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Published: August 25th 2015
Oh Xiahe. A place in China that had so much character and proved to be one of our favourite places in China despite it being the least Chinese place we had visited. Thats not saying much about China is it? On the contrary we really enjoyed our time spent in China. This was just one of our favourites.
Writing this as we leave the Gansu province makes us feel a little sad as we sure will miss this place and do hope to return one day.
Pronounced Shaarr-huh, the 'huh' part said with a real american football player sound, almost from the depths of your stomach.
We found this place when looking for places in China off the beaten track when reading about China in Hong Kong. We came across a blog written by a girl who had travelled down the silk road, and this place in particular sounded fascinating. Not one traveller who we had met on the road however had been here or had even heard of it. Even young Chinese people staying in hostels, often well travelled around China were dumfounded when we mentioned it. Yes we were definately off the beaten track.
described as 'little Tibet', you would be easily mistaken into thinking that this was in Tibet. No, we were still in China but this little town clings so closely to its tibetan buddhist culture and strong ethnic nomad traditions that it is more of an extension of Tibet.
Getting here we caught an overnight hard sleeper train from Dunhuang to Lanzhou. From here we took to a taxi to the south bus station, a bus to Xinla, another taxi to the south bus station in this town before boarding our final bus to Xiahe.
All in all we think it took us around 24hrs to get here from where we were staying in Dunhuang using 6 vehicles of transport. Certainly worth it though.
We never mind the train section of these journeys. We find them an experience in themselves. For one, the hard sleepers for us are more comfortable than any overnight bus we have ever caught in the last 5 months. Plus having the room to move about, pour ourselves coffee or make noodle soup (from the hot water machines) with the ability to watch local life unfold, its been one of our most enjoyable past
times here. Young couples are always loved up, laughing with each other or watching films on their phones. Women would take care of their husbands (getting them drinks, tucking them in bed). Just even watching or listening to people slurpping over their noodles and children playing number games, singing and climbing up and down the ladders always kept us entertained.
We watched as the older men looked more relaxed than ever, drinking their green tea, wearing their slippers and eating one unknown food item to the next. In the evenings women would apply facial (skin whitening) creams, dressed in pjs (one of P's favourite was a silk onesie) and wake up immaculately formed as if they never slept on the train; make-up on, dressed in a fancy sparkling dress with high heels on and all. It was very interesting to see.
We would always choose these train journeys over buses and actually find ourselves looking foward to them. Boarding the train we would become all excitable like children again.
The buses, although more like coaches are noticeably more comfortabe than south east Asian standard buses but could not compare to the trains here. Maybe our standards from
the trains were now higher and we felt unable to move on these buses or maybe it was the noise on the buses. People screaming down their phone behind you or the deafening sound of the horn being used far too often and for extended periods. The volume on these horns had been turned up to their max (which would without a doubt be illegal in the UK) and startled us everytime.
Arriving in Xiahe we noticed immediately that we were somewhere new. Spotting a Han Chinese was less common than spotting a monk adorned in their deep red gown or one of the Tibeten nomads.
The tibetan nomads had us fascinated from the get go as they were unlike any other ethnic group we had came across. Many were much darker in skin than the typical han Chinese from the prolongled exposure to the sun 3000ft above sea level, with noticable cheeks that were marked red from the blistering cold winter winds and more of a middle eastern look. These nomads often live in the outer areas of China with close proximity to the countries borders.
Most nomads carried prayer beads in their hands that they
fingered while they walked and prayed under their breaths. Men and women alike dressed in layers of thick clothing (as surprisingly for us it was cold, real cold) with sun hats for protection from the sun.
Unlike the large plain dark shawls with unbelievably long sleeves the men wore, the womens shawl's were decorated with bright patterns, sometimes wearing thick black boots underneath (think ugg boots). Their long black straight hair was always neatly made up into 2 long braids/plaits with many women wrapping their hair in scalves and having babies on wrapped on their backs.
The younger rosey cheeked children mainly totted behind their mothers with the youngest children having cut pants across their bums so they could conviently squat and do their business anywhere. Yes we witnissed this across China many times. Such an unsanitary and unusual custom for us as we watched a young boy squat for a poo on the side of the street with his father wiping his bum and discarding the tissue on the ground - as you do. We were eating at the time too. Not a pleasant sight.
