Friday, 16 November 2012

Lanzhou and Xiahe - The Tibetan Monastery

Our lasting impression of Lanzhou is that it is a place to avoid at all costs.  If I can dispense one piece of advice about China it would be that if you ever have to visit Lanzhou (which is possible as it is a major transport hub), plan very carefully, book ahead and spend as little time as you have to there,  It's horrible.

We arrived in Lanzhou from Dunhuang in the hope that we would be able to catch a train straight out to Chengdu and start our journey slowly south.  No such luck.  We had accepted we would have to stay one night so had booked into a hotel opposite the train station.  Again, our room was almost identical to the rooms at the hotels in Dunhuang and Jiayuguan:  completely devoid of character, the same rock hard beds but with the added disadvantage of being located in a city with about as much charm as Basingstoke.

After checking in we ventured over to the train ticket booking office to join the massive queues inside.  After a couple of minutes, Paul was tapped on the shoulder by a police officer (always a worry), and directed to a window with no queue.  We don't know why we warranted this special treatment but we didn’t need to be asked twice.  We huddled round the window and tried to book tickets for Chengdu the following day but quickly discovered there were none available.  
Paul then turned to me to ask me what day it was so that he could ask for tickets for the day after.  I wasn’t sure but thought it was Saturday and told him so.  Paul then asked for tickets for Monday which were available so he booked and paid for them.  It wasn’t until we left the booking office that we realised that today was actually Friday and that we were stuck in Lanzhou for 3 nights!  It wasn’t my finest moment, but in fairness Paul didn’t know what day it was either, and neither did he know the Chinese word for Sunday so we would have been stuck anyway.
So we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were stuck in Lanzhou for 3 days longer than we wanted to be.

Labrang Monastery
That afternoon we went for a wander to see what Lanzhou had to offer.  We quickly realised that the answer to that was pretty much nothing.  It really was horrible.  It had no redeeming features.  It was just another huge Chinese city, no character, lots of high rise buildings, lots of building going on, and lots of pollution.  The Yellow River runs through the city it at the northern end but it is full of garbage, and to the south of the city beyond the railway station mountains edge the city and on a clear day, I’m sure, the mountains are a glorious sight.  But I doubt Lanzhou ever gets any clear days, and while we were there we could barely see the mountains through the smog.  If you look directly up above the sky is blue but a yellow/grey cloud of pollution hangs permanently over the city.
I couldn’t bear to take any photographs of Lanzhou.  There was nothing attractive that we wanted to capture for posterity or inflict on any of our friends.  We really just wanted to forget that we had ever visited the place.

As we had 3 nights, we decided we would try to head out and visit one of the smaller villages to the west of Lanzhou.  This is Tibetan territory, and previously was actually part of Tibet.  The Lonely Planet warns that in 2010 the Chinese authorities were a bit twitchy about foreigners visiting the villages and towns west of Lanzhou because of the Tibet connection.  Certainly foreigners were either being turned away, or having to jump through hoops to get bus tickets.
Scenery on the journey to Xiahe

Xiahe in particular has proved a bit of a no-go area for tourists in the past  as this is where the Labrang Monastery is located  It is the biggest and most influential Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet and where, just a few days earlier, a Tibetan monk had recently committed suicide by setting fire to himself.  In view of this we didn’t really reckon our chances of even being able to board a bus but we thought we would take our chances.  We suspected the authorities would be extra cautious because China's once in a decade leadership congress was taking place at the time and they would be anxious to keep any protests regarding the Tibetan issue under wraps.
So the next day, in the hope of escaping the charms of Lanzhou, we took a daypack with a few essentials in the unlikely event of staying somewhere overnight and caught a cab to the bus station where we bought a couple of tickets to Linxia (no questions asked).  Linxia is a town about 3 hours away and is supposedly a nice place to stop off on the way to Xiahe.  This was according to the Lonely Planet and, on this occasion, we think it was stretching the truth a bit.  However, we didn’t know this at the time, and were happy to get tickets out of Lanzhou we hopped on the bus and a few minutes later were on our way.

