The alluring monastic town of Xiàhé attracts an astonishing band of visitors: backpack-laden students, insatiable wanderers, shaven-headed Buddhist nuns, Tibetan nomads in their most colourful finery, camera-toting tour groups and dusty, itinerant beggars. Most visitors are rural Tibetans, whose purpose is to pray, prostrate themselves and seek spiritual fulfilment at holy Labrang Monastery (Lābǔléng Sì).
In a beautiful mountain valley at 2920m above sea level, Xiàhé has a certain rhythm about it and visitors quickly tap into its fluid motions. The rising sun sends pilgrims out to circle the 3km kora (pilgrim path) that rings the monastery. Crimson-clad monks shuffle into the temples to chant morning prayers. It’s easy to get swept up in the action, but some of the best moments come as you set your own pace, wandering about town or in the splendid encircling mountains.
The Xiàhé area was long part of the Tibetan region of Amdo. As a microcosm of southwestern Gānsù, the three principal ethnic groups are represented here. In rough terms, Xiàhé’s population is 50% Tibetan, 40% Han and 10% Hui. Labrang Monastery marks the division between Xiàhé’s mainly Han and Hui Chinese eastern quarter and the scruffy Tibetan village to the west.
Despite Xiàhé’s ostensible tranquillity, these ethnic groups don’t necessarily mix peacefully. The Tibetan community maintains a strong solidarity with their brethren on the plateau, and demonstrations and rioting here in the wake of the 2008 riots in Lhasa led to the region being closed for nearly two years.