Xiahe: Tibetan culture without the restrictions

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: November 11th, 2011 | Updated: May 19th, 2015 | Comments

labrang temple xiahe

China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>


In the early morning, the dusty streets of Xiahe, Gansu Province are still until you reach the Labrang Monastery. With only one street to speak of in the town, Renmin Xijie (Rénmín Xī Jiē, 人民西街), the most important Tibetan monastery outside Tibet isn't hard to find. Once inside, the silence isn't broken, but dissolved by the deep-throated chanting of monks circling the buildings of the monastery and the creak of prayer wheels as the faithful walk the circuit around the grounds of the temple and up into the steep, dry hills around the monastery. Since the founding of the Labrang Monastery next to the Daxie River (Dàxià Hé, 大夏河), followers of the Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hat Sect, of Tibetan Buddhism have made pilgrimages from Mongolia, Tibet and the surrounding region. International tourists began coming in after Xiahe county was opened to them in 1980, seeking a glimpse into Tibetan culture without having to deal with the difficulties of entering Tibet. However, the city's openness can be periodically compromised by political tension. The riots connected to those in Tibet in 2008 closed the city to outside visitors and the city was closed again at the beginning of the next year.

Labrang Monastery

tibetan buddhist monastery xiahe

Xiahe native son Ngawang Tsöndrü was invited by a Mongolian prince to found what would become the Labrang Monastery in 1709, with additional funding assistance from a Henanese noble on land donated by a wealthy Tibetan nomad. The temple's founder would become the first Jamyang Shaypa, the third most important figure in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. With such an important figurehead, it's no surprise that the monastery would grow to have some 4,000 monks. The monastery closed temporarily after anti-Chinese riots in the late 1950s through the early 1960s and again during the Cultural Revolution, though the number of monks has rebounded somewhat (they are restricted to 1,200 monks), with monks arriving to study at the temple from throughout the Amdo region (which consists of Qinghai Province as well as parts of Gansu and Sichuan) and Inner Mongolia. Even outside the monastery, monks can be seen throughout the town walking the streets, or, somewhat less solemn, practicing some virtual violence in an Internet café. The monastery offers guided tours, but one of the best times to check out the temple is early morning around 6am when monks process (always clockwise around buildings) and chant while pilgrims complete a circuit around the monastery (kora), which leads into the hills to the north of the monastery and back.

 Largely tranquil present belies a violent past

History was tough on Xiahe.  Though most of Xiahe's residents were (and still are) Tibetan, as Xiahe fell into the Tibetan Amdo region, the town's location brought Chinese, Mongolians and Hui Muslims and tensions between the groups saw shifting alliances and outbreaks of violence. By the later part of the Qing Dynasty towards the end of the 19th century, Mongolian influence had waned and many Mongolians had largely assimilated into the dominant Tibetan culture while the imperial court in Beijing enjoyed good relations with the ruling Jamyang. With the Revolution of 1911 breaking the imperial Chinese court and the death of the Jamyang, violence broke out between the Hui Muslims and Tibetans. Western accounts of the atrocities vary in their allegiance and sympathy, with descriptions of brutal killings on both sides. One account from 1921 by a Christian missionary in the region, A.J. Fesmire, describes Tibetans killing soldiers carrying a dispatch and then seizing thousands of yaks. The Muslim Hui warlord Qi Ma, however, had a strong advantage with better armed troops and a lot of them. Botanist, explorer and National Geographic writer Joseph Rock witnessed the aftermath of the 1929 Battle of Xiahe, and would later describe the Muslim Hui victors using Tibetan heads as decorations.

labrang china tibetan

Today, with the Labrang Monastery serving as the centerpoint of the town, the Tibetan quarter stretches out to its west, the Muslim quarter to the east and the Chinese quarter east beyond that. In the Tibetan quarter, dirt paths wind their way through blocks of connected adobe-like buildings, while the eastern parts of town has developed disproportionately faster. Many of the town's best places to stay, eat and shop all lie to the east of the temple along the main street.

Outside Labrang

While the main reason to visit Xiahe is definitely the monastery, it's far from the only thing to see. West of the Labrang Monastery lies Ngakpa Gompa (Hóngjiào Sì, 红教寺), a smaller monastery of the Red Hat order.  To the east, in the Muslim quarter, is the Xiahe Mosque (qīngzhēn sì, 清真寺). Designed with a Chinese-style minaret, it's a somewhat under-appreciated sight in Xiahe. To find the mosque, head along the main street east, keeping an eye out to the north for the minaret. With a town so small, its easy to get out, too. Walk straight north or south away from the road and explore the hills around town, taking in the view from up high. Bike rentals are also available at some of the guesthouses and a good way to explore the town or make your way just outside of it. Even farther out, nomadic Tibetans still eke out a living in the surrounding grasslands. The Sangke Grasslands, just an hour bike ride away from town, have become something of a minority song-and-dance-show geared towards domestic tourists. Hiking past the roadside entrance, the tourist kitsch gives way to rolling green plains sparsely dotted with farm houses. Even farther from Xiahe lie the far more genuine Ganjia Grasslands where you can sip on warm yak milk and breathe in some of that fresh air under a crisp, blue sky.

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