adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Xiahe: A taste of Tibet (Adventures in Gansu, part 2)

(previously: Adventures in Gansu, part 1: Xi'an to Xiahe)

Getting off the bus in Xiahe, the first thing we noticed was that all the shop signs were written in both Tibetan and Chinese. My first impression of Xiahe was that it felt a bit like a frontier town, with mountains rising up all around the single main road. I'd originally believed that ethnic minorities don't actually wear traditional clothing anymore, but as we strolled down the street, we noticed that most people walking about the town were Tibetans wearing colorful traditional dress and monks in flowing crimson robes.

Xiahe's main street stretches through a beautiful mountain valley.

Even the local ICBC has a Tibetan sign.

A trilingual sign pointing the way to the public toilet.

Xiahe shops along the main street.

Most Tibetan women braid their hair, wear cowboy-style hats and a robe bunched up in the back.

Long hair and leather are the fashion for young Tibetan men.

Xiahe styles.

As we hadn't eaten anything that day apart from the 菜夹馍(caijiamo, bread filled w/ vegetables) in Lanzhou, we stopped for a local Hui specialty at a streetside stall, 甜麦子(tianmaizi). The literal translation is “sweet wheat”; it’s a cold soup of fermented wheat grains. It took some getting used to (especially for Rebecca), but I liked it as well as the pancake-like bread we ate.

Tianmaizi tastes both sweet and fermented - how could I not enjoy it?

A Xiahe side-street. Be careful not to step into the ditch in the middle of the street, used for sewage and garbage disposal.

View from our hotel room.

Having filled our stomachs and sorting out accommodation at a decent Chinese hotel (after deciding the "Tibetan" guesthouses Lonely Planet suggested were too touristy), we headed for the Labrang monastery, a major Tibetan Buddhist site that draws thousands of Tibetan pilgrims and monks from all over historical Tibetan regions(Tibet, Qinghai, and some areas of Gansu and Sichuan). After walking to the end of the main street and passing through a crowded market, we reached the monastery walls. Thousands of people were walking in a long pilgrimage route around the monastery, turning the prayer wheels that lined the walls as they walked past. A prayer wheel is a large cylinder inscribed with prayers; for a Tibetan Buddhist, turning one is the equivalent of reciting a prayer orally. It was the most "genuine" feeling I'd ever had in China - all of the temples we'd visited before in China were merely tourist spots, but here, in an active place of worship, we felt like meddling outsiders as we walked about taking pictures. Apart from actually crossing the border to North Korea, being here was the closest I'd ever felt to being in a foreign(non-China) country while in China.

The bustling market area near the monastery.

A monk observes the prayer wheels.

Pilgrims chant as they turn prayer wheels.

Huge crowds of pilgrims circle the monastery.

Monks gotta take pictures too, you know. Many of the monks walking around in Xiahe are actually just visiting the monastery.

Taking a break in the shade.

Deciding not to disturb the pilgrimage route, we walked further down the road and passed by some of the monk's living quarters and the Gansu Provincial Buddhism Institute, which wasn’t terribly interesting for us.

At the Gansu Provincial Buddhism Institute.

After walking a bit more, we found the entrance to the monastery. As we were buying entrance tickets, the monk selling us the tickets informed us that we were free to walk around the monastery grounds as much as we wanted, but weren’t allowed to enter any of the buildings unless we went with a group. It just so happened that the English-speaking group was leaving 15 minutes from now at 3PM. Personally, I hate group travel, but I knew I’d be kicking myself in the pants for throwing away an opportunity to see the inside of the monastery, so we decided to go with the group, which was lead by an English-speaking monk. Fortunately, apart from me and Rebecca, there was only an older British couple and their Chinese tour guide.

First views of the monastery.

China Post never lets you down, not even in remote Tibetan Buddhist monasteries or at the top of the Jin Mao tower in Shanghai.

