This is the second part of our main Eastern Tibet route ultimate guide, mainly in Qinghai province of China, from Yilhun Lha Tso Lake to Xining.
As we already mentioned in the first part, this route explores two main Tibetan cultural zones: Kham and Amdo. Kham is located in the southeast of Tibet, mainly in Sichuan, as well as parts of Yunnan, TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), and a small portion of Qinghai. And Amdo is in the northeast, mainly in Qinghai, part of Gansu and a small portion of northern Sichuan.
This area is the most diverse part of Tibet. Its natural zone includes high snow mountains, endless grasslands, deep gorges and canyons and evergreen forests. 35% of the whole Tibetan population is Kham. It has been long time separated from Lhasa and Beijing, mainly due to its religion- it follows other Buddhist sects than Gelukpa in Lhasa. It has been long time divided between few kingdoms.
The Tibetans from Kham, called Khampa, are relatively taller, compare with the other Tibetans. Their dialect is different than Lhasa Tibetan and varies in the various parts of the area. They have been always warriors, fighting against everybody, who tried to control their land. But nevertheless, when you travel there, you can easily become friends with them. It is not uncommon to walk on the streets of some town or village, to see a group of Khampa Tibetans who eat something together, and they warmly invite you to eat with them, or just offer from their meal eat- just for friendship, without anything expected in turn. We found Khampa friends from many points on our route, and still keep in contact with some of them.
For more information about Kham see here.
So, the first 11 days of the route you travel in Kham area. Here you can see the first part of our guide, about the first 7 days of the route, from Chengdu to Yilhun Lha Tso lake, by car. And if you want to proceed further, following the same route, read next here:
Day 8: YILHUN LHA TSO (玉隆拉措，ཡི་ལྷུན་ལྷ་མཚོ་མ) 4020 m altitude – DERGE (德格,སྡེ་དགེ་)3260 m altitude
Road Distance: 98 km
This day the route can pass its highest point- Chola pass (5050 m) and reach almost the borders of TAR (Western Tibet).
Mt Chola (雀儿山) is one of the highest mountains in Eastern Tibet. Its highest peak Rongme Ngatra is 6168 m. And its alpine image makes it one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
In the morning you have to wait some time until the tents are dry. So you can use this time to walk around. There is a big stupa, a lot of carved stones on the coast, and a wooden bridge over the river which flows out of the lake- all these places are great for photos.
Then you proceed on the road 317 further west to Derge. The road ascends higher and higher in Chola. Now there is a new tunnel under the mountain pass, which makes the trip to Derge shorter. But you can proceed on the old road which ascends to Chola pass (雀儿山口) and you can enjoy the magnificent landscapes of Mt Chola. Then you descend again to the new road and proceed to descend until Derge town.
Derge (德格,སྡེ་དགེ་) is an important cultural center of Eastern Tibet. It has been the capital of Derge kingdom. Now it presents one of the richest Tibetan literature heritage. Here you can visit these places:
- Parkham Printing house (德格印经院)
It is an old Tibetan printing house, significant with its ancient method of printing, which is as it has been used for many centuries, without electricity. There are more than 140000 printing blocks and a lot of Tibetan literature. You can see the working process alive.
- Derge monasteries
There are few monasteries in Derge, the most notable of which is Gonchen monastery (更庆寺). It has 6 centuries-long history and it was not only a Buddhist center but also has served as a palace for the kings. Although many of its buildings are now destroyed, what has remained is still worth to visit.
- Derge Old town
It is located west of Gonchen monastery, and it’s nice to walk around its wooden houses in traditional Tibetan style and to watch the local life.
Accommodation：There are few hotels in Derge, which, as in many towns in Tibet, are not registered in Booking or any other website, but you can just go there and choose a hotel. More notable hotels are Jun Lan hotel, Dege hotel, Golden Yak hotel, and few others. The prices are low, as in Garze- between 120 and 180 RMB, some of them offer even cheaper rooms with basic conditions.
