Xiahe's existence is largely dependent on the Labrang Monastery (with the yellow hat roof).
Xiahe's existence is largely dependent on the Labrang Monastery (with the yellow hat roof). Jim Eagles

Toughing it out on a Tibetan frontier

XIAHE is a frontier town. It's 3000m up in the Quilian mountains, in a region mainly populated by Tibetans, and exists largely because of the presence of the huge Labrang Monastery.

The wide main street is sealed, but every downpour brings muddy water surging down from the surrounding hills, and when it dries, the wind whips up an almost permanent dust storm.

There's a team of street sweepers employed to try to keep the dust under control, wielding two straw brooms apiece, but as far as I could see all they did was to move the dust around in great clouds.

The town's pride and joy are the footpaths running down each side of the street, raised high above the street, like the boardwalks of the old Wild West towns, to keep mud and dust, floods or snows at bay, and nicely tiled, providing easy access to the two lines of shops.

Unfortunately, while I was there the tiles were in the process of being removed making walking on the paths slightly hazardous. However, walking on the roadway was even more hazardous because drivers here - especially the ever-present taxi drivers - take little account of the rules on which side of the road to use so they can come at you from any direction.

But that certainly doesn't stop Xiahe from bustling with activity. Its shops sell everything you could possibly want out here on China's wild northwest, from the thick felt boots worn by monks to knock-off brand-name windfleeces and from piles of freshly picked medicinal herbs to gleaming brass prayer-wheels.

And the footpaths are full of a fascinating mix of monks in reddish-purple robes - mostly toting mobile phones and with money for shopping and taxis - a few Hui, a Muslim minority, in their distinctive white hats, and the cowboys on this Asian frontier, Tibetan nomads, come to town to pray at the monastery or trade their yak butter and animal hides for dresses and mobile phones.

The Tibetan men walk with the sort of swagger you used to see in Hollywood westerns, their faces lean, dark and dangerous, hair long, black and greasy under their stetson-style hats, and they wear coats with sleeves twice the normal length, worn off the shoulder so their hands are free on warm days, but great for keeping hands warm when it freezes.

The women also sport stetsons and for their outings into town mostly wear brightly coloured blouses, dark skirts and masses of heavy jewellery.

I didn't see any of them riding horses but several of the men zoomed around on motorbikes with the same bravado as the oldtime gunslingers.

Often, as I picked my way through the town, I'd come across circles of these mountain cowboys, heads together, gazing intently at something in the centre. Once or twice when I peered nosily between the tightly packed bodies I discovered they were examining some dark seed pods which Bin, our guide, said was a famous local herbal remedy. But mostly they were playing a game a bit like checkers which generated much excitement.

Conditions here are obviously fairly harsh but the locals gave the impression that they were warmly dressed and well fed.

I was invited inside one fairly typical house and it seemed very comfortable. Most of the family of nine slept on the floor in one room but they had space for a small shrine, a TV set and a computer. A few goats were kept in the courtyard at nights - though they were out grazing when I visited - and some barley was drying in the weak mountain sun.

In keeping with the atmosphere of the town, the Xilin Hotel, where I stayed, was a real frontier hotel. The beds were comfortable enough but apart from the red carpet leading from the road there weren't a lot of frills.

Although the nights were freezing, literally, because it was summer they didn't deign to put on any heating so we soft Westerners shivered.

Hot water - apparently solar heated - is advertised as available two to three hours a day. The first night we were there it was supposed to run at 8.30pm.

But 8.30pm came, then 9pm, and no hot water. I gave up and went to bed. But from the noise outside I got the impression everyone else was still hoping for a wash. "Knock knock. Have you got hot water? We haven't either. I think it's coming in half an hour. I'm going to wait. Knock knock..."

Next morning I got up bright and early and managed to have a nice hot shower. But by the time the rest of the guests woke it had run out. They obviously breed them tough up in those mountains.

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