Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails
Four Rivers, Six Ranges: A Kham Tibet Odyssey (007)
13 days*, 4WD Overland
*For a 4-day 4WD overland extension, go to Four Rivers, Six Ranges: A Kham Tibet Odyssey Extended.
D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu Flight, Hotel or GH
D3 Zhongdian (via the Gorge) 4WD, Hotel
D4 Xiangcheng 4WD, Hotel
D5 Litang 4WD, Hotel
D6 Xinlong 4WD, Guesthouse
D7 Baiyu/Katok gompa 4WD, Camp
D8 Dege 4WD, Guesthouse
D9 Manigange 4WD, Hotel or Camp
D10 Ganzi 4WD, Hotel
D11 Tagong 4WD, Hotel
D12 Kangding 4WD, Hotel
D13 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 jet lag.
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
A full day’s drive that climbs 1,000 metres via Tiger Leaping Gorge, stopping for lunch somewhere inside the gorge to take in the scenery, then winding through the foothills of Haba Mountain (Yunnan’s 3rd highest at 5396m) before cresting onto the edge of the Tibetan plateau, where landscape is suddenly dotted with the distinctive adobe Tibetan houses, barley racks and stupas. Zhongdian (3344m) - now optimistically renamed Shangri-La - is home of Songzanlin monastery. This sprawling and, in historical terms, very key monastery was commissioned in the 17c by the DL5, and was the central monastery in the Gelukpa order’s south-eastern expansion. Evening options to consider are dinner at a neighbourhood DIY grill house, and a soak under the stars at the Natural Bridge hot springs.
Since the retreat of the Tibetans from the Lijiang area in the 19c, Zhongdian (Tib. Gyalthang) has pretty much marked the south-eastern border of Kham Tibet in Yunnan. Up until a few yeas ago, it had the rough reputation of a classic frontier town - but now things have calmed down, and its markets and the old town make for a fruitful afternoon stroll.
Early morning visit to the ever growing Songzanlin Monastery. In historical terms it is very key; commissioned in the 17c by DL5, it was the central monastery in the Gelukpa order’s south-eastern expansion. From Zhongdian head north, crossing two high passes on the way to the Sichuan border. Then the road twists and turns its way down to Xiangcheng. A wee village a few years ago, set along the Shu-chu River, today it’s a bustling rural town which has been given a massive face lift. Surrounding the city, residents still live in attractive stone houses. Its Tibetan name means ‘rosaries in Buddha’s hand’, while in Chinese historical annals it was long referred to as White Wolf State.
Morning visit to Chaktreng gompa. Rebuilt in the early noughts, it’s a huge towering colourful affair. Then from Xiangcheng a long day’s drive passing through the high rocky moonscape of Haizi Shan, the road making its way across a high and sparse plateau before dropping down to Litang. Litang, at around 4000m one of the highest towns in the world, is 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. A day’s backcountry drive south as the trail wends its way through forested valleys along the Yalong River. Xinlong is a small town set right alongside the banks of river. 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 about 50 monks.
D7 Baiyu/Katok gompa
From Xinlong continue following the Yalong for a short stretch before leaving it to head westwards. This is a little-travelled road, past the Dorkho gompa (Sakya). Baiyu is a pretty Tibetan town with tree-lined streets and the Ding-chu river running through it. The important Pelyul gompa (Nyingmapa) is located atop a hill behind town. From Baiyu the road joins up with the Yangtze River, here forming the border between Sichuan and the TAR, and soon comes to Hepo, where the 12c Katok gompa (which other than Samye near Lhasa is the oldest surviving monastery of the Nyingmapa and possibly the most sacred site in Kham) is located way above town.
