An awesome week at Gannan

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It was the time for National Holidays again, and I was wondering where to go. This time I had my wife Hema with me. After few considerations, I decided to go with FCN to Gannan. The pictures shown in the advertisement looked alluring. Difficulty was once again the long bus travels. Efforts to get train tickets turned futile. The trip was for seven days, and the first journey from Beijing to Lanzhou was supposed to be the longest, ~1500 kms stretch.

For those who are unfamiliar, Gannan is a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture situated in the southwest of Gansu Province of China famous for the Yellow river, lakes, mountains, grassland, monasteries and Tibetan culture. Before the Qin State in the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) partly governed this area, Gannan was the area of the ancient Qiang (later Tibetan) people. It was in the year of 111AD that the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) brought Gannan into the regime of Central China. The south of the Silk Road and the Tang-Tibet Ancient Road all passed through this region. In 1954, the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was established with Hezuo City as its capital.

Coming back to the trip now. Booking with FCN was easy as always and knowing Amy, who was handling the booking, made it easier. The price for each was 3480 RMB and we got a 200 RMB early bird discount.

There was only one pickup point, Huixinxijienankou subway station. The time of reporting was 7:30pm on 30 th September 2018. People came on time and we left at 7:35pm. The bus had around 55 people, 32 belonging to FCN and the rest to the Chinese sister company Elephant travels. Our group had a good mix of people for different countries. There were three leaders, Amy and Ruo from FCN and Xiaoqiu of the Elephant company. There were two photographers. An inflatable neck pillow, a buff and a blanket were given. Having Amy, a friend, as the leader made us more comfortable. The group also had Rendi Steven, whom I had met in earlier FCN trip.

The night journey was fine. In China, vehicles can't move between 02:00am and 05:00am, so the driver stopped at a service area during that time. The bus stopped at regular intervals so that people could freshen up, and most gas stations and service areas were crowded as expected. Around 11:00am the next day Hema and I tried some nice buffet lunch with rice, vegetables and chicken legs at one of the stops (all for 35 RMB). The bus travelled through large farm lands with rich crops, meadows and crossed wide rivers before we reached our hotel, Lanzhou Rita Boutique Hotel at 35 Tianshui South Road, Lanzhou at 9:50pm. We were on the bus for more than 26 hours!

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Buffet lunch on the waySunset across the Yellow River

After a few minutes of settling down, we joined Amy at the lobby to go to the snack street (Muta lane). Lanzhou is a big city and is the capital of Gansu Province. Yellow River, the Chinese Mother River, runs through the city. The snack street was colorful, and variety of dishes were sold there. Most of us sat in one place and tried whatever we liked. Hema and I tried a rice, milk, raisins, nuts and egg-based warm drink (牛奶鸡蛋醪糟, niu nai ji dan lao zao) that was nice. It was almost 12.30am by the time we reached the hotel and rested. We had to get up early the next morning.

Day 2 - Labrang monastery at Xiahe: We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant at 7am and got on to the bus around 7:30am. The journey to Labrang lamasery took 5 hours. The guides explained do's and don'ts to be followed at the Lamasery, like: do take off hats when you enter the main halls, don't touch or point at the Buddhist statues, don't take pictures in the main halls and Gongtang Pagoda, no taking pictures of Lamas without permission, etc. Ruo Yang got the tickets for the temple while some people had lunch before going in. The temple complex is in a very scenic place at the foothill of the Dragon Mountain by the side of Daxia river. There is an interesting legend about the two mountains in the region, the Dragon mountain and the Phoenix mountain.

Long time ago, this place was a large sea. Gradually, land and hills appeared. One day, a golden winged Phoenix arrived here, rested on one of the hills and drank all the water, drying up the sea. A dragon from the sea got shocked at this and jumped out of the dried sea leading to formation of a spring where the Phoenix drank water. The spring became Daxia river and the Dragon became Dragon mountain and Phoenix became Phoenix mountain. The Daxia river flowed from west to east between them.