We soon found out the Linxia was pretty grim too.   It was just yet another city – not quite on such a massive scale but pretty ugly, very Muslim, and a little inhospitable.  So we wandered around there for well over 20 minutes before deciding to trying out luck getting to Xiahe. 
This involved another taxi to another bus station the other side of town and, once again, tickets purchased to Xiahe, no questions asked.

Once again we were on our way.
As we travelled towards Xiahe we seemed to leave heavy industry behind and the scenery became much more rural picturesque.  We travelled through mountains, following a river along a valley, passing through villages, dodging herds of cows, sheep and goats. 

Part of the Monastery
And then we came to the first police check.  This is where we thought we would be turfed off the bus and told to turn back.  It is quite common for there to be no-go areas in China for foreigners at any given time, but the rules change all the time and it is difficult to get up to the minute information.  However, usually if there are restrictions for foreigners you will be unable to buy bus tickets there in the first place but that is not always the case either, and we have heard stories of people being turned back half way there.

A young police officer came on board the bus checking our fellow Chinese passengers’ ID cards, and when he came to us he spoke in very broken English and asked where were from and could he have our passports for checking.  He was very polite and spoke with a very friendly smile on his face.  We handed over our passports, and he took them away to the little makeshift office on the side of the road.

Ten minutes later he returned with our passports and a smile, and on we went. 
And then about 20 minutes later there was another police check.  This time, Paul was asked to accompany the police officer off the bus.  As Paul waited while the police checked our passports and visas, one of the officers chatted with him trying to practice his English.  Once the checks were done, they handed Paul back our passports, he got back on the bus and we were on our way again.  There was obviously something going on but they were not preventing foreigners from visiting so we assumed all was ok.

We arrived in Xiahe at about 5.30pm.  We got off the bus at the eastern end of the town and followed the main road west towards where the hostels were located.  Xiahe is divided into three areas, the Muslim village, the Chinese village and the Tibetan village, the latter is at the far western end where the Labrang Monastery is located. 
As soon as we left the bus station on our way through the Muslim quarter we passed a lot of armed police and then, as we headed through the Chinese area, we saw a few army trucks, and lots and lots of soldiers, many in riot gear, and all of them armed.  There was a definite tension in the air.
An icon carved from yak's butter

After walking for about 15 minutes we reached the Tibetan quarter, found the hostel we were looking for and went inside.  The owner immediately approached us, was very polite but obviously quite panicky, saying something about a funeral, and saying that he had been told he wasn’t allowed to take in foreigners, but he wasn’t sure whether the rule had changed, but if we could go back out the front door and come back through the rear entrance, he would be able to put us up.  He was very nice but clearly very nervous about the whole situation, so we duly left and walked around the back where we were let into the rear courtyard and found our way back through to the reception area.
The owner booked us in, asked us if he could arrange to bring us some sandwiches and some drinks (we ordered chicken sandwiches and beer), and told us we would have to stay in for the evening as nothing was open in town anyway.  We realised then that as we had passed through the town, most places had been shut, and that actually nobody much was about except for the police and the army.  It’s difficult to explain, because at no time did we feel threatened in any way, but there was a definite tension in the air and so we were happy to stay in our room for the evening.  It wa also quite chilly so not really ideal for wandering about aimlessly.

He also mentioned (with a straight face I hasten to add) that when we left in the morning, it would be an idea if we could each wear a hat so that we blended in a bit more with the locals.  We weren’t actually sure whether we heard him right and agreed later that it would take a lot more than a bloody hat for Paul to look vaguely Tibetan! 
Our sandwiches were brought to the room and when we finished I took the plates down to reception where I met a German couple who had arrived on the bus from Lanzhou who were in the process of checking in.  I started chatting to them and it was apparent they had received the same reception from the owner and it was clear they were very disappointed about the situation in the town.

