Labrang Monastery

08:05 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

The bus station in Lanzhou is made up of an eclectic mix of everyone that is Chinese. There were Muslims who sat quietly waiting for their bus to Linxia, soldiers on their way to duty somewhere, the ubiquitous badly dressed lads and the young girls who not-so-secretly try to steal a photograph of me. The photograph thing doesn't annoy me - I do look pretty dam unusual compared to everyone else here. I just wish that Chinese people weren't so shy and would just ask for a photograph. At least then they could shoot my better side.

My first long distance bus journey in China was surprisingly comfortable. No crashes, no bad smells, no delays. I got there pretty early so that I could bag myself a window seat in anticipation of the mountain views. I needn't have bothered though, the bus was pretty empty. And then, even before I could see them, I could hear them. A blathering bunch of Raas from the UK began to board the bus. (A Raa is a really annoying, posh, University student from the home counties in southern England - they all sound like "raa raa raa, my Dad's got a ferrari"). At first I was pleased to hear a familiar accent but that soon wore off. The talked constantly at the top of their voices about the most banal drivel. It's the only time I've ever seen Chinese people tut at all the noise. The locals could at least enjoy not understanding the chatter, I had no respite.

Outside, the views were great, if a little restrained. We were still very much at the foot of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, where the mountains are a little unambitious. I was hoping for a few more diving precipices and towering summits.The bus would stop in the middle of nowhere a pick-up the odd passenger. I can't help but wonder what their lives must be like, I can barely imagine.

It was interesting to see the character of the towns change as we drove on. On the whole, contemporary Chinese architecture doesn't get beyond concrete tower blocks, but you can always make out temples on the skyline. Around Lanzhou, the temples were unmistakably Muslim - creeping minarets with a Chinese vernacular. As we moved towards the Greater Tibetan region, stout stumpas appeared by the roadside. The locals no longer wore full on head-scarfs, instead they wore red robes. China is made up a really diverse mix of people and as an Architecture geek, I wish a bit more of this diversity was reflected in the Architecture.

I eventually arrived at my destination, checked into my hotel and headed for lunch. My first view of the sprawling Labrang Monastery was from a Tibetan restaurant. I sat there eating fatty momos, drinking yak-butter tea and staring out onto the Monastery. I think I was looking pretty smug.

The Labrang Monastery is a huge complex of temples, schools and dormitories. It is the home and workplace of over 1,000 Buddhist monks and the spirituality is palpable. The Monastery grounds are skirted by a walkway, over which there are hundreds of prayer wheels. Each day, the faithful will make a circuit of the Monastery (walking the Kora), turn the prayer wheels and chant a mantra. Some would go as far as  prostrating themselves in-front of each and every prayer wheel. They were decked out in knees pads and held wooden slats to protect their hands. Their devotion was a full time occupation. I even saw old ladies with walking sticks climbing to the floor. The surrounding scenery is impressive. Golden stumpas climb above a warren of winding pathways, all of which are set against a backdrop verdant mountains. 

After I walked the Kora I went on an English language tour inside the Monastery. Our guide was a resident monk who was a little excitable. He constantly made jokes, which not everyone understood, but he laughed regardless. He also took a shine to me and spent much of the tour giggling with his arm around my shoulder. Inside, a temple is a temple and I've seen it all before (obviously I'll wax lyrical when it comes to writing a paid article) but I was impressed by one temple in which a giant Buddha was flanked by hundreds of original sutras. I fall for a wall full of books. The tour finished just as a big ceremony began. A few of us tried to blend into the background so we could watch the ceremony. I was humbled. Hundreds of barefoot monks entered the hall, scattering individual paper wishes. They sat amongst the gloom and began a deep, guttural mantra. The scene was compelling and I couldn't break myself away. 

 After an hour, my belly decided to make itself heard and we left to get some lunch. I ate with a few western tourists whom I met on the tour. I was in the unusual position of being the only person in the group who knew any Chinese. I revelled in my new role, offering to translate and barter. The tourists didn't know I can hardly speak a word. It was funny to hear their opinions on China. I felt the same as them a few months ago but I've had time to reflect and my opinions have moved on. 

After lunch we decided to climb the 'outer Kora'. This was a hike around the mountainous ridge along one side of the Monastery. Up close, the grass on the hills was littered with little 'Wind Horse' prayer flags. A few months living in smoggy China had evidently destroyed my lung capacity because I was gasping when I reached the summit. The whole view beneath us took a while to take in so we sat down and chatted together. We then continued along the ridge, back towards the Monastery. The path disappeared and the decline suddenly became almost-vertical. Carefully, we began to scrabble down the ridge. Stones slipped beneath our feet. Half way down, a set of cute dogs appeared. We didn't have time to admire them because they began barking viscously and baring their teeth. These were former pets gone feral. I armed myself with a stone. We edged past them without attack and continued our descent. Eventually we reached the foot of the ridge. We had obviously taken a wrong turn because we then had to scale over a rusty barbed-wire fence. I eased myself over first. I'd never been so careful - I did not want spiked wedding tackle. Safely over, I ran down the rest of the hill. The other tourists quickly followed and we looked up at what we'd just survived - A scrabbling decent, wild dogs and barbed-wire fencing. We were pretty pleased with ourselves and walked toward the Monastery where I immediately fell down a set of stairs. Scratched sunglasses and bruised ego aside I was okay, but I obviously can't be too careful.

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