We weren't quite ready to leave Langmusi after the epic horse trekking adventure with yak herding nomads. It's hard to describe but the place just felt so... Right. Alive, intriguing yet relaxing at the same time. I guess it's a mix of the wildlife, the nature, the locals, the language, the monasteries and the dusty, semi sleepy town itself.
When walking in, you have eagles soaring overhead, sheep and yak grazing the hillsides, deer drinking water from the river. Birds, marmots and rabbits dashing from the bushes. Most local older Tibetans wear traditional garb - wool coats tied up around the waist, prayer beads and cowboy hats reminding me of like an American Western; contrasted against the contemporary dyed hair, skinny jeans wearing youngsters. Groups of Chinese and western tourists come and go, thankfully not too many in the low season. But you can see the way it's going.
Buddhist Monks, from old to very young, in crimson red/maroon robes, some wearing basketball shoes. All are on smartphones. We took a selfie with a group of monks doing a "mandala" (read below), using his iPhone 6. They thought my GoPro was pretty cool though.
Great coffee, milky porridge for breakfast and wifi at the cosy Black Tent cafe gave us all the creature comforts, communication and information one needs when on a "working holiday" like we are. It became our temporary home now that we too are officially nomads... We even had a little 4-legged dog follow us around everywhere, seriously considered adopting him.
We spent the next day and a half exploring the town and monasteries within it.
The town is situated smack bang on the border of Sichuan - Gansu provinces. Supposedly, the main street runs along the border with the Northern part of the town in Gansu and the Southern part in Sichuan. Geographically it sits at about 3,000 metres altitude on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. It is part of the area called home to the Aba Tibetan and Qiang ethnic people, which covers a large part of today's eastern Tibet, northern Sichuan and southern Gansu and Qinghai provinces. I hadn't appreciated until now the enormous area covered by the various different ethnic groups.
In Chinese the towns name literally means "Langmu temple" and langmu is Tibetan for "fairy". Legend has it that once a fairy was discovered in a cave near the village. Actually the name is kind of misleading because there is not one but two distinct temples in the town, and they are both large monasteries in their own right. This is where it gets interesting, and a little bit confusing, because they belong to two different sects of Tibetan Buddhism and there is a bit of politics / power struggle between the two. The beliefs or interpretations of various Buddhist thoughts and events are a bit different, but to outsiders like us they look and feel pretty similar.
Serti Gompa is the newer, golden roofed monastery located on the northern hill (Gansu side). Kirti Gompa is the older, silver roofed monastery on the southern, Sichuan side. It sits at the opening of the majestic Namdo Gorge, which is great for a day hike and getting uncrowned, quiet nature. There is a small nunnery somewhere in the town which we didn't see. Oh, and there is also a small Mosque in the middle of the town, just to mix it up a bit.
Serti Gompa (Gansu Monastery)
The temple dates from 1748. It has a large stupa, lots of prayer wheels, small brick houses and five or six large temples for praying etc. About 500 monks live here we were told. The two or three main temples were quite impressive and incredibly decorated inside. You can freely walk around and poke your nose into the open ones, but there is no English information etc (it's not a museum I suppose) so it's a bit of a shame to not learn more about the buildings and the lifestyle of the monks, which would probably be better than the stories you make up in your head...
We saw a group of monks painting something on the ground. Line told me it was a mandala, which she knew thanks to watching House of Cards season 3 before me. Spoilers aside, it was really cool to see the monks 'working'. They took us in, happily showing us the tools and the powdered paints and describing the process: 6-7 monks spend around 10 hours a day for 8 days working on the "picture".
I had to google it. There's lots of explanations, but the one I chose sounds like what the monks was trying to explain to me: a mandala offering is a symbolic offering of the entire universe. It is structured according to classic Buddhist texts with Mt Meru in the centre surrounded by continents, oceans and mountains etc. Each part has fixed traditions and special symbolic meanings, often on multiple levels. When it's done, they wipe it off and throw it away (!); I guess that's why it's called an offering. The process itself is a kind of meditation practice. There's 3 different Mandalas and they rotate so the monks make one of them each year.
Below to the right is a photo of how this year's Mandala will look like when they are done (to the left)
Kirti Gompa (Sichuan Monastery)
Established in 1472, this is the older of the two Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. It was said to house 2,500 monks in 2011, now it's more like 700-1,000 depending on who you speak to, after some crackdowns by the authorities. The head lama (55th) has been living in exile in India since 1990. There's a lot of info on Wikipedia - sounds pretty controversial so I'm not gonna talk about it here while I'm still in the country.... Again, we should have sussed a guide cause as it covers a large area with tons of buildings and temples.
We saw tons of little grommet monks running around with their books and bags after morning classes. A clear little river flows through the centre, out of a spring from the beautiful Namdo Gorge, where we saw wild spotted sikka deer drinking undeterred. The gorge itself is stunning and well worth a day of hiking into the uncrowded, quiet nature.
Surrounded by nature, comforts from home
Langmusi is an excellent base from which to learn firsthand how traditional and more modern Tibetans live, experience living breathing monasteries and monks going about daily routines as well as fantastic hiking, horse trekking or mountain biking into the surrounding grasslands, hillsides and mountains which soar to over 4,000m. While, I should add, having modern comforts close by - very important these days ;D With the levels of construction going on and the increasing tourism, it will unfortunately not be like this for long (thanks to people like us telling everyone about it...) so visit sooner rather than later and out of the peak season if you can.