The yellow walls of the Jade Buddha Temple stand on an intersection opposite a Starbucks, where a mustard or saffron-robed monk might be seen bustling by with a take-out coffee in hand.
The walls enclose a pristine temple, very recently refurbished and renovated.
The rooms enclosing the various massive statues are cool, their whirring fans creating a welcoming cool breeze, which sets the long satin and silk hangings trembling.
The temple houses a few very special Jade Buddhas from Burma.
The White Jade reclining Buddha lies languidly and met our eyes with a calm hooded gaze and a secret smile. The Green Jade Buddha sits alone in a private room and we almost missed it. No photographs are allowed to be taken of this Buddha. The smooth green jade is strangely life-like, and the Buddha’s face is extraordinarily smooth and beautiful. I had to pull myself away and out of the dimly lit room to eventually return back into the daylight dazzle.
There we were photographed, together with the two young trainee temple guides who had led us to the green jade Buddha, and also partially bamboozled us with their complexly phrased and mispronounced English.
We found the century-old Xujiahui Catholic Cathedral down a side street in Shanghai.
Once known as “the grandest church in the Far East.” It was established as a result of Xu Guangqi’s efforts to establish a Catholic presence in the area over 400 years ago. Its two steeples rose above some building work. In the nick-nack shop adjoining the cathedral we found and bought a few odds and sods.
I found a small white plastic madonna with a beautiful face to keep beside my bed – a mirror image of the sacred feminine statue I had also adored in the Jade Buddha temple.
Inside the church was sublime, still, silent and very warm. The fans stood still high up in the multi-dome ceiling. It is a church filled with long red banners which are startling against the white marble. Jesus’s gentle, very western, rather hippy-like presence gazes from a colourful collection of beautiful stained glass windows and banners.
We sat in the pews for a long moment where an occasional cool breeze found us, blowing in from the gardens in which we would later leave a number of lit candles for our beloveds.
We walked on from there happily clutching a new tote bag, filled with a collection of plastic Chinese Christian curiosities to treasure.
Clary and her family and extended family run the Nirvana Hotel. Her husband is Tibetan and he, together with her young and beautiful daughter, and the Chinese and Tibetan staff, all add to the colour and interest that make Nirvana Hotel the special place that it is.
We enjoyed all of our meals at the hotel with Fiona, often joined by Clary and her husband. He comes and goes, in a yellow jacket, sometimes on a motorbike or in their 4×4 SUV. The feeling between the threesome is warm and loving, as their daughter switches easily between Dutch and English and Chinese and Tibetan. She arrived in her traditional Tibetan long skirt from school and paused to sip a spoon or two of sauce from her fathers’ bowl, whilst twirling his ponytail, hanging from beneath his leather hat, around her fingers.
I saw her another day, grinning and clinging to her mothers back, as Clary sped off to someplace on the motorbike.
Nirvana Hotel is like that – multicultural and multilingual and full of interesting people travelling through.
The next day L and I decided to revisit Labrang Monastery on our own. Fiona was staying in the backpackers and had many friends in the town.
The Monastery is huge, and there are tours on every day. We decided to find our own way and so we set off, walking some of the Kora, to begin with, and turned the wheels. After a while, we followed one of the paths into the centre of the monastery.
There are monks everywhere, walking singly or in groups. They stay behind huge wooden doors in ochre-coloured flats made from adobe walls. There are numerous large halls and temples. There are fascinating sculptures made from butter… there are places and sights seen within the walls that left us confused and yet peaceful about not knowing….
We were content with coming across groups of monks sitting outside in the sun together, some with cell phones out, some laughing, some within the confines of a temple doing a kind of martial art, with one blowing on a hornlike instrument. We stood silently and watched a pile of offerings being burnt, branches of a special tree, bought from stalls that were everywhere, carried strapped on the back of motorbikes, or in arms, or on backs, to be burnt together with soft silken white cloths and bouquet-like bunches of gathered strings of prayer flags. And all the while the incense rises.
At about 11 we began following monks. We had been told that at 11 every day the monks gather to chant – but we did not know where. Somewhere within the Monastery. We noted that the monks were appearing wearing their large spiral shell shaped yellow hats ( some new and golden, some faded and brown) and one or two older monks appeared with an instrument that looked like a metal scroll rolled up and they wore cloaks with very broad square shoulders. We followed them.
