The town lies along one main street parallel to the Daxia River. The Chinese section (commercial) lies to the eastern end of the road and the Tibetan section lies at the western end. In between lies the monastery.
Xiahe has developed along with the influx of visitors. Some old timers may bemoan that it has lost its off-the-beaten-path charm, but Xiahe is still far from being overrun with hawkers, karaoke or foot massage joints as have many other attractions in China.
Can you go? Restrictions for foreign visitors
Due the importance of the Monastery to Tibetans the town is occasionally off limits for foreigners if the authorities feel trouble is brewing. At present (May 2012), Xiahe is open.
Xiahe Bus Station is about 1.5km away from the entrance to the monastery and the main concentration of guesthouses. Turn right when you walk out bus stations front door.
- From Lanzhou – Two morning buses and two afternoon buses(6:30AM, 7:30AM and 2:00PM, 3:00 PM) leave from Lanzhou Nanzhan (Lanzhou South Bus Terminal). Trip takes 3 and a half hours (¥70.5). Half hourly buses go to Linxia in 2 hours. From there you can catch one of the frequent buses onward to Xiahe (¥20).
- From Linxia – One every 30mins leave during daylight hours, arriving in Xiahe about 2 hours later.(¥18)
- From Langmusi – One bus a day leaving at 2PM, takes 4 hours (¥44). There is sometimes one in the morning too.
- Tongren – One bus per day leaving at 8AM (¥25). Takes 3 very scenic hours.
The town is compact and most guesthouses cluster near the monastery, about 10mins walk from the bus station.
A wide spectrum of wheeled vehicles purporting to be Taxis run up and down the main street. The price should be ¥1-4 per person, depending on the luxuriance of your conveyance, no matter the distance. If you take up more than one seat with your bags then pay for however many seats you use.
For most travellers, Labrang Monastery will keep them occupied for couple of days or more. Apart from the graceful landscape and colourful people, Xiahe doesn't offer much else of interest. The surrounding region harbors a few worthwhile day-trip destinations.
Literally the centre of town, the monastery is the main focus for visitors and residents alike with all social and commercial activity deriving from it. The Monastery was established in 1709 and expanded greatly in following centuries to become one of the six great monasteries of the Gelukpa sect (Yellow Hat) of Tibetan Buddhism. The resident monks wear saffron robes, black UGG-style boots and shaggy yellow Mohawk shaped hats, sometimes pitched to impressive heights.
Despite its venerable history, many of the buildings and religious artefacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. What you see now was built during the late 1980s or even more recently. The buildings construction differs from others in the region, being built with stone blocks rather than rammed earth, but the whitewashed multiple-level square designs follow the typical style of Tibetan monastic buildings.
It'd be easy to spend days meandering about the alleys between monks quarters and prayer halls, or follow pilgrims spinning prayer wheels on a loop around the Kora. Despite all the tickets and tours, it's still an active Monastery and you may chance upon the monks engaged in their religious activities.
There are few English signs (except for the ubiquitous No Photo, Ticket needed), making it somewhat beguiling to understand what you are looking at. An English tour leaves from the ticket office at 10AM and 3:15PM. Though the guide provides decent explanations as they take you though the halls, some may feel the experience is a bit rushed. As you would expect, no photos are allowed inside buildings and the monks outside are camera shy when conducting a ceremony.
You can explore most of the grounds freely but a ticket is needed to enter some of the smaller chapels (¥10) or the main halls (¥60), whether you join the tour or not. Even with a ticket in hand the halls may be closed or off limits while a ceremony is being conducted. If you prefer to try before you buy, it's not difficult to blunder in for a look without anyone asking for a ticket.
Some places worth seeking out include;
- Gongtang Chorten (Near the river). A newly built golden topped Chorten that you can climb. ¥10.
- Man Jus'ri Temple (The rear of the courtyard behind the ticket office). Definitely the most impressive hall with several enormous, elaborately decorated, Buddha statues along the rear wall and a pair of small rooms behind. Pilgrims make a clockwise circuit, stopping to make monetary offerings to brightly coloured yak-butter sculptures and pray to silver Chortens containing living Buddhas. At times the hall may reverberate with chanting monks. ¥60.
- Prayer Wheels. Lining about half of the minor Kora are brightly painted wooden drums, spun by an endless procession of mainly elderly pilgrims hopping their efforts will be rewarded in the next life. On each corner is a small room housing huge lumbering wheels that ring a bell with each rotation.
- Thangka sunning Terrace (Over the river on the hillside). A flat stone slope on the hillside where a giant Thangka is rolled out during the Tibetan New year. The rest of the time its a nice place to sit and get an overview of the Monastery. Free.
Day trips outside town
A few other worthwhile sights lay within a 20km radius. Your only transport options are to hire a taxi from Xiahe for about ¥400 per vehicle, per day (5-8 hours round trip) or bicycle. Adventurous travellers can take the early morning bus to Tongren/Repcon (同仁) and get off at Ganjia Town (Ganjia Xiang – 甘加乡). From there it would be at least a 10-12 kilometre round trip hike to Bajiao Cheng. You would need to get back to Ganjia town by lunch time to get the bus coming from Xining or Tongren, or catch a motorcycle, taxi, or tractor back to Xiahe.
- Sangke grasslands; wonderful grasslands with many nomad tents and herds of yaks and sheep. 12 km outside Xiahe is Sangke town, where most people who rent a bike go to. There is nothing to see in the town, you really need to go INTO the grasslands to enjoy the wonderful views.
