Xiahe (夏河; Xiàhé; Tibetan: Labrang) is an ethnically-Tibetan town in Gansu Province, China.
The town lies along one main street parallel to the Daxia River. The Chinese section (commercial) lies to the eastern end of the road and the Tibetan section lies at the western end. In between lies the monastery.
Xiahe has developed along with the influx of visitors. Some old timers may bemoan that it has lost its off-the-beaten-path charm, but Xiahe is still far from being overrun with hawkers, karaoke or foot massage joints as have many other attractions in China.
Can you go? Restrictions for foreign visitors
Due the importance of the Monestary to Tibetans the town is occasionaly off limits for foreigners if the authorities feel trouble is brewing. Around Tibetan holidays the situation may be a little volatile. Xiahe has been open the whole of 2014 and 2015.
Xiahe Bus Station is about 1.5km away from the entrance to the monastery and the main concentration of guesthouses. Turn right when you walk out bus stations front door.
- From Lanzhou – Three morning buses and two afternoon buses(6:30AM, 7:30AM, 08.30 AM and 2:00PM, 3:00 PM) leave from Lanzhou Nanzhan (Lanzhou South Bus Terminal). Trip takes 3 and a half hours (¥76). Half hourly buses go to Linxia in 2 hours. From there you can catch one of the frequent buses onward to Xiahe (¥30).
- From Linxia – One every 30mins leave during daylight hours, arriving in Xiahe about 2 hours later.(¥30)
- From Langmusi – Two buses a day leaving at 6 AM and 2 PM, takes 4 hours (¥71) (updated Jan 2016).
- Tongren – Two buses per day leaving at 8 AM and 2 PM (¥26.5). Takes 3 very scenic hours. Update Aug 2013: Only the 8am bus was available.
The town is compact and most guesthouses cluster near the monastery, about 10mins walk from the bus station.
Many taxis run up and down the main street. The price should be ¥2 per person if you stay on the main road, no matter the distance. If you turn the corner, the price goes up, depending on your distance. If you take up more than one seat with your bags then pay for however many seats you use.
For most travelers, Labrang Monastery will keep them occupied for couple of days or more. There is graceful landscape and colorful people. The surrounding region harbors a few worthwhile day-trip destinations, such as the Sangke and Ganjia grasslands. .
Literally the centre of town, the monastery is the main focus for visitors and residents alike with all social and commercial activity deriving from it. The Monastery was established in 1709 and expanded greatly in following centuries to become one of the six great monasteries of the Gelukpa sect (Yellow Hat) of Tibetan Buddhism. The resident monks wear maroon robes, black UGG-style boots and shaggy yellow Mohawk shaped hats, sometimes pitched to impressive heights.
Despite its venerable history, many of the buildings and religious artefacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. What you see now was built during the late 1980s or even more recently. The buildings construction differs from others in the region, being built with stone blocks rather than rammed earth, but the whitewashed multiple-level square designs follow the typical style of Tibetan monastic buildings.
It'd be easy to spend days meandering about the alleys between monks quarters and prayer halls, or follow pilgrims spinning prayer wheels on a loop around the Kora. Despite all the tickets and tours, it's still an active Monastery and you may chance upon the monks engaged in their religious activities.
There are few English signs (except for the ubiquitous No Photo, Ticket needed), making it somewhat beguiling to understand what you are looking at. An English tour leaves from the ticket office at 10:15AM and 3:15PM. Though the guide provides decent explanations as they take you though the halls, some may feel the experience is a bit rushed. As you would expect, no photos are allowed inside buildings and the monks outside are camera shy when conducting a ceremony.
You can explore most of the grounds freely but a ticket is needed to enter some of the smaller chapels (¥10) or the main halls (¥60), whether you join the tour or not. Even with a ticket in hand the halls may be closed or off limits while a ceremony is being conducted. If you prefer to try before you buy, it's not difficult to blunder in for a look without anyone asking for a ticket.
Some places worth seeking out include;
- Gongtang Chorten, (Near the river). A newly built golden topped Chorten that you can climb. ¥20.
- Man Jus'ri Temple, (The rear of the courtyard behind the ticket office). Definitely the most impressive hall with several enormous, elaborately decorated, Buddha statues along the rear wall and a pair of small rooms behind. Pilgrims make a clockwise circuit, stopping to make monetary offerings to brightly coloured yak-butter sculptures and pray to silver Chortens containing living Buddhas. At times the hall may reverberate with chanting monks. ¥60.
- Prayer Wheels. Lining about half of the minor Kora are brightly painted wooden drums, spun by an endless procession of mainly elderly pilgrims hoping their efforts will be rewarded in the next life. On each corner is a small room housing huge lumbering wheels that ring a bell with each rotation.
- Thangka sunning Terrace, (Over the river on the hillside). A flat stone slope on the hillside where a giant Thangka is rolled out during the Tibetan New year. The rest of the time its a nice place to sit and get an overview of the Monastery. Free.