And there the monks were gathering, on the steps of the courtyard of a temple. We came in quietly and found a step to sit on in the shade. There were Chinese tourists next to us, who were standing up and posing in front of the gathering monks, flashing their cameras and getting really up close with the seated monks.
I am told that the monks sit out on the stairs to chant every day, no matter the weather. They shed their identical black boots and sit barefooted in their cloaks, even in freezing weather and snow.
We took a photograph or two from our seats and when the monks began chanting we could not resist recording a little. I was enthralled. Our Chinese neighbours told us that at 11.30 all the monks would pass into the temple beyond, which is what they did. Some monks came running, a little late, and just made it to their places on the stairs in time to shed their black boots. The boots remained scattered on the stairs when they all stood and moved into the temple. I wondered how easy it would be for each boot to be found by its rightful owner again.
We stood as well and followed them into the dimly lit interior of the temple. No photographs were taken from that point onwards. We stood against a wall and observed a number of different ceremonies. At one time some monks, carrying large brass urns, moved along the rows of monks seated on very long low cushioned benches and filled each of their bowls with a milky drink.
Inside the temple was dim, with pillars and ceiling covered and hung with fabrics that were a multitude of colours. The deep low chanting from the seated men continued unabated, while visitors from the outside circled the inside of the temple. Some Tibetans, dressed in outfits of glossy brocade, carrying large candles set in big metal candlesticks, prostrated themselves, and then led a slow path to where we could see the glow of many candles lighting up large golden Buddhas. Up front, we also glimpsed altars, strung with white cloths and incense and other offerings.
After a long time, L and I left via a side door. We were feeling tired and a little overwhelmed, and as we had no offering to make we did not make the journey around to the front with the other adherents.
Outside it had started to turn chilly and we set off on the long walk home, stopping at a monastery shop to buy a couple of boxes of Labrang incense. A monk served us and we paid him on our phone using WeChat. We took a photograph of the interior, not including him, as he had quickly ducked behind a thick curtain hanging over a back door.
On the way back to the hotel we asked permission from two elderly Tibetans to take their photo. They were seated wearily on some steps in the monastery and they sat still and silent while L took their picture.
Back at Nirvana, we felt hungry and so ordered a large amount of food. This time we chose a selection from the Tibetan menu, including a fried mutton dish and a sizzling platter of yak meat. It was all delicious, and when we were replete we retired to our room and slept for most of the late afternoon.
After leaving the bus, we crossed the road and noted another Western woman and we fell into step with her. She was very friendly and lovely and chatted to us in her lilting Irish accent as we walked. Yes, she knew the hotel, Yes, she knew the town, very well as it happened and yes, she could speak some Tibetan (she said humbly).
On journeys, the chance encounter is never really by chance – and this meeting with Fiona became the one thing around which our visit to Xiahe would turn and revolve.
Nirvana Hotel was exactly as it had appeared on social media. Clary welcomed us on the street, she was coming to meet us, and she met us with the direct and open gaze which I associate with the Dutch. She is professional and friendly and very real, a combination that works extremely well within her immaculate and meticulous (her attention to detail is remarkable) hotel.
Our room was spotless, with the bed covered with my favourite crisp white linen. There was a narrow strip of fabric over the foot end which I immediately recognised from a table in the restaurant and decided that I had to find myself a meter or two. It turned out to be a particular fabric which is authentic and only to be found In the Xiahe region.
That is a word that we felt summed up the Nirvana Hotel – authentic.
We loved our bathroom and shower, in which we indulged in an abundance of hot water, before going downstairs to enjoy a meal at the restaurant. The menu features a wide range of meals, from the Chinese, Tibetan and Western traditions.
We met Fiona and she took us for a walk before we returned to enjoy a delicious spread of dishes, mostly from the Chinese selection.
We had noted the Labrang Monastery, on the right as we had turned left into the street leading to the Nirvana Hotel. Fiona, as it turned out, has a long history of visiting the Monastery over the last 15 years, and so she became our willing and very able guide and source of information regarding all things Tibetan.
The sun was going down as we set off from the hotel, but the streets of the town were still buzzing with people and traffic. The Tibetans are partial to motorbikes, having mostly swapped their traditional horses for them a number of years ago now. The long sleeves of their Tibetan coats, usually worn on only one sleeve, except when it is cold, have extra long sleeves which hang well over their hands, and conveniently act as a type of glove when riding their motorbikes.
