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Posts Tagged ‘Gansu’

Tibetan SeamstressLangmusi is a Tibetan village surrounded by superb grasslands where nomadic people herd their yaks and sheep, and some very high mountains with snowy peaks.

The village is half in Gansu and half in Sichuan and the White Dragon River marks the boundary. There’s a monastery on either side of the river – and each of them charges you 30¥ (3 quid) to walk up their side of the valley! Apart from this rather un-Buddhist behaviour (according to Jim – the laughing monks who took our money didn’t seem to mind) it’s a very nice place to stay with its small town vibes.

The monasteries have metal-roofed temples and narrow streets with small white houses for the monks. On the top of almost every hill there’s a prayer flag beacon and one or two are “sky burial” sites. It’s a Tibetan custom to leave the dead on top of a mountain where the body will be eaten by vultures. It sounds a bit gruesome, but actually I don’t think it’s a bad idea – it’s certainly no worse than ours anyway.

We have spent two perfect days climbing high mountains and beating our personal altitude levels to get above the herds of yaks to some absolutely amazing views. Best of all are the huge vultures wheeling overhead – maybe looking out for some sky burial fodder?

Tibetan vulture

At one point two of them fly right out from under us, so that we are looking down on their huge tawny bodies and black tipped wings. We are extremely excited!

YaksTibetan vulture

Next day we wake to snow and freezing temperatures. What to do in a hotel room without heating (just electric blankets) in a little village with not a lot going on?

MonksBundled up locals

The locals just bundle themselves up even more than usual, but the monks (especially the little boys) in their robes look freezing and nobody really wants to go far from their stove.

The answer is to get into a warm café, first making sure that they have a stove on and a Tibetan tea and tsampadoor that shuts and start trying out various menu items.

I don’t fancy yak butter tea (I was put off by the rancid smell of the yak butter candles in the temple) but yak meat is pretty good – slightly tough but as good as Aberdeen Angus steak, and yak burgers are definitely recommended. Cups of tea are made by pouring boiling water over a variety of strange foliage which just gets in your teeth, and traditional Tibetan tea is like a flippin’ pot pourri. I can report that tea bags are not something either the Tibetans or the Chinese seem to go in for and are unavailable for love or money. Afternoon tea may be accompanied by tsampa, a Tibetan staple of roasted barley either made into porridge or moulded into balls. It’s really delicious and reminds me strongly of Weetabix.

The other thing I can do is shop for my ideal Tibetan robe. I’ve been studying them carefully on everyone who walks past and have decided the style I’d like. Trouble is Tibetans in tibetan robesLangmusi is not exactly huge and there are only two fabric shops where you can have them sewn to suit. But I like the look of the Tibetan lady sewing away in one of them and she has a persuasive way with her, so although neither of us speaks a word of each other’s language, a deal is struck. Swayed by the cold weather I am talked into the winter style with a warm woolly fleece lining. Then I just need to choose the border and it’s all sewn on there and then.

A Tibetan robe can be worn in all sorts of ways, they’re a very versatile garment – big enough to cover your head if it rains, to snuggle up in when it’s cold, and to carry babies or shopping in if necessary. Very rarely are both sleeves worn; once it’s tightly wrapped and secured with a sash, you pull your right arm out of its sleeve, and this hangs down the back held by a belt in a decorative fashion. When the weather gets warm, the other arm comes out too and this sleeve is wrapped round the waist.

Time to try on my new robe. My rather severe Tibetan seamstress wraps me up firmly and once she has got me properly attired, a big smile lights up her face. She gives me the thumbs up – clearly I have been transformed from a tourist into a recognisable human being!

Diane and Jim on a Tibetan hill

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OK! At the end of two 23 hour train journeys we’re finally out of the desert, and into farmland with small holdings and recognisable crops. We’ve crossed into Gansu province and its famous “Hexi Corridor” a narrow stretch of flat land between mountains which Silk Route caravans had to pass through on their way to the West from China.

