I concluded the last entry by saying that we were headed west on the silk road. And while that’s not untrue, it’s perhaps a little bit misleading. (I begin so many entries with these aplogies for minor faults at the end of the previous one that I’m beginning to suspect that I may be subconsciously making the errors on purpose so I have a convenient way to introduce the next entry…)
Anyhow, our train trip certainly did take us along the old silk route through Gansu province. And when we got off in Lanzhou we were BUT, our actual destination (which included a 3 hour bus ride tacked on to the train trip) was a ways off the silk road, and no camel trains laden with rich fabrics every made their way through the valleys that we were headed to. Not unless they were more than a little lost. Or not unless they were Buddhist pilgrims making a side trip sometime after most of the land-borne trade in silk had long ceased.
You see we were headed for the town of Xiahe, home of the Labrang Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (and one of the largest anywhere.)
A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks sitting on the steps of the Grand Sutra Hall of Labrang Monastery
The city of Lanzhou where our train arrived at 06:48 has a reputation as being one of the most polluted in China. And given what we’d seen in (for example) Beijing, we weren’t keen on spending much time somewhere even worse. So we argued a bit with the taxi drivers outside the station but managed to get a ride to the south bus station pretty quickly after arriving.
We’d read that there was a bus at 07:30 to Xiahe and not another ’til noon so when we arrived at 07:26 I leapt out of the taxi and ran to the ticket window to request four tickets. The lady printed them off and pshanded them to me with infuriating slowness. Though my fury calmed when I realized that the tickets were for 08:30. Whew. We had enough time for a quick breakfast then climbed aboard our bus along with three other tourists, and a fair selection of others whose dress featured plenty of maroon robes and not a few Muslim prayer caps as well.
The bus ride took us through a fascinating part of the country that was far different from anything we’d seen out east. At first we drove through rugged but bone dry hills. Then the countryside was filled with minarets, many of them an intriguing blend of mainstream Chinese and more traditional (with middle eastern leanings) Muslim architecture. Finally, as we approached our destination, the spires on the horizon changed from minarets to stupas.
At first glance there didn’t appear to be very much of interest in Xiahe. It was a typical Chinese town: two to four story concrete buildings, a busy paved road down the middle. Noodle shops, clothing shops. But as we headed south away from the bus station, more intriguing things started to appear. Old men with big, round, dark, flat-lensed sunglasses. Groups of people squatting inspecting piles of dead caterpillars on the sidewalk. Shops selling Tibetan prayer beads, butter lamps and monastic robes. It was down a dirt sidestreet here that we found our (surprisingly flashy) hotel.
A crowd gathered round a pile of caterpillars infected with the yartsa gunbu parasitic fungus, regarded as a treatment for everything from fatigue to impotence to cancer by some adherents of traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. These sell for between $3,000 and $18,000 per kilo, so the interest is understandable!
The dust sheet hanging in front of our hotel room (these were about the biggest hotel rooms I’ve ever seen. You could’ve fit three king sized beds in them and still had some room to spare.)
That afternoon we took a walk back through the new part of the city. To make sure we didn’t miss anything on our way in? Upon reflection I’m not sure why, as we’d clearly got the correct impression of the place the first time ’round. Around sunset we found ourselves some Tibetan food for dinner. Vegetable momos, steamed, with a bready exterior. Just as different from the ones we’d had in western Sichuan as those had been from the ones in Nepal (for a cuisine with such limited diversity, it the variety of different momos available in Tibetan cooking was impressive.) Dinner finished just as daylight did and we just managed to catch the sun filtering through a cloud and turning everything in town a beautiful orange-y gold colour.
The next day we set out to explore the Labrang Monastery which, after all, had been the main reason for our visit to the region.
We started by walking the inner kora, the devotional circuit around the monastery. We joined dozens of others, mostly older local men and women who walked clockwise along the wall, turning the hundreds of huge prayer wheels. The ochre monastery walls and brightly coloured accents. The smell of burning juniper branches. The creaking of the brilliant but heavy prayer wheels as they turned (which at times sounded like a crowd of mistreated dogs.) All of these combined to make the overall feeling a somewhat mysterious one, even in the brilliant morning sunshine.
