After our 4-day trip to Xi’an, we woke up bright and early (6:30 am) to make our way to Tianshui. The trip was fairly peaceful, as the Gansu highway is truly spectacular – it seems to be newly finished and it cuts through the mountain ranges with what seems like an infinite array of tunnels. One tunnel was over 13 km long! 2-lanes wide, the only annoyance was when the bus passed another bus (that was on the other lane) they would honk the horn for the duration they passed. It was a bit nerve-racking given that the spontaneous honking would keep you wide awake the entire journey.
Arriving at Tianshui we managed to book a hotel after a few failed attempts (many places said they were full, but it makes me wonder if they’re actually xenophobic to the laowai). We finally settled on a nice 5-star hotel (for one night it was completely worth it, sleeping like a king, a change from the 6-person dormitories I usually end up at in any trip). We dropped off our bags and decided to grab some lunch. We ended up at a hotpot restaurant and had some delicious spicy lamb. Being almost 2 pm when we started eating, we were the only people in the restaurant (people in china have lunch usually around 11 am). We had an army of waiters and waitresses at our service. When they weren’t taking care of our needs, they were busy watching the daily soap opera. The thing with hotpot is that it’s a S-L-O-W meal, so by the time we finished eating, it was already 4 pm. After lunch, we still tried to make our way out to the Maiji Shan Grottoes. Unfortunately, we arrived at 5:15 pm, and the guard had already closed the staircase, so there was no chance to get up close and personal with the stone carvings that date back to 6th century. Nonetheless, it was still fun to see the mountain from afar.
The Maiji Shan mountain as seen from the entrance
The grottoes as close as we could get
on our way back down, we saw that the grottoes path extended around the mountain.
to this day, people still speculate how in the world the carvers managed to carve so high up in the mountain
The modern addition – the staircase – is also really interesting, I feel it complement’s without overpowering the historical relics. At least there’s no neon on the stair.
another photo – up close
Coming back to Tianshui, we walked around the sprawling railway-station part of town called Beidao. To some degree it reminded me of small towns in Europe, with the train station as the epicenter, and then a main commercial street flanked by residential buildings. We took the bus back to Qincheng, the actual “downtown” of the city (15 km away from Beidao). It seems that Tianshui is expected to grow large someday and Beidao and Qincheng will soon enough be one place. For now, however, they are 2 different areas – Beidao has the Train Station, Qincheng has the main terminal Bus Station. Qincheng is more of a city (the main street had a row of business offices, banks, governmental institutions…etc).
The next morning we arose once again bright and early to make our way to Xiahe. First, however, we needed to make our way to Lanzhou and then switch buses to Xiahe. Lanzhou is Gansu Province’s central city with over 3 million people, and according to the Lonely Planet guide, it remains as one of China’s most polluted cities. In the brief couple of hours we stayed in Lanzhou, I could feel the pollution, as the air itself smells different than in Shanghai, and the sky has a perpetual golden haze. I was unable to get a clear picture of it, but if you can imagine a nuclear power plant as an integral part of the city skyline, bound by mountains on every side, then you can imagine Lanzhou. Both Laura and I concluded that we would spend the bare minimum amount of time in Lanzhou. We were both catching a cold, and the air quality in Lanzhou just made us feel sicker.
Waiting for the next bus was rather entertaining. There were a group of Buddhist monks in their maroon-colored attire waiting to hop on the bus to Xiahe. It was really exciting to bear witness to this sight. The same monks happened to be on the same bus as we were, along with plenty of pilgrims from different regions around the area. It was pretty obvious that we were the only foreigners on the bus. Luckily we got the first 2 chairs, so we got to see the landscape getting to Xiahe from the driver’s perspective. Xiahe’s bus station was 3.5 hours away from Lanzhou.
this was the first photo I snapped in Xiahe. It was clear that we were in a very different place than those we’ve been to before.
