Family Travels: Xiahe

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Travelers: Phil Calvert and Chantal Meagher, Jessye Calvert (8), Fabienne Calvert Filteau (23), Julie Foisy (29). Phil and Chantal are part of the Canadian Embassy.

The Destination: Xiahe, Gansu province

The Plan: The adventurous Calvert family have lived and traveled in China extensively over the last decade and wanted to travel somewhere new and interesting with their three daughters (who were all going to be in China together during the October holiday). Nine days in-and-around the remote Xiahe was perfect. Phil and Chantal also wanted to introduce the older girls to “rough” travel… with perhaps a little parental assistance.

How they did it: Flights were booked and Chantal avidly scoured her Lonely Planet guide on what to see and do, but other than that – this trip (like most of the family’s adventures) was really done on a wing and a prayer.

Getting there: The Calvert family took a flight to Lanzhou and a local bus to Xiahe, which promptly broke down in a little village near Linxia. This small place turned out to be a Xinjiang-style hideaway, with men in white hats and Muslim garb drinking tea outside local shops. The family ended up spending the night in a very basic hotel then found a very basic local bus – a “rattle bang chicken bus” as young Jessye called it – to Xiahe. This five-hour trip was rudimentary but the landscape was luscious, featuring a series of gorgeous green valleys that rose gradually into the Tibetan plateau (5000m+). Dizziness and sickness is not uncommon at these altitudes and Phil was dizzy a short time. Consider taking altitude tablets.

Where to kip: Having booked nowhere to stay, the Calverts enjoyed the challenge of finding a relatively decent yet budget hotel each night. In Xiahe, they stayed at the best spot in town, the Overseas Tibetan Hotel (read: hostel), which was clean and friendly with a Western breakfast and fabulous hot chocolates (100RMB private twin with heat/shower, 40RMB double/shared bathroom, 20RMB 4-bed dorms, and search for hotel name). On their way home to Beijing, the family stayed at their driver’s farmhouse; locals often offer accommodation, which is an experience in itself.

Where to nosh: While the family did try yak meat (momo meatballs), they admit Tibetan food is no culinary adventure and restaurants are very “local”. Chantal advises bringing peanut butter or other snacks for kids. This is a very meat-based place, and the family found it interesting that even the monks ate meat. They did find a great soup restaurant with noodles made in front of you; this dish only comes with meat and root vegetables – a staple of the region.

Where to pray: Labrang Monastery near Xiahe is home to the largest number of monks outside Tibet and is said to be the most important outside Lhasa. This was a stunning highlight for the Calverts. Monks dress in full Tibetan regalia, with bright crimson and fuchsia robes, and magnificent fringed hats (they are known as the yellow hat sect). Tibetan pilgrims walk a 3km circuit around Labrang Monastery, and the family likewise spun hundreds of prayer wheels, wandered the temples and halls, and enjoyed the wonderful valley views.

A monk’s life: Everything around Xiahe is focused on the Monastery’s monks, which number more than 1200. All the shops sell monk-related paraphernalia and they are a huge part of the regular community, both inside and outside the monastery, where you will see them shopping, riding motorbikes, even scaling telephone poles to fix wires in their bright robes.

Best day trips: The family organized some day trips around Xiahe with a local driver, and even though this area is remote, people often appeared to invite them in for cups of tea or offer goods for sale or ponies to hire. The family loved riding ponies through the rugged yet peaceful grasslands, and they also picnicked by Tarzang Lake, a sacred body of holy water strewn with prayer flags and the ancient tracks of pilgrims around the circumference. A day-trip highlight was Bajiao – about two hours drive from Xiahe – an old walled village in the shape of a swastika (originally a sign of peace). Surrounded by 1000-year-old crumbling dirt walls, this was a veritable ghost town, inhabited only by very young children and their elderly caretakers; all others vacate this achingly poor town in search of work.

Communicating: The family mostly used Mandarin to communicate, but English can be handy when Tibetan dialects are the only form of language. With a combination of both, they were able to cope well.

Biggest bargain: The entrance to Labrang Monastery it around 10RMB and the family could have spent weeks there. Not only a series of magnificent buildings, it was also a phenomenal human theatre. Being exam time, the young monks gathered in the large square to openly debate in a very animated and theatre-like way, with chanting, recitation and wild gesturing. It was a dynamic and moving experience for the family, and at times got a little heated.

Best sight: Walking into the monastery for the first time and seeing it awash with crimson robes. Also, the mass of high, cloth boots the monks take off and scatter all over the Monastery’s courtyard when they go inside to pray.

The highlight: Simply sitting on the steps outside the main prayer hall at the Monastery, with the warm sun on their backs, listening to the magnificent chanting and prayers drifting outside. When they were done, the smiley monks would file out and sit down next to Jessye in the sunshine. Being able to travel together as a family was also a wonderful highlight.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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