Xining: The Biggest Western Chinese Multi-ethnic City | Travelling in Western China, Tibetan Buddhism Gelug School, Kosher Food

Kumbum Monastery in Xining | image shot by me

When I arrived in Xining, yellow sands covered the paths. Oftentime, one sees a clear blue skied Xining, so my first day wasn’t usual. Although Huangshui River runs through the Xining City, it still has a relatively “bald” landform. Its greens are incomparable to the landform of the Chinese eastern coastal hills. In Xining, there is a long streak of park that resembles the squared Central Park of New York; the park is called Nanshan (Southern Mountain) Park. The park sees a diverse form of flora. When one walks in the park, one can be easily enchanted by the pink and fallen petals. Unlike Central Park, which only has enclaved lakes, Nanshan Park allows the Nanchuan (Southern Stream) River to run within it.

Xining is a “small city” to me, compared to the Chinese metropolis with a population of tens of millions in the East Coast. Xining is already the largest city on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which rises 4,500 meters from the ground. Even so, I still feel relaxed when I walked on the relatively empty street. In contrast, in Shanghai, one always feels this immense pressure of crowd. It is impossible to stroll on a Shanghai street without bumping into someone. In Xining, if the wanderer wants to take a walk and enjoy the scenery, one can really just take a walk and enjoy the scenery without being disturbed.

Xining is a diverse city, which is a rare overhear for Chinese residents living in the East Coast. In the eastern coastal cities, the food is diverse. British, French, Japanese, Indian, Tzechuan, Cantonese… they are readily available in takeaways within 30 minutes.  However, people on the eastern coast, especially those in the higher socio-economic standing, generally homogeneously grew up in the same Yanhuang culture, which is how the Han ethnic Chinese call themselves – the descendant of the Han emperors Yan and Huang. The eastern Chinese culture is unified, for good and bad. The implementation and development of policies and business can expand swiftly travelling through regions reigned by a single language and a single cultural understanding. Nevertheless, this relatively single cultural body also has its disadvantages such as a rather limited way of thinking. I advocate diversity. This may come from the fact that I have lived in Anglo-Saxon-dominated societies for half of my life, so “political correctness” has been engraved into my bones. When a nation is narrow-minded, it tends to be xenophobic.

Although the population structure of Xining is fairly diverse (only about 70% of them are Han in comparison to an above 90% structure in Eastern Chinese cities), mixed habitation or and true mingling among different ethnic groups is still underachieved. Except for the mainstream Han people, most of the other ethnic groups still tend to concentrate in respective enclaves, and their commercial activities are basically separated. I think “diversification” is should be a policy. When the oversight or policymaker does not actively promote corporate diversification, diversification does not necessarily happen by itself and passively. Of course, “diversification” is also a growing awareness in the West in the past decade (maybe in some ways overdo). This awareness and true policy intention are relatively weak in mainland China. Perhaps due to lower economic level, especially in the Western China, people are not yet to think of diversification when comfort is still an issue. For the prosperous and often too rich Eastern China, I believe diversity should be brought onto the table. Most Han people have learned in textbooks that “China is a multi-ethnic country”. However, not many Han people know other subethnic cultures in China and these cultures do not come into their daily lives. I believe that, if the textbook has advocated for a multi-ethnic country, it is only natural for more Chinese mainstream ethnic group to learn a little bit of the stories and histories of various subcultural groups.

In Xining, a visitor can also see its development level. Chinese economy can be generally split into two halves. The East is the prosperous GDP driver and the West is where the story of poor kids unable to afford study comes from. Despite being taught of such uneven economic development fact at school, most of the mainstream Han people located in the East have no idea what it actually means. It means, in Xining, a bowl of beef noodles sold in Shanghai for 60 yuan are sold for 10 yuan there. The average salary in Shanghai’s city centre is 10 times than that in Xining. This is the real representation of development inequality within a sovereign country, let alone among different countries in the world. In addition, Xining’s current economic situation is already based on the fact that China had invested heavily in the local infrastructure and human capital. In Xining, or the entire northwest, there are plenty of goodies sold in a cheap price due to the natural resources it has. In the east coast, things tend to be overpriced; many of them are not even that good. However, the western goodies generally lack a good brand to market their value. With sound marketing or a strong business to sell these unbranded yoghurt, dried meat, beauty products, etc., their companies can go much further.

