The pilgrim first touched my right breast with her index finger, and then my left. I wondered if it was some kind of blessing, or whether she just wanted to see if they were real. A nearby Dutch tourist said, “Oh no, she wants some of that,” which made me giggle hysterically. I had gotten all kinds of remarks about my larger-than-local bosom in my years in China, but this was the first unasked for physical contact. The pilgrim was doing the daily kora - part of the pilgrimage at Labrang Tibetan Monastery - in the small town of Xiahe, in Gansu Province, China. One might think that a pilgrim’s walk around a vast monastery would be slow and reflective. Not so. These were intrepid hikers, walking at a brisk pace, swirling the outdoor prayer wheels as they went. Maybe it is part of the devotional practice, but I never heard them talking to anyone. Maybe they were too much out of breath.
They were all ages, but it was the older women – like the one who felt me up - that I found most interesting. Their graying hair was pulled back in long braids; they were swaddled in layers and layers of colorful fabric - pinks, mauves, browns and whites - usually with a woven satchel hanging across their bodies. Their faces were browned by the sun, and heavily wrinkled. They had teeth missing, and they were easily shorter than I by a foot.
But there were lots of things to see and do in Xiahe. My traveling companion, Marie, and I arrived one night in May of 2010. There were no street lights and the night was so black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We saw some lights on a taxi, and practically screamed to get him to stop. We asked him to take us to the Tibetan Peace Hotel; "Ok ok ok,” he answered, as he turned his taxi around. There weren’t any lights at the hotel, either, but we managed to find a clerk to help us. They seemed to know some English, but we also used some of our Chinese. Our first thought was to stay cheaply in the dorm rooms, but as they were more like a cold and unwelcoming basement, we splurged and got a guest room on the second floor. It included a bathroom and two twin beds, and was brightly painted with Tibetan motif. It was about double what the dorm rooms were, but still less than $20 a night. The hotel also had in the main building a nice restaurant, where we took several meals. Sometimes we just bought stuff on the street, including the best artisan bread and yogurt I had ever had in China, or a couple meals worth for a few dollars.
Of course the main attraction In Xiahe is the monastery itself, part of the “yellow hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lama belongs. On our first morning in Xiahe, we headed to the monastery but we weren't sure where the guided tour began. We walked in a side door to the yard and soon found ourselves in a grassy area where monks were playing a complicated and seemingly inexplicable game. They wore the traditional maroon robes with yellow fringed hats. My companion explained to me that the game they played was a kind of test on Buddhist religious texts. One participant would chant the texts until he couldn’t remember any more, his companion monks snapping along with him. Then the next monk would try to outdo him.
The day was clear and bright, and no one took any notice of us whatsoever. We wandered through courtyard after colorful courtyard until we found the ticket office for the guided tour. Officially, this is the only way you can see inside the monastery. AWhen Marie turned back to take a nap, I continued walking with the Dutch tourists along a small river. I bought a prayer flag from a vendor, and we laughed at a dog who had taken shelter from the relentless sun under some prayer wheels. I also bought offerings – cedar twigs and roasted barley, packaged in plastic; they smelled like Christmas to me. After a long walk back to our hotel, I met Marie again. She wanted to buy thanka paintings (religious paintings of Buddhist figures painted on scrolls) for her daughters. A real Tibetan thanka can cost thousands of dollars, so we stood amazed as we came across some of these workshops and the artists looked like they were doing paint-by-number. Unfazed, Marie bought two. handsome young monk with careful English served a guide for about 15 tourists, and took us to different temples, explaining the significance of each one along the way. The air was heavy with incense and chanting. The tour ended with a display of sculptures made out of yak butter. They looked more like Filo dough than butter, and smelled rancid, but my favorite was the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, with his many hands held out in mercy.
Xiahe is high, and some of the tourists we met were suffering from altitude sickness. It didn’t seem to bother me. I liked to breathe in the exotic flavors on the air, and turn my face to the bright sun. Here in Xiahe, my silly daily troubles seemed to vanish, and nothing - absolutely nothing - could touch me. Well, except for a pilgrim, and that was ok!
About the Author Molly Gleeson has spent the past seven years living overseas teaching English. This is her fifth year in China, where she has lived in Chongqing, Gansu Province and Wuxi, a city outside of Shanghai. She has also spent a year in Saudi Arabia, and half a year in Japan. In September she plans to move to Pakistan to join her fiancé.
About the Author
Molly Gleeson has spent the past seven years living overseas teaching English. This is her fifth year in China, where she has lived in Chongqing, Gansu Province and Wuxi, a city outside of Shanghai. She has also spent a year in Saudi Arabia, and half a year in Japan. In September she plans to move to Pakistan to join her fiancé.