Why You Should Visit the Labrang Monastery
The Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu Province in China is one of the best places to experience Tibetan culture without traveling to Tibet itself.
In fact, even though it doesn't fall within the borders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) as defined by the Chinese government, this area has always been part of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo.
Tibetan culture remains very strong at Labrang, which is considered to be the cultural heart of Amdo.
The monastery was founded in 1709 by the first Jamyang, a lineage of reincarnated Buddhas who rank third in importance after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
Labrang is one of the six main monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and it's the largest Tibetan monastery outside of TAR.
Here, you'll see hundreds of red-robed Buddhist monks and Tibetan lay people dressed in traditional attire as they walk the three-kilometer path around the monastery, praying, chanting and spinning prayer wheels as they go.
And, since the government of China doesn't officially consider Labrang to be part of Tibet, it's much easier and cheaper to visit than Lhasa and other holy sites inside TAR. Foreigners are free to travel to Labrang independently without a permit.
At least, that's usually the case. You should always check the latest travel restrictions before you go, as they do sometimes change.
Our First Attempt at Visiting the Labrang Monastery
My husband Nick and I first tried to visit the Labrang Monastery back in 2009, and that trip was a disaster.
We weren't aware that, in reaction to political protests by Tibetans, the Chinese government had placed restrictions not only on Tibet travel but also on travel to the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where the Labrang Monastery is located.
We made it as far as the neaby transport hub of Hezuo, where we were surrounded by half a dozen S.W.A.T. police officers. They took us to the prefecture head of foreign affairs, who kindly bought us lunch and then drove us back across the prefecture border.
We adjusted our itinerary and explored some of the Silk Road sights along the Hexi Corridor elsewhere in Gansu, but we were unable to visit any of the Tibetan areas in the province.
It makes for a good travel story now, but at the time it was confusing and stressful. And we were bitterly disappointed to miss out on visiting the Labrang Monastery.
When we finally made it there in 2019, we had been dreaming about it for 10 years and had built up some pretty high expectations.
So did Labrang Monastery live up to the hype?
Absolutely. It's one of the most spectacular religious attractions in all of China. This is probably the best way to experience Tibetan Buddhism without venturing into the Tibet Autonomous Region itself.
At first, though, we once again got off to a rocky start.
In fact, our first day at the Labrang Monastery was a bitter disappointment. It wasn't until the second and third days of our visit that we really discovered the magic of Labrang.
There are several things that I wish we'd known before we went. If we could have avoided some key mistakes, we would have had a much more favorable first impression of Labrang.
In this article, I'll tell you everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to Labrang, including how to avoid the mistakes we made.
Where is the Labrang Monastery?
The monastery is located in Xiahe (夏河), a town of about 80,000 people in Xiahe county, Gannan prefecture, Gansu province in Western China. While not part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Gannan prefecture is culturally very much Tibetan.
How to Get to Labrang Monastery
Xiahe does not have a railway station, but buses do come here from a few nearby cities. There are several buses per day from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, and the journey from Lanzhou to Labrang Monastery takes about four hours.
Lanzhou is connected by high-speed rail to Beijing and other major cities in China, so this is probably the easiest point of entry.
If you happen to be in neighboring Qinghai province, there is one bus per day from Xining, the provincial capital. This bus leaves Xining at 8:20 am and arrives in Xiahe at around 12:30 pm.
Getting Off to a Bad Start at the Labrang Monastery
The monastery is almost like an entire city until itself. It's surrounded by a three-kilometer kora (pilgrim's path) lined with prayer wheels.
Inside this perimeter is a maze of alleyways and buildings, including 6 colleges, 21 temples and hundreds of residence halls for monks. Some of the temples and colleges are magnificent, while the residence halls are simple mud-brick dormitories.
At first, we got a bit lost in the mud-brick part and had a hard time figuring out where to go to see the good stuff.
The first temple we wandered into was empty, and Nick figured it wouldn't hurt to take a couple of photos of the Tibetan Buddha statue inside. Big mistake!
Suddenly, a heavy-set monk appeared out of nowhere and snatched Nick's camera out of his hand, refusing to give it back.
He tried to snatch my smartphone too, even though I had not taken any photos. His manner was extremely aggressive and not what I would expect from a monk. After a tense standoff, he eventually let us go once Nick had deleted the photos.
Later, at some of the more popular temples, I saw signs warning that visitors would be fined 500 yuan for taking photos. Other forbidden behaviors like smoking or talking loudly were also subject to the same fine.
