A 3hr bus ride through stunning grasslands and mountains from Repkong, just over the provincial border of Qinghai is Xaihe, Gansu province. Labrang Monastery dominates this town and is one of the 6 major Gelugpa monasteries of Tibet. Tibetan pilgrims fill the town year round and from sunrise to sunset there is always a stream of them walking or prostrating around the Kora and spinning each and every of the 1174 Prayer Wheels that surround the complex and are in a constant state of motion. It was here that I made my first real Tibetan friends and had the opportunity to learn about their culture, lifestyle and the unfortunate lack of freedoms that they still face today in communist China, freedoms that we take for granted as our general rights in the West.
The town is largely split between the Tibetan and Han Chinese residents with most of the Tibetans living south of Labrang and the Han and small group of Hui Chinese living to the north. The Tibetan village differs vastly to the other side of town with the houses being predominately low-set walled houses as opposed to the multi-story dwellings that are constantly being erected in the Chinese quarter.
Labrang is huge, the largest monastery I have ever visited. It was once home to almost 4000 monks, today around 1200 live, study and practice here. Although at Labrang the monks may study and practice Buddhism, they don’t have complete religious freedoms and the government monitors and controls what goes on. Photos of the Dalai Lama are completely banned, you would normally expect to find one sitting on every alter – Photos of high lama’s within the particular traditions are always mounted on the alter within a gompa. While the Dalai Lama’s photo is banned, the Chinese government’s chosen reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama’s photo sat front and centre on many of the alters I saw within Labrang. This Panchen Lama is not recognised by the Tibetan’s as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama that was identified by the Dalai Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was taken into custody by the Chinese government soon after he was recognised and has not been seen since. That happened in 1995 when he was just 6 years old. There is a great documentary on this called the Tibetan Stolen Child.
The only way to get a peak within the walls of the gompa’s and halls is on a guided tour but you are free to explore the rest of the complex at will. Being the off season the English guided tour consisted of just me and a young English guy. The murals, thangka’s and carpets that decorated the interiors of the buildings were extremely intricate and beautiful. The statues were huge, golden and also very detailed. A first for me here was also to see the amazing Yak Butter Sculptures. The amount of work that goes into creating these at first to a westerner seems crazy as they are later put on display during a festival or ceremony and allowed to melt in the sun – This however is a representation of impermanence and the fact that nothing in this world is permanent and everything is constantly changing.
Late one afternoon I was also able to witness the traditional form of debating that monks take part in which is an important part of their study. It consists of the monks answering questions posed by fellow monk or teacher and a clap represents each point made. When the monk can’t answer the question or gets it wrong huge laughter breaks out within the monks to egg them on.
The outer Kora here heads up into the surrounding mountains past a ruined hermitage site that had a large collection of Prayer Flags fluttering in the wind along with lung-tas or Wind Horses that flooded the sky. Wind Horses are small squares of paper that are thrown into the wind from high passes, sacred sites or almost anywhere that the wind will take them, they bring blessings to the environment and embody the Buddhist wish to free all beings from suffering. I found them all through the mountainside of region. The outer Kora then passes a sky burial site and later re-joins the lower Kora at the north east end of the monastery. It is also possible to follow the valley up from the sky burial site past a small Tibetan village and then up into the mountains which I also did during my stay here. You have to jump a few fences that house the yak and mountain goats and scramble up there trails but the views over the monastery and surrounding valleys, grasslands and snow covered mountains are worth the effort.
The guesthouse I stayed at was where I met my Tibetan friends who all worked there. During my time at the guesthouse I mostly stayed in a 10 bedroom dorm that was full of Tibetan pilgrims; families, monks, nuns and me. The crew from the guesthouse were all from a small village in Sichuan that they later arranged for me to visit. They were extremely hospitable and I was invited to every meal with them for free! On one of the nights I helped out in the kitchen and we cooked up a huge feed of momo’s (steamed dumplings).
One of the guys I met had great English which was a result of him spending 9 years in Dharamsala where Tibetan’s are offered an education and looked after by the Tibet Government in Exile. His journey to India wasn’t an easy one and involved an illegal crossing through the Himalayas as Tibetan’s are not usually granted passports and are not allowed to leave the country. It took him two attempts to cross the border from Tibet into Nepal, each attempt being a dangerous 30 day walk through the remote high passes of the Himalayas. He then also had to sneak back into China so that he could return home to his family.
My second visit to Xiahe coincided with Losar, Tibetan New Year and was also very close to the anniversary of a Tibetan uprising which was the reason for the close of the TAR to foreigners. The sale of fireworks to Tibetans had been banned in town and road checkpoints were confiscating any being brought in from outside. Banning fireworks during Chinese New Year would be unspeakable but double standards defiantly apply here. Despite the ban they of course managed to get some fireworks in. The first lot of went off at about 9pm and I was outside in the street with everyone else just watching. As we were heading back inside the police rocked up and questioned the guesthouse as to whether or not I had been registered as I think I was the only foreigner left in town at this stage. I was also then questioned about taking video footage and photos and told I wasn’t allowed outside after dark… Come midnight large groups of monks were in the street along with other Tibetans and the fireworks were going off all across town. I stayed by the door way to comply with the police instructions as I didn’t want to risk the guesthouse getting into trouble, it was also probably the safest place as I could easily duck behind the glass as wayward fireworks came our way. Towards the end all the rubbish was piled in a bon fire in the middle of the road and unexploded fireworks were going off in all directions, I was then defiantly thankful for my spot behind the glass.