Stand on the corner of the monastery pilgrimage and allow the smells of burnt juniper and grain offerings to fill your nose. Listen to the creaking of spinning prayer wheels and bells tinkling in the wind as you enter Labrang monastery. Here, as you amble around the world’s longest stretch of prayer wheels along a 3.5km long path around the monastery perimeter, you will encounter Tibetan pilgrims who have come to Labrang Monastery to pray for their friends and family. The monastery, with 1,600 monks, 18 temple halls, and six separate institutes of learning is a small city in and of itself and dominates the western part of Labrang town. The white walls and gilded roofs and endless alleys offer limitless opportunities to glimpse monastic life in action.

Labrang Monastery  བླ་བྲང་བཀྲ་ཤིས་འཁྱིལ་ (Xiahe 夏河 in Chinese) is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug school (Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism). The other 5 great monasteries in the Gelug school are Ganden, Sera and Drepungmonasteries near Lhasa; Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse; and Kumbum Monastery near Xining.

Labrang is located in Xiahe Country, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province.  This is a traditional Tibetan area of Amdo surrounded by lush, rolling grasslands. Labrang Monastery is home to the largest number of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Labrang is a great two or three day excursion from Xining (a five hour drive) and Lanzhou (a four hour drive) and is a gateway to other excellent nomadic locations including Langmusi and Nyenbo Yurtse.

In the early part of the 20th century, Labrang was by far the largest and most influential monastery in Amdo. It is located on the Daxia River, a tributary of the Yellow River. Labrang Monastery is situated at the strategic intersection of two major Asian cultures—Tibetan and Mongolian — and was one of the largest Buddhist monastic universities.

The monastery has a very storied history.
Labrang Monastery was founded in 1709 by Ngagong Tsunde, the first-generation living Buddha from the nearby Ganjia Grasslands.

Chinese Hui Muslims, under the brutal warlords Ma Qi and Ma Bufang, launched several attacks against Labrang as part of a general anti-Golok Tibetan campaign.

Ma Qi occupied Labrang Monastery in 1917, the first time non-Tibetans had seized it. Ma Qi defeated the Tibetan forces with his Hui troops, who were renowned for their fighting abilities and vicious tactics.
After ethnic rioting between Hui and Tibetans emerged in 1918, Ma Qi defeated the Tibetans. He heavily taxed the town for 8 years. In 1921, Ma Qi and his Muslim army decisively crushed the Tibetan monks of Labrang Monastery when they tried to oppose him. In 1925, a Tibetan rebellion broke out, with thousands of Tibetans drove out the occupying Hui. Ma Qi responded with 3000 Hui troops, who retook Labrang and machine-gunned thousands of Tibetan monks as they tried to flee. Ma Qi besieged Labrang numerous more times as the Tibetans fought against his Hui forces for control of Labrang until Ma Qi gave it up in 1927. However violence still continued for several more years between the Tibetans and the Muslims.

The Austrian American explorer Joseph Rock, one of the first foreigners to enter Labrang in history, encountered the aftermath of one of the Ma clique’s campaigns against Labrang. In Rock’s journal he recorded that the Ma army left Tibetan skeletons scattered over a wide area and Labrang Monastery was decorated with decapitated Tibetan heads. After the 1929 battle of Xiahe near Labrang, decapitated Tibetan heads were used as ornaments by Hui troops in their camp, 154 in total. Rock described “young girls and children”‘s heads staked around the military encampment. Ten to fifteen heads were fastened to the saddle of every Muslim cavalryman. According to Rock, The heads were “strung about the walls of the Moslem garrison like a garland of flowers.”
By the late 1930’s Labrang was restored to its original Tibetan owners and today has been refurbished to it’s original glory after much has been burned or ruined in the last century

At its peak, Labrang housed nearly 4000 monks, but their ranks greatly declined during the Cultural Revolution. Modern Labrang is today such a popular destination for eager, young disciples that numbers are currently capped at 1800 monks with about 1600 currently in residence, drawn from areas as far as 1,500 km away.

English-language tours (per person ¥40) leave the monastery’s ticket office around 10:15am and 3:15pm most days, and although they give plenty to see, they can feel a bit rushed. Outside those times you can jump on to a Chinese tour, with little lost even if you don’t understand the language, but you still must purchase the ¥40 ticket to gain entrance to any of the buildings’ interiors. Even better is to show up at around 6am or 7am, when the monks come out to pray and chant.

The monastery today is an important place for Buddhist ceremonies and activities. To catch some of these spectacular ceremonies visit Labrang from January 4 to 17 and June 26, to July 15, (these dates may change according to the lunar calendar), the great Buddhist ceremony will be held with Buddha-unfolding, sutra enchanting, praying, sutra debates, etc.