Shoton Festival 2020
Day 1: Overnight Flight
For those us departing from Melbourne, spend our day finalising last minute details at work, packing or catching up with family, before a late evening departure from Melbourne airport.
Day 2: Boudhanath Accomodation: Shambaling Hotel Meals: D
We'll arrive in Kathmandu around lunchtime to a warm welcome at the airport and transfer to the serene Shambaling Hotel in the backstreets of Boudha, home to a thriving Tibetan Buddhist community.
After a group briefing, we will have some time to settle in or head out and explore the local area, before sharing on a welcome dinner.
Day 3-4: Boudhanath Accomodation: Shambaling Hotel Meals: B 1xD
From Shambaling, it’s a short walk past monasteries, galleries and shops to Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest in the world and the most significant Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet.
The mandala design of Boudhanath Stupa is a copy of Khumbum Stupa in Gyangtse and the original core possibly dates back to the 5th century. In the lanes around the stupa, there are more than 45 Buddhist monasteries and a multitude of Tibetan craft workshops.
Every morning and evening we can join the monks, locals and pilgrims performing kora around the Stupa, not only a devotional and meditative practice, but time to catch up with neighbours, gossip, and check out the tourists.
The days will include guided walking tours, visits to Tibetan monasteries, the mysteries of Tibetan Thanka Painting explained and free time to soak up our surroundings.
Day 5: Budhanilkantha Accommodation: Pullahari Monastery Meals: B D
Nestled above the valley floor, in the foothills north of Boudha, the quiet, secluded serenity of Pullahari Monastery is an ideal location for us to spend a night, to learn more about Tibetan culture and tradition. For the truely adventurous, you can walk from the Stupa, through the forest to Pullahari, the rest of us will bus to the monastery that commands panoramic views.
Offering basic but comfortable accomodation, Pullahari is full of colour and scents from jasmine and wisteria in the garden, fresh baked bread and apple pie from the cafe, and incense drifting from the monastery. It's vegetable garden fills our samosas and vegetable tarts and organic coffee is available for those who just can't live without.
Chanting, drums, horns and symbols reverberate through the air as we receive meditation instruction and are free to spend our time chatting and observing the daily life of the monks.
Day 6: Tsedang Accommodation: Hotel Tsedang (or similar) Meals: B D
It's an early morning transfer to the airport for our flight to Tibet, with the promise of breathtaking views of Mt Everest and the spectacular Himalayan mountain range.
Our Tibetan guide and driver will greet us at Gonkar airport and we will have our first glimpse of the country as we drive to Tsedang, considered to be the birthplace of Tibetan civilisation. At 3580m above sea level, it is best we take it easy for the rest of the day and allow our bodies to acclimatise to the altitude.
Tibetans know Mt Everest as, Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World". The Nepalese call it, Sagarmatha, "Peak of Heaven".
Day 7: Tsedang Accomodation: Hotel Tsedang (or similar) Meals: B D
A short drive brings us to the oldest building in Tibet, Yumbu Lhakhang. Originally a fortress and palace of the Yarlong Kings, it was built in the second century BC. Perched dramatically on a pinnacle overlooking the Yarlong River, it offers stunning views of the valley below and is currently a chapel with around 8 monks living there.
Thirty-eight kilometres away is Samye Monastery, founded in 775AD and considered to be the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Back then, many local noble families were opposed to the idea of Buddhism in Tibet and the original attempt to build the monastery is said to have failed, due to the demonic power of the ogress Srin Mo. Saint Padmasambhava was invited to help overcome the resistance. He eventually cut off the head of the demon and subdued her powers to set up the monastery.
An imposing sight, Samye consists of a total of 108 temples, an auspicious number which matches the Tibetan rosary beads and has been designed as a circular mandala, representing the cosmos. Tibetan monasteries are not museums and entering Samye is our first chance to witness the living piety and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.
Chorten below Yumbu Lhakhang, the palace of the first Tibetan King, originally built in 2nd century BC.
Samaye Monastery, the first school of Tibetan Buddhism where Padmasambhava performed tantric dances to subdue the demon. These dances then spread across all of Tibet
Day 8: Gyantse Accomodation: Hotel Yeti (or similar) Meals: B D
Travelling along the Friendship Highway we drive over our first pass, Khamba La. At 4,794m, the air is crystal clear and there are majestic views of the turquoise Yamdrok-tso Lake and Mt. Nojin Kangsang (7,206m). Enterprising traders have set up stalls on the pass and by the lake, giving us the chance to play tourist by sitting on a yak in national dress and patting the enormous Tibetan Mastiff dogs.
