Could this be the most beautiful place in all of China?
Langmusi, an alpine Tibetan village surrounded by mountains and forests and filled with crimson-robed monks walking its narrow streets, was our promised reward at the end of a horror day of driving through Qinghai and Gansu on a day that tested our limits in every sense.
So it was with a sense of relief and joy when, after arriving in the dark dead of night, I woke to a sun-filled blue sky and this view from my guest house window:
Langmusi sits at an altitude of 3700m (12,000 feet), so the air is pure and clear, if a little thin, and colours are enriched and sharpened by that change seen at high altitudes.
The tiny town of just a few thousand people is divided by the White Dragon River, with the northern half of Langmusi lying in Gansu Province, and the southern part of the town sitting in Sichuan, all surrounded by natural forests and nestled in the cradle of the surrounding mountains.
The town has an embarrassment of riches: two stunningly beautiful monasteries – Sertri Gompa on the Gansu side of White Dragon River, and Kirti Gompa on the Sichuan side – a Hui Muslim mosque, and acts as a base for hill walking and Tibetan horse treks.
But enough talking: feast your eyes.
Kirti Gompa celebrates its six-hundred-year anniversary this year, and houses a community of over seven hundred monks of the Gelupga Yellow Hat sect (the same sect as the Dalai Lama, whose picture was displayed openly in many buildings).
The view from the top level of the largest temple was magnificent, magnified by the need to sit quietly and catch my heaving breath after climbing up the hill. All around me elderly pilgrims were walking their daily kora (pilgrim path) and spinning prayer wheels around the monastery, unbothered by the altitude.
On the White Dragon River’s other bank is Sertri Gompa, a modest monastery with more silver and less gold, but beautiful in its simplicity nonetheless.
The main monastery building is hung with immense and heavy curtains made from woven yak hair, appliqued in white cotton.
The monastery is surrounded by its own small village of monks and monastery workers living in simple homes with wooden shingle roofs weighed by rocks.
Pilgrims make their daily rounds with prayer beads.
Others take to the grassy hill behind the monastery to scatter handfuls of small white prayer papers – printed with important Buddhist symbols and stories – into the breeze, carrying their good wishes far and wide.
And the loveliest thing of all – at one end of the monastery, where the forest comes right down from the hills to the very edge of the monastery grounds, there is a richly decorated gate hung with hundreds of flags. The gateway leads to a moss-covered miniature forest enclosed by a wall, where two spotted deer – a buck and doe pair – live happily, protected by the monks for whom they symbolize the place where Buddha’s gave his first sermon.
Back in the town the large population of monks go about their business – visiting friends and doing their shopping. In a lovely display of harmony the most popular store was this one, run by a family of Hui Muslims, sitting neatly between the monastery and the mosque.
Couldn’t we do with a little of this everyday harmony in a few other parts of the world?