I could feel something special was ahead as we rode the (extremely old and cramped) 7 hour bus from Xining to Xiàhé (known as Labrang in Tibetan). The bus was packed with Tibetans carrying interesting packages, who would often get on and off at seemingly secret bus stops in the middle of nowhere. Our only bathroom break was a mountain view dirt track in the grasslands.
Xiàhé is the home of Labrang Monastery, a very sacred place for Tibetan people. Set in a mountain valley in Gansu, the huge monastery is fascinating and attracts thousands of Tibetan pilgrims from all over the Tibetan Plateau. There is a sizeable Han (and a much smaller Hui) population, but the feel is very much of a Tibetan town. For many people, this is Tibet.
In the mornings we were greeted by stunning clouds that settled beautifully low over the mountains. The sound of the colourful prayer wheels turning was always in the air and the setting of the monastery against the mountain backdrop was breathtaking.
The highlight of Xiàhé (other than the amazing Tibetan food- but more about that another time) was walking the kora (clockwise around the huge monastery) alongside the pilgrims. I’m always wary of being intrusive at religious sites, but it didn’t feel that way in Labrang. Besides, the little old ladies were quite a bit faster than me at walking the kora and turning the prayer wheels! It was almost unbelievable to see the endless stream of pilgrims that just kept coming each day. Taking a monk led tour of the inner parts of the monastery is also essential; you are shown temples you would not otherwise be able to access.
In the past, Xiàhé has been closed to foreigners. But it is currently well and truly open and you will find the local people extremly welcoming. At first we were unsure about which language to speak. We don’t know any Tibetan and many people don’t speak English. In the end we found it was acceptable to speak Mandarin, as many people could speak at least some and many others were fluent. We are by no means fluent in Mandarin but actually found it easier to converse with other non-native speakers! We only saw a handful of other foreign travellers while we were there, which only added to the mystique feel of the place.
Walking around the monastery and town we often came across very young monks and nuns. The girls usually walked in pairs and would smile or wave shyly at me. Justin was even invited to play football with a group of teenage monks.
It’s hard to put into words the intense sense of wonder and amazement I felt in Labrang. Whilst I’ve visited a lot of Buddhist areas, in different countries, I have never been to a Tibetan town like this. Especially such an important one. I left Labrang knowing it had stolen a piece of my heart in some way. It’s a place I’ll never forget and would recommend to anyone wanting to experience Tibetan culture.
For anyone wishing to visit Xiàhé (please do!).
- We arrived in Xiàhé (Labrang) from Xining on a local bus. Check times with your hostel.
- We stayed one night at Tara guesthouse (very basic but great for those on a tight budget at only 40 kwai for a double room (no bathroom)) and two nights at Boama, which, to be honest, was rather a step up. The price we paid at Boama was much cheaper than the prices quoted online at around 160 kwai a night for a double room (with bathroom!).
- The English tour starts at 10.15am every day.
- We tried many great restaurants, including Nomad, which served great Tibetan food. We were easily able to get vegetarian Tibetan food.
- The weather in the mornings and evenings was very chilly. We always dressed in layers that we could take off or put on as needed.