SANG-CHU COUNTY བསང་ཆུ་རྫོང་། (XIAHE XIAN 夏河县)
Most famous for the spectacular (and massive) monastic complex of Labrang, Sang-chu (Xiahe) county is primarily made up of large grassland bowls surrounded by modest mountains and populated by semi-nomadic herders – though in some low-lying areas (near the county town especially) farming is possible. Though Labrang has, by Amdo standards, been extensively developed for tourism, the vast numbers of pilgrims that flood into the region far outnumber any tourists you’ll see.
Labrang བླ་བྲང་། 拉卜楞 （Xiahe 夏河) – 2900m
Labrang is a monastery, a town, and an idea; a magnet to millions of Tibetan pilgrims from across the plateau and a powerful force in the modern world of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of the “Big Six” Gelugpa monasteries on the Plateau, and is nothing less than astonishing. One of my most powerful memories is of getting up early in Labrang to take the 6:10 bus to Xining at the end of a short October holiday. At 5:30, a cold rain was falling heavily as I walked past the edge of the monastery; mist clouded the air. Emerging from my thoughts, I suddenly heard a squeaking noise, many squeaking noises, stretching all along the monastery boundary. I went up to the edge of the monastery. Pilgrims, hundreds of them, were walking the monastery kora, turning the 1200 prayer wheels along the three-kilometer monastery wall, and they would get to the end of the route only to begin again, turning, endlessly. Many of the pilgrims were prostrating in the chilling rain, taking three steps, then pressing their hands together above their head, then to their head, their heart; then stretching out along the cold, stonily wet ground, then standing up and doing it again, again, all day. It was an impressive display of faith, the faith and devotion that this monastery inspires in others – and, possibly, might inspire in you.
Labrang Monastery (Labrang Tashijyil) བླ་བྲང་བཀྲ་ཤིས་འཁྱིལ།
The center of Labrang town, as well as the spiritual center of nearly the entire Amdo region, is the Labrang Monastery. Massive in scale, the complex’s perimeter wall measures over three kilometers; the kora along this wall is one of the classic pilgrimage paths on the plateau, packed with pilgrims of all ages from all over Tibet. Inside the kora, a glittering array of brilliantly decorated temples, visited by pilgrims in a clockwise circuit around the inner kora. There are far too many temples to see; you will surely feel overwhelmed as you exit one temple to see yet another just next door (and, likely, more lined up right behind it). Make sure you save time for the inner sanctums of the main assembly hall, as well as the temples behind it. Additionally, take a look in the kitchens to see how the monks cook food for over a thousand in vast urns. And anywhere you go (in the monastery and in town, but also just a good practice in the world, really), make sure you ask someone – or, better yet, strike up a conversation – before taking a picture of them.
When you visit a temple at Labrang, it’s respectful to do three kora around the building after your visit to the temple interior. This is often much appreciated by the monks in the temple and by the pilgrims, as it shows that you have respect for the site and for the deity images within.
Labrang’s hiking is pretty straightforward; head to any edge of town, then head upwards. Perhaps the most popular hike is the outer kora, which climbs from the nunnery in the Tibetan village past Labrang Monastery up the ridge to a viewpoint directly above the monastery. For a slightly longer adventure, head towards a sacred spring and ruined hermitage located about an hour away. Head through the monastery and the Tibetan village beyond (last services); several hundred meters past the monastery, cross a streambed on a bridge, then turn right uphill towards the obvious side valley. Head upvalley for a little while until you see the ruined walls of the hermitage looming above you on the left. Alternatively, head up the mountainside on the right for some fantastic views; keep continuing uphill and – with a healthy dose of navigational skills and fence-jumping – you may be able to find your way back to Labrang.
There are quite a few hotels and hostels set up for foreign tourism; I usually prefer the Red Rock International Youth Hostel 拉卜楞红石国际青年旅社 (dm. 35-40, dbl 100) for its ambiance and quiet, especially given its convenient location on the river near the monastery. From the main intersection just outside the monastery gate, walk down the side street towards the river until you see signs directing you to the hostel. Other good places include the Tara Guesthouse 卓玛宾馆 and the Overseas Tibetan Hotel 华侨饭店, two obvious options located on the main street near the intersection outside the main gate of the monastery; however, these can get quite busy (and unreasonably pricey) with the arrival of Chinese tour groups, especially during holiday periods.
The Grassland Flower Cafe, with strangely massive new multistory addition, has perhaps the best Tibetan food in town. Located in the courtyard of the Red Rock International Youth Hostel (see above), it has a good mixture of Tibetan and Chinese dishes (including a fantastic beef pancake) at pretty reasonable prices. Alternatively, there are the usual Sichuan dishes, Muslim noodles, and Tibetan tukpa restaurants scattered around town, though there is one particularly good Muslim baozi restaurant on a side street 200m down the main street from the monastery.
With its status as a major tourist attraction, Labrang/Xiahe has good bus connections to just about everywhere in the vicinity, albeit often departing at inconveniently predawn hours. These include:
– Xining: 6:10am (5 hours)
– Lanzhou: starting at 6:30am, one hourly through early afternoon (3-4 hours)
– Linxia: same as Lanzhou, but half-hourly (1 – 1.5 hours)
– Tsu/Hezuo: same as Linxia (1 hour)
– Machu/Maqu: Two buses leaving around 7am (4 hours)
– Rebgong/Tongren (Qinghai): One bus leaving at 7 or 7:30am (2-3 hours)
– Henan (Qinghai): One bus leaving in the morning; in the off-season, this is reduced to one bus every other day (3-4 hours)
– Taktsang Lhamo/Langmusi: One bus leaving early afternoon (4 hours). Alternatively, first go to Hezuo or take an onward bus to Zoige before getting off at the intersection 3km below Langmusi town)
-Zoige/Ruo’ergai (Sichuan): sometime in the morning