Xining, gateway to Tibet (and Kumbum Monastery)


When Irene, our "hostess" on this trip, proposed us to start "our Tibet" in Xining we did not doubt it for a moment, not only because of a subject of acclimatization to the height (being two days to more than 2,000 m and not doing a 47-hour Trans-Tibetan is a great idea) but also because Xining is a great forgotten itinerary, as well as an important stop on the Silk Road (It is Tibetan territory outside the Autonomous Region). Definitely, Xining will be our gateway to Tibet

We say goodbye to our pre-Tibet tour (Shanghai, Bailin Monastery, Yujia, Xi'an) and if so far it has been full of emotions, from here comes that long-awaited moment

Bullet train from Xi'an to Xining, Tibetan territory in Qinghai

ALTITUDE 405 m Early morning of those who "make hobby."At 7.42 our train leaves from Xi'an to Xining which will cover the almost 900 km that separates them in 4 hours and 43 minutes and that has meant setting the alarm at 5.30 as there is 1 hour of travel to the modern central station

Maybe we are not yet aware but today we are entering Tibet. But that is not within two days? As we told you, we must distinguish between the Autonomous Region of Tibet, that territory coinciding with the so-called Ü-Tsang, more closed and isolated until recently to the tourist and object of the trip, of what was the Great Tibet that also coveredother more decentralized eastern areas called Kham and Amdo that are now part of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan (a very small area), Sichuan and Qinghai. Precisely the latter is our destiny today.

And what does that mean? Well, among other ethnicities (mainly Han and Mongolian), Here Tibetan population survives with its monasteries, sacred places with their flags of prayer, culture and more ancestral customs, although obviously to a lesser extent than we can find in the Autonomous Region of Tibet.

Meanwhile, our train is already arriving. It's nice to travel by rail in China!

Xining, gateway to Tibet by the Kumbum Monastery

ALTITUDE 2,270 m It is around 12.25 in the morning when the D2671 train enters the Xining Central Station (not to be confused with Xinning). We are in the capital of Qinghai Province currently but also in a Important stop of the Hexi Corridor of the Northern Silk Road for over two thousand years. Here they are waiting for us to move to the Sanwang Hotel and bring us a first impression of a city that seems futuristic in this desert.

But if Xining is important for something it is because in 2006 the Qingzang railway line, Qinghai-Xizang railway or Qinghai-Tibet railway would be inaugurated, making it a point of "acclimatization" for travelers who go to Lhasa for its harsh climatic conditions similar to those we will find in a few days, in addition to a first moderate altitude. This is not new, and at the time the caravans that were going to Ü-Tsang mainly transporting wool, wood and salt, made their previous stop in Xining


Yes, I know, I am very heavy in these stories with the subject but then do not say no warning. We may never know for sure because every body and every person is a world but what is certain is that there are studies that show that the best way to avoid altitude sickness is by stopping 1 or 2 days somewhere in between, in this case Xining at 2,270 m. It is also important to drink, drink and drink (and urinate, urinate and urinate) to purify the blood of toxins in the face of oxygenation at a higher altitude. So we did

But Xining, in addition to the visits of the city itself that we will do later, has about 45 minutes by car one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries that exist, that of Kumbum (Jokhang, Ganden, Sera and Drepung are usually considered in Lhasa and the surrounding area, Labrang in Gansu, Namdroling Gold Monastery in India and TashiLhunpo in Shigatse).

However, hunger presses and the first thing we do is leave behind the shops near the entrance of handicrafts and souvenirs where we already observe the presence of those faces that we have been looking for (nothing to do with the Chinese) and we enter a small Tibetan neighborhood quite careless that I would fear in another country.

It goes without saying that China and Tibet are one of those places where you feel comfortable and safe wherever you go.