In addition to the many who simply walked the kora and turned the prayer wheels, several others made numerous stops during their circuit, turning towards the monastery walls and fully prostrating themselves several times (in an interesting parallel to the motions of Muslim prayers performed by many others in the mosques that we’d seen not too far away.) Still others went a step further (so to speak) crawling their way round the monastery on hands and knees. Both of these last two groups usually wore special wooden hand and knee pads that (slightly at least) mitigated the pain and difficulty of making their round of the rough dirt, brick or cobble surfaces.
A big prayer wheel along the kora around the Labrang monastery
One of the simpler monastery buildings
The wall of a subsidiary temple just outside the main body of the monastery. Note the carts selling juniper branches, tsampa (barley flour) and yak butter for donation in the monastery.
As we walked we got the odd glimpse into the monastery itself with its imposing yet beautiful structures. White, maroon, and ochre covered the smooth plastered surfaces of the ancient mud brick towers. Many were surmounted by gilded decorations or even whole roofs, the sun glimmering brilliantly off them.
We continued our kora, passing the far end of the road through the monastery where the route changed from a wide avenue between the monastery wall and the river bank to a more confined pathway squeezed between the wall and the hills (mountains really) that rose up steeply behind it.
On this part of the route you were correspondingly closer to the holy buildings, so we followed some of the pilgrims and ducked into a few of them as we walked. Each of these had its own mini-kora, usually with a ring of prayer wheels. The insides of the buildings were dark and filled with worn, ancient looking wood and paintings ranging from simple scenes to impressively intricate images. Almost all of them smelled strongly of yak butter from the lamps, which was joined in the air by chanting monks in some of them.
One of the shrine buildings along the western wall of the monastery
Another one with more of the monastery and the hills visible in the background. I’d always wondered why maroon was so prominent a colour in Tibetan Buddhism. Apparently it was a practical decision that morphed into a spiritual one. Long ago when monks lived a more ascetic lifestyle, maroon was the cheapest available dye colour. In time it became associated with monks and with spirituality more genrally, so became a popular colour for all things religious
Small cells for the display of Thangka (traditional Buddhist paintings) on the hillside above the monastery
Back out on the main kora some of the pilgrims would stop and press their heads against particular stones on the buildings or spots on the walls. It was clear that each of these had a special significance and was a common spot for prayer, as they were all worn smooth and shiny by repeated contact with hands and heads. The kora ended back where it started, with three large stupas near where the main road from the new town entered the monastery marking the spot.
We actually continued back along the first section again, but turned right and into the monastery about one quarter of the way through the circuit. This led us to the centre of the monastery complex, as well as the ticket office where we joined up with four others on one of the three English language tours per day.
The tour was the only way to visit the inside of most monastery buildings, and it was actually fun tagging along with the constantly smiling, often laughing monk who led us around. Within the buildings he’d explain a bit about their functions (college of traditional Tibetan medicine, school of Buddhist philosophy, home of the oldest and most revered Buddha image in the complex…) Most of them were about 300 years old, though the paintings on the walls were frequently updated, giving them an unusual modern/ancient feel. As with the buildings we visited earlier, the smell of yak butter wafted through these ones. In addition to the lighting of the lamps, other rituals were afoot, such as the manufacture of tiny stupa-shaped statues from tsampa (barley flour dough) with yak butter accents. Apparently this was done every day by the monks (sadly I didn’t remember to ask what was done with the previous days works… it would seem a shame to waste them, but rather sacrilegious to feed them to animals.) Elsewhere there were statues made from coloured yak butter (given this, it was a good thing that the thick earthen walls kept the insides of the buildings so cool.)
