Though not particularly profound, our two most enduring impressions of Tagong are how awesome the old people there look and how much Buddhist stuff there is everywhere. Most of those in Tagong’s over 40 population are draped in baggy colorful robes that have a vintage look only achieved by wearing the same garment everyday for years. The women weave colorful pink and purple fabric into their thick braids, while men holster foot long knives at their waist.
Pinyin: Tǎgōng | Chinese: 塔公 | Tibetan: Lhagang
Location: Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China
Getting There: 3 hour car ride from Kāngdìng (康定)
Where to Stay: Khampa Cafe (+86 136 8449 3301); Iya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse (+86 83 6286 6056)
Attractions: Tagong Lamasery, Lhagang Monastery, Ani Gompa (nunnery), grasslands
Throughout the day, these colorful individuals perambulate the temples and cobble stone streets. The clockwise walk around the temples is an act of worship that, while perfunctory, is done with an easy sense of purpose and determination.
To really explore Tagong properly you need at least four or five days. While Tagong’s treasures require a bit of finding, if you’re willing to put in the effort in terms of talking to interesting looking people and walking down random streets, Tagong will not disappoint.
There are two primary temples in Tagong. The Tagong Lamasery is located in the Tagong town center, while the other, the Lhagang Monastery, is a ten minute walk south of the village center. The Lhagang Monastery is home to the iconic, if not somewhat gaudy, Muya Golden Pagoda and its 100 kg golden roof that lies in the center of the monastery’s four towers.
Traveling south past the Lhagang Monastery, you’ll quickly find a one way cement road on the right. Turning down this road will lead to the Ani Gompa nunnery, as well as a street of prayer tablet cobblers and a large stupa surrounded by prayer wheels. In this area we witnessed a huge collection of awesomely adorned elderly Tibetans circling the large stupa. With layers of robes, dresses, necklaces, and bracelets, everyone was uniquely dressed from head to toe.
Immersed in the town’s aging population, we felt a profoundly close and authentic connection to Tagong’s rich Buddhist and Tibetan culture.
As we were circling the stupa, a woman in front us stopped. She knelt down and cupped her hands against the ground. After pausing a moment, she stood up, walked to a nearby plant, and place her hands, still cupped, against the dirt. Only after looking at the dirt did we realize that the woman had picked up an ant, moving it out of harm’s way to the safety of the soil.
Later, a verbose Tibetan man of questionable reliability explained that such an occurrence is very common, for true Buddhists do not take any life and empathize with the fear of death that all living things have. He also explained, without any hint of awareness of the hypocrisy in what he was about to say, that many non-vegetarian yet devout Buddhists get Han Chinese and Hui people to kill and butcher their cattle for them. Putting aside the many contradictions between Buddhist dogma and life in practice, what we witnessed at the stupa was a humbling and heartwarming experience.
This old man was quite proud of his hat, which is made out of black bear fur. Today, it is illegal to hunt black bears in this area. However, the man assured us that his hat was grandfathered in from a free bear hunting time.
More importantly, he told us that the hat had special properties. Most significantly, it cured him of his poor eye sight. Apparently he used to get bad headaches, perhaps from always having to squint.
Then he was given this bear hat and lo and behold his headaches stopped and his vision improved.
While it’s not clear that what he was wearing was even a hat and not just a piece of bear fur that he put on his head, this man was exceedingly entertaining, and representative of the awesomeness of the all the older people in this area.
While we did feel a bit awkward just standing around staring at people, the people didn’t seem to mind and generally returned our hesitant smiles.
In addition to its temples, Tagong is also home to a number of Buddhist schools. Vistors are free to enter the schools and look around. You’ll see young monks with bags of instant noodles and Coke walking to and from the high school and college. I suppose some things are the same all over the world.
It was somewhat sobering to see religious structures under construction. Especially in this part of the world, I always assume large places of worship are fairly ancient and hold significant historical value. However, seeing large prayer platforms and stupas in partial form being made with modern machinery was a nice reminder of where things actually come from today, not to take away any of the religious significance of the objects.
Where to Stay
The Khampa Cafe is absolutely the place to stay. The rooms are fine (clean, simple), but the real reason you stay here is for the food and staff. The food is great. You can get a traditional American or English style breakfast and a real cup of coffee, both welcome sights after being on the road for weeks. Since it was particularly busy when we were there, they even let us in the kitchen to help fry up some bacon and eggs. It’s that type of place – super friendly people and very hostel-y.
Second, the place is run by an American woman, Angela, and her Tibetan husband (check out her site: http://www.definitelynomadic.com/). Angela knows her stuff and is exceedingly enthusiastic and patient when giving advice about the area. Most importantly, you can book horse treks through Angela. The treks are 100% legit (see our post on the Tagong Grasslands). If you are in Tagong and if you are adventurous then you absolutely must go on a multiple day horse trek. There is no better way to see the beautiful grassland and experience real nomadic life as it is today.