Day trips outside town
A few other worthwhile sights lay within a 20km radius. Your only transport options are to hire a taxi from Xiahe for about ¥400 per vehicle, per day (5-8 hours round trip) or bicycle. Adventurous travellers can take the early morning bus to Tongren/Repcon (同仁) and get off at Ganjia Town (Ganjia Xiang – 甘加乡). From there it would be at least a 10-12 kilometre round trip hike to Bajiao Cheng. You would need to get back to Ganjia town by lunch time to get the bus coming from Xining or Tongren, or catch a motorcycle, taxi, or tractor back to Xiahe.
You can book tours in a lot of hostels or hotels. If you need a tibetian english speeking guide, you can also directly contact Sonam (phone: +86 153 93692250). He can guide you to Tongren, Langmusi Snowy Mountains, Qinghai-Lake or on a Tour to Langmusi-Songpan-Chengdu. The Nirvana Hotel also offers tours and day trips to the surrounding areas.
- Sangke grasslands; wonderful grasslands with many nomad tents and herds of yaks and sheep. 12 km outside Xiahe is Sangke town, where most people who rent a bike go to. There is nothing to see in the town, you really need to go INTO the grasslands to enjoy the wonderful views.
- Ancient town of Bajiao (Bajiao Cheng - 八角城). A walled village that was originally built in the Han Dynasty (around 2000 years ago). Bajiao Cheng is still inhabited today. ¥10.
- Ganjia Grasslands. The whole region is covered in grasslands during the summer months and makes an enjoyable place to see some wide open spaces.
- White Rock Cliffs (Bai Shi Ya - 白石崖), (Northern end of the valley). As you get closer to Bajiao Cheng, you won't be able to miss the cliffs high up in front of you. A small monastery sits right at the foot of the White Rock Cliffs. There is a small village together with the monastery.
- Darzong Lake (Da’erzong Hu - 达尔宗湖). A highland lake located at just above 3,000 meters (10,000 ft.). Forested mountains surrounding the lake on almost all sides and forests all around. A taxi round trip (2-3 hours) costs around ¥100 or take a bus going to Linxia (临夏) or Hezuo （合作）and get off 20km (about half an hour) down the highway when you see a big sign on the right side of the road. Tell the driver that you want to go to Darzong Lake and he should let you know when you arrive at the turnoff. From there walk about an hour along the dirt road on the left. You will be charged a ¥10 entrance fee as you pass through the only Tibetan village along the road. Catch another bus from the highway back to town for ¥5-¥10.
- Labrang Redrock International Youth Hostel A typical YHA hostel with warm, chunky wooden interior. The bunk beds appear to have a a reading lamp on the wall in the middle of the bed, but no bulbs. Only the lower bunks have a storage locker at one end though they are spacious. Padlocks for the lockers can be rented from reception. You may wish there was a softer mattress under you.The bathrooms are not clean and the smell of the toilets leaves no doubt that it is shared. The communal area downstairs has free wifi and a long line at the shared computer. Located about 300m from the entrance of the monastery, take the last street left.
- Tara Guesthouse on the main street near the Labrang monastery. Dorm rooms, private rooms, all with shared bath rooms. English spoken, great food down stairs in the restaurant and for a spot of people watching. Tibetans!.
- Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant & Bar. Ya Ge Tang 247, tel: 0941-7181702, www.nirvana-hotel.net. Parallel to the main street, next to the river. Extremely clean rooms, soft and comfortable mattresses. All rooms have clean private bathrooms. Excellent English speaking service, free wifi. Highly recommended. Owned by a local Tibetan man and his Dutch wife. ¥300
- White Stupa Hote Across from Tara Guesthouse" phone +86 941 7122866 Rooms are kind of clean and big, paint on the ceiling might be overly cracked, and showers are not working that great.
- Labrang Baoma Hotel. Doubles with en-suite bathrooms cost ¥300 (according to season and bargaining skills)Large rooms. Hot water in evenings for cheaper rooms.
- Laboleng Wangfu Hotel 9 Renmin Lu.turn right after exiting the bus station, the hotel is opposite the post office (0941)7121186 Double 380 RMB Decent Chinese middle class hotel, double room was comfortable and clean. The only issue was the lack of hot water on the second day (possibly a combination of solar water heaters on a rainy day and a very busy hotel during Chinese National holiday). Price quoted during Chinese National holiday, discounts should be possible during off-season.
- Hike in the hills. take a trek for a nice view over the town or the distant snowy peaks while enjoying the peace and tranquillity, disturbed only by occasional wayward yak. The forest behind the Thangka sunning terrace may look inviting but the amount of rubbish covering the ground detracts greatly. A better option is to follow the canal at the Monastery's entrance uphill and head along the dry floodway till you find a suitable point to ascend the hillside.
- Nomad Travel. Do book a tour in Xiahe with this excellent tour company. They offer a wide variety of tours in and around Xiahe. Their guides are well informed. Company's service is excellent. Highly recommended. Their office is in the Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant & Bar, parallel to Xiahe's main street. They have an informative website, google "Nomad Travel Xiahe"
There are dozens of shops along Renmin XiLu selling locally made crafts including colourful textiles, silver jewellery, Tibetan hats and fake antiques. Bargaining is a must. Prices quoted by shop-keepers for tat made in Thailand (see all the 'Tibetan' jewellery and items in Bangkok's wholesale markets) are ridiculously high. Bargaining to reasonable prices (¥300 - 400 for a small-ish statue) are met with pulled faces.
