Thursday, August 11, 2011

Exploring the Amdo region of China in the Crossroads of Western China: Xining


Destination:  Xining, China (Qinghai Province)

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed:  Lete Youth Hostel – Cozy place spread out across the top couple of floors of a high rise on the south side of town in a residential neighborhood. Lots of common area space. The breakfast was so-so (they were often out of a lot of items) but they do stock the local yak yogurt, a favorite of Tracy’s.  A bit out of the way, if location is a concern – head for the Sunshine Pagoda located right next to the night market. After popping our heads in there to chat with some friends we met in Xiahe we thought maybe it would have been the better choice but we didn’t feel like moving.  

Best restaurant:  There was a nice little café just up the street from the Lete and the night market was great for grilled meats and veggies on a stick. Just grab a basket and then load it up with all the skewers you want. Hand it to the ‘chef’ and on the grill it goes. If looking for coffee, head to Amdo Café. Pastries and French pressed coffee are on order at this cute little hole in the wall but it’s the crafts that make the place. Hand made by local Tibetan women, the café sells the products as sort of a fair trade system where the women get most of the profit.  Prices, quality and selection were among the best we found in China.

Best of: Sometimes rain can be a blessing in disguise. While visiting the Youning Si Monastery, we were invited into one of the monk’s homes where we shared tea and bread with some of his visiting family & his super cute ginger cat. Once again language was a barrier, but the unspoken gestures are often times worth more than any amount of words that could be spoken.

 Worst of: The Kumbum Monastery was one of the great Yellow Hat sect monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism but the Chinese government has staked its claim & thrown up an ATM to boot.  Tickets are for sale & organized tours given in Chinese are given by the busload.  The place just felt unhappy and more desperate than any other monastery we visited in China.

Xining sits along the crossroads to three distinct cultures. Head east of here and as you go the people and heritage becomes more Han Chinese. Head to the Northwest and the Islamic culture of the ‘Stans’ (Uzbekistan, Kurdistan, etc.), also referred to as the Hui, becomes more prevalent.  Hopping on a train to the Southwest takes you deeper into Tibetan culture. Here at the crossroads, all three combine to create a city of 2 million that has more heart and character than first apparent to the average traveller. Most stop here on the way to greater destinations but Xining has a few sights of its own worthy of exploring.

Travelling by bus from Tongren, we passed by some of the most beautiful countryside we have seen in China. We both wished that renting a car here was an option, it is simply stunning!  A river winds alongside the road for most of the way accompanied by a painted canvas of multi-hued rolling hills and mountains. The scene can almost make you forget you are on a Chinese public bus filled with chain smokers…almost.


Our first stop was to check out the Kumbum Monastery located just south of Xining. Lete and Sunshine can arrange a trip out here, but its almost as easy (and slightly cheaper) to catch a shared taxi just below the large bridge south of the central part of town. One of the great monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Kumbum is a stunning collection of temples, chortens and stupas. Its significance comes from the fact that it was built in the 1600s atop the birthplace of the founder of the Yellow Hat sect (Gelugpa). Its significance is not overlooked by the always enterprising Chinese government. There is an admission fee, ATMs and Chinese tour groups are not an uncommon sight. The town around the monastery is being ‘spruced up’ and there will no doubt be hundreds of souvenir shops lining the path to the temples when the dust settles.  Here is that ATM just inside the front gate to the monastery.


Inside the complex the scene is not that much more authentic. Perhaps it’s because we had visited so many monasteries prior to our visit here, but we found that this place lacked the heart and soul that the others seemed to have. Where the monks in other monasteries were engaging and active, here they seemed as if it were a job and they were being forced or paid to hang around. While we couldn’t necessarily put a finger on it, the atmosphere here was decidedly less magical than in Tongren or Xiahe.


Despite the atmosphere the buildings themselves were pretty impressive. The architecture and wildly vivid paintings helped liven up the air and remind us that despite the government’s best efforts, the Tibetan culture lives on through their art.



Back in Xining,  in the heart of the town we stumbled upon a place that reminded us that Buddhism isn’t the only religion in town.  The city boasts one of the largest mosques in China which services the Hui population – a spillover from China’s ‘Stan’ neighbors to the west. This particular mosque is off limits to non-Muslims, and the outside is not as ornate as other Mosques we have seen, but people watching outside and strolling the Islamic quarter with its vast array of fascinating shops was an interesting eye opener in a nation not commonly associated with Islam.


Back outside the city of Xining we headsx to the east a few kilometers to visit the beautiful monastery of Youning Si.  Meandering up the side of the hill the monastery once boasted over 7000 monks and was instrumental in establishing the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism in the Amdo region. Founded by the 4th Dali Lama, a Mongolian, the monastery became the main worship center for the Tu, descendants of the Mongolians. The monastery became famous for its study of astrology and medicine. Today, it is but a fraction of its glory days but the setting is non-the-less stunning. The overcast and rainy day only added to the atmosphere and when the drizzle turned to a downpour, we were invited in out of the elements into the home of a monk and his family. Sharing a loaf of bread and some tea, we mostly exchanged smiles and pleasantries but it was an interesting experience to see the simple home and how they live. 




Near Youning Si, but off limits to visitors is the childhood home of the current Dali Lama. China keeps tabs on who comes and goes from here and most taxi drivers will not go near the place. It’s still an interesting footnote to just how important the Amdo region is to the Tibetan Buddhists and adds to the significance of the area.


The Amdo region proved to be a fascinating look into the lives of Tibetans without having to break the bank on getting to Tibet itself. Having our fill of monasteries, we hopped on board the overnight train headed to Xian. Next stop: The Famous Terracotta Warriors of Xian!

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