Sertar – The Photograph That You Travel The World For

Sertar – The Photograph That You Travel The World For


If I wrote a list of the most incredible places to travel in western China, Sertar would be at the top.


Based upon one mesmerizing photograph, we quit our plans and embarked upon a detour. A journey we both will never forget. This is our story of Sertar.


Riding out the ridiculously expensive bids to take us to Sertar, we finally score a seat in a shared minivan. Locals tend to expect a tourist to pay for a chartered minivan, which means covering the cost of every seat. Waiting, staying calm and showing them you are not to be taken as a fool gets you a ‘locals’ rate. With a saving of around $45 we were soon sitting cosily in a minivan, alongside four stunning Tibetan girls who were so lovely. Worth the wait – Definitely!


As the famous pilgrimage road toughens, our mini-van driver does also. The valleys became deeper, the cliffs edges become steeper and our drivers eyes wearier. He has obviously been working around the clock for a few days and it was evident from his drooping eyes. His tiredness wasn’t helped by the Tibetan women sitting in the front seat, holding her son, repeating over AND OVER again the Buddhist mantra “Om Ma NO Pad Me Hum” as she makes her pilgrimage. The low, gentle drawl in her voice casts a trance-like mist over the poor driver and if it wasn’t for Becks and I turning the radio up, talking really loudly or insisting the driver stop for red bull, I’m not sure if we would have made it. I remember Becks even signing (with her hands) to the driver that she could drive the rest of the way! He politely declined. Sorry for my cynicism but I found it amusing how the women was praying for the safety and longevity of the journey, yet in doing so, is putting the driver to sleep and therefore putting herself and the rest of the car at risk. How does that work?!


After maybe 7 hours we emerge into yet another built up, colonial-style town. With enthusiasm at a low, not much money, not much time and no idea, we decided to follow the Tibetan girl from our van into another vehicle which we suspect was headed for Larung Gar Monastery (the picture that inspired the detour).


Sertar, places to travel in western China
“…when you get up close and personal…” Sertar


The towns’ surroundings are similar to Litang, with the huge Jinma grasslands stretching in each direction, abutted by rolling green hills. The confronting blue sky meets these immaculate vivid green hills with such a stark contrast, it is breath-taking. For me, these grasslands are synonymous with the Tibetan culture. Yurts (Tibetan tents) are strung up around the plateau, herds of yaks graze by the foot of the mountains and if you are lucky you might see a Tibetan Khampa (cowboy), riding his flamboyantly decorated horse through the countryside. The devastation of the cultural revolution in the 50’s and 60’s caused China to burn and destroy its own culture and history, yet due to the remoteness of the Tibetan prefecture (places like Litang and Sertar), their monasteries and lamaseries were mostly left alone during this time. Lucky for us it means that the people, culture, books, history and architecture is (mostly) preserved and there what we are seeing is the REAL deal!!


Before long, a small dirty village engulfs us and we just know we have made it to the heart of Tibet Land. From the moment you turn left, and enter through an archway, you are sufficiently in awe. Your horizon is blocked a by sea of crimson red, one room, log cabins, impossibly stacked upon each other as if by superglue. A natural amphitheatre is formed by duelling hills, creating a fragrant green basin which hosts the hundreds of shanty style cabins. Each hut emblazoned one vibrant green window, adding a burst of colour to the Spartan huts. This view is hands down, one of the most incredible, beautiful, individual things I have EVER seen! As we drive up the winding road, into the heart of the crazy dwellings we notice numerous gold monasteries dotted throughout, giant gold statues and tons of monks and nuns roaming their school.


The Sertar Buddhist Institute, known locally as Larung Gar is home to nearly 10,000 monks and nuns which study there. Despite the monastery’s remote location (being more than 800km of dirt road from the nearest city) and the immense altitude at which it lies (4000m above sea level), the institute has become one of the largest and most influential centres for the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.


Free to wander the muddy paths, we witnessed Tibetan monks and nuns wearing their blood-red robes getting about their daily routine. Drawn by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the brilliant teacher who resides here, they climb the snaking path up the narrow valley to the golden walls of their monasteries, to learn the Buddhist teachings and practice Buddhist worship. As they walk, they detour off the paths to the rows and rows of mesmerizing prayer wheels in which they spin, each one individually, clockwise.


As the sun sets below the mountains, the crowds of monks and nuns swarm the interlocking pathways bound for the evening prayer halls. We stood, gasping at the incredible scene before us, watching the sky turn to a deep indigo and the thousands of lights from the little cabins suddenly illuminate, as if by magic.


