Day 127: A Taste of Tibet in Xiahe/Labrang
After the deserts around Dunhuang I was keen for a change of scene, and jumped on board a 14-hour night train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. It was an uneventful train ride along the Hexi Corridor, a famous strip of land wedged between the mountains of Qinghai and Tibet and the deserts of Inner Mongolia. In ancient times it was the only way out of the Chinese kingdom towards the west, and was therefore an important part of the Silk Road route. There were numerous important cities scattered along the route including Jiayuguan, whose fortress marked the western boundary of China back in the good ole days (the Great Wall in fact terminates there).
Lanzhou has the unfortunate reputation as being the most polluted city in China (and that’s saying something!), so I had no desire to stay there one second more than I had to. After a bit of faffing about I was able to work out my bus connections south towards the important Tibetan Buddhist city of Xiahe (pron. “Shah-huh”). I got there at sunset seven hours later and checked myself into a cheap but friendly Tibetan guesthouse.
Xiahe is about 3000m up on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, on the border between Gansu province and Qinghai province to the west. In historic times the area was part of Tibet, but Chinese divvying up and meddling meant that bits of Tibet ended up in Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and other provinces. But ethically this place is definitely Tibetan. The town is situated in a narrow mountain valley and is neatly divided into different quarters for the different ethnic groups: a Han Chinese quarter (boring and ugly), a Muslim quarter (I’m surprised how many Muslims I’ve seen this far east) and the sprawling but chock-full-of-character Tibetan village which surrounds the monastery complex.
It’s home to the centuries-old Labrang Monastery, one of six important monasteries of the Gelugpa order (the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism – I couldn’t resist and even bought one of their yellow mohikan hats!). I used my days in Xiahe to soak up the atmosphere, immerse myself in Tibetan Buddhist culture and do some deep soul-searching and spirit cleansing. Each morning I joined the pilgrims on the 3km (clockwise of course!) route around the monasteries, turning each of the 1174 prayer wheels along the way. My faves are the big prayer wheels that you need to walk around to turn, and after each revolution a little bell goes “ding”! I was luckily able to sit in some of the decorative and colourful prayer halls with monks during prayer (although even after talking to some of the young monks I’m still bamboozled by what goes on in there…), and I even dabbled in a bit of “Om Mani Padme Hom” chanting along the way. It’s really been a great and relaxing few days here. I could stay a month.
I was in Xiahe for several days and so took one day to visit the Ganjia Grasslands, a large expanse of open grassland some 30km away well up on the Tibetan plateau. The Tibetans graze their yak herds in these pastures over the summer. I saw a few nomads up there – no yurts here though, just tents – but unfortunately most of the herds have been driven down from the summer pastures already (it’s really cold here once the sun goes down and there have been some snowfalls on the upper reaches of some of the mountains nearby). I was however able to visit a traditional Tibetan village which was surrounded by a very old and crumbling mud brick wall. They really rough it up there, and you could see everyone preparing for the coming winter – stacking firewood, dung and feed for the animals, repairing the roads and roofs etc. – which I’m sure is really harsh and unforgiving.
Further up the dirt road was another monastery at the base of a very beautiful mountain range, complete with limitless views over the grasslands. The Tsewey Monastery is a different sect to those found in Xiahe, but I wasn’t able to glean much more than that because no-one spoke English and my Tibetan is completely non-existant (they even speak a local dialect of Tibetan here so what hope have I got)! Although one interesting difference I did observe is that they went around everything counter-clockwise.
One slightly grisly discovery was a sky burial site nearby. The Buddhists here believe that once a person dies the soul leaves the body, and they dispose of the body by sky burial. First (and unlike the Zoroastrians, if anyone read my Iran blogs earlier) they dice up the body into limb-sized pieces and then let the vultures pick the bones clean. There wasn’t much to see really, just a patch of ground with lots of old rusty knives lying around, but the huuuuge vultures circling high overhead was kinda spooky.
Last point: Xiahe has really just been found out as a great tourist destination, and the tour buses have only started rolling in over the past few years. One reason I really loved the place is because there weren’t a lot of tourists around, either Chinese (my Mandarin phrasebook even proved pretty useless) or gweilo . I hate to think what the place is going to look like in five years – so get here quick!!!