The Xiahe loop takes you through a diverse range of cultures, religions and landscapes within a week (give or take), from the Buddhist monasteries and grasslands of the Tibetan plateau to grand mosques; and from red rocky mountains and snow capped peaks to the multicultural urban centres of Lanzhou and Xining.
The Xiahe loop starts in Lanzhou, the lively capital of Gansu province, through small Muslim Chinese villages and up to the Tibetan plateau to Xiahe and the enormous Labrang Monstery at almost 3000m. From here, you wind through yak-filled grasslands and a red rocky landscape that looks like Utah or Mars to Tongren, the birthplace of thangka art, and finish at the grand mosques of Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. Of course, you could do this loop in the other direction, depending on where you’re coming from. We met only a handful of tourists on the entire loop.
Much of this loop is through the historical Tibetan province of Amdo, which now overlays much of Qinghai province as well as Gansu province. For more information on Tibetan geography visit our article on Kham, Tibet or go to www.tibetpedia.com. It also covers part of the ancient Silk Road, which connected China to Central Asia and Europe for thousands of years.
Lanzhou – 1 day itinerary
Lanzhou is a bustling, smoggy metropolis that straddles the mighty Yellow River. It was once reportedly the ‘world’s most polluted city’, however the closure of polluting factories and massive government investment has seen Lanzhou regenerated to a lively city worthy of a stopover for its famous beef noodles, antiques market, night food markets and a half day hike around Baitashan, as well as incredibly friendly locals.
With just one full day in Lanzhou and a lot to see, we hiked up Baitashan Park, the (mostly) forested hills that look over Lanzhou and the Yellow River. The walk is easy along a stairway and rises only about 100m, but Lanzhou’s dry heat can be oppressive.
The main entrance to Baitashan is right near Zhongdian bridge, however we entered through a small path to the west near our hostel. We explored a few of the temples and lookouts, which give a cool view of Lanzhou and the Yellow River.
We stopped at a tea house in the forest near the top of the park. Our green tea was served in a packet with goji berries, various other dried berries and roots and copious amounts of rock sugar, along with a multi-liter thermos. Many of the other Chinese guests seemed to bring their own picnic and snacks and camp out for the day.
We took the main path down the hill and crossed Zhongdian Bridge, famous as it was the first permanent bridge ever built across the Yellow River in 1907-09. Looking for a spot for lunch, we found an old, winding pedestrian street full of hole-in-the-wall Muslim Chinese restaurants and bakeries.
From here we walked to the nearby antiques market, set in a beautiful old courtyard inside a temple. The little stalls here are filled with treasures from Tibet, Mao memorabilia, calligraphy sets, jade and vintage sunglasses.
We then walked a few blocks to the night food markets on Zhengning Road. As you enter the night markets, you are met with the smells of frying meat and freshly baked bread, the shouts of hawkers calling you to their stalls, and swept away by the throngs of people jostling for their next snack in the narrow street. Every second stall seemed to sell sheep head skeletons. Many of the stalls have seating out the back where you can stop to eat, drink a cool beer and observe the chaos of the street markets.
We tried purple sticky rice, vegetable fried noodles, a stuffed shallot and egg pancake and niu nai lao zao – milk with fermented rice and toppings such as sultanas and peanuts. There were also many meat options such as barbecued meat skewers and rou jia mo – the ‘Chinese hamburger’.
The following morning, we tried the famous Lanzhou beef noodles at Alamber, a well-known local restaurant near our hostel. It was packed with people slurping down their soup. The restaurant didn’t seem to have a menu, so we just asked the waiter at the front counter for two niu rou mian – beef noodle soup. She gave us two tickets, and we walked around to different stations where they made various dishes until we found the one serving what we were after. The noodles were delicious and lived up to the hype.
Logistics – where to stay and eat, and onward travel
We left the following morning, taking the bus from Lanzhou South Bus Station to Xiahe, which took under 3 hours, as our bus driver overtook everything in sight. On the way to Xiahe, you pass many small Muslim villages and intricate mosques, particularly in Linxia.
Many hostels in Lanzhou will not accept foreigners. We stayed at Xinbada Hostel, which was a decent place to stay for a couple of nights, although it feels more like you are crashing at a random guy’s apartment, with some of his friends also sleeping in the dorms, rather than at an establishment. Given the lack of options for foreigners in Lanzhou, particularly affordable ones, Xinbada Hostel was not a bad choice.
Xiahe and Labrang Monastery
At almost 3000m high on the Tibetan plateau, Xiahe is home to the famous Labrang Monastery, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The streets are filled with monks in saffron robes, and Tibetan pilgrims and locals, the men wearing their one shouldered robes and cowboy hats and the women with braided hair and elegant clothes.