After dusting off the hair and biscuit crumbs from the previous night’s guest, we curl up together in our 25 yuan single bed, surrounded by other guests sleeping to watch a movie. Squished together, warm and massively content, we fall into a deep sleep.



The Tiny Dwellings of Sertar, Places to travel in western china


The next morning we had no choice but to awake early with the hardcore GO GO GO type Chinese backpackers and explore Larung Gar more thoroughly. With unlimited access, we poked our heads in one of the huts and meandered between the third world dwelling to get further into the remote and intriguing community. From afar (our pictures are a perfect example), this place is breathtaking. It is absurdly beautiful and otherworldly. Yet when you get up close and personal to these red cabins and actually see the conditions these 10,000 monks and nuns live in, you can really start to appreciate their commitment to Buddhism. With no sewage the place reeks of urine and faeces, the huts are maybe 2m by 3m big and are shared with maybe 1, 2 or 3 others. The rubbish is unmanaged as the gutters are blocked with plastic wrappers, the garbage bins are overflowing and the small paths between huts are used as a backyard tip.




Behind the Scenes of Sertar



You could visit Sertar and take the most incredible pictures from the entrance archway, or stick to the one road that winds its way up the hills but that’s only half of the story here. Actually taking a detour off the path and seeing what the Tibetan culture is REALLY like is half of the fun. Confronting your pre-conceded thoughts and ideas of the culture and being prepared not to like what you see is what I find exciting about travels. Shattering the ideological misconceptions and finding new, REAL and often grossly more intriguing aspects of a culture is all part and parcel to the way Becks and I travel. However, I will add that getting down and dirty in the Tibetan culture is often a love hate-relationship but well worth it! It’s not all doom and gloom might I add, we saw cute ladies carving scriptures into rocks, nuns picking up worms from their path and placing them on the side out of harms way and we saw thousands of rosy-cheeked nuns swarming the gigantic monasteries to begin their teachings. What can I say? I love this place.


All I would like to say is that when you wish to leave Sertar town, make sure you bring patience, unlimited time, plenty of cash and no inhibitions which will required when you to stand in the middle of town with a piece of cardboard with your destination written in Chinese for hours. All in all leaving Sertar is a right pain in the ass. Buses fill quickly a day or so in advance so get in early. I did however see a Tibetan protestor get wrestled by the Chinese police and thumped to a pulp, to be then whisked away without any trace of him was his Tibetan prayer papers which lay scattered in town square. Oh China… suppression is an ugly game.


Finally after chopping and changing our plans to suit where the minivans were going (yet still failing to get one), spending an extra night in the town and just fed up with the whole transport scenario, we scored a seat on a bus bound for Ma’ekerang. Tibet it’s time to leave you. We have pushed you, yet you have punched us back so damn hard.



Larang Gar Buddhist Institute, Places to travel in china





Return to our destination guide: places to travel in western China.



Written by

Prue Sinclair is a twenty-eight year old Aussie who for the past seven years has been exploring the furthermost reaches of the World. Living anywhere but her homeland, she now resides somewhere in the UK where she writes about the adventures of her Ultimate British Road Trip. Her message is simple: You can get anywhere on any budget, you just need to think outside the box. You can trust she’s finding her way to somewhere lesser-known and writing a ‘How To’ guide.

  • Really nice post, Larung Gar is a place out of this world, it’s unbelievable! It is Tibet in all but name.
    Just hope it won’t become another attraction packed with tourists, like the rest of China!


    • Thanks for reading. I agree, I hope it stays raw, dirty, tibetan and all those things that make it Larung Gar. We never made it to eastern China but the west has so many more spots that are untouched, unheard of and extremely beautiful an cultural that We’re hoping will also stay hidden from the public eye.

      Tell me about your trip to China, I’d love to know where you went and what you got up to.

      x Prue

      • So sorry, but I didn’t get the notify of your comment Prue!
        Anyway, I totally agree with you and I hope the west will stay that untouched. Unfortunately Larung Gar is getting pretty crowded, I’ve been there last October and it was full of Chinese people. I’m pretty sure it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide as well.

        I’ve been traveling through China for 2 months and 2 weeks, in several places ( and loved most of them. I’d love to be back soon and explore the rest 🙂

      • Don’t stress Jess, I’m just super excited you got there!!!

        Thanks for following our convo up though, that’s awesome. It’s really sad to hear that Larung gar is getting crowded, it was such a weird and wonderful place… but with weird and wonderful people will flock to see it. Good old lonely planet hahaha.