Detail of one of the Monastery buildings
My favourite of the allegorical paintings in the monastery. This one showed up several times here, and regularly at other Buddhist sites we visited later. The elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird are co-operating to reach the fruit, as people of different ages and social groups should live in harmony and co-operate amongst themselves
We finished our tour in the grand prayer hall. This building was bigger than any of the others, maybe 100m square and filled with row upon row of thin, pillow-like prayer mats. It was also obviously newer than most of the other buildings. The original grand hall was destroyed in a fire in 1985 and this was its replacement. It was virtually empty when we visited, but soon after we exited the front door into the courtyard in front of the hall a monk appeared on the roof and began blowing on a conch shell. This was the signal for morning prayers to begin. A lone monk, wearing his “Roman” style headdress appeared. He sat on the steps, chanting prayers to himself. Within minutes he was joined by another and another and another until there were around a hundred monks sitting on the steps of the hall, the courtyard echoing with their prayers as it filled with the laypeople who came to pray alongside them or to make requests for special prayers on their behalf. Two monks wearing even larger headdresses and huge shoulder pads appeared and conducted everyone inside. We remained in the courtyard (along with everyone’s shoes…) We peered inside to look and listen as the prayers were conducted, and chatted with some of the younger monks who couldn’t be accommodated in the hall.
The first monk to arrive
I really wanted to include a video or audio recording of the monks chanting. It was a hypnotic, magical sound. But I now realize I sent all of the video files home on flash drives with my parents.
Interestingly though the monks took their shoes off for prayer it was perfectly fine for secular visitors to the grand sutra hall to wear theirs inside
One of the monks filing out after prayers were complete
During our stay, we had realzied that Xiahe really had three parts. The Chinese village (where we were staying), the monastery, and the Tibetan laypeople’s village. After leaving the grand hall, we carried along the main road through the monastery to the halfway point of the kora. Instead of joining it, we followed the road as it led from the monastery into the laypeople’s village. It did have its charms, (most notably the new “red hat” sect monastery and the beautiful old nunnery.) But even though the new (Chinese) village was built of unattractive concrete buildings, but I must admit I’d still probably rather have lived there than in the rough, dusty and dirty Tibetan village. Seeing this made sense of the fact that Xiahe had far more beggars than any other place we’d seen in China (where they were really a very infrequent sight.) True, there were plenty of smiles around the village, but it still struck me as a very hard place to live. Even up on the plateau there was plenty of grazing land. Here there seemed to be a tiny bit of agricultural land, but little else for the village people to subsist on, especially as all of the tourist industry seemed to be collected in the other end of town. We bought some bread and drinks from the shop, but I kind of wish there was some way that more of our tourist yuan could have been directed the way of the Tibetan half of the village.
Even after all of this, it was still early in the day, so we headed back to our rooms for a bit of a rest. When late afternoon came we returned to the monastery and walked the eastern half of the kora (again!) but this time instead of staying tight to the walls we climbed up the hills behind the monastery, following the outer kora route.
This took us far up above the town and gave splendid views down on the monastery below (although the monastery buildings are really constructed to be at their most impressive when looking UP at them.) While it was much quiter than the inner kora down below, we still weren’t the only ones walking this route. A family having a picnic (complete with lots of watermelon!) and a couple of lone pilgrims who stopped to pray or contemplate the view over the monastery were following the path as well. The wind and the calls of choughs (high-altitude crow-like birds) kept us all company as we walked.
A lovely purple iris on the hills above the monastery. Springtime had come to the mountains.
A chorten and mud brick wall covered in prayer flags on the way up the hillside
A ruined hermitage near the above
Xiahe and its hills from above. The monastery actually occupies almost all of this photo. The ceremonial buildings are the more brightly coloured ones on the right, while the smaller, plainer ones on the left are the homes of monks and devotees
The high mountains meant that, though actual sunset wasn’t until quite late, direct light disappeared from the valley relatively early. We headed down the hillside and back into town. We ate more momos and Sarah did a bit of shopping. She purchased a beautiful pair of black fabric boots with rock hard leather soles, exactly the same as those worn by the monks at the monastery. And as if to convince us that yes, these were really the authentic thing, two monks were in the shop looking for new boots of their own at the same time as Sarah tried hers on (it was a bit of a time consuming process. The boots were handmade and didn’t have sizes as such. At least not sizes printed on them. So it was just a matter of trying on a pair and saying “big” or “small,” then trying on the next pair, eventually bracketing the right size and closing in on it.)
Sarah trying on her monk boots. So stiff were they that they absolutely demolished her heels in about 20 minutes of wear the first time she put them on. They’re going to need some breaking in.
