When we missed the last direct train of the season from Urumqi to Dunhuang, China, we didn’t realize that lady luck was actually smiling on us. We skipped the Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang, but landed smack in the middle of a crowd of Tibetan pilgrims visiting the Labrang Monastery for a cham (Tibetan monastic opera) in the town of Xiahe.
This was just the visual stimulation we were looking for!
The Tibetan Town of Xiahe (outside of Tibet)
Several hundred kilometers (and a world) away from Gansu's smoggy provincial capital of Lanzhou, Xiahe (pronounced roughly Sheah-huh – cough up an organ on the 2nd syllable) is a diverse little place featuring ethnic Tibetans (Buddhist), Han (Taoist, Buddhist and State Religion) and Hui (Muslim).
During our visit, the town's dramatic mountain backdrop and already impressive, colorful diversity were accented by throngs of visiting Tibetans from Gansu and the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, and Sichuan. We strolled around in an over-stimulated stupor the first day, taking in the expressive faces and colorful clothes of devoted pilgrims turning over 1000 prayer wheels along the kora (pilgrim path).
Labrang Monastery and the Tibetan Opera
Xiahe’s Labrang Monastery is an important center of the Gelugpa (or “yellow hat”) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Considered the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet, Labrang Monastery attracts its share of visitors and devotees.
On the day of the opera, of which we had absolutely no advance knowledge, we walked back from the monastery to our guest house. Along the way, we were drawn into a courtyard by groups of Tibetans milling around with a purpose. A few minutes later, we positioned ourselves on the perimeter of a makeshift amphitheater and managed enviable seats behind a line of monks. We were the only foreigners there; everyone kindly accommodated us, ensuring us a good view.
Though Tibetan opera takes some getting used to and could be described as an acquired taste for the western ear, the backdrop was incredible. Xiahe’s late-autumn blue skies and golden hills framed the performance area and the pilgrims that lined it.
The performance itself featured a glacial cadence pounded out on enormous drums and measured breaths wound through tongchen (Tibetan horns) whose shapes were vaguely reminiscent of Swiss alpenhorns and whose sound resembled that of yoiking, a form of Finnish throat singing. (OK, we realize this is a tortured description. We'll post a video one of these days.)
Catch the Diversity Before It Disappears
A traveler we met in Turkmenistan had told us that Xiahe is a must-go if we couldn’t make it to Tibet (we’re still toying with the idea of going later this spring). If our experience is any measure, Xiahe is a must-go even if you do make it to Tibet. Particularly with the festival and opera thrown in, Xiahe was a highlight of our travels.
Go soon though. We noticed a number of large tourist group hotels and shopping centers being slapped up as we walked down Xiahe’s main street. Tourism to the area – particularly in the form of platoons of Chinese – is rapidly on the rise. The local population is currently 50% Tibetan. However, as in Tibet, that number is rumored to be falling with the influx of ethnic Han seeking to cash in on the coming boom.
If you can’t make it to Xiahe or Tibet, check out our photos. Enjoy the color, enjoy the people. We sure did.
Note: Are you wondering why we’ve skipped over Xinjiang Province (Kashgar and Urumqi)? We were too excited about the photos from Xiahe not to share them immediately. Stories and impressions of Xinjiang are coming up next.
Photo Slideshow of Xiahe and a Tibetan Buddhist Opera (Cham)
Note: If you have don't have a high speed connection or want to read the captions, view the Xiahe and Tibetan Buddhist Opera (Cham) photo essay.
Xiahe Travel Information
- How to get there: Make your way to Lanzhou by train, bus or plane. Take a bus (2 PM) from Lanzhou to Xiahe (4-5 hours) The return bus from Xiahe to Lanzhou leaves at 7 AM. Buy your ticket the day before to make sure you get a seat.
- Where to sleep: Overseas Tibetan Hotel on the main street (77 Renmin Xijie) and close to the monastery is a great choice. It was one of the nicest rooms we had in all of China and a bargain at 80 Yuan ($12)/night for a beautiful double room with ensuite bathroom. Keep in mind that we arrived in the low season (November) and bargained hard. Starting price was 140Y and it may go up to 200 Y in the high season. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: (0914) 712 2642
- Where to eat: Quite a few places had already shut down for the season so our choices were somewhat limited. We ate most of our meals at Gesar Restaurant on the street perpendicular to main street, close to the entry of the monastery. Although it had an extensive menu in English, the place was usually filled with monks taking some morning soup or Tibetan pilgrims drinking tea by the fire. We loved the vegetarian mo mos (Tibetan-style dumplings) and stir-fried greens. Give the tree bark tea a skip. Staff are very friendly. Other good bets are Nomad Restaurant (located upstairs near Gesar) for local specialties and PS Café for a pizza fix (on main street).
- What to do: Follow the flow of Tibetan pilgrims and walk the 3-kilometer kora (pilgrim path). While it’s possible to buy tickets to visit the inside and rooftop of Gongtang Chorten, some of the monks are not happy about this arrangement. We got our tickets torn up by an angry monk and some other tourists reported something similar. Enjoy this stupa from the outside and consider skipping the visit inside.