Tsongkhapa’s portrait | image from internet

– Kumbum Monastery and Tsongkhapa 

On my second day in Xining, I visited Kumbum Monastery, also called Ta’er Si in Chinese. Ta’er Si (Temple) means the monastery had a tower (Ta) first, and then built, repaired, and added the temple (Si) to the tower. Er in Chinese means “after”. Ta Er Si would be a literal translation of tower, afterwards, temple. Today the temple occupies 450,000 square meters at the suburb of Xining City. The first pagoda is built around a bodhi tree that grew out of the place with a drop of Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord blood. Despite being open to tourists, unlike many Tibetan Buddhism temples otherwise, Kumbum Monastery is still a highly regarded temple in Tibetan Buddhism as it is the birthplace of Tsongkhapa.

I have heard the story of Tsongkhapa and the Yellow Hat Sect “Gelug” before. I also suggest that interested readers to research more about Tibetan Buddhism and Gelug School as there are good and bad news about it.

Here I introduce some positive stories.

Je Tsongkhapa, born in Amdo (one of the three geographical regions of Tibet in the old time, the other two being Khampa, which is around today’s Sichuan province, and U-Tsang, which is around today’s Tibet province), is often called Je Rinpoche in Amdo. He is generally considered the incarnation of bodhisattva Manjushri. The book The Biography of Supreme Master Tsongkhapa (Qinghai People’s Publishing House) introduced that “Je Tsongkhapa has the same mind as the supreme Manjushri”, which confirms that Manjushri’s incarnation as Tsongkhapa to continue teaching and preaching in the Tibetan areas. Tsongkhapa had his Upasaka Sila, which abstains the practitioner from killing, stealing, doing evil deeds, lying, and having sexual intercourse in Buddhism, at the age of 3 and became a teacher at the age of 7. He left Amdo at the age of 16 and went to study in U-Tsang by foot. Since, he never returned to his hometown. He vowed in the ritual Upasampada, which is the ascetic vetting ritual in Buddhism, at the age of 29. At age 44, he wrote the exoteric classic Lamrim Chanmo. At age 49, he yet wrote the esoteric classic Ngakrim Chanmo. At age 52, he founded the Gelug school top temple Ganden Monastery. He passed away at the age of 63. Tsongkhapa read extensively throughout his life, earning himself the recognition of being able to gain and pass around wisdom. Interestingly, his former existence deity Manjushri is also known for his wisdom. In short, his disciples and followers praised Tsongkhapa for “skillfulness, commandment, and virtuousness”.

The life of the regarded Je Rinpoche reminds me of Swami Vivekananda, one of the first yoga masters in India that introduced yoga to the West. When Vivekananda was a boy, he was also known for being a prodigy and was able to remember books after one read. I think that both masters possess a common ability to research in depth and cultivate wisdom.

I am in no position to discuss religious topic like an expert. However, I believe that Je Tsongkhapa still has some stories to inspire the average people. Tsongkhapa was born in 1357 and passed away in 1419. At that time, there was no high-speed rail or car. Tsongkhapa was 16 years old and he was born in Amdo, which is considered a periphery land under the Tibetan rule He left home to study in U-Tsang (modern day’s Tibet centered around Lhasa), which is thousands of miles away. His willing to travel by foot to thousands of miles away shows his eager to acquire knowledge and his resilience. He continued to study throughout his life; he also studied pharmacology in depth when he was young. As a master of Buddhism, he even has extraordinary accomplishments in Tibetan medicine. His health doctor often consulted the master himself medical questions. If Je Rinpoche were alive today, he would have been considered the talent with composite skills.

Since Je Rinpoche is the incarnation of Manjushri, so in modern standard he would have been the “second generation” of deity in the Buddhist world. Despite of his endowed “fortune”, his later acquired efforts earned him the honour he truly deserves.

Kumbum Monastery | image shot by me | due to monastery’s policy, no interior views can be captured without authorisation

Today, Tsongkhapa’s Gelug School is one of the most influential sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

At present, there are 4 colleges in Kumbum Monastery, respectively the exoteric school, the esoteric school, the medicine school, and the Kalachakra school (cosmology). There are more than 7,000 monks and 14 rinpoches in the monastery. The most important thing in the temple is the tower built around the Bodhi tree grown from umbilical cord blood drop of Tsongkhapa. The Bodhi tree is said to have the appearance of Buddha on its leaves.

