This is the last part of the Eastern Tibet route, from Xining back to Chengdu. It passes Gannan area, passing through Gansu province, before returning to Sichuan. Here is the cultural core of Amdo region, and this section is the most tourist developed of the whole route (with exception of Kangding area).
So, for the first 15 days of the route, see Part 1 and Part 2 of this Ultimate guide. And, of course, this itinerary is approximate, you can shorten or lengthen some parts of it. Anyway, if you arrive in Xining on Day 15, here is what follows next:
Day 16: XINING (西宁） 2180 m altitude – LABRANG/XIAHE (夏河，བླ་བྲང་）2980 m altitude
Road Distance: 236 km
If you don’t want to stay one more day in Xining and want to proceed to the next destination- Labrang, in this day, you have only the morning and the early afternoon to explore the city. You can see Day 16 (as a last day of the trip) in Part 2, for the destinations that you can visit.
And when afternoon comes, you can leave Xining eastward, then turn right on the road to Gannan prefecture. There is a highway running on this route. It crosses a 3000 m altitude pass, then descends to 2000 m, reaching Yellow river. There are a beautiful gorge and a dam on the river with a good panoramic view. If you want to stop there and take photos, you have to leave the highway from the last exit before the bridge (see the map), then proceed on the old road.
The next destination on the road is Rebkong/Tongren (同仁，རེབ་གོང）， 2500 m altitude. It is a Tibetan town, famous for its Academy of traditional art painting. There are really skilled artist’s paintings called Thangka, which are not cheap souvenirs, but valued pieces of art. The points of interest in the town are Wutong Monastery (五屯寺), Longwu Monastery (隆务寺) and Rebkong bridge (同仁桥). Since Rebkong is a little aside from the main road, predict about 30 to 60 mins for visit (depending on what do you want to see and do there).
Then back to the T-junction before the town and turn to the east, then again turn right. The road passes some agricultural fields, then ascends and back again to the Tibetan grasslands over 3000 m altitude.
Guashize (瓜什则) village on the road is a good place to stop for a while. Finally, the road descends to 2980 m altitude, to Labrang/Xiahe town (夏河，བླ་བྲང་）. Here is your destination for this day.
Accommodation: There are few guesthouses and hotels in the town- some cheap, like Redrock and Tara hostels, and some expensive, like Baoma and Wangfu hotels.
Day 17: LABRANG/XIAHE (夏河，བླ་བྲང་）2980 m altitude – TAKTSANG LHAMO/LANGMUSI (郎木寺，སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་）3350 m altitude
Road Distance: 184 km
This day morning is a good time to explore Labrang monastery. It is the largest monastery complex in Amdo, and one of the largest in whole Tibet. Now it is an attraction, turned the whole town of Xiahe (the Chinese name of Labrang) into a developed tourist destination.
But its history was not peaceful. It was built at the beginning of 18th century and often suffered wars and unrest between the competitive Tibetan states. And the bloodiest suffering was between 1917 and 1925 when Labrang was conquered by the Hui Muslims and their warlord Ma Qi. During that period the local Tibetans arose few times against Ma Qi, and the Muslim troops few times stroke back, every time with a lot of atrocities, massacre, and destruction. Nevertheless, after these events, Labrang monastery was quickly restored and became the most important monastery of Eastern Tibet.
Labrang is another good place to extend your itinerary and add at least one more day to it, exploring the area or just relaxing. But if you follow this itinerary, at afternoon is time to go.
The road to Taktsang Lhamo proceeds southward through the grasslands and hills, some villages and even grassland resorts, and finally arrive at its goal, after 3 hours drive.
