By ERIK ECKHOLM
There aren’t many places where you can rack up so much good karma in so little time. Walking the one-mile-plus clockwise loop around the Labrang Monastery complex in north-central China, you can spin 1,174 brightly painted Tibetan prayer wheels lined up along the inner side of the path, sending a scripture heavenward with every push.
There is a catch. As the monk who guided us through the inner temples repeated emphatically: “If you don’t really believe, the Buddha can’t protect you.”
Whether because of insufficient faith, the altitude or age I can’t say, but I never made the complete circuit: half an hour of brisk walking, shoving a mere few hundred of the large brass cylinders in rapid succession, left my spirits high but my right shoulder distinctly sore.
The Tibetan pilgrims walking the loop, many of them decked in splendid woolens, coral and silver, seemed to have perfected economical techniques for nudging every wheel as they made their rounds, a prelude to more circuits and chants inside the monastery temples.
Karmic dividends or not, my wife, Libby, and I and our children, Cara, 10, and Andy, 8, spent an entrancing couple of days wandering the grounds of Labrang, strolling the main street of the adjacent town, Xiahe and hiking in the yak pastures of nearby hills.
Since moving to Beijing five years ago, I’d yearned to visit this place, which is still off the radar of major tour groups but known among expatriates in China as a place for magical short holidays. The kids always seemed too young, especially given the arduous travel – a two-hour flight from Beijing and then a six-hour, hilly drive – and the third-class accommodations.
Finally last fall, we felt our children were old enough, and over the Oct. 1 National Day holiday, we ventured on a five-day trip that became one of our favorite short vacations.
Xiahe (pronounced shyah-huh) and Labrang Monastery are 9,500 feet high in a pleasant, if rather barren, mountain valley of Gansu Province. The monastery is a major center of esoteric scholarship and now houses more than 1,000 saffron-robed monks of all ages – down from nearly 4,000 a century ago, but well recovered from Chinese Communist persecution of the late 1960’s when many temples were destroyed and the monks sent to work on farms.
Probably the most important Tibetan monastery outside the officially designated Tibetan autonomous region, Labrang is a hallowed destination for the faithful from hundreds of miles around and mother to hundreds of smaller monasteries over a large zone of Gansu and Qinghai – the eastern swath of ethnic Tibetan settlement that local residents call Amdo. Xiahe is also at a confluence of Tibetan, Hui Muslim, Han Chinese and other ethnic groups, multiplying the appeal for those who enjoy exploring new geography and cultures.
Most visitors start out from Lanzhou, the undistinguished capital of Gansu. From there, you travel southwest, by car or bus, to Xiahe. The trip can be grueling, especially with road construction now under way, but the driving time will eventually be cut to four hours.
Nonetheless, it is one of the most interesting drives in China – a quick introduction to rural life and varied ethnic groups.
The best time to visit Xiahe is in summer, when temperatures are moderate (while China’s south is blisteringly hot) and the grasslands are green. We arrived at the outer edge of the tourist season, which extends from late April to early October, and found it pleasantly cool. Winters are frigid.
Hardier travelers can join the down-clad crowd that descends on the town in midwinter each year to witness the Monlam, the Great Prayer Festival. (Tied to the Tibetan lunar New Year, the latest Monlam began on Feb. 13.) This colorful event includes the ceremonial placement of a 98-foot tanka, or silk scripture, on a hillside facing town and a day of masked Cham dances.
It’s definitely on my short list for future adventures.
Other, more modest festivals, nomads’ horse racing and assorted religious ceremonies take place periodically through spring and summer.
Because we live in Beijing and speak Chinese, we made our own transportation arrangements to Xiahe, hiring a van and driver for four days in Lanzhou, where we spent our first night.
The next morning, we set out early for Xiahe. Soon we were passing through Hui Muslim villages, obvious from the white skullcaps and beards on the men and the shawls covering women’s heads.
The Hui, who account for the bulk of China’s Muslims and are quite distinct from the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, in the far northwest, are a product of Central Asian migrations and mixing in centuries past, and speak Mandarin Chinese while keeping a distinct life style.
Mosques are everywhere in these settlements. Some have familiar, Arabic-looking rounded tops, but others cause a double take: pagoda-like structures in baroque green-and-yellow tiled Chinese style, but topped with the little Islamic crescent.
Along the road you see goats butchered, grains being pounded by hand and donkey carts laden with potatoes. It is a bit jarring, then, when grade-school Muslim children pour into the street in their bright school uniforms, all wearing the red kerchief of the Communist Party’s Young Pioneers.
After a lunch stop in Linxia, a sizable city that is half Muslim and has a large central mosque, we drove on to Xiahe, passing through a mix of distinctly Hui, Tibetan and Han Chinese villages and arriving in time for our first late-afternoon stroll.
Xiahe is a narrow strip of a town, resembling at first glance the set of an old Western. At one end, nearest the monastery, are Tibetan housing and shops; at the other is a fast-expanding Han Chinese sector, built in the white-tile, blue-window style of mainstream China.
The main street is fun to walk, and not only because of the great handicrafts – silver and turquoise jewelry, bone carvings, daggers, woolen jackets and brass bells. Exotically dressed pilgrims and nomads are joined, especially in late afternoon and early evening, by cheerful monks, out shopping or simply enjoying tea in a balcony cafe.
The next morning we made our first visit to the monastery, where we discovered that one can enter the temple buildings only on a monk-led tour. So we signed up for an English-speaking group in the afternoon.
But you are free to wander the grounds, including residential areas, and the next few aimless hours were the highlight of the trip.
