Tongren (Chinese: 同仁; Tóngrén; Tibetan: Rebkong) is small monastic town in Qinghai Province, China. Tongren has a slightly unkempt but not unfriendly Tibetan character, intermingled with the sizable Hui population.
Tongren sits on the edge of the Tibetan plateau in a region historically known to its nomadic inhabitants as Amdo. The towns origins stretch back several hundred years when it emerged around the establishment of the Longwu Monastery. For the Chinese, the region was considered a wasteland that marked the outer fringes of the Han and Tang dynasties. By the Ming dynasty garrison troops, positioned to defend against those they considered barbarians in the west, had established an administrative system that blended Buddhism with the Chinese dynastic rule.
Despite the prestige of the Longwu Monastery in Tibetan Buddhism of greater interest to most travellers is the nearby Wutong Monastery and the galleries of Thangka paintings produced by its community of eminently artistic monks. Though the calamities of the Cultural Revolution decimated almost all of the original structures the present renewed monastery is active with enough yak butter scented monks chanting before stupendous glittering Buddhas to give the impression it has always been this way. Unfortunately, the surrounding town has been blighted by modern, bland architecture, leaving its former charm limited to a few crumbling corners.
Tongren can only be reached by a single road that zig-zags along steep mountain sides, descends into precipitous valley floors, skirts raging rivers and passes though undulating verdant grasslands. The getting there it one of the more beautiful journeys in the region and sure keep you awake and looking out the window.
One idea, for those with time on their hands, would be to jump off at any of the many monasteries and mosques along this route - including a former residence of the Panchen Lama. Once you are done just head back to the road and put your hand out - all roads lead to Tongren. Monks in these places nearly fall over when foreigners turn up, a genuine experience.
One bus per day leaves Xiahe at 7.15AM from the main bus station (¥25). Though Tongren is only a little more than 100km away, the journey takes around 3hrs.
Buses from Xining leave for Tongren about every 30mins from the southern bus station on Jianguo Lu, opposite the train station. (¥34.3) The ride takes about 4 hours.
As of October 2016, drivers who congregate at the Jiari Hotel (假日宾馆) will take you to Xining in 2 hours for 70 yuan. They leave when they have four passengers and can drop you at your hotel.
One bus from Linxia leaves for Tongren from the west bus station at 6:30 AM.The ride takes about 4 hours.
Tongren is small and flat enough to walk between Longwu Si and the market area. Wutun Si is about a one hour walk away or you can take one of the numerous green taxis plying the route for ¥5 per seat.
- 1 Longwu Monastery (隆务寺), Dehelong South Rd (Dehelong Nan Lu). 8AM-7PM. This active Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) monastery sprawls around the foot of Xishan Mountain on the south-west edge of town. Behind the exterior walls, embedded with squeaking prayer wheels, is a blend of Chinese and Tibetan style halls and monks residences that are easy to get lost in for a few hours. The monastery was established in 1301 and greatly expanded during the Ming Dynasty. Though some of the halls and their resident Buddhas have been rebuilt multiple times over their 700 year history, everything that stands today dates from the late 1980s after the ruination of the Cultural Revolution. Don't let the lack of antiquity put you off as the present neglect of upkeep lends the architecture a beaten aesthetic with its own charm. The Future Buddha Hall holds a large Jampa (Maitreya) statue in an elaborately decorated 3 storey hall. The fortress like Hall of Bodhisattva Manjusri is said to hold a Avalokiteshvara from 1644 that survived the 1960s destruction, possibly because the door is rarely opened for anyone to see it. ¥50.
- Wutong Monastery (五屯寺), S203 Rd (In Sangkeshan Village, 10km north of Tongren). 8AM-5PM. With a reputation unequalled in the Tibetan world, many visitors come here exclusively to see the monastery's collection of centuries old Thanka paintings and watch the resident artists continuing the tradition. Though the art is undoubtedly the headliner the rebuilt grounds are a fine example of modern Tibetan architecture elaborately decorated with brightly painted wood carvings. The complex is divided into upper (上寺) and lower (下寺) monasteries, each with its own set of prayer halls, courtyards and artist studios. Some say upper feels more authentic and holds the best art but the lower's towering gold-tipped gompa is quite impressive. An idle English speaking monk will give you a quick tour through the main halls. Some contain fine examples of Thangka that the monks say are at least a few hundred years old, saved from destruction during the cultural revolution by being turned to the wall and the back painted with a decoy portrait of Chairman Mao. During the Summer (Late July to early September), women are not allowed to enter the monastery. ¥30 for each monastery.
