D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu Flight, Hotel or GH
D3 Geza 4WD, Homestay
D4-10 trek to Yading Trek (3), Camp/Hotel
D11 Daocheng 4WD, Hotel
D12 Litang 4WD, Hotel
D13 Xinlong 4WD, Guesthouse
D14 Ganzi 4WD, Hotel
D15 Tagong 4WD, Guesthouse
D16 Kangding 4WD, Hotel
D17 Chengdu 4WD, Hotel
Arguably the most open and relaxed of China's provincial capitals, befitting to a province that straddles so many cultures and civilisations. Dubbed the 'City of Spring' due to its yearlong great climate, it's long been a summer getaway destination for the savvier of China's political and economic elite. Nowadays, it only has traces of the old city and its semi-colonial French influences, but the reconstruction has gone well and it retains much of the atmosphere (if not the actual buildings!) of earlier times.
Pick-up from the airport followed by an initial orientation. For those arriving early,
whereby Kunming isn’t chock-a-block with traditional ‘sights’,
it’s a relaxed and pleasant city to wander around, visit the Bird
& Flower market, sip tea by the lake, imbibe coffee at the pre-revolution
era coffee house, etc. Accommodation is by Green Lake in the northwest of
the city, a good place to use as a base for a rewarding stroll or two and
a chance to kick the jetlag.
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu
An early flight to Lijiang which at 2400 m provides an initial chance for altitude acclimatization. Lijiang is in many ways the capital of the Naxi minority, and despite being afflicted by the somewhat crass “authenticity” drive so popular amongst Yunnan local governments, remains an interesting place. A beautiful old town - ancient canal system, traditional architecture, with abundant cafes in the centre. Tonight the option of staying in either Lijiang or Yuhu, small village located a short drive north of Lijiang. Nestled on the lower slopes of Jade Dragon Mountain, amongst other things this was the home of Joseph Rock - who was in parts an explorer, a plant collector, and a scholar of Naxi language, who roamed SW China in the 20s, 30s and 40s. At Yuhu there is a family-run guesthouse with clean cosy rooms and superb home-cooked meals.
Flight, Hotel or Guesthouse
Meeting the 4WDs in the morning, the trip really kicks off, with an early start and a full day’s drive that climbs 1000 metres via Tiger Leaping Gorge, Haba Mountain (Yunnan’s 3rd highest at 5396m) and skirting Zhongdian (now optimistically renamed Shangri-La) on the way to a small Tibetan hamlet, on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. By now the trail is already in deep country, after heading up almost 1500m from Kunming.
D4-10 Geza to Yading
An 8-day trek north through the eastern Himalayas, culminating at the apex of the three sacred peaks. The trekking is hard, and depending somewhat on the route (which can vary slightly), fairly fast paced, in terms of the distances that need to be covered. The scenery is spectacular, as is what might be termed the ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ geography. Pack horses will lighten the load, the food (as always) is good and gear (equipment) superb. The trekking ends at Chonggu Temple; from here it's a 1500m descent by jeep along a very high and exhilarating road to Riwa, a bustling town which even has wireless these days.
Trek (3)/4WD, Camp & Hotel
A slow morning drive up the valley that leads to Daocheng, along the way passing some of the most picturesque Tibetan villages, as well as Gonggalangjing gompa, its perimeter lined with prayer wheels. Time providing, can also make a detour to Dabpa Yangtang gompa, the most important of Daocheng’s 13 monasteries. Notable in this area is the intricate stonework that’s used to build the almost castle like houses in this region, some of which can take up to 7 years to finish. Daocheng provides a few creature comforts as well as a nearby hot spring, a good place to relax and adjust your head to the upcoming change in style and pace.
After breakfast, a visit to the rare Bön monastery near Sangdui, before heading north up onto the barren high Tibetan plateau, the road following the Shaluli Mtn. range. At 4100m Litang is one of the highest towns in the world, set on a broad grassland with Lithang gompa dominating it from the north.
Litang itself has played a central part in the
region, from its days as an independent Kingdom, allied with Kagyü
rulers of the Kingdom of Dêrge, through its absorption by the great Gelukpa
expansion east in the 16th, 17th & 18th centuries, to its position as
a (nominal) outpost of the Qing dynasty all the way through to its role
as a centre of resistance in the Khampa uprising against the incoming PLA
in the 1950’s. As with Ganzi further north, it’s a market town
and administrative centre, heavily coloured by its roots as a trading post
for the Khampa nomads that populate the high plains.
