Every day in the small town of Yanjing in southeast Tibet, local Tibetans file one after another into the large religious structure in the center of town for their daily prayers. However, unlike anywhere else in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is dominated by Tibetan Buddhism, the residents of Yanjing make their way into a church - the only Catholic church in all of Tibet!
As they enter, the Tibetans dip their fingers into the holy water and make the sign of the cross before beginning their prayers, but the liturgy of Yanjing's Catholic church looks much different than other Catholic masses - a unique blend of Catholic tradition and local Tibetan culture. For example, in addition to reading the Bible in Tibetan, pious locals present khatas - long white silk Tibetan scarves - to show blessing to the Virgin Mary.
The church is perched on a hill with a three-story bell tower, and the complex includes housing for the clergy and a two-story sanctuary where services are held. The outer walls are whitewashed, hinting at purity within, against the backdrop of Tibet's intense blue sky. The Catholic church's beautiful interior is decorated with Gothic arches and scenes from the Bible painted on the ceiling, a bold contrast to the surrounding Tibetan homes.
The Catholic church was founded in 1865 by a French missionary named Felix Biet. At the time, getting into Tibet was not easy, but a small band of Catholic priests pushed deeper and deeper in, founding churches and missions along the way (Yunnan also has a historic Catholic church in Yanmen). Today, religious conflicts between Catholics and Buddhists in the area are a thing of the past, and now Yanjing's locals respect the town's diversity of religious beliefs - they share the same lifestyle and culture, after all!
Come trek Tibet overland - the history along the way is rich and can be thoroughly surprising! Or, for added adventure, try China train travel all the way from Beijing to Tibet!