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Some of the team members at Labrang MonasteryWith Hema in front of the turning bells (PC: A.Sir)
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Couple of beautiful Buddha images

The monastery is renowned for its rich Tibetan culture, impressive Buddhist structures, exclusive Tibetan food, and the 3.5km long corridor of prayer wheels that surrounds the complex. Since the famous Chinese movie "World Without Thieves" was screened in 2004, the Labrang Monastery has become known to visitors as the film's shooting place. After going through all the main halls and towers for couple of hours, we had noodles in soup with fried egg in a small local restaurant. I had heard that we get meals in the temple, but I didn't know where. The halls and the Buddha figures are very beautiful and colorful.

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Impressive long bell corridor
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Yak heads hanging from the bridge (possibly as offerings)
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Daxia river

We left the Labrang monastery around 4pm after all of them joined. It was 5:30pm by the time we reached the next destination, the 9 layered Mila Riba Buddha pavilion. Unfortunately, that was closed for the day and we had to be happy taking pictures from outside and roaming around the place seeing the beautiful architecture of the temple around. We decided to return the next morning.

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At Mila Riba Buddha pavilion
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Young pilgrim

That evening we checked into the Gu Luo Si Hotel in Falls county. As we had good time, Amy suggested that we try Hotpot dinner and most of us agreed. The meal was delicious and there was lot of singing and dancing. The hotel room had many lights, but I was not sure how to switch them on as the existing switches didn't seem to turn them on!

Day 3 - Ando Hezuo Milariba Buddha Pavilion and Zhagana: We had breakfast at the hotel and left at 8 am for Milariba 9 layered Buddha pavilion. It took about half an hour to reach. It is said that there are only two temples of this kind in the whole Tibetan area, and the one in Hezuo is only one has nine floors and dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism founder. The temple is about 40-meter-high, it was originally built in Qing dynasty, and has a history of more than 200 years. There are resident monks and lamas studying here, forming a unique cultural atmosphere. Shoes are to be left out when you enter the temple building. The temple has 9 levels and each level has many Buddha forms and colorful decorations. The first layer is dedicated to the mainly Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism such as Qiangba Buddha (the Maitreya Buddha of Han Buddhism), Sakyamuni, Guanyin, Kong Kim and so on. The second layer is dedicated to the founder of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Yellow religion and his disciples. The third layer is dedicated to the founder of Ningma sect (red religion, the most ancient religion of Tibetan Buddhism). Each layer represents an era or a sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It also includes some Tibetan cultural celebrities, such as Songtsen Gampo (Songzan Ganbu) and princess Wencheng. The romance and wedding of Songtsen Gampo and princess Wencheng has been possibly one of the major causes of integration of Tibet with rest of China. (Some of their tales are covered in an earlier blog, https://china-diary.com/2017/06/16/sichuan-an-unforgettable-experience/).

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Mila Riba nine layered Buddha pavilion
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Ornate entrance
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Colorful wall panels
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Carpeted corridors and wooden stairways

The walls and windows have exquisite designs, all the floors are carpeted, and the staircases are made of wood. That explained why shoes were not allowed in the temple, as we had to go with our socks on. (Ruo had said that we better not wear colorful socks ????). After spending about an hour at the Milariba temple complex, we left for our next destination, the Zhagana village known for stony mountains.

It was once again a long journey through picturesque roads that were winding through hills, grasslands, lakes and rivers. There were camps and temples on the way and sheep and yaks grazing. We took couple of breaks around 11 am and 1pm. The toilets in this region are normally dirty, mostly a pit in the ground and no water to wash hands. Normally they charge 1 RMB per person. There were local boys playing basketball. Our leaders shared some food with them. The basketball skill of those boys was really of very high standard.

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Basketball skill of a local boy
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On the way to Zhagana

We reached the base of the Zhagana tourist area around 3:45pm, almost after 6 hours journey. Zhagana (扎尕那)means "Rock Box" in Tibetan language, which is appropriate as it is surrounded by large rocky spires on all sides. The average altitude of this place is 3200m. In the north is a grand stone mountain named "guang gai shan" or "stone mirror mountain", as the white-grey stones on the mountain can reflect sunshine. In the east are many high mountains stand toward to the sky. In the south are two mountains stand side by side, which is like a stone gate. the whole view is like a giant stone palace, and before hundreds of years ago, this place was also known as "the birthplace of Adam and Eve".

