There are a lot of places we love in China, but Xiahe is definitely one of our favorites. The atmosphere of being utterly saturated by an amazing collection of Tibetan Buddhist monks is both disarming and inspiring.
Xiahe, part of the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture located on the southern edge of Gansu Province, is home to the Labrang Monastery (拉卜楞寺, Lābǔlèng sì). Founded around 1700, Labrang continues to be one of the most important and famous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
Pinyin: Xiàhé | Chinese: 夏河
Location: Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province
Getting There: Bus from Langmusi or Lanzhou
Where to Stay: Overseas Tibetan Hotel
Attractions: Labrang Monastery
Tucked under a stream of rolling hills, the massive monastery spreads itself across the northern side of Xiahe as if it was a city within a city. Inside its walls, Labrang is a living and breathing monastery with dirt alleyways as its veins and monks as its lifeblood.
We came upon Xiahe as one of the last destinations on our journey beginning from northern Yunnan through western Sichuan and ultimately to southern Gansu Province. As Tibetan culture and Buddhism dominated our trip, Xiahe was in many ways the perfect coda to our travels, for Labrang exudes both the grandness and humbleness of the Tibetan Buddhism that witnessed across China.
We took the 2pm bus from Langmusi (our post on Langmusi), which arrived in Xiahe by about 6pm. That evening we walked the city streets, seeing a mix of Han Chinese run restaurants and grocery stores, a splash of Huizu bakeries, and an abundance of Tibetan shops selling all manner of things, from plumbing equipment to handcrafted shoes for monks. As recently as the early 20th century, Xiahe has had a sad history of bloody conflict between the Huizu and Tibetan people. Thankfully today these two groups live in an albeit somewhat prejudiced peaceful harmony.
We checked into the Overseas Tibetan Hotel, which is conveniently located immediately next to the Labrang Monastery. As we were checking in, they noticed Chi-Chi’s journalist visa. Thus far we’d been fortunate enough to get by with either not registering at the places we were staying at or just using my passport. However, in this case, Chi-Chi was asked to hand her passport over. As soon as the staff saw the journalist visa, they told us they would have to call the police.
The police came, asked Chi-Chi a couple questions, and then left us alone. The entire exchange was extremely polite and not really a bother of any significance. However, it was a stark reminder that Labrang, although seemingly peaceful, is kept under strict watch by the government.
Only about a week after we left Xiahe, two Tibetans self-immolated near the Labrang monastery in protest of Chinese rule over Tibet. Because of these sorts of protests, Xiahe is not always open to foreigners, and prior to arriving it’s best to pay attention to any relevant local news and to try and ask hotels in Xiahe whether there are any known checkpoints excluding foreigners.
Labrang was opened to tourism after 1970, and the signs of tourism, such as guesthouses and souvenir shops are clear, but not overly intrusive. Xiahe is clearly marked on Chinese tourists’ guidebooks. However, because the city is still relatively hard to get to, the streets are not overrun with junky knickknack shops and all the other usual Chinese tourist destination suspects. Perhaps Xiahe’s untouched charm is today diminished, but that certainly takes nothing away from how special Labrang is.
A grid of alleyways cuts through Labrangs square buildings, with large temples and courtyards in the central areas. If you start early in the day, you can circle the entire monastery and still have time to get lost in all of its nooks and crannies. One of the best things about Labrang is walking through a random open door and discovering a group of locals circling a stupa or chanting in a dark corner.
At certain times of the day the monks gather and disperse from the temples, such as Man Jus’ri. These times create a surreal river of monks flowing through the alleys. They are adorned in bright pink and dark maroon robes, and carry fluffy yellow crested hats that give them exquisite Mohawks.
As we were walking, one monk gradually edged closer and closer to us. Eventually he softly said, “American?” We said yes, and then he proceeded to ask us where we were from in nearly perfect English. I got around to telling him that I was from Boston. Immediately he said, “KG! Kevin Garnett is very good. And Pierce.” Apparently he had watched a basketball game on TV in Lanzhou, the nearest large city. I’m sure David Stern would be pleased to know that a monk at Labrang was a Celtics fan.
We kept talking with the monk and learned that he moved to the monastery by his own volition when he was 8 years old. His parents were and continue to be very proud of him for doing so. Now he is 22, and has lived at the monastery the entire time. He’s studying philosophy at one of Labrang’s six colleges. We asked him if he was happy, and with a completely convincing quiet confidence he told us that he enjoyed life at the monastery and would happily spend the rest of his life there. He then sped off to class.
Monks will gather around temples prior to prayer time. In the center of Labrang there are stairs where all the monks sit while waiting to be called into the temple. It’s a great place to sit across from them and gawk at their awesome outfits (it’s okay, there are always tourists there so the monks are entirely used to it).
