Published: August 31st 2005July 13th 2005
Wooden prayer wheels at Labrang Monastery
There were hundreds of these colourful wheels around the perimeter of the monastery - they were very heavy to spin.
We left Xian railway station bound for Lanzhou on yet another 13 hour overnight trip - the best part of which was being able to see the first class waiting room! It was full of very comfortable sofas and large screen tv’s and quite a contrast from the usual railway waiting rooms. Nick said that Xian is the only city that automatically allows foreigners to use the first class waiting room, regardless of whatever class of tickets they hold. We arrived in Lanzhou early next morning and only had time for a quick trip to the loo and then onto a bus for the six hour trip to Xiahe. Xiahe is home to the Labrang Monastery, one of the largest working Tibetan monasteries outside of Lhasa. It is set in a beautiful valley in Gansu Province and sits at an altitude of 3000 metres. Xiahe, along with Langmusi which we visited a few days later was a totally unforgettable place.
We both thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in the Tibetan grasslands area and it was definitely the highlight of our two months of travelling. After settling into our guesthouse - it was the only time on the tour that
monk spinning his prayer wheel
There were many monks and Tibetan people praying at the Monastery.
we didn’t have private bathrooms - we headed out to walk around the perimeter of the monastery. There’s no wall separating the town from the monastery - the two communities merge together and the main street goes through the middle of both. The only real perimeter around the monastery is the 3 klms of brightly painted prayer wheels (1174 of them) which surround it. It was an amazing experience as we walked clockwise around the prayer wheels watching dozens of Tibetans in full traditional dress and monks making their daily pilgrimage. Each prayer wheel was spun as they walked (jogged) past. The wheels were made of wood and were quite heavy to turn. We even saw some people, with heavy pads on their knees, prostrating as they made their way around the monastery. The Tibetan people were in full traditional dress - the women had long skirts and a lot of very heavy silver, turquoise coloured stones and red coral jewellery. The earrings were so heavy the women supported their weight with cords around their ears. Around their waists hung heavy silver belts dangling with what looked like silver purses. They had long dark plaits and hats. They actually looked
A line of spinning prayer wheels
The local people nearly run as they spin the wheels - most wore gloves to protect their hands.
very South American. Both men and women wore a garment similar to a western dressing gown made from very heavy fabrics trimmed with fur and brocades. When the weather was hot they tuck the sleeves of the gowns into their belts. Many of the young men wore only one arm of the robe - the other was left hanging. The young men also wore jewellery, particularly big strands of large red coral beads. All the men wore sunglasses - the old men wore glasses with large round frames. Many of the men wore knee length boots made from yak leather. I never expected to see so many Tibetans and certainly was not expecting to see them in such full traditional dress. We also passed a group of young Chinese singing Gospel songs from a spot overlooking the monastery. Later that evening we met Druja, a young Tibetan man who was to be our local guide for the next week or so. We all had a meal at the local restaurant where the food was ok but the service incredibly slow - we left in the end as we were too tired to wait for the rest of the food we
The prayer wheels are worn from so many hands spinning them!
Next day we were up early and headed off for a day visiting the Gancha Grasslands which were about 45 klms from Xiahe. The bus dropped us off and we walked for a couple of hours through the hills of the grasslands. It was magnificent country and we saw nobody but the odd Tibetan youth on his motorbike - the modern version of the horse out here, though we did see plenty of nomads riding horses during the following week We spent an hour at a local village, watching goats being herded and yaks being loaded with supplies. Young men, wearing jeans, sunglasses, heavy robes like western dressing gowns with knives tucked into the broad belts and adorned with turquoise and coral jewellery roared in and out of the village on their motorbikes. We visited one of the smaller monasteries - there are many smaller Tibetan monasteries scattered across the Grasslands. The monastery was at the edge of a tiny town which was poor, dusty and brown and similar to many other towns we passed through during the following days. The houses were made from mud and manure, had flat roofs and were hung with prayer flags.
The Tibetan people hang lengths of cotton flags printed with prayers which blow in the wind, losing strands of cotton which fly into the air sending their prayers away. They also have prayer arrows, long arrow shapes of wood which are brightly decorated and hung with prayer flags. These are pushed into the ground and shoot prayers skyward. We spent some time talking to the children and watching their mothers wash their clothes in the creek in water the colour of mud. The young monks were very pleased to show us over the monastery. One building was being built and we saw a room of clay buddhas which had yet to be painted for the new temple. Inside the monasteries it is a riot of colour as they are hung with vibrant silk banners and painted in all the colours of the rainbow. I took some photos very quickly which are blurred - they allowed us to take them but weren’t happy about it. After leaving the village we spent another couple of hours walking across the Grasslands (and through a stream!) back to our bus. I was feeling tired by then as I had developed a cough and head
Window detail at Labrang Monastery
The three colours of the monastery walls.
cold which unfortunately remained with me for the next fortnight. Also even though we weren’t up particularly high the altitude was causing a few of us to breathe heavily.