Taktsang Lhamo/Langmusi (郎木寺，སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་）is located on the border between Gansu and Sichuan provinces, actually the border divides the town into 2 parts. It is famous with its two monasteries- Sertri (in Gansu) and Kirti (in Sichuan). They have been in something like a competition between each other. Sertri is larger, located on a high hill over the town, with a big stupa and few main temples and other buildings. Kirti is smaller, located in a mountain valley. There is an entrance fee- 30 RMB for every monastery, or totally 60 RMB (if you enter through the main gates). And there is a path behind Kirti, leading to a narrow mountain canyon, called Namo valley, with gorgeous coniferous forest. There you can see Langmu “Tiger” caves, after only 10 mins walk.
The town itself is in typical “tourist old town” style, with traditional architecture houses, many restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. After visiting the monasteries, you can also make a horse trekking (for around 150 RMB for one day), arranged by Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking company, with Kelsang as a half-owner.
Accommodation: There are many backpacker style hostels around the town, such as Rtsampa hostel, Tibetan Barley Youth hostel, Nomad Youth hostel, Zhaxi guesthouse and many others.
Day 18: TAKTSANG LHAMO/LANGMUSI (郎木寺，སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་）3350 m altitude – ZOIGE/RUOERGAI (若尔盖, མཛོད་དགེ་) 3430 m altitude
Road Distance: 91 km
The distance between Taktsang Lhamo and Zoige is short, so this day you can have more time to enjoy the area.
First, in the morning, you can explore Taktsang Lhamo, its monasteries and Namo gorge behind Kirti monastery- normally 2-3 hours are enough.
Then you back to the main road between Xining and Chengdu and proceed further southeast. Soon you arrive at the vast Zoige grassland.
Zoige/Ruo’ergai (若尔盖, མཛོད་དགེ་) is one of the largest and the highest wet grassland (march) in the world. It is situated between Machin mountains on the west and Min mountains on the east. It is famous for its Tibetan nomadic life, full of yaks, tents, and horses. Now it is a tourist attraction and there are many tent hotels and horse bases along the road. So you can stop there, enjoy horse riding or just walk on the endless grassland.
Also, you can see the Flower lake (Entrance fee 60 RMB)- Hua Hu in Chinese. It is a beautiful lake in the middle of the grassland, where you can really enjoy the vastness of the landscape.
Finally, you can arrive at Zoige town. It is a small Tibetan town, where you can make your accommodation. There are few hotels and guesthouses, usually without reservation- just enter inside and pay (as in most of Tibet). Or you can choose one of the roadside tent hotels- they are with very basic conditions, but quite comfortable, in a beautiful environment.
Day 19: ZOIGE/RUOERGAI (若尔盖, མཛོད་དགེ་) 3430 m altitude – HUANGLONG (黄龙风景区) 3180 to 3550 m altitude – JIUZHAIGOU (九寨沟) 2050 to 3160 m altitude
Road Distance: 304 km
This is the last day in the grasslands. From now you enter a different landscape- sharp mountains, deep gorges, and beautiful forests.
The main destination for this day can be Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area. It can be explored within one day (at least 6-7 hours). In the high season (from April to the end of October) it is opened from 8:00 am to 17:00 pm. And since you have more than 3 hours driving from Zoige to Huanglong, its better you leave earlier and enter the scenic area at least between 10:00 and 11:00 am.
The road from Zoige proceeds about an hour through the grassland- the last grassland of this route, until the junction to Hongyuan. You get the left road. It starts descending about more than an hour until Chuanzhusi town, north of Songpan. Then, following the sign “黄龙风景区” you start ascending on a narrow mountain road with many curves, which cross a mountain pass at about 4000 m altitude and descends to the main gate of the scenic spot.
Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area (黄龙风景区) is a unique valley, famous for its calcite deposits formed natural pools, in a deep valley, covered by a beautiful forest. It has also waterfalls, hot springs, as well as ancient historic spots, such as Huanglong temple.
When you enter inside the area, there are two alleys- from the left and from the right side of the pool system, so you can ascend on one of the paths, reach the top at Huanglong temple and Five-color Pond behind it, then descend on the other path. The whole walk is about 7-8 km. Entrance fee (in the high season): 220 RMB.
