A short detour towards Tibet, or: Buddha Inc.

The plan is a quick overnight in Lanzhou and an early start tomorrow to Linxia and eventually Xiahe, site of the largest Tibetan monastery in China. It starts, as these things so often do, not well. Neither the taxi driver nor his extended family are able to locate my hotel and even Maps.me gives up the ghost. Eventually I am abandoned in downtown Lanzhou, for mine millenial host of the ‘Orange Hotel’ to collect me, grumbling.  Strangely the hotel appears to be located on the 20th floor of one of those buildings whose crumbling concrete is clearly living on borrowed time. Even more strangely it appears to be an apartment belonging to someone’s grandma (not in residence).

Cast: Mine millenial host; Me. Fortunately MMH speaks English, of a sort.

Me: What’s THIS?

MMH: It’s the room you booked.

Me: No it really isn’t, it doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the site (besides a very well appointed room Trip.com also promised a bath, which I have been fantasizing about for the last 4 hours on the ‘farmer’s train’). Why is it called Orange Hotel?

MMH: This is not exactly a hotel, it’s a homestay. That picture is my room (clearly elsewhere). If it is unavailable we assign you another one (huh? has the scam revealed itself?).

ME: Trip.com said nothing at all about any of that.

MMH: (Eyes start to swivel, we’ve been here before). That’s a problem with their website.

I launch into full excoriating mom mode. He sees his Trip Advisor future flash before his eyes.

MMH: OK how about I take you to the bus station tomorrow to make up for it.

(The bus station is miles away and will be even more of a pain to find, so as the ads say – priceless).

Me: (But I am relentless and bitter because of the bath) – OK, at 8am.

On inspection the building is actually full of students. I find a great dinner, sleep well and am awakened in plenty of time at 7am when all the students (on the 20th floor at least) start simultaneously having sex. At 8am sharp here is MMH in his knock-off aviators and the same white Honda CRV the security forces in Xinjiang drive (a complete coincidence I’m sure). Quick as a flash I’m on the bus and a mere 2 hours later in Linxia (the Trip Advisor review has already been posted).

I am being rather unfair, some attempt has been made to spruce up the unfortunate accommodation; this is it.



I’m interested in majority Muslim Linxia AKA ‘China’s Mecca’. Home to Hui rather than Uighurs and their attendant mosques (more than 80) and sundry Sufi mausoleums it is far more overtly religious than any of the Xinjiang towns. Funnily enough though, no police seem to be required, and co-existence appears relatively seamless, superficially at least (foreigners are only allowed to stay in the Chinese quarter, at one specific hotel). In fact it is a totally unexpected pleasure – a soft spring day with the blossoms exploding and the mostly veiled women out in force, socializing gravely, apart from their menfolk.

Mosques galore


Stately Sufi mausoleums




The Sufi in question


The blossom is out


Along with everyone, but no-one wants their picture taken.


A stolen picture, the men are across the street


Another unexplained back-story in the park


Store front dentistry


Illegal furs, the leopard is hidden away (no photos please)


Can’t resist the colors


But Linxia is also being co-opted into the great Silk Road tourist machine, as is evident from a tarted up market area complete with bronze camels. Since Linxia has nothing at all to do with the Silk Road the whole effort is being roundly ignored.


It doesn’t take long to figure out the lack of consensus re: the length of the bus ride from Linxia to Xiahe.  It turns out the conductor’s job is mainly to drum up customers (Initially I’m sympathetic since we set off with only three passengers).  Which means first we stop for breakfast just round the corner and acquire about a dozen more, then, whenever a pedestrian is spotted beside the road, we slow down to walking pace so the conductor can lean out of the door and pitch them the idea of a nice trip. Their success rate is maybe 1 in 4 but to their credit we do finally make full house, about 20 minutes from Xiahe, a mere 4 hours later.

Has another sucker fallen for an impromptu trip? And what’s with the lilac pillbox – clearly a sect, lots of people sport them – but which one?



Xiahe is at 10,000 feet so I’m not sure whether the feeling that I’m going to pass out is due to the altitude or my horrible cold. The nice Tibetan host of my hotel immediately starts an intensive lemon and honey regime and seconds the other guests, a couple of pleasant Indian guys from Bombay, as my babysitters for the English language tour of the Labrang monastery.

