The clear blue sky was the first sign that we had left China. As our coach rolled through the mountains from Lanzhou towards a small mountain town called Xiahe, we’d been greeted at every turn by factories pumping out yellow smoke from tall chimneys. But passing through the Amdo gate, a brick archway over the road that was formerly a gateway from China to Tibet before the Cultural Revolution, everything changed. Hui mosques, with their golden tops and Chinese detailing, gave way to elegant white stupas and trees wrapped iconic tattered prayer flags. The rudimentary English on road signs was suddenly absent, replaced by the angular strokes of Tibetan. And, most importantly, the haze that had followed us from the provincial capital was finally gone. We were in Tibet.
South-east Tibet, to be more accurate. While Xiahe is now part of the Chinese province of Gansu, local Tibetan residents proudly hold on to their identity as a part of Greater Tibet. This unity is somewhat validated by the government (perhaps to try and avoid more problems), who have designated the surrounding area as one of several “Tibetan autonomous areas” throughout southwestern and central China. And if you look beyond the small population of Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, it’s easy to imagine that you are just a few kilometres from Lhasa instead of a three-hour drive from Lanzhou. Although it isn’t Tibet Tibet, it’s a Tibet you can visit without an extra travel permit from the Chinese government.
Xiahe is home to Labrang Monastery, the largest and most important Tibetan monastery outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Founded in 1709, it is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug school of Tibetan buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is the head. Despite its status, the monastery suffered through a period of bloody clashes between Tibetans and Hui Muslims in the early twentieth century, and was partially destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution about four decades later. Labrang was once the home of over 4,000 monks, but today they number only around 1,800.
For someone who has never been to Tibet, Xiahe is an experience. It feels like the Wild West: dusty, rugged and remote. At one end of the monastery, women sell bread and sundries out of wooden huts or from carts on the street, while at the other end men slouch on their mini tractor taxis and suck on their teeth while they eye up pedestrians and wait for a fare. The smell of burning juniper fills the air—burned throughout the town by pilgrims and locals in front of temples and on the mountaintops. While the main monastery buildings are of course the big attractions, we liked walking through narrow alleys and down the main street watching monks playing hacky sack or shopping for mobile phones in their saffron and magenta robes.
While seeing Tibetan monks was cool, the pilgrims at the monastery were absolute eye candy. Young and old, men and women—they all looked like extras out of Tarantino’s Sukiyaki Western Django in their chuba robes, trimmed with fur or embroidery with one long sleeve tied around their waists, with tall boots, messy hair and flushed cheeks. And while many of the monks were accustom to the sight of foreign tourists, the pilgrims were people from the countryside who had probably only seen people like us on TV—if at all. When we walked through the town, they stared blatantly with wide eyes. When we stopped to pet stray dogs, they stood nearby and stared even more. And when we stopped at a cafe to eat some lunch, they stared so much I thought their eyes would fall out of their heads and into their tea. Some acknowledged our smiles and greetings, but for many we were like sideshow attractions.
Xiahe has changed quickly over the past few years. Coming into the town from Lanzhou, visitors pass ominous construction sites, crowded with empty residential towers that the government will likely try to fill with east coast residents over the next few years. And there’s definitely more infrastructure available to foreign visitors than the Lonely Planet details. We saw probably near a dozen places advertising espressos in English. Our two favourites were two old standbys, though: Nirvana Restaurant and Bar, and Gesar Restaurant. Nirvana is definitely one of the best places in town to get a beer, and we even managed to snag an IPA and an Amber brewed somewhere nearby (coordinates on the bottle). Gesar is amazing. The food takes ages to come out because everything is hand-made as its ordered; when we had dinner on the first night the cook even had to leave and buy some ingredients. The place looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, and you can bide your time while you wait for your order by examining the variety of patterns on absolutely everything in the dining room. I’ve never seen so many patterns in one place in my life.
We caught the 2pm bus leaving from Lanzhou’s southern Intercity Bus Terminal, which is about one kilometre south of where Google Maps puts the South Bus Terminal. If you’re heading back to Lanzhou via bus, don’t bother trying to save time by taking one bus to Linxia and then a second to Lanzhou. The buses are local (instead of direct), which means the driver is constantly taking back roads and stopping to let people off and on. The ride to Xiahe took us three hours, but the ride back via Linxia took five hours.