Derge County 德格县 སྡེ་དགེ་རྫོང་།

Manigango from a nearby hillside

DERGE COUNTY 德格县 སྡེ་དགེ་རྫོང་།

Manigango མ་ཎི་གད་མགོ། (Manigange 马尼干戈) – 3900m

This small town, much-maligned in guidebooks (“dusty, rundown”/”podunk”/”visibly poor, down-at-the-heels”) is, in my opinion, actually quite a nice place. The town may not initially seem beautiful in the “quaint”, conventional sense, but the semi-Tibetan architecture and the mind-blowingly beautiful surroundings more than make up for any architectural deficiencies. The opportunities to get into the Chola Shan mountains, which rise dramatically above town, are unrivaled. Organize a trip to nearby scenic spots or just head out on your own up trails or across the grasslands to get started – you’re sure to find something amazing on your journey.

There are two monasteries near town, one on a hilltop across the river (access by going south/east on the main highway and taking a side road which winds up a gully; easily visible) and another located behind the hill which rises above town to the northwest. To access the latter monastery, either climb the cell-tower-topped ridge above town or walk down the Derge road and look for a pathway heading left (uphill) just after a school – or just climb the mountains above town and look for it – it’s there, just hidden in a hanging valley.

Yilhun Lhamtso lake near Manigango

Less than 15km from Manigango is the spectacular Yilhung Lhamtso ཡིད་ལྷུང་ལྷ་མཚོ། (Xinluhai 新路海, 4000m), a stunning jadegreen lake nestled amid spruce forests below the cliffs and glaciers of 6168m Chola Shan. There is a 20-30 kuai entrance fee to the lake, which is charged by a family at the only bridge over the river; while you may balk, this fee is well and truly worth it. Wander up the hillside and the spectacular milky lake spreads out before you. The forest  is filled with massive boulders, which would be decent for climbing if not for the giant, beautifully-carved mantras adorning their surfaces (thus making climbing seem like a heretical activity). There is a teahouse on the western (right) side of the lake, and you can follow either lakeshore for increasingly spectacular and close-up views of the glaciers of Chola Shan above. The lake is also the starting point for a multi-day hike to Dzongsar monastery in Derge.

THE place to stay in Manigango is the Manigango Pani Jiudian 马尼干戈怕尼酒店 (dm 20-40, dbl 60-100 or more), which is where the buses between Sershul, Ganzi and Derge stop for breaks. This is pretty much the center of town, and I would resent it as the too-obvious option except that it’s actually quite a nice place with incredibly friendly owners. One wing has heated doubles, a true luxury in winter (or really at any time of year). The in-hotel restaurant will make surprisingly decent food from the often-meager pickings in the kitchen; choose the ingredients yourself. This hotel can also arrange a wide array of tours, from trips to Yilhun Lhatso and nearby monasteries to cars to Derge and other places.

While there is no bus station in Manigango, the Derge-bound bus (3-4 hours, from Ganzi) passes through in the mid- to late-morning. The Ganzi-bound bus (3-4 hours, from Derge) passes through at around the same time. Additional buses to Ganzi (from Yushu and Sershul) pass by at seemingly random times during the day; ask the Manigango Pani Jiudian for the latest. For Sershul, take a shared car or minivan (100 kuai/seat, 4-5 hours) or a bus (leaves on some days, not on others). Shared cars are also available to all the destinations listed above (Ganzi 30 RMB, Dzogchen 15 RMB, Derge – variable). If it snows even a centimeter, expect a meteoric rise in car prices.

Derge སྡེ་དགེ། (Dege 德格) – 3300m

I have not been to this town, so I won’t write about it yet. However, everyone I know who has been there has strongly recommended this area, as well as neighboring Pelyul དཔལ་ཡུལ། (Baiyu 白玉) county, as a beautiful and culturally rich region in which to travel. Enjoy the 3-4 hour drive from Manigango, which crosses the 5000-meter Chola pass.

Dzogchen Gonpa རྫོགས་ཆེན་དགོན་པ། (Zhuqing Si 竹庆寺) – 3900m

From the Manigango-Sershul highway, a beautiful panorama of the northern Chola mountains comes into view, rising powerfully above the small plain where Dzogchen township, a one- to two-kilometer walk below, huddles as if beat into submission – but the Dzogchen monastery remains hidden from sight. To see the monastery and other wonders invisible from the road, you’ll need to climb up a dirt track which rises above the village and through a narrow gap in ancient glacial moraine to suddenly emerge in the broad, flat Dzogchen valley, a plain of glacial alluvium which spreads pancakelike between walls of lateral moraine and reaches to the base of the towering peaks above. This stunningly beautiful valley is worth a lot of your time, holding as it does important religious sites and amazing natural wonders.

Start at the Dzogchen monastery, the complex of buildings closest to town. This important Nyingmapa monastery is quite wealthy, as evidenced by its numerous foreign devotées and continuing construction of massive assembly halls and temples of various sizes. Make sure you find your way to the small complex of shrines and stupas at the back (uphill end) of the monastery, behind the assembly halls, which are constantly encircled by friendly pilgrims.

Next, head towards the monastic college (at which there is a guesthouse where, in summer, you can stay) and the retreat center, a complex of smaller temples and log cabins dotted throughout the forest at the base of the peaks. As you make your way here, you will also pass an incredibly ornate temple and a massive and still under construction stupa, both worth a look. Above the retreat center, the flat valley floor, now covered by prayerflag-strewn spruce forest, rises steeply upwards in dramatic sweeps of glacially carved stone.  Though I haven’t yet had the opportunity to wander up here, there are paths heading towards several small lakes and the glaciers above. Additional hiking can be found by following the path heading uphill and away from the far side of the monastery proper (you’ll see an old utility-line cut); this can be followed to a grassy ridge, from which numerous explorations are possible. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful and sacred area.

Dzogchen town is where you’ll find lodging (aside from the monastery guesthouse), shops, and other services (though not many). There are several small guesthouses with beds from 20元; don’t expect much. There are several restaurants; the Chongqing Xiaochao 重庆小炒 has good and somewhat reasonable dumplings (15元) but extremely overpriced dishes (30 kuai for a small plate!).  Transportation in this area mostly involves hitching from the junction of the Sershul-Manigango highway and the Dzogchen spur road (about 1-2km from town), which often puts you at the mercy of rapacious minivan drivers. If you look foreign, epect to pay 20-50 RMB per person for rides to Manigango (1 hour)!

Warning: If you visit in winter, expect most restaurants and hotels to be closed, but shops remain open. Also expect absolutely no electricity or water, and frigid rooms (in reality, frigid everything).

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