Do you like green rolling hills, covered by endless grasslands, something like in the popular wallpaper of Windows XP? There are a lot of places on Earth with a similar landscape. But some of them are more epic, harsher, and stunning. Some of them look vast, endless, and this is what awakes a longing of a traveler to get lost somewhere in this green infinity. Let’s make a journey to one of these places. This is Tagong, a town in Eastern Tibet, on the edge of the endless green wilderness.
Where is Tagong
Let’s look at the map of China. Zoom in the province of Sichuan. You can see the Sichuan capital Chengdu, and one of the main roads from this city heading west-southwestward. This is the famous road G318, one of the “heavenly roads”, passing through some of the most breathtaking landscapes on the Earth.
This road leads to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It enters the kingdom of the mountains and ascends to the “Roof of the World”- the Great Tibetan Plateau. Then, another, smaller road branches to the northwest- the road to Garze. This second road enters into the endless grasslands of Eastern Tibet, and soon reaches Tagong, the goal of this journey.
More about Tagong
Tagong (塔公, ལྷ་སྒང་) is a small town, located in the valley or Liqi River, at 3750 m altitude. This is a nice Tibetan settlement, established around one of the larger local monasteries- Lhagang (Tagong) Monastery. A nice road curving on the grasslands connects Tagong with Zheduo Pass (4290 m) and one of the highest airports in the world- Kangding Airport. And another road coming from Xinduqiao (Road 215) passes through the town and proceeds further in the Great Tibetan Plateau, to Garze.
So, if you approach the Great Tibetan lands from east, Tagong is one of the first Tibetan settlements that you will reach. This is a place with a predominantly Tibetan population. Northeast of the town is the magnificent Zhara (Yala) Mountain, rising to 5820 m. And the whole grassland area around it is called Tagong Grassland.
Our trip to Tagong
All these facts about this place were a reason to include Tagong in our Eastern Tibet itinerary. It is not only located on one of the best routes in this part of the world but with its features, it was a worthwhile place to stop and explore.
We rented a car from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and our goal was Xining, the capital of Qinghai. Our route started from Chengdu, passed through Ya’an, the “gate of the mountain kingdom”, then through Luding, the last purely Han Chinese city, and reached Kangding, the most romantic city in China, at 2500 m altitude, in the eastern edge of the Tibetan cultural region.
Kangding is one of the “Gates to Tibet”. Here we could see a mix of cultures- Han Chinese, Tibetan, and even some western. We enjoyed its old part, its furious Zheduo River, its restaurants, Tibetan folklore performances, shops, Tibetan houses, and somehow “traveler’s” atmosphere, locked between the giant mountains from both sides of the valley.
We spent one night in Kangding, to acclimatize better for the Great Tibetan Plateau. With its moderate altitude, this city is a great place to do that- not only to get used to the high altitude but also to enjoy the city’s attractions. For this purpose, we chose a Tibetan style hostel, called Zhilam Hostel. It provides not only a “Tibetan adventure” environment but also a stunning view over the city and the mountains around it.
On the next day, we proceeded on G318 road. In August, this road is extremely busy, and there is almost a constant traffic jam. With many curves it ascends from 2500 to 4290 m altitude, leaving the forest zone and reaching an alpine landscape with cold, fresh, and dilute air. This is Zheduo Pass, marked by a large Tibetan stupa, several smaller ones, and prayer flags. Now, it is turned into a tourist attraction with an entrance fee and a lot of crowds in summer.
But the most important is that this is the „edge” of the Great Tibetan Plateau. Less than a km (mile) after the pass, we turned right on a smaller, much better road. This is the short road to Tagong. It passes by the Kangding Airport. But the most important is the view that revealed in front of our eyes- the endless sea of green grasslands on the rolling hills. From here, we were fully in Tibet, the real Tibet!
The first Tibetan grasslands impression
From here, the road proceeded to curve on the green rolling hills, with a lot of yak flocks on its both sides. There are several roadside local restaurants, and we chose one of them for lunch. My GPS showed 3920 m altitude. We enjoyed nice Tibetan beef noodles and some other meals like potatoes, Sichuan spicy meet, etc., in a cozy Tibetan style room.
There were two horses outside, standing there for tourists who wanted to ride them or only take photos with them- just an attraction. But the whole landscape was endless and breathtaking.
We proceeded with our trip to Tagong. It passed by several small beautiful villages, and finally reached the provincial road 215, only a km (less than a mile) north of Tagong. And here, before we enter the town, we could see the first site, and it was magnificent.
What to see and do in Tagong
Tagong is a small town, so there are not too many things to see and do, but what you can see and do is so impressive that you would need a long time to enjoy it. And, as I mentioned above, coming from the small road from Kangding Airport, we reached the first must-see place in Tagong- its main landmark- Muya Temple and the majestic Zhara (Yala) Mountain behind it.
This is a Buddhist complex, called also Lhagang Monastery, and its golden pagoda- Muya Golden Pagoda. From there, its name is derived- Muya Temple. It’s very new, dating from 1997, as a gift from Dzogchen Monastery in the extreme northwest of Sichuan.