Day 9: DERGE (德格,སྡེ་དགེ་) – 3260 m altitude – DZOGCHEN MONASTERY (竹庆寺，རྫོགས་ཆེན་དགོན།）3870 m altitude
Road Distance: 143 km
This day is time to back to Manigango and take the other road, to the northwest. But this time you don’t need to go on the old road through Chola pass (unless you haven’t seen it the previous day, or just want to enjoy it again), you can proceed through the new tunnel under the pass.
When you arrive in Manigango, take the road to Serxu. This road is newly paved, again crosses another mountain pass- the old road through the pass, the new road through a tunnel under the pass, and at 45 km after Manigango it arrives at the road to Dzogchen. Turn left, pass Dzogchen village and after 2 km you arrive in the monastery.
Dzogchen monastery (竹庆寺，རྫོགས་ཆེན་དགོན།）is one of the Nyingma tradition Buddhist monasteries. It is founded in 1684 by Pema Rigdzin. Now it is renewed, and it is a large complex on the north foot of Mt.Chola, beautifully situated under a big glacier.
You can explore the monastery complex, then it is really worth to make a trekking in the mountain nearby.
Accommodation: Dzogchen monastery offers a nice guesthouse.
Day 10: DZOGCHEN MONASTERY (竹庆寺，རྫོགས་ཆེན་དགོན།）3870 m altitude – SERXU (石渠寺，སེར་ཤུལ་དགོན།) 4250 m altitude
Road Distance: 202 km
This day the route proceeds further northwest, to the most remote and wild area of Sichuan- Serxu. The road goes on the endless grasslands and hills. You will travel for a long time without seeing any village, only wild green vastness. Sometimes can see yaks and nomad’s tents. There are only a few small villages beside the road and one temple. You will pass by a dam lake, and finally, after few hours, on the almost empty road, you arrive in Serxu.
Serxu (石渠，སེར་ཤུལ།) is a Tibetan town on 4250 m altitude, in the middle of an endless green (in the summer) wilderness. Normally in USA, Europe or almost anywhere in the world in this altitude, you can’t see anything but only alpine peaks, glaciers, and wild emptiness. But here, there is a town, with everything- shops, markets, housing complexes, parks, restaurants and all other attributes of a town.
There is nothing special to see in the town itself. Unless you just want to relax, eat or go shopping, there is nothing more to do there. However, the main point of interest is not in the town, but 30 km further on the road- Serxu monastery.
Serxu monastery (石渠寺，སེར་ཤུལ་དགོན།) is an important Tibetan education center. It is the only monastery of Kham region of Tibet, qualified to offer high Buddhist degree. It has established in 1701 and has six well-preserved temples, a lot of Buddhist artifacts and monks’relics. The monastery is very clean, with a nice yard, where you can see many students in their normal school day. They are only boys (no girls there!), and they study not only religious subjects but also every normal subject that the children study in every normal school in China. When we were there, their teachers (monks) were very friendly and invited us to one of their classrooms, where the students just were studying a lesson in Chinese language (about the “small rabbit, with long long ears and short short tail”).
Serxu monastery has a nice and clean guesthouse, so you can sleep there. Another choice is to back to Serxu town- there are relatively good hotels at the entrance to the town by the road from Dzogchen, but accommodation in the monastery guesthouse definitely would be better.
Day 11: SERXU (石渠寺，སེར་ཤུལ་དགོན།) 4250 m altitude – YUSHU (玉树，ཡུལ་ཤུལ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།) 3650 m altitude
Road Distance: 116 km
If you sleep in Serxu monastery, you can see some pilgrims circulating around it. They usually do it in the morning. So, after breakfast, you can proceed on your road further.
This day the route leaves Sichuan province and enters Qinghai province. It gradually ascends to about 4700 m altitude, reaching Anbala pass (安巴拉山垭口). This is the border between the two provinces. As in most of the mountain passes in Tibet, there is a prayer flags construction over the road, a lot of throwing papers, and a road sign with the name of the pass and its altitude (not always correct, as in this case).
From here the road descends about 1000 m and finally reaches the main highway connecting Yushu and Xining, at Xiewu town (歇武镇), 3720 m altitude. There are some small restaurants here, some of them Muslim’s. There is also a temple, well seen from the road.