RESTAURANTS IN CHINA | KUMBUM: Impronunciable (see photo), a curious two-story tavern in a "shocking" neighborhood

If something we are liking these days is that thanks toYoulan Tours we are reaching those authentic, local places, which we could hardly do with such a complicated language. This is fascinating with its Mongolian style decoration, its typical butter tea on the plateau, its kitchenette, its excellent stuffed bread slices or its spicy noodles

In this case as the meals were included (and although I usually give the data equally) I was left without pointing out what it could cost to eat here but I am sure that it did not even reach 3 euros to change both

Already in the surroundings of Kumbum one realizes that everything has changed.

Visit to the Kumbum Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelugpa sect

Qinghai is that China where the Tibetan and Mongol ethnic groups have much more presence, even above the ethnicity they have in certain cities and that is evident in every kind face that receives us on our way with a "Tashi Delek" that no longer we will leave (the Tibetan greeting)

He Ta'er Monastery or “temple of the small towers” ​​(in Chinese), known in Tibetan as the Kumbumk Monastery or the “10,000 Buddha figures” It dates from 1560 to 1583 in honor of Tsong Khapa, Buddhist reformer and founder of the Gelugpa sect.

As we said before, it is considered one of the most important Buddhist monasteries outside of Tibet since it was the place ofbirth of the founder of this sect known as the Yellow Hat (We will talk about sects these days because it is important to understand Tibetan Buddhism) at a time when all this was wheat fields and fertile hills, now under strict Chinese police control and new holiday constructions in its surroundings.


During all these days of travel diary we will try to explain some simple keys (which are sure to be useful for your trip) to try to understand the Buddhism that developed in the Himalayas that in addition to Tibetan is known as Lamaism, Vajrayāna Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism , but to start this "volume" the first thing is to know the difference between all types of Buddhism since there are essentially 3 Buddhist schools who are responsible for interpreting the sacred texts and spiritual practices attributed to Buddha (Here there is no religious authority such as the church or a pope but there have been important teachers who have created their own variations but always with a common starting point):

Mahayana Buddhism (he Zen it's a branch of him) with 185 million of followers and practiced in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan, considers the teaching of the Buddha itself more a method than a doctrine and allows freedom to question teachings or theories
- Theravada Buddhism with 124 million of followers and practiced inCambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, also supports critical research and reasoning but is more conservative, of purer rituals and based on the first compilation of Buddhist scriptures (S. I.C.)
- Vajrayāna Buddhism (he Tibetan it's a branch of him) with 20 million of followers and practiced inTibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and China, which adds additional techniques to Buddhist traditions of tantra and "secret mantra"

Going deeper into Tibetan Buddhism (or any Buddhism), in its traditions, influences, origins, elements and practices would be impossible in a travel blog so take this as a "brushstrokes" to contextualize and value the places we visited .

And the place we find why is so important? We understand it the moment we go through its doors. This site was born from a modest pagoda built in 1379 in the exact place where Tsong Khapa was born in 1357 and after its development, up to 3,500 people came to live in this monastery-city.

From this moment of the trip we already realize that when you talk about "monastery" you enter a true city whose atmosphere moves you, WITHOUT tourists, between unique historical buildings, exquisite frescoes and paintings, colorful Buddha statues, numerous treasures and unique decorative motifs that, after the invasion of Tibet, they still allow the lives of approximately 400-500 monks and many devotees whose religiousness overwhelms the approaching traveler, especially those who walk and prostrate themselves repeatedly making endless roads.

We also begin to familiarize ourselves with the Kora, a sacred Tibetan ritual around monasteries, temples, stupas, sacred mountains and other places, which comes to be a kind of pilgrimage turning the big prayer grinders bypass around them

The walk through this true Tibetan city-monastery takes us through emblematic places like the Dhammpala Hall, the Longevity Temple or the Main Asamble Hall, and also for that embroidery with appliques shown in the Grand Palace of the Sutra or that famous yak butter sculpture called "Suyouhua". However, the magic moment comes in theGrand Gold Tiled Hall or what comes to be the birthplace of Tsong Khapa, where you breathe spirituality taken to the extreme

"Run Run", let us know our guide,"the monks are going to start the debate". We had read that there is an hour in the Sera Monastery, and when we arrived in Lhasa, we could see these famous Tibetan rituals but what we did not expect was to be able to coincide in Kumbum.

