Tibet is a dreamland for many people on the Earth, full of mystery and beauty. It is the highest land on our planet. Revealing fantastic landscapes – snowy mountains, vast grasslands, lakes, rivers, forests, and valleys. These landscapes are a cradle of the amazing culture of the Tibetan people. You can see it everywhere – from their monasteries to the nomadic life of the Tibetan herdsmen. Let’s go on a journey to this region, particularly to its eastern part and dive into the world that it reveals to travelers.
Basic facts about Eastern Tibet
Everybody knows about the region. People see the map, and the province of China called the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” with Lhasa as a capital, and think: “This is Tibet”. But what many of them don’t know is that this is only the western part of the region. In Chinese, it is “Xizang” (西藏), which literally means “Western Tibet”. But then, where is “Eastern Tibet”? There is no such thing on the map, only several provinces – Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. So, “Eastern Tibet” must be searched somewhere around?
Yes, on the map “Eastern part” is hidden, but it exists, shared between all of these neighboring provinces. A large part of these provinces is located on the Great Tibetan Plateau, which is the same as the western region. The people living on the plateau, with their culture, history, language, and traditions are the same Tibetans as those living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
So, if you go to the Tibetan part of Sichuan or Qinghai, you can confidently say “I was in Tibet” because this is a part of the region. The eastern part is not “less Tibetan” than the western part. In fact, it even has some advantages. First – foreigners are completely free to travel in the eastern region (just like traveling between Shanghai and Beijing, only with their Chinese visa). They don’t need an organized tour and travel permits like in the western region. And second – being “hidden” and shared between other provinces, Eastern Tibet provides a much authentic feel of the region, with much less crowded destinations to visit.
The best Eastern Tibet itinerary
How to explore the eastern region? The Tibetan Autonomous Region is clear – you go to Lhasa. From there you visit the neighboring places like the Everest Base Camp or the farthest one – Kailas. The eastern part of the region is different. There are a lot of places you can visit – some of them a bit touristy, others – completely wild and difficult to access. However, all of these places are worth to visit and explore.
So, when I planned my first trip, I designed a route that I found the best because it includes the most essential and representative destinations of this land. We made it by rental car for 18 days. If we had more time, we would do it much slower with detours, for a much longer time.
The route starts from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and ends in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. On the way, you can see everything that the region has to reveal. Like the endless grasslands with yaks and Tibetan nomads. Snowcapped mountains with glaciers, stunning glacial lakes, and rivers, wild coniferous forests. Splendid monasteries with white stupas (Chortens), clean and cozy Tibetan towns and villages. A lot of vastness and remoteness. This is the Great Tibetan Plateau. But let’s begin from Chengdu.
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Chengdu (460 m altitude) – Capital of Sichuan
This is one of the largest megacities of China, full of culture and history. Home of the Giant Panda, and some of the most deliciously spicy food in the world. I would advise you to arrange at least one day to explore this unique city before you start your Tibetan adventure. This is what we did (and later did it every time when we visited the region again). We visited the center, wide and narrow alleys, Jin Li Street, Wuhou Temple, the Center of the Giant Panda Breeding (of course!), and many other places, along with the lively atmosphere of the city. Then we started our trip.
Kangding (2500 m altitude) – Gate of Tibet
From Chengdu, our route started on the famous G318 highway, connecting Chengdu with Lhasa, given the title “heavenly road” by the travelers. Unfortunately, now foreigners can’t go to Lhasa from Chengdu. Because part of it (Chamdo Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Region) is currently completely closed for them. But the section of the road within Sichuan Province is opened and full of beauty. And the first important place on it is Kangding.
Kangding is known as the “Most romantic city in China” because it is the birthplace of the famous “Kangding Love Song”. It is located in a deep gorge with a furious mountain river flowing through the center of the city. This is the gate of the cultural lands of Tibet.
We arrived there on the old G318 road, full of stunning views all along with it. Now there is a new speed highway, which makes the trip much faster. We every time spent the night in Zhilam Hostel. For me the accommodation properties are not “travel destinations”, but just a place to spend the night. However, Zhilam Hostel is different. It is like an adventurous “museum”, with a great panoramic view of the city.
Tagong (3750 m) – Stunning Grasslands with Yaks, Prayer Flags
From Kangding, you can explore the nearby Mt. Konka (7556 m), the highest peak in the region. Or you can proceed on the road G318 to the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and explore the areas of Litang, Yading, and Mt. Ge’nyen. But we chose to leave this road and to turn right to Tagong.
Tagong is a small Tibetan town, known for its stunning grasslands. Here you can find the first large Tibetan monastery – Lhagang (Tagong) Monastery, in the town’s center. And on the northeastern side of the town, you can see a breathtaking view of the grasslands, Muya Temple and the magnificent Zhara (Yala) Snow Mountain over the grasslands.
