Head for the Hills of Xiahe

By Sam Braybon 2021-06-15 16:50:13

Exploring the grassy regions of Xiahe.

It’s that time of year when temperatures are rising, and whilst we certainly appreciate the warm sunny days of spring it’s a clear reminder that Shanghai’s summer is about to descend upon us once again. It’s this absolute sauna of a season that puts our love for this city to the test more than anything else. And whilst locals like to suggest minibreaks to Hangzhou or Moganshan, we honestly find them just as insufferably sweltering as Shanghai, and that’s before we’ve even contemplated the crazy tourist crowds. 

So, this summer, with international travel still a distant dream, you’ll find us heading to Gansu Province. Specifically, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the southernmost tip of Gansu Province, where daytime temperatures hover around 22 degrees Celsius, and you’ll even need to a pack a warm sweater for the chilly evenings. Bliss, right? If the idea of rolling green hills and verdant grasslands that your kids can romp through appeals, then we suggest you consider joining us on this journey to the west. 



The tiny town of Xiahe sits in the center of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, four hours by vehicle from the provincial capital of Lanzhou, the easiest point of access from Shanghai (a small airport in Xiahe itself only has daily flights to Xi’an). Whilst most of Gansu’s cities sizzle in the summer, this appealing enclave sits at a lofty 2,900 meters above sea level. That’s high enough for some to feel the effects of altitude, so take it easy and keep hydrated after you first arrive, almost all visitors adapt quickly. 

The first thing that you’ll almost certainly notice is the monks. The town centre is a veritable blur of purple robes, shaved heads, and big smiles – and you’ll likely find yourself sharing restaurants, hotels and taxis with these mostly cheerful chaps. Xiahe sits on the Tibetan Plateau and is home to the famed Labrang Monastery, considered by some to be one of the most important in the region with over 300 years history and around 1,800 monks in residence. Whilst Xiahe is culturally very much a part of Tibet, it falls outside the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region and as such is much easier to visit with no special travel permits required. 



Labrang Monastery dominates the town and is fascinating to explore. Tickets need to be purchased, but as the town and monastery are almost integrated in parts, it’s often possible to simply amble in and explore. Curious kids will enjoy joining one of the official monastery tours led by an English-speaking monk (arranged twice per day, check times at your hotel) they will take you through some of the prayer halls and answer any questions that you may have. You’ll also get glimpses of everyday life in the monastery, with small groups of monks playing football and hanging out in the courtyards. 

Joining the morning kora, a circuit around the perimeter of the monastery, is a form of pilgrimage and a genuinely moving experience that all visitors should try. Especially busy in the early mornings, the track is bustling with locals who, unfazed by bumbling outsiders like us, walk the 3.5-kilometer circuit at speed, spinning the prayer wheels as they go. The walk takes around an hour and offers views over the glistening golden rooftops of the monastery. 

Outside of the city there is more to explore. We enjoy the trip across the sweeping Ganjia Grasslands – where you’ll spy herds of yak roaming – to the ancient, fortified village of Bajiao. Little real detail is known about the history of this settlement which is thought to have been here for 2,000 years, but its impressive walls are set in a cross formation and it remains inhabited to this day. An adventure here should be concluded by clambering up the steps to the viewing platform, where you can look over the village and the steep mountains behind it. 



Happily, there are lots of creative folk in the area that make travelling here a real joy. Dutch resident Clary and her Tibetan husband Wandhikhar opened the Nirvana Hotel in 2014. With fifteen cozy, clean rooms just footsteps away from the monastery, and a comfortable bar that serves fresh coffee, food and local beer it’s a fantastic family base. In 2019 they opened a resort of wooden chalets on the expansive Sangke Grasslands for those that want a taste of nomadic life whilst remaining in relative comfort. The team here can also arrange tours of the area, as well as renting out bikes for those that enjoy cycling. 

Also on the grasslands, Norden is a camping experience for those that like their wilderness to be highly Instagrammable. The site is open from spring to the end of autumn each year, and the beautifully designed tents need to be booked well in advance, typically starting from around 2,500 RMB per night. The team here also operate a lovely café in Xiahe town which is well worth a visit, and their sister brand Norlha have a stylish boutique selling exquisite yak wool items just up the street. 


Nirvana Hotel: https://www.nirvana-hotel.net/ or (+86) 941 7181 702.