You turn left and 30 mins reach Tongtian river (通天河), which is one of the longest river in Asia- Yangtse (Tongtian is the name of this section of Yangtse). Another 20 mins and you turn right. Soon you arrive to Yushu (Jiekundo), the destination for this day, and the route’s westernmost point.
Yushu (玉树，ཡུལ་ཤུལ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།) is an important Tibetan city in the south part of Qinghai province. On April 14th, 2010 it was heavily destroyed by a powerful earthquake with magnitude 7,1, which killed thousands of people. Then the government started restoration program and in 2013, when the program was completed, a new Yushu was built. The new city is beautiful and modern. You can see its splendid houses in traditional Tibetan style, clean and pretty.
When you arrive in Yushu, I recommend taking a walk around the center. There is a big square with the monument of the legendary Tibetan King Gesar, and a memorial thick walls beside it. Then you can enjoy the local modern Tibetan architecture around the square. Other destinations nearby include mainly temples and monasteries:
- Jyekundo Dondrub Ling (嘎结古寺), located on the hill north of the city. Worth to visit, see the monastery and enjoy the view of the city.
- Mani temple (玛尼石成, རྒྱ་ནག་མ་ཎི), located 3 km east of Yushu, presenting big stupas and a thick stone wall
- Princess Wencheng temple (文成公主寺), located about 18 km south of the city- if you have time, it is really worth to visit.
At evening I would recommend the best restaurant, called “Grandma’s kitchen” or A Gu Dun Ba, located near the pyramids, in front of Gesar square, on the other side of the river. It offers good Tibetan food, it has a fridge, where you can drink COLD drinks or beer, and its manager is a very friendly Tibetan, with whom we became friends.
Accommodation: There are a lot of hotels, as well as some hostels. Most of them are located near the main T junction in the center of the city.
MORE TIME IN YUSHU
If you have more time, Yushu is a good starting point to explore more of the city, its surroundings and the whole area around. If you go to the south, you can go to Nangchen (囊谦, ནང་ཆེན།), about 170 km south of Yushu and explore the area there. Nangchen is one of the few places in Qinghai Tibet with evergreen forests.
Also, you can go westward to Qumarleb (曲麻莱，ཆུ་དམར་ལེབ་རྫོང) direction and explore the vast grasslands there.
Or you can spend more time hiking in the nearby hills.
But if you want to proceed on the route, read further:
Day 12: YUSHU (玉树，ཡུལ་ཤུལ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།) 3650 m altitude – MADOI (玛多，རྨ་སྟོད་རྫོང) 4280 m altitude
Road Distance: 322 km
The route of this day passes the wildest, the most uninhabited and remote areas of the whole trip. And since this section of the route is quite long, I recommend you buy some food from Yushu before leave, because it will be difficult to find a place for lunch.
First, you back on the same road to Xiewu town. Then you proceed further north on the main road to Xining. Now there is a new highway running together with the old road. Both the old road and the highway are quite empty and in good quality, so you can choose where do you want to drive.
The road gradually ascends to the high altitudes over 4200 m and to the vast open grassland areas. After few villages and a small town, it reaches Bayan Har mountain range (巴颜喀拉山), passing through mainly nomadic lands. Finally, it ascends to one of the highest points of the whole route- Bayan Har pass (巴颜喀拉山口), 4824 m altitude. It is a nice place to stop for a while. When we were there, I made a short trekking on the nearby hills, climbing to a top at about 5000 m altitude, enjoying the endless Tibetan plateau panorama.
Then the road proceeds through an endless wilderness. Here the landscape is more open, with vast fields and many small lakes. One of the fields is especially beautiful in August, covered with yellow flowers (as you can see the photo on the front page of our blog).
Finally, the road reaches Madoi, some 3 km west of the main road. Here you are already in Amdo region of Tibet.
