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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.

The Horse’s Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺

After three days of trekking in the desert on the back of a camel and sleeping on sand dunes (not as soft, warm or comfortable as it sounds, but more on that adventure in the next post) I can barely move, such are the depths of my camel-riding agonies, so forgive me, today’s post is light on words but instead lush with pictures of one of the best places we’ve yet visited in our first 10,000km around China. 

Intriguing, extraordinary and quite magical, the Horse’s Hoof Temple is a place that should be a massively popular attraction, but thankfully isn’t. This is the sort of place you want to enjoy all by yourself.
Mati Si (literally Horse’s Hoof Temple, named for the imprint left by the hoof of a Chinese pegasus) is an ancient Buddhist temple complex dating back some 1500 years. A series of temples spread over several miles on a long, undulating sandstone cliff face, the temples face the stunning snow-peaked Qilian mountain range and look out over a fertile, lush alpine meadow filled with wildflowers. 


In contrast to the impressively and precariously cantilevered Hanging Temple in northern Shanxi, reached by rickety outer wooden stairs and walkways, Mati Si is hollowed directly into the cliff itself. The labyrinthine collection of some several hundred temple shaped caves and caverns are all reached by a spellbinding and dizzying series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal tunnels and stairs carved directly into the rock. 

More than a little decrepit compared with the World Heritage-listed caves of Yaodong and Dunhuang, Mati Si is refreshingly free of crowds, free of guides, and free of souvenir sellers. I just enjoyed exploring the site, unrushed and unhindered, each dark tunnel leading to a Buddha niche filled with a riot of colour and pattern.

Sometimes the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, seeing the immense beauty of nature and the ingenuity of man, is a much more powerful experience than a hundred famous temples.


Mati Si – the main temple, set into a cliff

The outdoor stairs, for the truly devoted. I took the tunnel instead.
Horse’s Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺
Gansu Province 
About 65km south-south-west of Zhangye township at the foot of the Qilian mountain range
Co-ordinates:  Lat: 38.486396° Long: 100.417540°
Admission: 35 yuan per person to the lower (Thousand Buddha) temple and nature reserve, additional 35 yuan per person for entrance to the main temple. Students half-price, under 1.3m free.
Open 7 days
For information on getting there from Zhangye this website has useful information

My Stress Remedy: Jade Buddhas, Red Lanterns

I’m stressed. Now, you don’t get to be a fully paid-up member of the College of Emergency Medicine without a fairly high stress threshold (‘Doctor! Bed 4 is bleeding out all over the floor!’ Me: ‘Stay calm. Apply pressure.’) (past colleagues – stop sniggering). But if there’s one thing that makes me stressed it’s having too much mental activity going on at once. Magazine deadlines. New projects popping up unexpectedly just as my plate is overflowing. Once-in-a-lifetime adventures to plan. Give me an old fashioned life-threatening haemorrhage anyday.
There  are five million things on my mental To Do List before I go camping for the next six months, and only sixteen days left in which to do them. Sixteen! Not enough time to do all the things I want to do, and definitely not enough time to do things I actually need to do. There are temples in Shanghai I’ve never visited! Street foods I haven’t yet documented! We need to buy a solar-powered light! The campervan needs cool yet slightly retro home-made curtains! STAT!
When I sat my medical specialist exams years ago (a grinding two day ordeal for which most of us study for a whole year, foregoing friends, family, books, movies, and any social life, and losing hair, a lot of weight, or marriages in the process) my good friend said, as we walked into the exam – 
‘A year ago I wanted five more months to study. A month ago I wanted five more days. Yesterday I would have been happy with just five more hours. Today? Five more minutes. Please! Just five more minutes!’ as he broke into a sweat and turned pale. He passed first time, by the way.
That exam nearly killed us. Our brains felt like the overstuffed third drawer down in your kitchen – you keep pushing things in the front, but other, equally important things like your garlic press are falling out the back and behind the cabinet, never to be seen again.
And so it is here – if I could just have five more hours in each day, and five more pairs of hands to help everything will probably be just fine. My husband says everyone in the house needs to just calm down and prioritise a bit. Especially me. Particularly me, according to the rest of the family. 
So I’m thinking calming thoughts, and when that alone doesn’t work what I really helps is visiting a calm place like a temple. I’m not really what you would consider spiritual, but there is something about Chinese temples I find calming. It’s someting to do with leaving the busy noise and intensity of the street behind and stepping over a heavy stone lintel into the coolness and sudden peace, with the distant sound of the monks chanting. 
The Jade Buddha Temple is Shanghai’s most popular Buddhist temple, yet always manages to feel serene and restful when you visit. The temple has a series of interlocking courtyards, each one taking you further and further from the madding crowds and gently guiding you slowing through high, darkened chambers where tall golden Buddhas sit cross-legged and implacable. Slight breezes shift the edges of the long embroidered silk banners hanging from the ceiling under the light of dozens of red tasselled lanterns. 

Passing to the back of the chamber and over another tall stone lintel, you step out into the bright light of another courtyard, filled with the gentle sweet smoke of incense. A monk in long mustard robes and cloth-soled shoes moves quietly across the courtyard.
All around the courtyard the lions, bells and heavy iron lanterns have been tied with red votive ribbons, wishes for luck, health and prosperity.

And where is the famed Jade Buddha? In fact, there are several, brought from Burma in the 1880s by an abbott. The most prized sits in its own heavily decorated chamber, a translucent white jade Buddha on a golden lotus throne, distant and lovely behind a velvet rope. You can’t approach it, you can’t photograph it, but as people pass by it a hush of reverence descends.

In other darkened chambers sit the many other Buddhas – golden, jade, marble – all masterpieces of craftsmanship.

Whether you’re Buddhist or not it is a beautiful place to visit. When I leave the final chamber along a long covered corridor, I look up to see hundreds of round, red paper lanterns hanging in rows from the ceiling. I love red lanterns and never grow tired of seeing them bobbing gently in the air. And now I feel calm and cheery. 
Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple

Yù Fó Sì

170 Anyuan Road  Putuo, Shanghai

Open 7 days