Nestled in the mountains of southern Gansu province lies a small town called Xiahe. As soon as I got off the bus at Xiahe I immediately felt like I was somewhere different and not so Chinese. On the main street there were many Tibetans with large coats folded down and tied at their waist and wearing hats of all shapes and sizes. Women wore elaborate belts and jewellery, and their hair was drawn into two long braids joined at the bottom. Many of the young Tibetan guys were on dirt bikes and had a cow-boyish kind of look to them.
Many Tibetans visit Xiahe to make a pilgrimage to Labrang monastery, a major monastery for the Yellow Hat sect of the Tibetan Buddhism and one of the most important monasteries outside of Tibet.
The monastery complex is large with buildings made from mud, and the most important buildings are coloured a reddish hue, yellow or white.
Inside the temples are a riot of colours. Gorgeous fabric covers the columns and also hangs down in drapes, fold after fold. Row upon row of cushions sat crimson-cad monks. Their low and deep chants hypnotic. In other temples yak-butter carved flowers are displayed.
The complex is encircled by a 3km pilgrim path known as the kora. Walking the kora are pilgrims flicking prayer beads and spinning squeaky prayer wheels. The most devout pilgrims prostrate themselves the whole way around the kora.
The entire monastery seems to be cradled by the surrounding mountains. It was very atmospheric, although slightly detracting from this are the Chinese tourists armed with huge cameras being disrespectful of the monastery’s requests not to take photos at certain points.
I was also lucky enough to arrive on the day a big festival was being held at the monastery. Two monks wearing heavy fur coats and fearsome masks ambled back and forth muttering. Two other masked monks sat with two masked attendants kneeling nearby. A large circle of Tibetans watched on. Fascinating! But sadly I was completely clueless as to what it was all about.
One evening I wandered back to the monastery to discover some kind of ceremony taking place outside the main building. Sitting outside the building were two group of monks sitting in lines facing each other. In the middle a monk sat and another seemed to be asking questions. The monks watching would occasionally make noises participating. It reminded me of a debate or something similar. Every now and then a young monk would come out and throw dumplings to the sitting monks and there would be a mad scramble amongst the monks. Again I felt clueless and wish I knew what it was all about.
Close to Xiahe a further glimpse into Tibet could be found with long stretches of grasslands spread between the mountains. Herds of yaks wandering the road and the occasional yurt in the distance.
Leaving Xiahe the bus followed the winding road down the valley between beautiful mountains. Prayer flags fluttering in the wind a reminder of the links to Tibet. Further down the mountains a brand new highway in the process of being built followed my progress back into the real China. The new highway tunnelled through mountain after mountain promising to make the journey quicker. I guess it will mean more tourists will be able to visit Xiahe and the monastery but at what cost? To me it seemed to jar with the beautiful landscape of this little sample of Tibet.
I stayed at the Overseas Tibetan Hotel. Rooms have nice local touches and it’s located right near the monastery. The owner also has excellent English and can help organise day trips or longer trips.
The Snowy Mountain Cafe is very cosy with tasty food and lots of info about Tibet.
Norden Cafe has delicious cake and coffee.
Buses run to and from Lanzhou to Xiahe a number of times a day and take between four and five hours.