LANZHOU, China — Four hundred kilometers from Dunhuang the Jiayuguan Pass, the “Greatest Pass Under Heaven,” marks the old border between China proper and the Western Territories. The Chinese considered it the outer limit of civilization. In the 5th century B.C. the legendary Taoist master Laozi, aged 200 or so, rode his buffalo through the pass and into the sunset, leaving the “Dao De Jing” with the guardian of the gate. Three centuries later General Zhang Qian went by on his quest for the flying horses of Ferghana.
Jiayuguan, situated in a narrow section of the Gansu Corridor between the Black Mountains and the Qilianshan peaks, was always well guarded and later became the westernmost defense of the Great Wall. The watchtowers and ramparts of a 14th-century fort continue to look out over the same bleak landscape, and the West Gate echoes the hopes and fears of the intrepid travelers, dedicated pilgrims or unfortunate exiles who ventured into the desert beyond, bound for the unknown. According to local superstition, if they threw a stone at the gate upon leaving and it rebounded, they would surely return to their earlier domestic life.
Domestic life, such as it was in Jiayuguan around the 3rd and 4th centuries, is vividly illustrated on painted bricks found in the Wei Jin tombs, a few kilometers from the fort. People are seen making bread, tending silk worms, hunting antelope, herding camels, playing music. These delightful vignettes leave a lively impression of the past as one boards the train for the all-too-modern city of Lanzhou.
A well-polluted industrial city on the Yellow River, Lanzhou has no particular attraction for the Silk Road traveler, except as a base for two fascinating trips. One is up the mountains to the Labrang Tibetan monastery; the other, up the Yellow River by boat to the Binglingsi Buddhist caves.
After a long drive through townships of the Chinese Muslim Hui people, the road climbs at last to the “Shangri La” of Labrang Monastery, 3,000 meters up in an isolated valley. In early summer, the vibrant green of grasslands and the strident yellow of rape fields contrast dramatically with the red, black and white of the temple walls. The lamasery was founded in 1709 by a local sage of the Gelugpa sect, known as the “Yellow Hats,” headed by the Dalai Lama. It is one the six main centers of Gelugpa and one of only two outside Tibet proper, the other being in Mongolia.
The area is known as the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region, and Tibetans account for 45 percent of the population in Labrang and the neighboring village of Xiahe, a surviving outpost of the great Tibetan Buddhist culture that stretched from the Himalayas to Lake Baikal only a few centuries ago.
At its peak Labrang housed 4,000 monks, but now only 500 are allowed to enroll. They receive a government stipend. Discipline has suffered; some novices can be seen lounging around smoking and taking pictures with fancy cameras, and appear to have little concern for spiritual matters.
By contrast, the pilgrims, going round the compound endlessly turning the 1,174 prayer wheels, seem more dedicated. Inside the temples (guided visits only) the atmosphere is definitely religious. Images of fearsome or benevolent deities emerge out of the darkness in the flickering light of pungent yak-butter lamps; after a fire caused by faulty wiring, electric lighting was banned, which makes the place more numinous, if hardly safer.
At noon, a conch-shell trumpet sounded from the roof of the main hall calls the whole community to prayer. Hundreds of monks in magenta-colored robes appear from all corners and gather for the service. As the chanting swells in the smoky interior, only disordered piles of boots are left on the temple steps. Apart from visiting the monastery, there are ample opportunities for pleasant walks or bicycle-rickshaw trips around the temples, along Xiahe’s picturesque shopping street and in the neighboring countryside.
An overnight stay is a welcome necessity, and the Labrang hotel by the river offers new Tibetan-style concrete “tents” or traditional rooms round a cloistered courtyard, decorated in gaily painted fretwork.
The hotels in Lanzhou, en route for Binglingsi, may be less memorable, but Lanzhou’s side streets have markets and food stalls worth exploring. Binglingsi (the Chinese pronunciation of a Tibetan word meaning “Place of 10,000 Buddhas”) can only be reached by boat when the water level of the Yellow River is high (between June and October). The boat trip, usually included in package tours, takes three hours each way, leaving only one hour for the caves. It is worth negotiating the hire of a speedboat (fix the price in advance, to avoid a hassle) which enables a leisurely visit.
As one rounds a bend in the river gorge, an awesome 27-meter-high Buddha looms into sight, set against the cliff face and surrounded by caves and niches housing other statues and paintings. The place may seem difficult to access now, but once it was at the crossroads of trading routes.
The most beautiful examples of Binglingsi style are found in two “special caves” high up the cliff side. As always, the privilege comes at a price — a supplementary fee equal to 3,200 yen for one cave, or 4,800 yen for the two (but not 6,400 yen, as the guide would have you believe).
After a steep climb up iron ladders, one is rewarded by the sight of smiling Buddhas, flying angels and donors in exotic costumes. The mustachioed figures seem to come straight out of Gandhara (today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan), as does the fierce Hercules guarding the Buddha with his mace. They are revealing examples of the cross-cultural links not only between China and Gandhara, but beyond Gandhara to Rome.