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Entrance of Zhagana scenic area
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The Fairy Lake
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Golden hues
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Hema and Amy with a local family
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Night view of one of the villages

There was lot of activity and there were many people around. The place has many hiking trails. We took a path with wooden steps to the Fairy lake. This took a couple of hours. On the way we stopped for refreshment and tried láozāo (醪糟) a kind of warm rice pudding with milk and egg. The Fairy Lake was not large, but was more of a pond, but the location was beautiful and the reflection of the mountains in the water made the view spectacular. The return to the base had some great views of the sunshine reflecting on the mountains making them look golden. It was seven by the time we reached down, and I explored for next half an hour a village nearby. Most villages in the vicinity had temples and restaurants. The hotel was not far from here and we reached our hotel in Ga town of Falls county by 8:45 pm. Ben ri qin mu hotel was comfortable. Once again, Amy led us to dinner outside. Many restaurants were closed, and we found one that served the dishes that our diverse crowd liked. I tried local beer. We came back to the hotel around 11pm and rested.

Day 4 - Zoige prairie (若尔盖草原): Next morning, as usual, was the breakfast at the hotel restaurant. We left around 8:30 am to travel through Zoige prairie on the silk road. Zoige prairie is the second largest prairie in China. It is also called "Songpan Plateau" and "Oasis in Northwest Sichuan Plateau". The altitude is between 3300km and 3600km. Zoige Prairie is also one of the three major wetlands in China. Because of the cold wet weather, it is a habitat for have different kinds of wild life like coyote, black-necked cranes, white swans, sika deer etc. it is believed to be the place where the Red Army passed through in The Long March. It seems about 10000 soldiers were sleeping in Zoige area during the march [The Long March (October 1934 - October 1935) was a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China, the forerunner of the People's Liberation Army, to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army].

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Ruo demonstrating Yoga skills

The journey was very beautiful with the grassland extending to miles on both sides of the road. There were many places developed for tourists on the way. We took the first break in one such place called Huahu and did some photography. Ruo, an accomplished Yoga practitioner, displayed her Yoga skills. Hema and I tried horse riding. As I had done horse riding a few times before, I wanted my horse to run, but it was reluctant and was more interested in grazing the grass below! We also had lunch in the local place. We tried the ready noodles that comes in a pack, and you need to add hot water to it. Around 12:30 we left the place and moved on.

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PC: A Sir

We took the next break around 2:45 pm by the side of the Yellow River. The scenery all around was breathtaking. There was lot of photography done on the riverside, on the hills and on the road. We left the place around 4pm and reached the hotel in couple of hours. Our hotel was Songpan jiarong xingong hotel in Chuanzhusi Town of Songpan county in Sichuan province. Hema and I came out and roamed around in the streets of the town and shopped for some food for the next day. The locals were amicable. They seemed to be amused by Hema's Bindi (forehead dot) and my moustache ????. Later we joined Ruo and Amy for dinner where we had soup noodles with vegetables.

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That night, Amy and Ruo arranged for birthday celebration of couple of teammates, Tammy (a kindergarten teacher from the US) and Archie (Archana, a medico from Srilanka). There was cake cutting, party, song and dance. It was indeed a nice gesture from FCN to celebrate the birthday. Many people's dancing skills were showcased that night. Ruo's slap dance was the highlight of the evening.

Day 5 - Hunaglong (黄龙): Huanglong National Scenic Reserve is in Songpan County in the northwest part of Sichuan Province at altitudes between 1,700 - 5,588m. It is considered 'World Wonder' and 'Fairy Land on Earth'. Known for its colorful Huanglong pools, lakes, snow clad mountains, valleys and virgin forest, it was included in the UNESCO world heritage list in 1992. The major scenery is concentrated in the 3.6-kilometers. Due to its layered calcium carbonated deposit patterns, the valley resembles a golden dragon winding its way through the virgin forest, stone mountains and glaciers. Along the valley are many colorful ponds of different sizes and shapes, which are sprinkled with gold colored limestone deposit giving a shimmering golden hue to water, so in sunlight, a golden dragon seems to surge forth from the forest. Hence the name 'Huanglong Valley' (Yellow Dragon Valley). The highest peak in this area is the Xuebao peak of Minshan mountain. There seem to wild animals such as giant pandas, Sichuan snub nosed monkeys, leopards, lynx, red bellied pheasants, but we could see many different bird species.

