Destination: Xiahe, China (Gansu Province)
Number of Days Spent: 3 days
Where we stayed: Overseas Tibetan Hotel – Nothing special, but then again, this town didn’t really have anything too special in the way of hostels or hotels. Unheated rooms and fluctuations in water were a common theme in all the accommodations in town. We arrived while the entire town was without water.
Best restaurant: Gesar Restaurant on the street perpendicular to main street, close to the entry of the monastery (thanks www.uncorneredmarket.com for the recommendation). Slurp your delightful soup and enjoy wondeful Tibetan momos with local monks and Tibetan pilgrims at the cute little hole in the wall place directly opposite the Kora.
Best of: Fantastic Tibetan Labrang Monastery, lush green grasslands with Yak and sheep, the many faces of religious pilgrims completing their Koras every morning and evening.
Worst of: The entire town lost water while we were there and it was quite cold up on the Tibetan plateau.
The smell of burning Yak Butter wafts through the air. Crimson robed monks spin prayer wheels as they circumambulate (walk around) the temple. An intoxicating array of vibrant colors adorn every wall, door and statue. Tibet proper it may not be, but there is little doubt this region is Tibetan in nature. Welcome to the Amdo region.
The Amdo Region of China, some might argue, is more authentic than TIbet itself. The Chinese government has for years worked on making Tibet more Chinese. The train now runs all the way to Lhasa carrying with it thousands of Chinese workers. With the influx of Chinese influences coupled with thousands of tourists flocking to see sights such as Potala palace and Mt. Everest the real Tibet may seem a bit crowded and manufactured these days. If you are perhaps looking for an authentic and off the beaten path adventure, then perhaps Xiahe and the Amdo region are your answer.
In Xiahe (pronounced shuh huh with an almost cough like sort of lung hacking emphasis on the huh part) the dusty main road bustles with pilgrims young and old, Tibetan women with sleeping babies strapped to their backs buy from shops and other people in the streets while little old ladies walk and gossip about life. And the best part? The scene is real. No pre-manufactured, cookie cutter scenes filled with what the Chinese government wants you to see. This is the rural Tibetan landscape that the hippie’s found in the 60’s and 70’s a little further up the plateau. This is the Tibet that continues to fight against the seemingly insurmountable odds of one day regaining a sovereign nation.
Getting here was not overly difficult, but they do from time to time close the region off to foreigners, including the ones that live here. In the yellow hat sect, the same sect of Buddhism that the Dalai Lama belongs to, the Labrang Monastery is one of the six major monasteries. Having arrived just after Buddha’s Birthday, the temple was buzzing with pilgrims. The monastery is capped at 1200 monks and covers a space that is 3km in circumference.
Along with the 1200 monks, their living quarters and learning centers, the complex also has several temples and chapels. While you are free to walk about outside the buildings, to enter into many of the chapels and prayer halls, you have to sign up for a tour. The tour takes you around to several buildings. Some are filled with dusty relics in glass cases while others contain candles fueled by yak butter illuminating statues of Buddha and rows of cushions lining the floors for apprentice monks to meditate on. Of course the yak butter sculpture room comes standard with any tour of a Tibetan monastery.
Everyday we were in Xiahe, we would walk the kora in the morning and explore the monastery and people watch for a little while. The vibrant colors and the smell of burning yak butter are instantly recognizable and one of a kind. Being an outsider, its difficult to get under the skin of the people here and to experience their frustrations with the government and their wishes to have an independent Tibet once again.
Their independence day may never come, but the culture and traditions of a religiously devout population live on despite the government’s best efforts. One of the must humbling sites to me are to watch the people that do the 3km kora taking three steps, then bow, then lay flat on the ground, then stand up and repeat. I am told that they will complete this same walk multiple times per pilgrimage. How many of us in our religious lives spend more than an 1-2 hours a week praying or worshiping let alone entire days at a time, multiple times a year physically exerting ourselves to the point of exhaustion. To me, that’s devotion of a deeper understanding – one that my simple mind cannot comprehend.
Beyond its religious importance to the region, Xiahe is also an excellent base for exploring the grasslands where Yak and sheep roam, or at least once did! Next post – the Ganjia Grasslands!