We took a sort of right angle off the main road once we left the city to take
the route to Xiahe which is a a town built around the big Labrang Monastery. Labrang is one of six great lamaseries of the Tibetan world and is the same sect as the Dalai Lama. It was founded nearly three hundred years ago and once housed 4,000 monks. However, like many things it was a victim of the cultural revolution and only in 1980 did it re-open. Now it houses 2,000 monks.
Initially there are some of what I would call swirling hills and then this flattens out into a large valley. Here mosque minarets come into view, some of them quite ornate and topped with gold. For the first time on our journey we see people working in the fields, backbreaking planting and weeding. Whole families working at taming small strips of land.
We stop for lunch at Linxia. Here people are dressed very differently, the women in sort of low wimples often made of lace. There is a distinct feeling of ‘I spy strangers’ in the air as we emerge from our vehicle but everyone seems very friendly and smiley.
We had a bemusing incident when we went into a supermarket to get some provisions. Having come across some tomatoes (sadly no cheese!) we found what looked like bread rolls which seemed like the ideal lunch combination. Very pleased with ourselves we arrived at the till to find there was some consternation about the bread. A supervisor type was called and the bread, with Keith in hot pursuit, was taken back to the bread counter. After some searching through the other bread on display, our chosen bread was put back on the shelf. We were not allowed to have it! Back at the till, the other purchases were totted up – but no bread. Despite our gesticulations there was no moving them. Several people in the queue very helpfully joined in the attempt to explain the problem, but there was no way bread was on offer to us. Not wishing to press the point we thanked our new found chums and left. Bread was off!
We did manage to get some sort of yellow flat bread at a small shop along the road. Unfortunately it was sweet. Lunch was interesting……
Leaving Linxia behind, the soft sandy hills stop and the valley steepens into stone. The river running along beside us has changed from its sandy mud colour to grey and we appear to be travelling up a corridor with mountains on either side. The road is pretty basic but there is evidence of a dual carriageway being introduced. Still the cultivation continues in the valley bed, sheep and goats are in evidence, there are several horses and then yaks. The minarets have ceased to make way for Buddhist stupas and monasteries. The fields are now yellow with ripening corn and the people are cutting it and putting into ‘stooks’ to dry. It looks an historic pastoral scene.
Eventually the buildings of modern Xianhe come into view. We are now 3,000 metres above sea level. It is obviously quite a tourist spot, but we are staying in the old town, very close to the Labrang Monastery itself. The people on the street display a real mix of clothing. First, of course, the deep maroon of the Buddhist monks with their rather odd orange head gear that look as if a poor attempt at a saffron paper aeroplane has been perched on their heads. I think these appendages are for the advanced monks. The young lads do not have them. Obviously origami is a later stage in the training!
Despite the rain, monks wander nonchalantly along the pavements or sit in cafe doorways watching the world go by. There are then older folk in much more traditional Tibetan attire – thick felted clothing. Long skirts for ladies but both men and women with the extremely long sleeves that I last saw in Mongolia. There are then younger people in western dress. It is a sort of kaleidoscope of style, colour and texture.
Eventually the rain stops and we meet up for supper. It is much colder here. Keith and I share a mutton dish cooked on hot stones which is lovely. I stick to beer but Keith goes for Yak butter tea with salt …… He said it was good.