This is a main Eastern Tibet route Ultimate travel guide, about one of the best routes in this amazing land. And now you are reading about its first part, Eastern Tibet Sichuan part- from Chengdu to Yilhun Lha Tso Lake.
Tibet is one of the most famous and mysterious lands on the Earth, in the heart of Asia. Its beauty, nature, culture, and history influence many people, making it a kind of dreamland. It’s very large, like a whole continent, and you can’t get an image of it only by a short visit to Lhasa or other destination there. The best way to explore it is by following a route. And here we present the main traveling route in Eastern Tibet.
Why Eastern Tibet? First, look at the maps of China and whole Asia. Many people think that the land of Tibet is only the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR)- one of the provinces of China, with its capital Lhasa. Besides Lhasa, there are Himalayas, Everest, Kailash and many other peaks, lakes, monasteries, and all other kinds of Tibetan “attributes”.
Another part of the image of Tibet is its Buddhism- many people, when they hear about Tibet, what appear in their mind is mainly religion, “holy”, “spiritual peace” and many other things like this, along with the recent “political tensions” related with Dalai Lama and various political points of views and opinions about Tibet. Which, by the way, created the third part of the image of Tibet- restricted and limited ability for the foreigners to travel there.
But not too many people know, that TAR (西藏) is only the Western part of Tibet, and there is only 40% of the Tibetan population. The Eastern part of Tibet is shared in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. And it is not “less Tibetan” than the Western part. In fact, it is even more pure, virgin, and away of the tourist crowds, mainly because it’s not famous among the foreign travelers, it lies “in the shadow” of the famous Lhasa, and it’s not clearly defined by one area, province or region as the Western part in TAR.
And at the same time, the Eastern part of Tibet (with only a few exceptions) is completely free for Chinese and foreigners to travel everywhere, same as in the other provinces of China.
Eastern Tibet has a lot to offer, and there are many destinations representing various kinds of the Tibetan image, as well as many routes connecting them. And this is the best and my favorite Eastern Tibet route because it includes a large number of the region’s essential features. Following it, you can see everything that Tibet can offer: endless grasslands, snowy mountains, lakes, as well as Tibetan history, religion and culture in various forms.
The full version of this route is a circle, starting from Chengdu and ending to Chengdu. Normally it takes about 20-22 days, but if you don’t have so much time, there are options to shorten it to Xining, Yushu or just back to Chengdu earlier.
Chengdu is an important travel point, not only for this route but as one of the biggest and culturally richest cities in China. So it is worth to plan your time for exploring at least its main attractions and landmarks. Then the route starts on the famous road No. 318, leading to Lhasa. After Kangding, you turn right on the road to Garze, then to the extreme northwest of Sichuan. From there it enters Qinghai province and arriving in its first main city Yushu. From Yushu, the route goes northeast through its wildest and highest sections, then descends to Qinghai Lake, which is the largest lake in China and arrives in Xining. The rest of the route goes southeast, passing more of the Tibetan landscapes until finally descends to the lowland and backs to Chengdu.
Here is the map of the route:
The best way of transport is by car. But since you can’t drive in China unless you have a Chinese driving license, the trip by car has to be with a hired driver, or at least if you have a Chinese friend who can drive. Obviously, it may be expensive if you are solo or 2-3 people, but for a bigger group, the car is a very good option when you share the money for it. Many companies offer car/van with a driver for average 1000 RMB per day, and it includes everything. If you travel by this way 22 days, it makes 22 000 RMB, but when you share between, let’s say, 5 people, it makes around 4400 RMB per person (which is around 700 USD).
But if you don’t want to travel by car anyway, there are buses on the whole route which you can use. However, since the best destinations are between the cities and the other settlements, the bus only passes quickly beside them without stop, so you will miss most of the things that are worth to see.
By taxi and shared van: it is better than by, but is uncertain. Usually, the taxi minivans (if you find such in the centers of the towns) wait until they are full (which may “shake” all your plans and schedules), and it’s not sure if the driver (and other passengers inside) would want to stop in some certain place for you.
THE ROUTE, ITS DESTINATIONS, AND THE ITINERARY:
So, let’s see the route day by day:
Day 1 CHENGDU (成都)- 480 m altitude
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and the 5th biggest city in China. It is a large modern metropolis with rich and long history, full of culture, attractions, and landmarks. It is really worth to not leave immediately to Tibet, but spend at least one day to explore it.
Here are its main points of interest:
- Tianfu Square (天府广场) and Chunxi Road (春熙路)
This is the modern central part of the city, featuring the central square, Mao Ze Dong statue, few museums, and the nearby pedestrian zone, full with shops, malls, restaurants, skyscrapers and many more attractions.
