Monks and monasteries. Mountains filled with yaks. Red robes and strange customs. Brilliant colors, nonviolent conflict, and a man who calls himself Dali Lama. These are some of the things that come to mind when you hear the word: Tibet. How about this one, complete and control by their Chinese Headmasters.
It is easy to get caught with the glitz and glamor of Tibet…but that’s only if you’re lucky enough to go there. You see, it’s not just a matter of being able to afford the trip, it’s also a matter of obtaining Chinese approval to travel in the region, on a controlled (read: with a government minder) tour package, for a limited amount of time. Over the last two years the Chinese government has gotten increasingly more strict and made it more difficult to actually go to Tibet. The approval process usually takes several weeks, far longer than any trip will last. Thankfully for us though, Tibetan culture is not limited to Tibet.
The hills surrounding Tibet, especially to the east of Tibet, are filled with Tibetan peoples, monks, monasteries and culture. We chose the town of Xiahe to begin our journey and as we boarded the bus from a very large Chinese city, we shared it monks wearing their robes…which incidentally include cell phone pockets. In a few short hours we were transported from the hustle and bustle of the Langhzou metropolis to the slow and deliberate speed of Tibet, one of the most mythical places remaining on the planet.
The next morning we began touring the Labrang Monastery. Our tour took us through the various buildings of the Monastery which were all being used for various types of training ranging from medicine to spiritual. The insides (not photos allowed) all held giant Buddha sculptures and the walls were often lined with little cubbyholes holding ancient texts. One held several small sculptures made of yak butter and we were allowed to take a photo of those.
We walked through building and building, watching as monks, sitting on the floor with crossed legs, took their second of two meals of the day at noon. Many others sat in rows busy with prayers and study. When the lead monk walked past at one point, wearing his yellow mohawk hat, our guide ran and hid as part of his display of respect…my understanding was that to be respectful was not to get in the way. We later saw the lead monk blowing some kind of ritual horn from atop one of the buildings.
Later in the day we took a walk along the Pilgrim’s Walk. This monastery, like many, is a site of pilgrimage and Tibetans travel here from all over to literally, walk around it. As they walk around the monastery (each monastery we saw had this) they spin prayer wheels which literally line the outer walls of the monastery. At certain points they prostrate themselves on the ground, getting down on their stomachs in prayer. This particular Pilgrim’s Walk was 3km long and people will walk it, all day long. Once was enough for us but watching the monastery from above (the entire complex was built into the surrounding hills) was spectacular as we were able to see monks in a series of ritualistic dances and chants while making offerings.
Over the ensuing several days, we visited several monasteries like this one, usually smaller though, and met many monks who were very happy to shake our hands and practice their English. We were also privileged and lucky enough to be taken down into a very deep and dark cave—where some tourists have been known to plunge to their deaths—to visit a Tibetan holy place. We were shown through art galleries by and dined in restaurants alongside the very monks we had come to meet. Most telling though, was when the Chinese government sent at least 12 billy-club wielding Han police officers to collect some paperwork at our hostel…the work of one. Clearly the government, in the process of building many new roads so they can better ferry additional forces to the area, is interested in more than just learning about Tibetan culture.
IF YOU GO: The bus ride to Xiahe from Langzou is only a few hours long, thanks to the new roads that have been installed. We stayed at the new Youth Hostel, just off the main street, which is both cheap
and comfortable. The town itself, due to elevation, is very cold so bring plenty of warm clothes. Seeking out others to join you for a tour of the surrounding areas (specifically the nearby caves) and be sure to visit the monastery in the morning as it is far more active. Beware, the hot springs in the area are not very hot.