Monday, September 05, 2005

China | Gansu Province | Labrang Monastery

Someone told me the best place to stay in Xiahe, the tiny village around the monastery, was the Tara Guesthouse, but they did not tell me how to find this place. No matter, the moment I got off the bus a young Tibetan guy came up to me and said, "Taxi to Tara Guesthouse?" The guesthouse turned out to be a half mile or so west and only a hundred feet from the southeast corner of the monastery. When I went in and asked for a room, a young, thin, Tibetan guy asked me what country I was from and when I said the USA he said, "Do you know Tara?" I thought he meant did I know about the goddess Tara who of course I have written about many times on this blog (see Zanabazar Museum post below). I said yes, I knew about Tara, to which he replied, "Well, she called from New York City this morning and told me I was to expect an American guest arriving this afternoon." For a moment I was confused. Was Tara now communicating with people via the international phone lines? Finally I asked, "What exactly is Tara doing in New York?" The guy replied, "She is there on business, but she will be back here in two or three weeks." It turns out the Tara is the name of the Tibetan woman who runs and apparently owns this guesthouse. I was not, as far as I know, the American she was expecting to arrive today.

Anyhow, the guesthouse has a dozen or so rooms arranged around an open courtyard. I got one of the deluxe rooms for 60 yuan, or about eight dollars, a night. This had a sleeping platform in it with two mattresses and a low table inbetween. Very comfortable. The bathroom was on the opposite side of courtyard, and there was hot water every morning from seven to nine for washing up.

I immediately headed for the Khora, the circumabulation route around the monastery, an entrance to which was just fifty feet from the front entrance to the questhouse. I have done a lot of these khoras and this turned out to be one of the most impressive I have ever seen. As I finally discovered, it is 1.9 miles long, encircling the entire monastery complex, and is lined on three side with barrel-sized prayer wheels. Every few hundred feet the line is broken by a small pavilion with two similar sized prayer wheels in the entranceway and an eight-foot high one in a back room. In total there are supposedly 1174 prayers wheels, although I did not try to count them myself.

Even now, at four in the afternoon, there are several hundred Tibetans doing the Khora, many in traditional clothes, with the women draped in elaborate silver, torquoise, and coral jewelry. From where I started the khora runs south and then west along the bank of the surging Daxia River, yellow like the Yellow River and about seventy-five feet wide at this point. Across the river rise steep hills covered with sparkling green grass and copses of fir trees, quite a different scene from the badlands around Lanzhou. At one point between the khora and the river are a row of workshops where artisans are turned out clay statues and wood carvings. One statue of Buddha, the lotus base and body up to the navel already completed, will be at least seven feet tall when done. Standing in the back of the workshop are four foot high statues of Green Tara and Amitayus, the clay work of which is done but as of yet not painted or glazed, or however they will be finished. The wood carvings are apparently ornaments for over doorways. The line of prayer wheels is broken here and there with entrances to several temples and each is decorated with quite eloborate wood carvings, all of obviously recent provenance.

One such entrance leads to the 31 meter high Gongtang Stupa. To enter the temple at the base of the stupa and climb to the top level requires a ten yuan ticket. In the temple a very surly Tibetan monk barked at me, demanding to see my ticket. He seemed surprised when I had one, in fact disapppointed, as if he was looking forward to showing me the door. Anyhow, I circled the very elaborate temple, in the middle of which are stacked in a huge pile reaching up into the second floor some 20,000 volumes of Tibetan Buddhist texts. At the back of the temple was a nice statue of White Tara and beside it an offering bowl where people had deposited a big pile of yuan bills. I got out a 20 togrog Mongolian bill and propped it up on one side of the offering plate. At a another plate further on I left another 20 togrog note. When I came back to this temple the next day the big piles of yuan were still there but both togrog bills are gone. This bills have a depiction of a Mongolian nobleman wearing a traditional Mongolian hat on them and of course Mongolian writing in both Cyrillic and Tradition Mongolian scripts and I knew from previous trips to Tibet that these bills were highly prized for their curiousity value. In fact I exchanged several of them for yuan at twenty or thirty times their actual value. Still, I was a bit surprized someone had filched them from the offering plates. This is no-no in a temple. But perhaps I should be blamed for creating the temptation.

