Graveyards, Bing Li Temple & Xiahe


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Asia » China » Gansu » Xiahe
October 18th 2010
Published: March 20th 2012
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Burial practices are always fascinating to learn about in other cultures, and I got a little taste of the Chinese way of doing things when we stopped off on the way to a little town called Luidan to bush camp in a Chinese cemetery. We were surrounded by big pyramid mound graves all around, most built close to large doorways leading to no where- a few quite intricate, some more than others, depending on the family budget I suppose, with thick sandy brick walls sloping down on either side; symbolising a path leading the dead to the afterlife, and looking at them, you almost expect to see another world through the doorway. All of the graves were surrounded by charred wood, broken bottles, bones, hoofs, horns & the dried out guts of goats, left over from recent funeral feasts.

The whole place was eerilly huge, empty, dusty and deserted, with that deathly quiet, that something in the air that cemeteries always have. As much as we in the west like to pretend we've shaken off all our animal senses of the things we can't see, hear or touch, places like graveyards always remind you of what Asia and Africa, especially,
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Frisky Monk at Bing Li
have never forgotten- death has a shadow, and spirits leave a footprint. It would have been amazing to see a burial practice for real but it was actually pretty interesting just to wonder around and find clues to how it would have been, imagining the ceremonies taking place weeks or months before, families gathering to honour their loved ones, the ghosts of people mourning ghosts.

I set up my tent next to a huge towering rock, and I was excited to find a tunnel leading under the sand stone- a crypt! The Indiana Jones inside me leapt in to action and after a bit of hesitation, and trying to get Thomas to go in too ("I would... But I'll get dirty" pffft, chicken) I crawled inside the narrow tunnel, with barely enough room to pull myself forward, let alone turn around. But after a long time on my hands and knees with my headtorch lighting the way, it was not the Pharaoh style tomb I was hoping for that I arrived at at the end, just hundreds of little eyes of a big moths nest. Gulp. I scurried backwards the way I'd come pretty quickly before they woke up & flew into my face.

When we arrived in the small town of Luidan we went out to eat at the night Market, which was amazing, in all its usual busy, smelly, loud, neon, asian market glory. We found a super friendly stall where you could just pick out the fresh veg you wanted & they'd deep fry it on a stick with a load of tasty chili and a good dusting of what I think was mainly MSG. I also managed to impress some of the local kids with my mad yoyo skills, which I was relieved to discover I still had from when I was ten & yoyo's were cool. It was really fun to sit by the steamy stall and joke around with them, it reminds you how much easier it is to make friends when you're ten in any culture, you just have to be able to pull some sweet moves with the latest fad and everyone wants to hang with you. I could get used to that again.

We were all tired, but Thomas, Julia & I stayed up playing poker in our room, because I was waiting for a message to come through at around midnight from my Ma back home in London... I'd entered the TNT travel photography competition, I knew a few of my entries had been short listed, and was eagerly waiting to here if anything had made it through. I won third place in the Natural World category with a photo I took in 2009 in Sri Lanka, I was really stoked, though I must admit, of all the photos I entered, it was the one I was least proud of. Check it out at the bottom of the page any way.

The next day started with a boat ride across the most beautiful gorge along the Yellow river to Bing Li rock temples & monastery. Perfect picturesque China- huge hills & mountains all around, surrounded by the thick early morning fog, geese skirting the surface of the river as they made to fly, yaks on the hill sides- beautiful, as always, and everything I dreamed of when I decided to explore China, exactly like all those pictures in all those books, that if you're anything like me, you drool over all day long. We had come to see the carvings in the rocks- similar to the Mongou caves but outside in the sunshine with no tour guide this time, and the Buddha's & statues carved in the sand stone on the outside. It was stunning to see all the intricate carvings, especially the biggest, most impressive 30m tall Buddha, even though it was being restored & was all covered in scaffolding.

We walked up the mountain to visit the quiet Buddhist monastery at the top. I love those temples, all dark wood and candles, with all their bright colours & flags & incense & quiet pious monks... Or not... The monastery was beautiful, with a strange smell of raw meat & cigarettes, mixed in with the incense & paraffin & that peaceful sound of windchimes, but the monk made it a little less magical, but maybe a little more fun... This particular old monk, we'd been warned about, and he was, uh, handsy, to say the least, & took quite the liking to Julia & I "Be-utafool eyes!" he exclaimed holding both our hands with gusto, we even scored his phone number- Get in.