In addition, what I adore are the Tibetan yak butter flower paintings. There are beautiful Buddhist scripture stories carved from yak butter in the butter flower hall. To make butter flower paintings, monks need to turn off the central heating and open the windows when it is the coldest every year in Xining. Monks then shape the flowers with bare hands. Since hands have body temperature, which would melt the yak butter, monks have to soak their hands in iced water to keep hands cold. Readers may not understand the concept of “butter flower”. The yak butter is the easily broken crispy solid butter made from yak milk. The texture of yak butter reminds me the meringues sold by Aux Merveilleux de Fred, an acclaimed dessert shop in West Village, New York. Similar to how meringues are made by stirring sugar and milk until it is hard and foamy, yak butter is made so. The taste of meringues or yak butter is beautiful as it readily melts in your mouth. However, its fragility also makes the product expensive and rare. Yak butter paintings are a delicate and evanescent art. During the visit, you can see fragments of yak butter falling from the hanging butter flower painting. The tour guide said that it would fall a little bit everyday despite of the strong air conditioner in the room. Beautiful things pass day by day, so every year, monks take it a way to practice their zen and gather to make this easily gone yet instantly beautiful butter flower painting in the severest of the winter.

Tibetan Butter Painting | Picture from the internet

Kosher Restaurant in Xining


        Here to recommend is the Halal Yixin Handmade Mutton Restaurant (Hala Yixing Shouzhua Yangrou guan Huayuan North Street Restaurant) at No. 5 Baiyu .

         It was already 3 pm when I arrived, so I avoided the queue. There are people queuing in the restaurant all year round.

         When I arrived, the counter lady let me choose, “How many kilogrammes of lamb?”

         I said, “Um…Is there any recommendation? How many kilogrammes should I have?”

         The lady looked at my body up and down, and said, “Half kilo.”

         After I ordered other dishes, I started to take pictures of the lamb. The young lady that cut my lamb asked, “Would you like (your lamb) to be fatter or thinner?”

         I said, “Thin please.”

A few minutes later, the lamb was on the table, without the taste of post-processing, just a dish of cooked mutton. The lamb came in mouth with the original flavour of mutton, but no smell of blood. There were also many local guests there to buy meat. They usually noted, “give me 5 kilogrammes to go.”

Nanchan Temple | image shot by me

-Nanchan Temple and Fazhuang Temple –

The last part of my journey was at Nanchan Temple and Fazhuang Temple. The two Chinese Buddhist temples are adjacent to each other and can be visited together.

Now in the center of Xining, Nanchan Temple, which is next to Nanshan Park, has a long history. Xining has been ruled by many ethnic groups in different periods in history, so most of the sites can easily see a blend of history.

Nanchan Temple and Fazhuang Temple are different from Kumbum Monastery and do not have a touristy atmosphere. There are some fortune tellers at the foot of the hill, but there is no requirement for tickets or “incense money” along the way. Because they are in the city centre, perhaps Xining citizens have become too familiar with the sites so they don’t bother hiking the temple hill.

Nanchan Temple is the building of the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism, and the Fazhuang Temple is the building of the Dharma Buddhism. Fazhuang Temple was founded in 1943 by Master Xin Dao. Born in 1905, Master Xin Dao was originally from Jingzhou, Hubei. He was ordained as a monk at the age of 18. He studied Chan Sect in Jiangsu and Fujian in his early years. Later, he was invited to Kumbum Monastery to study esoteric Buddhism. Since then, he has promoted the Dharma in the northwest and reshaped the chaotic Buddhist scene in the northwest. Master Xindao was a diligent religious figure, establishing Buddhist journals, monastic colleges and societies, writing books, and preaching. During his preaching era, mainland China was in chaos and endless wars. Xin Dao organised wartime donations and encouraged local resistance against Japanese invasion. He was also an inclusive master who was regarded in both Han and Tibetan Buddhism.

As I strolled down the temple hill, I saw luxuriant flowers and greens in the two temples. Generally speaking, temples are either solemn or sacred, but these two temples are rich in life, with fresh vegetation and no loss of gardens. There is beauty in the thought of beauty, regardless which sect of Buddhism it is.

*all unlabeled images shot by me, copyright @zhuthegirl

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