckoned me to get on the back seat. I hurriedly got into the car, feeling confused and lost. He asked me to keep my hood on, lean back and lower my head. I did just what he wanted, though in my mind I felt that such a position would attract even more suspicion. He turned the car around, slowed down at the checkpoint and the police looked at him for a moment. It was a very, very long moment. I did not want to look at the police, nor fidget, as I wanted to be as invisible as possible.

This very long moment ended with a hand gesture by the police. “Go!” was what it meant. The monk drove off the checkpoint, looked back and grinned at me. I was speechless. What, I made it? I could not believe what has just happened. I was overjoyed, thankful and surprised all at the same time. The end was now a step closer.

Apparently Tibetans are more loosely checked at the Wengda checkpoint. Tibetan monks especially would be let across half of the time without any checks. The police probably did not see me sitting in the back and so they let us through just like that. Nevertheless, it was an experience I would not wish to go through again.

View of the surrounding mountains at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

The drive to Sertar was especially scenic, with snow mountains, meandering rivers, grazing yaks and beautiful Tibetan houses all along the way. The scenery was of course made sweeter by the fact that I easily got through the Wengda checkpoint.

As soon as we approached the Sertar Buddhist Institute, my heart began pounding extremely fast again. This time, getting caught would probably mean some form of punishment, since I sneaked past the first checkpoint. I suggested to hike through the mountains, but the monk told me not to worry. Again, in his calm disposition, he asked me to pull my hood over my head, lean back and relax.

View of the entrance gate to Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

He slowed down at the checkpoint and the police came over. I looked straight ahead, trying as much as I could not to make any eye contact with the police. The monk pulled out what looked like a travel permit and the police signalled to lift the gantry. Just like this, we got into Sertar Buddhist Institute.

View of the snow-capped roofs and mountains at the Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

With the help of the Tibetan monk, I got myself into Sertar Buddhist Institute. I was already very appreciative, but he went further to suggest that I could stay at his home! Although it was cold and drizzling outside, my heart was warm and fuzzy. I was all prepared to pitch a tent somewhere, but I am glad that I did not. The drizzle in the evening turned into a heavy snowstorm at night. From the window of the monk’s little red house, I looked out and admired the snow piling up on the roofs and walkways.

View of the snow-capped roofs and mountains at the Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

This was Sertar Buddhist Institute. A beautiful and spiritual place that still saw snow in the heart of summer. The monks call it the “flying snow of June”, a rare phenomenon that I was lucky enough to witness. That day flew past quite quickly, starting with much trepidation and ending with great relief. Alas, I have managed to sneak into Sertar Buddhist Institute. It was time to begin my little adventure around this mysterious little place.

4 thoughts to “Sneaking into the largest Buddhist Institute, Sertar (Larung Gar)”

  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome ! I can’t believe no-one else has commented on this.

    I was planning to try and get in early December when I’m close to Mei Li Mtn. But there may be too much snow and/or dangerous to go around the checkpoints at that time, I may have to leave it until Spring and just concentrate on Tiger Leaping Gorge/Li Jiang and Zhong Dian as there’s no way, as a Westerner (living in China for many years), I could drive through the police checkpoints.

    Love your site, photos and reports. Great stuff thanks ! Kevin

    1. Thank you Kevin for your kind words!
      Sertar is really too cold in December. Now the minimum temperature is about -15 degrees Celsius and the maximum temperature is freezing point. When I was there in June it was already snowing. The monks I met in Sertar told me that the weather is extremely harsh in winter. Yet this is also something that amazes me, the fact that thousands of students continue to meditate and learn the virtues of Buddhism even in extreme conditions. This is the kind of dedication that makes the Tibetan people so special.
      I do strongly encourage you to visit Sertar! There are people at the town where the checkpoint is located that can sneak you in for a small fee. In the Buddhist Institute, there are lots of Chinese tourists there who literally cover themselves up because they do not want to be burnt by the UV rays up in the mountains. If you cover your face with a scarf and put on a sunglass, you can walk around Sertar without any suspicion. Next year is probably the last year in human history where you can see Sertar in its glory. The government will demolish all the little red houses and build ugly concrete ones by 2018.
      Also, on a side note, I do strongly recommend that you check out the Yubeng village hikes (you can find them on my blog too). You would not regret it!

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