The monastery was one of those breathtaking places that can’t be captured in pictures (at least not by an amateur with a point-and-shoot camera, but hey, I try). The tour itself wasn’t terribly interesting: for about an hour, the monk led us into various buildings and pointed out all the different Buddha statues and what they represent, as well as some photos of previous and present leaders of the monastery. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings, but if you’ve been inside a Buddhist temple before, that’s more or less what it looks like. In contrast to the temples in other parts of China, though, this was still a real place of worship – the Tibetans have a very physically strenuous way of praying, involving prostrating on the floor and sliding up and down on rags held in the hand (really hard to describe unless you’ve seen it). Besides the usual scent of incense, there was also a new smell for us – yak butter in big plates placed on the altars. For reasons unknown to me, yak butter is an incredibly important substance in Tibetan culture – in addition to religious and culinary use, it’s also a Tibetan art medium, as you can see below:

Yes, those sculptures are made entirely out of yak butter. According to the monk, all of the colors (even the metallic ones) are created using natural herbs. Yak butter melts, so they have to make new scupltures every couple of weeks.

Being freed of the group and left to run about the monastery by ourselves, we went around taking photos, a few of which I’ve posted below – hopefully they can give you a little feel of this place.

Views of the monastery.

The Golden Stupa.

The 3km pilgrimage route passes by small meditation chambers on the hillside.

After visiting the nearby Golden Stupa, it was time for dinner. I was intrigued by the descriptions of Tibetan food in the guidebook, so we headed further into the older Tibetan part of town in search of a place to eat. However, the only restaurants we found were selling Hui cuisine, which seemed very popular with the Tibetans. Don’t get me wrong, as Hui food is delicious, but when would I ever get the chance to try Tibetan food again? After poking around a bit more, we headed back to the other side of town, where there were a few Tibetan restaurants, all a bit touristy looking. It was at the “Nomad” restaurant where I discovered why Tibetan food isn’t a terribly popular choice for eating out, even in a majority Tibetan town.

Neighborhood on the west side of Xiahe.

Taking a siesta in Xiahe.

Monks climbing the hills around Xiahe.

Passing through the market again.

We noticed there were many Tibetan monks eating in this restaurant, but that none of them were drinking the traditional butter tea or eating Tibetan food, for that matter. Being a complete novice at Tibetan cuisine, I just ordered the traditional foods mentioned in the guidebook – butter tea, tsampa, momo, and jaathik.

A view from the restaurant.

Tibetan food is not terribly photogenic, alas. On the left, butter tea, on the right, tsampa.

The butter tea came first. What did it taste like? A big mug of hot yak butter. Deciding that Rebecca had made a wiser choice with her non butter-based tea, I digged into the tsampa, which is uncooked barley, yak butter, and milk mashed up into a paste and eaten cold. It had the same consistency as firm cookie dough and had the taste of grain and yak butter. It was OK, but nothing to write home about. Next was the momo, which are meat dumplings, which tasted a lot like you might imagine, except with a strong – wait for it – yak butter flavor. Rebecca’s favorite part about the momo was that the yak butter solidifies on your fingers as you eat it, not unlike candle wax. The jaathik was OK – just noodles with some beef. We were still quite hungry, as yak butter isn’t the easiest flavor to get used to, so we ordered “eight treasures rice”, which turned out to be a bowl of rice with raisins and other toppings, all smothered in yak butter. Needless to say, we left the place more than a bit hungry. Later on in the evening we headed to your typical hole-in-the-wall serving Hui food and had some delicious niuroumian(handmade noodles in a spicy beef broth) as a second dinner. We'd need to be well-fed for our trip tomorrow out to the vast Sangke grasslands, after all...

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Sunday, June 17, 2007


Adventures in Gansu, part 1: Xi'an to Xiahe

(previously: Yungang grottoes)

Upon hearing that everyone in class was leaving on a school trip to Chengdu in Sichuan province and that class would be canceled from Wednesday until next week, we decided we couldn't let the opportunity go - when again would we have so much time during school to do travelling? I thought Gansu province would be interesting, but didn't think much about it. As we went to register for the HSK, I noticed a railway ticket selling booth and enquired for fun about same-day sleepers to Lanzhou - like that would ever happen! Surprisingly enough, the ticket seller did not wave me off with a typical disdainful "meiyou", but informed me there were two top bunks available. We snapped up the sleepers then and there. And so, having arrived in Xi'an only two days before, we headed to the railway station for more traveling.

The Xi'an railway station is a rather grand place, just outside of the city walls.