I tried in vain to get a picture of whole Tibetan families riding, sometimes all four, on one motorbike. But photographs of the elusive Tibetans remained unobtainable yet again.
The vast majority of the monks in the Labrang Monastery are Tibetan, as are the vast majority of the people who attend the Monastery and who walk the Kora.
The Kora, we were to discover, was the ‘walk’ that Fiona was to take us on that evening. The Kora is a 3,6 km circular walk that runs along the outside perimeter of the monastery. We set off, walking clockwise, beginning with a long row of prayer wheels. The prayer wheels are beautifully and brightly painted and they are large and heavy. Most of the walkers spin them with vigour, and as I reached for them I was met with them spinning heavily and forcefully and at first, I withdrew my hand, afraid of them hammering into my fingers.
The walkers also walk speedily, no languid strolling whilst doing the Kora. After hearing that many of the walkers walk the Kora twice a day, once at dawn and once at dusk I could understand why. Many of the walkers are old, some very old, and there are also a lot of folk prostrating themselves along the way. We came upon these figures, laid out in front of us along the path and, not sure how to react, we picked our way respectfully around them, quite in awe of their commitment and dedication.
As the sun went down the path fell into darkness and I began to stumble and gripped L’s arm on the uneven earthen path. In the gloom, I would feel a group of monks or even a single monk approaching us from behind. They walk briskly and they mutter as they walk, their string of prayer beads hanging in a loop from one hand and passing, bead by bead, rapidly between two fingers. I can’t say I could hear the rustling of their thick woven robes. Or the footfalls of their often trainer-clad feet – but they passed me by like some kind of wind, and they had no smell and yet there was something – a clinging of incense perhaps or just that marvellous wild Tibetan thing…
That took me by surprise. I think it was Fiona who said it, but I certainly thought it – if I had suspected that I would experience the nearly 4000 monks who live and work at Labrang to somehow be walking on air, in any way – those thoughts soon changed. The monks are very manly, skirts and all, some almost having the air of rough and ready street fighters. They are very distant beings though, for the most part, they hardly meet your eyes and they refuse to be photographed, which is why, out of respect, most of our monk photographs feature them from the back, and in the distance.
As we walked the Kora that first time, many monks moved past us out of the moonlight, setting the prayer wheels into a lumbering and rapid turning before striding on. We paused at a place where we could look down onto a large group of monks gathered in a courtyard below. We rested our hands against the cool terracotta tiles along the top of the wall. There was a full moon already riding high and casting its silver light over the Tibetan hills in the distance, competing with some strips of red and blue and yellow neon on some far-flung buildings.
We stood in silence and we could hear the monks debating together below us, with some clapping and some laughter and some lunging towards each other and then some running around the perimeter of the courtyard by one or two young ones, with their habits billowing and blowing around them.
We ended our Kora walk at the place where we started, admittedly having softly chatted for most of the way, which we continued to do over supper, but there was so much to learn and we just couldn’t wait to find out as much as we could.
Last week we set out to see some of the Buddhist temple sights in Lanzhou.
We had been wanting to visit the famous Steel Bridge – historically the Zhongshan Bridge also called the first bridge over the Yellow River, lies at the foot of Bai Ta Mountain. In the year 1907, the Qing Government began to build this first iron bridge over the upper reaches of the Yellow River. All materials, even the rivets, were transported from Germany to China using ships, trains, carts and any other means possible. The bridge was completed in two years, and named ‘Lanzhou Iron Bridge over the Yellow River’.
As it was around the time of New Year our visit coincided with the bridge being strung with great clusters of red lanterns the entire length and breadth of the bridge, spanning the Yellow River.
On the other side, from the river bank, we could look up and see our destination, high up on the mountainside – the White Pagoda.
It stood up there, appearing as a tower-like structure, whiteish in colour.
We crossed the road and began our ascent.
Although at this time of the year Lanzhou does have visitors – family visitors visiting their families – the old temple terraces of Lanzhou were relatively empty of other people.
We started with the lower temples and stairs. We were struck by the beauty of their structures, and L took a lot of photographs while I wandered beneath their curved roofs and perched on the low benches, and gazed out over the slow river moving along its icy banks.
