Labrang Monastery, China

By John Schilling
This item appears on page 52 of the June 2013 issue.

I was going to be in Beijing in June ’11 with some time to spare. What to do? I have always been interested in Buddhist monasteries and had visited most of the important ones in Tibet (Gandan, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo of the Yellow Hat sect) but not two elsewhere in China: Labrang and Ta’er Si (aka Kumbum). They are quite near each other, but I felt I had time to see only one, so I chose Labrang, near Xiahe, in Gansu province, northwest China. 

To arrange for transportation and lodging to this wonderful site, I feel very lucky that my lodging in Beijing suggested that I hire Peter Huang (Gansu Zhongqiao International Company, New Silk Road Tours, Euro-American Dept. Manager, Inbound Travel Dept., Room 2808, Tower C, Lanxing Wanguogang Place, No. 1999, East Donggang Road, Chengguan District, Lanzhou, 730000, Gansu, China; phone +86 [931] 8730 004 or email or

From the price of $885 for four days (including air from Beijing, hotels, car, driver and guide but no meals), I expected to get pretty basic services, but the resulting experience was far more than that.  

I flew from Beijing to Lanzou, arriving at 7 a.m. on June 19. Peter took me to the Gansu Provincial Museum, which had wonderful relics from the Silk Road.

Best of all was the surprise that Peter had for me, something I had not read about in any travel book. 

On Sunday, many Chinese men and women gather in a park on the Yellow River to play and listen to music. Comprising many cultural groups and styles, there must have been 30 orchestras, singing groups and opera stagings separated from one another by only a few yards! The performers of this music and dance were older citizens (like me) who probably were professionals in the past. It was a great afternoon.

The next day was a travel day from Lanzou to Xiahe, with a visit to an important Silk Road site. The grottoes at Bingling Si were carved mostly during the Tang Dynasty and were not damaged during the Cultural Revolution. I will leave it to the guidebooks to describe this outstanding site. 

We also passed through the city of Linxia, home to a diverse population: Hui, Dongxiang, Baoan, Salar and Tibetan. Most people there are Muslim.  

Finally, we arrived in Xiahe and checked into the Tibetan-style Baoma Hotel, which I liked very much. On the second floor above the courtyard the rooms were more comfortable, with en suite baths and Tibetan-style decorations. On the lower level the rooms were more basic, some occupied by Tibetan pilgrims. Breakfast was very good. 

That evening I walked around the town and some monastery buildings, most of which were open to pilgrims and tourists. I observed devotees walking the kora, the prayer circuit, and joined them. I listened to the chanting outside one building and communicated with some Amdo Tibetans. I loved being with them and observing their clothing, jewelry and mannerisms. 

Peter arranged for me to join a tour the next morning guided by an English-speaking monk. It was extremely interesting and informative, but the best part was getting to know the monk. He was very nice and communicative.

Peter and I then went to one of the buildings expecting to observe a prayer session and listen to chanting and music. What we found was eight to ten groups of monks having debates. I did not ask Peter to translate for me, but he did explain that they were debating the finer points of Buddhist doctrine. 

One other man and I were the only ones observing this, standing aside. The debates were very animated and became physical, including pushing, shoving and the clapping of hands. It was a moving experience.

Afterward, there was a large gathering of about 150 monks dressed in yellow hats and carrying umbrellas and religious texts, with accompanying music. I felt very lucky having Peter help me stay out of the action and quietly observe this wonderful occasion.  

The remainder of the day was spent walking the pilgrims’ route, listening to the monks practicing their horns and other instruments and observing the pilgrims in town. We also visited a small Red Hat monastery (“yellow hat” and “red hat” are two sects of Buddhism). This day was one of the most memorable experiences in all my travels. 


La Crosse, WI