Up High With the Monks

Up High With The Monks

3100m high to be exact.

Xiahe was the one. I remember getting seriously emotional as we drove our bulky ass truck up the winding paths to the Buddhist town. I had recently uploaded my latest Spotify (which is banned in China, fyi) playlists armed with a VPN and some sweet wifi that had miraculously passed our way. My Discover Weekly was blasting some emosh tunes in that sort of ‘stare out of a train window’ sort of way which enhanced the spectacular drive. The landscape was untouched and, although a little cloudy, they cleared to welcome us at the top.

Hawks were soaring, prayer wheels were in motion, and the landscape was the perfect setting for this tranquil Tibetan town.


The centre of Xiahe is focused on the Labrang Monastery.

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It was founded by Ngagong Tsunde in 1709. He was proper high up, ranking and I think may have ranked about third after the Dalai Lama. This monastery was of the Gelugpa order, which means that it’s part of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s also a school, so it teaches boys and, (extremely rarely) girls in esoteric Buddhism, theology, medicine, astrology and law.

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All the monks live together, so there’s a true feeling of devout community.

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The town in general had a super laid-back vibe: no pushing, no crowds. 

There was even a town goat (at least, that’s what I think it was). It just sort of strolled around the markets having a browse.


After finding my bearings, I found out that you could walk the pilgrim path, or the kora.

The inner kora circled the monastery. It was apparently the best way to figure out the complex maze of weaving backstreets and walls. Koras are usually lined with prayer wheels that you have to wheel whilst you chant in prayer.

One of the locals taught me the chant. Neither of us could speak the other’s language, so I just tried to repeat what she said about 10 times until she threw up her arms in frustration at the shape of my unforgiving, language-shy mouth and gestured to me to follow her.

She was a Tibetan pilgrim with beads in her hands walking clockwise along the path. This walk is supposed to put you in a meditative state, and I was determined to give it a try. 

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There’s this pretty cool artist called Cy Twombly. If you haven’t heard of him then you’re in for a treat. Twombly is an artist that records his feelings - his state of mind - directly onto canvas. He even gets super emotionally drained by doing it that he shuts himself away for days on end. He sort-of mixes mythology and ancient stories to personify feeling. His paintings take him on a journey that results in either mass rage or exact equilibrium. You have to sometimes embody feeling to express/paint/draw it, and that’s why expressionists get super tired and moody (sometimes).

Why am I talking about this? Well, you'll find out. 

Agnes Martin (who we all know is also 100 emoji) approaches the same sort of embodiment in her paintings too. She paints with an absolute calmness, a searching. Her paintings ebb and flow, you’re watching her work and aligning your breathing with the lines on the canvas. You have a moment where you’re inside the painting, you’re getting in there and resting your mind. If you think I’m spouting bollocks, there’s one in the Tate you should go see. Undeniably cool. Anyway, your heart rate rests, your mind rests, and there is a stable energy within. Our mind is in an untroubled state.

What I’m trying to say by getting you to look these guys is basically that however you make art, think about art, your state of mind can almost always be reflected in the physicality and the composition of it. You enter into a state of mind, just like you would do for the kora. The repetitive nature of activity engages your mind. It's not engagement in active thought, you’re sort of just doing and then connecting.

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It’s a fusing of feelings. The atmosphere of the monastery was fusing this doing and thinking in serenity. A holy fusing of religion and peacefulness that conjures atmosphere and, in turn, respect.

To try and really get in that spiritual vibe I also went for a longer kora walk in the mountains behind the village. The views were all encompassing, and the steady hills made you remember that you were actually 3100m above sea level. Pant. 

That was hard work.

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I think I may have taken a wrong turn at some point as I saw a local girl on the opposite side of the mountain get stuck in some mud. A local mum came out to join me, laughed, and went back inside her hut so I wasn’t too concerned about helping the girl. Some of the boys running around tried to pull her out. I believe she lost both shoes in the process.

You live and you learn, as I’d like to believe the local mum was saying as she shook her head.  

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We took a brief trip outside to the Grasslands of the lower Tibetan Plateau surrounding Xiahe before our next wild camp. They were filled with wonderful local people collecting water from wells, attending local monasteries, and wrapping up warm.  

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This was the last tranquil bit of China to see before heading further east.