- Ancient town of Bajiao (Bajiao Cheng - 八角城). A walled village that was originally built in the Han Dynasty (around 2000 years ago). Bajiao Cheng is still inhabited today. ¥10.
- Ganjia Grasslands. The whole region is covered in grasslands during the summer months and makes an enjoyable place to see some wide open spaces.
- White Rock Cliffs (Bai Shi Ya - 白石崖) (Northern end of the valley). As you get closer to Bajiao Cheng, you won't be able to miss the cliffs high up in front of you. A small monastery sits right at the foot of the White Rock Cliffs. There is a small village together with the monastery.
- Darzong Lake (Da’erzong Hu - 达尔宗湖). A highland lake located at just above 3,000 meters (10,000 ft.). Forested mountains surrounding the lake on almost all sides and forests all around. A taxi round trip (2-3 hours) costs around ¥100 or take a bus going to Linxia (临夏) or Hezuo （合作）and get off 20km (about half an hour) down the highway when you see a big sign on the right side of the road. Tell the driver that you want to go to Darzong Lake and he should let you know when you arrive at the turnoff. From there walk about an hour along the dirt road on the left. You will be charged a ¥10 entrance fee as you pass through the only Tibetan village along the road. Catch another bus from the highway back to town for ¥5-¥10.
- Hike in the hills. take a trek for a nice view over the town or the distant snowy peaks while enjoying the peace and tranquillity, disturbed only by occasional wayward yak. The forest behind the Thangka sunning terrace may look inviting but the amount of rubbish covering the ground detracts greatly. A better option is to follow the canal at the Monastery's entrance uphill and head along the dry floodway till you find a suitable point to ascend the hillside.
There are dozens of shops along Renmin XiLu selling locally made crafts including colourful textiles, silver jewellery, Tibetan hats and fake antiques. Bargaining is a must.
One product you should not buy are the many furs for sale. Some clothing with fur trim might may be fake but the hides of entire animals are the real thing. Many of the skins are poached and may be of endangered species. Asia's wildlife is quickly disappearing as China's appetite for illegal animal products increases. Please don't contribute to this crisis.
Most of the eating options are clustered within a 100m radius of where Renmin XiJie enters the Monastery. Most of their menus are indistinguishable from the one next door, serving tolerable Chinese dishes and the ubiquitous Tibetan Momo. A wider search will win adventurous taste buds more authentic local dishes such as Tsampa (barley flour and Yak butter ball) or JueNia Fan (rice with a deliciously sweet local root). More circumspect travellers can stick to western food the well-trodden backpacker places.
- Gesar Restaurant (On the corner of Renmin XiLu in front of the prayer wheels). One of the original places that's barely changed in years. The extensive English menu has a mix of Chinese and Tibetan dishes, plus a few approximations of western treats. Worth trying is the Tsampa, JueMa Fan and capichino style Yak butter tea. Everything is made from scratch so wait times can be lengthy, but the Tibetan style benches around the stove make a comfortable and warm place to watch the procession of pilgrims spinning prayer wheel over the road. mains ¥7-20, Yak tea ¥4.
- Late Sparkie (2 floor above Gesar). Oddly named Sichuan Hotpot place with individual pots and a selection of goat and vegetables to put in the spicy broth. ¥14 for the pot and ¥2-10 for each plate of meat or vegetable.
- Snowy Mountain Cafe, Renmin XiJie (next to the Overseas Tibetan Hotel on the 2nd floor). Authentic Western food and local favorites. Currently managed by a local couple and an American, although the American owner is often not around.
Many of the backpacker oriented restaurants have fresh coffee and hot chocolate.
- Labrang Redrock International Youth Hostel, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A typical YHA hostel with warm, chunky wooden interior. The bunk beds have a reading lamp at your head and storage locker at your other end, but you may wish there was a softer mattress under you. The bathrooms are clean but the odour of the toilets leaves no doubt that it is shared. The solar heated showers are only hot when the sun shines. The communal area downstairs has free Wifi and a long line at the shared computer. Dorms 8-bed ¥30, 4-bed ¥35, Doubles ¥100.
- Tara Guesthouse, Renmin XiJie, ☎ . Three floors of Tibetan-esque double rooms that increase in freshness and price with each ascension of the stairs. All rooms regardless of price have clean shared toilets. Doubles ¥40/60/100.
- Overseas Tibetan Hotel (Next to Tara Guesthouse), ☎ . Most travellers getting off the bus with their nose in a guidebook will head here first. Those enticed by the cheap dorms might discover that the sporadic hot water in the showers and the eternally filthy toilets detract from their frugal gains. As the hostels motto expounds, you get what you pay for. The doubles with ensuite are decidedly better but hardly a bargain. Dorms ¥20, Doubles ¥100.
- White Stupa Hotel (Across from Tara Guesthouse), ☎ .
- White Conch Hotel, ☎ .
- Labrang Baoma Hotel (Across from Overseas Tibetan). Large and clean rooms. Doubles with en-suite bathrooms cost ¥250-300 (according to season and bargaining skills).
Outside the main tourist season there might be no running water and electricity during the day. The power is switched on at night, but nobody can predict when that is going to happen. Don't be surprised if you have to wait until 10.30 pm. Currently, electricity, running water, and transportation are available without problems or limitations.