It was the windshield wiper that woke me up. A familiar sound. And yet out of the ordinary setting. A noise I know so well from my daily life in rainy Luxembourg. And yet unusual. For it had not rained since the day we started our trip along the Ancient Silk Road in scorching hot China. We had left the Bingling Grottoes behind us hours ago. And the pagoda-shaped mosques of Linxia rising amid the setting sun were gone. It was dusk. But where were we now?
Through the gliding raindrops on my window I kept seeing shimmering yellow torches blinking every two seconds. Our car wasn’t advancing very fast. We suddenly approached a yellow vested person holding an orange road sign. Only that it wasn’t a real person. But a reflective puppet… slowing down our car in the middle of a huge road construction work. Another bridge. In the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by mountains, like shadows standing in twilight.
The first images of Xiahe were not very appealing. The town was quiet, dark, and the main street was barely lit up. Our driver turned in circles, and our guide Frank, who was normally calm, seemed to lose his patience. He explained that they couldn’t find a way to cross the bridge. They had never driven to the hotel we chose before…
I noticed a slight accusing tone in Frank’s voice. So, when the car finally stopped in front of a large misted window upon which we read the sign Hotel Nirvana, we were relieved. Knowing that China Highlights always suggests the best hotels according to our budget and travel style, I felt bad for specifically asking to stay at this one. Our main goal is to support local guesthouses or original boutique hotels and to avoid chain hotels. From what we had read from our fellow travelers, Nirvana Hotel seemed to fit the profile perfectly.
When we stepped inside, the room was full of people – speaking English, Dutch, French, German – gathered around food. The ladies behind the hotel counter seemed busy and stressed. They were both blond and spoke Dutch to each other. Two Eurasian kids ran to one of the ladies to ask something. They also spoke Dutch. Standing in a room full of Europeans, Frank suddenly seemed lost. I was probably the most Asian person he could hang onto. Once he had arranged the check-in for us, he quickly waved us goodnight and said he’d pick us up at 9am.
The next morning, he waited patiently at the door, without us even noticing his presence until we finished breakfast. Or, perhaps we were too busy talking to Clary, the lady of the house. After all, we travel to meet locals. And even if Clary doesn’t look quite local, it was interesting to listen to her story. Why she left the Netherlands to settle in this little Chinese town. How her husband, a native of Xiahe, decided to open Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant and Bar.
When we left the hotel, we were surprised to see how alive the town had turned into. Unlike most towns and cities in China, daylight definitely makes a difference in Xiahe. But then again, were we really still in China?
Xiahe is in fact part of the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Located on the southern part of Gansu Province, it certainly still lies inside the People’s Republic of China. But neither the architecture of this town, nor the food or the population can be characterized as “traditional Chinese”. There are some Hui and Han Chinese living in Xiahe. But the majority are ethnic Tibetans, living in rural and pastoral areas in and around Xiahe. Besides, the county was named Xiahe only in 1928, which literally means “Xia River” in Chinese, referring to the Daxia River which runs through the county. Before 1928, the town was called Sangqu, which is Tibetan and also means “Xia River”.
Your tour starts at 10am. Frank spoke so slowly, that we thought we missed a few informations he might have shared. What tour? Was he not supposed to be our local tour guide? Yes, but you are going to visit the Labrang Monastery, which is the main attraction in this town. A Tibetan monk inside will guide you through the monastery.
So, Frank’s job was merely to bring us to the monastery’s entrance… Before even reaching the entrance, we heard an unusual sound: a perpetual whirr we had never heard before. And the closer we got to the monastery, the louder the clatter. Frank noticed our puzzled look, and explained that the rattling noise came from the prayer wheels. You see: all around the outer wall of the monastery, there’s a 3,5km long corridor of prayer wheels, called the Kora. And it is actually the longest prayer wheel path in the world. Pilgrims who come to the monastery in the early morning, first walk this sacred way clockwise and spin each prayer wheel, before going into the monastery. When all the prayer wheels are spun at the same time, the sound is totally awe-inspiring.
When we stood in front of the huge prayer wheels painted in bright red, Frank asked if we wanted to spin them. But why do pilgrims spin the wheels, we asked. Well, Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels are used since the 4th century. And they were created for the illiterate and those who cannot read the sutra. So, instead of reading a prayer, they can spin a prayer wheel, which has the same effect as reading a sutra. Today, Tibetan Buddhists, who can read sutras, still spin prayer wheels, hoping their efforts will be rewarded in their next life.
Kerstin is an agnostic, while I was raised as a Chinese Buddhist. Should we really spin the prayer wheels too? Would we show a sign of respect and courtesy by doing so? Or would it be considered as inappropriate since we don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism? Frank seemed confused with our question, and decided to change the subject.
