After our brief stay in Lanzhou, we headed to Tibet! That’s right, you heard me. Tibet. I know I said (after meticulously investigating) we just couldn’t justify the cost for four days in Tibet (20 000 RMB / 4000 CAD, flights not included). It turns out though that ethno-cultural Tibet goes well beyond its official borders. These areas are referred to as Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and there are a total of ten, spread out over four provinces: Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan (divide and conquer right?). The prefectures do not require you to have the additional Tibet Entry Permit and according to our Tibetan friend, they have significantly less military and police presence than Tibet proper. A much better cultural experience without the crazy high price tag? Win-win!
Our destination was the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to visit a plateau grassland field site. Driving straight, it would have taken us over seven hours from Lanzhou; however, we decided to break the trip up and make a stop on the way there and on the way back so that we could experience as much of Tibetan culture as we could.
Our first stop was the more than 300 year old Labrang Monastery, the most important monastery town outside of official Tibet. Labrang contains 18 halls, 6 institutes of learning, and houses 1500 monks (it use to house 4000 but the Chinese government has restricted enrolment since the 1980’s). It was also where we would first experience Tibetan culture. Of all our ethno-cultural experiences in diverse China, our experience with Tibetan culture will be remembered as the most extraordinary. The bold beauty of the people, the illuminating spirit of the culture, and the food that is at once robust and simple satisfies what I desire most in the places I travel to.