Eventually, two monks will appear on the roof and blow a massive horn. All the monks on the steps will then tear off their shoes and shuffle into the temple. Tourists can also enter the temple after buying a ticket. Inside you’ll find a dark cavernous temple with rows and rows of monks curled in prayer. The chanting is deep, loud, and repetitive. If you walk around outside during these prayer times, you’ll see shoes strew across the outsides of all the temples.
While a bit crude to mention, we did notice that the monks urinate in a rather charming manner. Despite the presence of several public bathrooms, the sight of a monk calmly squatting in an alley, of course covered completely by his robes, was not uncommon. Initially we thought they were praying, as it’s difficult to see what they were doing under all those robes. However, we quickly realized what they were doing from what they left behind. In any event, you might want to avoid the “puddles” in some of the less traveled alleys.
In addition to witnessing the constant ingress and egress of monks, throughout the entire day you will also see local Tibetans circling the prayer wheels within and surrounding Labrang. While Labrang is serene place, there is also a constant motion to its pathways. Although the locals engage in their perambulations on a daily basis, there is nothing perfunctory about their demeanor. They walk with a dedicated speed and purpose, with a devoutness written across their soft eyes. That’s not to say people don’t chitchat as they walk, as they most certainly do. However, no one seems to act like walking around Labrang is a chore. We did noticed that many of the elderly walked with mild to severe osteoporosis. However, that discomfort didn’t seem to impede their will to walk.
Much of Labrang was under renovation when we were there. The result was some large open unused fields. In one field we found two young monks, probably 12 years old, playing soccer. Although their robes didn’t make for the most functional athletic attire, they seemed to be able to kick the ball rather well. I quickly joined them and spent the next half hour kicking it around so-to-speak.
I love how soccer is an international language. You can play with anyone in any country and you don’t need to know a single word, but you can always make someone smile with some well executed juggling moves (which I discovered are more difficult to do while wearing hiking boots). Sweaty and happy, we left the young monks and kept exploring.
In one of the open courtyard like areas of Labrang we came upon dozens of monks gathered in circles and slapping their hands together. One monk would stand with several others encircling him. He would proceed to hold one hand palm up with his arm extended. Then after an emphatic speech, he would slap the open-faced palm with his other hand. We tried to ask them what they were doing, but the monks were all far too engaged to chitchat with tourists. So, standing inside Labrang, we whipped out our smartphones and Baidu’ed “monks slapping hands”.
We quickly discovered that this was a debate technique, whereby a monk makes an argument and defends his stance against his surrounding peers. The ruckus in front of us quickly made sense. I couldn’t help but think that this technique would have been a good way to spice up my law school days.
From inside Labrang you’ll be able to see a large flat stone panel built into the side of a mountain. Massive weaved throws with intricate designs and bright colors are displayed on these panels during New Year celebrations. Think of them as massive billboards built into mountainsides. If you walk up the hill where the stone panel is located, you’ll get a great panoramic view of Labrang.
We sat up on the hill for a good half hour. During that time we saw some locals sprinkled across the hillside. For the entire half hour, and who knows how long after that, these Tibetans were standing, kneeling, and laying down in prayer while facing Labrang. A beautiful sight to see–the hills were literally alive in prayer (you can make one person out in the bottom right of the picture below.
By the end of the day, Labrang’s alleys are quiet. However, the faint sounds of prayer are still everywhere. Behind the clay and cement walls lining the alleys, you can hear the constant murmurings of the monks. Around dinnertime you can also hear the crackling sound of fire. Then, by around 8pm, Labrang goes black.
A note for the ladies, there is a shop across from Labrang called Norlha (http://norlha.fr/). They sell really nice scarfs, shawls, and clothing made from the finest local yak wool. Norlha is a French company, but they’re completely dedicated and integrated into the local community, having trained locals in weaving and built a local manufacturing center. The highlight of the shop is a large shawl (check it out featured on a Guardian article about Norlha). As they will show you in a fashion magazine, this shawl is sold directly by Hermes for a gabillion dollars. But, you can buy it directly from the store for a bit over 2,000RMB, which is a huge bargain compared to what Hermes sells it for.
Hermes won’t let Norlha sell it online, so your only chance for this discount is buying it directly at the store. Now, while Chi-Chi constantly regrets not making this purchase, at the time we only had completely stuffed hiking packs with us. Plus, our mindset at the time was that any hotel over 100 RMB was luxurious, and any meal over 40 RMB was a rip-off. So the thought of throwing down 2,000 RMB on a totally useless luxury item was hard to stomach. Nonetheless, the shawl would make a fantastic gift and if you have the luggage space you probably won’t regret the purchase years from now.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Overseas Tibetan Hotel (+86 (941) 712 2642), which is right next to Labrang. The rooms are clean and the staff is really friendly. The hotel also has the Everest Cafe, where you can get a simple but satisfying eggs, toast, and coffee breakfast. While I’m sure there are other places that are fine to stay at, know that the Overseas Tibetan Hotel is a perfectly safe bet.