“The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner”
– Tibetan proverb
I arrived in Xiahe on a cold cloudy day in the middle of April after a long trip from the north. It’s easy to forget the vast size of China when you’ve lived in one place in this giant country for a while. When I left the small city of Yinchuan in China’s Ningxia province, the weather was 25 degrees, sunny and dry. After an eight hour overnight train and a three hour bus ride I stepped out into a snowy minus two. China is a massive place and it’s filled with a variety of people to match its size.
Xiahe is a small town in the west of Gansu province though it falls under Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, originally part of the Tibetan Amdo region. It is one of the few Tibetan areas you can travel to without all the difficult to acquire paperwork and tightly controlled tours of Tibet proper.
Tibetan pilgrims, young and old, come in a constant stream to walk the sacred three kilometre kora, or holy path, which encircles Labrang monastery – one of the most important monasteries of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Surrounded by beautiful peaks and hills three thousand metres and higher the town itself is split into three sections: the Han Chinese part, the Hui Muslim part and the Tibetan part all spreading out from the monastery at its centre. The overlying feel though is decidedly Tibetan, with the murmuring of shaven headed monks clad in burgundy and magenta robes, traditionally dressed pilgrims wandering the streets or prostrating themselves in prayer around the monastery’s holy grounds; green tea, noodles and momo dumplings steaming on plates through dusty windows and the ever present clacking of prayer beads between fingers. The people are warm and friendly and accepting of foreigners. School kids shout confident hellos and shy young monks offer the occasional nod or, from the braver ones, eager practices of English as you wander by.
Modern culture is prevalent too, phone shops, fried chicken restaurants and young people wearing trainers, jeans and fluffy down-jackets albeit subtly hidden under traditional clothing. In China’s booming modern economy and with the government’s terrible record for human rights it’s refreshing to see the Tibetan cultural identity alive and well through the generations and Buddhist belief permeating the town, as toddlers to wizened elders perambulate around the monastery spinning prayer wheels as they go.
Despite the serenity of the streets Xiahe isn’t without its troubles and there is a subtle but perceivable divide to the town. After tensions between the different ethnic groups that call Xiahe home, and rioting in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa, the region was closed for nearly two years in 2008 and for a few months at the end of 2012 after demonstrations and rioting broke out. However, in my experience, I met wonderful people in this spiritual place filled with long last cultural identity and a balance of ethnic peoples that I hope continues long into the future.
Originally from the UK, Tim Jamieson is an English teacher currently living in Yinchuan, China.
Find out more about Tim and his incredible work ~