For a truly spiritual experience, Xiahe is one of my favorite destinations in China.
Xiahe, part of the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture located on the southern edge of Gansu Province, is home to the Labrang Monastery. Founded around 1700, Labrang continues to be one of the most important and famous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
Tucked under a stream of rolling hills, the massive monastery spreads itself across the northern side of Xiahe as if it was a city within a city. Inside its walls, Labrang is a living and breathing monastery with dirt alleyways as its veins and monks as its lifeblood.
As recently as the early 20th century, Xiahe has had a sad history of bloody conflict between the Huizu and Tibetan people. Thankfully today these two groups live in an albeit somewhat prejudiced peaceful harmony.
Labrang was opened to tourism after 1970, and the signs of tourism, such as guesthouses and souvenir shops are clear, but not overly intrusive. A grid of alleyways cuts through Labrang's square buildings, with large temples and courtyards in the central areas. One of the best things about Labrang is walking through a random open door and discovering a group of locals circling a stupa or chanting in a dark corner.
By the end of the day, Labrang’s alleys are quiet with faint sounds of prayer. Behind the clay walls, you can hear the constant murmurings of the monks and the crackle of a roaring fire. Then, by around 8pm, Labrang goes black.