Tibet – its magical monasteries and rich Buddhist culture surrounded by the highest mountains - might be high on your ‘to-do travel list’. But, unfortunately, it’s also extremely difficult to enter and explore the region. Traveling Tibet as a tourist requires a permit and being accompanied by a tour guide, which obviously make things more expensive.
Well, the good thing is, you can still get a grasp of the Tibetan culture and probably experience it in an even more authentic way than it would be possible in actual Tibet!
‘Where?’, do you ask. The answer is the Gānnán Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu, a northwestern province of China and located between the Tibetan and Loess plateaus. Gansu’s landscape and culture is probably one of the most diverse of all provinces in China (and definitely one of our favorite!) – characterized by its desert, high mountains and a cultural mix of Han Chinese, Muslim Hui Chinese and Tibetan Chinese.
After travelling in Xinjiang (the Chinese province we entered from Kyrgyzstan) Gansu flashed us with its cultural richness and authenticity, its welcoming people, mouth-watering food and showed us how travelling in China should actually be – easy to get around without security checks and no ‘disneyfication’ of nature (so far - and we really hope it stays like this - no cable cars, expensive entry tickets, viewing platforms etc.). Especially the autonomous Tibetan region in the south of Gansu surprised us with its wonderful monasteries, stupas, colorful flags, monks in red robes and made us almost forget we’re in central China and not in Tibet.
Dunhuang – Oasis in the Gobi Desert and ancient Silk Road town
Dunhuang was the first city we arrived to in Gansu after having left the Xinjiang province (and a major relief after the regulation frenzy we encountered in Urumqi). In ancient times it was a major stop along the Silk Road and Buddhist monks from India and Central Asia passed through Dunhuang bringing manuscripts and Buddhist art with them. Some monks stayed here for longer to learn Mandarin while also spending their time to meditate, paint and study. Thus, Dunhuang became a Buddhist cultural center in China, most famous for its Mogao Caves.
The Mogao Caves were also the main reason why we visited Dunhuang. These 735 (!) desert caves were originally built by Buddhist monks to meditate. As more and more Buddhist pilgrims came to Dunhuang, the caves became a place for Buddhist worshipping, art and sacred manuscripts. They are also called the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’ as they’re covered with colorful mural paintings and filled with Buddhist statues (the biggest a whopping 35.5m high!). The library, a small hidden cave discovered in 1900 after it got already forgotten for some time, contained around 50,000 manuscripts and writings from the 4th-11th centuries.
Although you have to join a tour to visit the caves (and forced to watch a quite non-sense ‘propaganda’ movie beforehand), we were absolutely astonished by the caves! They definitely exceeded our expectations. The paintings are absolutely remarkable and well preserved – we wonder why they’re still relatively unknown by most people (unfortunately it’s not allowed to take photos inside the caves…). As we joined an English tour, we were also lucky being able to explore the caves in a very small group (just us two and two other tourists) and got to ask lots of questions about Chinese Buddhism.
Dunhuang is an oasis town at the edge of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. Though we skipped the tourist attractions (the crescent moon lake and the singing sand dunes) we still wanted to catch a glimpse of the desert. Despite our ‘traumatic’ desert camping experience in Iran (camping during a sand storm resulting in sand dunes piling up in our tent), we decided to spend a night camping just outside of Dunhuang in the desert. Fortunately, this night was calm and after climbing up some sand dunes and walking along them during dawn we set up our tent and got a good night rest.
But Dunhuang was a pleasant city even outside its tourist draws, the Mogao Caves and the sand dunes. The old town was filled with (food) markets and street food stalls with an endless variety of Chinese specialties. The brave (so not us) may try all variations of donkey meat, but there is also a rich selection for any other taste, from noodles to barbecue to Chinese pancakes.