We felt lucky to have gotten out of the situation without having to pay, but it was still a very negative experience that started us off on the wrong foot.
A couple of weeks later, when we visited the Tibet Autonomous Region, I asked our guide Tashi about this no-photo policy in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
He explained that it was not based on any religious belief, and that many Tibetan Buddhists keep photos of Buddha statues in their homes. It's only the monasteries and temples popular with foreign tourists that have instituted this type of policy.
Tashi's theory was that the monks are worried that tourists will not treat the photos with due respect, and may let them get torn or dirty.
Whatever the rationale, the ban on photography is taken very seriously in some Tibetan monasteries, including Labrang. Photos from the outside are OK, but never take photos inside the monastery buildings without permission.
The Right Way to Experience Tibetan Culture at Labrang Monastery
Fortunately, the next couple of days went much more smoothly. We had interactions with several other monks, all of whom acted in a very kind and compassionate manner that was much more in line with the spirit of Buddhism.
The first of these was the monk who acted as our English-speaking tour guide. You can wander around the monastery grounds for free, but to visit the interiors of the most important buildings you will need to join a tour.
English-language tours run at 10:15 am and 3:15 pm daily and cost 40 yuan per person. At the big tourist reception center on the southeast edge of the complex , the staff will tell you that the tours start at 10 am and 3 pm.
However, this is just to account for the time it takes for them to escort you inside the monastery grounds. You can save time by going directly to the Interpreter Service Center just off the main square, near the Great Chanting Hall.
The tour includes entry to five buildings: the Medical College; the Avalokitesvara Temple; the Golden Temple; the Great Chanting Hall; and a museum with an attached exhibit of yak butter sculptures.
Of these, the only place where photos are allowed inside is the room with the yak butter sculptures.
Our guide was a very kind and gentle monk who generated some lively philosophical debates among our group. The museum is a bit lackluster and has no English signage, but the Golden Temple contains some beautiful murals that are nearly 300 years old.
However, the undisputed highlight of the tour was the Great Chanting Hall, also known as the Grand Sutra Hall. Hundreds of monks gather here at 6 am and 11:30 am every day to pray and chant sutras (scriptures).
For this reason, I highly recommend joining the 10:15 am tour instead of the 3:15 pm tour, as you will arrive at the hall just in time for the second chanting of the day. It's a magical experience that you won't want to miss!
Highlights of the Labrang Monastery
While the guided tour is very worthwhile, and I'm certainly glad we did it, only one of the top four highlights of our visit to Labrang Monastery was something we saw on the tour. The other three were all things we came across while exploring the monastery grounds on our own.
In addition to joining the guided tour, I highly recommend giving yourself enough time to explore the place by yourself. We spent two and a half days in Xiahe, and I was glad to have that much time.
You may be happy with a bit less, but I would consider one full day as the bare minimum needed to explore Labrang. Two or three days is preferable.
To avoid getting lost like we did, use the map below to find the most interesting buildings. Most of them are located on the northern side, at the foot of the mountains.
It's also worthwhile to do at least a partial circuit of the three-kilometer kora (pilgrim's path) around the monastery.
Be aware that, in accordance with Buddhist custom, this path can only be walked in a clockwise direction. If you want to head in the opposite direction, you will need to detour inside the monastery and find a different road.
Printing House (Barkhang)
From the outside, the building looks just like any other Tibetan Buddhist temple, but a side entrance leads to the fascinating traditional printing press area.
Inside, monks sit on the floor with wooden printing blocks in their laps and print new scripture books by hand, using ink and very thin paper.
For just 10 yuan each, the monks let us go inside and watch this process, and they even allowed us to take photos and videos (a rarity in Labrang). One of them also showed us around the stacks of thousands of wood-block carvings.
We were the only tourists there, and the monks seemed happy for us to be visiting them. The temple part of the building was closed when we visited, but we had seen enough temples by that point anyway.
Barkhang is not well signposted, and there's no indication that it's open to visitors, but don't be afraid to ask if you can go in. The monks here are quite friendly and welcoming. It's marked as No. 18 on the map above.
Gong Tang Pagoda
While the interior of this temple is certainly beautiful, they all start to look the same after awhile. The reason it's worth paying the 20 yuan entrance fee is because you can climb up to the roof, which offers wonderful views of the monastery complex.
For photography, morning visits are best. When you climb up the stairs, the first level you reach has a high wall around it that blocks the view.
