As we step inside the gates of the monastery, a mystic atmosphere floats over us like a cloud. The quickening beat of a cymbal invites monks in their red robes to hurry inside the ornately decorated temple. It has slanted, white limestone walls and black window sills. A group of older monks put on yellow, wattle like headdresses and get seated to perform rituals. Younger monks take off their traditional curled boots and slip inside the decorative doorway, in an orderly queue. We are getting a taste of monastery life in the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang, Xiahe.
Within the monastery premises there’s also a school for the study of tibetan buddhism. Meditation studies take three years, three months and three days to complete. For a Tibetan family, having a son who becomes a monk, is a great honour. For this reason there are dozens of boys with shaven heads and red robes inside the area, some of them as young as six. The decision to settle in to the ascetic life of a monastery seems rather huge for someone of that age, since it’s a choice that binds for a lifetime. At school the boys repeat mantras after a reader but on their breaks they run outside to play football or Frisbee or they might nip to the shop to buy nuts, dried fruits or ice-cream. With the help of our guide translating for us, we have a chat with some of the monk boys. A shy young man proudly shows us his Tibetan study book. A lively thirteen year old kneels to peek through a hole in a round stone placed on the yard. He explains that by doing so, one can see the head of a dragon! True enough, when I look through it at the right angle, a golden dragonhead on the rooftop greets me with a cheeky grin!
The temple area plays host to a vast number of traditionally dressed, Tibetan visitors. An elderly man is feeling a prayer flag in his hands. A younger one spins the handle of a prayer wheel. Its small metallic cylinder holds inside it a collection of Buddhist texts written on strips of paper. One spin of the wheel counts them all as read. Old grannies with their braided grey hair, walk clockwise around the temple, mumbling their prayers. At each passing they push into motion these huge prayers mills, located by the temple wall. Self-discipline and asceticism are crucial elements to Buddhism and this becomes apparent to us as we watch elderly, physically very fit pilgrims, completing their prayers outside the temple by doing push-up-like exercises over and over again. I highly doubt we’d manage that! Our doubts get confirmed as we climb on a small hill to take some photos of the monastery and the surrounding area. Even the smallest amount of exercise leaves us feeling breathless, because the air is thin up here, at 3,500km above sea level.
As we wander around the streets of Xiahe, it’s hard to grasp that we are still in China. Even our Chinese guide says he feels as if he was abroad, because this is a strongly Tibetan area, where Tibetan culture and customs are very obviously visible. The women have high cheekbones, black, braided hair and they tend to dress in colourful clothes and wear necklaces made from silver and colourful beads. Babies and toddlers get carried in cloth slings, on their mother’s backs. Men wear tunics with wide hip belts. The street restaurants serve buttery tea, dried mushrooms and yak meat. Pharmacies stock different herbal remedies. The souvenir shops are loaded with Kashmir scarves, goat and yak horns and even pelts of wild animals.
Since dried yak meat and buttery tea don’t prove too much of a temptation, we decide to make some Finnish pancakes instead. While we indulge in some pancakes, jam and finnish coffee we take a minute to think on just how privileged we are to have had the opportunity to experience such a variety of life in China. Over the weeks we have explored a lot, from the culturally largely Islamic silk road, to the buzz of China’s mega cities, to life here in the mountainous Tibetan villages.