It is the northeastern main Tibetan cultural region. Located mostly in Qinghai, as well as parts of Gansu and Sichuan, it offers the best endless grasslands of Tibet. It is the best area where you can see the Tibetan nomadic life. Amdo is really a land of vastness- vast grasslands, treeless snowy mountain ranges, even sand deserts, and the largest lake in Tibet and whole China- Qinghai Lake, can be found here.
Amdo has been under the control of Lhasa until the 18th century. Since then, and until the second part of 20th century, Amdo has been an area of fighting warlords. Now it has 25% of the whole Tibetan population. Many of the famous Tibetan people, including the 14th Dalai Lama were born here.
Amdo dialect is different than the dialects of Lhasa (U-Tsang area) and Kham, so Amdo Tibetans hardly understand other Tibetan dialects. The area has also some influence from the neighboring Mongolian, Hui Muslim, and Han Chinese civilizations.
For more information about Amdo see here.
The main center and starting point for travel only in Amdo, is Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. Then the main cultural and tourist center of Amdo is the area of Rebkong, Labrang, and Taktsang Lhamo, as well as Qinghai lake- all they are included in this route. But before that, we travel through some of the wildest and remote areas, not only of Amdo but in the world, one of which is Madoi.
Madoi (玛多，རྨ་སྟོད་རྫོང) is a small Tibetan town, located in the middle of nowhere, in the coldest part of Qinghai. There is nothing special in the town itself (only a temple complex in the south part), but the fact that it is so remote makes really interesting to see how the people live here. At evening go to the square, and you can see the young Tibetans dancing together. Then you can have a dinner in the nearby restaurants.
Accommodation: There are few hotels in the town, however when we were there, we found a small guesthouse in a maze of houses, alleys, and corridors. The conditions were basic, but it was ok for one night.
Day 13: MADOI (玛多，རྨ་སྟོད་རྫོང) 4280 m altitude – AMNYE MACHEN (阿尼玛卿山, ཨ་མྱེ་རྨ་ཆེན།) Halong valley, 4280 m altitude
Road distance: 174km
This day’s main destination is one of the notorious Tibetan mountains- Amnye Machen. Again, I advise you leave earlier because the road is long and part of it is not in good condition.
First, you proceed on the road from Yushu to Tsogen Rawa (花石峡), a small roadside Tibetan settlement, normally used by the passing trucks as a rest point. Then you arrive at Dema highway. It’s a new highway, recently opened, which runs on the north side of Amnye Machen. However, if you choose that highway, currently you may not be able to leave it and visit the mountain. There are two exits from the highway, not far from the best points of Amnye Machen, but since there is a construction work on the mountain’s north side, these exits are occasionally closed.
There is an old dirt road, following the highway, which leads to Tawo Zholma (下大武, Xia Dawu) village, some 37 km from Tsogen Rawa, which is the nearest settlement to the Amnye Machen’s goal destinations (and there is one of the highway’s exits). From here to the first point- Dragde La pass- 4610 m altitude are about 27 km.
Amnye Machen (阿尼玛卿山, ཨ་མྱེ་རྨ་ཆེན།) is one of the “holy mountains” for the Tibetans, in the same level as Kailash, Minya Konka, and Kawa Karpo. It’s highest peak Machen Kangri (Dradul Lungshok) rises to 6282 m altitude. It’s not a “sharp alpine style” mountain, but is richly covered by glaciers.
The mountain is famous with its kora route- a 7 days route, which the religious Tibetans walk in a clockwise direction, sometimes using prostrating style.
Now there is a huge project on the north side of the mountain, including Dema highway, as well as some tourist constructions, such as panoramic terraces, and improving the old road quality. Soon there may be an entrance fee (its said that it may be between 80 and 150 RMB).
Dragde La pass is one of the main points to stop. There you will see Amnye Machen’s Damxung glacier- the mountain’s biggest one, descending below the road. Every time we passed there, we also used the time to walk on the glacier. However, last year, when the Dragde La’s panoramic terrace was still in construction, one of the workers told us that when the project is over, the tourist would be no longer allowed to walk on the glacier.
