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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living