Every adventurous traveler dreams of visiting Tibet, and so do I! It has everything a wanderer could want: Off the beaten path, rugged, beautiful, the awesomeness of Tibetan culture, etc. When my semester in Beijing came to a conclusion, Anna and I were trying to plan travel to two of the places in China we felt most lured by: Xinjiang and Tibet. Both places required a lot of research given the tough political climate (The Han government has been leading a hard-hitting campaign to rid the country of these two cultures.)
If you have ever looked into traveling to Tibet you know it is extremely difficult. You have to apply for a permit to visit, pay a large fee, and the worst part is you have to stay with a government-designated guide the entire time! Anna and I couldn’t stand the idea of going all the way to Tibet just to be stuck with a guide that would prevent us from seeing the real Tibet. It was then that we discovered the Labrang Monastery: The second largest Tibetan monastery in China after the Potola Palace, located in tiny, remote Xiahe, which is in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It took about 12 hours of travel total just to get there since it sits on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. (sidenote: travelled through the weirdest bus station I’ve ever been to. People pulling around their goats on leashes, etc). It was totally worth it though, because once you get there, you really feel like you are in Tibet, and essentially you are, since this land was once a part of Tibet. The best part about Labrang was no application, no fees, no designated guide – just general hanging out in this autonomous Tibetan town.
Finally we arrived in Xiahe, which was more like a street than a town. I think there were only two or three hotels. There isn’t a ton to do in this town, but it is a great little place, and you will really feel like you are in authentic Tibet. The people here still wear traditional Tibetan clothing, and you will see Buddhist monks all over the place. There are also some cool markets that sell Tibetan jewelry (I’m such a fan!!) and other trinkets.
Labrang, the Monastery, offers daily tours in both Chinese and English. We were of course the only Americans to be found in this town; the other tourists were French, German and Chinese. A friendly monk found our group and announces he will be giving us today’s tour. He seems nervous, and laughs awkwardly whenever he is scolding the French Tourists for doing something stupid, like speaking while we are listening in on a prayer. Being with this tour group makes me wonder how Americans got the bad rap as the worlds worst tourists, because literally these French tourists were taking photos of young child monks when they were yelling at them to please not take their picture. I felt SO uncomfortable.
The first thing I noticed about the monastery was that there were people praying all over the place, which, I know, sounds really obvious. But it was really interesting because the Tibetan Buddhists pray by walking in circles around holy buildings. Inside the temples, we often see Buddhas depicted with swords, but these swords are not to “kill people or animals, but to kill desire, pride, anger– all things that stand in the way of understanding.”
The Monastery is massive with so many different buildings. I learned a lot about the Monastery. The Monastery currently has 1400 monks studying between the different colleges here. There used to be over 4000 before the Cultural Revolution, but most of monks were “sent home” during that time. Their studies are based on traditional Tibetan medicine and philosophy. Many monks start studying here at a very young age and remain here forever, or transfer to a different monastery. We see many young boys that must be around the age of eight, fully dressed in monk robes.
There are women too, nuns, although they seem to function more as shrine housekeepers. We never see them gathered for prayer in the temples like we see the male monks. The separation between men and women here is very noticeable. We do not see the monks interacting with the nuns at all, and we are told not to offer to shake hands because monks will not physically contact women. The monks also seem to know very little about the nuns’ daily life. I don’t think this is related to anything sexist – just a cultural practice requiring that they keep segregated for religious reasons.
At one point we are speaking with a monk, who invites us to freely wander the monastery, saying that “we do not keep out women like the Han.”
The child monks are the most interesting part of all of this. Every day they go through intense rituals, yet they are still typical kids. For example, I saw three of them running around outside of a temple, knock over a trashcan, freak out and run away, leaving an old nun to clean it up. We also saw a bunch of children monks attempting to do backbends together. It was endearing.
My favorite part of the Monastery was the central prayer hall. We walked silently through the dark hallways, but were able to make out the silhouettes of over 1000 monks all seated in prayer, chanting the same Tibetan prayer over and over again. It is very guttural and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before. It almost sounds more like some bizarre instrument than human vocals.
Anna and I were also very excited that we were able to speak to some monks in Chinese. The monks are all Tibetan, so Tibetan is there first language, but lucky for us, a lot of them spoke decent Mandarin from having learned it in school. We asked them basic questions like where they were from, what their major was, when they started studying, things like that. Most of them started studying before they were ten! We also finally got up the courage to ask some of the monks if we could take a picture with them, and they said yes, even though they seemed kind of awkward around us because we were women.
On the topic of interesting conversations with Tibetans, we met a man who was a friend of the hotel owner where we were staying. We of course, could not resist asking about his opinions on the Beijing government, but he just responded that he was too afraid to talk about it because “they have spies.”
We also got a feel for the Tibetan nationalism in the area. The man who owned the hotel we stayed in was Tibetan and told us how his father walked from northern Tibet all the way to India in order to escape the Cultural Revolution. He also refused to speak to us in Chinese, although he spoke perfectly.
Xiahe offered other great moments outside of the monastery, such as dining with monks at one of the only restaurants in town. They would sit just a table away, and watch us curiously throughout the meal, and of course always give an enthusiastic and friendly goodbye.
We also went out into the Tibetan grasslands where we saw people herding their cattle and ancient-looking Tibetan villages. It was so beautiful but also made us realize how incredibly lucky we are to be born in the Unites States. It was also really eerie seeing all of the Communist party propaganda written on the walls of the villages, such as, “don’t marry young,” and “for obeying the one child policy the government will pay you 5000 yuan.” The greatest irony was that all of this was written in Chinese, not Tibetan, so there was no way the villagers cold even read it.
Visiting Labrang and Xiahe was on of the most eye opening experiences in China. We were worlds away, in a part of China that was hardly Chinese. It is sad to think that years down the road places like Labrang will be totally wiped away by the Communist party.