Driving further west takes us over Karo La 5045m before descending through small villages to the fertile valleys below and the historic Gyantse, again situated on the old trade route between India and Tibet. We will have a full day to explore the laid back charm of this small, picturesque town.
The sacred, turquoise Yamdrok Lake, where monks search in the reflections for the location of the reincarnated Dalai Lama
Day 9: Gyantse Accomdation: Hotel Yeti (or similar) Meals: (B D)
Overlooked by an imposing 14th-century fortress (Dzong), is the giant Khumbum Stupa, an architectural masterpiece filled with an impressive array of Tibetan Buddhist paintings and statues, famous among Tibetan art scholars around the world. Those interested in Buddhist iconography will be in nirvana.
Cocooned inside the ancient narrow walkways, roughly hewn stairs wind past an endless series of small chapels, evoking the distant past. Each chapel is decorated with wall paintings, some have various statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities, and most paintings date back to the time of construction. You can feel the presence of all the monks and pilgrims from over the centuries, who have worshipped among the 100,000 gods and demons.
From Khumbum, we can take a twenty-minute climb to the top of the Dzong, providing fabulous views of Palcho Monastery and Gyantse's whitewashed old town below. Then we can stroll down to the colourful Rabse Nunnery, a beautiful, peaceful and welcoming haven with 44 resident nuns. From Rabse, a winding maze of charming back streets leads us back to the old town.
Five kms north west of Gyantse is Tsechen village, with a small monastery sitting below the ruins of a fort. Believed to have been built in the 13th Century, it was used by the British in 1904 during their invasion. It is possible at times to climb up to the remains and wander along the defensive walls overlooking the Tsung valley.
Khumbum Stupa is a three-dimensional mandala representing space and time to portray the Buddhist cosmos
Day 10: Shigatse Accommodation: Hotel Mansarovar (or similar) Meals: B D
It's less than a two-hour, easy drive to Tibet’s second largest city and traditional home of the Panchen Lama, Shigatse. The Panchen's spiritual authority was only second to the Dalai Lama.
Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447, is the largest functioning monastery in Tibet and remains virtually unchanged. We can wander its busy, narrow cobbled lanes where pilgrims still go about their devotions, and monks, their daily chores and rituals, as they have done for centuries.
It's a small living city within a city and the architecture is stunning. Victory Chapel, Kelsang Temple, Tombs of the Panchen Lamas, and the Chapel of Jampa which houses the twenty-six metre high, golden statue of the Future Buddha, the largest gilded statue in the world.
The Kora around Tashilhunpo is lined with prayer wheels and climbs the hill above the monastery overlooking all of Shigatse. We can have the privilege of walking it in the company of Tibetan pilgrims muttering mantras, spinning prayer wheels, prostrating and even crawling around the circuit.
Tashilhunpo Monastery covering over 300,000 square metres, is home to the Panchen Lama and one of the four great monasteries of central Tibet
Day 11: Lhasa Accomodation: Hotel Kyichu (or similar) Meals B D
Our drive to Lhasa follows the fourth longest river in the world, the Yarlung Tsangpo. It flows 2,900km changing its name to the Brahmaputra, before merging with the Ganges and emptying into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.
Arriving in Lhasa, we have our first breathtaking view of the imposing Potala Palace soaring above the capital, the winter residence to the Dalai Lamas from the 5th to the 14th. Now Lhasa is mainly a modern Chinese city, but we base ourselves near the ancient Tibetan quarter, with its winding alleys and temples, and where locals continue to observe the traditional Tibetan way of life.
Originating near the sacred Mount Kailash in far-west Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo River is the highest major river in the world.
Day 12: Lhasa Accomodation: Hotel Kyichu (or similar) Meals: B D
The profound spiritual importance of sites like the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor and Sera Monastery, combined with their spectacular settings, make them an unforgettable experience.
The murmur of chanting and the ringing of temple bells fill the ears. Swirling incense and juniper smoke lingers in the air. Flickering butter lamps in dim chapels create dancing shadows, as monks lovingly attend to the altars and the pilgrims, in tears, make offerings to their deities.
