Arriving by bus in Xiahe (there is no railway between here & Lanzhou) it was immediately apparent that we had crossed some invisible boundary into an altogether different part of China. Gone were the Disney-like tourist villages and the coach loads of bewildered pensioners. In their place was a dusty and weather beaten looking town fringed by brown hills and with a distinct chill in the air. We loved it immediately.
At an altitude of nearly 3,000m this is the North Eastern tip of the vast Tibetan Plateau. It is also where secular Eastern China collides head on with the Buddhism of the West. Or, put another way, it is a melting pot of Han Chinese (China’s largest ethnic group forming 92% of the nation), Tibetans and a smattering of Hui Chinese. This ethnic mix is immediately apparent from just taking a walk down the street, where it sometimes felt more like Bolivia or Peru than China. Tibetan women with long black plaited hair and trilby hats wear woollen shawls tied at the waist with colourful sashes or leather belts.
Chinese traders with darting eyes peer out from the dim recesses of their shops, occasionally stepping outside to spit into the street. Among them all, move the brightly roped monks from the nearby Labrang Monastery – the most important Chinese Buddhist Temple outside Tibet.
The Tibetans here feel a strong allegiance with their brethren in Tibet and perhaps not surprisingly Xiahe has seen its fair share of Ethnic tension in recent years. In fact, anti-Chinese demonstrations here in 2008 led to the region being closed to tourists until 2010.
Having already visited so many Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and Nepal, it felt pleasantly familiar when we joined a guided tour of the monastery led by an enthusiastic young monk in the 12th year of his study. He said that Richard Gere and Steve Jobs had both studied here, but that neither had put in enough time to even scratch the surface of Buddhism. He himself had a further 13 years to study before completing his 25 year education. It made us appreciate how doctrinally simple Christianity is in comparison. An aspiring monk must be fully au fait with countless “Bodhisattvas” (gods), “Mudras” (ritual postures), “Mantras” (sacred speech) and “Thangkas” (highly symbolic paintings).
As always, the heart of the monastery was the great prayer hall, its elaborate interior dimly illuminated by yak butter candles, the smoke from which left a thick, sweet smell in the air. The monks faced each other in long rows chanting mantras and fingering prayer beads. In another hall there was a fascinating collection of yak butter sculptures, as ornate in their detail as any more permanent artwork. They reminded us of the film “Butter” we had just watched on the plane to China.
Around the monastery runs a 6km long “kora”, or path, which we walked both at dawn and in the evening. Edged by prayer wheels for almost its full length, it is a good way of seeing a wide cross-section of Tibetan society – from toddlers with their mothers to the oldest and frailest. The most devout believers perform prostrations around the entire route, either prostrating themselves one body length at a time or, in extreme cases, one body width at a time. Knee and hand pads protect them from the rough ground.
It was returning from our walk around this “kora” that we met a friendly monk standing on a nearby bridge as the sun was setting. We greeted him with the only words of Amdo Tibetan we know “Cho Day Mo” (How do you do?). He smiled and returned the greeting. He knew a few words of English, but far more communicative than that was his gesture towards the ugly concrete buildings of the Chinese side of town which sprawled like decay around the Eastern perimeter of the monastery. “China” he said and shook his head. To us, that said it all.
We were also in the right place at the right time to see the procession of monks from the monastery to the temple, part of which we captured on video.
After dinner of yak dumplings and thukpa (traditional Tibetan noodle dish), we turned in for the night. We liked this town with its real world charm which felt pleasantly remote from the megatropolis of Beijing. The next morning we were booked on to a bus bound for Langmusi.