When you go out of the area, I recommend going to Jiuzhaigou town, to be ready for the next destination, which is worth to be explored one whole day. The road to Jiuzhaigou is almost 3 hours driving. First you back to Chuanzhusi town, then take the north road. After crossing a mountain pass, the road descends deep into a mountain valley until the final destination.
There are many hotels in Jiuzhaigou town, and you can find them in Booking.com. The center of the town is “tourist attractive”, with a lot of restaurants, cafes, bars, street food, souvenir shops and many other kinds of entertainment. There are Tibetan folk performances in few places, with Tibetan rituals, dances, songs, plays and Tibetan food, so you can have your dinner there.
Day 20: JIUZHAIGOU (九寨沟) 2050 to 3160 m altitude – SONGPAN (松潘) 2870 m altitude
Road Distance: 104 km
The main destination for this day is Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area.
Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) is one of the symbols of Sichuan, famous for its various colored lakes, valleys, waterfalls and deep forests. It is in Qiang minority area- not only Tibetans but also Qiang people live here. There is the main valley, which divides upward into three valleys (from down to up). No private transport is allowed inside the area, but there are special tourist buses, which serve the routes in the valleys.
There was a powerful earthquake on August 8, 2017. It happened that I was there exactly a day before that, and actually, I was one of the last who saw Jiuzhaigou in its former image. Then on the day of the earthquake, we traveled to the west, to Tanggor (near Zoige), and even we were only about 80 km away from Jiuzhaigou, we didn’t feel the earthquake.
But the earthquake causes a lot of damage, not only in Jiuzhaigou town but in the scenic area- lakes were drained or muddled, waterfalls disappeared, landslides damaged roads. So the scenic area was closed until March 2018. Now it is opened (and the scenic sites repaired), but seems no private tourism is allowed there, only in group tours (and no more than 2000 people per day). So you have to make a reservation for Jiuzhaigou tour earlier.
Before the earthquake, the entrance fee was 310 RMB (one of the most expensive in the world!). Now seems the fee is included a tour. It opens at 7:00 am and closes at 18:00 pm.
When you go out of Jiuzhaigou area, you can sleep one more night in the town. Or you can make 2 hours drive to the next (and last) destination of the route- Songpan.
Songpan is at the edge of the Tibetan civilization and you can feel your return to the Han Chinese environment. The town is a tourist site too, so there are many hotels and hostels that you can choose. For dinner, you can eat in Emma’s kitchen restaurant.
Day 21: SONGPAN (松潘) – DUJIANGYAN (720 m altitude)
Road Distance: 252 km
This can be your last day of this Eastern Tibet route since from here you go out of the Tibetan lands and return to the lowlands. However, since the section from Songpan to Chengdu is long and passes by some other (although non-Tibetan) travel attractions, you can divide it into two days. In this case, you can spend half a day in Songpan.
Songpan (松潘) is a small town, with a relatively modern image. Anyway, it is nice to take a walk there– you can see its old quarter, especially its old stone wall. Other places that you can see there, are Guanyin pavilion and the West gate.
Other activities that you can do are:
- Horse trekking (usually at least one day). There is one Horse trekking company, and many guesthouses and hotels direct you to them. The price is usually around 200 RMB
- Mountain biking. You can make a half-day tour to Muni valley– it is a popular biking route. The price is 260 RMB.
- Or you can just make your own mountain hiking to the surrounding area.
Then if you leave after lunch, you have more than 3 hours to your next destination- Wenchuan.
Wenchuan (汶川) is well known for the devastating earthquake on May 12, 2008, when thousands of people died. There is a big monument in the city, dedicated to this event. Now Wenchuan is a more tourist-developed city. The main ethnic minority there is Qiang. There are many Qiang villages around it, which are not too far from the center and you can choose one of them to visit: Luobozhai (萝卜寨), Taoping (桃平) and some others. You can go to Dongmenkou (东门口), at the entrance of Longxi valley for some walk and relax.