The city of Xiahe , for being so small, is a peculiar place. It is ethnically diverse (though separated into different neighborhoods around town), all linked together by the main street. On the Chinese side (where the bus dropped us off), you can see the word “progress” metaphorically stamped onto every facade – to the extent that the city of Xiahe, with such a spectacular node (the monastery) has the bland identity-less buildings flanking both sides of the street. Even the Plattenbau-buildings in Weimar have more character. As you keep walking toward the monastery, the town becomes increasingly Tibetan in architectural style, but remains mainly Chinese-owned, and thus is just a facade, that “youre getting close to the monastery.” It will be a pity if the entire town in 20 years gets transformed into another Tianshui, or worse, into a Lanzhou (but I guess with growth and ‘progress’ this is inevitable). Once you reach the monastery, the road suddenly becomes less ‘paved,’ and you can definitely see the lack of modern influence in the building structures, with the exception of the construction machinery excavating to place water pipes into the neighborhood. Past the monastery, you reach a Tibetan town that houses the many nomads/pilgrims that come visit the monastery. All in all, it’s an interesting adventure just to walk through the town’s main street alone.
We arrived right when students from the Chinese School had finished school. We therefore got to see kids in uniform side by side monks in their traditional attire, nomads in their own fashion, curious backpackers (mostly chinese) with their insanely unnecessarily large cameras, and the military in uniform all sharing the same pedestrian street.
the street once you reach the monestary
view from the monastery to the Chinese side of the city
posters with elevations and perspectives showing what the “future” Xiahe will look like. I don’t know how I feel about this…
The tibetan town as seen from the hill across the river from the monastery
Inside the Tibetan Town
Walking in the direction of the Monastery, you can definitely see the abrupt difference between the “commercial” street front and the unpaved alley that encompasses the complex. Our first stop the following morning was the university-monastery– tour-guide free (the monks have a choice to study philosophy, medicine, astrology, among others…). We split up and walked around the 300-year old monastery and looked for the spectacles we could find. After all, it’s the largest monastery (1400 monks) outside of Tibet (founded in 1709).
Every door has something incredible behind…
Walking through the living quarters, for example, we were faced with the reality that many of the people living in the monastery area seem to have no access to a sewage system, let alone clean drinking water. Many of the streets were dug up as people were installing the drainage pipes. I wonder if the promise of the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter is the first step to the modernization (and perhaps sterilization) of this unique landscape.
The living quarters of the monks
once you leave the main street, you are faced with a reality very different than those of restored Chinese towns….
this lady was awesome. She just smiled at us the entire time (and then asked for money…)
streets have been torn up/dug up for the installation of infrastructure
this kid was jumping on the wooden bridge to make waves in the mud
monks walking beside a 2-meter construction ditch
part of the construction site
The monks seemed to look at me with both bewilderment/excitement and fear. Perhaps I am one of many Laowai (foreigners) that has come by here in recent months. I saw bewilderment because I feel they are genuinely curious to know a little about the world outside China, but also fear because I am also one of many (and that number will perhaps increase in future years). With more foreigners and curious tourists trickling into the area, more people will see the value in investing in Xiahe – what can result is threefold: 1. Authorities from above will vouch to make this into a World Heritage Site which will protect it indefinitely from over-sterilization and mass-commercialization (eliminating the potential for neon on the temples and I-PAD posters plastered on the building walls), 2: More hotels, more streets, more tour groups, more people, will move and hence ruin the fabric that makes this place unique, 3: Keep it relatively inaccessible and hope the fabric stays the same indefinitely. Looking at the pace of things in China, I feel that it will wither be the first or second, with a higher inclination toward the second. But we’ll see.
The youth seemed more receptive in wanting to meet us… many monks just didn’t want to be perturbed….