- Wide and Narrow alleys (宽窄巷子)
This is a small “Old town”, dating from Qing dynasty (around 3 centuries ago), featuring the architecture style of this era. Now it is full of art, culture, local food, and rich evening life.
- Wuhou residence (武侯祠) and Jinli street (锦里古街)
It is another “Old town” complex. It represents the ancient Wuhou residence, a central government complex from Three Kingdoms era (now renewed). And beside it is the famous Jinli street, in old traditional architectural style, full of cafes, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, gardens and a lot of art and culture. Entrance fee for Wuhou residence: 60 RMB
- Dufu cottage (杜甫草堂)
It is another ancient complex, a museum of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who has lived here. Now it is turned into a beautiful garden with traditional style buildings. Entrance fee: 60 RMB
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地)
The Giant panda is one of the symbols of China. And its homeland is Sichuan province. So Chengdu is the city, chosen to introduce this beautiful animal, representing one of the faces of this city. The Research Base of Giant Panda is located on the northern part of the city. It is a nice park, where the Giant Pandas live in a natural environment. You can see some pandas while you are walking in the park. Entrance fee: 58 RMB
- New Century Global Center (新世纪环球中心)
This is known as the largest building in the world. It is not just a mall, but a whole resort city, assembled in one building. There are a lot of malls, restaurants, sports centers, playgrounds, as well as a big swimming complex and even hotels around it.
Usually is not possible to explore all of these destinations in one day, but what you miss at the beginning of the route, you can see it when you back to Chengdu in the end.
Accommodation: For budget travelers, I recommend some of the hostels in the north part of the city, especially Chengdu Lazybones Hostel Poshpacker
Day 2: CHENGDU (成都) 480m – KANGDING/DARTSEDO (康定，དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།）2450 m altitude
Road Distance: on the old road 318- 330 km; on the new highway- 284
This day the route enters the high mountains. The section from Chengdu to Ya’an is a good highway, which can be taken for about 1 hour and 50min. Then from Ya’an you leave the lowlands and enter the big mountain. And there are two versions of the route. The first version is the new highway to Luding. It is very comfortable, shortens the route for 50 km and you can arrive from Chengdu to Kangding for about 5 hours. And the second version is the old road 318- a famous road, connecting Chengdu and Lhasa. If you chose this road, you will need about 7 to 8 hours to reach Kangding from Chengdu (not including the stops for lunch, for sightseeing and panoramic photos).
Fortunately, now it is better than before when the driving on this road was a real nightmare, with endless traffic jams, a lot of slow heavy trucks and various other kinds of heavy traffic. Now the new highway takes a significant part of the traffic, so it shortens the traveling time by more than 2-3 hours. So, the new highway is comfortable, but the old road offers more to see. It’s up to you. Here are some of the main attractions on the route:
- Ya’an (雅安) 680 m altitude
This city is at the gates of the big mountain land. It has a long history, mentioned more than 2500 years ago. So there are some ancient remains which you can see. It is known as the “Rain City”, since the rain (usually light rain) falls 270 days in the year.
- Erlang mountain (二郎山) and tunnel, 2250 m altitude
Erlang mountain is part of Qionglai mountain range, situated from north to south between Sichuan plain and Dadu river. Thus it is the “first wave” of the Tibetan mountains on this route. From Ya’an the road enters the mountain, passed through few towns and villages, and a lot of villas, roadside restaurants, and other buildings, gradually ascending up to Erlang tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in China. The weather is often different before and after the tunnel. It is accessible only on the old road 318.
- Panoramic terraces to Dadu river (大渡河), 2250 m altitude
After Erlang tunnel, the old road continues on the mountain slopes over Dadu river. There are few panoramic terraces where you can stop and enjoy the breathtaking view of the river valley and the mountains of the “second wave” beyond. Reachable only on the old road.
- Luding (泸定) and Luding bridge (泸定桥), 1350 m altitude
This famous bridge is a historical attraction. The bridge itself is very old, serving as a connection between the Chinese and Tibetan civilizations. And it is well known with its recent history- the battle between the Communists and the local warlords in union with Guomindang forces, when the Communists gain a significant victory. The bridge is wooden over the angry river below, with two old traditional buildings on its both ends. Great for photos and views. The new highway finish nearby, so it is accessible by the two versions of the route Entrance fee: 10 RMB
Then the route follows Road No.318 in a last ascending and finally arrives in Kangding. Most likely you will arrive in Kangding at late afternoon or evening. At that time you can only go to your accommodation, put the luggage there and make an evening walk around the city center, enjoying a local dinner. Kangding is a very beautiful and clean city, full of nightlife. You can choose a restaurant with spicy Sichuan or Tibetan food. And finally, you can enjoy the romantic view of the thousands of lights on the nearby slopes of the mountain.
