August 22, 2019
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The Tibetan monastery of Labrang: between backpackers and inner peace

By Jesus Centeno

Gannan, China, Aug 10 (efe-epa).- Either for its mysticism, a desire to witness first-hand the sacred rites of monks or because of the rising interest in Tibetan culture – visiting the Labrang monastery in western China has become a popular trend among the thousands of Chinese tourists eager to discover remote parts of the huge country.

The monastery, founded in 1709 and located in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Gansu Province), is considered one of the leading educational institutions of Tibetan Buddhism in China, with the added value of being surrounded by spectacular natural landscapes.

Though most of the tourists visiting the region used to be foreigners, the situation has changed in recent years. It is now domestic visitors who are arriving in increasing numbers in a bid to find inner peace.

Many ethnic Han Chinese travel here not only seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of noisy cities, but also to immerse themselves in a religion that flourished in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), whose emperors built countless temples throughout the country.

"It was the golden age of Chinese art and literature, and contributed to the formation of the Chinese mentality in aesthetics, politics and medicine," Wang, a Chinese tourist who follows the teachings of Buddhism, told EFE.

In a section inside the prayer hall – amid a grave silence only interrupted by the humming of mantras – a few of the thousand monks that live in the monastic complex instruct tourists and give them blessings for a good handful of yuan.

Today there are some 240 million Buddhists in China who go on pilgrimages to these religious centers, while also using the opportunity to buy paintings and other objects of Buddhist imagery.

The cost of some of these souvenirs – as verified by EFE – may even surpass 10,000 yuan ($1,420).

Hence, it comes as no surprise that many of Gannan's Tibetans spend their entire day patiently painting triptychs about karma, nirvana or omniscience.

"To make these paintings you have to be a strong believer and know the Buddhist language and culture well," explained Xie Wenli, in charge of promoting the monastery to tourists.

According to her, the monastery completed its restoration work this year and tourists are often surprised by the fact that it had never undergone repairs before.

An educational center and a huge library full of timeless books on Tibetan history, philosophy and medicine also stand out.

This enormous religious complex is located in Gannan's Xiahe County, an area where a majority of Han Chinese peacefully coexists with Tibetans and Hui Muslims, although their neighborhoods are clearly separated.

The temple is also quite popular among foreigners because no special permission is required for a visit, unlike in the region of Tibet, where a travel permit is needed, something Chinese authorities justify by citing Tibet's unique traditions, cultural heritage, intake capacity and need for ecological protection.

However, the Labrang monastery has not been without controversy: in 2008, some Buddhists took part in protests against Chinese policies in Tibet, and in 2012, two Tibetans set themselves on fire next to its premises.

Although Beijing attributed the protests to Tibetan independence movements, experts and witnesses claim it was propelled by increasing poverty among the Tibetan ethnic group while the Han people prospered.

However, for now the monks do not appear to be bothered by the flurry of activity around them: while some look detached as they cocoon themselves in their robes, others seem a bit more materialistic as they fiddle with their mobile phones, even using them to get food delivered.

Meanwhile, a few hundred meters from the monastery and under the curious gaze of onlookers, several monks were taking part in a circumambulation ritual involving the recitation of sacred texts while going in circles around rotating prayer wheels.

Domestic tourism is part of China's plans to boost consumption and development in its western region: in 2018, some 130,000 people came out of the poverty line in Gansu province thanks to rural tourism projects related to local traditions, according to the government. EFE-EPA

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