We were intrigued by the nomads but they were also were
facinated by us. Walking down the street the stares kept coming as we saw noticable comments or nudges and people rushing to get a glimpse of us. However unlike many typical fixed stares we were used to getting across China with no expression on their faces, the nomads would always stare with a smile. It was such a friendly fascination and we did not mind one bit. For many it was likely the first time they had witnessed a dark skinned person from some kind of african descent. They loved Chris's skin tone and P's hair, which must have been very unsual for them. Eating in local restaurants was the most interesting - for the locals - at one point we had a whole crowd surrounding us as we ate. Just watching and smiling. We thought we'd more or less mastered chopsticks, but you don't half feel the pressure when a dozen eyes or so are watching you. On another occasion we got into a very basic 'Mandalish' conversation with a family (using our translation app), they offered us drinks and some tasty yak dumplings which Chris was happy to try. They were all intrigued by us and took many
pictures as we waited for our food.
We didn't book accommodation here as we thought small town and all, plenty of spare beds. However we were wrong. We went to half a dozen places that were all fully booked. The only place we could find for the first night was Baoma Hotel costing 200 yuan £20 for a double room (our first non dorm bed in China). It was a nice place but as we had a lower budget in mind we went out looking for alternatives for the following night and managed to score 2 dorm beds in Tara guesthouse for 20y/£2 each.
Surprisingly most visitors here are the Tibetan nomads or otherwise buddist pilgrims who visit Xiahe for prayer, to get religious fulfilment and carry out religious rituals. No crowds of chinese tourists and barely any international tourists.
Labrang monastery is religiously significant as it is one of the 6 main Tibeten monastries with only one more of the main monastries being directly in China instead of Tibet. Plus it is the monastery that the Dalai Lama himself originated from.
The monastery itself is nestled within its own walls and is a small village
contained within itself with many sand stone walls and big wooden locked gates keeping the monks quarters private.
As we walked this area, we watched the pilgrams walking the outer Kora, rotating the tibetan prayer wheels that lined the area, often wearing gloves so not to blister their hands. Either this or they would circle a smaller stupa over and over again, or carry out a ritualistic kind of prayer - raising their hands getting on their knees, laying face down and repeating the routine over and over again. It was all very unusual for us to see.
The monastery area was free to explore but the temples could only be entered via a tour group. We walked these atmospheric sandy streets, one or two streets large enough for one lane of traffic others being small alleyways. Shaven headed monks often weaved in and out of these small alleys almost gliding in their red garments. Some would turn the other way when they saw us, others walked past some with smiles, others even asking for our photo.
There was one funny moment where one elderly monk turned back down an alley to avoid us. Rather than take
another route he slowly moved in and out from behind a wall. With our zoom camera, P managed to capture this. We probably shouldn't have, but the way he kept moving slowly out from behind the wall and slowly moving back had us in intrigued, we guessed he suspected we could not see him. It was like a game of peek-a-boo.
We took one of the daily tours around the monastery by one of the monks. Luckily as we could opt for an english speaking guide, our group was only small. Unlike the Chinese groups there was less than a dozen of us; mainly the 2 of us and an American family-friend group who we got speaking to on the tour around Dunhuangs' Magao caves.
We liked the fact that the monks kept the monastery sacred with no photographs allowed inside many of the temples or schools. We toured through an art and medicine school that were brightly decorated with many intact intricate wall paintings, grand Buddhas and many things made from yak butter.
Although informative we sometimes were lost and many questions thrown at the monk were often met with the response that Buddhism is too
complicated for us to understand, although not so much for the Chinese visitors to take in. We understand that it was not easy to learn but still would have wanted to gain more of an insight.
One thing that he shared capturing our attention, was that one of the head monks passed away and his remains are inside one of the temples with a stupa within. It is believed that this monk had been reincarnated into a young boy. Large photos of this young boy were hanging on walls and he was clearly now seen as being very important. This made us both think about the responsibility this boy now has and what he has to live up to. Kind of daunting if that were us.
As we walked the streets within Labrang monastery, once again we tried to soak in the amazing atmosphere created here; from the beatuful sandy temples, quaint alleys, locked wooden gates, red garments flying by, the sounds and sights of the pilgrims praying or the burning of conifer tree leaves. Afterwards we found a elevated spot to enjoy it some more feeling once again humbled and privileged to witness this amazing place.
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