My visit to China’s fabled “Shangri-La” (more on that next time) last week has made me reflect about my June visit to Labrang Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and made me realize how special it was. Remote, out of the way, certainly off the beaten path – for now – Labrang Monastery occupies a large part of the town the Chinese call Xiahe. Town and monastery seem integrated and symbiotic. The shops in town sell necessities to the monks and to the townsfolk; few cater to tourists. Visit Labrang/Xiahe now, before the tourist hordes arrive.
To Get off the Path, You Must Go Far
This is becoming a mantra of mine: if you really want to go somewhere beautiful that feels like it hasn’t been beaten down by millions of tourist boots, you have to go far.
Go far we did. Our trip to Labrang involved a 3+-hour flight from Shanghai to Gansu Province’s capital, Lanzhou, a huge detour due to closed roads and a mountain road that had we been less exhausted would have left us terrified, and a midnight arrival to our lodging in Xiahe. It felt like we’d traveled to another planet. And when the sun came up at nearly 3,000 meters over crystal blue skies, with the sounds of local Tibetans making their way to the monastery to make the 3-kilometer circumambulatory walk while praying at dawn, it seemed indeed like we’d left China and landed on Planet Tibet.
But We’re Not in Tibet
Semantics. Labrang Monastery sits within Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The region is technically part of Amdo, the far-east region of Greater Tibet. “Tibet”, as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region within China, is now defined by borders that slice through traditionally Tibetan regions. Just because you’re not in “Tibet”, doesn’t mean you can’t experience Tibetan lifestyle, religion and culture.
And luckily for us, led by our local Tibetan guide, we did just that. We walked with locals around the kora, praying and pushing prayer wheels as we made our way around the monastery. We toured the monastery grounds, watching novice monks chant as they did morning exercises and we even paid a dawn visit to the main assembly hall to hear the monks praying within. We ate Tibetan staples such as barley-flour tsampa and our guide even made us yak-butter tea that only a few of our group could choke down.
Feeling Like It’s All Yours
One of the best aspects of this trip was the sense we got of being tourists in a place where not many go. Of course we were not the first or the last to visit the area – the large airport being built in Xiahe and the tourist hotels that are going up are testament to this. But as yet, it is not much visited. There are few restaurants, a handful of inns and virtually no kitschy shops.
In this way, we felt like we’d tasted the real Tibet.
- Labrang Monastery is in Xiahe, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China.
- Stay: Try the Tibetan Overseas Hotel.
- Eat: As we did – every meal at the Nomad Café serving delicious Tibetan and Chinese local dishes.