12th November 2018
When I finished my tourism degree in summer 2001 (as a mature student, I hasten to add!) I felt I needed an inexpensive holiday to celebrate, and so I headed off to China to visit my friend Kath who had recently moved to Beijing. She’d been leading trips out there for the likes of Kuoni for a couple of years and decided she wanted to learn Mandarin, so upped sticks and moved to China! She was kind enough to share some airmiles with me and we flew to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors and then travelled by overnight train to Lanzhou on the Yellow River and on up to the Tibetan Plateau, visiting a little-known place called Xiahe.
At that time, Xiahe was a bit of a wild west town; dirt streets and very little infrastructure. Kath’s Chinese friends wondered why on earth we wanted to go! But we were drawn to Labrang Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa order (Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism) and the largest monastery in the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo. Founded in 1709, Labrang housed over 4000 monks at its peak, but the population diminished during the Cultural Revolution. Now it only has around 1500 monks, with another couple of hundred lay students, but it remains an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
The population in Xiahe was 78% Tibetan at that time and the nomads of the nearby grasslands would come to town to trade and get supplies, often riding in on horses. They also came to make a kora of the monastery around its famous corridor of prayer wheels.
We hired bikes on one of the days and cycled out to the grasslands to see the nomads and their yurts, to get an idea of the way of life. The grasslands were being grazed by Tibetan longhorn, a cross between a yak and a cow particularly bred for the altitude and climate here.
This October I was delighted to have the opportunity to return to Xiahe 17 years on, when I accompanied our Chinese Silk Road Taklamakan Adventure tour. I knew that China was developing fast and that there would definitely be some modernisation, but I was still surprised at the good standard of the road as we entered the lower outskirts of the town and noted the factories and sprawl of new buildings. The powers that be are in the process of building a major highway through Xiahe and there is a new high-speed train link planned to join Lanzhou and Chengdu, although it’s in the early stages.
However, the atmosphere of the town centre and the monastery particularly still prevail. Getting up at 6.30am to make a kora of the monastery with all the local pilgrims is an amazing experience and you’re rewarded with wonderful light and some great photo opportunities. The additional money coming in to the monastery through visitors is paying for renovations and many of the fading wooden prayer wheels are being replaced with new and brightly coloured ones.
Today Xiahe has a population made up of 55% Tibetans, 44% Han Chinese and around 1% Muslim, as the government have encouraged migration to the region. Life is tough for the traditional nomads, though, as they are being encouraged to settle in towns. Driving out to the grasslands now, fields have been fenced and houses built, but it is still a beautiful landscape and some are managing to retain something of their traditional lifestyle. The message, as always with so many places around our changing world, is go now before it changes more!
And in case you were wondering, my friend Kath is still living in Beijing all these years later and it was wonderful to be able to see her during my recent visit to China!