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I have made my pilgrimage.  I have walked kora around the Jokhang, have marched with chanting pilgrims who prostrated their way here from more distant

Prostrating Pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

barren beginnings.  In my own way, I too have prostrated my way here, taking each diligent and devoted step to reach the place I could only dream of for countless years.

And yet, the Lhasa here is not that which I imagined. It is riddled with modern influence, and I fear that His Holiness would be devastated to see the patrols of Chinese army men posted along the rooftops overlooking Barkhor square.  He would be saddened to see the high rise housing, Han immigrants looming in the distance who twist his timeless traditions into tourism.

It was too easy to get here, no mountains to climb on foot, no cold wind to bring out the small red capillaries in our cheeks

The Potala, Palace of the Dalai Lama

.  And because of this, Lhasa lacks familiarity, sincerity, welcome.

I walk the kora route around the Jokhang not yet ready to retire from altitude exhaustion. It is almost dusk and there is only the whisper of prostrating bodies over the marble walkway.

Until the army men come marching in.  They form straight lines, they stomp their feet and shout patriotic slogans that clash with the murmuring mantras of the religiously devout around them.  The Tibetans buying katas hide their eyes, but I see their look of humored disbelief.  They say, “Really?  That’s the best you can do?”  And yet those eyes are also lost and sad, because though these disrespectful stompings at the busiest hour of prayer are ludicrous and almost comical, they are serious enough to deny an entire culture of its freedom.  And even I avert an anxious pair of eyes away, thinking of words Tinley said before I left from Amdo: “without religion there is darkness.” And sure enough it seems that these dark clothed men in straight lines are little black holes in a sea of the glowing devout.

The Jokhang Temple

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For two years I have heard the word “Labrang” dropped.  I’ve heard descriptions of its beauty, its vastness.  I’ve heard my family in Dharamsala repeatedly, like a mantra, say “Labrang: this is my home.”  Until recently, Labrang was just a dream somewhere in Western China.  I had Google Map images implanted on my mind, I had no concept of its accessibility, nor of its tradition or history.  Now it is a place that I have witnessed.

I arrived in warm sunlight after seven hours nudged between Tibetan women and their children who fell into my lap with the jolting of the bus.  We had traveled passed Buddhist holy sites painted on cliff faces and decorated with the blues, reds, greens, yellows, whites of prayer flags.  We had crossed over half frozen rivers, petrified waterfalls that, coupled with the braided hair and chuba adorned men and women beside me, made it seem that time itself had stopped.  And finally, after countless mountain passes, we started to hear the other passengers call out, “Xiahe!” “Labrang!” and we knew we had arrived.

Labrang is one of the largest Tibetan monasteries still in function in Western China.  Located in the city of Xiahe, it is nestled between small barren mountains and a river winds through the southern edge of the city.  The day I arrived, it seemed the place glowed gold and red.  Monks walked along the dusty streets and dotted the earthen city with their maroon robes.  The red and white painted monasteries stood proud under their shining gold roofs, and the Tibetan curtains hanging from the windows billowed lightly in the quiet wind.

And the city bustled.  Pilgrims, with long grey braids and small prayer wheels in their wrinkled, left hands, circumambulated the monastery grounds and turned the larger stationary prayer wheels so that their squeak was heard at the other end of the town.  The pilgrims shuffled, they prostrated, they mumbled their mantras in rhythm with their heavy step. And I knew it was Labrang I had made this journey for.

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