While the relationship between lovers is alive, people will always look for romantic places to spend their holiday. Many of them are aiming at famous cities like Paris, Venice, or some exotic beaches in places like Maldives, Caribbeans, Thailand, Bali or Bora-Bora.
But not too many people have heard about the most romantic city in China. And can’t even imagine where it is, because this city, and its surrounding area, are too far from the standard image of “famous romantic destination”. This city is located deep in the interior of China, in a deep valley, surrounded by some of the highest mountains on the Earth. Two civilizations meet there, and it creates a unique feeling and atmosphere.
This is Kangding, the city of “Kangding Love Song”, which sings:
“Horses run on the mountain
And there is a cloud.
The Moon brightens the city of Kangding.
The crescent Moon
Brightens the city of Kangding
The elder sister from the Li family
Is a pretty girl.
The elder brother from Zhang family
Falls in love with her.
The crescent Moon
He falls in love with the girl.
First, he loves her, because
He knows she is pretty.
Second, because she knows
How to care for her family.
The crescent Moon
She knows how to care for her family.
All the girls in the world,
Let me love them.
All the boys in the world,
You can choose from them.
The crescent Moon
Let you choose from them.”
Where is Kangding
Kangding (康定), in Tibetan- Dartsedo (དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།), is located on the famous Road 318, connecting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, with Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It is established in the deep valley of the raging Zheduo river, between 2450 and 2600 m altitude. The valley is surrounded by giant mountains, part of Hengduan mountain area of the Greater Ranges. Mt Zhara (雅拉雪山) rises in the north, and Mt Minya Konka (贡嘎雪山), which is the highest mountain in the area, is rising in the south.
Kangding is situated in the westernmost edge of the Han Chinese civilization lands, and the beginning of the Tibetan civilization. So you can see traces of these two great cultures everywhere in the city. You can also feel the long history, enriched the place with a lot of traditions.
Since ancient times Kangding has been on one of the Silk Road routes, crossing Tibet from Sichuan. During the centuries, the place of this city has experienced war and peace, and a lot of cultural exchange. The settlement of Dartsedo gradually grew, until it became the capital of a new country- the Kingdom of Chakla, established at the beginning of the 15th century.
In 1701 Chakla has been conquered by Qing Empire of China. Then it still remains as an autonomous kingdom until 1950. Meanwhile, Dartsedo is destroyed by an earthquake in 1786, then again revived. During the Republic of China period Kangding (as the city is renamed) becomes capital of Xikang province, which exists until 1950. From then it is a part of Sichuan.
Kangding Love Song
Somewhere at that time (in 1946) a musician from Eastern China, collecting folk songs of the area of Xikang, found a song, called “On the Running Horse Mountain”. Impressed by this song, he rewrote it and rename it into “Kangding Love Song” (康定情歌). It is soon spread around the whole of China by various Chinese singers. In recent days the song even became popular outside of China and performed by famous artists like Placido Domingo.
This popularity soon opened the romantic side of Kangding. Yet this song is a song about love, and Kangding is its birthplace. So, if you go to Kangding now, you can see the trace of Kangding Love Song everywhere- from the flowers around Zheduo river, the monument in the People’s Square, to the characters of the song’s name on the grassland above the city.
But maybe the most significant sign of this romantic image can be seen in the night when the whole slopes on both sides of the valley are covered by thousands of lights like stars. And there is an artificial “Moon” on the top of Mt. Paoma- “the Running Horse Mountain”.
Our first trip to Kangding
It was summer, 2016. We just started our first trip around Eastern Tibet. Reaching Kangding at that time was difficult because Road 318 from Chengdu was extremely crowded with heavy traffic. We have rent a car, and passing the whole 238 km section from Ya’an (at the beginning of the mountains) to Kangding took us more than 10 hours. Finally, we arrived in the evening. It was a rainy day since August is the season of the monsoons.
We found our hostel and made a short walk around the city, having dinner in a spicy Sichuan food restaurant. We could almost all the time hear the eternal noise of Zheduo river, flowing through the center of the city. Then we proceed walking in the center.
The center of Kangding
Kangding starts becoming a tourist destination, but for now, it is most popular mainly in China. Anyway, we could “smell” the feeling of vacation everywhere. It was evening and the nightlife was around us. From one bar we could hear some jazz performance, from another restaurant- a Tibetan folk song, from a hotel behind us- a Chinese karaoke.
We arrived in the People’s Square of Kangding, enjoying the evening life atmosphere. Then we got into the narrow lanes, ascending on the steep mountain slope, walking back to our hostel. Soon the noise of the river and the nightlife remained below us, and we could see the lights of the lively night Kangding from above. And around us- the thousands of “stars” on both mountain slopes, which made the whole night landscape like an unreal fairy tale. We were at the gate at our Zhilam hostel.
Zhilam hostel (汇道客栈) is one of the best backpacker’s accommodation place, not only in Kangding but in the whole of China. It is significant not only with its friendly Tibetan personnel and the adventurous Tibetan environment but also with the great view to the city and its valley from above.
