Amazing Xiahe

Xiahe 夏河: November 1990 From our Diary

Gansu province, China

PREVIOUS ARTICLES: 1 Xiahe revisited 2 Xiahe & the Labrang Monastery 3 Excursions from Xiahe 4 Xiahe; a Reflection


Amazing Xiahe: This is the final part of our travel report on Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in China’s Gansu Province. The article is an unedited extract from the diary that Margie kept during our two year trip around Asia and the Middle East. The trip began in Lahore, Pakistan in early October 1990. By late November 1990 we had reached Xiahe.  Though we have now visited Xiahe 3 times (see previous articles), it was our first visit that really stood out, probably because  we hadn’t really experienced Tibetan culture before.

Xiahe old photos 1990
Xiahe Monks 1990

Wednesday 21/11/ 1990 (Lanzhou to Xiahe)

We have to get up early to catch the 7.30 bus to Xiahe; the only one of the day. The scenery gradually becomes more and more interesting. The whole morning we have been driving through a winter landscape of soft brown, reddish and yellowish shades. Every available scrap of land is being used: all the mountains have been terraced and divided into tiny vegetable plots, while the fields are used to grow potatoes, cereals and barley. There are haystacks everywhere and corns on the cob on every roof, drying. The villages, of a pinkish-brown hue, form an indistinguishable part of the landscape.

Xiahe old photos 1990
Bus Ticket

Looking out of the bus window, we can see many non-Chinese people, walking along the road. Most of them closely resemble Uyghur people, and they are wearing greatcoats, animal skins and furs, as well as heavy leather boots. The majority seem to be Muslims, judging by the white skull caps of the men and the black velvet and lace headscarves of the women. Many of the men also wear the large, round, horn-rimmed sunglasses that seem to be typical around here.

We stop for lunch just outside Linxia, a large Muslim market town, situated atop a reddish loess plateau. We can see lots of yaks milling about; as well as a whole pile of severed yak heads lying in a cart. Apart from yaks, there is a busy traffic of donkeys, pony’s and bicycles. Lunch, of course, consists of beef noodles, eaten at a street stall.

Xiahe old photos 1990 Xiahe Labrang Monastery 1990
Xiahe Labrang Monastery 1990

We have now entered the southern part of Gansu and all of a sudden everything is a lot greener, although these initial lush meadows soon give way to yellowish steppes.

Around half past 4 we get to Xiahe. According to Lonely Planet, it will take us 45 minutes to walk to the Xiahe, or Labuleng, Binguan, supposedly the former summer palace of the lamas. And 45 minutes is no understatement. We are too tired, hot and bothered to appreciate the village we are walking through, except to notice that it consists of one long street, full of the most variegated assortment of people.

Xiahe old photos 1990 Xiahe Labrang Monastery and The  Labuleng Binguan
The  Labuleng Binguan

The hotel is comprised of a series of rooms with a verandah out front, all decorated in bright green, blue, red, yellow and gold. Our room has a blue ceiling, a fresco of nomads, as well as numerous other decorations. As we are taking a rest on the verandah, basking in the sun, we wonder why people say it’s so cold round here. This soon becomes clear after 5 o’clock…

Dinner in the brightly painted dining room consists of rice, steamed buns, French fries, sausage, vegetables and sheep’s intestine; not bad, apart from the intestine. However, the promised hot water (supposedly available after 7pm) is no more than lukewarm, and the same goes for the heating. It takes us several hours to warm up our beds, fully dressed and all.

Thursday 22/11

Around 11 o’clock we head into town, feeling rather peckish. We gingerly venture into a dark, unsavory-looking shack, which passes for a restaurant around here. Once our eyes have become adjusted to the semi-darkness, we can see that it has an earthen floor and rough wooden tables and benches, crowded with scores of burgundy-clad monks, rubbing shoulders and wolfing down bowls of steaming noodle soup. In spite of the grizzly pieces of meat floating on the surface, the (yak) noodle soup is actually rather delicious and we wash it down with lots of hot, sweet tea. Unfortunately, our meal is continuously interrupted by filthy beggars who are either after our money or food, and mangy dogs who want the latter.

Xiahe old photos 1990 Tibetan Teahouse Xiahe
Tibetan Teahouse Xiahe

After lunch, we do a bit of shopping and people watching. The grasslands around Xiahe are inhabited by Tibetan nomads, who are a very colourful lot indeed. They ride into town on sturdy, hairy little horses, dressed in huge coats, made of animal skins or black and brown corduroy, which hang down to their ankles. They are lined with sheepskin and adorned with striped pieces of woven cloth or gold and silver embroidery. The weirdest thing about these coats are the sleeves: they are so long that, left to their own devices, they would trail along the floor. This is why the wearers tend to fold one or both of them back and tie them up with massive leather belts, which are embossed with silver and often have heavy silver ornaments and daggers hanging off them. On their feet the nomads wear sturdy, leather and corduroy boots, while their heads are protected by huge fur hats with ear flaps.

