Monks And Nomads

5th and 6th September 2017

Young monks about their daily tasksHaving spent the night bumping along on the rail line between Xi’an and Lanzhou, we clamber out of our berths at 5:30am ready to disembark and find some breakfast. I was glad I had donned face mask and earplugs so I did manage to sleep most of the night and only heard two of the seven stops. However the train had different ideas we stopped a few miles outside town and waited for half an hour standing by the exit door laden with our bags. We finally arrived 45 minutes late and were very glad to see Lily, who is our guide for the next few days, waiting for us.

Labrang Monastery in the morning mistWe walk to a nearby hotel for breakfast. We have learnt that tea can be iffy away from home (although we are getting to like green tea in China) so we ask for coffee. After some activity from the staff we receive a jug full of coffee which is already milked and sugared and some small glasses. It did hit the spot at that time of the morning. The food however was mainly Chinese but we found some bread and meat – too early for noodles and veg. Then there was the four hour bus trip on to Xiahe in which to catch up on missed sleep, and most of us did!

Road where town meets gownOn arriving at Xiahe our rooms were ready, which was a bonus, and so after a quick refresh and then one of Laura’s “light” lunches’ it was off to walk around the Kora of the Labrang Monastery. Knowing very little about Buddhism my mind was about to explode with all the facts to be learnt about this stunning place. The Monastery belongs to the Geluk/Yellow Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism and is one of the largest outside Tibet. The preferred location of a temple is against a mountainside, which this is, and it is by a river with mountains on the far side too, which all adds up to good feng shui. It is definitely well worth our detour from the Silk Road to get here.

Walking the KoraTo explain, the Kora is the 3km Pilgrims Path around the outside of the Monastery which many of the people will walk every day spinning the world’s longest line of prayer wheels which line three quarters of the path. We also saw a few devotees who lay prostrate in front of each prayer wheel before standing taking one pace left and then lying prostrate again. We believe this was to give thanks for something good in their prayers, which came to pass. These people where still going around the Kora the next day and I cannot imagine showing such devotion. The weather was not kind to us and we got very wet, fortunately the sun came out the next day so we were able to get some photos with blue skies.

Necessary maintenanceThis was a taster for the monk guided tour the next day to see inside the Monastery and some of the six colleges where some 2,000 monks currently study, down from 4,000 at its peak. To study medicine takes 15 years. The Monastery has 21 temples and 500 houses for the monks to live in. Photos were not allowed inside the buildings so we will have to keep the incredible images in our minds.

Taking shelterThe tour, given by one of the monks in understandable English, began with a visit to the medicine doctor, which was a small room lined with chairs and a hatch for the reception. The doctors room was visible for all to see in, which I did not fancy. We saw a father carry his poorly son in and he was seen straight away. The reception was also the dispensary and this was a busy place and I am surprised they let our group of ten clog up the entrance.

Overlooking the MonasteryWe then wended our way between numerous buildings, each holding a shrine and either books, Buddha statues of various sizes or artefacts and many embroidered rugs or hangings. The nearest comparison at home is walking round the Oxford or Cambridge colleges during graduation week with the scholars in their robes, but here replaced by monks.

Yak Butter SculpturesAs we approached one building there was a rancid smell in the air and we cautiously entered wondering where we were heading. What we found was a room full of very ornate statues carved from yak butter. The carvings were amazing and you would never guess what they were made of.

Golden TempleWe also saw inside the Serkung or Golden Temple which is the oldest temple on the site with Sanskrit language around the walls, but best of all was the Grand Sutra Hall with its many side temples/rooms. The main hall was full of ornate pillars and hanging embroideries. It was laid out with many rugs and I said to Dave it would be amazing to see it full of monks, well at the end of the tour we did!

Waiting for lunchAt 11:15 all the monks gather in the courtyard outside the Grand Hall along with a crowd of worshipers. On the day we visited the main entrance was manned by someone who clearly wasn’t a fan of tourists and he stubbornly refused to let us in. We were however shown a side entrance by a friendly local so crept in. After a while two monks sounded conch horns and all the monks rose, removed their shoes and went inside. Other monks arrived and entered the hall carrying food, next followed by the worshippers carrying offerings.

All boots to be removedNot sure if we were allowed in we hovered by the door but plucked up courage to follow a Dutch group of tourists inside and were able to walk around the perimeter of the room watching the monks eat their meal. There was a general buzz in the room and it was great to be part of the small group of westerners able to watch this daily ritual.

Meditation huts - not beehivesHaving seen around this Tibetan Monastery it raises the question of whether to add Tibet to our long list of places we want to visit. Other members of our group enthused about visiting Tibet. Our group was an interesting mix of people and it was the first time we were the youngest and the least travelled of all!!

Sanitised nomad camps for touristsIn the afternoon, we headed out of town into the Sangke Grasslands passing the fake Yurt settlements set up for the Chinese tourists. These do not look inviting and are very quiet. Apparently these places are popular with the Chinese tourists but we want something more authentic.

Road into the unknownHeading further out of town the surrounding mountains and grassland are impressive. After a while we alight the bus and walk for a while in the peaceful surroundings with only yaks and sheep for company. There is an occasional passing vehicle. One which stopped ahead of us turned out to be the local shop which the nomadic people came to visit.

Local shopAfter a chat we were invited to visit the camp of one Nomadic family and were soon seated listening to our local Tibetan guide who grew up in a similar settlement. It was a fascinating insight into the way they live. Their yaks and sheep roam the hills during the day and are kept close at night safe from wolves.

Our group learning about the localsThe ladies produced black tea and yaks milk tea for us along with some local breads and savoury snacks. Our guide then made a local Tibetan dish called tsamba made from fried barley flour mixed with a little yak milk which formed a fudge looking mixture. The resulting mix had a gritty texture and taste which was not to my liking. I am not converted to yak dairy products after this tea and the yogurt we had at breakfast.

Making tsambaEven here modern technology is being embraced, as a solar panel behind the tent is used to provide energy and charge up their mobile phones. I think they are as curious about us, as we are about them. The little ones were unsure of all us visitors at first but after a while their shyness was take over by their inquisitiveness.

Happy homelifeWe had a great afternoon out in the mountains as we always enjoy visiting locals in their homes to get an understanding of how they live. These people have been nomads for generations and are keeping up this way of life while taking advantage of some modern technology. They do not have much but seemed happy enough with their way of life – even if it is a world away from the stereotypes of live in a big Chinese city.

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