The Muddy Monks of Xia He


“You pass by old ladies in Tibetan traditional garb hobbling and shuffling along the path on joints that are clearly in agony, but never missing a prayer wheel that needs turning, or a chance to tuch ther forehead to section of sacred wall.”

Although we’re still a long way from the border with the Autonomous Region of Tibet, Xia He is nine thousand feet above sea level in the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau and one of the most important centres of Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhism.

Xia He in the rain
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A lot of the locals don’t even speak Chinese. One of them ended up apologising to me in broken Mandarin that he doesn’t speak very good Chinese and couldn’t unerstand me.

After nine months of saying the same thing to half the people I meet! Talk about irony!

Xia He is in two parts, a small town where the Han Chinese predominantly and a ramshackle Tibetan village where the monastery kind of winds its way through the muddy lanes and houses.

There’s a walk around the holy sites of the village that can take pilgrims and locals alike the best part of a morning to do; in some cases longer.


Labrang Monastery

Labrang Moastery’s rustic backwater feel is in stark contrast to its sister monastery, Kumbum.

You pass by old ladies in Tibetan traditional garb hobbling and shuffling along the path on joints that are clearly in agony, but never missing a prayer wheel that needs turning, or a chance to tuch ther forehead to section of sacred wall.

This place needs visiting, but make it fast. It’s had a kind of cult-hippy appeal for Western travellers for a while now, but they’re really starting to gear it up for the boom in Tibetan tourism, which is a shame if you’re trying to get off the usual tour trail a bit.

The main street’s being dug up and there’s a whole new town of high-rises being built for Han Chinese next to the little mud-wall Tibetan village.

It’ll mean more money for a poor area and far better facilities for local people, but could potentially de-Tibetanise the whole place. Kind of a microcosm of a whole bigger debate, really …

Getting there


Monks at Labrang Monastery

Clambering across a piece of waste ground where locals were cutting wood with hand-tools, we found the source of the sound that had been bouncing off the mountainsides.

Xia He’s main attraction is its out of the way location. You can take a bus from Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province but, by the time we got this far on buses and trains, the idea of spending another day on a bus was hardly attractive.

It’s worth sorting out a local tour which, for a hundred pounds or so, will help you fit in a lot more than you could using public transport.

Get them to arrange you a speedboat to Bingling Si on the way to Xia He. It’s the only way to get there, but worth a visit. The landscape looks like the background to a prehistoric fantasy and hundreds of buddhas have been carved into the rock face, the largest of which is three storeys high.

After Xia He, catch a bus to Tongren, where you’ll find some fantastic Tibetan art, then head back to the comforts of city life in Xining, via Kumbum Monastery.

From Xining you can head out onto the plains of the Tibetan Plateau and take in the sheer size of Qinghai Lake, China’s inland sea.

In our case, our arrival in Xining brought a welcome opportunity to dry our clothes.

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