That night we had a bit of a discussion/debate about what to do with our final full day in the region. Eventually we decided that a day trip to the town of Hezuo and spending the night in Linxia, about halfway back to Lanzhou and its train station, was the way to go. We left our bags at the hotel and headed down to the bus station to get our tickets.
When we arrived in Hezuo we pretty much immediately spotted what we were looking for. Indeed, it would have been tough to miss it. At nine storeys high the Milareba Palace was the tallest structure in its neighbourhood and, until quite recently, would have been easily the tallest building in town.
The palace was constructed as a monument/shrine/place of worship for Tibetan Buddhists of all different sects. Each floor had one or more central Buddha image(s) (or statue[s]) in an inner chamber whose walls were lined with smaller statues, the large majority of which were of the eponymous Milareba, an 11th century Tibetan Buddhist poet and yogi. Each floor also had an outer chamber where the stairs leading up and down were located on opposite sides (ensuring that visitors walked circuits around the centre of the structure as they climbed) and the walls were decorated with brilliantly painted murals. The floors of the main chambers were carpeted, while the outer ones were of bare wood. Both squeaked, creaked and flexed as one climbed.
Milareba palace. It’s interesting how the large overhanging awnings and the wide sills in the deep walls combine to make the windows look far larger than they actually are.
A hall of prayer wheels near the palace
A garden of chortens outside
Deer and the eight spoked wheel, representing the eightfold path to nirvana, atop the palace
The view from the 8th floor of the palace. As in Labrang, the buildings were more impressive from the ground
Back down at ground level we took a walk around the monastery surrounding the palace. Virtually all of it was brand new (at almost 20 years old, the palace was the Methuselah of the complex.) In the late ’60s Cultural Revolution pretty much the entire monastery was razed and reconstruction was only just starting to catch up with the destruction. It was fascinating to see the construction techniques, the bare wood and adobe that would soon be painted with the typical colours of Tibetan Buddhism. It was also touching to see the variety of people who came out to help with the reconstruction. At one shrine we saw what seemed to be every female member of a family hard at work digging, cutting, hauling and hoisting. As the monk who had guided us around Labrang had said, whatever one thinks of it, Tibetan Buddhism remains strong. The roof of its traditions is preserved by the multiple columns of thangka (paintings), sutras (texts), architecture, and people, any of which can support the whole for a while if necessary.
A young monk in front of one of the new monastery buildings. We asked our guide in Labrang more about young monks like this. Apparently the decision for them to enter the monastery was made by their family, though a significant number now change their minds about monastic life in their late teens and are free to leave the fold if they wish
One of the women volunteering in the reconstruction of the monastery
A photo in one of the new monastery buildings showing the old monastery seen from the old Milareba palace before their destruction in the Cultural Revolution
From the monastery we headed into town for a look at some of the other religious buildings we’d seen on our way in. We’d moved back to the border between Buddhism and Islam, and though it took a little work to find them (odd, given the towering minarets) we eventually got a closer look at a couple of the town’s mosques. As with some we’d seen in Xi’an, they’d absorbed much of Chinese architecture, to the point that the minarets looked like very narrow but lofty pagodas, whose identity could only be truly confirmed by the crescents atop them. They also appeared to have borrowed some elements of the local Buddhist architecture, namely the brilliant coloured and ornately carved accents on the edges of the minarets and facades of the buildings.
Minarets at a Hezuo mosque
My mom and dad with watermelon flavoured ice blocks bought near the mosque. These tasted soooo good, and had the clever touch of sweet red beans dotted throughout to represent the seeds
We headed further into town and were delighted to discover that there was a train station ticket office there. This was a true test of our ability to manage the transaction in Chinese because these folks were most certainly NOT used to dealing with foreigners, and the tickets we were trying to buy were complicated ones with both origin and destination far, far away from Hezuo. It took a long time, though only because of difficulty in getting the tickets we wanted. Eventually, with the help of the ticket agent’s trying many, many possibilities (irritating the growing queue behind us) we managed to get something like what we wanted.