One product you should not buy are the many furs for sale. Some clothing with fur trim might may be fake but the hides of entire animals are the real thing. Many of the skins are poached and may be of endangered species. Asia's wildlife is quickly disappearing as China's appetite for illegal animal products increases. Please don't contribute to this crisis.
- Norlha, . Nice shop with a wonderful selection of fabrics made from Yak wool (khullu), all made by hand, modern designs. Shop is opposite the praying wheels, just off Renmin Xi Jie, next to Late Sparkie and Gesar Restaurant. 300-3000.
Momo are steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetable.
Most of the eating options are clustered within a 100m radius of where Renmin XiJie enters the Monastery. Most of their menus are indistinguishable from the one next door, serving tolerable Chinese dishes and the ubiquitous Tibetan Momo. A wider search will win adventurous taste buds more authentic local dishes such as Tsampa (barley flour and Yak butter ball) or JueNia Fan (rice with a deliciously sweet local root). More circumspect travellers can stick to western food the well-trodden backpacker places.
- Gesar Restaurant On the corner of Renmin XiLu in front of the prayer wheels mains ¥7-20, Yak tea ¥4 One of the original, slightly grubby, places that's barely changed in years. The English menu has a mix of Chinese and Tibetan dishes, plus a few approximations of western treats. Worth trying is the Tsampa, JueMa Fan and capichino style Yak butter tea. Everything is made from scratch so wait times is very lengthy, but the Tibetan style benches around the stove make a comfortable and warm place to watch the procession of pilgrims spinning prayer wheel over the road.
- Nomad Restaurant (upstairs in the building opp Tara Guesthouse, Ren Min XiLu) Nomad has a great selection of Tibetan dishes, as well as Chinese and Western choices. Very tasty food and generous portions. Also a good place to sit and watch the happenings down below. Popular with travellers and locals. No English spoken.
- Late Sparkie 2 floors above Gesar, ¥14 for the pot and ¥2-10 for each plate of meat or vegetable. Oddly named Sichuan Hotpot place with individual pots and a selection of goat and vegetables to put in the spicy broth.
- Snowy Mountain Cafe on Renmin XiJie next to the Overseas Tibetan Hotel on the 2nd floor. Authentic Western food and local favorites. Beginning of May 2013 appears closed, looks as if it has been closed for some time. Offering yak burger with french fries. Real bread,meat, and potato.
- Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant & Bar Ya Ge Tang 247 parallel to Xiahe's main street, close to the monastery.phone= 0941-7181702 Nirvana Restaurant & Bar is by far the most excellent restaurant in Xiahe. The restaurant is owned by a Tibetan man and his Dutch wife. The food is devine, the service is great, and the ambiance pleasant. Nirvana restaurant offers a wide variety of Tibetan, Western and Chinese food. Price is not high. The bar is stocked with many spirits, not available anywhere else in Xiahe. And the coffee machine serves superb coffee. Definately THE place to visit when in Xiahe. Free wifi. Website: www.nirvana-hotel.net
- Tara Restaurant & Guest House ( 268 Ren Min XiLu, the very corner to the monastery's entrance) The lovely Tibetan owner Tsering speaks fluent English, and will also help you with any travel information, talk about his Tibetan culture, arrange tickets for free (usually to nice people not arrogant) etc . Tara has a great selection of Tibetan dishes & pictorial Western text menu (as well as Chinese and Western). The prices are fair unlike some other places when the price usually doubles for foreigners. It's also an excellent place to sip tea ( also, Tara has a working coffee machine) and watch the main entrance to the Labrang monastery, from its large corner windows. The place is very popular with Tibetan pilgrims from all around the province to have meal after prayers (so it can get quite busy at time).
- Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant & Bar has a wide variety of liqueurs and spirits, not available anywhere else in Xiahe. As close to a western style bar as it can get. The coffee machine serves superb coffee. The beer is cold. Nirvana's ambiance is pleasant, service is great, good music.
Outside the main tourist season there is sometimes no running water and electricity during the day. Currently, electricity, running water, and transportation are available without problems or limitations.
The town has a resident goat that answers to the name 'Nigel'. He roams around the monastery complex and the main street in town. He is generally happy to have his photo taken, but be sure not to get too close as he may lash out with a headbutt. If you are invading his personal space, the telltale sign is that he bears his teeth; which many tourists mistake for an obliging smile. Do not be fooled.
- Lanzhou – The capital of Gansu.
- Tongren – A larger town with a smaller Monastery famous for its Thangka artists.
- Langmusi – A small Tibetan town on the Gansu/Sichuan border with a pair of Monasteries amid grasslands and mountains. One bus per day at 7:40am (as of Dec 2014), takes 3,5 - 4 hours
- Xining – The capital city of Qing Hai Province. The bus leaves at 6:10 AM and takes 6 hours.
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