The town is dotted with small trucks selling fresh yak yoghurt. Just off the main street leading to the monastery you will find undercover markets selling Tibetan jewellery, monks’ robes and boots and saddles. In one, we even found a Tibetan billiard bar in the corner.
Labrang Monastery Labrang Monastery (བླ་བྲང་དགོན་པ།) is a town in itself, comprised of many temples, pagodas and monks’ quarters, and enclosed by a 3.5km circuit of prayer wheels – the longest stretch of prayer wheels in the world.
Built in 1709, the monastery is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelukpa sect (yellow hat) of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery has experienced conflict over the centuries, in particular riots and conflict between Tibetans and the Chinese Muslim Ma population from 1917 to 1949 (see this article link to http://tibetpedia.com/amdo-tibet/labrang-monastery/). As with the majority of Tibetan temples, Labrang Monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (Pommaret 2003), and rebuilt in the 1980s. Wandering around the monastery, you cannot detect such a recent history of upheaval.
The streets are filled with monks of all ages, with Labrang housing the largest population of monks outside the TAR, with 1,500 calling it home. Outside many of the temples and the Golden Pagoda, you will see Tibetans prostrating themselves in prayer, using specifically designed flat wooden blocks strapped to their hands to slide along the ground and sometimes knee pads to facilitate rapid prostration. Numerous Tibetan pilgrims circumbabulate the monastery clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels, chanting and stopping to touch their heads against faintly inscripted mani stones in the walls.
We spent a day exploring the various temples independently, listening to the chanting of monks and walking around the grounds. We climbed the Golden Pagoda (20 yuan entry), which gives a great view of the monastery from the top floor. The bottom floor of the pagoda is impressive, with several large Buddha sculptures, one with several faces surrounded by hundreds of miniature Buddhas lining the wall, the smell of yak butter candles, and a few friendly monks in a corner, chatting and checking tickets.
We explored the Sangke Grasslands, which are about 10km from Xiahe. The expansive grasslands stretch for miles along the plateau, endless dull green with very few trees and some yaks and horses scattered about. We took a local shared minivan to Sangke, and walked out of town for a couple of kilometers to the grasslands. On the way, we stopped at a little teahouse beside the road. You can see the grasslands from town because a wooden tourist boardwalk has been constructed up a hill. This is free to use, and there are locals offering horse rides at the top. We walked past this, down the hill again and along the main road, and took the next right along a road with a few houses. We didn’t have a destination in mind, so we turned around when we were near the mountains and saw a storm rolling in.
The minivans leave from a car park beside the bridge at the furthest end of the monastery (the third bridge if you are walking from Yangkor Tibetan Guesthouse), and costs 5 yuan. There is no sign or official stop, but you will see the minivans with taxi signs on their roof, just ask if they are going to Sangke. The driver will wait for the minivan to fill up before leaving, which only took a few minutes with locals getting a ride back after visiting the monastery or town. We managed to squeeze 11 people into our 7 seater van.
You can also visit the Ganjia Grasslands (pronounced Ganja), however we decided to skip this as they are further away and it does not seem they are public transport accessible, so you might need to negotiate a taxi for half a day. The Sangke Grasslands were pretty and easily accessible from Xiahe, although not an essential trip if you have seen grasslands on the Tibetan plateau elsewhere.
Logistics – where to stay and eat, and onward travel
We stayed at Yangkor Tibetan Homestay, a short walk from Labrang Monastery. It is run by a friendly Tibetan man who makes great Tibetan food including a freshly baked yak and potato pie.
We would recommend eating at Nomad Restaurant, which is across the road from Labrang Monastery and is packed with monks and local Tibetans. Here you can get a cup of yak butter tea or Lhasa sweet tea for 6 yuan, along with yak momos and thukpa soup, and Chinese dishes such as fried greens and tofu. We also stumbled across a Western-style cafe that serves coffee, cakes and a good vegetarian burger and tasty cauliflower curry (although a bit pricier than local food). Walking towards the monastery, turn right after Nirvana Restaurant and walk uphill, it will be on your right.
For onward travel, we took the bus from Xiahe bus station to Tongren, which leaves daily at 8am and 2pm. This trip took us about 3 hours, winding along country roads through stunning scenery. If you don’t have time to visit the grasslands, you will have a wonderful view of them on the drive, before the scenery suddenly turns to dramatic red rock. Note that the bus station is in the Chinese commercial section of town, which has a different vibe to the area around the monastery.