We took the overnight train from Xi'an to Lanzhou, and from there a few hours drive up into the mountains to get to Xiahe, set in an arid mountain valley at 2920m above sea level

Lanzhou was once an important ling along the Silk Road, and a major crossing point for the Yellow River. The road from Lanzhou took us up onto the Qinghai-Tibetean Plateau. Once part of Greater Tibet, Xiahe and the surrounding area is populated mainly by ethnic Tibetans. Although, as in elsewhere in China, the Chinese Government is building high rise blocks to accommodate Han Chinese in an effort to dilute the influence of perhaps independence minded groups in the northern provinces. The same thing is happening with the Uighur peoples

Our first experience of Chinese trains was not good, though the next two Chinese overnight sleepers were better. There was a major problem with opening the door of our compartment from the inside, the beds were hard, and we were woken by staff for "papers" (at this stage we had no idea what was needed)

After a stop for breakfast in Lanzhou, we headed off and up to Xiahe. The town lies along one main street parallel to the Daxia River. The Chinese section (commercial) lies to the eastern end of the road and the Tibetan section lies at the western end. In between lies the monastery. The monastery being the reason that tourists go to Xiahe.

The alluring monastic town of Xiàhé attracts an assorted band of visitors: backpack-laden students, insatiable wanderers, shaven-headed Buddhist nuns, Tibetan pilgrims in their most colourful finery, camera-toting tour groups and dusty, itinerant beggars. Most visitors are however rural Tibetans, whose purpose is to pray, prostrate themselves and seek spiritual fulfillment at the holy Labrang Monastery, around which Xiàhé has grown. The rising sun sends pilgrims out to circle the 3km kora (pilgrim path) that rings the monastery. Crimson-clad monks shuffle into the temples to chant morning prayers.

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Labrang Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Labrang Monastery is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Monastery is home to the largest number of monks outside of Tibet Autonomous Region. Our visit was dampened by incessant rain (turned out to be the only really rainy day in our entire trip). We therefore did not see the monastery at its best.

The Monastery was established in 1709 and expanded greatly in following centuries. The resident monks wear maroon robes, black UGG-style boots and shaggy yellow (hence yellow hat monks) Mohawk shaped hats. Despite its venerable history, many of the buildings and religious artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. What you see now was built during the late 1980s or even more recently. The buildings construction differs from others in the region, being built with stone blocks rather than rammed earth, but the whitewashed multiple-level square designs follow the typical style of Tibetan monastic buildings.

It'd be easy to spend days meandering about the alleys between monks quarters and prayer halls, or follow pilgrims spinning prayer wheels on a loop around the Kora. Despite all the tickets and tours, it's still an active Monastery and you often chance upon the monks engaged in their religious activities. There are few English signs (except for the ubiquitous No Photo, Ticket needed), making it somewhat difficult to understand what you are looking at. As you would expect, no photos are allowed inside buildings and the monks outside are camera shy when conducting a ceremony.

Prayer Wheels, which line about half of the minor Kora, are brightly painted wooden drums, spun by an endless procession of mainly elderly pilgrims hoping their efforts will be rewarded in the next life. On each corner is a small room housing huge lumbering wheels that ring a bell with each rotation.

Man Jus'ri Temple, (The rear of the courtyard behind the ticket office). Definitely the most impressive hall with several enormous, elaborately decorated, Buddha statues along the rear wall and a pair of small rooms behind. Pilgrims make a clockwise circuit, stopping to make monetary offerings to brightly coloured yak-butter sculptures and pray to silver Chortens containing living Buddhas. At times the hall may reverberate with chanting monks.

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Nirvana Hotel

We stayed at the Nirvana hotel, run by a Dutch Lady married to a very personable Tibetan. They both speak excellent English, so communication is not the sort of problem that can occur in many parts of rural China. Rooms are not large, but are bright and airy. Wifi (oddly the code seemed to change a few times during our stay) worked in both bedroom and dining area. There is a well stacked bar, and I thought that their prices were quite reasonable, given the hotel's location and standards

It is a short walk of about 5 minutes to the monastery, which is probably your reason for being in Xiahe. Shops are somewhat limited, but we found a very good craft shop selling yak wool clothing (it is also quite pricey, but you get what you pay for). There is not a great choice of restaurants, but there are a number of local ones within a short walk too, also a nice cafe run by the same cooperative who run the yak wool shop. We had both dinner and breakfast in the hotel the first day, but chose breakfast in the cafe (photo below) on the next morning as the Nirvana have a funny charging policy for breakfast that I was not happy with - you want to ask about paying for breakfast if you do stay here

In fact my only real criticism here was a tendency to penny pinching (I noted that some other TripAdvisor reviewers have eluded to this too) , but there again it is not a 5 star hotel and they are trying to cover both the hostel and the middle hotel markets, which is difficult. So for the Westerner it is probably the best option in town. With a little loosening of the way they charge it would be perfect

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Lunch stop.

We had lunch (and a breakfast) in a local cafe, right opposite the monastery (you can see in the photos above the covered prayer wheel area on the perimeter of the monastery). Basic local food, but an authentic setting

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Norlha, Nice shop with a wonderful selection of fabrics made from Yak wool (khullu), all made by hand, modern designs. Shop is opposite the praying wheels, just off Renmin Xi Jie, next to Late Sparkie and Gesar Restaurant.. I bought a delightful Yak, which has been, on Marijka's suggestion, called Kubla Khan. Here he is at the bar of the Nirvana hotel, getting to know the boys.


That afternoon we had a "tour" into the Sangke Grasslands, By now it was even wetter than in the morning. The Grasslands, lying at an average altitude of over 3,000m above sea level, start about 15 km from Xiahe. This vast expanse of grassy plains, covering an area of around 70 square kilometres, is a lonely, beautiful place. There are only 4,000 Tibetan nomads on the grasslands, who graze yak herds. Given the weather we did not see any of them

We had a stop at the top of the hill for the views, which I concede on a good day would have been marvelous.

Then quite bizarrely our bus carried on, the driver and guide quite lost, until they eventually found what they were looking for. I never discovered exactly what it was, but half the group got out and waded through the mud - photo below - to see the ruins of something. The other half of us stayed on a cold bus. Then the local guide returned and demanded 20 Yuan from us all for seeing the ruins, and was very perplexed when I refused to pay. Firstly Wild Frontiers claim that their are no local extras, and secondly sevenof ushad not left the bus. The idiot had apparently bought entry tickets for everyone and wanted paid for them. After some bad feeling, Jude decided that nobody would pay.

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And on that wet and unhappy memory, we left Xiahe to return to the train station at Lanzhou and another overnight train. This time north to Jiayuguan

On to next town - Jiayuguan

Back to Overall Itinerary for Silk Road Trip 2016