Sometimes you visit places you’ll never forget. One of those places during our trip through China was Xiahe. Such an extraordinary and beautiful place. And such a contrast which the China I had seen so far. You won’t find any traffic jams here, no skyscrapers or thick smog. Exactly the opposite: a bright blue sky, green and grey mountains, and sheep herds on the plain. On the street, you see a mix of shepherds, monks, and hui Muslims. Men with long cloths around their bodies, women with long black braids around the neck, and goats running down the streets. What a different world. It was clear we were not in Beijing or Shanghai anymore.
The panoramic drive to Xiahe
Our journey to Xiahe started with a car ride through the beautiful mountains of Xiahe county. Red sloping hills, green corn terraces, and views as far as you looked. Even our driver was impressed and made sure to stop here and there to shoot some photos. The whole drive took about five hours. Long, but the beautiful area we drove through softened our pain. Slowly we were moving up the mountains and the air was starting to get thinner. It is always important to stay hydrated at high altitude. However, don’t drink too much, because then you need to go to the toilet and you don’t want to see that. The ‘bathroom’ (a shed with three holes in the floor) at the local gas station was horrible. Brr..
Watching the Kora at the Labrang monastery
As soon as we arrived at our hotel, we dropped our luggage and admired the amazing view. We couldn’t have wished for a better hotel room. From our window, we looked out on the sixteenth century Labrang Monastery, the most important sight of Xiahe. This is one of the six major Tibetan monasteries in the ‘Yellow Hat’ order of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelukpa) and the biggest one outside Tibet. The complex has several temples, pagodas, academic schools, and a massive collection of Tibetan writings.
- We stayed at Overseas Tibetan Hotel. Click here for an overview of the hotels in Xiahe. It is a small village, so the options are limited.
The Kora walk
Buddhists who come to the Labrang Monastery have a certain way to express their devotion. They walk the kora, a three-kilometer-long pilgrim route around the monastery where people pass several prayers halls, circle around stupas, and spin hundreds of prayers mills. They pray, kneel, lay down on the floor and stand up again. And they do that several times. Some walk this route every single day and some even sprint from hall to hall. Young, old, monks of every rank and even mothers with their child bend on their back: they all come here to do the kora. It’s such an impressive thing to watch and to see the devotion on all the faces.
Must do: go on a tour with a monk
Visitors are also welcome inside the walls of the monastery. There are about 2,000 monks living on the grounds and some of them are interested to practice their English. Every day there is an English guided tour that takes you around the temples. It’s not allowed to take photos inside the temples, but believe me, it’s beautiful! What I did take a photo of was the craft of the monks: yak butter sculptures. An old Tibetan craft with an eye for details. By the way, the yak is pretty important for Xiahe and you will see it everywhere. For instance, you can order a yak pizza at restaurants and I had yak yogurt for breakfast. And it was actually pretty good!
Outside Xiahe: grasslands and black hats
Xiahe is surrounded by green hills and off the beaten path villages. On our second day in Xiahe, we decided to head out to one of these villages. Sadly the village was abandoned because of the harvest season. Everyone was pulling their weight to get the harvest off the land. The only thing we saw were a couple of monks playing basketball and a tiny little yak running around. Still, the clay houses gave an impression of how the people lived here. Sober, but they did have television!
Blackhat temple visit
On our way back we made a stop at a second Tibetan temple. Sadly it was also deserted, probably because the monks didn’t finish their basketball game yet. This was the temple of the ‘black hats’ (Karmapa), another order in Tibetan Buddhism. Because our guide was a Gelukpa, he refused to go inside. Luckily inside there was a monk waiting to show us around. He didn’t speak any English, but it was still nice that he showed us their temples. What surprised me were the happy-colored windows in the temples and the use of the swastika. Many cultures still use this symbol nowadays and for them it doesn’t mean anything negative. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism the swastika is used as a clothing decoration.
Practical tips for visiting Xiahe
- The best way to get to Xiahe is by bus or taxi from Lanzhou (distance: 233 kilometers). Lanzhou is easy to get to by train or plane.
- You can take a direct bus from Lanzhou South bus station to Xiahe. A ticket cost 75 CNY and it departs 3x in the morning and 2x in the afternoon.
- Xiahe sits at high elevation, up to 3,000 meters. So in the beginning you have to get used to the thin air. I remember that climbing a couple of stairs was pretty exhausting.
- It’s free to walk around the grounds of the Labrang monastery. For a guided tour you pay around 41 CNY.
Would you like to go to Xiahe?
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