Every morning just past sunrise, the placid mountain village of Xiahe stirs with the muted sound of dozens of pious Tibetans doing their daily devotions at the sprawling monastery on the edge of town. Twirling small cylindrical prayer wheels in their right hands while continuously muttering the timeless mantra "om mani padme hum," they slowly walk clockwise around the perimeter wall surrounding the monastery's 25 whitewashed shrines and hundreds of monks' cells. Occasionally they pause to prostrate themselves before an auspicious spot or to drop a handful of grass, herbs and incense on one of the ever-burning censers that dot the side of the path.
The stream of pilgrims keeps up throughout the morning. As the town gradually wakens, red-robed monks with shaved heads, fresh from their early-morning communal prayer session, wander out to examine the wares of the town market that runs along the main street in front of the monastery or to exchange greetings with the townspeople.
Xiahe, or "Summer River," is a little two-street town wedged between a briskly flowing river and a range of dark treeless hills high in a barely accessible corner of China's far western Gansu province. The little river plain stretching to the north and south of the town is checkered with green and yellow fields, while the hills ringing the valley are closely trimmed by herds of yak and sheep. The main street begins at the Chinese end of town, a small modern enclave of concrete official buildings, the town department store and low-slung commune complexes looking like motels. Winding up a little hill, it leads past the larger Tibetan quarter. Here the skins are darker, the cheekbones higher, the dress sheepskin cloaks and broad-brimmed hats instead of caps and Mao suits; concrete is replaced by two-story wood and mud brick houses, and the little shops feature everything from devotional items such as bells, brass butter lamps and hand-colored photos of religious leaders to miscellaneous consumer goods -- mass-manufactured polyester clothing from Shanghai, plastic shoes, aluminum pots and pans.
It's a hard, vertiginous, eight-hour bus trip along narrow mountain roads and through dry riverbeds from the provincial capital Lanzhou, a city of 2 million stretched out beside the Yellow River. For the weary traveler, though, the trip is a rainbow of green, yellow, brown and red scenery (yellow, the color of the frequent bean fields; red, that of the fertile loess soil near Lanzhou) with an unusual pot of gold at the end: the graceful gilt roofs of Labrang monastery (known in China as Labuleng Si), eastern outpost of Tibet's Buddhist civilization in the wilderness of Chinese secular society.
Xiahe is a frontier town of ambiguous status. At an elevation of 9,000 feet, it lies far above the plains of China proper, but an almost impassable mountain range and 5,000 feet of altitude separate it from the eerie wastes of the Tibetan plateau 200 miles to the west. Culturally and ethnically, the inhabitants are Tibetan, but politically the area has been part of China for 300 years.
Traditional Tibetan town life survives here to an unusual degree, but what strikes the visitor as unchanged tradition belies a recent history of bloodshed and struggle.
After several centuries of effective autonomy, preserved by a nominal recognition of Chinese suzerainty, Tibet was invaded by the army of the new People's Republic of China in 1950. Tibet's temporal and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in the wake of an abortive popular revolt against Chinese rule in 1959, and in the ensuing decade the Chinese undertook a systematic campaign of cultural destruction against the country. Many of Tibet's 6,000 monasteries were looted of the accumulated treasure of centuries and then razed; monks were forced to renounce their vows and rejoin the lay population, sent off to hard labor, tortured or killed. Since the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976, China has liberalized its policies on religion and the cultures of ethnic minorities. Restoration of great religious monuments has begun both in China proper and Tibet (now known as China's Xizang and Qinghai provinces), while some monks have been permitted to return to their monasteries -- and even to recruit a limited number of young novices.
Labrang is the best-preserved and liveliest of the dozen or so monasteries now active in Tibet. Founded in 1708 by a Mongol prince from the Koko Nor region of central Asia, it was built haphazardly over 250 years, with construction only ceasing when the Chinese invaded. At its height it was, like several other great Tibetan monasteries, a little enclosed city, populated by about 5,000 monks and presided over by a lama ("teacher") reputed to be the incarnation of a Buddha. It was traditionally held to be one of the six primary monasteries of the Dalai Lama's Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism, the dominant but by no means the only sect of that religion in Tibet.or wheel of time: a ferocious red-faced demon holds between the pointed teeth of his yawning mouth a wheel divided into several sections, each representing a stage of existence. Tibetans, like all Buddhists, hold that all beings are caught on this wheel, being reborn again and again into lives of suffering or, at best, of fleeting and illusory pleasure. The ultimate goal of religious practice is to liberate oneself from the unceasing cycle of existence, and the kalachakra's grim depiction of souls tormented by demons in various hells is a reminder of the impermanence of earthly joys.
The deep, rhythmic drone of the monks' scripture reading comes to an end, the curtain is removed from the door and the monks file out, flinging their loosened robes back over their shoulders and carrying under their arms sheaves of narrow woodblock-printed pages.
Inside the chamber vacated by the monks, the peculiar warm smells distinctive of Tibet are distilled to their pungent essence, a thick, musky, even suffocating odorof sheepskin and yak butter. The latter is a versatile staple of Tibetan life, used both as a condiment for tea and barley gruel, and as lamp oil. Little butter lamps flicker at the back of the hall, each in front of a gilt image of the Buddha or of religious figures like past Dalai Lamas. An altar in back is cluttered with devotional items and sports a few black-and-white photos of the present Dalai Lama, clipped from magazines and newspapers.
Overhead, thangkas -- paintings or embroidery set on lengths of silk -- hang from the ceiling, their opulent paradisiac visions swaying slowly in the air. On the floor, parallel rows of worn red cushions mark the seating area for meditating monks.
Their prostrations, wheel-turnings and circumambulations done, the worshippers descend a staircase that leads into one of the monastery's open squares, encircled by several similar prayer halls, each dedicated to a different divinity. A monk is wandering around in front of the gate that leads to a large,four-story, gold-roofed building, drawing floral patterns on the ground with chalk dust.
Today Labrang is being visited by lamas from elsewhere in Tibet, one of them the abbot of a monastery, a "living Buddha," and the chalked flowers are a sign of welcome. A crowd of curious townspeople has been gathering since 10 o'clock, awaiting the emergence of the lamas from the gold-roofed building where they have been meditating with local monks during the morning. From time to time a monk appears and fills in the white floral outlines with colored chalk dust.
Now it is nearly noon, and half the town is crowded into the little square: the ordinary people sitting and squatting, armed with rosaries and prayer wheels, the monks standing in a few makeshift rows, chatting.
At length there is a stirring behind the gate to the gold-roofed hall, and a stream of monks issues forth. The crowd pushes forward, the monks form a human wall to restrain it, and finally the "living Buddha," a short, fat, cheerful monk with a yellow scarf around his neck and a cane in his hand, steps forward, flanked by the two lesser lamas and an incongruous Chinese guide in a blue Mao suit.
The crowd surges forward again, everyone craning to get a glimpse of the "living Buddha" -- a rare reminder of the former splendors of the Tibetan religious tradition, now faded to a shadow in practice, sustained only by the flickering lamp of faith in Tibetan communities such as this.