2020- "A chance to be still", I said to myself. I had been wanting this for some time and up until this year, it had been difficult to make it happen. Why you may ask? Because outside travel is essential to survival inside. Living in a city like Shanghai has its upsides, but there are also many hard factors that we have to “deal” with, so quick escapes to neighboring countries usually act as quick fixes to our woes. But this year- post COVID-19, life, has, like many, hardly allowed us to venture out.
2020- a year of finding it hard to count my blessings, to say the least. Nonetheless, I keep trying, and one of my notable blessings was being able to visit Tibet while being “stuck” in China. How, one may ask. Well, go to Gannan- and that's exactly what we did this Summer!
Considered to be a Tibetan autonomous region (please Google for explanation), it was a destination that I had been completely unaware of until this year. And now after visiting, I can say that my time in this territory has now put it on the very top of my travel experiences.
I am drawn to any place that recognizes and has a reverence for a higher power, and it is a feeling that emanates upon arrival to the region. This reverence echoed in every place that we’d visited and made moments surreal and even meditative at times. Memory of our time in Gannan gives me a feeling of peace, and hope that in some way you can also feel a part of it from here on...
Lasting memories of my experiences in Gannan include:
1. Arriving in Xiahe town
Getting to Xiahe was an experience in itself and we were exhausted upon arrival. Thankfully, our excitement made us forget about our long journey, as we immediately became enthralled by the little dusty town of Xiahe.
Xiahe is home to the famous Labrang monastery and our first impression of the town was, monks, monasteries and mountains! There were shops along the dusty streets selling food, incense, ceremonial garb for the monks and also cowboy hats for the locals. Yes, many locals wore cowboy hats which gave us the feeling of being in the Wild Wild West. Many were curious about us, especially the monks who seemed a bit puzzled by my short haircut. Yet among the bustling business of the streets, there was a sense of reverence and respect for what was within the town- the Labrang Monastery.
I must also mention the cafe that saved us while staying in Xiahe- Café Norden! Having great food and drink in Gannan had been a struggle until we'd found this little café. There we were able to order drinks like oat milk lattes and also became fans of their yak butter pancakes! This is definitely a noteworthy café if you ever plan on visiting Xiahe and a great breakfast and lunch spot while visiting the Labrang Monastery.
2. Labrang Monastery
This monastery is over 300 years old and is one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism. This vast complex itself is filled with impressive schools, living quarters, temples, and notable prayer wheels. The Labrang Monastery is also home to the longest Kora (corridor of prayer wheels) in the world.
We'd devoted a day to walking around Xiahe town and Labrang monastery and part of that time was spent discovering the grounds with an English-speaking monk as our guide. It was an unforgettable experience and my first time having a conversation with a monk. I highly recommend this tour if you ever visit as you can simply book one at the tourism booth at the main entrance of the monastery.
We were lucky enough to be the only two English speaking people there and a kind and soft-spoken monk named Tony showed us around. Tony took us on what felt like a private tour of the monastery, presenting to us the most important temples and schools, and enlightening us on various Buddhist teachings. Tony asked us questions- many of which we pondered on and had no answers to, and most of all, showed us genuine hospitality and care. What I enjoyed most about our conversations, was that Tony gave very human-like comparisons of himself. It made me feel more connected to his life as a monk- which in many ways, is much like ours! My biggest learning from the time that we spent with Tony was that monks are a lot like us, so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
3. Staying at Nirvana Resort
We were initially drawn to Nirvanna Resort because of its large rustic cabins that had huge windows, allowing for picturesque views of the town. We were not disappointed upon arrival. It is however, less of a resort and more like a camp. We were surrounded by rolling green hills on which we made small climbs, and a stream flowing below us. Such a dream to be literally surrounded by nature!
4. Sangke Grasslands & Nomadic Family Visit
We booked a tour with Nirvana Resort, which took us through the Sangke grasslands and also to visit a nomadic family’s home along the way. The scenery was splendid! Vast expanses of fresh green hills herded by yak, pilgrims making their way to prayer sites across the territory, and campsites of monks taking a break from their duties at the monastery.
Getting to the nomadic family felt precious, but the actual visit was a bit awkward, especially since our “tour guide” did not speak English. There was a lot of staring at us and not much interaction. It was still interesting to see how the family carried on their daily life, herding yak, using their milk to make many different dishes, and even their dung to ignite the fire for their stove.