Up early to catch Litang’s superb morning views and pay a visit to Lithang gompa, a huge monastery complex and one of Kham’s most prominent Gelukpa centres, founded 1580. After breakfast a day’s extreme backcountry drive, north as the trails wends its way through forested valleys and grassland to Xinlong, a small town set alongside the banks of the Yalong River, largely unvisited due to the locally famed roughness of the road. It’s the capital of Nyarong county, a relatively poor area compared to its neighbours. Set atop the hill behind town is Zera gompa, a teaching monastery with upwards of 50 monks here.
Trail heads through Nyingmapa territory through a deep forested gorge along the bank of the Yalong River, before coming up to the forests and grasslands of Ganzi. Worth a stop is Da-ge Drongtok gompa, a sub-monastery of the ancient Nyingmapa gompa of Katok further west.
Something of a cowboy town (like so many are
in this region), Ganzi is THE market town in NE Kham, having gained wealth
and influence as a meeting place serving the needs of the Khampa nomads
to the west and north and the farmers on the plains surrounding it. Up to
a couple of years back, yaks roamed the streets, electricity was a rarity
and the main form of entertainment for the nomads was drinking and playing
pool on the outdoor tables that lined the streets. Now the shops and stalls
selling all manner of Tibetan ware remain, but neon & KTV have arrived,
if anything only increasing its wild west-like atmosphere. A dazzling site
after several days on the road! Ganzi is quite simply very enjoyable. Surrounded
by the old Tibetan quarter, and with an eagle-eye view of town, is Kandzê
gompa, a large, very active, though very monastic/orthodox Gelukpa monastery
that has seen its fortunes grow impressively in the last few years. Compared
to many monasteries in the area, it has an almost austere atmosphere, but
given time is worth the walk up.
An early morning start to foray north to have a look at Dargye monastery, the oldest and still most important of the 13 Horpa monasteries in the region built by the Mongols in the 17c in their support of the Gelukpa school. This gompa is a great example of the large amount of renovation and reconstruction going on in gompas throughout northern Kham, the paintwork and murals alone being worth the diversion. After heading back through Ganzi continue down the Shiqu valley into the richest cultivated area in all of Kham. From here until the turn-off to Kangding you’ll see what is arguably some of the prettiest village architecture in greater Tibet. After a full day’s drive arrive Tagong, site of the large Lhagang gompa, located within view of Mt. Yalha (3809m) and Paojiashan (5400m), fronted by a bevy of stalls selling all manner of Tibetan items. Within the complex itself are a number of impressive relics, and a stupa field to the rear of the complex. Time providing, a visit to Shedra college, belonging to the Nyingmapa order, set a bit outside of town.
Heading south then due east the road crosses two 4000m+ passes, and into the mountains and steep valleys of Kangding. Kangding is the traditional trading and meeting point between the Tibetan plateau to the west and the Han river plains in the east, and the buildings, wares and mix of people reflect this. Say goodbye to the highlands…
Hit the road for an early start to the last day's drive, which follows what was the old tea route between China and Tibet and is now the main military road into the TAR. Stop for lunch at Luding, site of one of the more heroic episodes of the Long March, then proceed to cross the 3000m Erlang pass and the 10-km Erlang tunnel, skirting north of the 7756m Minyak Gangkar (Gonggashan) to the south, before hitting fertile plains (the breadbasket of China) and major highways and so into the fires of Chengdu…
A huge intense city, with a history dating back
to pre-Han dynasty… It has variously acted as a dynastic capital and
centre of southern radicalism, before reaching its status today as provincial
capital of Sichuan and home to some 6 million people. Today it carries all
its history with it in the sheer complexity of its layout and culture -
modern boulevards, intersected by mazes of narrow crooked side streets,
traditional neighbourhoods next to high end department stores, Sichuan opera
houses, the Mao statue in the main square, the street-side restaurants serving
arguably some of the best food in China, the parks, Zen monastery, and neighbourhood
tea houses - where for centuries rebellion has been plotted. Chengdu rarely
leaves people neutral - depending on one's point of view, it can end the trip with a bang, or with a sting in its tail…!
A 4-day extension to Gods & Mountains: Yading from the South, that replaces the straight shot return to Kunming with a 7-day overland trail which heads north onto the Tibetan plateau and then west to Chengdu in central Sichuan. In many ways we feel that after a week or two of deep wilderness Kham Tibet, this extension, though still through remote areas, provides both a nice geographical and cultural context to place the main body of the trip into. If you’ve got the extra time, a great little route!
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails