Despite the Covid paranoia that most of China seemed to be in, Bella and I decided to travel to the south part of Gansu, a province in the northeastern part of China, also known as Gannan. This place was known for its natural beauty and for the Hui Muslim and Tibetan communities that lived in its towns and villages. After a 24-hour train ride from Qingdao to Lanzhou, we planned to visit three different places. We hoped for a smooth, uneventful trip, but Covid would make it a bumpy ride.
At first, we had planned to stay overnight in Lanzhou. But when we arrived, we realized that there cases spreading throughout the city. And the Gansu app didn’t recognize my passport. So we decided to leave the city and take the bus to Xiahe that evening. On the way to the bus station, we saw a long line of cars that were stopped on the road and being inspected by health officials for 48-hour health codes. It was a bad time to be a tourist in Lanzhou.
Fortunately, we purchased the tickets just in time. Five minutes later, the bus driver left the city and drove through intermittent rain showers to Xiahe. Many of the villages along the way were Hui Muslim with mosques and minarets that reflected traditional Chinese architecture. It was the first time I had seen such a pervasive presence of Muslims in China.
Three hours later, we arrived at Xiahe with its famed Labrang Monastery. The monastery had been built in the early 1700s and was also a Tibetan Buddhist academy. Before the Cultural Revolution, 4,000 monks had lived here. Now there were a little over 1,000 who studied subjects ranging from Esoteric Buddhism to Medicinal Remedies.
Bella and I checked into our hotel and ate yak curry with naan bread and rice. We also had a giant, bronzed pitcher of milk tea, specially made by the Nepalese chef. It was a hearty start to the trip.
That night we walked along the outskirts of the monastery past a long line of prayer wheels that surrounded it. This was where pilgrims or monks would circumambulate and mutter chants as they spun each prayer wheel. We did spin a few and watched what others did along the path.
Later we strolled through the touristy, flag-stoned area where merchants sold trinkets and colorful, factory-produced scarves and hats. It was a quieter walk than normal for the summer seasons. Covid had disrupted summer travel once again.
The next day we woke up in the morning to a drizzly, gray day. First, we wanted to see an overview of Labrang Monastery before taking a tour inside. We walked alongside a river that bounded the monastery, crossed the road, and walked up a hill to see the whole monastery. We saw some of the main temples, dorms, and one stupa on each side of the monastery.
Now we were ready to take the tour inside. Apparently, there were 41 temples and 6 colleges in the whole complex. We weren’t looking for such a comprehensive tour but did find an English-speaking monk who would be our tour guide. He had lived here for 24 years and studied Philosophy and Modern Science.
Once he discovered we were Christians, he began to engage us in philosophical discussions about understanding your true self and knowing what truth is. He said many people desire peace, happiness, and a long life. Yet since they don’t truly understand themselves, they don’t even know the purpose of their lives.
It was interesting to listen to his points, but finding truth within yourself was one thing we couldn’t agree on. We based our truth on God and his Word, not on our own faulty understanding of the world we live in and our part in it. To truly understand ourselves, we needed to understand our Creator and his created purpose for our lives.
We also learned that Tibetan Buddhism was different than other types of Buddhism in China. Other Buddhist monks focused more on chanting and meditation, but Tibetan monks also studied and learned different subjects such as science, philosophy, and religion.
After many more discussions on philosophy and truth and several visits to temples, we ended our tour. We decided to have some Tibetan food for lunch. We ordered tsampa (a roll of barley and sugar) and beef dumplings. It was not too flavorful but filling.
After lunch, we decided to hike the mountains behind the monastery. We began walking along a concrete road that snaked its way upward past imposing, rounded mountains with scrubby vegetation, few trees, and occasional swarms of yellow flowers. We soon found a dirt path that wound its way further up along the foothills.
Soon the trail ended, and I thought we could climb to the top of one of the smaller peaks. It was steeper than I realized, and Bella didn’t relish the increasingly steep climb. But we both finally made it to the top where we could see endless rows of mountain peaks and the monastery nestled among the foothills.
After walking back down to the road, we walked past a village that was undergoing significant reconstruction work. Nearly every house looked like it had been repaired and repainted. We continued past the road along a gully that took us to a small mountain stream that coursed its way through the ravine. Suddenly, we came upon a metal fence that some villagers had strung across the river. Conveniently, there was a hole large enough for us to crawl under.
As we followed the stream, we noticed many yak droppings along the way. We were not the first to tread this path. As we climbed higher, we soon saw the yaks across the valley, high on the mountainside, contentedly munching grass. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.
