We ventured out to the town of Xiahe, which has been closed to visitors (due to unrest amongst the local monks) but just reopened to foreigners. To get out here, we took an overnight train from Xian to Lanzhou, them took a bus to the small town of Xiahe. They still don’t sell bus tickets from Lanzhou to Xiahe, so we had to get a bus to Lingxia, then switch to a bus to Xiahe. Xiahe is famous for the beautiful Labrang Monastery, which is a monastery for the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Xian was the historic beginning of the Silk Road, which left Xian and travelled west through Lanzhou. Lanzhou has the feel of a Silk Road town with many diverse people and goods moving through. This region of China has many Muslims, and you see them with their typical skull caps and the women with unique headscarves. As we approached Xiahe, we saw many more Tibetan monks in their red robes. In this region (formerly known as Amdo) people speak mainly Tibetan, and not as much Chinese. Signs are listed first in Sanskrit, then Chinese, and sometimes English. We tried some yak noodle soup, eight-treasure tea and some yak butter tea.
The Labrang Monastery is one of the larger Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside of the official region of Tibet. Entering Tibet requires an expensive permit (the proceeds go to the Chinese security bureaucracy, not the Tibetans) and can be complicated. We decided to visit Tibetan areas that are outside of the formal region of Tibet which don’t require a permit, but are effectively as Tibetan as you can get. The Chinese security forces have a large presence here, with a large garrison in the middle of Xiahe, which can be heard exercising and shouting throughout the day. It gives the monastery and surrounding area a constant reminder of who is the boss. On the bus ride out here, we saw a massive military convoy of army reinforcements.
We took a tour of the monastery, led by a local monk. The monks study Buddhism, and can specialize in medicine, philosophy and other Buddhist studies. We entered some of the temples with our guide and had the chance to see monks chanting in old temples, look at Buddha statues and experience the ambiance in the temples with the musty with the smell of yak butter candles, incense, and ancient texts and decorations with the drone of chanting monks. They also had these amazing yak butter scultputres, with pictures of Buddhist icons and elaborate carved flowers, all made out of colored butter. It is cold here most of the time, so the butter doesn’t melt and they make new ones each year.
We hiked around the monastery and in the hills above the town. The town of Xiahe feels like a frontier boom town. Next to the old monastery, there are many new and colorful modern buildings being built. It seems like they are really trying to foster tourism here, but there is the ever present…. Well, maybe we will add more details to this post another day. Jason met a monk while walking the streets of the monks quarters, and we had a meal with him. Again, maybe we will add more details to this post another day when the internet access is less censored…. but if you read about the events in 2008 in Xiahe, you get the general picture of the strife out here summed up in the common bumper sticker back in the America: Free Tibet!.
Since leaving China (and the internet censorship), we can add a few more words on Tibet. China requires an expensive permit to visit the official region of Tibet. This money goes to the Public Security Bureau (PSB), and helps fund the very security forces which crack down on Tibetan protestors. Visitors to Tibet unwittingly help to fund the very security forces that are subjugating the Tibetan people. We chose to visit a Tibetan region (Xiahe) that is ethnically full of Tibetan people, but not in the official region of Tibet, but right on the border. The Tibetans we met here do not like the Chinese government. They adamantly do not call themselves Chinese. People we met say they speak Tibetan (with Sanskrit based writing) first, English second, and if pressed, will grudgingly admit they speak Chinese third. For them, language is part of their national identity as Tibetans. They do not consider themselves Chinese, or a part of China. They are very resentful of the Chinese control of their society. We expected this. The most interesting thing we found were the Chinese attitudes towards Tibet. We assumed it was the CCP looking to control Tibetan culture. In reality, we found that in speaking with progressive Han Chinese students -people who wanted China to become a democracy, end internet censorship, etc.-, all of them firmly considered that Tibet was (and always will be) a part of China. The Tibetan issue seems like a nationalist issue, and hardly has anything to do with the Communist regime. Even if China was a democracy, we suspect that they would still seek to maintain Tibet as a part of China (and even include Taiwan and Mongolia, if possible). The issue of Tibet seemed to be more of a nationalist sentiment than something related to the whims of the Communist government.