The normal way to see the place is shortest time is to go up by cable car and come down on foot. Surprisingly, there was no long queue for the cable car to go up. The cable car was quick and there was a long walk to the view point at the top. The path was wooden. We took group phots at the first view point overlooking the icy mountain Xuebao feng. We then started descending seeing amazing sights on the way. There is a temple at the entrance of the landscape, called the Huanglong Ancient Temple (黄龙古寺). Two more temples ahead are called the Middle temple (黄龙中寺) and the Back temple. The temples are ancient, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Few remarkable spots seen at Hunaglog were "Guests Welcome Pond" (迎宾池), multicolored pond (五彩池) and several other ponds, flying waterfall (飞瀑流辉), flying waterfall on lotus platform (莲台飞瀑), Erdao Lake and Zhaga waterfall. The leaders had asked us to be down by 10:30 am, but it was going to be impossible looking at the magnitude of things we had to see. We reluctantly came down at 12noon.

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Huanglong is like Jiuzhaigou but is also unique in terms of the high number of colored ponds with clear water as against the large lakes of the latter. This, for me, was certainly the high point of the Gannan trip.

After coming down, most people had lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the parking, while I and Hema tried some chicken legs and sandwich. It happened that the highway leading to Xian had a congestion, and as it was late, the leaders decided not to go to Xi'an but go to Tianshui City and stay there for that night. On the way there was singing on the bus and we realized that Edo, a doctor from Indonesia was a great singer. It was very late in the night when we reached our hotel "The Best Quality Hotel of Flying Tian Mei Ju" (飞天美居精选酒店) at Tianshui.

Day 6 - Xi'an: Next morning we had breakfast and the restaurant of the hotel and left for Xi'an at 7:30am. We reached the hotel (Long March - Changzheng/长征 - Mirazo Hotel) at 1:30pm and immediately left for the Terracotta army museum. Some people decided to skip this and went into the city. This was my second time in Xi'an. As I have covered in detail about the terracotta army in my earlier blog ( https://china-diary.com/2017/06/29/xian-walking-into-chinese-history/), I will not discuss again here. The leaders appointed an English-speaking guide and we were given earphones to clearly hear the guide from a distance. The guide, Samantha, was a History teacher and explained better than the one we had hired last time. though second time for me, visiting the Terracotta Army museum was an amazing experience. The bus dropped us back to the hotel around 7pm, from where we took different taxis (having the DD app was very useful) to Huimin Jie, or the Muslim quarter of Xi'an.

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We reached Huimin Jie around 8pm. As usual it was full of people and was bustling with activity. We tried some deep fried soft crabs and I left Hema and went looking for the spicy barbecue lamb ribs that I had tried last time when I was there. It looked like it was seasonal, and everywhere I could find only the lamb skewers on sticks (Yang Rou Chuan). By the time I came to where I left Hema, she wasn't there. Next hour was tense with both of us looking for each other in the large crowd. Amy helped to find her and there were some pensive moments. We tried the lamb skewers and mango shake. We left for the hotel around 11pm. This was essentially end of the trip.

Next day was the last day of our journey. We started early in the morning, at 6 am to leave for Beijing. The journey was long, with few breaks for toilet and food, and we reached Huxinxijienankou at 9:15pm. Fortunately it was still OK to get the subway and we made it to home by 11:20 pm.

While the long bus journeys seem tiresome, the opportunity to meet wonderful people and see some enormously beautiful places made the holiday week really special. Thanks to Amy for her kindness and to Ruo Yang for useful inputs to this blog. The Gannan outing also served as a great welcome trip for Hema. It will remain green in our memories forever.

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