Monuments, tanks and ghost towns.
The first time I visited China was back in 2012. I flew in from Bangkok to Guangzhou, still bleary-eyed and behind on sleep after four days on the island of Koh Phangan for Thailand’s notorious ‘Full Moon Party.’ That flight was delayed, however, causing me to miss my onward connection to Qingdao by a matter of minutes.
I had a choice: buy another flight, at the last minute, for an exorbitant price; or wait until the evening of the following day when my airline, the people responsible for this whole mishap, would treat me to a free seat on their next flight to Qingdao. Naturally, I took the latter.
However, due to a bureaucratic technicality (Welcome to China) I discovered too late that there was a catch. I wasn’t permitted to pass customs until I reached Qingdao – which meant a 36-hour wait in Guangzhou Airport, and on a fearsome hangover at that.
I could write a book about the things I saw, during that day-and-a-half stuck in the heterotopian purgatory of a Chinese airport. Perhaps the strangest sight was watching a mother pull down her child’s trousers, then hold him up over a waste bin as he defecated in full view of the departure lounge. (“Oh, those country folk,” a Chinese friend would later comment.) The people nearby seemed to notice, shrug, then go back to their e-book readers. But then, my own behaviour was probably just as erratic towards the end of my sentence in Guangzhou: taking power naps on the closed-off travelator; brushing my teeth in chrysanthemum tea, and gobbling fast food behind the decorative ferns like some kind of caveman.
When at last I was set loose on the Chinese interior, I quickly made up for lost time. I visited the Great Wall, saw the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I went looking for Chairman Mao’s Underground City, and explored abandoned military tunnels beneath the mountains at Qingdao.
But for all of that, I rarely strayed far from the heaving crowds of China’s megacities. Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Qingdao… to put things in perspective, only one of those cities was not larger than London. I flew out for a week in Pyongyang, North Korea, and when I caught the overnight train back to Beijing and my Chinese friend invited me to come on a rural road trip with her family, I nearly died from excitement.
In fact, there would be three of us; a reunion of sorts. I’d made friends with R, a Glasgow taxi driver, when I visited Moscow earlier that year. We met in the hostel, then spent a day exploring Russian forests in a rental car – climbing over fences, sneaking into derelict Pioneer camps. Around the same time, V was on a business trip to Moscow for her company in Beijing. She’d told us to give her a call, if we ever made it to China… and just a few months later, here we were on her doorstep.
The plan was to visit V’s family in her home city of Lanzhou, then hop into the car with them from there. It took us two days of travelling, just to reach the starting line though; an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an and then the same again, the next night, from Xi’an to Lanzhou.
In Xi’an we explored the old city walls, saw the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, and visited the nearby Terracotta Warriors; on the train we ate, slept, or read books cooped up in our precarious triple-decker bunk beds.
By the second night, it finally felt like we were leaving behind everything I knew of China. There had been foreign tourists in Xi’an, plenty of them, but after travelling west again it would be four days before we saw another white face. On the train that night, a young girl burst into the washroom as I was brushing my teeth. She stared at me, open mouthed, then left… and a minute later she’d returned with her friends, a group of Chinese children who would follow R and myself around the train all night trying to touch our hair, squashing our faces up between their hands to see if the features went back to the same shape when they let go.
Lanzhou is the capital of China’s Gansu Province; a city of some 2 million inhabitants, and a historic trade hub on the Silk Road. It was a world apart from Beijing. Lanzhou had all the noise and commotion of China’s Eastern seaboard… but in place of expat coffee shops, cosmopolitan bars and familiar restaurant chains, there was a flavour here of something different altogether.
We spent a day exploring the city – crossing the Yellow River to visit Buddhist shrines scattered all the way up the mountainside beyond. Often people seemed to notice us, two foreigners, and at Lanzhou Zoo a woman even followed us with her camera, attempting to take discrete photographs. Each time she pointed the camera, I pulled a strange face… then as soon as the camera lowered I went back to normal, and I’d pretend I hadn’t seen her. She would check her photos, glance back at me, then look at her camera again as if it were somehow broken.
That afternoon, V took us to meet her grandmother in Lanzhou.
R and myself, I think we might have been the first non-Chinese people this woman ever met. She made us very welcome, piling plates of biscuits and peaches in front of us; then later, we spent the evening on the city streets.
