We obviously weren't going to make it to Tibet. With the new placement in Vietnam back to back with only a three week break in between, we weren't going to have the anticipated month to travel after the semester ended - and Tibet was still closed anyway. The next best option was a Tibetan Semi Autonomous Region, so we decided to make a final excursion to Xiahe in the Gannon Tibetan Autonomous Region in the south of Gansu.
We caught the bus, there being no train to Xiahe, and the journey there was through some great scenery - terraced farmland quite different from that around Lanzhou, many picturesque villages and lots of temples, mosques and small monasteries. It was cold and wet when we got there, which was a bit of a shock after the heat of Lanzhou. Several places were full, and after walking from the hostel (our first stop) a long way down the main street we ended up staying in a posh hotel rather than walking all the way back in the rain.
Xiahe town stretches along a river with one long main street and the Labrang Monastery, one of the largest outside Tibet, of the Gelukpa or "yellow hat" school, in the middle separating the Tibetan and Hui areas to either side. The town is dominated by the monastery and the streets are full of the maroon robed monks and locals in traditional cloaks and women with their scarves, beads and braided hair. All rugged up against the cold in heavy layers.
We wandered up and down the main street, peeked into the many little shops selling Tibetan wares, tried some local food and generally engaged in some serious people watching. Ate a couple of times in a great restaurant, upstairs on the corner looking out over the monastery. We tried Momo, (rather like the jiaozi) and Tsampa, (sweetish balls of corn flour and yak butter) and of course yak meat dishes. We could sit and watch the pilgrims spinning the prayer wheels as they walked the kora, the 3km circuit of the monastery. This they did all day, some prostrating as they went.
We had one full day there and decided to hire a car and driver and visit some of the nearby places of interest. We drove out of town into a vast expanse of (green!) plains through lots of small villages, farmland, occasional animals. We stopped at the Tseway Gompa monastery overlooking a village in the middle of nowhere where we were shown through by one of the monks. It was apparently founded in the 12th century but largely destroyed in the 1970s and has since been rebuilt. It was therefore clean and fresh looking compared to the Labrang Monastery - and we were allowed to take photos inside. We then visited the Baijiao walled village, originally built in the Han Dynasty, it has a 2,000 year old eight sided high dirt wall. We climbed to the top and looked over the (still inhabited, much more recent) village. While we wandered around a couple of old men came to have a closer look at the strange foreigners.
A couple of days was just enough. If we'd had longer we could have explored the monastery and surrounding hills further, which would have been nice, but at least we got to see a little bit of Tibet.