Many would turn away from the sight of a camera
But the landscape, the culture and the people made this place unique.
many nomads brought their children – this kid followed our tour group for a good while, wanting to use the camera
our tour guide (his english was great)
many monks were here on pilgrimage – this one was taking a break from circumambulating the outer wall of the monastery
But enough about developmental speculation. The place as-is is perhaps one of the most spiritually loaded places I’ve been to in a long while (I remember I felt this type of energy in Patmos, the cave John wrote the Book of Revelation – also called the Cave of the Apocalypse). The Monastery is encircled by screeching prayer wheels, and people circumambulate the monastery with their prayer beads while gently spinning the prayer wheels. Because this is a religious site, you have to be extra careful as to the etiquette behind filming or photographing the people. Many of the people from the Tibetan region had never seen a camera before, and they asked if they could take pictures of each other for their own excitement. It was humbling to say the least.
Nomads fascinated with the camera
this kid wanted to show us around, but only spoke Tibetan, so we couldn’t really understand what he was saying… after a while he gave up and left….
but we got pics with him anyway.
I sat down for a second to write down a few key observations (of which I now can base this writing on), and a couple of pilgrims sat next to me and watched me write, again in bewilderment. It’s rare to see a person that writes with their left hand here in China, so that in itself was a spectacle to them, but writing words, not characters, was also enchanting to them.
Around lunchtime, I stumbled across a few young monks (aged 9-20, or so) playing their own variation of Hackey-Sack – this time with a badminton pellet.
Doing some exercise…
A few steps later, I stumbled across the sound of drums beating and the monks humming. It was spiritually powerful and was completely worth the wait. Finally, I decided to try spinning the wheels that go around the complex, and after a good minute or so of spinning them, I lost track of time and of distance. A really interesting meditative experience, and I learned that the pilgrims come here to spin the wheels at least 100 times during their stay in Xiahe. Some even stay here long enough to spin the wheels over 10,000 times.
the Prayer wheels, all decorated with writing and Buddhist imagery
When the prayer wheel path had to be disrupted by a perpendicular street, there would be a larger prayer wheel that was hooked to a bell, so when one spun it, the bell would ring once it completed a full cycle.
the length of one of the longest stretches of the Pilgrim Path
Next door, the construction site….
around the Stupas and a few Halls you could also go around and spin the wheels
For lunch, Laura and I decided to try Tibetan Yak dumplings, yak rice with sugar (not so great) and some fried noodles with Yak meat. Can’t say I am the ultimate fan of Yak, it’s a bit more fatty than lamb and more pungent in flavor, but while in this region, why not right?
Tons of goats on the street and on the hillside… they smelled like Yak too
Right before we left the restaurant, a Tibetan monk (with his red garment and all) asked if we could meet with him that night to talk. Turns out he was a philosophy student at the monastery, and his English was fairly good. He wanted to practice his English, a skill he taught himself in the past 3 years. He decided to become a monk at the age of 13, and now, 10 years later, has lived in Xiahe for 3 years. Prior to Xiahe, he was at another monastery in the Sichuan Province. Ideally, his goal was to make it to India, where his uncle, also a monk, currently resides (he comes from a family of nomads). He explained to us his daily routine of prayer (waking up at 5 am and going to bed at midnight), the food he eats, and how he survives winter, among other things. Speaking to this monk was one of the coolest and most intense moments I’ve had here in China – all over a few cups of tea.