A study in 2009 suggested there were more than 21 million Muslims in China. In Lanzhou, an estimated 9% of the population are Muslim; and while that might not sound like much compared to some places, here in China – the most atheistic country in the world – 9% is kind of a big deal.
The city is dominated by its historic Islamic architecture – and there were some dazzling modern mosques on display, too. Driving past one enormous specimen later that night, all neon minarets around a dome the size of a small moon, our taxi driver boasted that it was the largest mosque in China. Later I’d find out that it wasn’t even close… but it was still the biggest, brightest mosque that I had ever seen.
At the night market, men with beards and kufi caps sat barbecuing lamb meat over fires. We ate snails and chilli noodles at a street cafe. I ordered lamb brains and they brought out the whole head on a paper plate; two jellied eyes staring up at me from a fleshy, boiled skull. The cheeks tasted sweet, the tongue incredibly tender… but trying to extract eyeballs from a skull using only chopsticks took a level of dexterity I had not yet acquired. Instead I popped one into my mouth with my fingers and it burst, like a cherry tomato, between my teeth. I managed to swallow it down with a mouthful of beer, but I had to give the other one away.
The next day, we set off early – a bowl of noodle soup and a coffee from a roadside restaurant, then into the car and out of town heading west.
There were five of us in that car: R and myself, V, and both her parents. A second car, filled with aunts and uncles, made up the convoy. It was a fun group, and they made us foreigners very welcome – V’s father even managed a welcome in English – though ultimately, my conversations with the family would usually be limited to the handful of words we had in common; and so I didn’t get to know them half as well as I would have liked.
I must have slept on the journey, because I remember only parts of it: stopping for fuel at a petrol station nestled into a fold of the green mountains; and when the car came to a stop in the road, stuck behind a panting herd of yak. Even with the windows closed, the scent of the creatures (like earth and sweat and bad milk) still managed to find its way inside the vehicle.
It was a four-hour drive from Lanzhou to our first destination, Labrang Monastery. We were heading deep into the Amdo region: a Chinese territory now, although historically these mountains and plains had once formed the northernmost portion of Tibet.
Amdo is one of the three traditional Tibetan regions, and the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lamas have not governed Amdo since the 18th century though, and since then a series of rulers – warlords and empires – have taken their place. The region’s assimilation into China began slowly, during the 1930s. It wasn’t long after that the rest of Tibet would follow, and in 1949 this independent Buddhist nation was absorbed completely as an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China.
I didn’t know then – and still don’t fully understand – exactly how the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ works. Some people maintain that the Chinese occupation of this region constitutes an ongoing, illegal invasion of Tibet; and that driving into Amdo that day, we would have crossed the national border. The family I was travelling with, on the other hand, believed we hadn’t left China. It’s a debate that can still elicit a heated response, and so in the end I decided not to worry too much about definitions on that trip; but rather to enjoy the experience purely for what it was.
Culturally though, the differences were quite clear. The Chinese population is composed of 56 recognised ethnic groups; and while Han Chinese account for much of the population in the more urbanised, eastern portions of the country, here we were entering a territory more typically inhabited by Tibetan and Hui peoples.
The language was different, the architecture changing too as we drove through rural settlements where tents seemed to feature as often as houses. The grand, Taoist temples that I had grown so used to seeing on China’s east coast were giving way to village mosques, and the simple wooden carving of Buddhist monasteries and shrines. Even the people looked different here – with their red cheeks, caps and beads.
When we arrived in the town of Xiahe, the home of Labrang Monastery, I saw a colourful slogan written across a nearby wall. To me, the characters looked just the same as the Mandarin Chinese written on signs back in Beijing; but when I asked V what it said, she only shrugged.
“I can’t understand a word of that,” she said.
Labrang Monastery was founded in 1709 by a first-generation Jamyang – a reincarnated living Buddha – by the name of Ngagong Tsunde. The monastery is one of six main schools associated with the Gelugpa Order of Tibetan Buddhism; sometimes referred to as the ‘Yellow Hat Sect’ on account of their ritual headwear. It sits at an altitude of 2900m, above the sleepy town of Xiahe, and it’s the largest monastic site in the eastern Amdo region.