- Tongren Bridge (Tongren Qiao) (East end of Zhongshan Rd). Though it is hardly be the most graceful looking span it is the most significant structure in town. During construction locals would gather at the intersection of Dehong Lu and Zhongshan Lu to discuss its progress as they watched the two halves stretch toward the eventual joining at the middle point. Now that the bridge is finished, locals have taken a somewhat blasé inclination to it, if its always deserted appearance is any indication, as it sees very little traffic excepting the odd farmers jalopy. At the very least it does provide a good view up the valley and back toward town.
Tongren is more of a make your own fun kind of place, if the idle looking locals are any indication.
- Gamble, Corner DehelongNan Lu and MaiXiu Lu. A rotating cast of sketchy looking characters play a 3-card Monty style game with a trio of oversize dice decorated with tiger, yak and cow pictures. Lay your money down, give them a shake and you might win back your money - or a Yak. Remember: The only way to win is not to play.
- Hike. The western hills rising up next to town look steep from the bottom but the ChinFanLing on the peaks at various elevations prove it's climbable and also give you something to aim for as you blaze your own path up the more mild inclinations. A network of trails leading off from the Thangka sunning terrace behind the Monastery is a good place to start and leads to some reasonably mellow slopes that will get you high enough to see lofty snow peaked mountains in the distance.
- Clothing. The main market has a couple of surprisingly fashionable boutiques, including a clothing store owned by a Tibetan with excellent English. Others sell those exotic looking but impractically long sleeved coats all the Tibetan guys have hanging around their waist.
- Thangkas. The monks at Wutong Monastery have an unequaled reputation for creating the beautifully detailed images of Buddhist deities meticulously painted on stretched fine-weave canvas. These are not some cheap tourist fodder, but works of art by skilled artists. Pigments are hand ground from brightly coloured and inordinately heavy stones sourced from Tibet that the monks say are worth upwards of ¥80 per gram. Likewise, real gold leaf ground with a resin is used to give the paintings some sparkle. A small, simple painting takes about a month to paint and costs around ¥500, while a 1 meter sized piece can take a year and set you as much as ¥50,000.
Shops in Tongren and around Wutong Si mainly catering to the tour group busses sell Thangkas of lower quality and price that might be suitable if you are not a Thanka aficionado and just want a nice souvenir. Superior pieces are best bought direct from the artist. Some artist have pre-made Thangka to select from or you can commission a painting of a particular size or theme, though the best artists may have years a years backlog of reservations. Even without any art expertise you should be able to identify which works are genuine art if you take some time to look around, talk to the artists and let your eye be your guide. Generally artists can be contacted via e-mail or phone and can ship your piece anywhere worldwide when it is completed.
- Yurt (Various shops along Dehelong South Rd). There are a few places that either manufacture or sell large black and white yurts. Not very practical for the average backpacker but ideal if you're moving your yaks on to greener pastures. ¥400-500.
While the dining options aren't particularly diverse or inspiring, the numerous restaurants offer warmth, large portions and interesting people watching opportunities.
Dried sheep's head is one of the curious delicacies favoured by locals to nibble with a few drinks. It's mostly bone on the outside, necessitating a probe of the cavities for the tasty bits. Numerous roadside vendors sell them for ¥20 and all will assure you it's delicious.
Yak milk yoghurt is freshly made every morning and sold, usually by young Tibetan girls, along the roadside. The flavour is very rich with a tangy or sometimes citrus bite. A spoon of sugar is an option if you prefer it sweeter. A bowl costs about 2¥.
