Sunday, May 27, 2012

Qinghai Lake (Kokonor) & Kumbum Monastery (青海湖与塔尔寺)

Qinghai Lake, also known as Kokonor in Mongolian (and English atlases), is China’s largest saline lake at 4500 sq km. At 3200m above sea level, this is also a huge highland lake at the edge of the Tibetan cultural sphere in China. On its shores live Tibetan and Mongol herders who have long regarded the lake as sacred. Indeed, as I walked on its shores, the many magnificent snowcapped mountains that surround the lake and the green pastures along its shores were simply evocative of the many legends linked to this land. Near the city of Xining is the Kumbum Monastery (known as Ta’er Monastery to the Chinese), the second most important of the six great Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of the Gelugpa sect. It is also the home monastery of the Panchen Lama, the highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama. Great works of art abound in this gem of Tibetan Buddhism.

Xining & Huzhu Tu Autonomous County (西宁与互助土族自治县)

Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, is a historic frontier garrison city that was China’s gateway to Tibet. In 397 A.D., during the chaotic Sixteen Kingdoms Period of Chinese history when nomadic tribes ravaged Northern China, a tribe of Xianbei Tuoba 鲜卑拓跋 nomads seized control of Xining and declared the shortlived kingdom of Nan Liang 南凉 which lasted for 18 years. Today, remnants of this long forgotten regime still stood in the city centre of Xining in the form of a huge military command mound surrounded by modern day schools, malls and apartments. 

Qinghai Province and neighbouring Gansu Province were home to the Hui people回族 – a Muslim people that was formed from the intermarriage of Arab, Persian and Central Asian traders on the Silk Road, with Chinese living in this cosmopolitan frontierland. The Hui, also known as Dungan, speak Mandarin peppered with corrupted-Arab and Persian vocabulary, and are renowned for their beef lamian and fiery kebab. 

Although the famous lamian stalls found across China are named after Lanzhou (Gansu’s capital), most of these stalls are run by Hui and related Salar people from Xunhua 循化county near Xining. They built magnificent mosques which resemble Chinese temples, complete with Chinese traditional rooftops and gaudy colours, but the observant ones would notice the star and crescent, and that the pagoda-looking towers are actually used as minarets where calls for prayers were broadcast to the community through loudspeakers. 

From Xining, I visited the small town of Huzhu and its cultural parks and museums. Huzhu is the centre of the Tu ethnic group, who called themselves Monguor and have their own autonomous county. The Monguor are descendants of a Xiangbei nomad warriors who marched here all the way from Manchuria, set up the once-powerful Tuyuhun Empire吐谷渾 (285-670 A.D.). They later converted to a variety of Tibetan Buddhism sprinkled with shamanist ceremonies and many continue to live in yurts in the high plateau of northern Qinghai.