You can finish your trip for this day here, or proceed to the next destination- Dujiangyan- for another hour and a half driving. It is also a famous tourist destination, well known for its ancient irrigation system constructions.
Day 22: DUJIANGYAN (720 m altitude) – CHENGDU （480 m altitude)
Road Distance: 63 km
If you choose to sleep in Dujiangyan, this last day you can explore the main destination of this city, before back to Chengdu.
Dujiangyan (都江堰) is already in the lowland, in Sichuan plain. Here you can make one more tourist destination exploring- Yuzui (Fish’s mouth) levee, built by Li Bing during Warring states period, in the first half of the 3rd century BC. It not only protected the area from the floods but supplied it with enough water for the agricultural work in Qin kingdom. After this event, a temple in honor of Li Bing was built there.
Then you have about an hour to Chengdu. When you arrive and finish your car activity, you can explore those destinations in Chengdu, which you have missed on the first day. With this, the trip on this Eastern Tibet route is over.
What is the best time to make this trip? The climate of Eastern Tibet is quite diverse since it is stretched from the tropical forests of Southeast Asia to the Mongolian deserts in the north. Also, there is a huge altitude difference between the low valleys and the high snowy peaks, from less than 1000 m, up to more than 5000 m altitude (not including the highest peaks). Different areas may have different best seasons. And there is not a “perfect season”- every season has its good and bad points. So, if you are able to choose your best time for the trip (and don’t have to follow job holidays or other human factors), you have to consider your preferences.
It is mainly from April to June, in most parts of Tibet.
- The good points: Usually the weather is dry and sunny. Also, there are not too many tourists, traveling at this time.
- The bad points: Nights are usually freezing. And the grasslands are still dry and yellow, with some old snow remained in the north slopes or shadowy places.
It is mainly from June to the first half of September.
- The good points: It is warm. Not hot (due to the high altitude), and not freezing in the night (temperatures seldom drop below zero Celsius). And the grasslands are most beautiful in this season- this is the green season, with a lot of flowers.
- The bad points: It is often rainy. The rainiest areas are the “first wave” of the Tibetan mountains- Qionglai. Amdo region of Qinghai can be rainy too. So if your itinerary is planned to pass by high snowy mountains, you can’t see them, they will be hidden in clouds and fog. However, in most of the areas the rains are short, and other time you can enjoy the stunning landscape of the green grasslands, deep blue sky, and white clouds. But another bad point may be the crowds of tourist which you may meet in some areas, such as Jiuzhaigou or Qinghai lake.
It is mainly from September to the beginning of November.
- The good points: It is much sunny and dryer than in the summer, same as in the spring.
- The bad points: The nights become freezing, and the grasslands become yellow again. And at the beginning of October (in the Chinese National holiday), there may be crowds of tourists.
It is mainly from November to the end of March.
- The good points: For those who like snow- this is the best season. Winters are dry and sunny. And also, there are not too many tourists.
- The bad points: First, it is the freezing cold. The temperatures may drop below -30 Celsius. For those who like snow- actually, the snow is not too much, mainly because of the very dry weather at that time. The exception is only in the area near Chengdu, which is wetter than the other areas of Tibet. Another problem is the time from the second half of February to the end of March. Due to some sensitive Tibetan holidays, some areas of Eastern Tibet may be closed for foreign visitors.
No matter which season do you choose, you must prepare winter clothes with you, even in the summer. There is usually no heating in the accommodation places in the summer months.
There is hot water in almost every hotel or hostel (with exception of the worst ones). For the camping nights (in Yilhun Lha Tso or Amnye Machen), don’t take a one-layer tent, it may be freezing, including in the summer. Two-layer tent and a thicker sleeping bag (for at least -5 C) are necessary. If you make your trip in the winter, it is better to forget about camping (unless you are a well-trained lover of the extreme conditions) and sleep in the nearby villages.
