We came to Xiahe as our substitute for not going to Tibet. However, as it turned out Xiahe is possibly a less touristy window into Tibetan culture and according to the locals this IS Tibet. We couldn't help but stand at the window in our hotel and peer out at the fascinating array of local Tibetan people in traditional dress. The women in colourful skirts, chunky metal belts and large colourful jackets with furred lining which are worn with one arm in and one out; the men with even larger silk and fur lined jackets with large sunglasses and knives at their waists and the children in smaller versions of the above wear with huge rosy red cheeks. During our time in Xiahe we indulged in some serious people watching - and photo taking (link to our Xiahe flickr album). It seems so far that the delicate balance and dynamic between outsiders and the local Tibetans has not been polluted by tourism - yet...
The centrepiece of the Tibetan part of town is the Labrang monastery which today houses around 600 monks. At it's peak there were over 1,200 monks in the monastery community (a large part of the monastery and many monks were victims of the Cultural Revolution). On our first day we went for a tour through the monastery. Despite the fact that it was freezing cold, this was possibly one of the most striking experiences we have had in China so far. We were given a personal tour by one of the local monks who escorted us through the many temples, school rooms and prayer rooms.
We saw amazing, colourful buddhist sculptures made by the monks for the New Year festival. The most interesting thing about these sculptures is that they are made from yaks butter (at least the cold comes in handy in maintaining these art pieces) and then melted down again at the end of the year. It seems yak products are all the rage, in addition to sculpting material, yaks butter is used for candles and yaks milk, cheese and meat are all staples of Tibetan cooking.
Then at 11am, our guide took us into the main prayer hall where many of the resident monks were assembled for prayer session. It was a simply amazing experience to walk around edges of the darkend a hear the low murmerings of the monks, with the tall wooden pillars of the room and the muted colours of the large buddha sculptures and flags from the roof.
We wandered out of the prayer hall into the cold morning air and looked around us. This place really was enchanting. After the tour we grabbed a bite at a local Tibetan restaurant, up on a third floor with a stunning view of the monastery and surrounding mountains this was our restaurant of choice. It is also the best place to sample all the different varieties of yak products - if you're game. According to Andrew yak is tasty and somewhat similar to roast beef.
We woke up on our last morning in Xiahe for our 7am bus back to Lanzhou and discovered the hills covered in snow. It was a sharply cold morning but the prettiness of the scene made up for the cold.