The Labrang Monastery is apparently the largest Tibetan monastery outside of actual Tibet. Situated in a small town called Xiahe, 3,000 metres above sea-level in south-west Gansu Province, this was our first experience of a Tibetan area.
We spent two days and nights in Xiahe. The town is divided into three sections; Han, Hui and Tibetan. We spent our time in the Tibetan area, nearby to the Monastery. The town had a distinct feel to it, noticeably different to anywhere else we had been to in China, or on our trip thus far.
Things were different here; the way people dressed, the architecture, the monks, the scenery. And then there was the monastery. There were pilgrims who had travelled from afar to walk the kora (a holy walk around the perimeter of the monastery), locals who walked the kora daily, and of course the tourists, like us, who had come to see what it was all about.
Apart from the general majesty of the monastery, which was fantastic by all accounts; two things stick in my mind about Xiahe:
1 – Poverty
Firstly, there were so many more beggars here than elsewhere in China, many with deformed limbs. Tibetans are poor, very very poor. They certainly haven’t had their fair slice of the pie in recent years.
2 – Shit everywhere, literally
Second, over the last year we have grown accustomed to seeing small children peeing and pooing all over the place in China; be it on the subway, at a super-market checkout or into public bins, whatever, babies don’t wear nappies out here. It’s a fact of life.
But we aren’t used to seeing adults squatting and pooping all over the place, quite like they did in Xiahe, around the Labrang Monastery. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It wasn’t just one incidence either, we saw this more than we care to remember, and people did it shamelessly. One middle-aged lady was quite openly doing her business barely ten metres away from the start of the kora trail, in full view of locals and tourists, and no, she didn’t use any paper. Gross.
The highlight for us though, surely had to be ‘shit street’ as we dubbed it. It’s a bit of a pain to find, but it’s at the end of the outer kora trail (the longer one, where you walk up the mountain), as you are coming down towards town. At first we noticed three young women who giggled as they saw us, and started to walk back down towards town – we questioned what they had been doing up here. Then there was the middle aged man who just stared at us as we walked past, as we tried not to stare back at him, squatting, playing with his phone, and pooping.
And then we looked at the ground. For hundreds of metres, poops littered the entire area. It was as if they had been measured out perfectly, for they all seemed equally spaced. Clearly they were human, and there wasn’t a single trace of toilet paper, anywhere. It would be quite impressive, were it not so damn disgusting.
One of the worst things about it, most of this ‘shit street’ was actually just a wide channel made from concrete that had been built to channel rain-water off the mountainside, and into the river below, that ran through the town. So the next time it rains, those hundreds, possibly thousands, of little terds that have accumulated over the previous few days, will be washed into the river, and downstream into the rest of China. And this is just one town. Think of all the others, in this nation of 1,300,000,000 people.
And here are some of our, perhaps arguably, more pleasant photographs.