Sichuan is famous for its fragrant-spicy food. You can find it everywhere on the route, but especially in the Han Chinese areas of Sichuan. If you don’t like spicy food, there are some non-spicy meals (but actually non-spicy from their point of view- they may be still “a little spicy”, so, be prepared for that). It can be meals with rice and meals with noodles. Some famous Sichuan meals include the “Emperor Chicken” (宫保鸡丁)- usually the chicken is served with its bones, cut in pieces. But the Emperor Chicken is one of the few chicken food without bones. Other Sichuan meals are dumplings, spicy fish, pork, beef and various kinds of noodles.
The Tibetan food is usually not spicy, although in some areas can be under the influence of Sichuan. The main kind of meat is beef (actually it is yak meat). There are noodles with beef everywhere. Other meals that you can find in the small local restaurants are soups, rice with vegetables, some Tibetan kinds of bread, dumplings, etc. There are some Tibetan traditional meals like Tsampa (roasted barley flour), Sha Phaley, Gyabrag and other kinds of bread and cookies. Other kinds of meat can be goat and mutton.
There are also cheese and yogurt products. And for drink- hot soup and tea. The most popular tea is the milk tea, as well as the butter tea.
In Qinghai, especially in the area of Xining, there is a significant Hui Muslim minority. So their cuisine is influenced by their version of Islam, as well as some Turkish and Arab meals. There is a western (salty) bread. The most popular meat is mutton and lamb. There is also beef, and more seldom chicken. No pork there, since the culture is Islamic. There is a very popular kind of noodles, known as “la mian”- thicker and longer than the “normal” noodles.
USEFUL TIPS, ADVICE, AND SAFETY
Eastern Tibet is not a “classical civilization” place, like Western Europe, USA or other rich countries. But nevertheless, it is a quite safe place. There are no crimes (at least no more than in every other quiet place in the world, of course exceptions may happen everywhere). However, there are some things that you have to be aware:
- Altitude sickness. Most part of the route is over 3000 m altitude and requires acclimatization. Some people are more sensitive to the high altitude, others not too much. There are some rules about the acclimatization, and if you follow them (and if your body is in normal healthy condition), then you should not have any problem. If you don’t follow the acclimatization rules, you might have high altitude sickness, which can ruin your trip (at least in the first days). But since you don’t go to altitudes more than 5500-6000 m, the altitude sickness should not be dangerous, only uncomfortable. However, if your health is in not good condition, then its more difficult to predict whether it’s dangerous or not. For more details see here.
- Dogs. There are many dogs in the villages or with the nomadic communities. And some of them may be dangerous. So, be prepared for eventual dog’s attack. We haven’t had any problems with dogs on our trips, but there are some people who had. As I know, using belt flourishing is a good way to make them afraid, since the locals use belts to train them. Another way is by picking stones. In any case, don’t show fear, but demonstrate your attack against them! Normally they will run away.
- Weather. It may be unpredictable, as it is normal for the high mountain. Be well prepared for sudden rain, wind, cold and snowstorm, even in summer.
- Sun. The sunshine is very strong on the Tibetan plateau. Your skin can easily burn, even in winter. Bring sunblock cream and use it, especially on the sunny days. If there is snow, bring sunglasses! The sunlight, reflected from the snow in the high altitudes can be really dangerous for the eyes!
- Water. Don’t drink water from natural sources. There is a rich wildlife in Tibet, as well as a lot of yaks. You don’t know where some animals have died and if its corpse is near the water body that you want to drink from. Some of the wild animals (for example marmots) bring deadly viruses too. So, buy a bottled water from the supermarkets- there are supermarkets everywhere in the settlements.
Apart from these cautions, you just do all other normal preparations- Chinese visa (if you are not Chinese), air/train tickets to and from Chengdu (or other point on the route), rent a car with a driver, who has a Chinese driving license, make some hotel/hostel/guesthouse reservations (for some of the destinations), prepare your luggage for Eastern Tibet, and…go! And you can have a really unforgettable journey in one of the most beautiful lands on the Earth!
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