But what attracts the visitors here is the stunning view of the temple in front of Zhara (Yala) Mountain. However, to get the best view of the temple and the mountain, you have to ascend on the nearby small hill- the main “core” of the Tagong Grassland.
The best of Tagong Grassland
Actually, the whole Tagong Grassland is “the best”. But there is a small part of it, located between the town and Muya Temple, which is its tourist part, where you can enter only with a small entrance fee of 10 RMB. Not because it is more special than the rest of the grassland (in fact, the farther parts of the grassland are more remote, stunning, and silent), but for the iconic view of the temple and the mountain behind it.
We stopped at the dusty parking lot in front of Muya Temple and the touristy grassland hill, made some photos of its monument, pointing 3750 m altitude, and bought some souvenirs from the nearby stalls. Then we entered the town of Tagong. It is small, and we parked our car at its central square.
Tagong is a small town. There is only one main road (the provincial road 215) and the main square. All other houses and other buildings are situated around the road and the square, and there are only local narrow streets between them. Everything is silent, like in a village, tempting for a nice walk around the houses, in the fresh and cold air filled with a fragrance of grass, flowers, and smoke from the chimneys.
There are several restaurants and local shops, located mainly around the main square. Of them, the most attractive one is Khampa Café- a favorite place for foreign visitors, offering also an accommodation option. You can enjoy delicious local food in restaurants. They don’t look so attractive, but the Tibetan meals they offer are yummy and worth trying.
But the most significant building in the town is Tagong Monastery, located right on the north side of the main square.
You can see it- the most significant building complex, in richly decorated Tibetan architectural style. Tagong Monastery is built during the Qing Dynasty era. Its establishment is related to the famous princess Wencheng and its wedding to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in Lhasa. As a result, there is a replica of a Buddha statue, the same as the original in Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. That’s why Tagong Monastery is also called “Small Jokhang Monastery”. It also presents a lot of other cultural artifacts, some of them thousands of years old.
You can enter in its large yard and enjoy its splendid architecture. There are always Tibetan monks walking around or just doing their daily jobs. And there are always other local Tibetans passing by the rolling cylindrical prayer wheels and rotating them, hearing the soft sound of the bells.
That’s the most important to see in Tagong. But for us, it was not enough. We were impressed by the high green hills around the town that are not official “tourist places”. And that’s what tempted us to “attack” them.
We chose the high hill rising directly northwest of Tagong, covered by long chains of prayer flags. Also, we were sure that we can get a better view of the magnificent Zhara (Yala) in the distance. So, we passed by the Tagong Monastery, crossed the river, and found a narrow path that ascends steeply on the hill. We were gasping. At this altitude, you get tired much quicker than in the lowland.
The path gradually disappeared in the grass, we walked beside the prayer flags and finally reached the top at 3960 m altitude. We met only one traveler (a girl from Germany) who hiked the steep hill for better views. There was nobody else- everything was stunning, silent, and vast. Only green below and blue above.
From the top, we descent steeply on the other side of the hill. We saw a stream with a prayer wheel installed on it, driven constantly by the water. Finally, we reached a Buddhist monk school. There were a lot of monks in the yard, and some of them were doing strange rituals like self-whipping and some weird ways of prayer. They saw us and we didn’t want to disturb them, so we left. We crossed the river again and back to the town. It was a non-touristy, and for this reason, a very exciting experience. Finally, we went to our accommodation place, waiting for the next day of our Tibetan adventures.
Other things to see and do around Tagong
Tagong Grassland is large, so, obviously, you would not want to be limited only in and around the town.
Horse riding in Tagong is very popular. And it is obvious- grasslands are a paradise for such activities. You can ask your accommodation property, or you can just go to the parking lot at Muya Temple and ask the locals for horses. Just be prepared to bargain for the price- it is usually 150 RMB per hour, but if you are lucky, probably you can lower it to 100 RMB.
There are some villages scattered on the endless grassland- far from the world, remote. You can walk there and enjoy your off the beaten path adventure. The villages are beautiful, with Tibetan style houses and friendly local people.
You can also walk eastward to Gyargo Ani Gompa nunnery. The best way to reach it is just by hiking on the grassland, enjoying fantastic views among yak herds. Normally you can reach it for 3 hours, and it offers an accommodation option there too.
Finally, you can walk on the road to Xinduqiao for about an hour and reach the Ten Thousand Mani Stones Valley- a large area with prayer flags and mani stones with carvings.
But before you do any of these things, you have to reach Tagong. Let’s see how can you do it.
How to reach Tagong
Tagong is an easy-to-reach town. There are several ways to visit it, but for foreigners, it is a bit limited.
Several buses are passing through Tagong. Two of them come directly from Chengdu, at 6:20 am and 7:20 am, from Xinnanmen Bus Station, and the price is 150 RMB. This bus stops in Kangding around 11:30, then proceeds through Xinduqiao, Tagong, Bamei, and Daofu.
