The trip from Xining to Xiahe turned out to be very scenic with one of the best landscapes that left in us the deepest and most vivid impressions we had in China. We left our guesthouse in Xining early in the morning and jumped onto a local bus to the main bus station. We got tickets at the counter to Tongren and had barely enough time to make it to the gate. The departure was just 5 minutes later. We headed East and followed a side valley of the Yellow river. The landscape changed from being bare to dry and remembered more on a moon landscape then a river valley. Dry side canyons were everywhere proofing that at a certain time a lot of water was flowing into the main river. The first houses in Tibetan style were visible. The valley became narrower and ended in a canyon with the road winding up to a large grass plateau. It seemed like a miracle to end from a desert landscape higher up in a grass land, but that what it was. The geology of the Yellow river valley and the Tibetan plateau seems to be very special. We were at an altitude
of 3000m above sea level. The houses in the villages were all in Tibetan style with red and yellow painted wood constructions as roof. We arrived after a 3h bus ride in Tongren which is famous for Tibetan Tanka paintings and claims to have one of the oldest schools in Tibet. We did not like the feeling of the place so much and decided despite its history to move on as originally planned. The problem was that we had missed the only bus to Xiahe at 8:30 am. I knew such situations and we waited outside the bus station for some minibus drivers to approach us. As always they took Yuki as Chinese and asked where we wanted to go, but got confused when I answered in Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese word for Japan is very difficult and it always took me some time to explain that she was Japanese and could not understand Chinese. Actually Yuki was a stunning multicultural Chameleon since the Thai thought she was Thai, The Burmese she was Burmese and the Chinese she was Chinese. Only the Vietnamese figured out she was somehow different. It took 15minutes time and we had negotiated a private car
to drive us the 2.5 hours to Xiahe. We left Tongren at noon time and entered another side valley. The scenery was stunning with only very few small villages and a snow covered mountain range at the horizon. We felt to be in a forgotten place in China. After one hour drive we reached the highest pass on the trip at an altitude of 3500 m. We stopped and admired the views from the prayer flag covered top. It was very windy and cold, but if felt like we entered another world. One hour later we descended into a valley leading to Xiahe. The hills were bare of any trees, but there was a river at the bottom. We came close to Xiahe when several cars gave us some warnings about a police control. The driver got nervous and it turned out that his car license had expired a week ago. He did not want to pass the control, but managed to get us a taxi to the town. He was a nice guy and we left with many thanks and smiles.
Xiahe has the interesting arrangement of three town areas. The low rise Tibetan town with traditional buildings,
a semi modern Muslim town and the modern Chinese town in fashionable high rise concrete style. Our guesthouse was at the edge of the Tibetan town with the Nomad café overlooking the main square. We could have spent hours in this place, because it offered splendid views and an interesting mix of Tibetan people in very heavy coats and trousers. The food was excellent and varied from butter tea and Yak meat to Chinese dishes. New to us was the very popular Muslim tea; a green tea with dried fruit and candid sugar. You could get it even as ready mixed plastic cup version at the market. We had dinner including yak meat and butter tea. Yuki tried later one with confidence, but soon sneaked sips from my Muslim tea. We retreated soon back to the guesthouse as temperatures came close to 0C and the town got deserted. Our room was painted in nice Tibetan style and had two warm blankets on the Kanga style sleeping platform. We luckily had negotiated these into the room price.
The next day we visited the famous Labrang monastery. It is the biggest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and had at this time
around 3500 monks of the yellow had sect. The monastery was founded in 1709 by the living Buddha Jamyang Zhaypa who started a series of reincarnations. The current Jamyang is considered as the 3rd most important Tibetan Lama after the Dalai and Panchen Lama. It is also Tibetan Buddhism's most important monastery town outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The temples are spread all over the old town housing also several Buddhist universities. The city is encircled by a prayer walk (kora) with hundreds if not thousand prayer wheels. Pilgrims circulated in clockwise direction, turning the wheels and some were even measuring the prayer walk with their body length. This is a traditional Tibetan style that shows greatest devotion to the Buddha, but it takes a lot of strength. The hands and body are protected by wood panels and sturdy clothing.
We got a 1 hour tour into the main buildings and museum. It felt more like being on a cheap package trip. The monk did not show any effort to explain the background of the monastery or to lecture more about the Tibetan religion. Somehow we felt disappointed due to the contrast of the tour and the importance of the
monastery. The last building was the assembly hall with hundreds of carpet covered sitting places. While being indecisive what to do next one monk opened all the doors and slowly more and more monks entered the hall. It was time for the noon prayer and many monks were leaving their houses and headed for the hall. They stood in groups of purple color in front of the white-red building and waited for the service to begin. An amazing view!
The afternoon we hiked the outer Kora circle. A trail was leading above the city with good views and ended in the very far end of the old town. It was also possible to see a Sky burial place with waving prayer flags. We enjoyed the exercise and sun and came back to the hotel in the late afternoon. We still had to book or onward flight and entered an internet café. We were very surprised to the see dozens of young red robbed monks being busy internet chatting or playing Video games. It is not always as you expect. We ate dinner in a small bistro with strongly recommended Pizza on the menu. The owner, cook and waiter in one
person was very friendly and we had a chat since we were also the only guests. It was cozy with the stove heating and he went extra to the shop to get potatoes for the French fries Yuki had ordered. He explained us that the monastery was growing and some monks were quit rich with owing houses and driving around in cars. He said usually a monk it not allowed to own anything, but there are differences. We remembered seeing monks with ATM cards drawing money from the bank. The Chinese government had built new apartment blocks with higher living standards that were given to Tibetans for half price as kind of support. He said it was voluntary to stay in the old housed or to move. Some did and some not. He complained about being unable to get an international passport. The government told him to come back in may be 5 years. We also learned that Xiahe had been over the summer for 6 month a closed area for international tourists due to the Olympics and that he did not have much business during this time. Xiahe was only reopened two weeks before or arrival. Now the winter
started and he had to wait until spring to earn a decent income. I asked him if he had thought about leaving to the provincial bigger towns for work. He said he had thought about it, but in the towns you need money to survive. Here he has friends he can rely on and money is not soo important as in town. Friends of him went, but came back soon. We learnt a lot about Tibetan culture this evening and went happily back into our cold room to snuggle onto the heat blankets and sip Muslim tea until we went sleeping.
We left Xiahe the next early morning by bus to Lanzhou to catch the evening flight to Beijing. The bus ride was interesting since we left the Tibetan region and entered an old Muslim area most of the men wearing white hats. What contrasts of religions and historical back ground. I definitely want to come back to explore more of this remote region with its fascinating varying cultures.
Tongren Tanka: www.regong.org/history.html
Labrang monastery in Xiahe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labrang
Amdo region: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amdo
Private car Tongren-Xiahe 180 RMB
Guesthouse Xiahe 140 RMB
Muslim tea 8 RMB
Labrang monastery 40
Flight Lanzhou - Beijing 1110 RMB (30% discount)
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