        I checked out your blog post, some great spots for sure and wonderful photography! On our 3 month overland from south to north we stuck as close as we could to the western borders of Myanmar, Tibet and Kazakstan and came across a few places you visited. Danxia for one, OMG how amazing is that place and Jiuzhaigou Nature reserve. We will go back though to explore a little further east for sure.

        Thanks for brightening my day and bringing me back to China.


      • Thank you Prue for your comment, I enjoyed reading your post and I appreciate you answered me back 🙂 p.s. Enjoy your time in New Zealand! We are in Te Anau at the moment 😉

  • […] to the area, and I set out to find all the information I could. I found a great travelog by called straightondetour, where the author Prue Sinclair offered me advice and a heartfelt recommendation to travel […]

  • Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Did you have any trouble entering into the Kham region as far as permitting/beureaucracy? I plan to go to Sertar in 2016, and this is the most up to date travelog I have found. Thank you for any information you might have!

    • Hey Jesse, Oh wow that’s cool you found us. Sertar is a magical place, you will love it. Travel in the Kham region is tough for foreigners, most buses are not permitted to sell you a bus ticket… (The Chinese government is trying to squash the region). Mini vans and (lots of them) are your best option to get to Sertar. The Larang Gar monastery is actually outside of town, so once you arrive in Sertar, head down to the mini van/bus area and jump in one there. Lots of Monks will be heading that way. Heads up, it’s pretty putrid there, you might be aware of that already… Tibet is unclean and that’s because of the lack of water. Showering is rare and most people do not have access to running water regularly. So be prepared to rough it (seriously rough it ha!), we stayed 2 nights and that was plenty. But don’t let me put you off because i’m do not know know your reasons for going – we loved it. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

      I’m not sure if any of this helps, but if you have any other questions I don’t mind trying to help as best I can.

      Thanks again for reaching out,

      Kind regards,

      • Hi Prue,

        Thanks so much for getting back to me! I have two main reasons for going. First is photography, I am a semi-professional photographer, and Larung Gar is by far one of the most photogenic places I have ever seen!

        Secondly, I only heard of it after attending a teaching by Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö who is one of the disciples of Jigme Phunstok, the founder of Larung Gar.

        Thank you for the advice regarding travel into Sertar. I think a minibus would be the best way according to you and one other traveler I have managed to track down. I lived in Nepal as a small child and later a teenager, so I am somewhat used to… unhygenic conditions. The smell of yak butter still gets to me though! haha.

        Thanks again, and I’ll be sure to link to this blog when I do any writing and publish my photos!


      • Hey no worries, it sounds like you’re well prepped and are going to have an incredible time! 🙂

        Woah, those guys pics are pretty incredible… wish I had my DSLR back then ha!

        Safe travels, happy planning.


      • Ps.. Yak butter urghhh hahaha. But I did take a like to tsampa weirdly enough.

  • What a fascinating town. Your China posts make want to return to China sooner than later.

    • Hey Wayne,

      Sertar is extremely fascinating – i’m absolutely rapped about China. Like you I cannot wait to go back soon rather than later!!!
      I just had a read of your ‘about me’ section and saw you breath Tao’s principles. I’m currently 1/3 into the Book of Tao. It’s slow going but i’m enjoying the process. Lovely to hear from you!


  • Wow, what a crazy place and a $45 saving can only ever be a win! I’d love to get back to Asia and experience some of this kind of culture. It’s so different from anything you find in Europe or the Americas.

    Your photos certainly look like the journey was worth it!

    • One of kind… Places like Sertar don’t appear too often in your travels and i’m forever grateful for pushing to reach it. Unbelievable. I love it, you want to get back to Asia and I want to get back to the Americas … Asia will always be my first love 😛 xx

  • Wow! What an amazing place, love it!!!
    And great photos too! You should definitely look into our Travel Photography Competition 🙂

  • Tom says:

    Unbelievable place, great photos! It’s definitely on my list, I just love places like that… I’m visiting Berat in Albania this summer which is a bit similar 😉 Next year I’m planning China!

  • […] end of the world and you have made it, these are ours. A 24hour detour to reach a valley of 50,000 monks in China for example or overseeing a Tibetan Sky Burial at 4000m. Driving to a remote castle in Scotland or […]

  • My husband and I want to go to Tibet but as somebody with anxiety disorder (two days on the train with other people) would be too unbearable for me. It’s already a battle just living in Shanghai (my husband found a job here). Regardless, my husband and I are both foreigners in China and it’s a beautiful country. 🙂

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Hi we're Prue and Becks, travel writers and photographers who have been travelling the world together since 2012. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we divulge the lesser known, out of the way places and give you the tools to replicate it. Want to know more? Click on our pic.