Fortunately the bus tickets were more easily managed. Sarah and my dad headed to Linxia to procure a hotel for the night, while my mom and I backtracked a bit, returning to Xiahe to collect our bags.
While in Xiahe I did a bit of shopping to match Sarah’s. I picked up a pair of the flat, round lenses sunglasses that were so popular in the neighbourhood. They were a bit pricey (by my standards, not by the standards of sunglasses generally) and the lenses were very heavy. But the fact that they were made not from glass, but from slices of grey smokey quartz made them a really cool souvenir.
Several hours later (we’d been misled by our guidebook about the frequency of buses) we made it to Linxia and found my dad and Sarah waiting for us at the bus station. They’d had a bit of an adventure themselves, having been dropped off out on the edge of town and having visited 8 different hotels before finding one that had room for us. Thank goodness they’d gone on ahead and we weren’t starting the whole process several hours later with darkness drawing in!
For dinner in Linxia we had dapanji, a big plate made up of a whole (fairly tough in this case) chicken, potatoes, peppers and a savoury-spicy-oily sauce
And it was a WHOLE chicken. I’d never eaten chicken head before. Not much meat on it, but the comb and wattles were okay
Our final morning in southern Gansu was spent wandering around Linxia. Some of the mosuqes were impressive, but my favourite parts of the town were the simpler things. The shops selling Tibetan yurts, cowboy hats and sashes. The stores with big electric-heated stainless steel urns outside that I was envisioning employing in brewing. And the narrow alleys of the old town with their mud brick walls. And the surprised faces of old town residents not used to seeing foreigners amongst them.
Tibetan sashes, generally worn to close big, extra-long armed, thick, wraparound Tibetan cloaks
The Daxia (one of the main tributaries of the Huang He, or Yellow) River flowing over a weir in Linxia
An adobe-walled street in old Linxia
Coal for sale. Though it was bright and warm for most of our time there, we briefly saw the darked side of the weather in the dry mountains, with a short but violent hail storm. Apparently this storm was responsible for ten deaths (most likely due to traffic accidents, true) in Gansu province.
Lunch in Linxia. This noodle shop was packed to the gills and we were lucky to get a seat. But we must have just caught the end of the lunchtime rush because by the time we were done eating it was almost empty. Or maybe we just smelled really bad…
The grand, modern Laouhua mosque in Linxia
The bus back to Lanzhou was a flashier one than any we’d yet had in Gansu, but somehow also managed to be the slowest. Inexplicable and interminable stops and a slow pace on the road made the trip a trying one. The surroundings were beautiful, bare rocky hills in the foreground and the brilliant green, blue, black or gold domes of mosques in the foreground. But such was the time pressure caused by the slow bus that I was too nervous to really enjoy them.
In the end we returned to busy, polluted Lanzhou’s south bus station and, with minimal negotiation got a ride in a four seater pickup truck (luggage in the back) to the train station. (Interestingly, I learned that must’ve done a very good job negotiating with the taxi driver when we arrived in town… The ride to the bus station had cost us 30RMB, but the pickup truck drivers would take no less than 40 from anyone, be they foreigners or locals.)
Taking photos out of bus windows rarely works well. But I wanted to include at least one of the dramatic mountains on the road between Linxia and Lanzhou
As it turned out we made it to the station with about half an hour to spare, leaving little time for reflection on our time in the Xiahe area until we were on the train. It was a fascinating place. It wasn’t anywhere near so purely Tibetan as western Sichuan had been. But the collision of Han Chinese, Tibetan Buddhist and Hui Muslim cultures made it a stop absolutely unique on our journey through China. And though there were still clear signs of inequality and disagreement, it was still nice to have seen Han buying goods at Tibetan shops and Tibetans eating noodles at Hui restaurants. Though I fear sounding too much like a Chinese communist party slogan, it was nice to see even small signs that harmony was possible.
My mom and Sarah sitting on top of boulders on a street in Linxia. I’m still not sure what they were for (reinforcement for the adobe on the vulnerable corner sections?) but they were common at building corners in town
Tags: China, Gansu, Huoze, Labrang, Lanzhou, Linxia, Llew Bardecki, Milareba, Travel, Xiahe