After crossing the riverbed, we walked through a flower meadow and began to climb up the mountain. The rain began to pour as we climbed higher and higher to the top. The ground was soft, and as it got steeper, less stable. I didn’t want to envision either of us tumbling down the mountainside into the riverbed below.
I could see the highest peak in the distance, but there was another steep, rocky ridge to ascend before getting there. I would have liked to summit the peak, but the rain made everything more risky. We headed back down the mountain and to the riverbed.
Back at the village road, we met some yak herders and at least 40 yak munching grass in a the valley beside the road. They weren’t as big as cows, but it was still impressive that they could walk along riverbeds and scale mountainsides to find some grass. They were the true mountain climbers.
Back at our hotel, we ate some lamb and chicken curry with pea soup and green vegetables. It was a delicious meal to complete a grueling hike. My back was sore, and Bella’s knees were aching. Clearly, we weren’t getting any younger. It was time for some rest.
The next day the specter of Covid had overtaken our travel plans. A few days earlier, someone from Lanzhou had stopped at a hotel in Xiahe for lunch before he continued on his way. Now he had been tested positive for Covid, and the whole town had to be tested. It was a bad day to be a foreigner in town.
First, we lined up near our hotel for the test but discovered the health workers couldn’t test foreigners. They told us to go to the local CDC for a test, but we had the same problem there. They were too overworked and weren’t able to do tests that day. So we went to a third place to try to do the test.
While I was in line, I talked with a Tibetan who had a homestay in Xiahe. He had done travel tours in Lhasa for several years before changing his business to a homestay and restaurant in Xiahe. Before Covid, nearly 80% of his customers were foreigners. Now there was just a trickle of them coming in, and he didn’t know when the Covid policy would be eased.
At any rate, I hoped tourism would improve for him after the fall. When I got to the front of the line, I discovered they also couldn’t test me, mainly because the Gansu app didn’t work for me. All hotels were restricted from serving meals in the main eating area that day. So Bella and I had “lunch-in-bed.” It’s the much less hyped version of “breakfast-in-bed.”
After lunch, we hired a driver to take us to the Ganjia Grasslands, about a 30-minute drive away from town. We passed through the mountains and drove up the winding road until we saw a vast grassland stretching nearly to the horizon with mountains and clouds darkening the background. There were several glamping (luxury camping) spots along the way with tents or huts perched on the hills for a sweeping view of the valley below.
Our driver took us along the road that cut straight through the grasslands and then began to ascend a plateau. In the distance, we could see sharp, spiky rocks jutting straight out from the grass-covered hills and covered in dark clouds. We were coming close to the White Cliffs.
As we neared the White Cliffs, the rock walls loomed far above us as a stream coursed its way through the narrow ravine. We saw several eagles soaring far above us and no other people were there besides a park official. Unfortunately, he said that because of the Covid situation, no one could enter the gorge at this time. It was frustrating to be so close to the cliffs yet so far away.
Fortunately, we could still visit Bajiao, a 2,000-year-old village that was surrounded by an 8-sided earthen wall. There must have been stones on it at some point, but they had eroded centuries ago. All that remained was a dirt wall about 5m high that was pocked with holes and had tufts of grass growing from its top.
Bella and I climbed up a wooden platform on a hill that showed us the whole village and its ancient wall. There had been a moat that was dug all along the outside of the wall and a second, smaller wall that was built next to it. Now there was only a trickle of water that was left in the moat. Clearly, the villagers had feared enemy invaders despite their remote location.
After we came down the platform, we walked along a wooden walkway that skirted the wall. There were a few horses and cows munching grass in the moat. And some boys were playing basketball near the village entrance. At least there was some entertainment out here for young kids.
Once we were back in the car, we passed by barley fields and yellow flowering plants that were used for oil. They added a bright splash of color to otherwise, endless variations of green. Bella said she envied the children for living in such a naturally beautiful place, away from the pressure and competition of city life. I agreed it was a beautiful place to be, but there were certainly other challenges such as access to medical care and harsh winters that were less appealing.
When we arrived back in Xiahe, we returned to our hotel, which seemed empty apart from us. We chatted with the boss and his wife about whether to stay in Xiahe, leave for Langmusi, or go back to Qingdao early. My 48-hour test expired the next morning. Bella’s would expire at 2am, although she was waiting for her results from Xiahe. And the Langmusi officials said they preferred we take a 24-hour Covid test before arriving in their town.
I certainly didn’t want to be quarantined anywhere. And I didn’t want to just give up on the trip completely. Finally, we decided to leave Xiahe early the next morning and go to Langmusi. It was a gamble, and we hoped we had made the right choice..