After dinner, we called it an early night as the weather seemed to be getting colder and colder. By Saturday, the temperature outside was about 4 Celsius with light rain. We woke up early to make our way to the bus station to pick up our tickets to Lanzhou (The city where we would catch our flight back to Shanghai). Fingers nearly freezing, we made our way back to the monastery and joined the English-speaking tour group that began at 10:15. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the interiors of the temples, nonetheless I’ll try to give you a glimpse of what we saw:
The smell of yak butter lamps burning – somewhat sweet and pungent at the same time, lamps were spaced every couple of meters in the periphery of the temples. Buddha’s influenced from India were the main attraction, some measuring over 4 meters in height, painted in gold and copper. Fabrics of different bright colors cover almost every surface. Some fabrics actually come off the wall like ribbons and link to the hands of the Buddha’s sitting in lotus position meditating. A dense column grid with enough room for 2 mats and a small hallway between the mats – these are the places where the monks sit and pray. Some monks or pilgrims decide to stay at the door, or even circumambulate the temple with the repeated gesture of standing and then crouching forward and bowing. Buddha paintings with the third eye, and with eyes on both hands. Some paintings were frightening as well, with faces of demonic-like creatures angrily staring at you (but in full psychodelic color schemes). Every painting had a metaphor, like one where an elephant is holding up a monkey that is holding up a rabbit that is holding up a bird who is taking a fruit from a tree – representing friendship and peace regardless of race or ethnicity. Incense stations situated around the monastery giving the entire place a smell of fresh Juniper. We were taken to a temple where sculptures were made of Yak Butter and dye (we were able to take pictures of these). All over the site one could faintly hear either the sound of people playing the drums, or of people meditating with the very peaceful “om” sound, occasionally interrupted by horns that call the monks to prayer.
The square where our tour began
The iron-color of the main prayer halls
Every place was a beautiful image
The best part was that it was so quiet
some places were wide and expansive, others narrow and awkward, adding to the richness of the walking experience
I believe this was one of the main campus buildings (maybe medicine?)
I wonder how this place was when it was at full capacity…. they say somewhere around 4000 monks used to live here, now there are only about 1400.
Another one of the main campus buildings
The level of detail was also insane
the mosaics on the floor
The gold color resembled spaces of high religious importance
Some places had been restored, but rather than using modern technologies, the monks made sure to keep with the traditional style with traditional construction technologies and traditional materials… much better than the Jing’An Temple method of reconstruction with concrete to make it “look like wood” right?
The Golden Stupa
Incense chambers were distributed around the monastery
The degree of decoration was sublime, to say the least
kid resting next to a mural that explains the root tree of the Tibetan Language (in the faculty of Philosophy)
Man dying the Yak Butter to make a sculpture
Yak Butter Sculptures
More Yak Butter Sculptures
Reading through this post once again, I feel I have done a poor job explaining all the nuances that make this place so unique. It’s a feast for the senses – what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, your sense of time, space, dimension, belonging, direction all are affected in some way or another by all the elements of the monastery. With a simple nod from a Buddhist monk you can sense their interest, wisdom, happiness, anxiety, and interest (again, I can’t find the right words, I must apologize). Although on one hand I feel I was perturbing the monk’s day-to-day, I actually appreciate the fact that small groups of people (our group had 10 or so) were allowed in. With the development of a gigantic bus parking lot directly adjacent to the monastery, I wonder if the charm of the place will be lost. It will be worthwhile someday to return and see what the place has become.
The Parking Lot Construction Site
More construction, a little bit away from the Monastery’s central core
Monk looking at the poster of what is coming….
The last day I decided to take the pilgrim walk all the way around the monastery, spinning the wheels and all… the entire journey took 1+ hour, but the views were as stunning as I had imagined:
Wall at the back of the monastery, many pilgrims go there to lament it seemed
Isolation chambers on the mountains – monks go there to be in complete isolation to meditate.
the Bucolic Landscape makes you forget about the urbanity in the near distance
You can sense the energy and history contained within the walls of the compound
Part of the charm are the twists and turns you have to make, adding to the idea of discovery, reflection and mysticism
Finally, the last day I decided to hike up the mountain to see the view from above.. in the process, I also ended up at the top of the golden stupa:
Crossing the Xiahe River
view from the Stupa
View 2 from the top of the Golden Stupa
Close-up of the center of the Monastery
View from above of the living quarters of the Monks
The Juniper Forest – every monk commits to planting a Juniper Tree when they arrive in the Labrang Monastery. Then, they go and collect leaves for incense every morning from the forest. It’s part of giving back to nature and the natural cycle of taking from nature, and vice-versa… really cool concept
And finally, getting home, I couldnt believe my eyes getting back and seeing the Hongqiao railway station…. worlds apart, right?
Makes you think about what is valued most today, right?