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...

Comments are always appreciated...

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The young Tibetan men look like ninja cowboys. I bet they could so kick A**!


They should so use yak butter as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef!


Heheh...I can just see Chairman Kaga unfurling a huge plate of yak buttery goodness...


Hi Pravit,

Terrific post! I enjoyed reading it. More post, please...



The fermented whole grain looked very much like barley to me. Chinese's barley are bigger grain and the one I had was served in a sweet broth and not fermented. I got some and will show them to you when you come home. The pixs are great, sure like to be there too! MOM


Hello Pravit/Rebecca,

I visited Xiahe some years ago and climbed a mountain I thought was not possible for me to climb. I have to give a presentation on a "major achievement in my life" and this mountain adventure is what I present on. Please could I have permission to use two or three photos from your blog for this?
Many thanks and I think your blog on China and the photos are superb.



Hi aaron,

Of course you can use my photos and I'm very glad to hear you liked the blog. If you are going to post this presentation online I would also be curious in hearing about your adventure :)



Thanks a lot Pravit.

Basically I saw a mountain I wanted to climb and did't think it would be possible for me. But I just set off anyway and took it step by step. And hey presto did it.



เจ๋งไปเลยพี่ประวิทย์ พี่เรียนปรินส์รอยด้วยเหรอ โอ่งคงเป็นรุ่นน้อง ปีหน้าตั้งใจจะไปอินเดียเหนือ อวยพรน้องด้วยนะคับ


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