In Tagong, we slept in another Tibetan cultural place – Jya Drolma & Gaya’s Guesthouse, a beautiful Tibetan house, richly decorated in traditional style. We didn’t miss the opportunity to hike the nearby hills and enjoy the stunning views of the grasslands.
Garze (3350 m) – Tibetan culture under snowcapped giants
From Kangding, our route proceeded to the northwest. It passed through cozy Tibetan towns – Bamei, Dawu and Drango (Luhuo), and a lot of beautiful Tibetan villages. The grasslands mixed with gorgeous coniferous forests, and when we reached the highest point of this section of the route, we saw the majestic Kawalori, rising to almost 6000 m altitude. It was one of the snowcapped giants, surrounding Garze from the south.
We arrived in Garze. It was a nice town with a lively center. About 80% of its population are Tibetans, and we were seeing their culture all the time. Monks in red robes walk on the streets. Women in richly decorated traditional clothes sell their products on the street markets, and happy children play beside the small river, crossing the town. We visited Garze Monastery – a unique Tibetan monastery, which has some Mongol and Han Chinese influence.
Yilhun Lha Tso (4020 m) – Beautiful Pearl of Eastern Tibet
Now the route proceeds on another “heavenly road” – G317, which, however, is not as famous as G318. So, when we traveled on it, it was much emptier, and driving on it was a pleasure. The road passes by the majestic Mt. Zhuoda and reaches Manigango, a small Tibetan settlement. Only 11 km away from Manigango is Yilhun Lha Tso – an incredibly beautiful glacial lake.
Yilhun Lha Tso is located on the foot of Mt. Chola, under its highest peak Rongme Ngatra (6168 m) – a rugged mountain range covered by glaciers and wild coniferous forests on its lower parts. And the lake water is strangely pale in color, with some Tibetan mani stones on it. Herds of horses were running around, and eagles were flying free.
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We spent the night there camping on the lake coast, which was a fantastic experience, enjoying the cosmic view of the Universe in the night. I have never seen so many stars and the Milky Way so clear like here, on the coast of Yilhun Lha Tso! If you go on this route, you definitely must try it!
Serxu (4250 m) – Wildest and Remote area of Sichuan
After this amazing experience, we go back to Manigango and got the road to Serxu – a small Tibetan town. Located in the extreme northwestern end of Sichuan. The route passed by Dzogchen Monastery – a beautiful complex. Located under the glaciers of Mt. Chola, which is often crowded by pilgrims. Then the road leaves Mt. Chola and proceeds through an endless maze of hills, covered by grassland. On the long section between Dzogchen and Serxu, there are only a few small villages, and nothing more. The only human presence that you can see there is some scattered Tibetan nomadic tents, with herds of yaks beside them.
Finally, we reached the remote Serxu. It is amazing to see a normal town with malls, markets, fashion shops, a square with fountains, bars, restaurants, in an altitude that normally there is nothing else but glaciers and wilderness.
But the most interesting place in Serxu area is Serxu Monastery, which is not just a religious site, but an important educational center. When we visited it, we were invited to a classroom, where the students (10-11 years old boys, no girls!) had a Chinese language class. They were reciting a story about the “Rabbit with long, long ears, and short, short tail”.
Yushu (3650 m) – Resurrected city
From Serxu the route leaves Sichuan through one of its highest points- Anbala Pass (4700 m) and enters Qinghai Province. It descends to the main highway, connecting Xining with Yushu. Turn left and soon you will be in Yushu. And a little before Yushu you can see the famous Yangtze River, the longest river in China, at 3500 m altitude (in this section the Yangtze is called Tongtian River).
Yushu is one of the largest cities in Qinghai Province. It is an old city, although modern Yushu exists since 2010. The reason was a devastating earthquake, which happened in 2010 and killed most of its population, destroying the whole city. Then it has been rebuilt, resurrected. New Yushu is totally different than the old one – with splendid Tibetan architecture. A large square with the legendary Tibetan King Gesar monument. And a thick solid wall, a symbol of the new resistance against the seismic powers of nature.
We walked around the city, had dinner in a nice Tibetan restaurant, called “Grandma’s Kitchen”, and enjoyed its new architecture. Then, on the next day, we got the road to the wildest areas of the whole Eastern Tibet.
Bayankala (4810 m) & Madoi (4250 m) – Vast remote breathtaking emptiness
The route follows the main highway to Xining. It gradually ascends through the vast grasslands which become more and more empty. It is an endless wilderness with nothing on it. There are only mountain ridges, large plains between them and no settlements or other human traces around, with an exception of some lonely nomadic tents and sometimes a herd of yaks.
