The photos on this page were taken during an August 1996 trip to the lovely town of Xiahe in Gansu, a province in the northwestern part of China.
Xiahe, a small one-street town in the middle of a harsh landscape, is an important pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists.
I hadn’t planned on visiting the town, but I had read about it in a guidebook while visiting Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu, and thought it would make for an interesting detour. It took several hours to get to Xiahe from Lanzhou by bus (but that was a slow bus—the trip should take around four hours by car).
My first impression after getting off of the bus was “Oh my God, it’s so cold!”
The county of Xiahe is around 3000 meters above sea level, so even during August, when we visited, temperatures fell below freezing (and most of the clothes I had packed were things like shorts and t-shirts). On wet days, there would be snow in the morning and freezing rain in the afternoon, leaving the roads and paths wet and muddy. On dry and warm days, loose top soil would blow around in the wind.
The hotel only had running hot water for half an hour a day, so if you weren’t back in your room by that time (or if the hot water supply had been already used up), you would only have frigid water to wash with. As a result after a few days there, I looked pretty much like everyone else in the town—my face ruddy from the wind and cold and my body bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, with the outer layer covered with a thin coating of dirt.
I really liked Xiahe, but the environment and climate are unforgiving for the people living there. The area’s economy is based on farming, but the cold weather, lack of water, mountainous topography and loose topsoil mean that the little arable land that is there is tough to farm.
The following photos are of a group of migrant workers from Tibet. They were living in tents on the banks of the Daxia river, across from Labrang Monastery. They invited me over to try their food—curry potatoes.
The people we met in Xiahe were friendly, but communication was difficult. I was travelling with my wife-to-be, who was fluent in Putonghua, but many of the Tibetan people we met in Xiahe knew minimal, if any, Putonghua and could not write Chinese. However, that was nearly twenty-five years ago. I expect things will different today as most young and middle-aged adults nowadays will have had a formal education.
We hired a driver and took a trip out to the the Sangke Grasslands, where we rented horses and visited the home of their owner. He introduced us to his family and made us some tsampa—a Tibetan staple food consisting mainly of flour, yak butter tea and salt. The grasslands are a twenty-minute drive from the town, so you can also get there by cycling (some of the hotels have bicycle rental services).
We also met these monks. They were camped out in a field near our hotel and they would spend at least a few hours each day playing volleyball. We joined them for a a couple of games and had a brief chat later. They were from Tibet and were visiting Xiahe on a pilgrimage.
I was kind of surprised by their enthusiasm for volleyball as I had assumed monks would be more…er…meditative. I need to be more open-minded.
We met quite a few children, almost all of whom asked us to give them pencils. I am not sure if the pencils were for their own use at school or whether they served as a kind or currency among children. In any case, I was reminded of Zhang Yimou’s 1999 film Not One Less, which dealt with school life in an impoverished rural town. In that movie, blackboard chalk was treated as a precious, nigh-impossible-to-replace resource. We ended up giving away all of our pens and pencils except for one pen. Unfortunately, one boy came too late to the pencil giveaway and there was nothing left for him, which angered him greatly.
You should bear in mind, however, that at that time—much of China’s rural populace, especially the hinterlands of provinces like Gansu, lived in abject poverty. China has since implemented a long-term, anti-poverty campaign, which has since lifted several hundred million citizens out of poverty.
Unfortunately, the negatives for the following photo got exposed. However, I will still include the photo here as I like how the two girls did their best to have their own style.
Labrang Monastery, situated between the Chinese and Tibetan sections of the town, is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) sect. The monastery is the main site in town and it is spread out over several buildings such as the Grand Sutra Hall, Serkung and Gongtan Pagoda
Xiahe is the most important monastery town for Tibetan Buddhism outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
There is also a 3.5-kilometer-long pilgrim’s route of prayer wheels known as the Kora.
Sadly, between 1917 and 1929, the monastery was the site of massacres of Buddhist monks and other Tibetans by Hui Muslims led by Ma Qi. The monastery and its monks also suffered during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. During that period of turmoil, the monastery was closed, many buildings were destroyed or damaged and the monks were sent back to their villages to work. The buildings were later repaired or replaced, and the monastery re-opened in 1980. At present there are around 1,500 monks enrolled in the monastery.
Lanzhou & Xi’an
We also briefly visited Lanzhou, Xi’an and Beijing. You can see photos of those places in the online albums (the links are in the next section). The Beijing photos will be shown in another article and album.
I hope you enjoyed the photos. If you are interested in seeing them at higher resolution (e.g., 1840 x 1232), you can visit the online albums:
I am can’t remember what kind of camera I had. I wasn’t into photography at the time. I think it as a point-and-shoot Minolta model.
~ Photos and text by longzijun