Two other buses come from Kangding- at 8:00 am and 2:00 pm and stop in Tagong after 3 hours traveling, for 50 RMB. There is also a bus from Litang that starts at 9:20 am, travels 4 hours for 86 RMB.
By shared van
This is another local way of transport. Vans are traveling between all the main towns in Eastern Tibet. They wait in their central squares and when they are full, they go. You can take such a van from Kangding, again for 50 RMB and arrive at Tagong, a bit faster than the bus.
By rental car
This is one of the best ways to travel around Eastern Tibet and to include Tagong in your route. You have the freedom to start your daily trip whenever you want and to stop every time you want. The problem is that you must have a Chinese driver’s license (I have, so I used this way). But it is difficult to obtain, especially if you travel to China for a short time as a tourist.
So, another option is to hire a driver. This may sound expensive (and really is, if you are only 2-3 people), but if you are a larger group and rent a private van, you can share the cost, and the result is a relatively cheap and exciting journey. Usually, vans would require 1000-1500 RMB per day, but if you are 10 people, it will be almost like a bus ticket for you.
To find a van, you’d better ask your hotel (or better- hostel) in your Eastern Tibet starting point- Chengdu or another city. They usually can arrange it for you.
By other ways
Other ways to reach Tagong are much more adventurous. You can rent a bike from Chengdu and make a long time trip, again including other places in Eastern Tibet. Thus you not only could have freedom in your traveling, but you can also bike on dirt roads, even paths on the grasslands. It would be a fantastic adventure.
Finally, you can reach Tagong on hiking. Again- just include it on your hiking trip. Needless to say, such an adventure would be amazing. Now, let’s see where to sleep if you arrive in Tagong for more than one day.
Accommodation in Tagong
Tagong is a small town, and there are not too many places to sleep, although, in recent years more and more new small guesthouses, hostels and hotels are established. You can see the current list of the properties in Tagong here. Most of them are located around the main square of the town.
We chose Jya Drolma & Gayla’s Guesthouse, and it is still one of the most popular properties among foreign travelers. As you can see in the photos, this is a richly decorated Tibetan house, both outside and inside. Its owner is a friendly Tibetan woman (probably this is Jya Drolma) who knows some English and talking with her is a pleasure. This guesthouse is not far from the main square, and the directions to there are well-described by signs.
As you can see in the link above, there are many other properties in Tagong. But remember that not every property accepts foreigners. Also, the properties in the town can’t be found in Booking or Agoda, but only in this link. You can call them in advance (as you can see, there is their contact information). Or you can skip this step, arrive in Tagong, and just walk from place to place. There are not too many visitors in the town, even in the high season, so you don’t need to walk too much.
But when is the high season?
The best season to visit Tagong
Tagong is located on high altitude, as most of the places in Tibet. Winter is very cold, dry, and sunny. Sometimes the temperature can drop below -30°C. There is not much snow, and it melts easily under the strong solar radiation, even in cold weather. In February and March is the Tibetan New Year, and closures by the government are possible.
Then, spring begins. It is warmer and still sunny, but the grasslands are still yellowish. And in general, temperatures are still below 0°C in the night, and no more than 10°C in the midday, however, it is gradually warming.
With warming, summer comes. It is the warmest season, with temperatures between 5°C and 20°C. This is the best season when you can see grasslands in deep green color (around August). Also, at the end of June- beginning of July you can enjoy the annual Horse Festival. So, this is the high season in Tagong. But it is not always sunny. This is the wettest season and rain is not uncommon. Sometimes it rains 2-3 days. But when it’s sunny, the landscape is fantastic, especially when Zhara (Yala) Mountain is free from clouds.
Finally, autumn comes, and everything turns yellowish dryer, and colder again. Autumn gradually becomes winter. And Zhara (Yala) Mountain rises toward the deep blue sunny sky magnificent and blazing.
So, before we leave Tagong, let’s look at Zhara (Yala) Mountain again.
Mount Zhara (Yala)
This mountain (called also „Zhara Lhatse”) rises east-northeast from Tagong, and its image looks fantastic, and at the same time, strongly tempting. And yes, if you have more time, you can „attack” the mountain.
You can do it from Tagong. There are several trekking routes beside or around the mountain. The circumnavigational route is around 70 km and can be trekked for around 3-5 days. The other routes are shorter, however, they don’t start from Tagong, but the neighboring Bamei Town. For more information, you can ask your accommodation property in Tagong, or Zhilam Hostel in Kangding. They can help you join a trekking group.
But maybe you would like to reach the top? This is another story. Yes, there are successful climbing attempts, but like every high snowy peak, it requires much more mountaineering skills, gear, and a permit with tax that you have to pay. The challenge is serious, but if you are enough adventurous, you can try.
This is Tagong and its surroundings. We left it in the morning and proceeded our Eastern Tibet journey on the road 215 to our next goals- Bamei, Daofu, Drango, and Garze, deeper and deeper into the Great Tibetan Plateau. And Tagong remained as one of the most beautiful and memorable places on this amazing mountain land.
Get more Tagong impressions from the video below:
Check some travel books about Tibet, hiking and high altitude experience:
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