Twenty-five kilometres southeast of Xining, Kumbum is one of the most important monasteries outside Tibet. Set in the cleft of a valley, the walled complex is an imposing sight, an active place of worship for over six hundred monks as well as the constant succession of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery. There are plenty of tourists too (not to mention a hulking great military base right next door), but Kumbum remains a good introduction to Tibetan culture.
The monastery dates from 1560, when building began in honour of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born on the Kumbum Monastery estates. Legend tells how, at Tsongkhapa’s birth, drops of blood fell from his umbilical cord causing a tree with a thousand leaves to spring up; on each leaf was the face of the Buddha (the trunk is now preserved in one of the stupas). During his lifetime, Tsongkhapa’s significance was subsequently borne out: his two major disciples were to become the greatest living Buddhas, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.