We moved up the mountain slowly, taking each flight of stairs at a steady pace. The higher we moved, the more temples we encountered. Some were bigger, but they were always arranged as a courtyard, with many doors leading to rooms housing various statues. The statues sit in their dim chambers, glowing in candlelight, surrounded by great arrangements of big artificial flowers in front of mural painted walls.
Mostly there is a large bell close by, which I suppose only the monks can strike with the long tree trunk attached for the purpose.
The air is pungent, filled with the heady aroma of burning incense – some sticks are always alight and burning, stuck in a trough of sand, standing at angles, some a shocking pink, or a striking blue or a vibrant mellow yellow colour.
The statues sit aloof behind their green stable doors, untouchable, with a large padded kneeler in place for followers to kneel on or say their prayers.
And so we progressed upwards. The city spread out beneath us and we could see its high buildings stretching far into the distance.
Eventually, we came to the Pagoda itself, built in the 13th Century it stands alone with all its many Buddhas looking out from their many alcoves, all ringed around, layer upon layer up into the sky.
I like it immensely and L and I wandered around it. It stands so silently and still, and it was there that I felt moved to buy a three pack of pink incense ( it is an honour system, trust that payment will be left) and I lit them from the flame always burning there and planted them together in the sand, and prayed for my loved ones, and then left the rising fragrant smoke to carry those prayers up and up into the air all around.
L and I stopped at a little curio shop and bought cheap jade and other mementos for special people back home.
We took our time descending, passing more folk making their way up through the slowly warming up day.
A few days later we went on another expedition.
This time we visited Five Springs Park which lies in the northwest part of Gaolan Mountain. In the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 24 A.D.), a famous general, Huo Qubing, was dispatched by the Emperor to go on a punitive expedition to the Hun people, a minority group who lived in the northwestern part of China at that time. Since the troops had travelled from Chang’an (now Xian ), General Huo and his soldiers were exhausted when they arrived at the foot of Gaolan Mountain. They couldn’t find any water nearby, so General Huo forcefully jabbed his horsewhip five times into the ground. Abruptly five springs spurted water into the air. Thereafter the locals called the mountain the Five Springs Mountain.
We took the no 18 bus all the way to where it stops and then turns around to go back the way it came.
We could see some ancient Chinese structures clinging to the cliffs ahead of us.
We made our way to the entrance of the Park, stopping to stroll into a shop selling large statues and filled to the brim with other objects such as drums and huge gongs, one of which was being purchased by a couple of monks when we were there. The shop was filled with the sound of Buddhist chants which were for sale in CD format. We bought a long 21 flag string of prayer flags to take home one day, to hang up in our courtyard, where they can flap and whisper out their Chinese prayers and fade in the sun along our African stoep.
The bottom reaches of the Park contain a zoo, which we avoided, and large basins of brilliantly coloured artificial flowers. The incongruously raucous music from a nearby funfair beat its way to us as we discovered two of the magical springs. Some of the ponds were still frozen over but people were still seen filling bottles from the springs trickling steadily out of the rocks.
We walked on by and began to climb up the mountain, and were passed by a monk, walking, self-contained, his loops of prayer beads passing through his fingers one by one.
There were many stairways leading every which way up the steep hillside. We zigzagged our way up, stopping at the many temples as we went. We came upon a beautiful arched bridge, spanning a frozen waterfall, and we crossed it, me struggling with vertigo as I did so.
The temples near the top were strung with many colourful rows of prayer flags, fluttering in the very bracing breeze.
We found some metallic painted prayer wheels in one temple and ran our fingers over them, sending them spinning. At another rather busy temple there were 4 walls of golden prayer wheels and we followed the red arrows, guiding us along them in the correct direction. They turned slowly and heavily behind us as we passed.
At that temple there were a number of monks, crossing the courtyard very rapidly, heads down and disappearing through doorways hung with heavily embroidered cloths.
A big golden and shiny Buddha sat in his glass box there, grinning fatly, and it was there that Lex caught a monk in his shot as he passed behind the box, and he raised his hand at us and smiled.
From the highest reaches, we looked down over the ancient curved rooftops of the temples, decorated with small bells and metal dragons, and gazed at the new, very rapidly growing city of Lanzhou. It was very peaceful, with a closed up monastery clinging precariously to the dry hillside behind us.
We found the sites of the other Springs, one of which apparently reflects the full moon perfectly in its well of water at a certain time in the summer.