While we were talking the owner told us that the monastery tour was going ahead the following morning at 10.00am – apparently it had been cancelled for a few days but it was resuming the next day.   We agreed we would go on the tour before catching the 2.30pm bus back to Lanzhou.
So we had an early night and the next day, after breakfast, we took our chances and left the hotel completely hatless.  We didn’t blend in at all and there were still plenty of police and army about but we were not approached by anyone.  Once again, we did not feel in any way threatened, intimidated or vulnerable.  We walked back down to the bus station to buy our tickets for the afternoon bus and passed two separate groups of about 30 soldiers in full riot gear.  To be honest they all looked terrified (certainly they looked more frightened than we felt) - they were all young, in their late teens/early twenties, probably doing national service and they probably felt very much out of their depth.  Saying that, I wasn’t going to get my camera out.

We later learned that there had been civilian clashes in areas where self immolations had occurred across China and, particularly in the run up to the Chinese Congress, the authorities were keen to keep any unrest to a minimum.  Certainly they did not want any adverse publicity during this period.  Knowing that, we were really surprised that foreigners had not been prevented from travelling to places like Xiahe, as has been done in the past, and despite the odd situation we were happy that we had been allowed through, if only to escape Lanzhou.
From the bus station we headed back over to the west of the town to the monastery where we bought our tickets for the English tour with our very own monk.  We were a group of 10 which included the two Germans, a Japanese girl (also staying at our hotel), and a French family of 5 (2 adults, 3 kids).  The Frenchman was a journalist and when we obviously discussed the police and army presence.  He was able to tell us that there had been 5 self immolations in as many days and that he was very surprised that he had been allowed through the police checks into the area as his occupation is clearly stated on his visa.  It all seemed a bit out of character for the Chinese authorities, but we weren’t complaining because we got to visit Xiahe, and the Labrang Monastery which was definitely worth a visit.

Our personal monk guide was a very happy chap.  He was young, I would guess early 20s, and spoke English very quickly with a heavy accent.  We found it quite difficult to follow his commentary so the others must have found it very difficult, English being their second language!  It was a beautiful clear sunny day and very cold but our monk was happy racing around in his burgundy red monk’s habit, with no sleeves, cheerfully telling us about a monk’s life of prayer and meditation, the significance of the different temples, and (when asked by the Frenchman) candidly explaining what had been happening in the last few days.  The Germans thought he was a bit too jolly and I think they found him insincere but we found him to be open and outspoken, and he genuinely did seem to be very happy.  He had a twinkle in his eyes, a lovely open smile and an easy laugh – maybe he just wasn’t monkish enough for them!
The Labrang Monastery is a huge sprawling complex of temples and other buildings.  It has a long history and obviously considers itself to be part of Tibet, and although it is actually in China's Gansu province it is in what is considered a Tibetan region.  The many different temples are quite beautiful and during our visit there were monks everywhere, either studying, praying or eating.  Eating is taken very seriously in China and monks are no exception although their diet has a lot to do with yaks (yak’s milk, yak meat etc)!   

There was one temple in particular which was full of Buddhist icons statues intricately carved and moulded from yak's butter.  Every year they are replaced as they deteriorate, particularly during the warmer months, but the detail and colours betray a certain amount of skill and artistic talent.  However, the only criticism I would have about the monastery itself was the underlying aroma of yak everywhere, mainly because they burn yak's butter candles in all the temples and you really cannot escape the rather cloying aroma.  However, in the yak butter icon temple it was overpowering.  Some people like the smell.  Personally I don't get it!

There are about 1200 full time monks living at Labrang Monastery and about 200 visiting students at any one time.  The monks are funded by individuals who make them regular payments to enable  them lead their monastic life and in return the monks offers prayers for their benefactors.  They are like a bridge to the gods for us lesser mortals as it seems the gods can't hear us directly but can hear the prayers of a monk. 

Another part of the monastery
Attempting to visit Tibet itself these days is fraught with obstacles designed to make you give it up as a bad job.  You need a permit and to be granted a permit you need to be in a guided group of 5 people of the same nationality.  The rules are changing all the time but the new requirements have been in place since June, probably since the Tibetan issue has been given increasing international coverage.  Tibet objects to Chinese rule and wants a return to independence.  China says that Tibet has, in particular, religious independence and, technically, it does have that freedom.  However China does have a habit of moving in its own ethnic Han Chinese to areas it takes over, effectively overwhelming the local minorities, which can (and does) cause bad feeling and civil unrest. 