Gradually, the main courtyard of the complex is filled with monks that are divided into subgroups by age and begins what they call debate that rather consists of an aid among students to defend positions and reason convictions without weaknesses. A) Yes, the one who remains seated challenges the one who stands by asking him questions to defend his position and emphasizing inconsistencies that may arise from his answers. Someone takes it to heart, haha

After a good time stunned by what we are seeing, it is time to undo the 27 km that separate us from the capital and that shows us that contrast between Tibetan architecture or what should have been a city of merchants on the Silk Road and the current Chinese infrastructure and mega-constructions, or between those old farmer neighborhoods and those huge Chinese towers that have invaded the horizon.

The Kumbum Monastery has made us seriously rethink that it is not only interesting to come to Xining for an acclimatization issue or to know the city, but it is a justification in itself to catch you a flight to start your trip to Tibet here.

What to visit in Xining in 1 day (what you should not miss)

And besides starting to acclimatize or visit the Kumbum Monastery, can one visit something in Xining? I began this story by saying that if we have come here it is because when we set out to design our custom itinerary with Youlan ToursOne of the things we liked the most is the degree of knowledge that Irene has of each step that was proposed. Come on, we can say that except for suggestions of experiences we wanted to do, the itinerary is his merit and so far we can only prove him right. Xining has fundamentally:

- Dongguan Mosque
- The Qinghai Provincial Museum
- Shuijingxiang Market
- Ta'er Monastery or Kumbum Monastery (in Tibetan)
- Qinhai Lake, the largest salt water in all of China
- The island of birds with more than 100,000 different species of birds

We talked before the Tibetan and Mongolian presence with the Chinese themselves in Qinghai (which have transformed the city into Chinese characters) but in Xining we still go further. We are in a territory of extreme climate like the one we will find in Tibet, with cold and hard winters and hot summers, which makes it one of the least populated in the country, in its capital reveals that ethnic mix It includes important presence of Hui, Salar and Kazakh, in addition to the previous ones, for centuries and in perfect coexistence.

We have asked our guide to take us to authentic areas of Xining in addition to visiting the main sites and we have finished in what would be a underground market in any other city in the world, haha, taken from one of those dark movies of the eighties (surely here you could find Gizmo, the friendly Mogwai from the movie Gremlins - if you've seen where the father buys it in the movie you will understand -)

Thus we arrive at Dongguan mosque dated from 1379 and one of the largest in the northwest (and main in the province of Qinghai)

Like what happened yesterday with the Grand Mosque of Xi'an, we meet again a lMuslim holy place completely different from what we are used to, with minarets that are decorative part of a traditional Chinese style causing a curious mix. Although it is not allowed to enter his prayer room, we have not needed it because we agreed just when it ended so we could see first hand that Muslim kindness and hospitality extends to the remote Xining

Behind this site, which has become an important place of worship and gathering for Muslims, is the Down Danguan Street and its many permanent stalls of food and fresh fruits of the area, species, clothing, jewelry, etc ... It is not the Shuijingxiang market (which has 1 kilometer and 3000 stalls) that is 2 km from here but it has helped us to take a partial view of the life of the city

It's around 19'00 when we decided to end the day even though we had dinner available. Tomorrow begins our adventure towards the Tibet Autonomous Region and we have both discovered that our Sanwang Hotel have a panoramic restaurant on the top floor with which we decided to pay a tribute of "welcome" (230 CNY) and take the opportunity to gain strength before what comes to us (in addition to taking my first Edemox as I did in Peru with such a good result in 2010). We leave behind Kumbum Monastery and the curious Xining tomorrow face the Transtibetan to Lhasa, but not before enjoying some other surprise

Isaac (with Sele), from Xining (China)

EXPENSES OF THE DAY: 230 CNY (approx. 30.67 EUR)