Because of the language barriers during this tour, we struggled to get to know more about our surroundings and people and for this, I would not recommend taking a tour with Nirvana Hotel. We basically paid for a very expensive driver and nothing else. We later found many tour agencies in Xiahe town that had English speaking guides for a fraction of what we paid. It would have been great to have a nice chat to get to know more about their life and customs, but again, our driver did not speak English. Would I suggest this visit to anyone? Sure, why not, but make sure that you go with a guide who speaks English.
If you have some time while exploring the Sangke Grasslands, it may be worth stopping off at Norden Camp. A boutique-styled camp that also houses a brand called Norlha. Here you can purchase premium yak products like scarves, pillowcases, and blankets! And as you may have guessed, also the owners of Norden Cafe!
5. Ganjia Grasslands
Located in a less touristy valley that's about a half-hour drive from Xiahe, the Ganjia grasslands is home to many old and almost abandoned temples, as well as old villages like the 2000-year-old Bajiao walled village. It is also home to many nomads who herd their cattle along the mountainous slopes of the area. We spent most of our time trekking through a gorge located at the beginning of the Nekhang Cave. This gorge is gorgeous, and its dramatic natural scenery gave the feeling of a real life Narnia! Our hearts began to fill with wonder as we traversed deeper and deeper into the gorge. We'd passed a caravan of nomads, prayer flags, walked along streams and over towering rocky mountains, where it felt like time had stood still and so had I.
The only way to get to Langmusi from Xiahe was by bus or private car, and we opted to transfer via private car. Unfortunately, we prebooked with Nirvana hotel and later found out, that once again we were overcharged, almost double.
Langmusi is a small valley town located on the border of Gansu and Sichuan, and home to the Kirti and Sertri monasteries. Langmusi town has one main street and everything can be accessed by foot or horse. It is surrounded by its main attractions, vast alpine mountains, temples, and the White Dragon River that traverses the land. There’s not much entertainment besides nature and finding good food may prove futile. We survived on Lanzhou noodles, fruit, and very basic breakfasts from Black Tent Restaurant.
Like other travelers, we were there to experience more of the Tibetan culture, and during this time, we had very special and literally meditative experiences while exploring the area.
On our first day in Langmusi, we were guided by a beautiful and gentle Tibetan lady through the enchanting valley, up mountains, across streams and through marsh grass. Our guide spoke mostly Tibetan dialect and a little Mandarin, but we still managed to get to know each other a bit more during our 8-hour walk. She guided us through her lands while meditating and chanting for the entire trek, we even stopped and had lunch at the yurt of one of her friends. It was a peaceful and somewhat poetic experience in a vast green atmosphere -and exactly what we’d needed.
There were some difficult parts along the journey, which included jumping across and falling into streams, walking through wet marsh and herds of intimidating yak, and escaping the path of wild dogs and swarms of insects. And throughout it all, our guide was there, and her presence, help and continuous prayers somehow made us feel safe and blessed- of course, the breathtaking views along the way made it all worth it. We ended back to the town via the Sertri Monastery where the glistening golden temples energized our then wary selves. The grandeur of the grounds stirred up a sense of awe and wonder within us, and we wanted more.
On the next day, we visited the Kirti Monastery and the Namo Gorge. Where were warned about wild dogs that may be further in the gorge and were advised to stay away. Our curiosity got the better of us and we explored a little further- but still safe from the dogs. To our surprise, we found a group of nomads, there, with their horses and charging tourists 100rmb to be guided further into the gorge by horse. We were a bit cautious at first, but then decided that we were already there, so should just take the chance. After all, they were locals. The nomadic group took us up the stream on their horses and through enchanting scenery that once again looked like real-life Narnia. We rode for only 10 minutes, and then to our surprise, the nomads offloaded their horses, sat down, and immediately and a bit frantically started preparing lunch.
We then realized that the nomad's "tour" there was a quick way of making money while on their way back to their camp for lunch! We were amused, and also happy that we could have been a part of their daily life! We were eventually returned to where we had been picked up- safely and feeling full- not from the nomad’s lunch, but from the very surreal time spent with them.
We spent our last evening at Langmusi exploring more the Sertri Monastery. There we stood amidst the ground’s impressive and enchanting temples. Breathing in the fresh mountain air and taking in the sounds of the Tibetan monks as they chanted at an open-air hall, clouds streamlining across the blue sky.
Our entire trip to Gannan had been filled with many moments that stopped me in my tracks- sometimes literally and made me forget about my cares. Including this, our last moment, in what had felt like a dream. What a magical way to end our stay- with our eyes towards the sun, standing still.