Some 70km or so northeast of Lhasa, Tsurphu Monastery (楚布寺, chŭbùsī; daily 9am–1pm; ¥45), set at an altitude of 4480m, is a couple hours’ jeep ride or a pilgrims’ bus (daily between 7am and 8am; ¥25) away from the western end of Barkhor Square. The monastery is the seat of the Karmapa Lama, though it’s a seat that’s pretty cold these days as the present incumbent, the Seventeenth, Urgyen Trinley Dorge, fled to India in 1999. Identified in 1992 at the age of 7, Urgyen is the second holiest Tibetan after the Dalai Lama and seems charismatic and able; he’s regarded by many in the government in exile as a natural successor for the role of leader when the Dalai Lama dies.
Founded in the twelfth century by Dusun Khenyapa, the Karmapa order is a branch of the Kagyupa tradition, where members are known as the Black Hats after the Second Karmapa was presented with one by Kublai Khan. Most powerful during the fifteenth century, when they were close to the ruling families of the time, they were eventually eclipsed in 1642 when the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Gelugpa order, aided by the Mongol army, gained the ascendancy. The Karmapa were the first order to institute the system of reincarnated lamas, tulkus, a tradition later adopted by the Gelugpa school.
Tsurphu is still undergoing reconstruction after being damaged in the years after the Chinese invasion. The solid Zhiwa Tratsang has a splendidly ornate gold roof and houses the main assembly hall, dominated by statues of Sakyamuni and a chorten containing the relics of the Sixteenth Karmapa Lama, who played a major part in establishing the order overseas and died in Chicago in 1981. The murals here depict the successive Karmapa lamas. The festival of Saga Dawa, on the 15th day of the fourth lunar month, usually in May or June, is especially fine at Tsurphu, as the massive new thangka, completed in recent years, is displayed at this time.
A visit to the monastery can be exhausting, as it’s at a considerably higher altitude than Lhasa. In addition, the clockwise path, the kora, climbs steeply up the hill behind the monastery from the left of the temple complex and circles around high above and behind the monastery before descending on the right. The views are great and the truly fit can even clamber to the top of the ridge, but you need to allow two to three hours for the walk.
There’s little reason to stay at Tsurphu unless you’re trekking in the area, although there is a basic monastery guesthouse (¥80 and under) – you’ll need to take your own sleeping bag, food and candles.