SYNOPSIS:  About one of the two reasons why I came here:  the place commemorating the birth of Tsongkapa.  About butter sculptures, copper kettles, and uniquely fried noodles.

At the rate I am going to tick off important Gelugpa (Yellow Hats) sites, you would think I am a Buddhist on a pilgrimage.  But it just so happened that I had to choose a place from where to board the train to Lhasa; and Xining was on the way. 

26 km south-west of Xining, at Kumbum Monastery (known locally also as Ta’er), the birthplace of the founder of the Yellow Hats, Tsongkapa, is commemorated in a golden stupa.  In fact, the stupa marks the very place where his mother gave birth. Where the umbilical cord was dropped, a Bodhi Tree sprouted instantly.  Not just an ordinary tree, of course, but one whose leaves produced pictures of the beloved leader, like mini portraits; a miracle that was observed for hundreds of years.  Today, the tree is enshrined and off limits.  Perhaps, it stopped “painting”? 

This monastery, like the one in Xiahe, draws Tibetan pilgrims from all around as much as tourists.  Only two other Western women were visiting, though.  Kumbum is not exactly on the main tourist circuit. 

I am glad that by now I have had the chance to see three Tibetan monasteries.  Because from here on, I can spare you some of the details.  Just like  Medieval Gothic Churches are built following a strict architectural program, Tibetan monasteries share the same architectural and liturgical features, such as flat roofs with a thatched top layer, round and square rafters decorating the rim of the structure, slanted windows and doors.  Every religious building can be circumambulated (kora, literally meaning to turn scriptures) and often is outfitted with a row of prayer wheels.  Shrines filled with Buddhist deities or books line the four walls, often protected behind glass.   One or more main deities take center stage.  A sub-shrine may open up at the rear wall.  And all interiors are filled to the brim with brocades, bells, flags, and thangkas.   These places especially share the idea to forbid photography almost everywhere, except on the outside of temples as seen from a distance.  Keep that in mind, as you view the images… 

It is in the unique deviations that each place becomes special.  At Kumbum there are 8 stupas (or chorten as they are known locally) lined up in a row that each represents an important event in the life of the Buddha (like birth, enlightenment, etc).  A pilgrim has to circumambulate the set 7 times before entering the monastery.  That makes photographing the line without a person a real challenge…

At Kumbum, it is also the Golden Stupa that is a site to behold.  Even though it is completely glassed in and then covered over by a temple structure, you can catch glimpses of it through the glass.  There, I could not even think of snatching a picture as multiple, protective monks watched like hawks over their treasure.

But in the almost 6 hours I spent at the monastery a good number of pictures came about that speak of its beauty.  Once today, I got caught red-handed at the temple of a 3-dimensional mandala.  No monk was inside and even though I knew there were cameras, I took a photo from the hip.  Within seconds a monk came shooting in — I was the only visitor — pointed to my camera and actually made me show him my pictures.  They must have zoomed in on me, suspecting my bad intentions!   I pushed some buttons which satisfied him in his belief that I erased those images.  I didn’t.  Did I accumulate a lot of bad karma now?  I guess, I’d better do some koras to make up for it!

The single most unique sensation of the place is its extensive collection of butter sculptures.  Yak butter is used for oil lamps, to make tea, and here, to carve the most intricate sculptural ensembles.  The Chinese government declared this art a perishable national treasure and built a huge museum for the monastery to display its collection. 

One of the most fun things I stumbled on after visiting the monastery, was “metal-smithing street”.  I had taking a wrong turn on my way back to the bus station, but as always, there is no “wrong” when you travel, there is only different.  Dozens of workers were still busy hammering, melting, and pounding copper into shapes of butter-tea kettles, prayer wheels, or butter lamps.  Only when you watch these guys for a while do you fully appreciate how much time goes into the making of every single one of these objects.   Tibetan monasteries are filled with thousands of them!   Tibetan Buddhism is certainly not Zen, or Hinayana, the most austere sects of Buddhism.  It is the “Catholicism” of the religion with lots of pomp and circumstance. 

Commerce is never far from any tourist spot.  Outside the monastery, dozens of vendors  practically jumped on visitors exiting, trying to sell everything from prayer beads to prayer wheels and devotional shawls or flags.  Farther down it is souvenir alley with one store next to another selling everything a monk, pilgrim, or tourist could possibly “need”. And so I succumbed, and got some souvenir shopping done myself; why wait until Lhasa.  Further into town, the population clearly shifted from Tibetan to Uighur and perhaps, other Muslim minorities.

I observed a Uighur man frying an interesting noodle dish.  From all I could tell, this was not dinner,  but snack food.  I got a little taster.  The oil in which he was frying the hand-strung noodles must have some sugar in it.  It tasted slightly sweet.  It never ceases to astonish me what people around the world come up with.  Noodles!  Here they come in more varieties and forms than I even have seen.  The Italians have something to learn.

Thanks to information by my hotel staff, I managed this excursion entirely by public transportation.  I knew this hotel would be good for something.  They even provided me with a map of the town. Unheard of!    After a stop at a little noodle place, it was time to soak in that big bathtub again.  It does wonders for your bones and feet after a long day like this. 

Good night.

4 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Most fascinated by the yak butter museum. Did you try the yak butter tea?

    • The yak butter tea is such a cultural institution, yet… I was afraid of it until the very end. Just the smell of the butter lamps would make me feel funny, and I had enough stomach challenges to add that one to it. But I finally ordered a cup of butter tea! I had three sips of it. Now I know what it tastes like and I have no more desire to ever taste it again. 🙂 Bland, salty, buttery.

  2. What on earth is Carl talking about now?

    Yes, I’ve been here too, it feels strange to be in such a quintessentially Tibetan place when you are actually closer to the Mongolian border than the Nepali one, doesn’t it? It really demonstrates the incredible extent of the Tibetan plateau and the vast spread of its cultural influence. Now you will be heading South out of “Little Tibet” into “Tibet Proper” and I shall be following you into Terra Incognita.(That means somewhere I’ve never been).

    I’m heading off into Serbia today (by bus as the trains are pretty non-existent in this part of the Balkans). I just wish everyone didn’t smoke so much. My clothes will stink by the time I get to Dresden.

    Much love


  3. The Lama

    The one-l lama,
    He’s a priest.
    The two-l llama,
    He’s a beast.
    And I will bet
    A silk pajama
    There isn’t any
    Three-l lllama.*

    — Ogden Nash

    (to which Nash appended the footnote
    *The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration known
    as a three-alarmer. Pooh.