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TONGREN, China (Reuters Life!) - Dawn has yet to break over a small temple in a Tibetan region of western China, but monk Hua Chi is already finishing an arduous daily ritual that has left its mark on both the man and the shrine.
Hua, also a doctor of traditional medicine who believes he is about 70 years old, has been performing a strict daily ritual at this temple in the monastery town of Tongren, in Qinghai province, for nearly 20 years.
He has knelt in prayer so many times that his footprints remain deeply, perfectly ingrained on the temple's wooden floor.
Every day before sunrise, he arrives at the temple steps, places his feet in his footprints and bends down to pray a few thousand times before walking around the temple.
The footprints are three centimeters (1.2 inches) deep where the balls of his feet have pressed into the wood.
But the years are beginning to make their own mark on his body.
"During the first years I would pray 2,000 to 3,000 times a day. But I have grown older, so in recent years I have only done around 1,000 each day," he said, adding sheepishly that he could sometimes only manage around 500 in the cold of winter.
The ritual started with no specific aim, but with time it has turned into a project of self-salvation, said Hua, who hopes his dedication will be noticed and guarantee his soul a smooth transition to the afterlife.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, following death, the spirit goes through a three-stage process which determines whether it enters nirvana or returns for rebirth in one of the six realms of existence -- hell, human, animal, hungry ghost, demi-god or god.
Hua says he is getting closer to his goal.
"I reconstructed this temple and have prayed and walked around the temple all these times so that after my death my spirit will not suffer," he said.
Hua's devotion has not gone unnoticed by younger monks at the temple, which lies within the Rongwo Gonchen Gompa, Tongren's main Tibetan monastery.
The monastery, which dates from 1301, is home to hundreds of youngsters studying Buddhist scriptures.
Twenty-nine-year-old Genden Darji says he spent many days admiring Hua's efforts before finding the courage to step into his footprints.
As he carefully repeats Hua's movements, the young monk says he plans to carry on the ritual when the older monk stops.
"Every day I come here and every day I look at the piece of wood, and it has inspired me to continue to make the footprints myself," he said.
Writing by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Ian Ransom and Miral Fahmy