As witnessed by this photo, Joseph Rock made a visit to Kumbum monastery in September 1925 but it doesn't rate much of a mention in any of his articles in the National Geographic. It's surprising because Kumbum was then one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in the Tibetan-speaking world. Perhaps it didn't rate a mention because it is so close to 'civilisation' in the form of Xining (then known as Sining) the provincial capital of Qinghai. Kumbum was often the home of the Panchen Lama - then as now the great political (and more pro-Chinese) rival to the Dalai Lama.
These days, as the guidebooks note, Kumbum seems to be as much if not more of a museum piece than a real spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is also virtually a suburb of Xining - you can catch a local bus from just near the youth hostel and it takes only about half an hour to get there.
I spent a pleasant morning visiting Kumbum, and even in May it was quite busy with tourists. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant place, and had a fair number of genuine Tibetan pilgrims doing a circuit of the monastery, prostrating themselves all the way.
This is the main entrance - obviously a work in progress.
This woman was one of two Tibetan old women begging outside the main temple. I gave them both five kuai each on the understanding that I could take their portraits, but she was very miserable about the whole thing and the other woman reneged on the deal and buggered off with the money. Bad karma on you, missus.
This is a picture of the main temple complex. As you can see, much of it is being re-built or refurbished. Note also the many new saplings planted on the hillside above the town.
This is the view looking down back towards the town, which encroaches right up to the door of the monastery.
The golden roofs of the monastery are quite striking and stand out from the surrounding gloomy grey landscape.
You have to pay something like 50 kuai to enter the monastery these days, and for that you get a colourful ticket and a mini-CD (or was it a mini-disc?) to take home and play. Or throw away.
There aren't many monks at Kumbum, or at least there don't seem to be many. They are outnumbered by the many visitors. None of whom can be seen in this picture.
Here's a pilgrim doing her prostrations on the 3km circular track around Kumbum. She was getting a bit cheesed off with me snapping away with the Rolleiflex.
Most of the time I found it quite easy to get people pictures with the Rolleiflex because you don't have to poke a big long SLR telephoto lens into someone's face. The Rolleiflex has a silent shutter and you look down into the camera at the screen so that people often don't realise you are about to take a photo. specially when you're behind them.
The monks at Taer Si (Kumbum) belong to the 'yellow hat' Gelugpa sect.
These guys were just sitting down outside one of the Kumbum temples shooting the breeze.
Inside, where it was supposed to be strictly "No Photography", I managed to take this pic with the Rolleiflex - because I had the place to myself.
Time for a Rock-related picture. Offerings on a rock at Kumbum.
It's odd to see the image of the atheist Marxist 'People's Dictator' Mao used as holy offerings to the sacred Buddhist deity. Nice karma for a guy who ruthlessly suppressed 'superstitions' like this.
Inside the main building the monks chanted and recited their sacred texts.
Some are chanting, some are plumbing.
Meanwhile, back down in the town, life went on as usual for the Hui Muslim majority. The old guys sat outside the supermarket, passing the time of day.
The Hui Muslims have a long history of living in Tibetan communities, where they have traditionally taken up the tasks such as butchery that are anathema to sentient-life-sensitive Buddhists.
I took a hike up the small hill at the head of the monastery valley, but the view wasn't that great from the prayer flags.