Home to more than 1000 Tibetan and Mongolian monks from the ‘Yellow Hat’ sect Labrang is staggeringly huge and a humming business machine.  There are hundreds of temples and visiting monks get a whole village full of Buddhist necessity shops (saffron colored everything from washing bowls to dish detergent). Disappointingly, no photos of the highly ornate interiors and Buddhas. Disappointingly too, our Buddhist monk guide spends most of our time rearranging his robes to more fetchingly display his upper arms and prodding my new Indian friends about the latest Bollywood movies (that we are told he watches avidly on his smartphone) than giving us any useful or accurate information, so we leave not much wiser than we arrive. We do notice several pictures of the Panchen Lama at different ages, presumably to reassure the faithful he is still alive. ‘He comes to visit often’ our guide lies to us smoothly, who knows why (the poor kid has been disappeared for years).

Labrang monastery was built in the 1700s, it is the largest outside Tibet.



Many inaccessible courtyards


And once more, no indoor photos


I can’t remember what this is called but people process along it clockwise, spinning the cylinders.


In fact walking clockwise round buildings while surreptitiously chanting seems to be a big thing in general.



Walking clockwise, but presumably not at this moment praying,


We are told the monks are practicing for a big philosophical debate. The guide is not prepared to tell us about what.


After we ditch our unlikable guide the printing ‘press’ is much more forthcoming; thousands upon thousands of sutras.



the likely lads of the press are sloping off but shape up when I appear. One holds the paper over the sutra the other rubs on the ink.


Then they toss it to him who stacks it up. They have thousands to get through today.


The benevolent printing master, the only monk who lets me take his picture.


Eat your heart out Syracuse and Iowa, these are yak butter sculptures for this year’s competition (they smell vile).



It is disconcerting to be around such pervasive and intense displays of religion. Everyone is muttering under their breath and even the maids in the hotel are Oming as they clean the rooms, much to my confusion.

The perfectly lovely (and sparkling clean) Tibetan Family Hotel


After I beg for ‘Anything as long as it’s not Chinese’ Madame rustles me up a fine yak curry.


It occurs to me that not all my problems are due to the fact that I don’t speak Chinese (although it certainly doesn’t help – current vocabulary – ‘Hello’ ‘thank you’ ‘sorry’ and ‘noodles’ [I don’t think ‘bye-bye’ should count]) but that no-body else round here does either. I must be back at Lanzhou station by 8:30 to catch my overnight train onward to X’ian. Mine nice Tibetan host, who speaks perfect English, but who, as we will see evidently doesn’t read Chinese, pooh-poohs the idea of the noon bus (the fast express that will hoof it along the highway all the way back to Lanzhou in a mere 31/2 hours). ‘You’ll be at the train station far too early’ he says ‘And what will you do there? Wait here comfortably with your lemon and honey and catch the 2:30’.

Mine host. A great number in lemon and honey, not so much in travel advice.


At 2:00 I’m at the bus station asking for the Lanzhou express and by 2:15 they’ve found someone who can give me the news – ‘tomorrow’ – apparently the 2:30 is not an express and horrors! only goes to Linxia. Still, buses onward to Lanzhou are frequent and in theory I can still make the train. Everybody rallies round but only in Tibetan and Hui,  thereby precluding GT, and I can only deduce the bus driver’s assurance we can arrive in Linxia by 4.  This seems highly unlikely, as our subsequent progress confirms (impromptu trips to Linxia are less popular so we go even more slowly). In fact it is now 4:45 and here we are still about 15km outside Linxia at a complete stop again and I am seriously failing at being Buddhist about it all as the rest of the passengers earnestly recommend (I think).  But wait! the millenial who now bounds aboard seizes my backpack and me, disgorges my roly bag from the bowels and hustles us all across 6 lanes of traffic. There, inexplicably, facing the other direction is another stationary bus – the Linxia-Lanzhou express. The conductor (bless him suddenly) has somehow intercepted it. Our new conductor has got himself another customer and I arrive at the station handily by 7:30. The train however is delayed until 11:00.


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