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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Tibetan Family on Kora, Xiahe, China
CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30
Tibetan Family on Kora, Xiahe, Gansu Province, May 15, 2003


May 15. XIAHE (Gansu) "A Pilgrimage Kora around Labuleng Monastery" The drive to Xiahe was even more lovely than the drive between Xining and Tongren. The bus climbed over two snow covered passes, across expansive grasslands, and through numerous Tibetan villages in the three and a half hour trip.  The bus didn't start out very crowded but took on more passengers as we went along.  Not long after we had gotten on the road the driver popped in a dubbed version of "Rambo" for everyone's entertainment.  The pervasiveness of American entertainment never ceases to amaze me.  I didn't know what the monks on board would think about this excessively violent film but they too watched without appearing phased.

The road between Tongren and Xiahe was paved, or in the process of being paved, until we reached the second pass.  The entire way there was almost no evidence of Chinese life.  Only an unattended checkpoint reminded me that we were still in China.  The difference in culture from Eastern China and this region made us feel as though we had entered a different country. All of the villages were in the traditional mud and brick architecture we had seen in Sangkeshan and many had sizable gompas and/or stupas of their own.  The people also maintained a fairly traditional style of dress with the women adorned in their coral and turquoise jewelry and the men in their heavy sheep skin lined coats.  We stopped in one village to pick up passengers and take them over the snow covered pass to their smaller, more remote villages. A couple of small children peered into the front of the bus waiving "bu bai" again and again until the doors closed.  Their little rosy cheeks were adorable.   

After having spent a month in the TAR just a year ago I was so happy to experience these communities on the outskirts of the Tibetan plateau.  The current TAR would lead you to believe that Tibet was only a fraction of its actual former size. In reality these fringe communities represented a more lively and prosperous group of people than I had seen in much of the TAR.  I feel sad to have to admit that but, at the same time, I am encouraged to see how well these people recovered from an even earlier occupation by the Chinese only to have persevered in maintaining their Tibetan ways.

As we approached Xiahe we encountered the SARS checkpoint.   The bio gear clad staff extended a broom poll with a small clipboard attached to the end in order to collect our passports.  Of course they couldn't make head or tails out of our passports and had to keep flipping to the visa in order to get some information in Chinese.  The Clorox sprayer leaned over the man investigating my passport and absent mindedly pressed the lever causing bleach solution to squirt over the top of my passport in straight in our direction.  We yelped and he jumped off the sprayer handle in surprise.  My immediate concern is that they had sprayed my hand printed Chinese visa from Pohnpei and it would become illegible.   It survived but I wasn't thrilled to get it back after seeing the grimy gloves that delivered it back to me.  It was clear that these people feared SARS but I wasn't so sure that they had learned the concept of sanitation that might prevent the spread of the disease.

The bus station had us fill out another form indicating where we'd been for the previous 14 days then we hopped a little scooter taxi to the Tibetan Overseas Hotel, near the Labuleng Monastery.  It was a nice clean hotel with colorful Tibetan decoration and a tasty restaurant run by a Nepali chef.  It was the chef that informed us that May 15th was an important day in the Tibetan calendar and many people would be circumambulating the monastery in their best clothes. 

We headed off down the main street of Xiahe that bisected the huge complex of Labuleng Monastery, built in 1709.  It housed six institutes that trained monks in Esoteric Buddhism, Higher and Lower Theology, Tibetan Medicine, Astrology, and Law.   There were a few large halls on either side of the road so we picked a side and went to explore the grounds.  The first major hall we came to was humming away with the sound of chanting monks.  We stood outside the front entrance with a few pilgrims and other onlookers to watch the monks accept prayers and donations that were thrown from the entrance way.  As they chanted away these requests would be incorporated into their puja. As the hum continued we saw a younger group of monks shuffle out to the nearby kitchen and return with large thermos of butter tea.  The monks took a brief respite and continued with their puja.  The nearby kitchen was a huge room with large vats to serve the monasteries 1200 monk population.

We continued to wander between the large halls, making koras (ritual circumambulations of the buildings with the monks, nuns and pilgrims).  We didn't see any other foreign visitors. Young children would run up to us and say "hello" and giggle at us.  They became so preoccupied with doing this that we had to shush them so they wouldn't continue to follow us into the next hall and disrupt the circumambulating practitioners.  

We had reached the top of the complex and a monk smiled at us and motioned for us to join the larger kora that encircled the whole monastery.  A steady flow of people were making their way along the outer wall as they chanted and handed out donations.  The path along the top of the monastery was crowded with passive beggars waiting for a jiao or yuan from the Tibetans.  The odd thing was that most of these beggars were from the Chinese and Muslim communities.  The Tibetans were the majority population of Xiahe and this seemed to represent some sort of interesting symbiotic relationship between them and their neighbors.  The Chinese and Muslims benefited from Tibetan generosity on these holidays while the act of making a donation  is meant to improve the karma of the Tibetan pilgrims.  Everyone seemed happy.