Tibetan Teahouse Xiahe pligrims 1990
Local in Xiahe 1990

The women wear their hair in two long braids, tied together with brightly coloured strands of wool. Their ear lobes are weighted down by chunky earrings, inlaid with turquoise and coral.
And mixed in with the nomads, there are the monks in their burgundy, saffron or orange coloured robes; bare-armed even in winter! Some of the monks are no more than little kids, running around excitedly, or crouching down, playing marbles in the dirt.

Tibetan Teahouse Xiahe 1990
Our friend Chilli with Locals doing a little shopping

The shops are well-stocked with anything a nomad or monk might need: thick pieces of cloth, ready-made coats and robes, hats, boots, animal skins (including a snow leopard skin going for 2,500 Yuan; I just hope it’s a fake!), knives, prayer beads, belts, jewellery, horse tack, yak butter; you name it. We take advantage and buy ourselves a couple of scarves against the ever increasing cold.

Around half past four we’re back on the hotel verandah, to catch the last rays of the sun and warm our bones. Today is the birthday of one of our (on and off) travelling companions, which we celebrate by downing lots of cheap Chinese wine and splashing out on double portions in the hotel dining room.

Friday 23/11

After lunch we go and explore the monastery. Labrang monastery dates from 1709 and belongs to the Gelukpa, or Yellow Hat, Sect; the sect of the Dalai Lama.

The monastery consists of a series of large buildings, painted in layers of reddish-brown and white – like huge cakes -, with golden rooftops and ornaments that sparkle in the bright November sky. Many of the halls are also decorated with colourful prayer flags and pieces of silk, fluttering in the breeze. Between the buildings there are several empty, windy squares and lots of narrow alleyways that lead to the mud-brick monks’ quarters, set in squares around their own courtyards and closed off by heavy wooden doors.

the Labrang Monastery 1990 xiahe
Adam in the Labrang Monastery 1990

Accompanied by a young monk who is acting as our guide, and who is supposed to speak English, some of the heavy wooden doors are unlocked and we are allowed into a large, dimly-lit temple hall. In front of us there are rows and rows of pillars, bedecked with sumptuous pieces of cloth; in between the pillars, the floor is covered with long cushions on which some monks are sitting, chanting and swaying. Along the back wall we can just about make out the contours of many gold statues, enveloped in richly decorated cloaks and hung about with jewellery. In front of the statues there are numerous flickering candles, offerings of many kinds, as well as money. Along the side walls there are stacks and stacks of holy books, a bit like Bibles, covered in red cloth. It’s a fascinating spectacle, but rather incomprehensible to an outsider. Unfortunately, our guide’s less than rudimentary English doesn’t enlighten us much.

the Labrang Monastery 1990 xiahe
Margie In the Labrang Monastery 1990

After this first one, we visit several other temples, some with splendid gold statues, others covered in valuable wall hangings or colourful frescos, but all of them lit by massive copper candleholders and a myriad of tiny yak-butter lights.

We catch a glimpse of the kitchen: a vast, echoing hall with soot-blackened walls, a smoking chimney and gigantic cooking pots. It’s like something out of a medieval castle.

Running around the monastic complex is the kora, the circular way that pilgrims have to follow clockwise, or circumambulate, in order to accrue merit. At many strategic points there are galleries full of prayer wheels, which they have to spin around, so their prayers will be multiplied. The pilgrims, many of them old and bent, seem tireless; they go on and on, fingering their prayer beads and mumbling the Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum. Some, not satisfied with merely walking, praying and spinning the wheels, also prostrate themselves frequently in front of the temple halls.

Pilgrims In Xiahe 1990
Pilgrims In Xiahe

After a couple of hours, we take our leave of the splendid complex, all the more alluring when the sun hits the golden rooftops and outlines the purple silhouettes of the monks in the narrow, dusty alleys.

Saturday 24/11

We decide to go for a walk and explore the surroundings. As soon as we leave our hotel, we cross the nearby bridge and turn right. We then follow the stream up for about two hours. At first, the landscape is quite dry and pretty boring: we cross some dusty, brown hamlets with no more than a couple of pigs, donkeys and toddlers in the street; the river is still running beside us and the mountains in the distance are quite bald.

