Thinking of visiting Tibet? Amdo is one of the best places for first-timers.
For as far as the eye could see, thousands of white tents the size of Winnebagos covered a grassland valley, surrounding a tent as large as a football field. Inside, monks had been chanting along with the lectures of high Tibetan lamas for hours. Outside, some 300,000 Tibetan pilgrims — many of them nomads — followed the prayers via stadium-size jumbotrons broadcasting the action inside.
On my first afternoon in the valley, just outside Labrang Monastery, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, I wandered through the sea of tents for an hour or so before pitching my own, which was designed for backpacking. My neighbors laughed at its size, then at me and invited me to dinner.
I'd just finished my first year teaching Chinese history in Beijing, at an exchange program for American high school students, and I was happy to be on my own for the summer. A decade earlier, in 2006, I'd been a student at the very same program, and we'd visited the area in the last weeks of school. At the time, I remembered the Tibetan plateau feeling different from the eastern cities of China, and not just because the air was cleaner. After living in Beijing for nine months, I couldn't believe how much open space there was, and how slow the pace felt.
Ten years later, my reasons for visiting had changed somewhat. In the years I'd been away, ethnic riots had broken out in Lhasa in 2008, and a wave of self-immolations had begun in protest of Chinese rule. The Chinese government had responded by pouring money into the region in an attempt to buy back Tibetan loyalty, and the plateau was changing fast. But that also meant the area was becoming more accessible, and more tourists were visiting beyond intrepid backpackers. Over the past three years, I've returned multiple times to track the changes, but I never stop taking in the scenery.
One of the best places to do that for first-time visitors to Tibetan areas is in Amdo, one of Tibet's three main kingdoms. Today, Amdo includes parts of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and slivers of Sichuan. The Chinese government doesn't regulate travel in the Amdo regions of Tibet as tightly as it does Tibet proper, and foreign travelers need not arrange travel permits to visit the region. Its rolling grasslands and hidden mountain ranges, however, are as breathtaking as any on the Tibetan Plateau, and its culture is as deeply entrenched. Amdo has produced a nearly endless number of influential Tibetan leaders, among them the current Dalai Lama, whose native prairies in Qinghai offer some of the most dramatic landscapes on the plateau.
At elevations above 10,000 feet, Amdo's winds and piercing sky can feel far removed from the smog of major Chinese cities, but its eastern edge lies only a few hours by plane from Beijing. To get there, most visitors fly into Lanzhou, the sprawling capital of Gansu Province, and then arrange a car or take a bus to Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe County, about three hours from the capital. Over the span of a 4,000-foot elevation gain from Lanzhou, the highway to Labrang provides a slide show of rapid cultural transition: urban sprawl gives way to the spires of Hui Muslim mosques in Linxia, and then, as the dry, cracked soil of the Loess plateau transforms into a canvas of open grassland, Buddhist monasteries begin to emerge, marking the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
The plateau offers two main activities for travelers: exploring the many monasteries scattered over the plains and trekking. Xiahe, Langmusi and Zhagana — a small city, a town, and mountain village respectively, all within a few hours' drive of one another — offer both in spades to first-timers, though at different scales. Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe, remains one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Plateau, with some 4,000 monks. Langmusi, a high-elevation town that splits the Gansu and Sichuan border, draws smaller crowds of backpackers in the summer for grassland treks and glimpses of its two smaller monasteries. And only a two-hour drive from Langmusi lies Zhagana, a narrow valley of dramatic mountain villages ideal for high-alpine hiking.
Labrang Monastery, which was rebuilt after most of it was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, marks the first logical stop from Lanzhou, and most of it can be seen in a day. In the morning, it's worth waking up early to walk around the monastery with the pilgrims, some of whom travel great distances to Labrang while others stop there as part of their commute, prostrating themselves in a circumambulation of the complex. The beginning of late-morning prayers, marked by Tibetan horns and streams of monks hurrying to the central prayer hall, are sometimes open to the public.
The next stop, to Langmusi, is further removed from such aggressive commercialization, though the town is expanding as well. From Labrang, the drive takes about four-to-five hours, but the grassland scenery is spectacular, and there's an opportunity to break up the drive by stopping in Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. There, a nine-story temple — a rarity in Tibetan architecture — called Milarepa Lhakhang offers a great view. The view from the top floor frames a typical expanse in modern Tibetan cities: an old monastery complex, then Chinese apartment sprawl and finally grasslands in the distance that extend into oblivion.
Another two hours of driving and you'll arrive in Langmusi, a small town representative of many in Amdo — construction of a new commercial strip, financed by the Chinese government, has recently doubled its length, which is only about a half-mile long. The town's appeal lies in the two monasteries and the surrounding mountains, which make the place an offbeat haven for backpackers.
Langmusi's older monastery, Kirti, sits just below these mountains at the mouth of a gorge. About 300 feet up the ravine, groundwater trickles out of a rock bed and into a stream powering Tibetan prayer mills. A short hike above the gorge leads to tangle of prayer flags and a good spot to watch upland buzzards circling on thermals, searching for rodents. From the peak, Langmusi's other monastery, Sertri, is easily visible.
In town, both monasteries allow tourists to walk their grounds with an entrance ticket, and, for lunch, you can sample a yak burger at Leisha's Restaurant. Walk up and down the main street and you'll also see many advertisements for trekking across the grasslands surrounding Langmusi, often with the option to stay the night with nomads. The treks are well worth the time, especially ones that visit nearby Gahai Lake, a high grassland lake surrounded by distant mountains and home to many highland bird species.
But by far the greatest base for trekking in Gannan is the tiny mountain village of Zhagana, two hours' drive from Langmusi across a winding valley. Cliffs, high peaks, streams, fir trees and terraced fields dominate the landscape, bringing to mind a kind of Tibetan Rivendell. In the 1930s, Mao's Red Army used the landscape as cover, rampaging through the village on the Long March while fleeing Chang Kai-shek's nationalists. A number of local guesthouses run treks up over high mountain passes and into grasslands hidden behind Zhagana's imposing peaks, at over 12,000 feet, and some hikers trek up the very ravine Mao's army descended during the Long March.
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