In these over-publicized times of China's new railroad to Tibet, one might be better off avoiding the tourist circus than rnning away with it. Indeed, unless the reader has a certain fondness for overbooked hotels and intrusive, red hat-wearing tour groups, Lhasa is hardly the Tibetan delight that travel agencies continue to bill it as.
Fortunately, lesser-traveled Gansu province in northwest China offers the cultural charm of Tibet without the crowds. Sharing borders with six other provinces except Tibet, it is physically unobvious that Gansu would be home to any kind of Tibetan population. This, coupled with the great shadows cast by the ever-popular neighboring Sichuan and Shaanxi, results in Gansu being one of China's well-kept travel secrets.The narrowly arching province makes it somewhat inconvenient to traverse, yet it is due to this shapely fact that the northern and southern regions offer dramatically different topography, climate and culture, lending to Gansu's uniquely varying harm.
Situated adjacent to both Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces, the small city of Dunhuang in Gansu's Hexi corridor is famed for its mountain-sized sand dunes and ancient Buddhist grotto cave art. A tree-trimmed oasis emmed by a limitless expanse of sand, Dunhuang, once an important outpost along the Silk Road, is now a travel destination as hot as the outlying deserts.
On the theoretically and geographically opposite end of the province, the mountainous terrain of Xiahe provides a cool, quiet respite from both the sweltering sands and disorderly tour groups of Dunhuang. After threading through verdant grasslands grazing with yak, golden fields of wheat and undulating hills of the contiguous Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, Xiahe suddenly appears beneath the surreal blue sky like a monastic vision.
Of the Gannon Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Xiahe is in fact no more than a simple slat-wood settlement along the Daxia River physically and socially orbiting the impressive Labuleng, mainland China's largest Tibetan monastery. Hugged up against the surrounding mountainside, the picturesque state known also as the Labrang Lamma monastery was built in 1710 and accommodates six Buddhist seminaries and over 500 monks of the Yellow Hat sect.
Buddhists from across the region come to worship at Labuleng, contributing to the colorful activity that gives Xiahe its attractive allure. A three-kilometer kora (spiritual walking circuit) halos the area and is heavy with foot traffic from dawn to dusk, whereby crimson-robed monks and natively dressed Amdo pilgrims spinning hand-held mani wheels orbit the monastery while breathlessly prostrating themselves and chanting mantras.