We parked in the town, walking through rows of whitewashed, clay-and-straw structures to reach the entrance to the monastery. Xiahe is divided between Hui and Tibetan districts, with the Labrang Monastery situated just up the hill from the Tibetan side of town.
One of the first things I noticed in Xiahe was the difference in air quality. After several weeks exploring Chinese cities, I had grown accustomed to the smog, the poor visibility. On a bad day in Beijing, you couldn’t see the far side of the street – just neon highlights in a sea of mist – and I’d gotten used to sneezing out grey-black dust, coughing up soot-coloured phlegm, after just a fortnight in the capital. Up here though, the air was thin and pure, sharp and sweet, and I felt almost giddy with the rush of undiluted oxygen.
At the monastery gates we split up. V’s family went looking for museums and cafes, while R, V and myself walked along an endless row of prayer wheels, through narrow alleys and under arches built into the mud-packed walls.
Many of the more important buildings were accessible only on a guided tour – including the tratsang, or monastic colleges dedicated to medicine, astrology, esoteric Buddhism and so on. Supposedly one of those buildings had even contained a small museum of yak-butter sculptures – but I was content just to wander, quietly absorbing the atmosphere of this sacred place.
Historic and holy though it may be, however, Labrang Monastery nevertheless bore the marks of the 21st century.
In an alleyway behind one of the colleges, I passed two young monks tapping away at the screen of a smartphone they held between them; on a nearby corner, another monk – perhaps 14 years old, dressed in the long red robes of the order – sat with a cigarette and a can of Coca-Cola. Labrang was certainly not untouched by the modern world, but it was remote enough that scenes like these still felt jarring to the senses.
Outside the Grand Sutra Hall, a long, low building with flapping tapestries hung across the front like curtains, a dozen-or-so figures sat huddled in the shadows; red-robed children with their heads bowed in prayer. A horn sounded, and without a word they rose to their feet and began to shuffle inside the hall. We followed them, quietly, past a pile of black, fur boots that the monks had discarded on entering. We did the same, leaving our shoes beside the entrance as we went inside.
The hall was dark, cold, decorated in wall hangings and lit by the flickering light from yak-butter lamps and candles. I was quickly discovering that everything here smelt of yak.
Later I’d learn that we weren’t supposed to enter the hall, that it was only open to visitors on special guided tours and at certain times of day; but perhaps we’d been tolerated as pilgrims rather than tourists, because no one seemed to mind as we sat quietly at the back of the sombre space, heads bowed in respect while the monks chanted their raw and throaty sutras.
After the prayers we wandered higher up the hillside, through the buildings of the monastery. We passed the Manjushri Temple, the Serkung Temple and stopped for a while outside the Barkhang: a three-storey building in red-brown bricks, which contained the monastery’s wood-block printing press. Nearby, a smaller temple contained the colourful costumes and animal masks used in the annual celebrations of Tibetan New Year.
Labrang Monastery is much smaller than it once was; Mao’s Cultural Revolution saw to that. As recently as the 1950s there were more than 4,000 monks residing here, but in the decades that followed the monastery was downsized and numerous halls and temples were destroyed.
More recently the monastery has seen something of a resurgence though, and it has benefitted greatly from the tourist money beginning to flood into the region. Nowadays, the 1,800 monks at Labrang represent a mixed population of Tibetan, Mongolian, Han and Hui Buddhists – but the Tibetan influence is by far the strongest, and it is Tibetan language, culture and religious practice that prevails here.
At the highest end of the monastery we came across the ritual site dedicated to another Tibetan practice: sky burial.
This funerary ritual is a part of the traditional Tibetan culture, and involves the feeding of human corpses to vultures or other birds of prey. The theory behind it is that energy should never be fixed in one place, or buried in the earth, but rather shared and passed on. Tibetan Buddhists tend to be big meat-eaters, and after death that karmic debt must be repaid – so their flesh feeds the birds in turn, on whose wings their souls are able to soar into the heavens.
The grassy clearing atop the plateau was not being used, or else we wouldn’t have approached – in any culture, crashing a funeral ceremony would seem plain disrespectful. But rather we had the place to ourselves that day, a grassy outcrop of the mountain with the maze-like streets of the monastery spread out at our feet; and hawks wheeling in the sky high above.
Further down the slope, meanwhile, two young monks – they couldn’t have been more than 10 years old – wore their long red robes as they practiced a carefully choreographed fight with wooden staffs; but whether it was a traditional Buddhist ritual or simply pantomime for the tourists, was impossible to say.