Outside the main Temple
The Dalia Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, wants to return to his homeland but is exiled.  However he has also come under some criticism for failing to condemn the increasing number of self immolations by monks and other supporters of the Free Tibet movement (and at the risk of appearing controversial, I cannot see anywhere that he has called for these self immolations to be stopped but I may be wrong!).  I do not profess to have any I do know feelings run very deep and have done for a very long time.  However with all situations where territory is disputed and/or politics and religion are involved there never seems to be an easy solution.  I just know it is very sad that so many people have lost their lives in such a horrific way, and I find it uncomfortable that the Dalai Lama (of all people) does not exercise his power and influence to stop the increasing trend of self-immoliation.

Overall, the monastery tour was interesting and enjoyable, and it was good to have a taste of Tibet.  Afterwards we all went to a local restaurant for some lunch before catching the bus back to Lanzhou.  There was local traditional food on offer but none of it sounded particularly tasty so we played it safe.  Our German friends however were more adventurous and had some local Tibetan dish (which looked very unappetising) and butter tea which looks as disgusting as it sounds and going by the looks on the Germans’ faces, didn’t taste much better – butter in tea is just plain wrong.
After lunch we trundled back to the bus station, the police and army presence seemed more muted (although we believed that was because it was noodle o’clock and they were all in the back of the army trucks munching – nothing gets in the way of a Chinaman (or woman) and his noodles!).

The return bus journey was pretty uneventful with just one police check, and just as scenic.  We were of course very disappointed to arrive back in Lanzhou – it hadn’t improved any since we were gone but at least we had managed to escape for a couple of days.  We grabbed some beer and supplies, spent a quiet night before catching our train to Chengdu the following day.  We made sure we were very early for that train, going through security a good hour before our train was due to board as there was no way on earth we were missing our train out of that godforsaken place.




  1. I think your description of Labrang monastery is very precise and fascinating.I visited Xiahe this summer and I love this place very much, I think it is magic country.I had the same monk guide in the monastery:he is a very beautiful person.How did you find him?Was he worry for the situation in Labrang?Thank you very much.

    1. Hi Laura - Thank you. It is a beautiful place and even though we visited at quite a troublesome time, it was very tranquil. The monk who gave us the tour of the monastery was allocated to us when we arrived for the morning tour. When the French journalist spoke to him about the suicides, he was very open and willing to speak about it, but clearly saddened by it (a funeral had taken place the day before we arrived). Personally I find the loss of life of so many, mainly young men, incredibly trafic. The monastery itself is (I think) the most important outside of the official Tibetan region and I don't think is in jeopardy. As you probably know, the area retains a lot of its Tibetan character and culture and we are so glad we had an opportunity to visit.


  2. Dear Dawn, you are very kind to reply me!I am in agreement with you:I also find the loss of life incredibly trafic.When I went there in July I found Xiahe a very happy place...while from your word I can understand that there is a very tense air.
    After our tour in the monastery we maintained contact with the monk, but in this last period we didn't listen him(maybe for the censorship).So I'd like to know if he felt good and if he was worry for the situation.
    Thank you very much

    1. Hi Laura

      I hope the monk contacts you again. It may be that censorship has been strict over the China Congress but we shall see how things move on from here. If our monk was the same as the one you met, he seemed very happy(despite recent events), very kind and enthusiastic, and eager to share information and details of the monastery and his life there. The Labrang Monastery is obviously a very imporant part of Tibetan Buddism, and it did not feel that anything was being hidden from visitors.
      And thank you so much for reading.

  3. Hi Dawn,
    thank you very much for the information.I am quite sure that the monk was the same as the one I met.He was young(he is 24 years old)he studies philosophy and then in Labrang monastery only two monks speak English.
    Then when I read your monk's description I immediately recognized Tharchin(his name), your words have described very well him.Especially when you wrote "He had a twinkle in his eyes, a lovely open smile". I also saw in his eyes a special twinkle...
    We hope that he will write us soon, because we are very worry for him.In Italy we read many sad thing about Gansu province.
    Did you visit monk's house?It is very nice and snug, and I was very kind with us.
    Tahnk you again