Xiahe is Tibet, or at least the Amdo Region of the Tibetan world. Since the Qing Dynasty the northern third of the Tibetan Plateau has been separated into Qinghai Province, and the eastern edges carved off into Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces. Here, our Mandarin is less than useful with many people, but because people learn it in school, we are able to hold a conversation with Tibetan monks, who without fail are friendly and curious. They love a baby and a good mutton dumpling; these are things we have in common.
We visit the Labrang monastery, known as one of China’s loveliest, and the biggest Tibetan Buddhist religious site outside of Lhasa. And it is: golden roofs and and jade and crimson walls surrounding the most ornately-detailed temples. I nurse the baby on the steps of the Great Prayer Hall, supposedly one of the 6 holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism, and admire the colorfully painted, interlocked squares that decorate the columns. No surface is left unadorned. (It’s stunning.) We walk the sacred path around the monastery (called the kora), accompanied on our trek by stooped old women and men with no zippers on their pants, all who probably suffered many hours of car-sick bus rides and poor accomodations here in town in order to make the pilgrimage. I nurse the baby here, too. An ancient woman sees me sitting on the ground and brings me an empty ice cream carton to sit on. I accept it, and then she pulls aside the nursing cover I’m using for modesty and peers down my shirt, touches Owen’s cheek. I barely protest, I’m so surprised. She stands and stares at us for long minutes, smiling and saying things in Tibetan that we don’t understand. Then she gives the thumbs-up and continues on her way.
We don’t run into many foreigners out here, but when we do, they’re Dutch. Old, young, all Dutch. Why? Most of them are big fans of Tibet, Tibetans, Tibetan culture (although our location would make that a self-selecting survey sample), and therefore huge China haters. We get annoyed that every time we hear someone speaking English in a restaurant, in the hotel lobby, or out on the street, it’s another Dutch person telling a Tibetan person in the tourist industry that China is “bu hao,” not good. We see a Dutch tour group actually start booing when their tour guide shows up, wearing an old olympics t-shirt that happens to have the word “Beijing” on it.
I am slightly surprised to see a monk on a cell phone getting out of a cab, tucking his maroon robes carefully around him as he exits. Nick reminds me that they’re not Amish.
The Han Chinese tourists are the ugly Americans of the Tibetan areas of China: they run up to monks, shoving long-lensed cameras in their faces and shouting, forcing women in traditional clothing to pose for pictures and generally being obnoxious. It’s like Tibetan safari, and for once we’re not the most annoying people around.
A note here about Chinese tour guides: from a Western perspective, nothing could be worse. Using megaphones to speak to groups as small as four or five people, the information conveyed about a particular site usually consists solely of dimensional measurements, dates, and long lists of materials used, categories of artwork present, and then whatever superlatives might or might not be justly be awarded. Narrative and context are skipped, and to Westerners trying to learn more about the history of a particular place, this is extremely frustrating. It seems that to the Chinese, though, history is everywhere on and beneath the ground they walk on, and it’s long, complicated, and not particularly useful knowledge. The places that tourists come to visit are attractions because of the superlatives, and these superlatives are usually dimensional, categorical, or chronological: biggest Buddha, most Buddhas, best remaining example of this dynasty, 6th largest temple. In the West, we would still emphasize the special story behind a particular place, and want our tour guides to tell rich tales of of the whos and the whys and the hows. But in China, that’s not why you came here. You came here because this monastery is bigger than others; therefore, we will tell you exactly how many prayer wheels it has, and what the surface area of the biggest building is.
We climb the mountain behind the Labrang monastery for stellar views of town. It’s a hike: at 10,000 feet, I feel the altitude slowing me down. Still, we walk the ridge with mouths agape at the spreading valley below us, mountains ridging in all directions. (It reminds us of Telluride, Colorado, only Tibetan. And without the Patagonia store.) We reach the end of the ridge, where thousands of prayer flags whip and click in the wind. Owen seems to love the noise, and my mind wanders back to the conversation we had with the monk in Tongren. (Six years old, six years old.) As we descend the rocky path, we meet a family who lives in a house right along the kora. They want to chat. Everyone is wearing an amazing hat: incongruously, the older brother dons a US Marine Corps boonie cover; younger brother proudly sports a black hat (of religious significance: the Black Hats, or Karma Kagyu, belong to one of the four largest Tibetan Buddhist schools, and they walk the kora in the opposite direction); Owen wears a blue sun hat that makes him look ready to ride a camel. We snap a photo of everyone in their significant hats and are on our way.