After a meal of barbecued lamb at an Islamic restaurant in Xiahe, we spent that night not far from Labrang Monastery; then in the morning we hit the road again, driving four hours south and deeper still into the lands of Tibetan China.
Along the way, I watched the landscape of the plateau. There were grasslands as far as the eye could see, broken occasionally by distant mountain peaks.
At one point we drove through a series of ridges, the earth layered into steps so regular that at first I had assumed we were seeing the effect of heavy quarrying operations; but as our two-car convoy worked its way along the road that snaked in tight coils down the grassy stair, I realised that these features were entirely natural. We’d drive for hours, in fact, with only the tarmac beneath us and then a sea of endless, uninterrupted green beyond.
In time we reached the village of Langmusi, a settlement that was Tibetan in language, in culture, in history, in every conceivable way save for the fact that China now laid a claim to the earth on which it sat.
Langmusi is perched at an altitude of 3325m, right on the border between China’s Gansu and Sichuan provinces; and of a population somewhere in the region of 4,000 people, one quarter belong to the two Buddhist monasteries located in the village. The streets of Langmusi – or ‘Taktsang Lhamo,’ as it is known by the local Tibetans – were little more than dirt tracks, where 4×4 vehicles jostled for space amongst the tides of yak; and columns of Buddhist monks drifted this way and that between the village’s numerous holy sites.
We were hungry after the long drive, and so we stopped for food at a café on the main road through Langmusi; squashed between tour offices and prayer centres. The interior of the café was a vibrant mess of banners strung with multi-coloured flags; prayers written on fabric in black, Tibetan script; Buddhist shrines, lamps and candles; and a background chorus of bells and wooden beads, chiming in the wind.
I ordered the yak burger, and when the meal came out it was served in a bun the size of my head. The woman who delivered it wore a silk shawl, her clothes coloured in muted blues and yellows that drew a sharp contrast with her dark red cheeks. As we ate she retreated to the counter in the corner until a man came in – tall, dark skinned and wearing a white cap perched on his skull – presumably, her husband. They spoke together, quietly at first, and it was only after a while that their voices began to raise in pitch; turn angry.
Suddenly the couple were shouting at one another, and I looked up just in time to see the tall man smack his wife, hard, across the face. He stormed out, she sobbed, and I sat there aghast.
It’s hard to know what to do in such situations; and perhaps egotistical, on reflection, to suppose that an outsider could make any difference at all. Particularly in cases where such behaviour is an accepted part of the culture, sometimes foreign interference will make things worse, rather than better.
I couldn’t finish my food though, and I was still staring at that giant burger when the man came striding back into the café, a grim look on his face and a broom brandished in his hands. He raised it up, as if to beat a dog – the woman cowered behind the counter, but then, quite suddenly, she lashed out and scratched him across the face. The man staggered back, and his wife flung a heavy ashtray at his head. It missed, exploding on the wall instead in a cloud of ceramic dust. By the time she began slinging chairs across the room he had disappeared, fleeing outside, and she chased after him.
I had completely abandoned my meal by now, and the whole group of us made to leave; we put down money on the table – a generous amount – without waiting to see the bill. Wood splintered around us, plates and crockery smashing against walls as the war rolled back inside the fragile little café. We got to a safe distance, and then V’s uncles turned back… to stand and laugh at the spectacle until their wives dragged them away.
“People from this part of China are famous for their hot tempers,” my friend explained… and I had to admit that there was something perversely comical about the scene. It had the feel of cartoon violence, a tornado of destruction spinning through what had been, only moments earlier, a peaceful little café. Besides, the combatants appeared quite equally matched – what the woman lacked in height, she more than made up for in sheer ferocity – and I was past knowing which one of them needed rescuing most.
Of the two main holy sites at Langmusi, Kirti Gompa is the larger; founded in the 15th century and with roughly 700 monks in residence. But we visited the other monastery instead – the 18th century Serti Gompa – located higher up the mountain on the Gansu side of the village.
The place was simpler than the Labrang Monastery from the day before, though decorated beautifully with gold-topped stupas and ornate prayer halls. we followed the pilgrimage route – the ‘kora’ – which wound its way around the Serti temple, between its colleges, shrines, and residential buildings that housed some 350 Buddhist monks.