Accommodation: For the budget travelers (and not only), I recommend Zhilam hostel, opened by an American family and managing by a Tibetan staff. Yes, it is a little difficult to access- usually you have to park your car in the parking below, then walk ascending 5 mins with the luggage up to the hostel (actually there is a narrow street leading to the hostel, but there is usually no free place to park the car there, or the driver can drop you there, then descend back to the big parking lot). But the local Tibetan environment, the adventure spirit inside the hostel, and the great view over the city from its terrace are really worth to be their guest.
Day 3 KANGDING/DARTSEDO (康定，དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།）2450 m altitude
This day I recommend to stay only in Kangding for three reasons:
- For acclimatization. Kangding’s altitude is good for it and very proper to follow the acclimatization roles.
- Kangding is a really beautiful city, full of attractions, and is near to the highest peaks of Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, offering stunning views.
- For the driver. It’s worth to have some rest of driving after the heavy traffic of Road 318 the previous day.
So, it is worth to have a walk in the city. Kangding (康定，དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།） is beautifully situated in the deep valley of Zheduo river with high mountains all around it.
Its urban center, called Lucheng is full of Chinese and Tibetan culture, travel and adventure atmosphere and splendid views of the city and the mountains.
Kangding is an important center, where the Chinese and Tibetan civilization meet. It has also rich history, being a capital of Chakla kingdom, and a big trade post on one of the Silk road routes. It is a homeland of the famous Kangding Love song (康定情歌), became very popular not only in China but abroad too- you can see many inscriptions of the song’s name and lyrics around the city.
In the morning you can take a walk around Kangding, visiting some of these destinations:
- Kangding Central square and the Old street
It is a real pleasure to walk beside the raging Zheduo river, to see the colorful Central Square and the nearby Old-street, with a lot of houses in traditional architectural style.
- Kangding local temples
There are few Tibetan temples in the city and around it- Anjue temple (安觉寺), located in the center, Namwu temple (南无寺), south of Anjue and Jinggang temple. You can visit them to see the local Tibetan culture presented there.
- Paoma mountain (跑马山)
It is a famous landmark of Kangding, mentioned in its Kangding Love song. There is a cable car from Jinggang temple to its peak. Or you can take a walk for about 30 mins.
All these places are walkable within 2-3 hours in the morning. Then, for a good acclimatization (and not only), I advise to make a trip to the nearby higher places, which are also really beautiful and worth to visit:
- Mugecuo (木格措)
It is a national park, located 21 km from Kangding, at around 3200 m altitude, presenting a lot of forests, lakes, mountains, hikes and hot springs, with really breathtaking views. It is opened from 8 am to 5 pm, and its entrance fee is 105 RMB
- Yajiageng pass (雅家埂山口)
It is around 30 km south of Kangding, at 3948 m altitude (a good training for the coming high altitudes of Tibet), with stunning views to the highest peaks of Eastern Tibet.
Or you can make a trekking over the city, to the nearby Gouda peak.
At evening you can enjoy the nigh life of Kangding, the traditional dancing in the Central Square, some local Tibetan folk performances, as well as plenty of delicious food in the restaurants.
Day 4: KANGDING/DARTSEDO (康定，དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།）2450 m altitude – TAGONG/LHAGANG (塔公，ྷ་སྒང་）3750 m altitude
Road Distance: 90 km
This section of the route is shorter. This day you will reach the high altitudes of Tibet for the first time. Then you will enjoy the splendid grasslands of Tagong- a view that will follow you during the most of the whole route.
The route follows Road 318 ascending up to Zheduo pass （折多山口） at 4290 m altitude. You can stop here for some rest and photos (for 10 RMB parking tax). Then turn right on a much quiet, silent and nice road, pass by Kangding airport (one of the highest located airports in the world) and proceeds to Tagong. From here you enter the real Tibet- endless grasslands and distant snowy mountains, dominated by Zhara Mt. will reveal in front of you. The road curves on the grassland slopes and hills. There are few roadside Tibetan restaurants (and some locals offering horse riding).
