Seda monastery -The largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world

It was once an isolated place before an award winning picture got increasing attention from the outside world. Seda monastery, the largest Buddhist institute in the world, located in the center of the country, is like nowhere else in China. A home to more than 30,000 practitioners, a place I didn’t even know existed. Articles and eye-catching pictures made more people, especially photographers, want to visit this hidden place, including me.

I got this irresistible urge to travel there, I flew to Chengdu, transferring via several local buses, hitchhiked in a jeep… Traveling on muddy, bumpy roads, two days’ tough journey has finally brought me to the holy land. It is not only the hard transportation that has stopped this place being discovered, but also limited accommodation that made it barely visited by regular tourists. There is only one hotel on top of the mountain built for important visitors, I figured out to how stay in the female dormitory with the nuns.

Yet, it wasn’t the end of the suffering, Seda is only 4000m above sea level, the altitude isn’t too high compared to other mountains in the province, the locals are acclimatized, but it took me two days in bed to recover from altitude sickness, before I had a bit of strength to explore the area.

The plateau climate is cold and windy, Tibetan tend to build their house on leeward side of the valley. A main road way snaked through the valley all the way to the top, providing access for small vehicles. I decided to take a steep short cut instead of the gradual roadway to the viewpoint, my “smart” decision didn’t save me much time, I ended up stopping every 10 meters gasping for breath and my heart beat faster every 30 steps. Climbing up the dizzily high mountain, I was rewarded by my effort, the picture in front of me was literally “breathtaking”. Countless tiny houses blanketed the green valley like dazzling red carpet, the heavy cloud diffused the glaring sunlight, brightening every corner. There isn’t anything spectacular about these individual cabin, it is the densely-populated housing and the organic form that gives it a visual impact.

The color red was important in Tibetan culture, there were legends about the use on faces for avoiding the demons in the old times, the tradition has been kept with buildings, also influencing what they wear. The sacred red color is normally used on religious buildings, the red Buddhist dwellings show a big difference from other Tibetan vernacular houses. The colour is also a symbol of status, with the higher level yellow, only a touch on the main monasteries.

Public toilets on the left

House are built around the main monasteries and infrastructure located in the very center of the valley. Male and female dwellings are built way apart from each other in different locations, and monks and nuns have to strictly keep distance from each other.  These basic log cabins are shared by practitioners, only a few square meters with no toilet, public toilets can be 100m away from some of the dwellings. There was no water supply in the cabin, practitioners have to climb up the hill to get a bucket of water for a whole days usage. Life is difficult here, Buddhist spirit is to teach people to have less desire, living in poor condition is somehow considered a part of the journey. Practitioners have to study a minimum of six years to finish a degree, studying from early morning to evening.

In the early morning, light shone through the colorful curtains from little cabins, like thousands of lanterns rising up the valley. A group of practitioners were walking towards the main hall to start their early study. It was quiet, I can hear someone giggling on the other side of the hill, while the obnoxious shutter sound of my camera broke the silence awkwardly.