Next on the itinerary was Xiahe- a Tibetan town 3000 metres up on the edge of the province, close to
Monk through a Doorway, XiaheMonk through a Doorway, XiaheMonk through a Doorway, Xiahe

This was actually our guide around the monastery, he had one of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen.
Qinghai province, pretty far outside of what is actually Tibet. It was another part of the trip that I was really excited about, especially as Julia had been before and had been raving about how amazing it was, and I was not disappointed. It had a wonderful vibe to it, though of course you still don't get away from the Chinese guided tour mentality, but at least you're getting shown round by a monk rather than an employee, and it was just great to be in a smaller place, no big buildings, no concrete blocks, nice wood pagodas, a bit of peace, and there's just something so beautiful about those rosy cheeked Tibetan faces, and more so the monks with their maroon robes... I should have been super amped to explore.

Unfortunately though, after about a month travelling, & combined with the altitude, I seemed to lose my energy. Bad timing, but I finally got a big burst of inspiration, meaning every time I left our room I found myself itching to get a pen back in my hand to draw some more, I guess there's something about that great slow pace of life that rubs off on you. None the less, when I wasn't drawing intensively in our dorm, I got a pretty cool look around some of the extensive monastery- loads of incredible temples, traditions unchanged for centuries, that sound of tiny cymbals & chanting monks and those huge Buddha statues, it really was just beautiful.

I also, like everybody else, did the Kora, which is just walking around the outside of the monastery, about an hours walk- the devout do it spinning every prayer wheel with a gloved hand (prayer wheels are big wooden, brightly coloured lantern-looking things, hexagonal, and with a length of wood on each corner sticking out to act as a handle to help twirl them around). The super devout prostrate themselves along the course- a bit like a press up, it means holding your hands together (like in prayer) touching the forehead, nose and chest, kneeling, then flattening yourself with your hands in front of you until you are lying face down with your hands stretched in front of you, stand, and repeat. I don't know if I explain it very well, but you get the idea- it's incredibly hard work, I've read of people doing it along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, a route a most foreigners struggle to complete walking.

I however, stuck with a gentle stroll, the sun was just going down so the light was beautiful, shining on the golden roofs of the monasteries, with smoke wafting from chimneys of the pretty wood & whitewashed buildings with all the colourful prayer flags & bright patterns, and the monks & buddhists along the way, all pleasant & friendly, smiling and waving hello as you pass, not seeming to care one way or another if you believe in their God or whatever else, apparently just happy that you're happy. That's the great thing about Buddhism: More smiling, less judging.

Thomas, Julia, John & I, as always, had fun hanging out, playing cards, and eating great food. Thomas was horrified when I ordered raw yak meat (Tibetan's are a big fan of Yak meat, and I love anything raw), but seemed pleasantly surprised when he tasted a bit. And the next night we ate at the friendliest place- for reasons I can't remember, we ended up having a video chat to the owners wife & tiny daughter (mainly lots of waving) via his laptop, posed for a load of photos with him, and got given free bananas and cigarettes (I don't smoke, but it seemed rude to decline), another bite of friendly China.

It was a wonderful taste of what Tibet might be like, a place, like many, I still dream of seeing, and like many places in China, somewhere that holds that double edge... Such an amazing country, so many wonderful people, and yet there's always that undertone of what's really going on, what the Government's doing, Tibet being a prime example. Anyway, I wont go into that too much here. That slice of Tibetan life was amazing, addictive and inspiring, and a welcome rest from busy China, like a little temple-filled oasis in the desert.


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Aragum Bay SunsetAragum Bay Sunset
Aragum Bay Sunset

My winning photo for the TNT photography contest


20th March 2012

Thanks for telling about your visit to Xiahe...
I tried to visit there with my Mom, sister and son in 2009, but it was closed by the Chinese because the monks were rioting. The reason we wanted to visit was because my parents were married there in 1949, and I wanted to see it with my Mom. Instead we visited Minxian, where they lived for five months before evacuating China. You can read about these experiences in my blogs if you find the time. I'm looking forward to each new blog you write.
21st March 2012


Hi Bob, so glad you're enjoying the blogs. I hope you and your family might be able to go back to Xiahe again someday, it really is such an amazing place, especially if you have a family history there. Shame so much of Minxian had been rebuilt when you went to visit, that always seems to be the way with China, hey?
5th April 2012

"...death has a shadow, and spirits leave a footprint."
Some fine prose in this blog, and gorgeous photographs as well. I can see why the Aragum Bay Sunset picture won a TNT photography contest, it is truly beautiful! Your doodling demonstrates that you are indeed a woman of many talents :-)

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