We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay during our time in Gansu. It’s tricky even if you try. Gansu is one of the poorest provinces in China, and in comparison to most other places we’ve been to, the pace of life is slower. The change was welcome, and after leaving the train station we had no problem in stumbling across a hotel. We then scoured the backstreets for a local dinner. Our search led us to a little jiǎozi (饺子, boiled dumpling) shack, where the sole waitress appeared to be the two cooks’ 8-year-old daughter. Mum and dad stuffed and folded fresh ingredients, boiled them up, and daughter bought them over. They were the best jiǎozi I’ve ever had. Kayleigh had a revelatory moment. Much of what we learn about China, we learn through its food. Food is important everywhere in the world, however it seems like in a lot of Western countries the culture surrounding our own particular cuisines has faded, the significance of eating the majority of our meals together as family and friends has lessened, but this is certainly not the case in China. No matter where you go, you will find groups of people huddled around makeshift tables in the street eating and socialising, restaurants always packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder at round tables, almost 100% of the time sharing all dishes.
A good night’s sleep later we were on the bus to Xiahe, in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Our mission: to witness the Great Prayer Festival in one of the six leading monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang Monastery.
There are a bunch of cheap hotels and hostels in Xiahe. We stayed in Labrang International Redrock Youth Hostel for less than £5 a night, and a short walk from the monastery and main road, and with extremely friendly and accommodating staff. Our whole time in Xiahe felt like being in a completely different world from the Eastern China we’d been living in. Most inhabitants are of either Tibetan or Hui Chinese descent. Our ears were treated to the sound of new dialects, our eyes to brightly patterned, silver-adorned clothing, and our noses to the decadent smell of yak-butter tea with fresh fluffy bread. We visited the monastery numerous times during our stay, taking in its serene and otherworldly atmosphere.
The hostel ran impromptu trips to the nearby Sangke Prairie (桑科草原 Sāngkē cǎoyuán), part of Gannan Grasslands, considered one of the most beautiful scenic areas in China. On the Prairie we were let loose from our small car of travelers a few times along the long, winding, single dirt-track road. We scrambled across hill tops getting battered by the brutal grassland winds – the one tiny village we saw en route had a high mud wall surrounding it for protection against the wind’s ferocity. It didn’t affect the super hardy yaks and sheep roaming the plains, however, even the adorable baby ones. Further up a hillside, nestled into the walls of a huge ravine, was a secret shrine which appeared to commemorate a late Tibetan monk. Some of our group dared to venture deeper into the cave by candlelight, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to being inside a cliff face, with bats, in the middle of such a barren part of the world.
The average altitude of the Sangke Grasslands is over 3000m. This, combined with eating at places which proudly displayed China’s worst health and safety certificate level on a wall plaque, is probably what led to us getting sick during our stay. I made a trip to the local hospital for a healthy dose of both Chinese and Western medicine, the same hospital which just months earlier a monk had self-immolated outside of. The politically restless state in Western China is no doubt why we, as two foreign girls with no guide, were police checked three times within two days.
The whole experience was incredibly eye-opening, showing a great deal more of the diversity to be found in China. Our journey back took an epic 40 hours, 20 hours of which were spent on a sleeper bus – a surprisingly comfy way to get ‘home’ to Ningbo!