Tag: China

The Dafo Temple in Zhangye, China • Travel with Mei and Kerstin

The Dafo Temple in Zhangye, China


As our train curled west towards Zhangye, we watched jet-black yaks and blue-dyed sheep grazing along the Hexi Corridor.


Located between the snow-capped Qilian Mountains in the south and the inhospitable Gobi Desert in the north, the Hexi Corridor is a narrow passage of around 1000 km. All explorers and merchants who traveled between Central Asia and China had to pass though this string of arable terrains, which forms the northern part of the ancient Silk Road. The very Silk Road we explored from Xi’an to Ürümqi in the summer of 2019.


Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


The city of Zhangye is one of the oases along the Hexi Corridor. Marco Polo, who lived there for a year, called this place Campichu. On the day after our arrival in Zhangye, we found out that there’s even a main street in the city named after Marco Polo, along with a statue of the Venetian merchant standing proudly in the center of a roundabout.


Marco Polo was however not the only famous historical figure to have lived in Zhangye. The Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan is said to have been born in this city. And to be exact, inside the Dafo Temple. Built in the 12th century, this Buddhist temple now holds the longest wooden reclining Buddha in China.


Reclining Buddha in the Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Reclining Buddha in the Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


The statue of the reclining Buddha is in fact so long that I had to take a step back when we set foot in the Dafo Temple. But having been raised Buddhist, I felt the necessity to kneel down on one of the three prayer mats and say “Namo Amituofo”, before I dared looking up to give the statue a closer examination. That was when I saw that Buddha’s eyes were almost closed.


Behind me, I heard Kerstin ask our guide about the meaning of a sleeping Buddha. Oh no, he is not sleeping, Tony answered. He is dead! I turned around and saw Kerstin looking perplexed. You mean, he entered nirvana? she asked. Yes, exactly! He is dead and he went to nirvana… to heaven. Buddha is dead, that is why his 10 disciples are standing around him. Tony raised his arm and pointed at the statues positioned around the reclining Buddha.


Buddha's disciples in the Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Buddha’s disciples in the Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


I looked at the disciples’ face and noticed something unusual. Like the Terracotta Army we saw in Xi’an, the statues representing Buddha’s disciples also reveal different physical traits. Not just the form of their face or eyes is different, but also the color of their face. According to our guide Tony, this heterogeneity was meant to show that Buddha had followers coming from various regions of the world.


Next to statues with Chinese Han facial characteristics, we recognized disciples with Mongolian traits, Tibetan, Indian, Persian or Central Asian, and even an African. One of the disciples probably represents a hermit who preached in the desert, because he was portrayed as a very skinny man with visible ribs.


Perhaps it was due to the dim light inside the temple. Or because I kept looking up at the tall statues standing high above us. But for a moment, I thought they moved…  Or was it because of the statues’ hollow eyes? Tony said that their eyes were all made of jade, but unfortunately the stones were stolen, leaving them as round big holes, looking into the void.



You know, there were many other items inside the reclining Buddha. I don’t know why our guide suddenly whispered, as if what he was about to tell us had to be kept secret. Look, he continued, the Buddha is very high, right? It is 7,50 meters high and 35 meters long. Inside the Buddha there are in fact five stories. Each story is about 1,50 meter high. If you went inside, you could climb from one story to the next. When the statue was built, the monks hid pottery, boxes and many other relics inside. But unfortunately, everything was stolen and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Tony nodded his head slowly, as his whisper came to a standstill.


So, is or was there a ladder inside the statue of Buddha, which connects the five stories? Our guide looked at me with a question mark. Oh, no. There is no ladder. Only sticks of wood. Seeing us both confused, Tony explained that the statues are not really made of wood. They are made with sticks of wood, then covered with dry mud and then painted. Zhangye is an arid area. So, the sculptures of this region are usually made of clay, not wood.


Model of wooden structure of Buddha, Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Model of the interior wooden structure of the reclining Buddha statue, Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


Oh, let me tell you something else… look at this disciple! Tony pointed at a specific statue standing behind Buddha. This is Buddha’s son. He looks sad, because his father died. Personally, I think that the son of Siddhartha needs to learn more. He is not supposed to be sad, because Buddha is going to heaven. If his father were like you and me, a human, then yes, he could be sad. In fact, I don’t really understand Buddhism and Taoism. Sometimes, it’s not logical…


Are you a Buddhist or Taoist? I asked Tony, sensing Kerstin’s sudden sharp stare at me. I could feel that my question to Tony was a bit too straightforward for my wife. But Tony is Chinese. And I know that Chinese people don’t interpret forthright questions as impolite or disrespectful. If they don’t want to answer, they either reply they won’t tell you, or they simply give you a loud laughter. Our guide did neither of these…


Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


I’m interested in all types of religions and their history, Tony stated. But like 90% of Chinese people in China, I don’t believe and don’t practice any religion. In fact, if I had to choose one religion, I would probably choose Christianity or Islam. When my grandmother died a few years ago, my parents made a huge Taoist ceremony for her. A lot of relatives, friends, neighbors and everyone from the village came to her burial ceremony.


People were talking, singing, even eating and laughing. I was shocked, because I was sad. I could not understand why they all talked and laughed. My grandmother just died, so everyone was supposed to be sad, not happy! I suppose that in Islam and Christian burial ceremonies, the priest or imam speaks alone, while everyone else is quiet. Then he speaks about all the good and all the bad things the dead person has accomplished. For me, this is more adequate.