Finally, the road arrives just north of Muya temple (木芽金塔) and the main road from Kangding to Garze, at 3750 m altitude. There is a parking lot, the temple itself beside it, and a stunning view to Zhara Mt. (雅拉雪山). You can make a 5 mins climb on the nearby hill (for 10 RMB entrance), however, there are much more grassland hill hiking options nearby.
Then you enter Tagong town, some 500 m south.
Tagong (塔公，ྷ་སྒང་） is a small Tibetan town, famous with its Tagong (Lhagang) monastery and the beautiful grasslands. You can stop and park your car in the center, then set your luggage in the accommodation place- the best option is Jya Drolma & Gayla guesthouse, famous among the foreigners, visiting this place. Its manager is a nice and friendly Tibetan woman, with whom is a real pleasure to talk. And the house is in Tibetan traditional style, richly ornamented with Tibetan paintings, and a nice garden around it. There are direction signs to lead you from the square to the house. There is also Khampa cafe in the center, and Lhagang monastery itself.
In the rest of the day you can make a short hiking to the nearby hill, where you can enjoy stunning views of the town, the endless sea of grassland hills and Zhara Mt. Cross the river on the bridge behind Lhagang monastery, then you will see a narrow path ascending up on the hill, passing by a lot of prayer flags. Finally, the path disappears, but you can climb on the grass slope until the top (walk slowly, the air is reduced in the high altitude)- for about 30-40 mins.
For dinner, you can choose one of the few local restaurants in the center, they offer mainly Tibetan food. (If you like beer, notice that you can’t find COLD beer almost anywhere in Tibet, since they don’t use fridges, assuming that outside the weather is “enough cold”!)
Day 5: TAGONG/LHAGANG (塔公，ྷ་སྒང་）3750 m altitude – GARZE/GANZI (甘孜，དཀར་མཛེས་) 3350 m altitude
Road Distance: 272 km
This day the route is longer, but very pleasant, passing through a lot of picturesque landscapes, and descending to a little lower areas.
First the road curves to north on the grasslands about 30 km to Bamei town (八美). It’s a small and clean (with recently renewed streets) Tibetan town, famous for its rock pyramids (八美变质石林), located south of it (3560 m) before you enter the town. There is a panoramic terrace, nice for photos.
Then the road proceeds to the north-northwest and gradually ascends to Songlin pass (4020 m)- there is a beautiful grassland (松林草原) near the pass, where you can stop for photos too, and ride a horse.
After Songlin the road descends with many curves on a beautiful valley, covered with coniferous forest. Finally, it passes by Dawu town (道孚), at 2960 m altitude. You can pass through the town, but since there is nothing special in the town itself, you can go around it on a newly paved road. Then you will pass by a lot of beautiful Tibetan villages with big wooden houses in traditional style. Finally, the road arrives in Drango (炉霍) and the northern road No. 317 to Lhasa, at 3100 m altitude.
Drango is a good place to stop for lunch. If you have more time, you can go to Shouling monastery (寿灵寺), north of the town, where you can enjoy a splendid panoramic view of the town and the mountains around it.
The rest of the route for this day goes west on road 317. The next good place to stop is the panoramic terrace to Kasa Co lake. After that, the road ascends to the last mountain pass (at 3980 m) with stunning view to the distant Kawalori (卡瓦落日) and Zhuoda (卓达) mountains. Then descends to the large Garze plain, at Yalong river, 3350 m altitude.
Garze (甘孜) is a nice Tibetan town, with recently renewed and clean streets. About 90% of the population are Tibetans and you can see their culture and daily life everywhere. You can walk around the streets, shopping in the center and have dinner in some of the restaurants.
For accommodation, you can choose one of the many hotels on the streets. Most of them are not registered in any website, so you can’t make reservations online in advance. The prices are mainly between 120 and 180 RMB. You can just find some hotel right on the road and ask (however many of them can’t speak English)- it is unlikely to not find free rooms, unless during some big festival. There is a rule in China- the hotels must be registered to accept foreigners, and since many of them don’t have such license, they may deny you to sleep there. But in Garze (as well as many other small towns and cities) this rule is not so strict, so even without license most of them still will accept you.
Day 6: GARZE/GANZI (甘孜，དཀར་མཛེས་) 3350 m altitude
Garze area is a nice place, offering a lot of attractions around. So this day is worth to take a walk nearby, before proceeding further northwest in Tibet.
First, you can visit Garze monastery (甘孜寺)– it is the main monastery of the town, located 2 km north. There is a dusty street, passing by the town’s village suburbs and ascending to the monastery. It is built in the 14th century and represents not only Tibetan style, but also some Chinese and even Mongolian influence. There is a stunning view from its terrace to the town and the mountains beyond it.
