Jesuit missionary Emmanuel Huc, who visited in 1860, recorded, "On either side of the ravine, and up the edges of the mountains, rise, in amphitheatrical form, the white dwellings of the Lamas, each with its little white terrace and wall of enclosure, adorned only by cleanliness, while here and there tower far above them the Buddhist temples, with their gilt roofs glittering with a thousand colours and surrounded by elegant peristyles . . ."

One of the six largest Geluk (Yellow Hat) monasteries, Kumbum was established in 1560 to mark the birthplace of Tsongkapa (Zongkaba), founder of the Geluk School. The image of Tsongkapa is easily recognized by his pointed cap with long earflaps. Guides charging ¥50 cluster around the entrance, but as there are English signs, a guide is not essential. Facing away from the ticket office, a path leads up the hill from the left side of a row of eight white chorten (Tibetan stupas). Keep your ticket: It will be punched by bored monks lounging around the major temples. Shrill guides, huge Chinese tour groups, and glassed-in relics lend Kumbum the feel of a museum, but Han visitors are more respectful than in the past.

The most striking building is Serdong Chenmo (Da Jinwa Dian), at the heart of the complex, with its aquamarine tiles. The original structure is said to have been built by Tsongkapa's mother, around a sandalwood tree that sprouted from Tsongkapa's fertile placenta. The Butter Sculpture Exhibition (Suyouhua Zhanlanguan), farther up the slope, is popular with the locals. These sculptures were once only made for festivals, after which they would be destroyed.

Festivals are held the 8th to the 15th of the first (Monlam) and fourth (Saka Dawa) lunar months, as well as the 3rd to 8th of the sixth lunar month, and the 20th to the 26th of the ninth lunar month, which celebrates Tsongkapa's birthday. Call ahead to check exact dates. Religious dancing, mass chanting, and "sunning the Buddha" can be seen, as well as crowds of Tibetans who, in missionary Huc's day, "sang till they were fairly out of breath; they danced; they pushed each other about; they tumbled head over heels: and shouted till one might have thought that they had all gone crazy." Current festivals may be tamer.