I’d been to the Jokhang, the crowded central temple in Lhasa, which is awesome for its fervent, pulsating religious energy. Labrang, which was established by a living buddha in 1709, has a different feel, remote and relaxed.
As we entered the dirt plaza in front of the colorfully painted, gold-roofed central prayer hall, we heard the blasts of trumpets and then watched as hundreds of monks in full regalia, including the arching yellow hats of the Gelupta sect, gathered for morning prayers. (The Gelupta is the largest sect in Tibetan Buddhism, headed by the exiled Dalai Lama).
Pleasant surprises appeared around every corner of the extensive grounds, which include several ornate temples of stone and brightly painted wood filled with figurines of buddhas, angels and devils as well as spectacular murals. There is a sprawling village of single-story houses for the monks.
We encountered stylized lions and tigers painted on wooden doors; clusters of joyful and friendly pilgrims, resting or making new circuits around smaller temples; teenage monks who caressed our daughter’s curly hair and hammed for the camera. An older monk gestured for us to join him in his room, where he melted some yak butter and ripped up a loaf of bread for dipping (interesting, but I still prefer olive oil).
The one-and-a-half hour tour that afternoon was interesting in a different way, as a monk with modest English skills explained to us and a handful of European visitors the six colleges of Labrang and the stories behind the major Buddhist statues and drawings in the temples. We saw libraries of ancient scrolls – in Hindi, Sanskrit and Tibetan – that were tucked into two-story walls of little compartments.
One room was filled with elaborately painted figures that are sculptured anew for ceremonies each year – out of yak butter, their survival attesting to the cool climate.
But the tone of the place had changed. Around 3 p.m., some 20 tour buses bringing Chinese tourists from Lanzhou arrived, and soon large groups, led by guides with megaphones, were roaming the grounds. The booming Chinese fascination with things Tibetan may bode well for ethnic relations and bring more income to temples like Labrang, but I’d advise visitors, especially on weekends and holidays, to arrive at the monastery in the quiet of morning.
We had worried about meals, given our kids’ unadventurous tastes, but Xiahe had numerous cafés that offered simple noodle and rice dishes along with such Tibetan treats as momos, boiled or fried dumplings stuffed with spiced lamb or vegetables. And a few restaurants have embraced the global “Lonely Planet” menu and offered banana pancakes and French toast.
Adventurous travelers stay at inexpensive lodges in town. To get a private Western bathroom and shower, though, we chose a more conventional hotel on a river outside town, the Labrang Guest House. Even there, the hot water is turned on only in mornings and evenings, but the facilities were clean and decent.
There, we met an English-speaking man who offered to take us up to the famed grasslands, the winter grazing grounds for yak herds that spend the summer at higher elevations.
Most commonly visited is a site called Sangke, which is less than half an hour’s drive and even reachable by bicycle. A standard destination for those tour buses, it has fenced-in corrals where one can ride horses, and curio hawkers in tents.
The alternative, which we chose, was still only a 45-minute drive over nearby mountains. Ganjia was devoid of facilities but, our guide promised, offered wonderful vistas.
He was right. By early fall, the grass-covered hills were the color of cut hay and sprinkled with edelweiss. In summer, he said, the hills are bright green and dotted with wildflowers. They offered us a few hours of glorious hiking that was, at 10,500 feet, breathtaking.
We left Xiahe in the afternoon of our third day there because we had a plane to catch the next afternoon, and didn’t want a rushed drive. Halfway back, in Linxia, we stayed in what our driver claimed was the city’s best hotel – the Hehai Mansion, a white-tile place that appeared to be the wedding center for the city’s Chinese elite. For $60, we got the luxury suite, two rooms decked out in bordello red. We knew we were back in mainstream China.
Visitors to China need to obtain a visa ($30 for 90 days); contact the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, 2201 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 110, Washington D.C., 20007; (202) 338-6688.
Flights to Lanzhou from Beijing cost $295 round trip, at 8.45 yuan to the dollar, on Air China or China Northwest Airlines, through China-based travel agencies.
From Lanzhou, Xiahe is reachable by bus (about $9), but many foreign visitors hire a car or van with driver, for about $120 to $150 each way. These can be arranged through such hotels as the Lanzhou Legend, ( 86-931) 888-2876, or local agencies including Gansu Travel, (86-931) 880-5227. But neither the agents nor the drivers tend to speak English.
Where to Stay
The most popular of the many small lodges in Xiahe is the Tara Guest House, (86-941) 712-1274, in the thick of things and with an English-speaking proprietor. The several double rooms are about $7 a night, with shared bath.
The top hotel, far from luxurious but clean and agreeable, is the Labrang Guest House, (86-941) 712-1849, fax (86-941) 712-1328, on a river outside town. It has dozens of rooms with private bath for $40.
Those unseasoned in remote Chinese travel may do best with a tour agency and a guide. A tour to the wintertime Monlam Festival, accompanied by an English-speaking Tibetan expert, is offered by Wild China, 70 Dongsi Qitiao, Dongchecng District, Beijing; (86-10) 6403-9737, fax (86-10) 6403-9703; www.wildchina.com. This adventure-travel agency is run by a Chinese woman with a Harvard M.B.A., Mei Zhang. Next year’s festival is Feb. 2 to 4 and the weeklong tour will leave Lanzhou on Jan. 31, costing $1,240 a person, which includes meals .
Another large, reliable Chinese agency, is Warrior Tours, www.warriortours.com, based in Xian. A four-day tour from Lanzhou to Xiahe and back, with English-speaking guide, costs $357 a person for groups of two to five. E-mail inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ERIC ECKHOLM is chief of the Beijing bureau of The Times.