This day will be over in a camping site. So, when you pass Tawo Zholma, its better stop there and buy some food for tonight and the next morning. There are few shops and few restaurants on the main village square. Then, when you proceed on the old road, few km after the village you can stop at a big temple called Guri Gompa and its newly built version- this is the starting point of the traditional kora.
Then next stop is Dragde La pass. And finally, the best place for camping is another 16 km further on the old road- at Halong valley, 4280 m altitude. Having in mind the bad condition of the old road, where you can’t drive fast, the earlier leave Madoi, the better. And if the nearest highway exits are opened- much better.
Accommodation: camping. Options (for those who don’t want camping, or in case of very bad weather): some local guesthouse or just home in Tawo Zholma or Chuwarna (雪山) villages.
Day 14: AMNYE MACHEN (阿尼玛卿山, ཨ་མྱེ་རྨ་ཆེན།) Halong valley, 4280 m altitude – QINGHAI LAKE (青海湖, མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ།）3205 m altitude
Road Distance: 389 km
This is the longest road section of the route, which can be normally taken for 6 hours. However, you don’t need to leave your campsite too early, and you can take a walk on the grassland slopes of the mountain. Around 10 am is a good time to leave.
You can proceed further on the old dirt road until the nearest highway entrance. Then you can quickly back to the road from Yushu to Xining.
On the road to Xining you proceed through the same landscape. There is a small town, some 62 km further, called Wenquan (温泉), which means “hot springs”- a dusty settlement on the road, regular stop point for the heavy trucks. Actually, there are not any hot springs there, but the locals said that it is because “sometimes there is hot water in the hotels” (yes, there are few hotels in very poor condition). There are some restaurants and few shops, so the place is proper for lunch.
Then the road proceeds further northeast, crosses a pass at almost 4500 m altitude and start long descending to around 3000 m altitude, where the landscape is significantly dryer and the plains larger, with almost no mountains around. The next point is Kungho (共和，གསེར་ཆེན་རྫོང་།), a Tibetan city with no special attractions, proper maybe only for some shopping. From here you leave the main road and turn left on a smaller road. It crosses a mountain ridge with a lot of pastures, yaks, sheep, horses, and nomads with their tents, then with a lot of curves descends to Qinghai Lake.
Qinghai Lake (青海湖，མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ།) is the largest lake in China, situated at 3205 m altitude. It is a salty lake, with no connection with the ocean. It is considered “holy” by the Tibetans and is also a place for kora (pilgrim’s circumambulation). Few civilizations meet here: Tibetans, Mongolians, Hui Muslims and Han Chinese, and you can see their culture and life. Unlike the inner parts of Tibet, this place is more tourist developed- there are a lot of tours, hotels, places for photos (with entrance fee). In fact, you can’t go to the seacoast without paying a fee to a local “owner”, however, it is not expensive, usually between 10 and 20 RMB.
Since most likely you will arrive at evening, you would have time only to arrange your accommodation, to go to the lake coast enjoying a beautiful sunset (if the weather allows) and have a nice dinner with beef or lamb- everything on the south coast of the lake. There is a nice yurt restaurant nearby- you choose a yurt, choose a livestock, wait around 2 hours (but its really worth) while they cook it, and enjoy a local traditional meal.
Accommodation: There are a lot of hotels, hostels and yurt camps around. If you want to sleep in a hotel (since the yurts are exciting, but there is no bath, only a nearby toilet), I would recommend Zhaxi Tibetan hostel (青海湖扎西度假藏式e家酒店)– not expensive, but with nice Tibetan traditional decorations inside.
Day 15: QINGHAI LAKE (青海湖, མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ།）3205 m altitude – XINING (西宁) 2180 m altitude
From the hotel directly to Xining: 143 km
Including a trip around the lake: 379 km
The distance between Qinghai Lake and Xining is short, so you have a lot of time to explore the lake until afternoon. You can wake up early and enjoy the sunrise. Then you can go to the Fishery port (青海湖渔场) east of the hotel- a nice place for views and photos, as well as the Yellow flowers fields- one of the landmarks of the lake.
