After Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, Kumbum is the second seat of the Panchen Lama, the monk charged with protecting Tibet and tutoring the Dalai Lama. When the 10th Panchen Lama, pictured on the souvenirs for sale at Kumbum, died in 1989, two searches began for his reincarnation. One was headed by the exiled Dalai Lama, the other by the Chinese Communist Party.
The Dalai Lama recognized a 9-year-old boy from near Kumbum, the government another candidate. The Dalai Lama's choice hasn't been seen in public since his selection, and human rights groups call him the world's youngest political prisoner, a charge Beijing denies, saying he attends school in a "secure" location. The impasse became so tense that the government's plans to install the 11th Panchen Lama in Shigatse were scrapped because of opposition within Tibet.
Instead, Beijing planned on moving him to Kumbum, a decision that rankled monks here and led to the government's shutting down a school at the monastery and detaining and expelling students.
The Chinese Panchen Lama is now ensconced in the capital, rumored to be living in an opulent villa that once belonged to Chen Xitong, the former Beijing mayor now jailed on corruption charges. The crackdown also resulted in the unexpected defection of Kumbum's abbot, Agya Rinpoche, to California in 1998. Had the abbot overseen the installation of the government's Panchen Lama, he would have legitimized its choice, undermining the Dalai Lama.
These events were, of course, absent from the history printed in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) on the back of Kumbum's entrance ticket. And, judging by their happy poses, they were also absent from the minds of the tourists who crowded one another for photographs beside the young Han female guides dressed as Tibetans.
The monastery had recently undergone a $3-million renovation. I wondered whether the money was reparation for the 21 years that Kumbum spent converted into an agricultural commune or whether it was an investment that entrance fees were expected to recoup. The guidebooks I carried failed to provide the complex's background.
Surfing at a Xining Internet cafe filled it in, though more often my Internet search turned up breathless accounts like: "It's in a wonderfully desolate area with relatively few tourists compared to sites farther east. You can really get a taste for monastic life and even make friends with the monks!"
No travel story noted Kumbum's political intrigue, the fact that it was largely leveled by an earthquake in 1990, or the massive rebuilding by the Chinese government. These were left to the few news accounts. I was struck by the division of coverage.
Standing at the row of eight white stupas honoring martyred lamas that marked its entrance, I sensed that Kumbum is a mere shadow of what it once was. Visiting the temple was like taking two trips in one--an experience of what it is and an imagination of what it was.
In the daytime, when they are filled with visitors, China's Buddhist centers look and feel thriving. Restorations are taking place across the country, and daily I read of the commitment to the Chinese constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion. In July the government even brought a legion of American reporters to Kumbum to showcase the gains.
But it isn't until nighttime, when the crowds depart, that the monasteries reveal their sad emptiness. Kumbum was built to accommodate 6,000 monks. Now it had only 500.
I maneuvered around the crowds and their calls of "Hello, foreigner," pausing to remind one grating man that Siddhartha, who founded Buddhism in India, was a foreigner too.
I asked one of the young Han guides where I could leave my luggage. She pointed across the street to the new luxury Tsongkha Hotel, where a room was a comparatively exorbitant $55.
"I can't afford that," I said.
"But you're a foreigner," she said.
Then a karmic moment: The newly shod monk passed by and waved me close to him, pointing to a small, hand-painted sign that hung over a narrow doorway: "Pilgrim's Guest House." I entered and was greeted by a wizened old man who handed me a thermos of hot water and a padlock with a key.
"Take any room upstairs," he said, smiling. "You're the only guest."
"How much is it?"
"Fifteen yuan [about $2] a night, and you can pay me when you leave." He refused to take my passport, usually a requirement when checking into a Chinese hotel.
What the guest house lacked in amenities--there were none--it made up for in character. It had existed on this spot since Kumbum was founded. At the turn of the 20th century, Canadian missionary doctor Susie Rijnhart stayed here, an experience recounted in her book, "With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple." Not long after, French explorer Alexandra David-Neel was a guest for three years.