Xiahe Village 1990
Xiahe Village 1990

After a couple of hours, we come to a kind of fish pond and, a little higher, a partially frozen lake… The icicles along the shore are quite amazing! The valley broadens out around the lake and gives way to grasslands, while the surrounding mountains become greener and lusher. The mountainsides are dotted by sheep, while closer to the lake a herd of yaks is grazing. A small troupe of nomads on horseback go past; another group descends from a flatbed truck and wanders off into the distance… On the part of the lake that is as yet unfrozen there are some splendid orange ducks. In the late afternoon light the surrounding mountains take on all kinds of hues, from greenish yellow to reddish-brown and even blue. It is a magnificent scene and even though I have never been there, I imagine parts of Russia must be like this.

Adam on the Grasslands 1990
Adam on the Grasslands

By now we have become the only, non-Chinese guests in the hotel, as they are about to close for the winter. In the dining hall it’s just our small group of travellers, plus two large tables of party officials, who are enjoying a sumptuous banquet (much more appetizing than our simple food) and hitting the booze (that infernal liquor called mao tai) pretty hard. In fact, one of those gluttons manages to vomit all over the floor on his way out…

on the Grasslands xiahe 1990
Margie on the Grasslands

That night we huddle under our blankets, fully dressed, coats and all, dreaming pathetically of cups of hot milk and honey.

Sunday 25/11

The light (and the cold) wakes Adam up at six and he excitedly returns from his toilet sortie to report that it is snowing! At 8 o’clock I can no longer bear the suspense (or the cold), quickly pull on some more clothes and venture out of bed. Our courtyard is covered in snow, as is all the landscape and the mountains around us. It’s the stereotypical ‘winter wonderland’.

Labuleng hotel in the snow xiahe 1990
Labuleng hotel in the snow

We take a beautiful hike through the snowy landscape, towards the little Tibetan village near the hotel, where people have just woken up and are going about their tasks, such as collecting wood and dung for the fire, or shoveling snow. Meanwhile, the roaming yaks, pony’s and donkeys are scraping the earth, searching for food; their nostrils steaming in the frosty air.

Life in Xiahe 1990
Life in Xiahe 1990

It’s time for us to join the rest of our little travelling gang, who are already staying at the Co-op hotel in town, the only one still open. After checking in, Adam bravely goes for a shave at the local barber’s. While he reclines on a kind of dentist’s chair, a wizened old man presses hot towels on his face and throat to soften the stubble and gets out a prehistoric, blunt-looking knife. Then he hesitates, puzzled, unsure of where exactly this hairy barbarian’s beard begins or ends. Faced with this doubt, he takes a rigorous approach and shaves off any hairs he can see, including those offending chest hairs that are popping out of Adam’s shirt. The poor man, by the time he has worked his way through the barbarian’s heavy growth, his colleague has shaved the entire heads of at least three Chinese men! For reasons of hygiene, as it is far too cold to wash their hair (or body), many of the local men prefer to go bald.

Xiahe Local 1990
Xiahe Local

After lunch at our regular, beggars and dogs in attendance as usual, which goes to show that you can get used to anything, we go for a last walk. After a final visit to the monasteries, we cross the bridge and start climbing up a slope opposite the monastery, ploughing through the snow for about an hour until we can’t see the temples anymore. Everything around us is white and quiet; the pine trees stand out against the bright blue sky. Adam builds a dam in a small, partly frozen river and creates a new stream.

In the evening, the whole gang decides to go and have dinner at the wooden Muslim restaurant; the one with the pile of bloody yak heads in front of the door. And then it’s time to say goodbye to some of our travelling companions, though our paths may well cross again in the future.

We are in for a miserable night: we’re absolutely freezing, with bad colds, coughing and spluttering; the dogs outside won’t stop barking all night, we have to get out of bed several times to go to the loo…

Xiahe Local 1990
Xiahe Local

Monday 26/11

Another extremely early start to catch the 6.30 bus; it’s dark and cold, bitterly cold, outside.

As soon as we get back to the Friendship hotel in Lanzhou, and our warm, cozy, three-bed dorm, I literally dive into the bathtub with all my clothes on, and spend the next hour or so soaking and scrubbing away.

PS Cosi, Louise, Chilli, Jan, Jeremy, Bert or Bart, if you recognize yourselves in this diary entry and would like to get in touch, please send us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

Main Street Xiahe 1990
Main Street Xiahe 1990

Getting to and From Xiahe
From Lanzhou’s southern bus station there are many buses daily. You can also take a bus to Linxia and change to one of the many buses that ply the route between Xiahe and Linxia.

Heading South to Sichuan across the grasslands there are regular buses to Hezuo and the odd one to Zoige and Langmusi.

There is an early morning bus (7.00) to the interesting Qinghai town of Tongren. This bus crosses the Ganjia Grasslands and passes through spectacular scenery.

Author: Adam

My name is Adam. I have a degree in Chinese History from SOAS and a masters in International Politics focused on China from the same university. I have travelled around China 9 times and since 2000 I have travelled every year for two months. I guess I kind of like the place!

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