Then you can back westward to one of the main destinations of the lake: Bird’s island. It is a near lake coast island, which is covered by thousands of bird from May to July. The lake coast area is a scenic spot, with entrance fee 115 RMB on the high season.
Proceed to the north coast of the lake and travel eastward. You will arrive at the Qinghai Lake northeast desert with its spots- Sand island and Gold & Silver beach. Here you can enjoy really stunning landscapes of few colors: yellow- the color of the sand, deep green- the color of the distant mountains, light blue- the color of the lake, deep blue- the color of the sky, and white- the color of the clouds (in a summer sunny day). Also, you can play in the sand dunes, the feeling is really unforgettable. Entrance fee: 70 RMB.
Other activities that you can do in Qinghai Lake are:
- Cruise. There are cruise ships from Erlangjian dwarf (二郎剑码头）, for 110 RMB (20 mins) and 150 RMB(50 mins). The boats are nice, usually with a restaurant and a cafe, and VIP rooms.
- Biking. There are many bike rent spots on the south coast of the lake, usually for 20 RMB per day. And there are good biking tracks along the main road.
Whatever you choose, if you follow this plan and want to arrive in Xining this day, the earlier start exploring, the better. Finally, in afternoon you can leave the lake and proceed to Xining. You will arrive there for about 1 hour and 40 mins. The rest of the time you can spend arranging your accommodation and walk in the night center of the city.
BUT, IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME…
You can add one or two more days to visit Chaka Salt Lake, which is 150 km west from Erlangjian area of Qinghai lake, or about 3 hours driving.
Chaka Salt Lake (茶卡盐湖) is located on the eastern border of the dry Caidam plain, at 3052 m altitude. It is highly saline, much like Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan. Its salty layers are situated in a way, that makes its surface to look like a mirror. That’s why its also called “Mirror of the Sky”. And the crystal clear air, deep blue sky with white clouds, which is very common in this area, makes the lake landscape really fantastic! Entrance fee: 70 RMB
You can do this trip to Chaka Salt Lake after exploring the south coast of Qinghai Lake, and before reaching its north coast. Then finally you arrive in Xining.
Accommodation in Xining: There are many cheap hotels in Xining, without a license to accept foreigners. So you have two choices: more expensive hotels, like Yinlong and Qinghai hotels; or youth hostels (which are definitely more nice, often offering Tibetan traditional and adventurous atmosphere). I would recommend Mandala or Letu hostels.
DAY 16: XINING
If you travel by bus, shared minivan taxi or other kinds of public transport, then it’s no problem to choose Xining as your end point of the trip.
But if you travel by car from Chengdu, since you don’t finish your trip to the same point, normally you have to pay for returning the vehicle to Chengdu.
Anyway, if Xining is your end point of the trip and you have some time to spend there before you leave, you can explore the city
Xining (西宁) is the capital of Qinghai province. This charming city is a place, where few civilizations and cultures meet together. Here you can see strong Muslim influence since there is significant Hui minority population. The Tibetan presence is mainly in the outskirts of the city, presented by many temples, as well as the Mongolian influence. And the Han Chinese culture is mainly in the modern face of Xining. Here you can see the following places:
- Dongguan Mosque. The main and the biggest mosque of Xining. Here you can see not only its architecture but also the local Muslim life.
- The center and the local spice markets. There are a lot of shops for local spices and other kinds of local food, like dry beef (yak meat) and many others.
- Qinghai museum. It is a big Museum, representing the history and culture relationships between the minorities in Xining and the area.
- North Mountain temple. It is a Taoist temple on the steep slope of the mountain north of the main railway. Entrance fee: 10 RMB (but some parts of it are closed for safety reasons).
- South Mountain Park. A beautiful park in a mountainous area, with monuments, forest, lakes and a nice view of the city.
- Or you can go to Ta’er monastery. It is a big Tibetan monastery, 25 km from the city. Founded in the 16th century, it represents Tibetan and Han Chinese architecture influence. Entrance fee: 80 RMB.
But if you want to proceed this route until its end in Chengdu, read our Part 3 of the Eastern Tibet route Ultimate guide!
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