Today overflowed with wonderful moments.
We walked from our government hotel up the main street of Xiahe towards the Labrang monastery – the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet proper. As Simon mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the people here are mostly ethnic Tibetans and look more like natives of the Andes than Han Chinese and their long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder coats and their scarves , often worn with only a small slit for the eyes, are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.
As you can see, the women are very emancipated here…
The monastery itself is huge and is home to 1,400 monks of the yellow-hat Buddhist order.
They are everywhere in town…wandering the streets, eating in the restaurants, even grappling with their vow of poverty…
As we approached the monastery we came upon an impressively long wall of prayer wheels being spun by pious locals and pilgrims.
And when we turned the corner we realized that what we had seen was only a small fraction of an infinitely long array of similar wheels along the monastery walls.
To walk the length of these walls and spin every wheel while muttering prayers demands huge commitment and energy, but many older men and women were doing exactly that. Some pious pilgrims even prostrated themselves before every wheel in turn and prayed. They clutched small wooden boards to protect their hands and wore tilers’ kneepads.
The monastery itself comprises extensive living quarters, temples dedicated to gods and leading lamas and various colleges, such as philosophy and medicine. Our young guide – who delivered fluent but almost incomprehensible English in a strange chant – took us to temple after temple and described the good deeds of the various lamas of their order and the miraculous attributes of their gods.
Most magically, he took us into a vast, smoky room where hundreds of red-cloaked monks sat cross-legged in long rows on the floor praying quietly and into an adjoining chamber where a small group of monks beat out a slow rhythm on drums, accompanied by clashes of cymbals. The only thing that broke the spell was the foul, all-pervasive smell of candles made from rancid yak butter.
Finally we left and headed back down the main street towards out hotel, but not before we made various purchases – including this fine local coat for John.
The afternoon’s ride through the mountains was every bit as wonderful as yesterday’s ride and finally we emerged from a long tunnel to find ourselves in spectacular, infinite grassland with the mountains behind us. The principal challenge now was to avoid all the yaks that wandered onto the road – doubtless wanting to ask how much our bikes cost.
Paul had booked us into a hotel in the middle of the steppes and, despite its unpromising exterior, it turned out to be rather wonderful with cosy, alpine, wood-paneled rooms. We ate at the adjoining Tibetan restaurant where a couple of the local dishes – in particular the yak stew – were surprisingly good (so much for my vegan diet for now) and where the waitresses disappeared after one course and re-appeared in local costume to sing us a Tibetan song and present us with scarves.
After dinner they led us into another room where we were joined by the local lads and they all sang some more. We reciprocated with the only song we all know – a Twickenham-style rendering of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, which led them to break into Tibetan dancing, joined by our twinkle-toed reps, Simon and John. All very spontaneous and huge fun.
Another fine day on the Silk Road.
All the best,