Druja then took us to nomad camp for a late lunch. We were the first Intrepid tour to do this and it was fabulous experience. Druja had spent a few months traveling with this group of nomads and they had just set up their summer camp near Xiahe. The nomads live in houses during the winter but in the summer take their animals to graze on the grasslands. The families stay in small groups of tents together and spend time enjoying the sunshine and each others company. The tents are made from yak fibres - some are dark in colour, but many were white and trimmed with bright blue geometric patterns. Each family had a separate kitchen tent as well as a sleeping tent The nomads were pleased to see us and made us very welcome. The children were fascinated and followed us around. Jerry stamped all their arms again with his Aussie stamp. Lunch was served in one of the tents - we all sat cross legged
The yak fibre door and window curtains at the monastery
around a low table heaped with food. For the next hour or so we were the centre of attention as all the families gathered around to watch us eat. We made a valiant effort to eat at least some of the food - there was too much - and gnawed on mutton and yak bones, chewed the doughy bread covered with yak butter, drank the traditional yak butter tea (awful!), yak milk yoghurt (nice) and tasted tsampa - a type of very rich porridge, made with the yak butter, yak cheese (like strong crumbled parmesan), barley and sugar mixed into a dough and eaten uncooked. After our meal some of the young Tibetan youths sang some songs for us. They were lovely young men - 18 years old - and despite the Western dress hope to continue to live the traditional Tibetan semi - nomadic lifestyle. As we were leaving a wind storm blew through the camp and lifted one of the family’s tents up - the rest of the nomads thought that it was very funny!
That evening we again had a great meal out - different restaurant so the service was faster - and then went back
Hillside mediation areas
These would be rather cold in the winter snows!
to the guesthouse to sleep and shower. Many guesthouses in China only have hot water a couple of hours a day - usually evenings. This particular place had an enormous boiler in the one of the downstairs rooms which was fed with wood all day to heat the water. You could feel the heat coming from the room as you walked past it - great in winter but not so pleasant in summer - the man who fueled it slept in there as well. Next morning we toured the Labrang monastery. It was a very large site and home for approximately 1000 monks. The main buildings all have flat roofs and are three different colours. The doors of these are covered with yak fibre curtains decorated with weavings of animals. Some of the temples were more Chinese in style however with heavily detailed painted walls and golden tiled roofs. The hills nearby were covered in tiny cabins where the monks are sent to meditate during the winter months. Fun! I was particularly impressed with the yak butter sculptures which are replaced yearly. The buildings with their three layers of colours were very impressive and looked spectacular against the vibrant blue
Yak butter sculptures
These very detailed, smelly and colourful sculptures were made from yak butter.
sky. We haven’t seen sky that shade of blue since leaving Australia. The air was full of smoke though, in places, as they burn juniper branches as a form of incense.
We loved Xiahe and were surprised at the lack of tourists in a place so beautiful. Our trip from Lanzhou was dusty as we bypassed many road construction areas (women in canvas shoes were building all the roads - carting, breaking and laying rocks as road base) and when we left to go to Langmusi we once again were held up with roadworks. I can only presume that once the roads are all finished and it is much easier to reach these areas tourism will boom. It was great to wander the local shops and not be pressured by the shopkeepers. They didn’t care whether we bought anything as there main customers are still the local monks and nomads. Druja told us the Tibetan Grasslands are Lhasa 15 years ago before they built all the western cafes and souvenir shops. He was a very knowledgable young men who took great pride in his Tibetan roots. He has worked in Lhasa, climbed many of the Himalayan mountains and walked
These elderly men were holding hands and having a very deep conversation as they walked around the monastery.
overland from Chengdu to Lhasa which would be quite a feat. He told us that in this area the locals still use sky burial but unlike Tibet the burials are all carried out by local villagers - if a person in your village dies then other villagers will take the body to the burial area , chop the body . up and feed it to the vultures. He participated in his first sky burial at the age of 12 years (he chopped the hands from the body) and has been a participant in four more since. The local people of the Grasslands have in the last few months closed the sky burial sites to tourists. Mainly due to increasing numbers of tourists I guess wanting to visit them. I doubt we would have gone even if we had the opportunity - I wouldn’t have made the climb to the top of the mountain anyway!
The rest of our time in Xiahe was spent wandering around watching the local people and checking out the shops. It was such an a amazing place and we didn’t think it could be bettered - but that was until we arrived in Langmusi!
There are more photos below