Book Excerpt: Vanished Kingdoms

The head man then answered with a great burst of friendship, by giving me a sheep, and I was forced to fall back on coined silver to properly express my esteem. We parted in the morning with expressions of lifelong affection. After ten days of rugged but fascinating travel the expedition arrived in Labrang. Janet's first impression was not positive. "It is the filthiest village I have ever seen, dead animals in all stages of decay, and filth unimaginable," she wrote.

Frederick agreed. The village is a dirty little place, half Chinese, half Tibetan. Its architecture has no charm, but its populations has; a medley of lamas, wild tribesmen, Chinese fur buyers, Mohammedan soldiers, and richly dressed Tibetan women with magnificent straight figures, and white sheep skin hats. Many live by their charms. It is a sight to see others, in never rending processions, bring up tall wooden buckets of water from the river on their backs.

Janet and Frederick spent several days exploring Labrang. They photographed, took copious notes, drew diagrams and sketches, followed detailed maps, and compiled their notes into a long entry in Frederick 's expedition journal: Labrang naturally falls into two parts, the monastery full of monks, and the village full of merchants, and the Mohammedan garrison. The monastery is half a mile up the valley, west of the village. The immediate space is broad and fairly level.

It gives one a fine view of massive buildings, with gold roofs rising here and there, above a regular city of low dwelling in which the lamas live. To the right, as one looks from the village, is a fine white stupa, or t'a around which pilgrims ceaselessly perambulate. It stands at the mouth of a small side valley where dead lamas' remains are devoutly fed to the vultures. The stupa was put there, they say, to prevent floods from rushing down this valley into the temple. A road leads from the village to the temple beyond. On it there is a ceaseless stream of lamas, pilgrims, hucksters, townsmen, idlers, soldiers, and peasants.

One comes first to long sheds filled with prayer wheels that pilgrims spin as they pass. These sheds surround the whole monastery, a circuit, they say, of tenli [three miles], and great is the merit of the devout one who makes the entire circuit of these spiritual fortifications, turning each prayer wheel he comes to.

The morning market is a fascinating place to shop, for here the belongings of dead lamas, and all manner of odd wares, are likely to come for sale. I bought a prayer drum made of two [human] skulls for a few hundred cash. Another stall had finely mounted eating knives, each with a set of ivory chopsticks in the same scabbard. Another had little temple bells of bronze. Another had some wooden rifle cartridges, stolen or smuggled, and others still brass teapots, wooden tea bowls and cloth.

Each merchant spreads his wares under a big umbrella, and squats beside them. Most of the buyers are lamas, in greasy red gowns which reek of rancid butter, but there is a fair sprinkling of townspeople among them. At the hillock at the edge of the crowd stood a few wild nomads holding a horse, but whether they came to sell or stare, I could not tell. The language one hears on all sides is Droc Wa Tibetan, and he who knows only Chinese feels a stranger in a strange land.

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