At Nomad, the only restaurant in town worth visiting, we eat yak noodle soup, yak baked under a dome of chive-speckled dough, yak dumplings (called momo), yak stir fried with hot peppers, all of it washed down with cup after hot cup of yak milk tea.
We wake early the next day to the sounds of men demolishing the adjacent concrete-and-rebar building by hand, from the top down, with sledgehammers. This is slow, hot work, done one small falling chunk at a time. Frustratingly, an out-of-commission crane sits, unused, ten feet away from them. Perhaps their labor is cheaper than the cost of wrecking ball.
Ganjia grasslands: our first view of the endless, rolling (grassy, of course) plains. We get a tour of a middle-of-nowhere monastery, where the tour guide wears a red track suit in the scorching midday sun. We stop to explore a 2000-year-old Han dynasty village, with the old walls still intact. After the unification of China, the Han emperors were among the earliest to look west and assert control of the valleys and mountain passes to Central Asia. As they extended their control, they came in contact with other civilizations, and one result was the trans-Eurasian silk trade. While Roman senators were bemoaning the outflow of vast sums of gold to pay for this new women’s fashion trend, the settlement here existed as an outpost of the empire on the other end of this trade imbalance. Our driver is not so impressed with what has been done with the place over the last 2,000 years. “The farmers wrecked everything inside the city. They moved inside the walls, and just knock down the old structures to suit themselves. And now they think they deserve to charge admission.” We arrive, and money passes hands yet again, from one civilization to another, as we pay the old white-haired farmer 20RMB to clamber up the walls. The horseflies are vicious here at 11,000 feet.
On our way back from the grasslands, our driver hits a dog that suddenly jumps out into the road. This is not long after we have a conversation in which he tells us that dogs are expensive and precious commodities, and that most herders cannot afford them, and so herd their sheep themselves, sans dog. Several nomad bystanders start running up to the car, shouting and waving hands, but our driver has already hit the gas and we speed back to our hotel, passing every car on the road.
After dinner (more yak, plus Eight Treasures tea made with dates, goji berries, lychees, rock sugar and green tea leaves), we go thangka shopping. Thangkas are cloth woven or painted depictions of various aspects of Buddhist teaching, used for their portability and durability by monks traipsing the highlands to teach about the Buddha. As Western worshippers of beauty not Buddha, we think they look pretty neat. In the shop with the most straight-talking owner, we watch as she pulls down dusty and dustier scrolls and unrolls them for our approval. They are dark and bright, dusty and pink and silver. We decide on a midnight-hued one with a sitting goddess painted in turquoise and gold. Owen gets hungry from all the bargaining, and as I feed him (on a rickety stool in the corner of the shop, surrounded by Tibetan knick-knacks), a Chinese tourist rushes up and stares down my shirt, asking, “Can I see?” I swat her hand away and yell, “No!”
As it turns out, we are lucky to even be in Xiahe, as it was closed to foreigners due to unrest just a few days before we arrived, and, we find out later, closes again 2 days after we leave. This place was the scene of big anti-Beijing riots in 2008, and the tension is still there, along with a new military barracks built down the road. All the Dutch probably don’t help things either. Right now the town is all construction and literal upheaval: backhoes and cinderblocks and mess everywhere. A giant building complex is going up directly opposite the monastery, with a large, conspicuous Chinese flag flapping over its neat concrete. Wonder what is to come for this place.
NEXT STOPS: BUSHWHACKING UP MOUNTAINS IN LANGMUSI, DOGDING SECONDHAND SMOKE IN LANZHOU