When you enter in the hostel, the first you can see is a nice cozy hall, full of backpacking and adventure style decorations, photos and magazines. Then you go down to your room. Everything is wooden, including the beds. You can see the backpacker’s 6 and 8-bedrooms (2-floor beds)- all designed in explorer’s dwelling style.
There are additional neighboring buildings, part of the hostel, where you can enjoy “normal” hotel rooms, but again, decorated in Tibetan and adventurous style. You can have breakfast or western food lunch in the hostel’s main hall. And finally, you can relax in the small yard with a swing, enjoying the stunning panorama to Kangding from above.
Kangding’s places of interest
There are many places that you can explore during your stay in Kangding. There are sites inside the city, and around it.
The main center of Kangding
The center of Kangding is a very nice area to walk and enjoy the local streets, environment, cityscape, as well as shops, restaurants, cafes and the local street food stalls.
People’s Square (人民广场)
This is the main place, where you can see the local people joining together. Every morning (if the weather allows) they gather together in the square and dance to traditional Chinese and Tibetan music.
Walk on Zheduo River’s banks
Then you can take a walk on the river banks, enjoying the furious mountain river waters, and the flowers beside the banks, until Xiangyang street bridge, which is actually another square with beautiful sculptures and the best view of the cityscape of Kangding, surrounded by the high mountain slopes around.
Tibetan traditional sites
The presence of the Tibetan culture can be felt in the whole city, but there are especially a few places that you can really enter deeply into it.
The Old Town neighborhood
From the bridge, you can proceed to the nearby Old Town neighborhood- a few streets with wooden old architecture buildings, mainly in Tibetan traditional style. You can see the big Tibetan prayer wheel, a favorite place of the local Tibetans, not only to circle around the wheel but also to relax and meet together. Then you can go on the old streets for some shopping or relaxing in the cafes and restaurants.
New Tibetan Museum
It is a newly opened museum, presenting a lot of Tibetan artifacts, related to the Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and art. Really worth to visit, not only to dive into the Tibetan atmosphere but also to be well introduced about this civilization if you proceed from Kangding on a trip around Eastern Tibet.
It is another traditional place for the local Tibetans- a bridge area near the bus station, presenting a marketplace for yak meat. Although it may be a little stinky, if you don’t afraid of it, you can go there and enjoy the daily fellowship Tibetan atmosphere.
There are three Tibetan temples in Kangding, beautifully decorated in Tibetan traditional style.
Anjue Temple (安觉寺)
The first one, located on the other side of Xiangyang street bridge is Anjue Temple. You can enter through its narrow gate and find yourself in a beautiful yard, surrounded by the temple’s richly decorated building.
Nanwu (南无寺) and Jinggang (静冈寺) Temples
These two temples are located high above the river, besides the residential area of Kangding. Nanwu temple belongs to Gelugpa sect and Jinggang- to Nyingma sect of the Tibetan Buddhism. You can go there by taxi (it is only about 1,5 km from the center), but a better experience would be a walk to there, enjoying the landscape- there is a road straight from Zhilam hostel to the temples.
Other religious sites
Being a trade center, as well as in touch with the western world during the centuries, Kangding presents also sites, related to other religions.
The Christian churches
The main Christian site that can be seen, is the Catholic Church, located near the river bank in the center. Now seems it is not active, but it is an interesting building, added to the local Kangding environment. However, there is another Christian church- (a Protestant Church), located near Anjue Temple, which is still active, and the local Christian community has their meetings there.
There is also some Muslim minority in Kangding, which has their meetings and services in the Mosque of Kangding. It may be limited to enter inside, but just the building itself is another interesting site, looked from outside.
The Running Horse Mountain (Paoma Shan) (跑马山)
It is the main landmark of Kangding. Actually, it is a small branch of the mighty Mt. Tianhaizi, rising more than 6000 m altitude above the city. Now Paoma Shan is turned into a park, symbolizing Kangding Love Song’s image. Its name comes from horse races, held in the past here. There is a cable car from the city to the top of the mountain, but you can also walk to the top for about 30 mins.
How to reach Kangding
There are a few ways to reach Kangding, and the most popular (excluding the organized trips from Chengdu) is by bus.
By bus and minivans
There are buses from Chengdu to Kangding, traveling on the Road 318. They depart mainly in the morning, from Xinnanmen, Chadianzi and East Bus stations in Chengdu. The traveling time is around 5-6 hours, and the price is between 120 and 140 RMB.
You can find also some shared taxis (minivans), usually outside of the main bus stations in Chengdu. However, they don’t have a clear timetable and usually depart when they are full.
Other ways to reach Kangding are mainly if you back from Tibet to the lowlands of Sichuan- from Garze or from the western parts of Tibet (however, now foreigners still can’t travel on land from Lhasa to Chengdu, since Chamdo district of TAR is still closed for non-Chinese).
Kangding is known also with one of the highest situated airports in the world. Kangding Airport is located west of the city, near Zheduo Pass, on 4200 m altitude. It is a small airport, with very low traffic, and generally, the air tickets from Chengdu or Lhasa to Kangding are quite expensive. Another problem is the altitude sickness, if you come from Chengdu (480 m) altitude to Kangding Airport directly, without any acclimatization.
