A tiny, rural town tucked away 3000m up in the remote hills of southern Gansu, right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, XIAHE (夏河, xiàhé) is unforgettable. This is a great place to experience a little Tibetan culture, while saving the price of a package tour to Lhasa. Xiahe is the most important Tibetan monastery town outside Tibet itself, and the Labrang Monastery (拉卜楞寺, lābǔlèng sì) is one of the six major centres of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat Sect (of the others, four are in Tibet and one, Kumbum Monastery, is just outside Xining in Qinghai province). Tibetans from Tibet come here on pilgrimage in traditional dress (equipped with mittens, kneepads and even leather aprons to cushion themselves during their prostrations), and the constant flow of monks in bright purple, yellow and red, alongside semi-nomadic herdsmen wrapped in sheepskins, makes for an endlessly fascinating scene. As well as offering a glimpse into the lives of Tibetan people, Xiahe also offers visitors the rare chance to spend some time in open countryside, set as it is in a sunny, fresh valley surrounded by green hills.
Phenomenally beautiful and surrounded by mountains on all sides, the monastery sits just west of the town centre. There’s no wall separating the town from the monastery – the two communities just merge together and the main road goes right through the middle of both. The only markers are the long lines of roofed prayer wheels stretching out to the right and left of the road, which together trace a near-complete circle around the monastery. To the south side in particular, along the north bank of the river, you can follow the prayer wheels almost to the other end of the monastery. It’s mesmerizing to walk alongside the pilgrims (clockwise around the monastery), who turn each prayer wheel they pass.
The monastery was founded in 1709 by a monk called E’Ang Zongzhe, who thereby became the first-generation Living Buddha, or Jiemuyang. Upon the death of each Jiemuyang, a new one is born, supposedly representing the reincarnation of the previous one. The present Jiemuyang, the sixth incarnation, is third in importance in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. Although Labrang may seem a peaceful haven today, it has not always been so. In the 1920s, ferocious battles took place here between Muslim warlords and Tibetans, with atrocities being committed by both sides. With the Cultural Revolution came further disaster: persecution for the monks and the virtual destruction (and closure) of the monastery. It was not until 1980 that it reopened, and although it is flourishing once again, it is nevertheless a smaller place than before. For an idea of its original extent, see the painting in the Exhibition Hall, on the wall at the far end from the entrance. There are now around nine hundred registered lamas and two thousand unofficial monks, about half their former number.