Princess Wencheng Temple 文成公主庙
Spectacular, stunning, other-worldly, an extravaganza of colour, are just some of the adjectives you’ll be spluttering to anyone you meet after a visit to the Princess Wencheng Temple. And this before you have actually seen the temple which, in all truth, is nice, but nothing special. It is the Kora, the sacred pilgrims’ trail performed by walking around, or circumambulating, a temple, that provokes such awe and stupor. Even veteran travellers to Tibet will find themselves struggling to recall anything like it.
The temple was supposedly built to mark the spot where Princess Wencheng and her husband, the Tibetan King Songtsän Gampo, stopped for a month on their journey from Xian to Tibet. The marriage of the Tang dynasty Princess, a niece of Emperor Taizong, to the Tibetan King is celebrated by both the Chinese and Tibetans; though their interpretation of the events varies. The Chinese claim it was Princess Wencheng who brought Buddhism to Tibet, by converting her husband; the Tibetans dispute this. According to the Tibetans, Songtsän Gampo forced the Tang Emperor to hand over his niece, after a string of military victories over the Chinese and their allies. In the Chinese point of view, the Princess’s hand was offered as a sign of friendship, to seal the long lasting bond between the Chinese and Tibetan peoples. There is even a famous Chinese opera that corroborates this view.
The Princess Wencheng Temple is situated some 15 kilometres from Yushu in Qinghai province, at the entrance to the beautiful Leba Gorge. We approached the temple from the Gorge (see article…). A first inkling of what was in store for us were the intense red, yellow, and green colours on the rocks formed by the prayer flags that made a pattern rather like a giant spider’s web. As we got closer, the temple itself came into view. Surrounded by a wall and a courtyard, the main chapel is built against the rock face and has some beautiful statues inside, carved directly out of the rock. A handful of friendly monks keep the place in order. Opposite the temple is a clear, fast flowing and winding river.
As soon as you start out on the Kora, you begin to appreciate the beauty and the uniqueness of the place. Never have I seen so many prayer flags cover such a vast area. It seems as if every piece of ground, every single rock, in fact, the entire gorge, has been covered. Some areas are multi-coloured, while other areas appear to have been chosen only to have red, yellow, or pink prayer flags. However, if you thought that there couldn’t possibly be any room for more prayer flags, you’d be wrong.
As we hauled ourselves round the Kora, we came across small gaggles of pilgrims, dragging enormous stings of prayer flags along. Then, at chosen points, they proceeded to hang them up. At times, some serious mountaineering skills were needed to scramble up to a peak, in order to get the best hanging position. From the Kora’s highest point there are stupendous views of the Leba Gorge, the surrounding mountains and the river below. So many prayer flags cross from one side of the valley to the other that they actually form a tunnel over the road and river by the temple. Walking the Kora takes about an hour, but you’re guaranteed to spend much longer, stopping frequently to take in the scenery, catch your breath, and use up your entire memory card.
Getting there and away:
You can get to the Princess Wencheng Temple by using the monastery bus (10.00), or by hiring a car from Yushu. Be warned that the road from Yushu to the monastery is under construction and in a terrible state. We got to the temple by car, after having gone through the Leba Gorge. We hired a car for 250 Yuan for the whole day; a trip which included the Leba Gorge and a couple of other monasteries in the vicinity.