Although not located right in the center of Xining (西宁) city, I was really intrigued by what I read online about Youning Temple (Yòuníng Sì; 佑宁寺), located at about 25 kilometers from Ping’an (平安), a city about an hour from Xining.
I met a travel buddy in the hostel I was staying at, and together we decided to take on the adventure and spend the day visiting Youning Temple. Slightly further out, but it was absolutely worth the time. Going together was ideal too, as we didn’t know whether we would be able to find it, so I was unsure about going alone, and my travel buddy spoke no Chinese and he was worried about the language barrier.
The view from the top of monastery
However, to get to Youning Temple, it actually wasn’t too much of a hassle and can be done easily. My travel buddy and I got on one of the many, many buses to Ping’an from Xining’s bus station. At the station, we queued up for about fifteen minutes but thankfully there were a bunch of tickets left for the next bus. And there were buses every ten minutes. It seems that the buses to Ping’an don’t get very full during the week, especially as we decided to go around 11 am to avoid rush hour.
The bus to Ping’an was rickety, although that was to be expected for 5 RMB, and we shared a bench with some chickens. Nothing we couldn’t handle, and it was pretty clear when we reached Ping’an city, as we got thrown off the bus aggressively in the middle of a busy road. From this road, hailing a taxi here was easy too.
I asked the driver whether he could take us to Youning Temple, or Youning Si in Chinese, and wait for us while we explored because I had read online that there is not much around the temple, and it wouldn’t be possible to find a cab to take us back to Ping’an afterwards. Although there were some translation issues between my Mandarin and his Mandarin (his accent was very different from the Mandarin Chinese I was used to in Beijing), he understood what we meant and we haggled to pay him 70 RMB. If you don’t speak Chinese, taking the temple name in characters (佑宁寺) will also work.
Driving up to Youning Temple from Ping’an city
The ride to Youning was a beautiful, rocky ride through countryside and suburbs filled with farm fields, mountains, and residential areas. The further we got away from the city, the clearer the skies and better the landscape. The ride was a pretty good introduction to the rest of the province!
The beautiful entrance to Youning Temple
Youning Temple itself was built in the 17th century, and is considered one of the greatest temples of the Gelugpa order. It is famous for academies of astrology, medicine, and its living Buddhas. The monastery was originally founded in the Mongolian 4th Dalai Lama, and is mainly inhabited by Tu Ethnic Minority (tǔ zú; 土族) monks. While at its height there were 7,000 monks, there are currently only about 200 living here – enough to be a hub of activity, but not that many that the monastery is crowded.
Taking a pleasant walk around the monastery
Because the monastery is off the beaten track, there was no entrance fee and we were able to wander around basically everywhere (except it is not advisable to open closed doors, obviously, because there are people living in the monastery and they are going about their daily lives).
From the main hall, we climbed the short climb up to the area with Buddhist statues and paintings, and traditional Buddhist decorations. We were completely free to walk around here and check out the statues, and nobody was here to watch over us, except a couple of children running around playing, and a dog sleeping in the corner. The atmosphere was extremely peaceful.
One of many colorful handcrafted Buddhist statues that decorate the halls
From the main buildings of the monastery, we went further up as there were other temples, shrines and chapels perched on the mountainside. The climb wasn’t too bad, and there were plenty of resting points for photography. We really took our time, as the nature around here was beautiful and there was a lot of interesting architecture to look at. The further up we went, the better the view of the valley and neighboring village got.
The view from the climb to the top of the monastery
The little residence at the top of the mountain
The mountainous landscape surrounding the monastery is breathtaking
The area was completely different from the rest of China, and there were so few other visitors. We came across some local Buddhists who are on pilgrimage, but nobody else passed through the monastery. Between the bottom and the top, we only ran into one other man, who appeared to live on the top of the monastery.
After a couple of hours we came back down and got our taxi back into Ping’an. Our driver was a little bit annoyed that we spent so long on the mountain, but we just gave him an extra 20 RMB and he seemed fine again. Getting the bus back to Xining was the easiest thing, as there were loads of long-distance buses coming from cities throughout the entire province going through Ping’an on their final stretch to Xining. All of them have their doors open, with the drivers shouting ‘Xining!’ out the window to try and fill up their spots. Just hop on and pass over 5 RMB and you’ll be back in Qinghai’s capital city in no-time.