Behind the monastery we passed a cluster of tiny buildings clinging to the side of the hill, small hermitages for monks needing more solitude to meditate on their Buddhist philosophies.  As the wall rounded back towards the main road of Xiahe we met several prayer wheel buildings beginning with four sided sided structures outlined with prayer wheels.  We followed suit and made a full circle of each building as we pushed the prayer wheels into action.  These buildings were followed by another set of buildings that housed a large prayer wheels inside.  We circumambulated these buildings, dipping inside to walk around the giant prayer wheels before finishing the outer circle.  All of these structures were followed but a big white stupa that was also circumambulated independently.  The grass area nearby was full of people resting on blankets and a few nomad tents were pitched along the monastery wall.  This was a social as well as a religious event.  They were also incredibly practical about the whole thing.  The kora was not conveniently dotted with toilets so it wasn't uncommon to see someone duck off to the side, still within view, and relieve themselves. This included the women who carefully but unabashedly hiked up their skirts and took care of business.

After the stupa we followed everyone to the long row of prayer wheels that were attached to the monasteries outer wall.  These continued with periodic breaks for paths, roads and entranceways for three quarters of the way around the entire complex.  All together there was some 1174 prayer wheels and the total circumambulation amounted to 3km of walking!   

We got into the spirit of the day and moved swiftly along with the pilgrim community.  Rob felt pats on his back from some of the monks as they gave him a thumbs up.  They weren't particularly concerned with whether we were Buddhists or not but just seemed to appreciate our interest and participation in their community. Our support of their religious activity was seen as two more people contributing to the generation of good karma for everyone involved.  When we broke off to enter the large Maitreya Buddha Hall (Future Buddha Hall) I paid for a visitor ticket. The golden Buddha towered over people as they entered the narrow hall and the high walls surrounding the statue contained 1000 smaller golden statues of bodhisattvas, each tucked into its own square alcove.  

Some more prayer wheels around the outer wall and we reached another large hall topped with a golden stupa.  When we entered a monk approached us to purchase a ticket but another monk behind us intervened.  All we could understand was the word "kora" and we took that to mean that the monk behind us was saying that because we were doing the kora with everyone we should not be expected to buy the tourist ticket.  However, we still left a small donation.  This hall didn't have a single large statue but four that faced each of the four walls as people circumambulated the inside of the hall.  The walls were colorfully painted images.  We climbed three flights of stairs, making a circle around each floor as we ascended.  The upper floors were outdoors and the final set of stairs took us to the roof where the huge golden stupa stood.  It had Buddhist images in relief around the bottom and small areas where dulled from people pressing their foreheads at the bottom of the images in prayer.  The front of the stupa had a small alter that was crowded with people praying and making donations.  The view was beautiful but the narrow path around the stupa with no railings had us moving slowly.

At this point we were more than half way around the kora and when we reached the road the bisected the complex again we took a detour to another large hall that stood outside the wall.  There were vendors selling juniper branches and herbs that could be offered in the large burner in front of the hall but the hall itself was not open.  A few other practitioners also came to make an offering and say prayers as they walked around the smoking heap of branches and herbs.

This town of Xiahe on this far side of the monastery was the primary Tibetan residential area.  The traditional homes were traditional mud walled and brick structures.  The side where our hotel stood had a Tibetan commercial area and the Chinese and Muslim residential and commercial areas.  The town was predominantly Tibetans but all three communities blended together to create a kind of trading post for all of Tibetans in the remote villages that come to stock up on supplies.  

We stopped for a drink near the few shops that stood on this side of the monastery.  We hadn't seen any other tourist all day and the Tibetan women standing nearby in all of their finery - colorful layers of dress, silver ornaments inlaid with coral and turquoise dangling from their waists, and silver jewelry - eyed with curiosity.  Since Xiahe was a pilgrimmage site there were probably many people visiting that did not see tourists very often and were shy about having any photos taken.

Feeling a bit refreshed we completed the rest of the distance around the kora, ending at the rows of Chinese and Muslim beggars.  From that point we cut back down through the various halls to the main road and walked back towards our hotel.  On the commercial edge of the complex we stopped at the Lamasery restaurant for some milk tea.  There we spotted a couple of other western tourist for the first time sine we had arrived.   The restaurant was a simple place with a steady flow of Tibetan people filing in for tea and food.  The family that ran the restaurant had small children that ran around playing and a small friendly white Pekinese that was desperately in need of a bath.

The shops in the Tibetan commercial area were lively with people shopping for traditional clothes, ornaments and jewelry,  and religious objects.  Further into town the shops provided the other necessities of life like hardware supplies, food and spices, banks, etc.  By far the most interesting part of Xiahe was the area closest to Labrang Si.

For dinner we enjoyed our Nepali chef's curries.  It was some of the most flavorful food we'd eaten in weeks!