Well, the state we're in when we get off the train in Lanzhou is Gansu - a province shaped by the desert of Inner Mongolia in the north and mountains in the west. It's early morning and a freezing wind tells us that winter has arrived - everyone but us is wrapped up to the hilt. We're heading to Xiahe but the provincial museum gets rave reviews so we detour there on the way to the bus station. It's modern, free and heated so we enjoy it all the more. There's a lot of Silk Road archaeological finds, including Roman and Persian coins and ancient ritual jade daggers and vases. One item is decorated with silkworms. We are accosted by students as we walk around and stop for the obligatory photos.
Then its back out into the biting wind and onto a bus that takes us into the mountains and drops us into a grotty town peopled mainly by Hui, Chinese Muslims. In the 1800s there were two major rebellions by Muslims in Gansu that ended in their almost total eradication, but some communities have survived. This small town looks like it's missing out on China's new growth - the buildings are sad and ugly, the streets are scruffy. Thankfully there's a connection to Xiahe. Our crusty but trusty bus plods into more mountainous landscapes and finally deposits us in a muddy yard at one end of the very long one-street town. The sun has dropped behind the mountains and the sky is ominously dark.
In the morning Xiahe looks a lot better than first impressions. The sun is late to rise - a reminder that we're just a little further west - and there's a chill in the shade. The town's main draw is the Labrang Monastery, one of the six major monasteries of the Dalai Lama's sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The majority of visitors are Tibetan pilgrims who come here to pay homage and walk the kora, the circuit of the monastery lined with prayer wheels, stupas and temples.
The first sound we hear on this morning is not the chanting of monks or pilgrims but the unison shouts of soldiers returning to barracks behind our hotel. In the grounds their riot gear is laid out - for inspection or easy access? The riots in Lhasa in early 2008 also sparked protests here. It's alleged that 19 people died, but some think more. It's hard to know what tensions exist here - all seems peaceful and tourists have been allowed back since last July - but the town is visibly divided into three parts. There's the old Tibetan side, the Hui Muslims in the middle and Han Chinese at the other end, where big new buildings are going up. There are CCTV cameras on the main street and soldiers' barracks dotted about the valley.
The monastery is a huge complex of several temples, college buildings and hundreds of monks' houses. There's a constant stream of weary pilgrims circulating, uttering prayers, fingering prayer beads and turning prayer wheels. The air is thick with prayers. Most of the pilgrims are in traditional Tibetan dress - layers and layers and thick (yak-skin?) overcoats with overlong sleeves. Many of the women wear striped aprons, heavy jewellery and a face mask - to protect from dust/sun/cold. It's a fascinating ancient ritual but the pilgrims look shockingly poor and scruffy, with thin weather-beaten faces, compared to the well-dressed monks in clean maroon robes, good shoes and their chubby well-scrubbed faces. But that's how it always is. We meet a young monk, Gedun, who wants to practise his English. He's from a herder's family in Qinghai, the province northeast of Tibet. He studies Buddhist philosophy, and will do for many years to come. We meet him for tea a couple of times and talk about life, the universe and, uh, Barack Obama. When we ask about the monks with gold watches, and mobile phones , laden with shopping or tucking into big meals in some of the nicer restaurants in town, Gedun explains that many come from wealthy families and have "business in China". This makes it even more difficult to watch pilgrims kow-towing to monks in the street.
The surrounding landscape is dry and almost treeless. There are grassy hills on both sides of the valley leading to distant snow-capped mountains. Farther off up the valley are vast expanses of grasslands, but it's late in the year now and the herders have returned to their villages. The weather is perfect for walking and we climb to a peak with prayer flags, in the middle of a horseshoe ridge that gives extensive views all around. From up here we can see a longer ridge across up the valley, which we attempt the next day. The days are sunny but cool, but it feels warmer up on the ridges than down in the town. These are our first long walks since we left India and they're wonderful. Sitting in the long brown grass, looking down on minuscule villages fills us with an exhilarating joy. We have found a beautiful and untouched part of China at last.Back in the monastery we meet Andrea and Gerhard, two German cyclists who have come across from Uzbekistan. They fill us with Bicycle Fever. Like all cyclists, they seem to be always eating. With them, we witness the daily assembly of monks, all in their yellow hats, for morning prayers. It makes for great photos. If only we could capture the babbling chants and conch shell hoots as well. At night it's freezing and we wonder how long Andrea and Gerhard can go on in this severe climate. We are struggling to cope with long cold nights in our hotel - it would be perfect if there was heating and reliable hot water, but only on our fifth and last night do we get both.