As we were wandering around the monastery, we heard the sound of a deep horn. Whatever plans we had were gone and we were off to find the source of the sound. After turning a few corners, we looked up and there were two monks, blowing into long horns that ran the length of the roof they stood on. Below this, a group of monks hurried into a courtyard and then back into a building. What they did there I don’t know – received a blessing? Swapped out their shoes? In no time, they were all back in the courtyard. One very serious monk came and sat down in the middle of the courtyard at a table. The others began to arrange themselves in seated lines behind him. The older monks sat in the front, younger ones in the back.
The lead monk began chanting. Some joined in, but others were still getting settled. The whole thing was so much less formal than I would have expected. One monk toward the front kept laughing about something the man next to him had said. Two of the younger monks in the back were comparing their bicep muscles.
It was a theme I noticed a lot in Labrang, home of the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. What from a distance seemed lofty and mysterious, I found out to be a common piece of everyday life. Circling the prayer wheels was doubled as morning exercise and chatting time. Daily chanting was a chance to catch up with friends. Wooden block printing of religious texts was prime time to listen to music on your iPhone (as the only phone brand in China with Tibetan as a pre-installed language option, iPhones were everywhere).
Another example of the mix of somber religious custom and everyday life was the slanted stone platform on a hill outside the monastery. During festival season, an enormous thangka tapestry is draped down over the stones, but the day we visited it was just another feeding pasture for the sheep.
Many of the visitors to the monastery were nomads who in the winter months lived in the hills and plateaus just outside the monastery, but in summer would travel further out into higher hills to graze their yaks and goats. The town and monastery of Labrang was only a piece of their lives and they would spend most of their time in the surrounding plateaus.
We wanted to see the other half of the story and get outside the town into the surrounding hills. An unexpectedly luxurious campsite, called Norden, gave us the chance to do so.
Norden’s general manager came into the city to pick us up and as we drove out of town, the mists were falling very low over the hills. The pastel palette of the hills had darkened and it looked like there would be a cold rain.
About twenty minutes later we arrived, and were greeted by the camp staff and shown to our tents, which were welcome and cozy in the ominous weather. Each bed was covered in a warm yak’s wool blanket and had a stove for extra warmth.
Despite the chill, we decided to get a hike in before dinner. Together with a guide from the camp we scrambled up a nearby hill and were richly rewarded with sweeping views of the hilly plateau. As we started up the last length of the hill, a light snow began to fall.
Dinner was absolutely delicious. Wholesome, rich ingredients that were just what we needed after hiking. My favorite dish was a simple, buttery soup made from mushrooms and roasted barely – a prime food ingredient in the region.
Happy and well-fed, we returned to our tents to snuggle under our warm covers.
Morning on the plateau
By the next morning, a thick white snow had settled on the mountains in the distance, but the plains around us were warm and bright with morning sunlight. It was a stunning sight to find as we came out of our tents.
A herd of yaks had wandered into the camp and we spent a while trying to get close enough to meet them, without scaring them away. When we began the trip, I had imagined yaks to be something like wild buffalo. But yaks are more like a cross between a cow and a mountain goat. I also spotted many different kinds of birds in the bushes.
After our fill of morning exploring around the camp, we ended up in the kitchen of the chef who had made our amazing meal the night before. Andy had just come from Amankora Bhutan and was still getting settled into his new kitchen, the counters of which were all a good foot too low for his 6 foot plus height. We complemented him on an amazing dinner the night before and chatted for a while. He was experimenting with local ingredients and making a yak’s milk cheesecake from scratch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stick around to sample the results.
Our driver had come to take us back into town, where we were dropped off at Norden’s coffee shop and stayed for a cake and coffee before heading on our way.
The whole experience of Labrang, both wandering the town and monastery and spending time in the surrounding plateaus, was something utterly different than anything else I had encountered in my China travels. It had a character all its own that was informed by the faith and traditions of the Tibetan people and by the deep pastels of the landscapes that surrounded them.
Ready for your own journey to the Tibetan Plateau?