From here various warmongering Emperors of their various warmongering dynasties sent out their storm troopers to conquer more territory and people for themselves. Xinjiang was known as “The Middle Kingdom”, and so at last we’re now hitting China proper.

Suddenly there are massive building sites as far as the eye can see and quite literally hundreds of building cranes. We thought we were coming into a fairly manageable provincial capital called Lanzhou, but let’s look in Lonely Planet – exactly how big is Lanzhou? Oh, it says it has a population of 3,200,000 – as big as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow combined. It has probably reached 4 million by now!

 

A complete shock to the system as we emerge from the station to be hit by a barrage of blaring car horns and the sudden need for 360˚ vision to a cross a road and survive. We quickly decide that the 2 or 3 days of city life we had planned can probably be squeezed into an afternoon.

That afternoon is spent sitting in taxis in barely moving traffic (the buses having defeated us), taking a look at the mighty Yellow River (and it is indeed a sort of brownish yellowy colour) and riding a cable car above the permanent smog which envelops the city to a view of the concrete blocks surrounding the fabled river in every direction. It’s not exactly a hell hole but it’ll do til one comes along (and I suppose it will)

Enough! Call me a country bumpkin and a wimp but I want back to the countryside ASAP.

A few short hours and we’re out into the villages again with terraced fields and people busy with their autumnal jobs, drying corn cobs and stacking maize stalks, ancient brick works with hillside kilns and most surprisingly, mosques all over the place. This is an area with a high percentage of Chinese Muslims, the Hui. They were almost completely massacred in the 1870s but have obviously bounced back. Judging by the number of mosques, their faith is now not only tolerated but positively encouraged – but then, these days they are much less bumptious than the Uyghurs.

Our bus keeps climbing higher and we start to see prayer flags in the fields, an old lady with long plaits, a monk in the whole maroon robes get-up and children with very rosy cheeks get on the bus and before we know it we’re in full-on Tibetan mode.

We had no idea, but this area along the borders of western China is inhabited mostly by Tibetans. And Xiahe where we get off is not only a majority Tibetan town but it’s also a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. The Labrang Monastery which houses 1,200 monks is one of the 6 major monasteries of the Yellow Hat order (and the Dalai Lama is the head Yellow Hat) so it’s a pretty big deal. The town is full of guesthouses, shops and teahouses, catering for the hordes of mostly rural Tibetans who turn up by the coach and truck load. And what a colourful lot they are.

Tibetans are another minority who look, sound, write and behave nothing like the Han Chinese. They’re a noisy, exuberant bunch – probably because although they’re on a pilgrimage, it’s also a bit of a holiday. They’re also incredibly exotic.

Old guys in trilbies and sun glasses with prayer beads, old girls with long plaits in chunky trainers and sunhats, hunky young guys with long hair and mobile phones in fur lined robes, young women in face masks, coral necklaces, wide leather belts and brocade robes. Oh, and monks everywhere!

Walking the 3 km pilgrims path (kora) all around the outside of the monastery spinning the 1,174 prayer wheels as you go is a great way of having a laugh with them exotic Tibetan pilgrims. The longer path around the top of the mountains looking down on it all is even better.

But nowhere is perfect. The part of town where poor Tibetans live is pretty dire with mud alleyways, litter tips and no drains (I hate to think what the medieval sewage system is like). The Chinese “quarter” is tower blocks and the ever present building sites – what for? More hotels? More housing blocks?

This journey through China is becoming a tour of the borderlands and therefore of the minorities who live here, and no less interesting for it, perhaps. Xiahe has totally bowled us over anyway; I hope the photos give you a flavour.

After a couple of fantastic days here, Jim arrives back from a foray to the shops with a rug under his arm (at last!) It’s Tibetan, its wool, and the designs look typical but more than that we don’t really know.

It’s obviously time I found out more about Tibetan textiles!


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