Silk Road 3:  A Taste of Tibet

Not strictly part of the Silk Road, Xiahe was a great detour.   Though not actually in Tibet, it is on the Tibetan Plateau and is populated by Tibetan people. If you can’t get to Tibet (and that requires permits, tours etc) go to Xiahe!   It has the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Lhasa and is set in a high and scenic valley.  

After an early start, we flew on one of the three weekly flights from Xi’an to Xiahe’s tiny airport.  We were going from 400 metres above sea level to 3000 metres – a significant change and one for which we needed some medication in the first couple of days.  We had decided to stay for four nights so that we had time for altitude adjustment, leisurely walks, touring the monastery and a trip to the high grasslands.

We were met by the owner of the Nirvana Hotel for our pre-arranged transfer to the hotel and driven through beautiful scenery to the hotel.  

Arriving in Xiahe (pronounced something like ‘Shah-her’) we immediately felt we were in another country – it didn’t feel like China. Not only was it a Tibetan town, with the houses, food and people looking very different from Han Chinese, but also it was a town of monks.  Monks everywhere you looked.  Monks on phones, monks in restaurants, monks using the ATM or just walking in groups.


Tibetan pilgrims come to Xiahe to walk the ‘Kora’.  The  Inner Kora is more than 3km long and people turn every prayer wheel along the way.  Most just walk, but we saw people prostrating themselves.  As well as the straight stretches, there are stupas (temples) that pilgrims go around multiple (maybe 50) times.

The Labrang Monastery is huge – really a town in iteself.  It is free to just wander around, which we did, but we also went on a tour (40 yuan) with an English speaking monk to find out more about the workings of the place.  He explained that there are different colleges such as Philosophy, Medicine, Astronomy and several Buddhism Colleges.

 He took us into temples and prayer halls and we finished the tour in time to see the 11.30 prayers.  First a few monks arrived….

..then a few more,

until there was a huge gathering of monks.
They threw off their boots and went inside.  No photographs were allowed inside but it was a mass of chanting monks, some serving food and some collecting and counting money given by pilgrims.

Intricate Yak Butter Sculptures are a Tibetan tradition – these were on display in the monastery.

The Printing Temple was unlike anything we had ever seen.  There was a large library of beautiful woodblocks and a monk, with head torch, would climb a ladder and select one.  Then, in a very labour intensive operation they would print it by placing a long paper and painting ink over the surface.  They would then turn it over and repeat the process and collect the papers.  We were amused to see their mobile phones next to them as they did it.

More monastery buildings

Little cells where monks spend time contemplating

The Outer Kora was a walk high above the town with fantastic views.  We took it slowly especially the first steep part.  At the top people circled the stupa and threw little pieces of prayer paper. We were amused to see a monk doing this wearing his iPad around his neck! 

Our day trip to Sangke Grasslands gave us some insight into the life of Tibetan nomads.  Our hotel arranged an English speaking driver and he took as way beyond the touristy fake yurts near the town.  Spectacular scenery as we went higher and further away from towns.  Yaks, marmots, wildflowers and snowy mountains.  Our driver dropped us for a short hike and met up with us further along. Beautiful, though definitely needed our warm jackets!

We visited a nomad family in their wooden winter house. The house was simple with an earth floor but they had electricity and a wood stove for heating.  We were given yak milk tea and a tsamba (barley) sweet which were both surprisingly good.  We were able to ask the woman questions through our driver. He explained that they would move higher to their tent with their yaks for the summer soon (this was early June).  He had also grown up as a nomad, in a tent all year, no winter houses in those days. 

Their possessions were kept in big chests and leather containers, ready to move to the yurt.

Xiahe had lots of tiny shops, mostly selling bread or yak yoghurt.  From personal experience the yoghurt was better than the bread.

The Nirvana Hotel in Xiahe was great.  Owned by Clary, a Dutch woman and Wandikhar, her Tibetan husband, it was a comfortable oasis in this remote town. It had colourful Tibetan decoration and had the warm feeling of a cabin.  The staff were friendly, the beds comfortable and the location great.  It was also the best place to eat in town and after one disastrous foray into another place we ate all our meals in their restaurant.  Even had a bottle of French wine one night!  There was a great range of food with Chinese, Tibetan and Western.  We tried some of each. Sometimes a toasted cheese sandwich is just what you crave in remote China.

After four days, just when we had adapted to the high altitude, we were off down to Lanzhou.