The best way is traveling by rent-a-car from Chengdu. But since the driver must have a Chinese driving license, you have to resolve this problem- if you don’t have such a document, to find a friend or hire a driver. Once you resolve it, traveling by car is much more convenient, since you can freely choose which road to get, where to stop and how long.
Now there is a new highway, which significantly cuts the traveling time to Kangding and this is its main advantage. However, if you choose the highway, you can’t stop on the few interesting places on the road- Erlang pass, the panoramic terraces beyond the pass and especially- Luding with its Luding bridge.
Yes, it is also a popular way to reach Kangding in recent days. We have seen hundreds of cyclists on Road 318. However, biking on this road was a terrible experience due to the extremely heavy traffic. Now, when the new highway is opened, the traffic on the old road significantly decreased, which makes biking much more safe and comfortable.
Trips around Kangding
Kangding is located in a point, richly surrounded by interesting places to visit. And most of the places are in the high altitude.
Hiking around Kangding
There are three main mountains around Kangding. The first one is Paoma Shan (Running Horse Mountain). It is still a park, part of the city, but you can proceed further up, to the higher altitudes of Mt. Tianhaizi (田海子山).
Another direction is to Mt. Jiulian (九连山), rising on the other (western) side of the valley, just above Zhilam hostel and Nanwu Temple. On this side, you can reach the alpine grasslands and yaks at 3500 to 4000 m altitude.
And the third mountain is Mt. Guoda (郭大山), rising north of Kangding. It is significant with its Buddhist carvings on its slope that can be seen right above the city. It is too steep to be climbed directly from the city center, but you can walk first on the road, following Zhara valley, then you can find paths ascending to Guoda.
To the north
The main road, leading to the sites north of Kangding is the road, following Zhara River valley, between Jiulian and Guoda mountains.
The first place of interest, north of Kangding is Erdaoqiao Hot Springs (二道桥温泉), located a few km on the road to Zhara. It is not so luxury places, but still can be a nice place for relax, different than the other places.
If you proceed further north, you can reach Mugecuo- a beautiful National Park area, with a glacial lake, south of Mt. Zhara. One of its attractions is Kangding Love Song scenic spot. But you can enjoy more stunning views further inside the area, around Mugecuo Lake. There you can enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the grasslands, full of yaks, Mt. Zhara and the lake itself.
To the south
There is a road, starting left of Road 318, just south of Kangding, which leads to the highest mountain of Eastern Tibet- Mt. Konka and its surrounding area.
Yajiageng Pass (雅家更山口)
This place is located about 30 km from Kangding, at almost 4000 m altitude. It offers another breathtaking scenery with views to the nearby peaks, rising more than 6000 m altitude. Also, it is a good place for mountain hiking too.
Minya Konka (贡嘎山)
With its 7556 m altitude, this is the highest peak of Eastern Tibet and the third highest outside of Himalayas and Karakoram. This giant peak is rising significantly over the neighboring peaks and is very difficult to climb, with more people died trying to reach the summit, than those who were successful.
Anyway, for the “average traveler” climbing Minya Konka is not the goal, but reaching its foot, on its eastern or western side can bring you to fantastic landscapes. There are a few points on the road to Yajiageng, from where you can see Minya Konka. But the best option is to make 6-days trekking, from Kangding around the main peak. It would also bring you to one of the most remote Tibetan monasteries in the area in Zimei village.
The best time to visit Kangding
Kangding is located in the mountain, but its elevation is not too high, so its climate is not very cold. Anyway, the best time to visit Kangding and the surrounding area is in summer- from late April to the beginning of November. In spring and fall, it is dry and sunny, but colder. In summer, especially July and August, it is the monsoon season, so the rains are quite often and the weather is changeable but warm.
The winter is sunny and dry, but cold. Anyway, it may be also an interesting season, since there are the main holidays of the area, especially the Chinese New Year.
On the way to Tibet
There are a lot of places around Kangding, and a lot of directions. But maybe the most exciting direction is westward, to the stunning grasslands and snowy mountains of Tibet. Yes, Kangding is one of the gates to this famous land, and we chose this gate on our trips to Eastern Tibet. The Road 318 gradually ascends to Zheduo Pass (4298 m altitude), then proceeds further and further- to Litang, Chamdo and finally- Lhasa. Another road on the right goes in northwest direction- to Tagong, Bamei, and Drango, then to Garze and the wilderness of Qinghai.
We left Kangding, crossed Zheduo Pass and dived into the endless grasslands on 4000 m altitude. There we passed by the lonely Kangding Airport and saw four giant characters on the grassland- 康定情歌 (Kangding Love Song), then we disappeared in the vast sea of green. But the memory of Kangding remained and calls us to visit this charming city again soon.
Do you want to hear Kangding Love Song? There are many versions of this song, in various styles. Here I propose my favorite version. I like it because it has more traditional Tibetan sound. Enjoy!
Check out some travel books and maps about Kangding, Sichuan and Tibet!
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.