Let me tell you a bit about Labrang Monastery. It is home to the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. And it’s one of the six greatest temples of Gelukpa, also known as the Yellow Hat sect of the Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lama belongs. Founded in 1709, Labrang Monastery now houses about 1500 monks, who study daily in one of the six institutes inside the monastery’s precinct.
As we slowly walked to the main square of the monastery, I couldn’t help noticing the fortified appearance of the architecture. Buildings were rectangular. Walls were slightly inclined inward. And windows were trapezoidal. They reminded me of the Inca architecture we saw in Peru, on the other side of the planet…
When our tour of the monastery started, my first question to our guide was related to the architecture. The young monk must have wondered why I was more interested in the trapezoidal windows than anything else. Oh, you have good eyes, he laughed. The inclination of the walls and windows are to protect against seismic activity. And do you know why most of the buildings have a flat roof? To keep the heat inside. Because we are on a 3000m high plateau. So, it gets cold in winter. Besides, on a flat roof, it’s also easier to clear the snow.
Oh, and you have certainly also noticed that many buildings are red. Do you know why? The young monk seemed eager to keep explaining. He continued, before we even answered. So, what is the color red for you? I heard Kerstin enumerate love, passion and fire. Seeing our friendly guide smile, I quickly added that red also symbolizes fortune, happiness and luck in Chinese culture. But I suppose there’s another meaning in Tibetan Buddhism? He nodded. For us Tibetans, the color red is associated with Buddha Amitabha. This is also why our robes are red. He looked down on his garment, as if he wanted to make sure it didn’t change color… Red also represents life-force and preservation. And it is sacred. So, buildings with red walls are sacred places that hold and offer life-force to everyone.
But there are also some white buildings in Labrang Monastery… The monk burst out laughing, holding his belly with one hand. I immediately regretted having expressed my thoughts out loud. Yes, yes, you are right, he confirmed. There are also white walls here. White is the color of learning and knowledge. Kerstin supposed that the white buildings were institutes then. Yes, yes, some are monastic colleges; others are residences or common buildings. We don’t just study in schools, but also in our houses.
During the tour, we only visited a few of the eighteen halls and the six institutes. Despite the high altitude, it was scorching hot in Xiahe. We were glad whenever we could enter one of the halls to take shelter from the midday sun. However, filled with Buddha statues, relics, artifacts and thangka, the halls were always illuminated by the dim light of yak butter candles. And yak butter releases an odor so pungent that we couldn’t stay long inside.
When we were ending our visit of the Labrang Monastery, the monks started to chant their last morning prayer. Hundreds of them were sitting in rows. The older ones in the front of the hall; the younger ones in the back rows. All of them were wearing a red robe and a yellow mohawk-shaped hat. As they chanted all together with their deep voice, we felt like entering a trance. The flickering light and the smell of yak butter lamps certainly helped to intensify the state of trance…
Outside the prayer hall, countless black felt boots were scattered on the ground at the entrance. How would the monks recognize and find their shoes after the prayer?
Before we left the Labrang Monastery, our guide offered us one last fact to reflect upon: to study medicine, the monks need fifteen years in total. But philosophy requires at least twenty-five years of learning! You see how important it is to search for the meaning of life and afterlife? This question lingered in my mind for a while. But I’m a historian. Not a philosopher. So, suddenly it occurred to me that our monk-guide didn’t mention much about the history of the Labrang Monastery.
I knew from Thubron Colin’s Shadow of the Silk Road that the monastery housed 4000 monks at its peak. But in the 1920s, many died during numerous battles between the Tibetans and the Hui people (Chinese Muslims) who lived in the region. When the Tibetans rose against China in 1959, a lot of monks were arrested and expulsed. The library which held thousands of sutras were burnt down. And the Cultural Revolution, which started a few years later (1966-1976), also destroyed many buildings and temples of Labrang. It was only in 1980 that the monastery reopened its doors.
None of these events were recounted by the young monk who guided us through the lamasery. Did he choose not to talk about this? Or was he not allowed to?
I got my answer a few hours later, during our short horse ride through the vast highland meadow of the Sangke Grasslands. The two Tibetan teenagers who led us through the picture-perfect prairie didn’t speak English. I understood them a bit. But my Mandarin was unfortunately too bad for them to figure out what I asked. They used their smartphone to translate our questions and translated their opinions back in English.
We wanted to know if they were Tibetan or Chinese. A simple question… with an underlying meaning. The boys clearly caught our message between the lines, and giggled nervously. Without using his translation app, the eldest of them said in his broken English: we are Tibetans. So, we are Chinese. But if talk too much, then… krik! He made a gesture with his hand, as if he were slitting his throat.
When we finally reached the top of a mount, the four of us stood still and stared at the lamasery complex. With its gilded roofs and spires gleaming in the afternoon sun, Labrang Monastery looked majestic and almost peaceful. Somewhere in the surrounding emerald mountains, a bunch of vultures circled in the sky.