Thursday, September 01, 2005

China | Gansu Province | Lanzhou

From Beijing I winged west 800 miles to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, the old Silk Road city at the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor, the narrow passageway between the inhospitable deserts to the north and the impassable mountains to the south. Lanzhou is now a city of over three million, stretched out in a narrow ribbion for at least twenty miles in the narrow valley of the Yellow River.

The airport is forty-five miles from town, apparently since there is no flat space nearer. The country from the airport to town is barren, dessicated hills, looking in some places like the Badlands of South Dakota.

As soon as I got to town I headed for Baita Park, on the other side of the Yellow River, which actually is yellow. According to published sources, each square meter of water contains seventy pounds of silt. A half hour climb up the steep hills rising almost from the river bank brought me to the so-called White Stupa. The reason for this trip was to if possible discover if this stupa is the tomb of Sakya Pandita, the thirteenth century Tibetan lama who was instrumental in first introducing Buddhism to Mongolians. My guidebooks says the stupa "may" have been erected on the orders of Chingis Khan to honor a Tibetan lama who had impressed him for one reason or another. This is highly unlikely, since it was Chingis's grandson Kodan who first invited Tibetan lamas to Lanzhou and was apparently converted to Buddhism by them.

Sakya Pandita did die in Lanzhou and was buried in a stupa here, but it is still unclear if it is the White Stupa now found on the top of one of the hills in Baita Park. Some sources say this stupa in fact dates from the Ming Dynasty. In fact, the bottom half of the stupa is built in the traditional Tibetan style, while the top half of the seventeen meter high structure is in the form of a Chinese pagoda. This suggests that the Tibetan stupa existed first, built during the Mongol period, and the that the Chinese pagoda top was added later, perhaps during the Ming Dynasty. There seems to be no tourist literature about this in English, and I cannot find any scholarly references either. So it remains uncertain if in fact Sakya Pandita is buried here.

I spent two more days tramping around Lanzhou looking at all remaining historical sites and did not see another identifiable foreigner the whole time. Even Western franchizes are in short suppy here: all I saw was a half dozen or so Colonel Sander's Fried Chicken outlets and a supposedly authorized Apple dealer selling iPods.