Tibet or not Tibet. (September 2014)


We took the overnight train from Xi’an to Lanzhou. This is a city with a history dating back 2,000 years and was a major stopping point on the Silk Road.

We arrived in Lanzhou at 6.30am and were met by Adreana. After a quick breakfast of beef, noodles and vegetables, we set off to see the sites of the city.

We were meant to do this on our second day in Lanzhou however the road rules had changed and our driver, having a vehicle with even number plates, wasn’t permitted into the city area on the day we arrived.

This is a very small city, by Chinese standards, only having 3.4 million people, yet there is enough congestion to warrant a subway system. It’s construction was now causing more disruption hence the banning of vehicles from the CBD on certain days.

Our first stop was to visit the White Pagoda Mountain.

After crossing over the Lanzhou Iron Bridge we had a steep climb up the mountain to the pagoda. Unfortunately the pagoda was being renovated, as Lanzhou was the host city for the forthcoming Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festivals, so its famed ‘whiteness’ was in no shape to be photographed.

The views of the Yellow River from the top were worth the climb – a climb that was welcome exercise after a night confined to the train.

The Yellow River is indeed yellow, well a clay colored muddy yellow. It is regarded by many Chinese as the ‘Mother River’ because its yellow colour matches their skin.

On a siding next to the river, and harnessing its power, are the Lanzhou Water Wheels. These are two giant timber wheels that currently divert water to a mill-house, via an elevated aqueduct. They were originally used to irrigate farmland in the area. The waterwheel was originally invented by Duan Xu in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Until 1952 about 252 waterwheels stood along the Yellow River at Lanzhou.

Adjacent to the waterwheels were a group of river rafts, that use inflated sheep skins as the means of flotation. They are a popular attraction with the Chinese during the tourist season.

There was even an onsite puncture repair centre.

The Mother Statue of the Yellow River, constructed in 1986, was just down the road. It was over run by Chinese tourists having their photo taken in front of it.

The statue is of a mother and baby. It’s believed that the baby’s gender is hidden, so the viewer can chose what sex they want it to be, when they make a wish for the good fortune of their own children.

It was then into the car and off for a four hour drive to Xiahe. This drive would normally take a lot less time but it was raining, slowing the traffic down considerably.

Xiahe County is in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and is part of what was formally known as Tibet, but is now well and truly in China.

After arriving in Xiahe and checking into our hotel we were off to meet a Tibetan family on the Sangke Grassland.

These semi nomadic Tibetan herdsmen have three locations to graze their cattle and move from place to place, according to the seasons.

It was the beginning of autumn and most of the herd had already moved to the winter grasslands.

The next morning we visited the Labrang Monastery. This is a huge complex with over 1,000 monks living and learning there. It’s not only a monastery but a university that has a number of faculties including medicine, philosophy and of course Buddhism.

Apparently there are over 108 monasteries in Tibet, Labrang being the largest. From the amount of cash, received from offerings, I saw the monks counting, it may well be Tibet’s primary industry.

It was interesting to note that most of the Tibetans use iPhones and not the more common Chinese Android devices. This is because Apple have cleverly included Tibetan in their language selection.

Something the Chinese refuse to do.

In the afternoon we had a long walk around Xiahe and another great coffee at Cafe Norden. The coffee was an unexpected highlight, given where we were.

Tibet, like most of China, is modernising and new buildings are popping up at a rapid rate. The small town of Xiahe was no exception, with indoor shopping malls being built adjacent to the main street. From what I could see these were very underused, with most shopkeepers preferring to remain on the main thoroughfare.

It was then back into the car for another long, wet drive back to Lanzhou.

When we arrived the traffic was chaotic. Again it was the turn of vehicles with even number plates and our driver only had permission to drop us off at the railway station for our trip to Jiayuguan.

I would hate to imagine what it would be like with both odds and evens on the road.

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