On the Barkhor street, thousands of Tibetans walk the kora around the Jokhang, where the constant rattle from spinning prayer wheels competes with the clicking of rosaries counting off mantras. The kora is lined with traders selling everything and small alleyways lead to temples, markets and homes, allowing the locals to shop after their religious observance. Over the centuries, pilgrims prostrating day and night outside the Jokhang, have worn the large flagstones in front of the temple concave, with the more devout also prostrating the entire kilometre Barkhor circuit, some more than once.
Lhasa will be in full festival mode during our stay, so we'll keep the timing of our visits to the must-see locations flexible and based around the events of Shoton.
The best place to explore Lhasa, is to join the pilgrims walking the kora around the Barkhor, where temples, shops, history, religious fervour and socialising all come together
Day 13: Lhasa Accomodation: Hotel Kyichu (or similar) Meals: B D
Up well before dawn with our hadas (white scarves), we drive to the base of Drepung Monastery and join the thousands of buddhist pilgrims, all dressed in their finery, winding their way uphill to the opening ceremony of Shoton. Around 8am, as everyone settles on the side of the hill opposite the monastery, and the cacophony of horns and drums starts, as over one hundred monks carry out the rolled up, five-hundred square metre thangka of Sakyamuni Buddha. The unfurling brings gasps and tears and, for the rest of the morning, thousands of hadas, including our own, fly through the air over the thangka, purifying souls.
We will take our time, soaking up the energy of Shoton and exploring Drepung, before heading across town to the Norbulinka, the Dalia Lama's summer palace. It will feel like all of Lhasa is picnicking in the beautiful gardens, a sea of families, laughter, games and food. Traders line the path, surprisingly selling the same plastic junk, balloons and trinkets the world over.
We will join our guides' families and tuck into the local sweets and delicacies, maybe even a beer or two. This is where we will also get our first taste of Tibetan Opera. Amazing costumes, incredible make-up, long complicated stories, discordant music and shrill singing. Not for everyone but it is fascinating, and people watching the crowd is wonderful.
Day 14: Lhasa Accomodation: Hotel Kyichu (or similar) Meals: B D
We will escape the bustle of Lhasa today, and drive to a nearby village. With our guide to translate, we are invited to join a local family, be shown around their house and compound, and chat over cups of butter tea and snacks.
We can also wander over to the local temple and sit down with the monks, for an enlightening discussion on monastic life and maybe share a bit of local gossip.
Day 15: Lhasa Accomodation: Hotel Kyichu (or similar) Meals: B D
Traditional Tibetan medicine is known as Sowa Rigpa, 'the science of healing'. We will visit Men-Tsee-Khang (House of Medicine and Astrology) in Lhasa's old town, still the most important and prestigious institution of Sowa Rigpa today. Here, the history of Tibetan medicine can be traced back 2,300 years, with the medical theory and its wisdom depicted in colourful thangkas hanging on the walls.
Later in the day we will regale ourselves in traditional Tibetan dress and hit the town with our guides for our final Tibetan dinner.
Day 16: Boudha Accomodation: Shambaling Hotel (or similar) Meals: B
In the morning, we'll drive to Gongkar airport for the flight back to Kathmandu.
Heading back to the Shambaling Hotel we can take a detour and visit Swayambhunath, an exemplary example of religious harmony. Both Buddhists and Hindus worship here alike and Tantric Buddhists consider it the chief “power place” of the Kathmandu Valley. Inscriptions date the stupa to the fifth century, and there’s reason to believe the hill it sits on above the city, was used for animist rites even before Buddhism arrived in the valley two thousand years ago.
Day 17: Boudha Accomodation: Shambaling Hotel (or similar) Meals: B D
A free day to rest, eat, shop and explore. Take a final prayer and meditation in one of the monasteries, purchase a delicate thangka or Tibetan carpet, wander outside the gates to the alluring chaos of Bouda main road, where the locals shop.
For those wanting to stretch their legs, Hotel Shambaling is a great starting point for several short walks in this part of the valley, including the famous Kopan Monastery and Pashupatinath, the sacred Hindu temple complex, located on the banks of the Bagmati River
This evening we’ll celebrate the journey together with a farewell dinner.
Day 18: Overnight Flight Meals: B
An early morning stroll through the now familiar streets of Bouda, to join one last kora of the Stupa and receive a blessing for a safe return. Mid-morning transfer from the hotel to the airport.
Day 19: Overnight Flight
Arrive back in Australia.