One of the first thing that is noticeable in Garze is the nearby magnificent Zhuoda Mt. (卓达雪山). It’s rising more than 5600 m altitude and dominates the landscape south of the town with its sharp rocky peaks. If you like some high mountain trekking, you can go on the road to Baiyu (白玉). The road enters Zhuoda and ascends up to 4780 m altitude, to Zhuoda La pass. You can stop there and make some walk in the high altitude, to almost 5000 m. The views and the landscapes there are really breathtaking.
When back to Garze, you can sleep there the second night. But a more interesting option is to leave it and go west to Darjay monastery (大金寺), located some 24 km on the road. You can enjoy the local environment, the beautiful grasslands, and the stunning mountain view. There is a small guesthouse there, where you can sleep in the night.
Day 7: GARZE/GANZI (甘孜，དཀར་མཛེས་) 3350 m altitude – YILHUN LHA TSO (玉隆拉措，ཡི་ལྷུན་ལྷ་མཚོ་མ) 4020 m altitude
Road Distance: 104 km
This day the route is leading to one of the most beautiful lakes in the whole Tibet- Yilhun Lha Tso. I really recommend spending one night in a camping at its coast.
First, the road 317 leaves Garze (or proceeds from Darjay monastery, if you sleep there) further on the northwest. It gradually ascends, leaving the plains and entering a higher valley with some coniferous forests. Here you can see the nomadic life of the Tibetans, living in tents, with a lot of yaks.
The road crosses a mountain pass and gradually enter a long grassland plain in a wide valley. Soon it arrives in Manigango (马尼干戈乡), a nice Tibetan village, where the road 317 divides into two roads. The southern road (which is still 317) goes to Derge, then enters TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), and the northern road goes to Serxu and Yushu in Qinghai province.
You can make a rest in Manigango and have lunch in some of the local restaurants. Then you take the southern road. Soon after the village, a splendid snow mountain appears- it is Chola Mt. (雀儿山). You can stop in a small parking lot for photos. And after 3 km you arrive in front of Yilhun Lha Tso gate.
Yilhun Lha Tso (玉隆拉措，ཡི་ལྷུན་ལྷ་མཚོ་མ) is a glacier lake in 4020 m altitude (its Chinese name is Xinluhai, 新路海), on the north foot of Mt.Chola. It is a real treasure, hidden deep in Tibet. The landscape is really stunning, white-blue waters, coasts with coniferous forests and the magnificent Mt Chola make it one of the most beautiful places in Tibet. And since it is not tourism developed, very few people visit it, so it is still untouched. The feeling to be there, in this fantastic landscape, alone in the nature silence (hearing only the noise of the waters and the wind), is really amazing.
It has an entrance fee: 30 RMB. And if you want to sleep there in a camping- add more 30 RMB per tent. But its really worth to be there. It is very possible that you can be alone on the coast whole day and a whole night.
There are some kids begging for… candies, at the gate. I still don’t know why they want candies, but seems they use the candy’s envelope for some rituals. Few Tibetans sell art stones and some other souvenirs. But after you enter the gate and cross the small bridge, you are alone in the nature.
You can spend the afternoon there. You can make a trekking to the south coast of the lake, where the view of the mountain is even more beautiful. There you can enjoy the mighty Chola, you can hear a waterfall from its glaciers, you can see horses running free, and eagles. There is a small path, which almost disappears and it’s difficult to walk in some places, but you can reach the south coast for about 2 hours walk.
If you go there in August, it is very possible to experience a strong wind in the night- usually around 8-9pm. I don’t know why it comes, but it happens every time when I go there. The wind is blowing usually about 30-40 mins, then stops and everything is silent.
There are mosquitoes in the daytime (in the summer), but at evening they disappear too.
However, if you don’t want to camp in Yilhun Lha Tso, you can back 11 km to Manigango- there are few guesthouses there, which are quite comfortable and cheap- around 100-120 RMB per room, so you can sleep there.
From here, next days the route proceeds westward to Derge, then back to Manigango. And from Manigango it goes beyond Sichuan province, to Yushu in Qinghai, then go the northeast to Xining, and again back to Chengdu, making a circle.
Other options are:
- Traveling only to Yushu and by airplane go to Xining or Chengdu.
- Traveling to Derge, then get another route to the southwest of Sichuan- to Litang and Yunnan.
- Or just back on the same road (with more versions in the east) to Chengdu.
But if you choose to proceed, read our next part of the Ultimate guide of the main Eastern Tibet route.
Check out some travel books about the Great Tibetan Plateau:
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