Labrang Monastery is a place hidden high in the hills southwest of Lanzhou in Gansu Province. Nestling at an altitude of almost 3000 meters amid surrounding mountains, and lying on the northern banks of the Daxia River, Labrang is centermost in the small town of Xiahe, county seat of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Xiahe is, for most of the year, a quiet little town, existing primarily to support its 300-year-old temple, and to service the needs of the Tibetan farmers and wandering herdsmen living in the Gannan grasslands to the south, and the Qinghai Plateau to the northwest. During spring and autumn, crops and animals are traded for seed, cloth and other necessities of life, in one of the more barren but most breathtakingly beautiful parts of western China. But this quietude is shattered in the middle of winter.
Annually, thousands of Tibetans make the sometimes week-long trek by truck, bus, cart, or donkey to celebrate the arrival of New Year. Some start off much earlier, and spend months prostrating themselves, with leather covered hands and knees encased in padding, along a ritual journey to the focal point of their religion. Losar, as it is known to the Tibetans, is a sacred festival of thanksgiving, veneration, purification, and preparation for the coming year. Young and old gather at Labrang to light butter lamps in darkened, mysterious temples, and burn juniper boughs and other aromatic herbs in large burners at the entrances to various halls and temples. Pressing their foreheads against Buddhist scriptures, holy stones, and butter-polished railings, these devoted pilgrims make numerous circuits around the monastery, turning prayer wheels and reciting scriptures, gathering merit with every step.
Tibetan New Year arrives with the first new moon of the first lunar month. The "First Quarter", the period of increasing moonlight, is traditionally the time for new beginnings, new ideas and for new growth. Some say the waxing moon is the time of spontaneous and instinctive action. As the New Year dawns, families and friends celebrate the first five days at their homes. During the New Year period, four days of religious ceremony, combined with several other days of feasting, renewing friendships and sealing new ones, turn this tiny town into a heaving, multi-colored festival ground.
The Sunning of the Buddha is a spectacular sight for any traveler to witness. The morning begins with Cham dancing, performed by monks in splendid robes and hats, some wearing fearsome masks and others with their faces painted in ferocious expressions. The dances are slow and grotesque, accompanied by doleful brass horns, cymbals and drums, and are intended to dispel all evil spirits. After hours of dancing, praying and chanting of scriptures, a 30 by 20 meter roll of multi-colored applique and embroidered thangka, is proudly and reverently paraded through the streets from the monastery to the hillside across the river. All along the route, faithful Buddhists scramble to press their foreheads and hands against this sacred image, while mounted riders laughingly clear the way by snapping their whips as their spirited horses rear and snort. As the procession reaches the bridge that crosses the Daxia River, thousands scatter to find the most perfect vantage point for the sunning ceremony.
The lamas slowly make their way to the top of the hill and lay the giant thangka on its crest. With perfect precision the thangka and its cover unfurl to cover the slope facing the rising sun. As the sun ascends, the golden silk thangka cover is lifted to display a magnificent portrait of Buddha. Murmurs of appreciation and amazement ripple through the crowds to the background of clanging cymbals and rumbling horns. Equally awesome is the devotion evident on the faces of countless Tibetans who have made this pilgrimage to honor the Buddha and dispel evil spirits. The sight of tiny children beside their parents and grandparents, prostrating themselves before this giant thangka, shows the closeness and unity of the Tibetan family.
The day continues with much circuiting, and into the dark hours you can hear the happy sounds of festival and feasting. Then, all is quiet in the tiny mountain town until the dawn of another day of Masked Dancing.
As crowds gather in the largest square of the monastery, laymen use long canes to playfully tap the encroaching throng, reminding them that space must be made for the upcoming festivities. A huge striped tiger, strangely the size of two men, running around the square and amongst the crowd ensures that the people are entertained, while maintaining an area sufficient for the dancing that will follow. Meanwhile other monks are preparing their costumes, masks, and musical instruments to ensure a consummate performance before the Living Buddha of Labrang. Finally the entourage appears as horns and trumpets bellow greetings; dancing and music ensue to ward off evil spirits and ensure prosperity in the New Year.
At various temples throughout the monastery, there are activities such as scripture chanting by monks who have been commissioned by families to pray for good health, and perhaps for wealth and happiness for their family, tribe or village. There are mass prayer sessions and monastic debates between student monks and their teachers.
The following day is devoted to the Butter Sculpture display. For weeks and months the monks have spent hours molding butter and painting their intricately designed sculptures, that range from single images, Buddha in various poses, flower baskets, three-dimensional depictions of stories of the lives of Buddha, of saints, and of the everyday life of the people. The sculptures range in size from miniature to very large, and are displayed into the late evening under magically dancing lights and of course the luminescence of the full moon. For it is now the 15th day of the 1st lunar month and the Lantern Festival has arrived.
What riotous color, what mysterious ceremony, what laughing happy crowds of people, what devotion, what life I have witnessed over the past few days. In no way am I able to connect to this strangeness, yet I feel as if I have been part of it all. I certainly take with me memories that will remain as vivid as my photographs, of smells that linger in my hair and in my clothes, of exotic music unlike any other, of sights as colorful as an artist's palette, of the touch of weather beaten hands and buttered faces.
Labrang Monastery is the largest school of Lamaism outside of Lhasa. This Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism is home to students from Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, who study philosophy, astrology, medicine, meditation, and theology as well as sculpting, painting and printing. About 1000 monks are resident at Labrang, the youngest about 7 and the oldest 80. Most are students at various stages of education. Lamas are highly educated and have reached a high spiritual level. They act as mentors and teachers to younger lamas. There are about 10 living Buddhas that belong to Labrang.
To travel to Labrang Monastery from Beijing is simple. First travel to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province. Flights take two and a half hours and leave every day of the week. The airport is more than one hour from Lanzhou city, but transportation is easy to find.
Trains from Beijing to Lanzhou take about 24 hours - board in the evening, spend one night, one full day, and arrive that evening. An alternative route is 29 hours and goes via Inner Mongolia. The train ride is through interesting countryside, and is quite relaxing and pleasant if you can spare the time.
You are best advised to spend the night in Lanzhou and set out early the next day for the day-long drive to Xiahe. If you arrive in Lanzhou early enough, I urge you to visit the Provincial Museum. The collection is fantastic and the displays offer a fine overview of the history of the Silk Road. At the time of writing, November 2001, the museum is under renovation but visitors are still welcome to most of the exhibition halls.
Leave Lanzhou early in the morning allowing enough time to have a few hours in Linxia followed by lunch. You then have a relatively easy drive to Xiahe in time to settle into your hotel before an evening meal.
Linxia City is the capital of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu. Home to Hui and Dongxiang minorities, Linxia is a city of many mosques, as well as numerous minarets, and has a recorded history of 1000 years. The Hui are skilled carvers, and the ancient and modern buildings of Linxia are evidence that this art has passed through many generations and is still practiced today. Their superb craftsmanship produces bricks, walls, screens, gates and rooftops decorated with carved flowers, animals, and geometric designs.
Leave Linxia after lunch and enjoy a drive through beautiful mountain passes and countryside that promises another surprise around every corner on the twisting, turning highway. With good planning you will arrive in Xiahe as the sun is reflecting on the resplendent golden rooftops of Labrang Monastery. Your adventure has begun.