I proceeded up through the second and third floors of the stupa and emerged on the top floor, where in the traditional niche in the stupa is a six foot high statue of Amitabha. Also from this vantage point is a great view of the entire monastery complex stretching out to the north, with the glittering copper roofs of the main temples at the base of the mountains about a half mile away.

Continuing on the khora I crossed the the main road of Xiahe, which cuts right through the middle of the monastery complex and proceed along the khora to the northwest corner of the compound, where the prayer wheels end. From here the khora cuts east between the northern wall of the monastery and the very steep hillside behind. After another twenty minutes or so I was back to where I started. Conveniently, the Gesar Restaurant was just across the way so I popped in for some butter tea and a plate of momos, Tibetan dumplings. I love Tibetan food, but I have to admit I have had a lot better. Also in the restaurant were six young Tibetan monks aged perhaps ten through twelve stuffing their noodle chutes while keeping their eyes glued on the Woody Woodpecker cartoons (dubbed in Chinese) playing on the TV.

I went back to my hotel only to discover that in the room next to me that the young Chinese woman who had sat next to me on the bus here. I had established very early that she did not speak a word of English, and she soon had her headphones of her MPEG player and was lost to the music, but I could not help staring at her several times. She appeared to be a Chinese version of a girl who had been in my class in high school. Actually, I had probably not thought of this person in thirty years, but now her double, or a least a Chinese version of her double, was sitting next to me. The resemblance was uncanny.

I got up just at daybreak the next day and did the whole khora again. Then breakfast of pancakes covered with local honey. This seems to be a big product around here. Curiously the trucks with the hives that we passed were headed to Xiahe and not to lower country as one would expect at this time of the year. Here at 9600 feet summer and the flowering season for plants is pretty much over. In any case, the honey was delicious.

After breakfast I headed over to the main part of the monastery. Labrang was founded in 1709 and quickly developed into one of the leading Gelug, or Yellow Hat monasteries. It had six colleges and in its heyday had over 4000 monks in residence. Of course the communist takeover of China and the subsequent Cultural Revolution took its toll, with many of the temples and stupas destroyed or damaged, but now once again Labrang is, at least according to its boosters, the largest university of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, with six colleges, forty-eight temples, 2000 monks, and over 20,000 volumes of sutras.

You can now walk around the monastery grounds pretty much as you wish, but unlike many Yellow Hat monasteries in Tibet the temples are all locked and are only opened to the public twice a day when a monk or two gives a guided tour lasting about an hour. Whether this situation prevails in the wintertime when Tibetans traditionally go on pilgrimages and flock to temples such as these is unclear. Anyhow, I joined a group of about thirty people, all of whom were in three different groups on extended tours of China, Labrang just being one of their stops. There was one group from France, one from Australia, and one from England. As far as I could tell none of them were Buddhists and for them this was just another tourist attraction on their itinerary. As it turned out, one of the Tibetan guides with one of the tour groups led the tour, and not a monk, as it was said his English was better.

We only got to look at three temples: the Medicine Buddha Temple, connected with the College of Tibetan Medicine, the so-called Grand Gold Tile Hall, and the huge Grand Sutra Hall, the center of the monastery. Curiously, in both the Gold Tile Hall and the Grand Sutra Hall there were prominently displayed photographs of the 14th Dalai Lama, something you will seldom if ever see in Tibet itself. There were of course photographs also of the last Panchen Lama and his young successor, the one chosen by the government and not the Dalai Lama's pick. The guide gave a brief introduction to the idea of reincarnated lamas and how they are chosen, and mentioned the line of reincarnated lamas here at Labrang. All of these seemed to be news to many in the tour groups, despite the plethora of books, TV specials, movies, and whatnot on this subject in recent years. Then in the Grand Sutra Hall there was another photo of the current Panchen Lama, just a boy in his teens, and the guide let slip that this one was chosen by the government. Someone in the tour group, who had obviously paying attention to his little spiel on how reincarnations are chosen, piped up, "But how can the government determine who is a reincarnation?" "Well, you see, now, this is a political decision," and very quickly shooed the group out of the hall." The Grand Sutra Hall, by the way, is immense, with 140 pillars and said to be capable of holding 4000 chanting monks at a time.