We reached the highest point of the whole route- Bayankala Pass (4810 m). Then, on its northern side was the wildest area that one can see between Chengdu and Xining – a total emptiness under the deep blue sky, covered by grass and sometimes with hundreds of mini lakes and swamps.
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Finally, the landscape starts to “back to the civilization” again, reaching Madoi – a small Tibetan town, located literally “in the middle of nowhere”. Yes, it has its own local life that we saw – local Tibetans meet every evening on the central square, dancing on their traditional folklore music. And although Madoi is remote, it still has some restaurants and even a few small hotels, built for those who travel on the highway between Yushu and Xining.
Amnye Machin (6282 m) – Holiest Mountain in Eastern Tibet
The highway to Xining proceeds on the same landscape to a small settlement, called Tsogen Rawa. There is a crossing with another highway, and it is a place for an important detour from the main route in the right direction. This second highway travels through the same endless hills and grasslands until a high snowy mountain soon appears on the east. This is Amnye Machin- a majestic giant, rising significantly over the surrounding lower hills.
Amnye Machin is considered as one of the holiest mountains in the region. There is a dirt road around the mountain, which is regularly used by pilgrims for kora – a religious circumnavigation, which takes 7 days (recently it is often traveled by trekkers too).
When we reached Amnye Machin for the first time, the new highway was still in construction. So we had to drive on the old dirt road, from the Yushu-Xining highway to the northern slopes of the mountain. But now you can shortcut most of the old road by the new highway. And exit from it at Tawo Zholma – a small village just before Amnye Machin. From there you can reach Drakde La Pass (4610 m). And enjoy the most magnificent view of the snowy mountain with its largest glacier – Damxung Glacier, which flows near the mountain pass. You can even go to walk on the glacier (as we did). Although I have heard that it will be forbidden in the future for safety reasons.
Qinghai Lake (3205 m) – Largest Lake of Tibet and China
After Amnye Machin, the route back to the Yushi-Xining highway and proceeds further to northeast direction. Finally, it starts descending from the main part of the Great Tibetan Plateau to its lower areas. The landscape becomes more “civilized”, and finally, you reach a small town, where you turn left to the largest lake of the region and the whole of China- Qinghai Lake.
Qinghai Lake is a closed body of water, without connection to the ocean. Four civilizations meet there- Tibetans, Mongols, Hui Muslims, and Han Chinese. Its coasts are covered by grasslands and small sand deserts on its northern side. The distant mountains of Tibet reflect on its blue waters.
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Now its southern coast is quite touristy, with a lot of hotels and yurts for accommodation, as well as many restaurants. Honestly, after the vast wilderness of the high region, we felt Qinghai Lake too “civilized”. But if you ignore this, the lake, the surrounding nature, and the local culture remain impressing.
Xining (2150 m) – Capital of Qinghai
Finally, this is the end of this route. Xining is the capital of Qinghai and is a large city with mostly Hui Muslim and Han Chinese populations. And it is really worth to try what its local culture presents- its colorful markets, its religious sites, and its atmosphere.
How to make the trip on this route
As I already mentioned, we traveled on this route by rental car. We did it because I have a Chinese driving license. If you don’t have it, you can’t drive a car in China. Then the only way to do it by car is if you find another driver with such a document. It is not an easy task, but if you are a larger group of people, you can hire a van or minibus, which would be not very expensive.
One possible way is to contact your accommodation property in Chengdu (which you would reserve in advance) and tell them to arrange such a van. Most of the hotels would not be able to do it, but some hostels which often accept foreigners traveling to this region probably would arrange it.
Another option is by shared vans, from city to city. It is easier, but usually, you would not have this freedom to stop wherever you want and enjoy what you see as long as you want. And the cheapest (but worst) option is by bus. There are buses traveling on almost the whole route. But again, you would miss a lot of the beauty along the road.
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We traveled on this route in summer. During this part of the year, the weather is warmest, and the grasslands are most green, often full of flowers. It is possible to rain sometimes. Most of the rest of the year is cold, sunny and dry, but the grasslands are yellow. There is not much snow in winter, but the temperature may drop lower than – 30 C.
There are many other places that you can visit. Among them I would mention Shangri La and Deqin in Yunnan Province, Litang, Yading and Ge’nyen on G318 (as I mentioned above), Derge at the other side of Mt. Chola, famous for its Tibetan book printing traditions, Larung Gar with its hundreds of monk’s red houses (however, currently closed for foreigners), Mt. Nyenbo Yurtse, Zoige (Ruoergai) Grasslands, and many more. But this route is more representative, for those who want to explore the Eastern part.
This is a guest post by Krasen of Journey Beyond the Horizon. Follow their FB Page or Instagram Handle.
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