To Lanzhou and Beyond, Xiahe

To Lanzhou and Xiahe

Prayer wheels at Labrang
Prayer wheels at Labrang

Bullet train from Zhangye to Lanzhou.  Lanzhou is a large city, a hub for transport to western China or Tibet.  Train station was new and fortunately had escalators.  No lugging baggage up and down stairs.  My back appreciated the rest.  Concern is that the station is so large that we will not find driver.

Followed the crowd to the North gate exit and there was Lydia with a sign.  Sign really not needed since we are the only westerners on the train, or probably in the entire train station, or probably in the entire train station.  In China, JoAnn and I are not a difficult couple to pick out in a crowd.

We are going immediately to Xiahe which is more than a three hour drive.  Firstly we stopped for lunch at a traditional “fan dian”, restaurant in Chinese, serving the local specialty, beef noodles, beef broth with handmade noodles.  Much starch and not much protein.  Not very healthy for JoAnn.

The drive was quite nice.  The population of the area is mixed with Hui nationality, Moslems, Han and others.  Quite an ethnically mixed region.  There were very many mosques along the drive and architecture was very varied.  You could see the traditional mosque, Arabic type architecture, deeply colored roofs, and then a mosque in a very traditional Chinese architecture.  About every five miles there was another mosque viewed from the highway.

Western China is an ethnically diverse stew.  To an outsider, me, the groups maintain their individual identity and culture through language and clothes.  In Xinjiang, the western most province of China, the Uighurs maintained their language, customs and clothing.  The women, although in western dress, still wore headscarves and even had leggings under stockings.  The men, as you know, had their distinctive hats.  Physically they are quite distinct from the Han.  There is significant friction between the government drive to enforce a common, national language and the minorities, however, it seems that on the current adult population, the ethnic groups are holding their own.

Xiahe, is very high in the mountains, about 9600 feet.  It is on the Tibetan Plateau of China.  The region was conquered by the Tibetans and their influence as we moved up the mountain was evident.  Xiahe is dominated by Labrang Monastery which is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.  While I have not been in Tibet, from pictures, Xiahe is quite Tibetan in character.  A city high in the mountains, surrounded by higher peaks.  The population of Xiahe is mixed, Hui, Tibetan, and I saw some Mongol’s as well as Han.

We did not find any large restaurants in Xiahe, only small, two or three table, family run restaurants along the main street.  It appeared that all the restaurants were run by Moslem families, as the front person was a woman in head scarf.  Across the street from the hotel was a crowded restaurant, meeting one criteria for restaurant selection.  We also saw meat on some people’s table and we thought that we could get away from the noodle diet.  It turned out the meat was lamb, cold and quite fatty.  The noodles were served in some gloppy sauce.  Still, with two beers dinner was about 120 RMB, less than $20 USD.

Xiahe city is dominated by the Monastery, which is at the end of the main street, uphill, above the town.  Main Street is maybe 1 mile long.  The Monastery houses about 1500 monks who we realized are not spending all day meditating.  Like any small college town, the local students dominate Main Street.  Or maybe this is more like the Vatican where priests are a common sight.  Monks are wandering about town, red robes and cell phones in hand.  Vows of poverty, and Buddha’s precept that a monk should only own a begging bowl have changed.

Many more young, pre-teen to teen age monks than expected.  From what I read, years ago, parents sent their young boys to a Monastery when they cannot afford to feed them.  Sad, but at least they are fed.

The English speaking guide for the Monastery was ill and we had to follow a Chinese tour.  Even with our guide, Lydia translating we could not follow the guide well.  We walked with the group, JoAnn saying “Hello” to everyone and getting wonderful responses.  The more complete English responses were from the under 10 year old group.  Their English was quite a bit better than the Hotel staff.  The kids are on their way to being bilingual by their teens.

Tibetan Buddhist temples are certainly more colorful, festooned with banners, Tanka’s, flags and drapery than Chinese Buddhist temples.  The chapels, and there is probably a more appropriate term, is filled with flags and other drapery.  The statues are very colorful.  There are many alcoves with individual altars.  They had one altar for all prior Abbotts of the Monastery.

JoAnn had found that there was a wood block printing press, Barkhang, at the Monastery.  They said it was closed, but with some cajoling, claiming we worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they opened their shop for us to view.  The printing press had been moved for the winter, but the storeroom of wood blocks was opened.  They claimed there was a wood block, in Tibetan, for each page of the sutras.  Over 22,000 blocks.  Each block was one page of a sutra and the store room had them in order.   Each block was about 4 inches by about 10 inches.  It would be interesting to see how they would print multiple copies of the sutra and assemble them.

We then began the circumambulation of the Monastery.  The periphery of the Monastery, which is the path for circumambulation is lined with prayer wheels.  As you walk the path, you turn the prayer wheel.  The religious walking the path, mostly women, mainly old and all quite willing to help us offering direction, in sign language, on the methods and the pathway.   Most are chanting.  These old women are keeping a wicked pace.  I cannot keep up and I am being elbowed and passed by older folk.  They are on their mission.  Many are chanting.  Being quite sacrilegious, but in the moment, JoAnn and I begin chanting Hebrew prayers, out loud.  I am now sure how Hebrew Barucha’s sounded to the Tibetans, but we were in the moment.

At the end of each block of prayer wheels, was a hut with a larger prayer wheel, and a woman indicated that we should take three turns.  The hut was small and the wheel was moving quite fast.  We really could not keep up.  We were continually elbowed aside as the religious were on their mission to complete this two mile walk of devotion.

We stopped about half way around the Monastery.  Complete devotion takes practice and fortitude, which we lacked.    It was about noon and lunch time.  JoAnn recognized the Nomad Restaurant from the Lonely Planet.  Their menu had Tibetan food; MoMo’s, buns filled with yak meat, sweetened Tibetan tea, yak milk and Joann had a dish, of yak meat in a broth and the dish was covered with dough and steamed.  The yak meat in the bun tasted like boiled beef, quite bland.  The tea was delicious.  The yak milk was good.  Less fatty and thinner, more watery than cow’s milk.

The rest of the day we wandered the street and walked in and out of shops.  A lot of shops selling beads and bracelets.  JoAnn bought a carved, yak bone necklace.  By the time I had decided I would buy a piece of jade I had seen previously, the shop was closed for the night.  Dinner was at a restaurant next to the hotel.  It filled our criteria of being crowded.  Food was average, but we could get something more than noodles.  Along our entire route we had seen fields of corn stalks, since harvest was through.  They were drying their stalks, not sure why.  Fuel for the hearth, insulation for the house?  We did try corn at this restaurant, probably dried and quite a delicious meal.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.