Most travelers overlook Xining, in north-central China, in their hurry to board a Lhasa-bound train. But the city is home to two of the country’s most important religious sites for Hui Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. In a one-day stop at this unusual cultural crossroads, you can wander among thousands of worshipers at a mosque whose history dates back more than 600 years and then view sacred art made by monks at a 16th-century monastery.
The aqua minarets and giant dome of Dongguan Great Mosque tower above Xining’s eastern quarter, a bustling neighborhood of shopkeepers selling headscarves, skull caps, and mutton kebabs. Inside the mosque—one of the region’s largest—elderly men sit peacefully in the main courtyard. On Fridays, an estimated 20,000 local Muslims fill the prayer halls. (Non-Muslims are welcome to enter the mosque complex but not the prayer halls.)
Seventeen miles southwest, the Kumbum Monastery is said to be the birthplace of the founder of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. (The Dalai Lama is the sect’s most well-known member). On most afternoons, the monastery’s young resident monks passionately debate their teachers in the courtyards, punctuating their points by clapping their hands.
The monastery is also home to an extensive collection of silk tapestries, frescoes depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, and yak butter sculptures. “It used to be common to give flowers as a tribute to deities and lamas. But the problem was that flowers didn’t grow for much of the year,” explains local Tibetan scholar Jinpa Dorje, alluding to the region’s harsh climate. “So the monks began experimenting with carving flowers out of butter.”
Before you leave Kumbum, be sure to circumambulate (always clockwise) the main courtyard’s eight stupas. You can also follow the lead of pilgrims genuflecting as they make their way around the complex—a seven-day process, according to Dorje. Don’t be surprised if a curious pilgrim falls into step beside you. —Molly Loomis
This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.