I’ve been to Tibet many times over the years – I consider it my second home – but there was one large area of the plateau I hadn’t yet ticked off: Amdo. One of the three traditional provinces of Tibet, Amdo covers the north-east third of the Tibetan cultural region, which is now mostly incorporated into Qinghai Province and Gansu Province of China.
It’s a pretty huge area, covering around 700,000 square kilometres (a little bigger than Ukraine), mostly covered in rolling grasslands dotted with herds of yaks and sheep, and punctuated by monastic villages. Amdowas (people from Amdo) were traditionally nomadic, moving their herds of livestock from pasture to pasture with the seasons, and living off the land.
I knew that I couldn’t explore all of this vast area in one go, so for my first journey to Amdo I was faced with the daunting question – where to begin?
An old friend suggested Labrang as a starting point – one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa (yellow hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Great, I thought, I can make it a pilgrimage too.
From Chengdu I took a short flight up to Xiahe in southern Gansu province, happy to be leaving behind the smoggy city and stepping out into the crisp air and blue skies of the Tibetan plateau. Xiahe airport is 3,200 metres above sea level, so I had to keep reminding myself to move slowly with my bags.
I managed to hitch a ride into Labrang from the airport (the public bus won’t run if there are not enough people, apparently). Soon the vacant rolling hills gave way to a cluster of short clay buildings, which quickly grew and spread until we were in the midst of a town. Labrang town spills out from either end of the monastery, with a high-rise modern Chinese-style shopping district at one end transforming into charming local houses and Tibetan antique shops at the other.
I decided to spend my first day visiting the temples of the monastery. After a quick coffee served in beautiful Tibetan tea-ware at the Nirvana Hotel, I ventured in through the main gate. The monastery is an enormous walled village, complete with wide paved roads for two-way traffic, electric streetlights, and a smattering of shops.
Labrang Monastery was once the largest in Amdo with 4,000 resident monks. Even though that number has dwindled to just 1,500 now, it’s still one of the largest in Tibet and wields considerable power in the region. It was founded over 300 years ago (in 1709), and now features a blend of old and new buildings, some still fresh with paint, some so blackened by smoke you’d think the walls were intentionally black.
Although no tickets are needed to wander around the monastic village, the only way to gain entry into many of the temples is by joining the paid guided tours that depart regularly from the monastery ticket office. Led by a monk, doors are unlocked and gates are unbolted as you go, and then closed up again behind you, giving a true sense that it’s worth paying the small fee for this inside peek that you’d otherwise miss.
Not long into the tour, I soon became lost in the maze of little alleys and cobbled streets that dart off the main road, too consumed by keeping up with our monk-guide to pay attention to where we were. From one atmospheric dark chapel to the next, our guide talked to us about the history of the monastery, the significance of each building, the precious statues and murals protected inside, and the practices the monks engaged in. It was a fascinating insight, and for many tourists in the group their first real interaction and conversation with a Tibetan monk.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn philosophical. The monk challenged us all to explain why we think the happiness we feel is true, and not just suffering in disguise. The Buddhist concept of all-pervasive suffering is a tough one for Westerners to grasp, and more than a few in the group agreed to disagree about these beliefs, rather than entering a debate with a man who argues this topic daily.
A highlight of the tour was being shown into the butter sculpture hall, a display room for elaborately crafted, coloured and decorated sculptures made entirely of yak butter. In the cold air of the plateau, butter doesn’t melt as it would at sea level, allowing the monks to use it like clay to create intricate scenes of saints, deities and animals surrounded by flowers and Buddhist symbols.
You’d never know it was butter – until the smell hits you. The whiff of rancid dairy was enough to keep some people at a distance, while I braved the scent for a close-up view of each sculpture, wanting to see as much as I could before we had to move on to the next chapel.
After a couple of entertaining and enlightening hours, the tour came to an end and we were left to our own leisure. In the time we’d been inside, the clouds had become heavier and it started to snow gently. While most of the tourists now headed off in search of a warm lunch, I noticed that the local pilgrims weren’t at all deterred by the snow or low temperatures, so I decided that I wouldn’t be either. I pulled on my gloves, wrapped my scarf up tightly, and set off to join the locals on the kora.
Kora is a Tibetan word that means “to go around”, and is used to describe the path that encircles a monastery or other holy place, as well as the act of walking around that path. To Tibetans, walking the kora is an important part of any monastery visit. The Labrang kora is especially popular for its long stretch of brightly painted prayer wheels – the longest in the world, at approximately 3 kilometres – which passers-by spin with their right hands as they chant mantra or chat with the person next to them.
I’m the chatty type and soon found myself in conversation with an elderly gentleman from central Tibet. He said he’d been instructed by his doctor (I assume a traditional medicine doctor, not a modern type) to walk 10,000 kora around Labrang Monastery to ease his ailments. He’s about a third of the way there now, and already feeling better!
The snow continued to fall, forcing my elderly friend to halt for fear he might slip. I continued on, hoping that keeping moving would keep me warm. The paved kora turned to dirt track at the back of the monastery, climbing up around the edges of the temples built into the hillside, before re-emerging at the other side for the home stretch down to the main gates.
Having completed a loop, I retreated back into my warm guesthouse, to spend the afternoon sitting by the stove and writing emails home as the snow kept falling outside. The next morning there was a solid inch of snow across everything, but the sky was a bright promising blue, ideal for the hike I had planned.
This day I set off to walk the larger and less popular “outer” kora of the Labrang Monastery. While the day before I did the main kora that follows the monastery walls, this day the route I took was extended to include satellite shrines, then climbed a ridgeline high above the village, before coming down to re-join the main kora at its finish.
From a small shrine at the base of the hill, it’s a steep climb up a track crisscrossed with yak trails, marmot burrows, and ragged old prayer flags. When I finally reached the ridgeline’s peak though, I was rewarded with a stunning view over the entire monastery, village, and surrounding forest-coated mountains. The snow hadn’t stuck so much here, already melting under the warm gaze of the sun. Soon there was hardly any sign of it at all.
It was calm up here, with just a couple of other people, a local family flying kites, and a vulture floating lazily well above us all. Hiking at this altitude is taxing, so I was happy to sit down for a while and appreciate the views while catching my breath. From my vantage point I could watch the red shapes of monks walking to and from temples down below, gathering in front of one and dispersing from another as teachings start and end. The resonant boom of a gong sounded and the red shapes hurried on their way; soon it was quiet and still once again.
Slowly I made my way back down to the monastery, following the centuries-old trail across the ridge and down the other side. I descended from the quiet outer kora into the midst of the main kora, full of chattering pilgrims enjoying the sunny weather. I was quickly swept into the flow and, unable to resist it, followed the stream of people back around the monastery for a full circuit before stopping for lunch. In the warm, sunny weather and surrounded by so many smiling pilgrims, it was hard to tear myself away.
After a couple of days I said goodbye to Labrang, and travelled south with a friend to visit the “Tiger’s Cave” Monasteries at Langmusi for the next part of my journey.
While I was in Labrang, I also went to visit the stunningly beautiful Norden Camp, a luxurious glamping escape in the wild grasslands out of town. Read more about it in my previous blog post here.
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