Phenomenally beautiful and surrounded by mountains on all sides, Labrang Monastery sits just west of Xiahe’s 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 signs that you’re entering the monastery are the long lines of roofed prayer wheels stretching out either side of the road, tracing a near-complete circle around the monastery. To the south side, along the north bank of the river, you can follow the prayer wheels to the other end of the monastery. It’s mesmerizing to walk clockwise alongside the pilgrims, who turn each prayer wheel they pass.
The majority of the important monastery buildings are north of the main road. The buildings include six colleges, prayer halls, sutra printing workshops and mud-brick dormitories for the monks. At the colleges monks study towards degrees in astronomy, esoteric Buddhism, law, medicine and theology (higher and lower). There are also schools for dance, music and painting. The Gongtang Pagoda (贡唐宝塔, gòngtáng băotă; daily 7am–11pm; ¥20), first built in 1805, is the only major monastery building south of the main road – on the prayer wheel circuit – and is worth climbing for spectacular views over the shining golden roofs of the monastery.