Kham is one of the 5 historical provinces of Tibet along with Amdo, Ngari, U and Tsang. It borders Amdo to the north, U to the west, China to the east and India and Myanmar to the south. Kham is broken up into 54 counties spread across 6 prefectures of China. Ganzi (16 counties), Chamdo (11 counties) Nagchu (11 counties), Nyingtri (7 counties) Yushu (6 counties) and Diqing (3 counties) Prefectures make up the Kham region of Tibet. It covers an area of around 900,000 sq km (348,000 sq mi) with a population of around 2 million.
From the 10th century on, Kham was never under the authority of Lhasa for an extended period of time or under China until the communist takeover in the 1950's. Kham was never ruled by a single leader, but was split up into over 2 dozen seperate kingdoms each with its own king. In recent centuries the most powerful kingdoms in Kham were those of Chakla, Dege, Lhato, Lingtsang and Nangchen. Part of the reason that Kham never was under the authority of Lhasa was because of the sect of Buddhism followed in Kham. The Dalai Lama, the government and the most powerful monasteries in Lhasa follow the Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism while older schools of Buddhism such as the Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya (around Jyekundo) are followed in Kham. The ancient Bon religion is still practiced in Nyingtri Prefecture, also known as the Kongpo region. In 1939 the government of the Republic of China created Xikang province with Kangding as the capital. Xikang covered the far eastern region of Kham. This province lasted until 1954 when Xikang was merged into Sichuan province.
Kham has a wide range of geography. Most of Yushu and Nagchu prefectures sit above 4200m (13,780ft) with many mountain peaks over 5500m (18,044ft). One of the highest and most famous mountains in this area is Gela Dandong which rises to 6621m (21,723ft). Many of the Tibetans found in Yushu and Nagchu are nomads, but large areas are unihabited. Nyingtri prefecture is home to Mt. Namcha Barwa (7782m) and Mt. Gyala Pelri (7294m). The river valleys around these two mountains drop as much as 5000m in places, making the towns of Nyingtri prefecture some of the lowest in Tibet. Nyingtri has thick forests, lots of rain and a mild climate. Chamdo and Ganzi prefectures sit mostly between 3200m and 3600m (10,500ft to 11,810ft). The Yangtze and Mekong Rivers flow through these prefectures making the region known as "the bread basket of Tibet". The highest mountain in Kham, Minya Konka (7556m/24,790ft), is found in Ganzi prefecture.
Most people think of Tibetans as kind and peaceful. While that is true for many regions of Tibet, it isn't necessarily true of the Tibetans from Kham. Kham Tibetans have long been known as a violent group of bandits terrorizing the Tibetan Plateau on horseback. In his book "Seven Years in Tibet" Heinrich Harrer described Kham Tibetans as forcing their way into nomad tents stealing anything of value. He also reported that they would sometimes kill pilgrims, monks and nuns. Even today, it is rare to find a Kham man without a large knife (more like a sword) on his side. It was these same people that gave the communist government of China the most resistance. Long after the Tibetans of Lhasa gave up, the Tibetans of Kham continued to fight. The Chinese who live in the Kham region are often fearful of Kham Tibetans.
There are no large cities in Kham, but there are several important towns. Chamdo (3300m) is the unofficial capital of Kham. Located in the eastern region of the TAR, it sits on the banks of the Mekong River with a population of over 50,000. The Gelukpa monastery of Jampaling rises above the town and has around 850 monks. Dege (3200m), located near the Yangtze River, is considered the cultural heart of Kham. The Parkhang Printing Press in Dege is used to print Buddhist scriptures for monasteries all across Tibet. Jyekundo (3700m) in northern Kham is famous for its annual horse festival beginning on July 25th and for the largest pile of mani (prayer) stones in the world. The hilltop monastery of Jyeku Dondrubling is well known throughout Kham as the place where the 9th Panchen Lama died. Nagchu (4500m) is one of the highest and coldest towns in all of Tibet. The first week of August, Nagchu hosts one of the largest horse festivals in Tibet. Other important towns in Kham are Kangding, Ganzi, Litang, Nangchen and Riwoche.
Relatively few travelers to Tibet go to Kham. Part of the reason is the number of travel restrictions on foreigners in the eastern region of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). In the eastern TAR foreigners are required to travel by 4WD and have a minimum of 3 permits. The regions of Kham in Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan though are all open. Foreigners are free to travel by public transportation. Most of Kham is very poor. Roads are bad and hotels often have no running water or indoor toilets. Kham is also hard to reach. Towns such as Chamdo, Jyekundo and Dege are far from the cities of Lhasa, Chengdu and Xining. Despite the difficulties of traveling through Kham, it is one of the best regions of Tibet and I highly recommend it.