- Number One Noodle, 8 MaiXiu Lu (On the corner. Look for a sign with red characters with a snowy mountain in the background.). All hyperbole aside, the proprietors are very welcoming to bumbling foreigners furtivly sticking their head inside. Helpful point-and-eat pictures on the wall mostly give prices, though its best to check before ordering the ones without a price as you might discover they are suspiciously expensive at bill paying time. Noodles/Rice ¥8-12; Mains ¥20-25.
- Name-changing Hui restaurant, Dehelong Zhong Lu (Opposite QH-Tibet Yadu Hotel). One of the numerous names written on the doors is right but it is easily identifiable as the most brightly lit place at night. They have huge servings of the usual capsicum laden Hui dishes. Their mianpian looks like a mess but is stomach filling and good. Noodles/Rice ¥4-12.
- Tibetan restaurant, Dehelong Nan Lu (Near the Monastery gate). A newish looking place packed with low Tibetan style painted benches serves only three things; MoMo, Jiaozi and Baozi. While the Momo are delectable they are heavy with heart attack inducing amounts of fat that will requite an entire jug of Yak Butter tea to flush out of your digestive system. ¥8-10.
- Beer. Qinghai's beer of choice is Huang. It comes is various incarnations that all hover around the 3.3% level of potency. If sitting in your hotel drinking the shelf-temperature bottle you bought from the supermarket isn't your idea of a good night out, try hitting some of the Tibetan restaurants, though your drink is unlikely to be any colder. It's not permissible to drink at any of the Hui restaurants. ¥2-3.
- Yak Butter tea. Most Tibetan places serve jugs of frothy Yak butter tea if they have some already made. If you're a connoisseur it would pay to try a few different places as quality is highly variable.
There are numerous cheap hotels (Binguan) in the few blocks to the north of the Monastery but many are selective about accepting foreigners. Generally they charge as little as ¥30-60 per bed with basic bathroom facilities and some may have early curfews. Bigger, potentially English signed and speaking, hotels are found along Zhongshan Lu and Dehelong Nan Lu. They provide more comfort for an accordingly higher price.
- Xia Chang, 13 Maixi Rd (In the courtyard with a painting of a monkey riding an elephant). A super-basic place for travellers who are counting their kuai and don't mind sleeping with families of Tibetan pilgrims. The rooms are sparse, though clean, and have a shared toilet down the hall. Don't bother asking where the shower is because there isn't one. ¥50 doubles.
- Huangnan Hotel (Huangnan Binguan), 19 Zhongshan Rd, ☏ . Usually the first place guidebook toting travellers head when they step off the bus. Some might stay. Others will be compelled by the dirty toilets, worn furnishings and gloomy interior to look elsewhere. If you do relent to its charms you might find the soft beds, thick blankets and sultry heating will make for a comfortable sleep after you turn the lights out. Doubles without shared bathroom ¥80, with bathroom ¥100.
- School Guesthouse, 88 Zhongshan Rd. The accommodation of choice for visiting officials, though you too can sleep in one of the comfortably huge wooden beds in equally spacious and clean rooms. The bathrooms on the other hand are tiny and have only the most utilitarian of washing facilities. Doubles ¥100.
- QH-Tibet Yadu Hotel, 28 Dehelong Nan Rd. The classy gold wallpaper in the foyer continues into the big warm rooms that have soft beds and clean ensuite bathrooms with hot water showers. The friendly, though somewhat bewildered looking, staff are exceedingly helpful if you fail to get the rooms electrics to work. Doubles ¥85.
- Telecom Hotel (Dianxin Binguan), 38 Zhongshan Rd, ☏ . Comfortable but utterly characterless rooms and spotless bathrooms. In-room internet. Doubles for ¥130.
ATM - The Construction Bank of China on Zhongshan Lu has the only Visa friendly machines in town. The one at the Bank of China on corner of Zhongshan Lu and Dehelong Zhong Lu looks too ancient to be trusted. Probably better to go inside and deal with a human.
- Xiahe – A Tibetan town centred around the huge Labrang Monastery. Buy your ticket the day before from the Tongren bus station as there's one bus per day leaving at 8AM. (¥25)
- Xining – The lively capital of Qinghai Province close to Kunbun Monastery. There are numerous buses each day.