After looking at prices and travel times for the trip to Urumqi, plus how few unreserved spaces remained due to us travelling during Golden Week (the 7 day period that encompasses October 1st, the founding of the Peoples Republic of China), we decided to abandon the plan. It was a sad choice to make, we’d wanted to see western China since the trip began. After discussing with a friend in Shanghai we decided we could go to Gansu province, which still counts as western China, and see what was available there. In the very south of Gansu province is Xiahe, a “small” town (only 100,000 people) built around a large buddhist teaching monastery. The local people are ethnically Tibetan and it is described as the closest you can get to Tibet without actually travelling there. This sounded excellent as Chinese bureaucracy had prevented us from visiting Tibet and it would be nice to have a break from the huge cities we’d been in up until this point.
Xiahe is built in a valley, surrounded by high hills. The only way to access it is by a single lane highway that follows the river up the valley. Xiahe is the Mandarin name for both the town and the river (Xiahe means ‘Summer River’), in Tibetan its name is Labrang which it takes from the monastery. We had failed to pronounce Xiahe successfully even once in the two weeks prior to or arrival (shaahuh? sheeaheh? shahee?) but as we sat in the bus station in Lanzhou we learned because the bus drivers screamed it repeatedly once it was time to board. It’s pronounced ‘sheeahuh’, but the middle ‘h’ is sounded in the back of your throat like the ‘ch’ in loch. We actually spent the night in Lanzhou on the way to and from Xiahe, but there is not much to tell about it. It’s famous for waterwheels and noodles, here is a picture of each:
Xiahe is famous for its monastery, the construction of which was funded by a Mongolian king in 1709. On one of our days we joined the english tour in the morning and were shown around by a young monk who said he’d learned all his english from newspapers. When a german tourist mentioned that he would struggle to pronounce words correctly if he only learned from newspapers he gave a wry grin and said “Buddha blessed me”. Maybe Buddha blessed him, maybe he had a secret stash of hollywood movies, who knows. But this monk was a character, famous for his caustic sense of humour. The previous night we’d met up with some other travellers who had done the tour that morning and they warned us of his jokes – specifically by a british guy who said that he was repeatedly reminded how many Tibetans had been killed by the english followed by extended cackling from the monk and awkward silence from the rest of the tour group. He also commented on a follically challenged tour group member’s hairstyle being “like a monks”. The trip advisor page for the monastery has many mentions of him, he’s a minor celebrity in Xiahe it would seem. Un/fortunately when we went the tour group was too large so he didn’t have a chance to engage in any audience participation, he just showed us around the monastery and taught us how important yak butter is. It’s mixed with water to make tea, it’s used to make candles and it’s even used for sculpture. I was picturing some claymation monstrosities like that scene from Total Recall but the sculptures, kept in a carefully air-conditioned room, were actually spectacular. See for yourself:
About 13 kilometers west of Xiahe is a small plain where nomadic people once lived. We made an excursion there one day with promises of being able to see people living how they had for hundreds of years. We told the taxi driver to take us to Sangke and he agreed, however the thing about grasslands is they cover quite a large area so once he reached the edge and asked us where exactly we wanted to be dropped off we had no idea. Looking at the map on my phone I could see that we were close to where the pin dropped for “Sangke Grasslands” so I directed the driver there and we got out. We were on a very rundown street with a single row of houses/places of business on either side. Between them we could catch glimpses of the plain stretching out on either side. The taxi driver had been reluctant to drop us here and now I could see why. We were concerned that for the first time our maxim of “the difficult to reach places are always rewarding” was going to fail. Our phones said that there was a river 15 minutes walk away so we gathered together our positivity and set off to discover it. What followed was a long and frustrating 2 hour trek. We found the river but it was quite anaemic and although the houses stopped once we got off that one street only 500 meters away in the middle of the plain was anew housing development under construction. At every turn we were blocked from wandering the rolling hills by fences and building equipment. Rosanna recalled a scenic viewing point that we had driven passed on the taxi which became our goal, we had given up hopes of the perfect vista but believed that there would at least be other cars there that we could take back to Xiahe. We should not have given up hope. Upon reaching the viewing point we realised why it had been placed there – it was the perfect spot to view the grasslands from. The majority of construction was hidden from view and the whole area appeared completely different. It was a breathtaking scene and made the journey worthwhile, just.
Xiahe Outer Kora
A kora walk is the official name for the path that circumnavigates a buddhist temple. In Xiahe there are two, one that skirts the external walls of the temple and another than follows the same route for half the rotation and then climbs up into the surrounding hills for the journey back. It was truly stunning, but definitely hard work. Xiahe is 3,000 meters above sea level and the effects of altitude are definitely noticeable. We had to stop frequently on the ascent but we didn’t complain because the view just kept getting better. Once we reached the high point we could look in either direction along the river and see the town laid out below us. To the east was the monastery and beyond that the slightly touristic han end of town. To the west was the more historic Tibetan end which petered out into the farmland that filled the rest of the valley. It was a view I will not forget. We liked it so much we did it twice.
On our second descent we met a pair of local men who insisted we stop and sit with them. We made minimal conversation in chinese (he tried on my glasses at one stage and then refused to believe they were prescription) and then performed the ritual of becoming WeChat friends (WeChat is like a combination of WhatsApp and Facebook). Almost everyone we meet here wants to be friends on WeChat and I am happy to oblige, but after that most never contact me. My friend from Xiahe still sends me the odd voice message though, often in english, saying ‘hello’ and ‘have a nice day’. WeChat also keeps track of your stepcount and at the end of the day produces a leaderboard of all your friends. Rosanna and I normally come top because we don’t have jobs – we just wander around all day.
Full pictures here: