Labrang Monastery - Sorting my Karma from my Mantra

I wake up after yet another night of catastrophic dreams brought on, I tell myself, by the high altitude - which seems to do all sorts of odd things to your perception as well as your breathing - rather than the genuine and quite real worry of some unsolveable problem happening to us in a remote place where no-one speaks Chinese, let alone English. 
It's freezing cold and raining when I wake up in the small town of Xiahe in southern Gansu province, part of the Amdo Tibetan region spanning three provinces outside of Tibet itself and full to the brim with Tibetan people speaking their own distinctive local dialect. It's high in the mountains, reached by a hairpin descent from an even higher mountain pass winding up and through the clouds, and down again into a broad alpine valley filled with small farms and fast-running mountain streams.
Today we need to be up early to catch the English language tour at Labrang Monastery on the western  edge of Xiahe - a sprawling miniature city surrounded by a wall and bisected east-west by a road. The tour is the only way to see inside any of the monastery's gold-roofed buildings and I'm intrigued to see the place where more than 1400 monks live, work, study and worship.

The monks are all of the Yellow Hat (Gelupga) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, named for the striking yellow headpieces worn during ceremonies. The Yellow Hats originated as a school around six hundred years ago and you might have heard of their leader - he's a well travelled fellow called the Dalai Lama.

At the monastery gates we meet our guide - a young crimson-robed monk who giggles at everything we say- a little disconcerting - and speaks in such heavily accented English it's practically impossible for us and for the French couple joining us to understand a word. It's made worse by the confusing array of names and terminology which have Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese variations, and rapid-fire delivery of these in quick succession. I decide to learn with my eyes, because my ears are failing me.

Crimson-cloaked monk are everywhere, going about their daily routine. It's helpful to think of the monastery as a school or college, full of men being educated in philosphy, Buddhism, astrology, traditional Tibetan medicine and of course theology. The monks are all ages, from small boys to old men, all dressed alike.

For large Tibtan families (unrestricted by the one child policy) having one son attend the monastery is reasonably commonplace, and we see many young monks attending to chores, rushing to class or doing what young boys do best - horsing around, whipping each other with the ends of their robes made wet in the rain, and laughing at each other's jokes. But only when the senior monks aren't looking.

Our giggling guide takes us through a series of smaller halls, each one filled with the smell of smoking fir branches, incense and burning yak butter candles, and surrounded by worshippers doing their clockwise daily kora, or pilgrim path. The halls - squat tan and ochre buildings with simple circular designs in black and white - have different purposes but are often places of combined worship and learning. Our guide shows us a sutra, written in Tibetan script, from which the monks study.

The multi-purpose nature of some of the halls is eveident when we visit one housing the precious stone encrusted stupas of four famous and long-dead lamas. Around the edge of the candle-lit room are twenty monks eating their single meal of the day. All the while there is an endless stream of worshippers weaving their way in and out of the hall with candles and food, and small knots of visitors with guides, like us. Between all these come lines of benefactors with small bags of ten yuan notes, passing them out to each monk in turn. It feels like a cross between a temple, a school, a canteen and social club as the monks greet their benefactors in turn. No photography is permitted indoors, so you'll have to imagine the whole yak butter-scented scene for yourself.

We make our way to the Grand Sutra Hall where the monks are now gathering for morning prayers, called there by the sound of long Tibetan horns. Outside are black yak fur-lined black boots, discarded at the door. Inside gilt statues of Buddha and hundreds of yak butter candles line the outer perimeter, and the main part of the darkened hall are rows of heavy columns and line after line of low coloured cushions, on each of which a monk sits cross-legged, chanting.

It's a low guttural sound, reverberating through the darkened candle-lit room, rhythmic and mystical, repeated mantras echoing from the columns. Time passes slowly. The monks' breath can be seen in white puffs in the cold air.

We're permitted to stand quietly on the hall's perimeter. Between the rows young monks arrive to pour bowls of hot tea for their elders, keeping hands warm. I look outside through the main door where it is still pouring, to see the last few monks arrive late, robes pulled over their heads to keep dry.

In this day and age seeing a sight of massed faith like this is not a common sight, nor is the thought of so many young men giving over their lives to religion. But here in Xiahe it's just the way it is.

Later that afternoon once the freezing rain has stopped, the clouds on the hills above Xiahe clear to reveal a sprinkling of fresh snow - the first of the season. I go out to walk my own kora around the monastery, now I've thawed out after a bowl of hearty hot Tibetan dumpling soup.

The kora winds its clockwise path past the back of the golden prayer hall when I suddenly hear the murmur of distant chanting, and far below the path is a semicircle of monks seated on the ground, praying together. It's a most extraordinary and uplifting sight.

Labrang Monastery

Xiahe township, Gansu Province

Admission and English language tour 50 yuan adults, children free

English tours daily at 10.15am and 3.15pm.

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