The sacred heart; CHINA

The centre of modern China would seem an unlikely location for a Buddhist monastery. But this tiny Tibetan enclave has been a symbol of the faith for nearly three centuries and is now enjoying renewed spiritual prosperity
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A blue sky clouded over, darkened to ominous green then apocalyptic grey-black. As colour drained from the cloaks of pilgrims, they quickened their pace to complete 13 worshipful laps of the tapered stupa before the deluge. When hailstones fat as marbles pounded the earth, summer turned late autumn in seconds. We sheltered amidst huge prayer wheels to watch ethereal Xiahe dusted white.

Though this corner of Gansu Province lies near modern China's geographical centre, it feels anything but. Gansu was long an unstable frontier region with restless Muslims and Tibetans to the west and south.

Today those ethnic strands remain. I was travelling through its southern reaches to Sichuan Province where hills mature to mountains amidst vast, rolling grassland and several Tibetan monasteries are thriving again.

Founded in 1709, Xiahe's Labrang monastery is one of China's greatest, exceeded in size and importance only by those within the modern, arbitrary boundaries of Tibet itself.

In its neat museum our monk-guide beckoned us over to a large, colourful painting-plan of the complex. Gesturing at a myriad of buildings and halls, he sketched its past and present incarnations.

During the mad, ugly Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s monasteries like this suffered vandalism, depletion and closure. Some were destroyed and have only recently been resurrected. Labrang reopened in 1980 and - whatever the motives - China has since been making cautious amends.

Xiahe, in a picturesque valley by the Daxia River, its enclosing hills patterned with steep fields and topped by stupas, is a town of one road and three parts.

To the east live the Han Chinese and Hui Muslims - here you'll find shops and stalls hawking saddles and stirrups, daggers, turquoise, amber and silver jewellery. Out west, down soggy paths, Tibetans make do with small mud-walled compounds of stone houses. Labrang, threaded with lanes and windowless walls, lies between like a buffer. It is an enigmatic place.

We walked the pilgrimage of the kora, a ritual 4km circuit of the entire monastery, a trail shaded in many moods; never gaier than with men, women and children turning ranks of huge prayer wheels in long colonnaded galleries, and rarely more poignant than when the devout prostrate their way round, dust caking faces and matting hair. I saw some stand and bend by a stone wall, foreheads nudging auspicious niches smudged with reverent grime.

Labrang once boasted 4,000 monks and six colleges embracing medicine, theology, astrology and something called Esoteric Teaching. Today things are comparatively subdued but still far from a mere showpiece. From the kora we gazed down on dazzling golden roofs, buildings and halls painted ochre and burgundy, black and white. Gongs clanged and cymbals clashed as arcane chanting rippled up into the hills. Round every corner hung an infusion of murmured mantras and the soft click of dinky ornamented wheels spun with flicks of the wrist.

Officially, visitors must take one of several daily tours to visit the more important monastic buildings though some spirited monks - perhaps to spite the authorities - delight in admitting Westerners at whim. Frustratingly, most tours tend to rattle through at high speed - think of these as a quick survey and return again at leisure whenever possible.

First impressions were of the pungent odour from hundreds of rancid yak- butter candles that flickered in the gloom. Yet among its sinister shadows lurked realms of startling colour. Banners and brocades draped from and across pillars themselves tasselled with strips and folds of silk. Religious thangka paintings of astonishing complexity hung from hooks, and every inch of wall swirled with frescoes of demons, spirits and episodes from Buddha's life.

We came upon one courtyard strewn with ancient monks' boots seemingly abandoned in great haste. Deep rumbles of almost robotic fervour wafted from a hall; inside; their barefoot owners sat on rows of low, cushioned benches. But outside you'll also see monks riding motorbikes in their robes, and young ones shooting pool or licking ice-creams.

Labrang, in fact, is relatively cosmopolitan in comparison to other smaller monastic centres in the vicinity. About 120 miles south through steep gorges and virginal grassland lies Langmusi, a remote monastery town on the borders of Sichuan Province.

Here, just about every other male was a monk. The only nod to modernity here were the tiny dingy video cinemas that spewed out brainless action films at all hours of the day and night. We awoke (and often fell asleep as well) to blasts of gunfire and gutsy massacres.

But later, climbing a hill in the company of a young monk, Langmusi became an enchanting island in a green sea. The silvery roofs of its cluttered houses and monasteries gave way to rich pasture and lush undulating hills. Huge birds flapped lazily towards us from a jagged escarpment that broke the swell like a monstrous dorsal fin.

Few places could ever look more Tolkienesque, yet no spell was more rudely broken. Near the summit, we realised that the birds we had seen were less innocent than they had appeared. They were in fact vultures, each one wheeling hungrily over a "sky burial" site.

The practice of leaving the bodies of the dead on hill-tops for vultures to consume was not one I had any desire to see. In Tibet, the Chinese authorities (in one of their more enlightened moves) have banned Westerners from attending such procedures; their tasteless behaviour with zoom lenses had often been found wanting. But there was no butchery that morning, no feeding frenzy either.

The vultures returned to their distant eyries leaving us to gaze upon a place of compelling sadness. Pennants and prayer flags fluttered near a rough circle of stones where torn clothing - mostly the ripped garb of monks - lay strewn about with Plimsolls, rusty knives and bones. As the wind died and the stench rose, flies buzzed dementedly, drawn by the smell. It was time to leave this sacred yet forlorn spot.

Back in town a music lesson revived our spirits. Watched over by an owlish teacher, five young monks sat in a meadow and honked on the long, decorative horns that rested heavily on the grass. Giggling, they coaxed out ever more appalling booms and groans that echoed through the streets and drowned the sound of camera gunfire.

And from my point of view, it seemed that this beautiful Tibetan town hidden away in central China deserved nothing less.


Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Between them, Air China (0171-630 0919) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly daily, non-stop, between Heathrow and Beijing. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) has just started the only service to Shanghai, on Mondays and Saturdays non-stop from Heathrow.

The lowest official fare for travel in July is pounds 398.30 but lower fares may be available from discount agents.

Red tape

British passport holders need a Chinese visa, most easily obtained through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane WC2H 9DL (0171-836 3688); this agency charges pounds 10 on top of the normal pounds 25 fee.