Not a whole lot of miles covered this day, so to have time to do the detour to Pelpung gompa via a scenic narrow road. The establishment of this 18c monastery quickly made this region the centre for the Karma Kagyüpa school. It’s been designated one of world’s most important endangered monuments by World Monuments Fund. It’s a huge complex, visible for miles from its hilltop perch. Known as the Little Potala, some reckon its architecture to be Kham’s most stunning. Back on the main road, continue following the Yangtze to Dege, a remote city with a long history, once the seat of the Kingdom of Dêrge, whose kings ruled this area independent of interference from either Lhasa or Beijing. Its most famous building is the Parkhang Printery, which has been the main source of printed materials for much of the Kham area. Today it’s possible to observe the monks at work, using the same age-old wood block techniques. Gonchen gompa, largely gutted, has now been restored, but with the original shell largely intact.
Leaving the pretty valley of Dege, ascend a steep series of switchbacks through the steep-sided Zi-chu river gorge. The scenes change dramatically to rugged mountains and snowy peaks as the trails crests the 4916m Tro La pass, passing a small Sakya monastery en route.
4WD, Hotel or Camp
Shortly out of Manigange is a small detour well worth it - the 'hidden valley' of 17c Dzogchen gompa (Nyingmapa), one of the most important monasteries in Kham. Continuing on, the landscape widens out and you’re driving through a really superb stretch of country, the road tracing the Yalong River, hillsides scattered with formations of prayer flags and one of the highest concentrations of monasteries in Kham – including Dargye gompa (Geluk order – it’s the oldest of the 13 Horpa monasteries, and was once the top monastery in these parts. Renovation started in the ‘80s, and the interior painting, taking 7+ years to complete, is astounding), Yazer gompa, Beri gompa (originally an old Bönpo temple that converted to Gelukpa), as well as the ruins of Beri castle, the renovated Kablung gompa and Böngen gompa. The pace will determine how many there is time to stop and see! Then retracing the path back south, take the turn-off at the small road-junction town of Manigange (3800m), and with a bit of luck - and weather providing - this evening to the banks of Yilhun Lhatso (4500m), on the road to Dege, for tonight’s campsite. Yilhun Lhatso is a beautiful blue lake surrounded by snowy mountains, held sacred by Tibetans as evidenced by the number of mani stone piles and prayer flags. With a bit of luck, the glaciered Mt. Que’er as tonight’s backdrop.
As so many are in this region, Ganzi is something of a cowboy town, it is also 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 from the surrounding plains. 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.
From Ganzi continue down the pretty Sershul valley, coming first to Luhuo, with the towering Drango gompa overlooking town. Then visit Nyitso gompa near the town of Daofu. This valley is the widest in Kham, offering ample grazing lands and arable fields, consequently here are some of the wealthiest and prettiest Tibetan houses of the region. In Tagong is the impressive Lhagang gompa, where views of Mt. Yalha (3809m) and Paojiashan (5400m) can be had.
From Tagong road drops sharply from the high plateau, crossing two passes – Gye La and Lama La (4320m). Kangding was the trading post between the Tibetan Highlands and Sichuan lowlands and as such provides the last taste of Khampa Tibet.
Hit the road for an early start to this 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. The road goes via the 10-km Erlang tunnel, then crosses the 3000m Erlang pass. Lunch at Luding, site of one of the more heroic episodes of the long March. Then the road skirts north of the 7756m Minyak Gangkar (Gonggashan) to the south.
Chengdu is 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.
A variation on an old favourite from the days when this area was apparently closed to foreigners, a deep foray into the little explored reaches of Kham Tibet’s high plateau grasslands, mountains and valleys. A translation of the Tibetan for Kham, the 4 rivers refers to the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yalong and the Salween rivers. Kham is both the most populated (strictly relative) and, arguably, culturally richest region of greater Tibet. The area stands out as having historically been a stamping ground for all five schools of Buddhism, a radical and refreshing change from the orthodoxies of central Tibet, and indeed provided the heartbeat of the 19th century non-sectarian Rimed movement. The trail heads into some truly remote areas, taking in several rarely visited monasteries and towns, and overall getting the full flavour of this remarkable region, before dropping down off the plateau into NW Yunnan and a final R&R period in Lijiang, the capital of the Naxi minority. Although we cover a huge area during this trip, the pace is actually quite gentle. Add to that the option of camping under those BIG skies, it makes for a flexible, easy-going and extremely rewarding road trip.