Visiting Xiahe in Gansu, China (1996)

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.

The town of Xiahe (Gansu, China, 1996)

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!”

Snowy fields in August!

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.

White Stupa, Labrang Monastery

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.

Village houses (Xiahe, Gansu, China, 1996)

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.

Migrant Workers

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.

Sheep herder, Daxia River & migrant worker camp. Xiahe county (and the town of Xiahe) were named after the river.
Migrant worker camp (Xiahe, Gansu, China, 1996)
The slope behind their tents is a location that plays an important role in an annual late-winter festival. It is where monks display a massive Tangka (a colorful, kaleidoscopic religious painting) that completely covers the rectangular area of the slope.
In the background, you can see Labrang Monastery, the Kora (a prayer wheel route) and Gongtan Pagoda.
Migrant workers (Xiahe, Gansu, China, 1996)

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.

Sangke Grasslands

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).

Crossing the Daxia River on horseback, Sangke Grasslands
Village, Sangke Grasslands. The horseman didn’t warn me about the dogs, so when I went on ahead, I was chased (on horseback) by one of the village dogs.
Making tsampa
The horseman (wearing a grey jacket) and his family
Saying farewell

Volleyball-playing Monks

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.

Monks playing volleyball (Xiahe, Gansu, China, 1996)

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.

Setting the ball
With the monks

Children

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.

Children with their donkey and cart
Xiahe boys

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.

Two Girls (Xiahe, Gansu, China, 1996)

Labrang Monastery

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

Grand Sutra Hall, Labrang Monastery

Xiahe is the most important monastery town for Tibetan Buddhism outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Serkung, Labrang Monastery
Prayer route (center) and Gongtan Pagoda (right), Labrang Monastery

There is also a 3.5-kilometer-long pilgrim’s route of prayer wheels known as the Kora.

Pilgrim’s Path (the Kora), Labrang Monastery
Prayer Wheels, the Inner Kora, Labrang Monastery

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.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an
Photo taken on the train between Xi’an and Lanzhou. Notice the dry landscaped and terraced hills. Farming is really a tough job here.
View of Lanzhou (and the Yellow River) from Baitashan Park (1996)

Photo Albums

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:

1. Xiahe, Lanzhou and Xian (95 photos) Flickr
2. Xiahe, Lanzhou and Xian (95 photos)Google Photos

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

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4 thoughts on “Visiting Xiahe in Gansu, China (1996)

    • Thanks for the comments. I had the negatives developed a few years ago. I do too much photo-scanning at work, so I’d rather just have the film developed. I may try that again in future, but try to get them at a higher resolution.

      • I used to have a negative scanner bot have been exclusively digital since 2003. I understand though about the pressures of work if similar all day!

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