SYNOPSIS:  Labrang monastery.  The Kora of Labrang.  Climbing a goat path and meeting two nuns.  About religious practices of Tibetan Buddhists.

They come by foot from the surrounding villages, they travel hundreds of kilometers to Labrang prostrating the entire way!  Old and young, men and women.  Labrang, is considered one of the six most holy places of the Gelugpa Sect, located in the Amdo region; that is outside the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), or what we in the West usually consider to be Tibet.  It’s more Tibetan here, than in Lhasa, a local told me.  Lhasa has too many Indian and Nepalese influences.  If you want to see Tibet pure, you are in the right place, here.

Xiahe is a long-stretched city divided into two, or three parts, depending on how you want to count it.  The East is typical Chinese with its recent “stalagmite” satellite high-rises.  The influx of Han Chinese into the Amdo region is systematic policy.  Karli, the owner of the Nirvana Hotel where I am staying, came here 12 years ago.  You could not buy Western clothes at that time, she told me.  The West is a traditional Tibetan village.  The third part is a small Muslim community concentrated around a mosque in the North of the city.  But I did not have time to explore it.

Labrang Monastery is the center of Xiahe, a city within a city.  Monks quarters, multiple temples, a printing press, and four religious universities make up the complex.  For the most part you can walk around anywhere you want.  Two temples are open to visitors only on a guided tour, twice a day: the main assembly hall, and the temple housing artifacts given to the monastery over the last three centuries.  Photography inside anywhere is strictly forbidden.  The monk who guided us was rude.  He obviously did not like his job.  He raced us through the main temple.

Us, that is a German couple with their Chinese (German-speaking) tour guide.  They were the only other people who had shown up for the English-guided tour.  When I asked the monk about various deities in the temple, his answer was:  You would not understand.  When I assured him that I had studied some Tibetan Buddhism years ago, his response was:  Well, I could only tell you in Sanskrit.  Perfect!  I replied.  Sanskrit is all I know.  And from then on he refused to tell me anything.  When I heard later how unhappy this monk is to be stuck with this job — to guide the foreign tourists — I had a bit more compassion for him.  His predecessor must have stepped out of line somehow, was incarcerated by the Chinese government and tortured.  Now he roams the town severely mentally damaged — a deterrent to everyone else…

After the tour, we waited around for the arrival of the monks who would gather in the main hall for the daily prayers and debates.  What a spectacle it is to listen to the head monk reciting prayers at lightning speed in Tibetan (or Pali?)  He then put forth philosophical or theological arguments and like at the English Parliament, where attendees loudly express their approval or disapproval, the monks respond with clapping when they liked a particular point.  This goes on for hours.  We watched it for about 45 minutes.  Monks are served hot butter tea, are blessed by the head monk between debates, and are even given money (as far as we could tell), a daily allowance, perhaps?

So far, my altitude pills (Acetazolamide or Diamox) served me well.  Against my hotel owner’s advice, I was determined to climb the mountain around the monastery for a good view.  But there are no maps!   I was told that the Chinese Government is not allowing even hand-drawn maps of the monastery complex for tourists — go figure!  At the hotel I got some vague direction which I promptly failed to find.  Instead of landing on the outer Kora (a circular path up in the mountains, literally meaning “to turn scripture), I dead-ended at a steep hill with only a few goat paths left. 

Ok, goat path it is!  A metal fence stopped me in my tracks.  But there was a goat path further down which seemed to be low enough allow me to slide under the metal fence.  Haven’t I done such a thing once before in the West Bank?   If I was willing to crawl through the dust, I could have my view.  What you don’t do for a few good pictures!  I crawled; the dust was free.

The view was great.  Not only did I have a good view of the monastery, but also of the Western part of town, the original Tibetan village.  One-story buildings, dusty roads, and small stores and eateries contrast sharply with the multi-storied, modern Chinese part of town.  Infiltration is not the same as integration.  There is no integration here; only silent acceptance of the inevitable. 

On my way down, I passed the residential quarters of the female nunnery which is located in this part of town.  For as far as sign language and smiles would get us, we communicated for a while.  At the end of our little encounter, they even allowed me to take a picture of them.

For 8 hours, I peeked into temple courtyards, climbed a beautiful golden stupa which allowed visitors up to the top tier for a beautiful view of the site, and roamed through little residential alleys.  I missed the printing press!  It is one of the biggest ones of all the monasteries producing religious literature.  Either it was closed, or I just didn’t find it.   That’s what the lack of a map does.  Bummer!  In the afternoon, I joined the pilgrims on the small Kora surrounding the monastery on the ground level, turning the prayer wheels.  I skipped the prostrations.  The sun was beautiful, the variety of pilgrims simply astonishing. 

Near the end of the Kora, I passed a Western foreigner going the wrong way!  I could not help but stop him to point out, that he was violating one of the most sacred rites of all these people here, walking Kora clockwise.  He had already asked himself, why nobody else was going his direction.  He was hunting for some good pictures in this afternoon glow…  I get it.  But I also think it is important, especially, for us Westerners, not to violate sacred practices.

I am moved and puzzled by this amount of unconditional devotion.  People will literally walk for weeks and months to reach this place to circle this monastery, to prostrate and to receive the blessing of their offerings.  In big white chimenea-type ovens, the offerings of juniper and barley, mixed with a few drops of holy water, are lit.  The more smoke you can produce, the better.   The more prostrations you manage in front of the sacred images, the better.  And the more money you leave, even better.

Even without the prostrations, this was an exhausting day.  And I happily returned to a little bit of Nirvana at my hotel, located right across the main entrance to the monastery. 

Om Mani Padme Om!

3 comments so far

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  1. Glad you got up the mountain. However, for the rest of your trip…remember to remember Mt. Fuju. LOL

    In Ann Arbor, one sees Free Tibet signs quite regularly…I guess we do remember Tibet and even talk about it…especially when the Dalai Lama comes to town.

  2. So glad that you are good at climbing under fences (remembering the train station in Detroit) for it opens up such wonderful vistas for you to capture with your camera.

  3. Tibet is one of several occupied territories that practically no one ever talks about.