Conditions in hard sleeper were surprisingly nice. I had been expecting the worst when I found out the train was not an air conditioned one, but it was rather modern inside, and it turned out to be a bit cold during the night as we went up to Gansu. Hard sleeper is divided into compartments of three beds on each side, on each side there is a bottom, middle, and top bunk. The top bunk is the cheapest since it's the most difficult to get in and out of, but at least you get the bed all for yourself (if you're sitting in bottom, you're expected to let people from upper bunks sit on your bed and chat with you before going to bed). Since the end station of the train was not Lanzhou, I was a bit worried that we would oversleep, but it turns out that you give your tickets to an attendant, who will come by later to wake you up for your stop. The bunk was a bit cramped, but it was soft and I had one of the best night's sleep I had since getting to China.

Hard sleeper is the way to go for comfortable and affordable long-distance travel in China. If you don't want to lie around in bed, there are little fold-out seats along the windows (like the one I'm sitting on in the pic).

The attendant woke us up a bit before getting to Lanzhou, and we sat around looking out the window a bit. The scenery was different from anything we'd seen before - the train was going through a valley, and all around mountains rose steeply out of the arid land.

A little farm nestled in the valleys.

After arriving in Lanzhou, we promptly got a taxi to the south bus station(which is inexplicably located on the northwestern side of town). We didn’t have much time in Lanzhou, but my first impressions were that it didn’t feel as polluted as I expected (Lanzhou is China’s most polluted city) and that the streets were pretty hard to navigate. Lanzhou is located in a valley(like most cities in Gansu), so while the mountain views are rather nice, the roads are very confusing (unlike the square N-S-E-W grids of Xi’an and Beijing). On the way to the bus station, I noticed shiny mosque domes and minarets poking out of the cityscape and plenty of little places selling 牛肉面(niuroumian, beef noodles, a specialty of Lanzhou and NW China in general).

A view on the west side of Lanzhou.

Mosque minaret in Lanzhou I snapped from the taxi.

The taxi driver stopped a fair distance away from the bus station. As he pointed it out for us, a man in a worn-out 1970s era sports coat opened the door and tried to sell us bus tickets to Hezuo(a major transportation hub in SW Gansu). We walked down to the bus station, shadowed by the guy from earlier – and then we realized why the taxi driver had stopped so far back! A less careful taxi driver had pulled right up to the bus station, and at least 6 or 7 guys( all dressed similarly to the guy who was bothering us) literally jumped on the taxi, pounding on the windshield and doors and yelling out the names of various bus destinations. Alas, it’s moments like these that I always forget to take pictures of.

Inside the bus station, the situation was not much better – some guy standing next to the ticket window was trying to convince me to go with him even as I was handing over the money for our bus tickets to Xiahe, which had seemed interesting as we looked over our guidebook on the train.

Before we got on the bus, we bought some bites from a street vendor – I'm not exactly sure what this one is called, but it’s bread filled with all sorts of spicy pickled vegetables. There’s also one filled with meat.

The four hour bus ride to Xiahe gave us the opportunity to see some of the amazing scenery of Gansu. Terraced farms were carved into the sides of the mountains - a truly amazing sight if you've never seen it before. Terraced farming didn't lose its novelty for me throughout the entire trip - I was still snapping pics of it as we headed back to Xi'an!

Terraced farms on the arid terrain around Lanzhou.

Not exactly sure what this was, but it was impressive.

About halfway to Xiahe, we passed through Linxia and several other towns, noticing that the majority of the population were Hui (Chinese Muslims), recognizable by the white caps and hijaabs(head scarves). Although the term Hui can refer to several different Chinese Muslim groups, the majority by far are the group that lives in Northwestern China. Many westerners seem to think the only difference between the Hui and Han Chinese is their religion, but actually, the Hui have been a separate people with their own culture and history ever since they converted to Islam over a thousand years ago.

Passing through a little town around Linxia.

The mosques around here are built in Middle Eastern style, as opposed to other parts of China, where they are nearly indistinguishable from Chinese temples.

Glittering mosque domes in the farmlands. My picture doesn't do the scene justice.

As we approached Xiahe, the arid land gave way to mountainsides lush with vegetation. My ears had been popping slightly as I swallowed, and there was a puff of air as we opened a water bottle that had been closed since Lanzhou. As we ascended into the mountains, I noticed the road signs were written in both Tibetan, Chinese, and romanization of the Tibetan (not pinyin!)

Mountains near Xiahe (through the bus windows, alas).

Tibetan roadsign.

All of this was only a little glimpse of what would await us in Xiahe – come back in a few days if you want to find out!

Comments appreciated!

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