The Xiahe Loop Part II – Tongren, Wutun and Xining

In Part I of our blog on the Xiahe loop, we travelled from Lanzhou to Xiahe to explore Labrang Monastery on the Tibetan plateau. In Part II we travel through the Tibetan towns of Tongren and Wutun to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province.

Tóngrén, or Rebkong (རེབ་གོང་།) in Tibetan, is a town famous for its monasteries and Buddhist art, thangka. The town was established in 1301 around Longwu Monastery, both of which were expanded during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Tongren is ethnically and culturally mixed, with Han and Muslim Chinese populations, but the area around the monastery is Tibetan, with small shops selling monks robes, yak yoghurt and Buddhist paraphernalia, and many Tibetan pilgrims visiting the monastery. 

Longwu Monastery (or Rongwo Monastery), first belonged to the Sykya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but was later converted to the Gelug sect. Although not as large as Labrang, Longwu Monastery is like a small town, and is home to around 600 monks. It is comprised of several temples, pagodas and a busy wooden monks’ kitchen, all built in beautiful Tibetan architecture and colours. The ‘yard of debating Buddhism’ is impressive, with a large courtyard and view of the mountains. When we visited, red cushions and the monks’ yellow mohawk-shaped fringed hats were scattered around the yard, suggesting a session had just finished.

As with most Tibetan cultural heritage, most if not all of the monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and rebuilt in the 1980s. We felt the 60 yuan entrance fee was very worth it to see an authentic and lively monastery, and we did not see any other tourists, just many monks and pilgrims praying and spinning prayer wheels. Although it was late May, it snowed overnight on the mountain around town, making our visit extra beautiful. Public bus 3 winds through town to Longwu Monastery if you don’t feel like walking.

Of the few hotels in Tongren, many will not accept foreigners likely due to political instability. A few of the hotels on the MapsMe app near the bus station no longer exist (e.g. Education Hotel, Telecom Hotel). It took us about half an hour to find a hotel. We ended up staying at Rebgong Norbang Travel Inn, which was nice enough, although it cost 168 yuan per night for a room and did not have dorms. You might have better luck in the area around Longwu Monastery. 

Near our hotel we found a very good Muslim restaurant called Ma Jin Long, which we later discovered is a chain (or at least there is also one in Xining). This is a pay by weight restaurant where you pick your own vegetables from a large cabinet, and they cook it in a tasty broth that tastes a bit like laksa. In our various trips to MJL, a big bowl of soup cost between 13 and 25 yuan (a few Aussie dollars), depending on how much you take.

Buses leave frequently from the Tongren bus station to Xining bus station, and costs 80 yuan per person. 

Wutun is a Tibetan village about 8km from Tongren, and is famous for producing some of the world’s best thangka art – detailed Buddhist scroll paintings. There are two parts to Wutun Si Monastery – the upper and lower temples, which are about 10 minutes apart on foot. Lower Wutun Si is larger and easily noticeable for its enormous gold Buddha statue atop a colourful pagoda surrounded by large white pagodas. The temple complex has a few different prayer halls, and has a long line of prayer wheels outside. 

On the walk to Lower Wutun Si, you pass several thangka art shops. You can watch the very talented artists paint a thangka, which can take a few months to a few years to finish, depending on the size and detail. A small thangka may sell for 1000 yuan or less, whereas a large one can fetch tens of thousands of yuan. On the road a monk in an SUV stopped beside us, smiling and gesturing that there was larger thangka up ahead. We soon found what he was referring to – a two-story thangka gallery containing some of the most spectacular art we have ever seen. The monk from the SUV was there, and it seemed he was quite a famous artist from the information booklet he gave us. 

On the top floor, the entire four walls are covered with an enormous thangka scroll that would have taken many years to complete.

Upper Wutun Si is much smaller and just off the main road back towards Tongren. A friendly young monk greeted us and unlocked the main pagoda so we could look inside, which contained the obligatory shrine with a large golden Buddha surrounded by smaller golden statues. The walls on either side contained hundreds of miniature Buddha statues, and the roof was beautifully decorated with colour. In our experience, Wutun was the town of the friendly monks.

We took public bus 1 to Wutun from Tongren, which only costs a few yuan. They seem to run quite frequently.

The city of Xining, with its mosques and many concrete towers, feels a world away from the towns on the Tibetan plateau. Yet it also feels different to many other Chinese cities we have been to, with its strong Muslim Chinese culture. Many look Central Asian, with the men wearing delicate songkok hats and the women in black velvet headscarves, although you will also see Tibetan monks walking around and Han Chinese. The city is not built for tourism or foreigners, making Xining an interesting place to spend a few days exploring the mix of cultures. 

We had dinner at restaurant on Dongguan Da Jie (street), which is full of Muslim restaurants selling beef noodle soup. We wandered the alleyways behind Dongguan Great Mosque, which were filled with people and street vendors selling fruit, vegetable and tea. 

Because the whole of China runs on Beijing time, the sun doesn’t set in Xining, which is quite far west, until almost 9pm. After dinner we visited Dongguan Great Mosque. The exterior is enormous and like many Chinese buildings, covered in white tiles. The inside is much more beautiful, with an enormous courtyard and a view of the domes and spires of the mosque. The courtyard was packed with hundreds of people, mostly men and children.

There was a crowd of people around a table, where men were handing out free dates and cups of sweet tea. They were very friendly, calling us over and showing us to put the dates in the cup and pour the tea on top. Children were also handing out dates in the courtyard, although many people were just holding and not eating them. We saw a few Han Chinese tourists eating them, so we decided it was ok. At another table, some young guys were handing out small cups of walnut milk. We later realised it was Ramadan, which possibly explained the distribution of sweet drinks and dates. The mosque seemed to have a lovely community.

There is another impressive mosque, around the corner and up the hill from Dongguan Mosque. We stayed at Lete Hostel, which is on the 15-16th floors of a tower a few kilometers walk away. It was a good place to stay, with a nice common area, cheap coffee and quiet rooms, as well as one staff member with great English who can provide travel advice.

Kumbum Monastery
Dating back to 1560, Kumbum Monastery is one of the most important monasteries outside the TAR and home to around 600 monks. However after travelling in parts of Kham and doing the Xiahe loop through Amdo, we were disappointed to find throngs of Chinese tourists jostling for entry, taking selfies and dressing up in “Tibetan” costumes for photos. For 70 yuan entry, we decided not to go inside, instead taking a small path up a hill towards a cluster of prayer flags. At the top, there were a few monks and Tibetans praying or just hanging out, and you get a good view of the monastery. From this vantage point, the monastery complex looked impressive with its many prayer halls and temples. The inside of Kumbum Monastery is likely incredible, but we didn’t feel we could handle the crowds.

We explored the backstreets near the temple, which sold the best Tibetan goods and souvenirs we’ve seen so far, ranging from Tibetan teapots and monks’ robes to incense and silver jewellery. Unfortunately we ate lunch in Xining before we came, but there were several Tibetan restaurants nearby selling yak butter tea, momos and other delicious Tibetan goodies. On the bus ride in, we also noticed Alamber restaurant, the same as in Lanzhou where we had amazing beef noodle soup. 

We took public bus 909 from Xining to the town of Kumbum Monastery, which you can then reach on foot. We couldn’t find where bus 909 picked up passengers in Xining, so we followed its route out of town and waited where we saw on stop ahead of us.

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