Xiahe: Exploring a Tibetan Monastary

Xiahe: Labrang Monastery

Outer Kora of Xiahe

I left Beijing in perhaps the most stressful way possible. I was a crabby-pants because I had said goodbye to my parents that morning, I got to the train station far later then I should have and it was an insane chaotic scene of crowds and I just barely got to my train on time. I went to sleep almost immediately and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the rice paddies on Shaanxi. I took a bus from Lanzhou to Xiahe, I knew I was in a different world, with mosques and Tibetan stupas rising out of every village we passed. The rolling hills grew into solid mountains and multi-colored prayer flags could be glimpsed on peaks. Xiahe is in China, but as it is historically Tibetan and largely populated by minorities it is apart of a autonomous prefecture which means the laws are a bit different. The area was actually closed to foreigners until 2 years ago and could close again at any point.

terraced mountains of China. Gansu

prayer flags in china

My bus arrived at Xiahe in late afternoon and at the beginning of a rain storm, but I still grabbed my rain coat and ran over to glimpse the monastery and to have my first chance to explore a Tibetan area. Labrang Monastery was once home to 4000 monks, those numbers were drastically and brutally reduced in past years but it has been in the process of rebuilding and is now home to 1800 monks. The small town is filled with monks, pilgrims, Tibetans, muslims, Chinese tourists, and travelers.

Monks of Labrang

One of the most interesting things to do it to walk the Kora. Walking the kora is to walk the circumference of the monastery (30 minutes). Its lined with prayer wheels and Tibetan pilgrims and monks spin the wheels while praying. Kora literally translates to circumambulation or making a revolution. It can refer to the process of walking around a sacred site, like a monastery or a mountain, or it can also refer to entire pilgrimage. Some Tibetans complete the Kora by walking two steps, prostrating themselves on the ground, then rising to take a few more steps before bowing down again. Walking the kora gave a sense of the magnitude of the monastery and to witness the depth of these people’s faith.
Tibetans walking the Kora
Its also possible to hike the outer Kora, which is a fairly short hike in the mountains on one side of the monastery. The lonely planet gave a very loose description of how to find the trail head which led to me wandering around a Tibetan village cluelessly for awhile. I finally found what looked like the trail and these two 10yo monks sat on a bench watching me. Whenever I started too low they would yell “ay-ah” to get my attention and then wave me further up. Finally I got going and once I started climbing I remembered how much fun hiking at a high elevation is, also, your skin burns like crazy. I contemplated these problems for about 10 minutes, then I stopped because it was so beautiful.
Outer Kora of Labrang
I love hiking because I always feel its impossible to be unhappy on top of a mountain. When you look and see the world below you, perspective shifts and realigns. I could see crimson and saffron robes dotting the mountains ahead of my, there were goats and yaks grazing, hawks circled overhead and prayer flags were everywhere I looked. Unfortunately I hiked towards the end of the day and I was pretty determined not to be on top the mountain alone in the dark, so I didn’t have much time.
I don’t want to write cheesy things about the emotions I felt, but it was beautiful and so good for the soul. Exploring Tibetan areas was one of my better travel decisions I think.
I did do an English tour of the monastery, where a strange monk led us to two temples. One of them was filled with artwork created out of yak butter. The guide then basically told we could walk around alone and figure it out for ourselves. We were able to witness one ceremony that involved all the monks gathering together, chanting and blowing trumpets. Unfortunately since our guide ditched us we really didn’t know what was going on.
Yak Butter Artwork
Labrang Xiahe
I also did a bike ride out to the grasslands that I’ll write more about later because it was SO amazing it needs to own post.
In Xiahe I didn’t connect with any other travelers, but I spent a lot of time walking and exploring the area. There was almost a circus of Tibetan goods for sale along the street, along with a strange amount of goats wandering around which confused me. It was quiet and peaceful place and great was to segue my trip from Beijing to the Tibetan areas
Labrang Xiahe

Tibetan Stupa in Xiahe

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4 responses to “Xiahe: Exploring a Tibetan Monastary

  1. Great monastery, it must be so cool to be able to explore places that were closed off to foreigners just recently, and could be closed again! I would love to walk the kora

    • Thanks! I don’t agree with the politics but it does make me want to be sure to see everything while I can. Walking the Kora was such a peaceful experience

  2. Pingback: Beijing: What I loved most | Mountains and Passports·

  3. I remember when we were in Asia w saw so many temples in each place we went to, that at some point we really were kind of “templed-out”. We’ve never experienced walking the Kora though, that must be something unique indeed 🙂

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