Serti Gompa seems to be the better known of the two Langmusi sites, at least as far as Chinese tourists are concerned; although later, I’d discover that there might have been a political point in this. According to Tibetans from the region, Serti is funded by the Chinese government… and in turn this religious site supports the Buddhist leaders appointed by China, rather than looking back to Tibet, and Lhasa, for spiritual guidance.
For Tibetan Buddhists at least, it was Kirti Gompa – the simpler temple with its bare wooden beams, its plain stupas and unadorned halls – which represented the real spiritual heart of Langmusi; but we didn’t so much as stop to look before heading out of the village, and into the grasslands of the surrounding plateau.
We turned back towards Lanzhou, returning by way of the Sangke Grasslands. This region of steppe lies at an altitude of some 3,000m on the Tibetan Plateau, a lush green quilt that seems to roll on forever in all directions.
Eventually we reached a ridge, where the landscape fell away beneath us into a long, deep valley; bordered at its furthest reaches by the mountains beyond. Driving up onto the very edge of the incline, we stopped at a small camp – a series of yurts and canvas marquees, painted in bright colours and tied down with webs of guy-ropes to keep them from taking off in the powerful winds that whipped across the plateau.
It was a local holiday camp, of sorts, and for what remained of the afternoon we were able to hire out one of the yurts – a heated shelter overlooking the valley, with divan seats inside around a picnic table. The family ate an afternoon meal of cucumber salad, nuts, chillies and watermelon; while I headed out, to walk on the windy grassland at the heart of this vast, crater valley.
Down beneath us, there were distant specks moving across the plains: people, smoke from fires, and what looked to be motorbikes moving amongst the grass. In a neighbouring field I saw two children playing; watched as the boy gathered up a bunch of wildflowers, pale blooms in shivering whites and blues, and presented them to the girl. His cheeks were bright red, so that it looked as though he were blushing while making his romantic gesture – though the truth of it, I knew, was a hypoxia of the skin which is common to many Tibetan people; the burnt red cheeks that come as the result of their high-altitude, outdoor lifestyle.
The children came running back towards the yurts, towards an old man who was busily piloting a distant kite through the windy skies. The girl threw the flowers to one side, discarding the bouquet in favour of a turn at the controls.
V’s family stayed on in the yurt – eating, drinking, talking, enjoying the panoramic views – but the three of us left, R, V and myself, strolling off down the hillside to a dusty driveway at its base.
The main road through this region curved around the bottom of the hill, and here it met an inroad that veered off up towards the camp, its kites and yurts. There was parking space where the roads met, a gravel driveway where local people had gathered to sell their wares – and services – to the tourists passing by. Here were horses tethered up to wooden fence posts, and children pulling wheelies on mud-encrusted mopeds; the engines whined, and each time the front wheels slammed back down into the gravel they sent up clouds of dust from the dry stone.
These people were nomads, natives of the Tibetan Plateau. According to archaeologists, this area was first colonised by nomadic tribes as much as 30,000 years ago; the terrain didn’t lend itself well to growing crops, the climate too cruel, so instead these settlers herded sheep and yak, lived in tents and moved with the seasons. To this day, as much as 40% of ethnic Tibetans maintain a nomadic lifestyle, and here on the Sangke Grasslands we had entered the heartlands of their territory.
One of the moped boys approached us. He seemed curious, and I assumed that perhaps they didn’t see many white faces around these parts – likely having more dealings with China’s own domestic tourists. The boy wanted to talk; but we couldn’t get far. These people spoke only broken Mandarin, not a word of English, and no one in our group was familiar with Tibetan.
Nevertheless, we managed to stumble through a basic exchange and soon enough the three of us were climbing onto horseback, and setting off across the grass. We rode away from the hill, following the valley until the market stalls and mopeds slipped out of sight. We passed by another camp nearby: the plain, yak-skin yurts of nomad tribes, the plumes of smoke that rose from campfires.
In time, those camps also disappeared. We rode on until we were surrounded only by grass, not a manmade object in sight; nothing but nature in the wildest, vastest landscape I had ever seen. Just days earlier, I had been in one of the world’s most densely populated cities – but here, 1,800km from Beijing and on the far side of the empire, this may as well have been another planet.
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