We both listened to Tony quietly, wondering if many other Chinese people reason like our guide. For a moment, I wanted to ask Tony if he has ever heard of the religion of Cao Dai and what he thinks of that. But before I got a chance to raise my question, we moved on to the room located behind the reclining Buddha.


Statue of Xuanzang and mural depicting the Journey to the West, Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Statue of the monk Xuanzang and behind him the mural depicting the Journey to the West, Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com


There, I stopped aghast in front of a huge mural. It depicts the story of the Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang, who traveled to India to obtain sutras with the help of his three disciples. Oh, you know the Journey to the West? Tony was clearly surprised. He quickly added: so, you also know that according to the 16th century novel, the monkey is the smartest of the monk’s disciples? Yes, I announced happily. I used to watch the TV adaptation of the Journey to the West with my grandmother when I was a kid and I loved the Monkey King!


Seeing me all excited, our guide explained that this mural was painted 300 years before the novel was published. And on this painting, experts have found out that the pig was actually the smartest of the monk’s followers. Astonished, I moved forward to examine the mural, as if I could have found out more about this revelation through the paintings’ details…


Mural in Dafo Temple, Zhangye © Travelwithmk.com
Mural outside the Dafo Temple, Zhangye, depicting the Monkey King among other Buddhist legends © Travelwithmk.com


Wait, there is yet another fascinating thing you can discover here in Dafo Temple! Clearly, our guide knew how to keep grabbing our attention. Behind the mural, he showed us a small private staircase which led to the top of the temple. Built for the emperor’s son who often came to pray Buddha, this staircase was meant to lead the emperor and his son to the highest floor, where they could be on the same level as Buddha. In this way, the emperor could show everyone that he was chosen by Heaven. He was therefore claiming the same rank as Buddha and did not consider himself below Buddha to any extent.


What is your opinion? we asked Tony. Do you think that emperors and kings are chosen by Heaven or God? Our guide guffawed and moved towards the temple’s main gate. That was a clear sign that he didn’t want to answer…


As we walked past the gigantic incense burner, a little girl jokingly held up three burning incense sticks towards her brother instead of turning towards the temple to pray the Buddha. Her giggles soon turned into loud laughter as she inclined her head towards her brother, who seemed to be having great fun to be prayed at. Their grandmother was putting her joss sticks in the incense pit. But it didn’t take her long to notice the whole scene and to yell at her grandkids from afar…



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The Dafo Temple in Zhangye, China

Dafo Temple in Zhangye, China © Travelwithmk.com

The Dafo Temple, Zhangye, China

Moving gay film becomes rare hit in China

A photo of a man holding a book to his face which reads: 'Wish LGBT public welfare no longer difficult'

The poster for Forbidden Love in Heaven. (Ran Yinxiao_

A simple film about a gay couple who adopt a homeless child, Forbidden Love in Heaven has become something almost unthinkable for LGBT+ filmmakers and moviegoers in China: a hit.

In a nation where acceptance of same-sex couples is progressing at a less-than-glacial rate, Chinese filmmakers have long been censored and nettled by authorities’ inability to acknowledge that LGBT+ people even exist.

But 19-year-old filmmaker Ran Yinxiao sought to challenge the industry with his film, Forbidden Love in Heaven, released on local streaming platforms in July 2020.

It was a “bold attempt to explore the difficulties that sexual minorities face in starting a family”, Yinxiao told South China Morning Post.

“My thinking was that if three different people without any blood ties could start a family, then this must be the world’s strongest family,” he said.

Indeed, the film presented a fresh test for media regulators, where the broadcasting of “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content” is banned by the National Radio and Television Administration.

The agency’s regulations have forced many moviemakers to veil queer stories in subtext or cut and censor their films to get them aired – Yinxiao managed to drop the trailer for his film only after making it more “ambiguous”, he said.

“I think to myself, why do moviemakers exist?” Yinxiao added.

“Our camera lens is our weapon. We enlarge the aperture to allow more light to shine on the places of the world that aren’t easily seen.

Yinxiao, a Communication University of China film student, based his film on a real-life family. He said it had one simple aim: “I wanted to emphasise that an LGBT couple can raise and nurture a child too.”

Forbidden Love in Heaven received positive reviews on social media platform Weibo, the Post reported, and netted neutral coverage in state-run media. It was a small victory, Yinxiao acknowledged, but one that has buoyed him to continue making content that centres LGBT+ families.

“I hope our film is the start of this acceptance,” reflected Zhang Xin, an actor who played one of the film’s fathers.

“And I hope that in the future there’ll be more movies of this kind; maybe our movie can be a pioneer, a small pioneer.”

A study jointly conducted by the United Nations Development Programme, Peking University and the Beijing LGBT Center in 2016 found that only five per cent of “sexual and gender minority people” in China are “willing to live their diversity openly”.

In 2020 LGBT+ activists fought – and failed – to be counted in the country’s decennial census and demand marriage equality be finally legalised.

A Slice of Tibet in Gansu, China • Travel with Mei and Kerstin

Labrang Monastery: A Slice of Tibet in Gansu, China


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.


Nirvana Hotel in Xiahe, Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com
Nirvana Hotel in Xiahe, Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com


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…


Labrang Monastery in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com
Labrang Monastery in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com


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.


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Labrang Monastery: A slice of Tibet in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com

Labrang Monastery: A slice of Tibet in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com

Labrang Monastery: A slice of Tibet in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com

Labrang Monastery: A slice of Tibet in Gansu, China © Travelwithmk.com