September 4, 2019
Distance covered: 240 kms
This was the first day of the core part of our trip. After two days on expressways and one day in Lanzhou to recuperate, we were now officially on our trip through South Gansu. The itinerary for this day concentrated on two locations: the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture and the Labrang Monastery.
Linxia: mosques and hijabs
I was on alert from the moment we left Lanzhou in Southwest direction. From my blog of day 3, you may remember that I take a special interest in the social integration of religion in present day China. Linxia is an autonomous prefecture. This is a special administrative institution in China meant for regions in which an ethnic minority actually is the majority. Linxia is inhabited by the Hui who are descendants of merchants from Persia and Central Asian countries who travelled to China over the Silk Road and settled in that region as outposts for their home regions. The used to speak various languages, but as they were doing business with Chinese counterparts, they soon started to talk Chinese. When you look at the photos in this blog, you will easily recognise non-Chinese features, but Hui now speak Chinese.
Sitting in the front passenger seat of our car, I was on alert for minarets of mosques popping up from the villages along the road. When spotting the first, I tried to make a picture, but that proved hard from a rapidly driving car (that part of the trip we were still using expressways). However, soon I had the same experience as the day before: there were so many mosques everywhere, that it seemed unnecessary to make a picture of even one, so I gave up trying to shoot one while driving.
An interesting aspect was that many villages had two mosques: an older one in the traditional Chinese Muslim style and a new one, in Arab style. Apparently, that is the fashion nowadays. This contradicted another criticism about the position of Islam in China in the recent Western media. Many report that the Chinese government has promulgated that new mosques in China should be designed in the traditional Chinese style and that middle eastern style mosques would be torn down. Even if such a regulation was issued, it is very openly ignored in Gansu. All new mosques are in Arab style and all have crescent moons.
Once we drove into the city, it was easier to take pictures. And . . . the targets for pictures were easy to pick due to their size. I am only posting a few picture of the mosques in Linxia City to give you an impression of the town. I am also adding picture of a butcher as an example of the middle east like ambiance and a hijab store with a convenient indication of its merchandise in English.
The main object to visit for my Chinese companions was a quarter that had been restored in its original state, catering to tourists. It is a very touristy, but they local authorities have done a good job. Several of the shops are have better quality local produce.
An interesting shop was selling ‘Turkish’ ice cream. There was no indication of a brand, but it makes good marketing sense to sell Turkish ice cream in a Muslim region, rather than Häagendasz.
We had lunch in one of the restaurant in that quarter and then moved on to leave sufficient time to see the main object of that day.
Labrang: monks with computers and microphones
I am not sure if the Labrang Monastery is China’s largest Tibetan monastery, but it certainly is one of the best known. I had been longing to see it for many years. However, I was a little disappointed at the moment we arrived. It was perhaps because of the much-published high elevation that I had always envisioned Labrang is being situated on the slope of a mountain, as my Buddhist monasteries are. Labrang, however, is located on a plateau. The first view from the huge parking lot (it attracts many domestic tourists) is therefore not so impressive. It is an interesting sight to see a monk selling tickets using a modern computer. The following day, we would learn that monks in this region are commercially very active.
At first, there was some confusion at the gate. Apparently, guests were let in in batches, so you could walk around the compound with a guide. It was not a pleasant wait, as the sun was quite toxic. It was a typical highland day: the wind was cool due to the high elevation, but the sun was extremely strong. A hat is necessary, although the sun didn’t seem to bother the monks with their shaven heads.
However, the waiting was rewarded with what I regard as the best guided tour I have ever had at any place in the world. The lama who took us around, aided by a microphone glued to his face, gave thorough explanations about the meaning of Buddhism, what you actually do when you study there (Labrang is a Buddhist seminary), how long it takes, like 30 years before you can call yourself Doctor of Buddhism. You need to be able to understand Chinese, though, I have not seen English-language guided tours being offered. I saw another Western man and one who appeared to be Indian, both accompanied by Chinese women. However, the looks on their faces seemed to indicate that they did not understand what was being said. They missed a lot.
Some wisdom from the Lama
Statements of this Lama that moved me most were made in his answer to a question about the difference between ‘faith’, ‘superstition’. His reply was: people can’t gain knowledge without superstition. When you want to understand something, you will start developing an idea about that topic. While discussing that idea with others (he emphasized a number of times that teaching at Labrang is in fact discussing anything with fellow Lamas), you will constantly decide to discard ideas as improper (making your earlier belief into superstition), developing new ideas that seem more suitable. At the end of that process you may arrive at an irrefutable idea about the issue. You could call this knowledge, or enlightenment. However, such a state is not easy to reach. Human sensemaking of the world is a basically endless cycle of constructing superstitious ideas. To understand this better, you need to know that ‘superstition’ is mixin [erroneous belief] in Chinese, different from xin [belief] or xinyang [faith; literally: ‘belief inclination’].
We spent several hours there and even then had probably only seen a small part of the compound. Once you start walking, you get an impression of the vastness of the complex. We were told that at any moment, about 4000 lamas (teachers and apprentices) stay at Labrang.
Zhaxi Yangyou Hotel
Around 17:00 hrs, the temperature started to drop with the lowering of the sun and we headed back to the parking lot. Our hotel was only a few minutes away, but parking in the small street proved a major challenge for three 4-wheel drives.
The next challenge was getting our luggage to the rooms, as the hotel had no lift. Fortunately, the manager was eager to help the oldest of us carrying their stuff upstairs. Don’t forget that at such a high elevation (almost 3000 metres), climbing the stairs itself was much more strenuous than at home.
The facilities were OK and the lobby was actually quite cosy. If I had told you that this was a photo of a local hotel in Canada, you probably would have believed me. We had dinner in a restaurant opposite the hotel. The most interesting item for me was yak meat dumplings. After dinner, most of our friends retired to their rooms, while we went for a stroll along the only street of the village, our old routine, taking some pictures of Labrang after sunset.