But keep climbing, and you'll reach the actual roof, which has only a very low barrier. It's actually a bit too low, so if you're traveling with children keep a close eye on them.
The golden stupa on the roof of the building shines brightly in the sunlight, making this temple easy to spot.
If you don't want to pay the 20 yuan entrance fee, you could climb the hill on the other side of the river for free views that also include the golden stupa of the Gong Tang Pagoda.
You're further away from the rest of the main monastery buildings here, though. This hill is often referred to as the Thangka Sunning Terrace. During the Tibetan New Year celebrations, a huge Tibtan thangka (sacred painting) is unrolled and displayed here.
Grand Sutra Hall
Also called the Main Prayer Hall, and sometimes marked on maps as the "Philosophy College" within which it resides, this large hall is where all the monks gather to pray and chant sutras together.
Many of the monastery's buildings were badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution in the mid 20th century, and the Grand Sutra Hall was burned to the ground in 1985. What you see today was completely rebuilt in 1990, and the Chinese-style roof seems a bit out of place.
Still, the size of the hall is impressive, and it dominates the main square at the heart of the monastery grounds. But what makes this place truly special is the chanting that goes on inside.
Be sure to catch it by joining the 10:15 am tour!
On the morning of our third day at Labrang, we heard chanting and decided to follow it. We came upon a grassy lawn surrounded by a wall, with dozens of monks sitting cross-legged in the grass. They were wearing their yellow hats and chanting.
We were the only tourists there. There were no signs to indicate what this place, but there were also no signs saying tourists couldn't enter, so we did. After a while, we tentatively took out our cameras, and they didn't seem to mind that either.
It was a truly magical moment as we watched them chanting and swaying in their yellow hats and red robes.
Give yourself plenty of time to make some unexpected discoveries like this one. They will likely be the highlight of your trip.
Dos and Don'ts in Labrang Monastery
Where to Stay in Xiahe
There are plenty of accommodation options in Xiahe, so you shouldn't need to search for too long.
Yangkor Tibetan Homestay
We stayed at this inexpensive and friendly guesthouse run by a local Tibetan man. In addition to the dorms, private rooms with shared bathrooms are also available. English is spoken, and there's a pleasant sitting area upstairs.
Meals are also available on request (but no vegetarian options). I enjoyed our time here and would stay again, but travelers who need creature comforts may want to look elsewhere.
The beds are quite hard (which is typical throughout China), and there's an odd rule about only using the upstairs bathroom to pee until 11pm. If you need to do number 2, you have to go down to the squat toilet in the courtyard.
Still, the room was cozy, and the whole place had a homey feel to it.
Overseas Tibetan Hotel
This place is not that much more expensive than the Yangkor Tibetan Homestay and gets great reviews. The beds are reportedly very soft, there's a good WiFi connection, and the private rooms are en-suite.
Losang, the owner, also speaks very good English and can provide services such as laundry and bicycle rental.
Where to Eat in Xiahe
拓美饭庄 (Tuo Mei Fan Zhuang)
We found this place by accident while searching for a vegetarian restaurant that our guesthouse owner had recommended. Unfortunately, the veggie restaurant was closed, but this place on the floor below it in the same building had some great veggie options.
In addition to popular Chinese dishes like 酸辣土豆丝 (spicy shredded potatoes) and 香菇油菜 (mushrooms with bok choy), they also serve an interesting stir-fried green bean dish and momos filled with either chives or potatoes.
When walking south on Tengzhi Lu, you'll find the restaurant on the right, just before the bridge across the Xia River that leads to Yangkor Tibetan Homestay. Take the stairs to the second floor.
Ask for one of the private rooms where you can eat seated on the floor around a low table in complete privacy. If you need anything, just push the red button and the server will come.
This restaurant is attached to the Tara Guesthouse and serves a mix of Chinese and Tibetan/Bhutanese dishes. The picture menu with English translations makes ordering easy, although dishes aren't always exactly as they appear in the photos.
I highly recommend the iron-plate eggplant, which comes out sizzling on a platter. It's covered in a sweet sauce and looks nothing like the picture but is delicious nonetheless! They also make very good fresh juices here.
A couple of other dishes were a bit disappointing, such as the "spicy sour cabbage with glass noodles", which was actually made with wheat noodles. Overall the food here was good enough to keep us coming back a second time, though.
All photos taken by me or my husband Nick (mostly Nick). All rights reserved.