We spend the night in Daocheng at a colourfully decorated Tibetan inn called Here Cafe and the next day hire bikes and ride into the countryside to visit a monastery we’ve been told is about 10km away.
We cycle out of town and spot the monastery up on a hill; it looks quite close. But as we turn off towards it the road starts to climb. Not steeply but steadily, for some 6km or so. We can see it winding and turning up the hill away from us. Normally it would be a long and reasonably tiring ride but at 3800m above sea level I’m feeling the altitude. Cycling on the flat is fine but the tiniest incline brings me to my knees and I’m out of breath, my heart pounding and legs wobbly in less than a minute.
I’m not alone. Within 500m we’re all pushing our bikes, walking beside them, slowly, slowly ascending. Every five or 10 minutes we stop for breath or to dip out heads in the icy streams that run down the mountain or simply to admire the views unfolding in the valley below us.
After an hour or so we’re still 2km from the top so we park our bikes on the side of the track and leave the road, climbing instead up a steep high meadow. The sun is beating strongly and every breath feels like an effort. It takes another hour of steep climbing along goat tracks before we make it to the monastery; 4010m high.
It’s surrounded by a small village that at first glance appears deserted. It’s only when we enter the monastery grounds that we discover why. The entire village is at work building a new temple. Master craftsmen – stone masons, painters and wood carvers – work beside labourers, many female, carrying bricks, rubble and other goods to and fro. The temple itself is beautiful. Two stories high it is completely covered with a myriad of fine carvings in bright colours: dragons wind their way around the beams, elephants, rabbits, devils and Buddha are all on display alongside delicately coloured lotus leaf designs. We wander for an hour, rapt in the details and the passion they represent.
Walking out a side door we meet a monk. He gestures for us to follow him, grabs a set of keys and then leads us into the old temple, a smaller version of the new. Afterwards he invites us to his quarters – a bedroom and a tiny dark kitchen where he sits us on the only bench before brewing us Yak milk tea, a rich buttery milky salty concoction that’s a dietary staple among the Tibetans and nomads of the area. It takes a while to get used to the taste; none of us are great fans. But we drink up and he tops up and in the end I finish maybe four or five cups. He is hospitable and warm, smiling all the while and bustling about finding more food – a delicious piquant yak cheese, like a very strong goat cheese, that he cuts off in chunks and a less edible local speciality Tsxxx, which tastes like floury fat.
Once we’ve convinced him that we can’t eat or drink anymore he takes us back to the temple where another monk is chanting prayers and slowly and rhythmically banging a large round drum. We sit cross legged and silent, listening to the pleasant, trancelike sound that drifts over my head and soothes my weary bones.
The ride home is easier but the brakes on my bike are very soft so I’m ahead of the others, bumping far too quickly over the dirt and gravel road, as we cycle downhill. A family working in the field waves at me and gesture me over. I park the bike and wander across. We introduce ourselves best as we can: their group consists of an older man and his wife and a younger woman, possibly their daughter. The man is squatting over a vast block of limestone, a small chisel and hammer in his hands.
Slowly but consistently he chips away, the hammer rising and falling, the chisel making tiny indents on the limestone. At his feet are half a dozen limestone bricks that he’s already made. I guess that they are the best part of a week’s labour.
They’ve called me over because they have something to show me: a posed studio photograph of the two women, part of a larger group. ‘Photo, photo,’ says the older lady proudly, pointing out their faces for me. The younger flashes a shy smile, showing off two gold teeth. To my right is a crude tent, this is their home while they work this block of limestone into bricks. Around us is nothing but gorse and rock, grass and wildflowers and the huge open sky meeting the mountain tops in the distance.