Xiahe – Meandering through the alleys of the Tibetan Labrang monastery
Travelling further south from Dunhuang we left the desert behind and entered the mountainous region of Gansu. Xiahe is a relatively small town in the Tibetan autonomous region and we were quite surprised how well Han, Hui and Tibetan Chinese people live here next to each other, each preserving their language, food, culture and religion. Particularly the Tibetan quarter’s atmosphere was completely new to us and the main reason why tourists are drawn to Xiahe. About 1,500 Tibetan monks study here in the Labrang monastery, the largest number of monks outside of Tibet.
Just spending the whole day meandering in and around the alleys and temples of the Labrang monastery was how we enjoyed our time in Xiahe. While you can walk around the monastery like a Buddhist pilgrim (ca. 3km in total) turning the colorful praying wheels, another pilgrimage path leads you into the beautiful hills surrounding the monastery. We did both paths :) - and particularly the second one rewarded us with amazing views of the Tibetan monastery and temples. Being here out of season (as always), we got to explore Xiahe during a time with very few tourists, making this place even more authentic. We can only warmly recommend you to come here outside of the warm summer months and Chinese public holidays!
Langmusi – Climbing Mount Rixiema (4000m) and Mount Huagai (4200m)
Langmusi was an even smaller Tibetan town and maybe our most favorite destination in Gansu. The town sits on the border with the Sichuan province and on both sides, there are quite impressive Tibetan monasteries, though much smaller than the Labrang monastery. However, the main reason to come to Langmusi are the mountains around, which offer incredible outdoor opportunities (Here is a detailed hiking guide for Langmusi including descriptions, maps and GPS files, so we will keep it short here).
Being located at 3,300m altitude and still quite unknown among Chinese tourists, staying out of season here meant that we were basically the only tourists in the whole town. Although we were of course happy getting to explore the mountains without other annoying human beings around, it also meant that almost all hostels (except one! – the Barley International Youth Hostel) and many restaurants, cafés and shops were closed. So maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to rather come here end of October, before the seasons ends the 1st November and everything shuts down in Langmusi.
Although Langmusi is all about hiking, cycling and horseback riding there’s very limited information available. If you don’t want to book a tour with a guide, you’re left with some rough explanations and a simple self-drawn map. Our plan was to climb Mount Huagai, with 4,200m the highest mountain in the region. However, on our first day attempting to find Mount Huagai, we got lost, and after some desperation in between, “found” another peak, Mount Rixiema (4000m). It wasn’t too bad though, rather an amazing discovery! We would even say, the views from Rixiema’s summit are even better than the ones from Mount Huagai. And as we found Mount Huagai the second day, we explored two new wonderful day hikes with sheer beautiful summits.
Hiking up Mount Huagai was definitely a longer trek and you have to reach a higher altitude. The landscape is quite different from the one up to Mount Rixiema: Particularly while hiking up the last part to the top, you cannot even see the peak as it’s so flat and wide. While sweating and curving slowly up in switchbacks, we were just hoping for some small Tibetan flags or a mountain cross at the top, showing us we made it and can be proud of ourselves. And then, once we got up to the footballfield-sized summit we were welcomed by an entire, huge flag-temple! Sacred Tibetan mountains are just amazing!
And maybe the best quick story for the last – quite at the beginning of our hike up to Mount Huagai we suddenly saw an actual big, lone wolf! He was standing only about 80m ahead of us and staring directly into our eyes! While this was for sure a unique and unforgettable encounter not many get to experience, it was also a bit scary being completely alone in the mountains with a wolf that close by. We were glad we didn’t got eaten :D.
Continuing along the direction from North to South, it is possible to explore the mountainous region of northern Sichuan with the world-famous Jiuzhaigou national park and the Tibetan town Songpan before ending up in Chengdu. Chengdu and its surrounding area are home to the world’s cutest animal (ok maybe save for penguins) and China’s national icon, the Giant Panda, as well as two more holy Buddhist mountains.
Written by Kevin and Nicole in Yichang, China
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