Highway 214 is one of the most scenic highways in Tibet. It cuts across the eastern regions of the Tibetan Plateau going through many great Tibetan areas in Amdo and Kham. The highway begins in Xining in northeast Amdo and goes south though the eastern parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region and western Yunnan before ending near the border of China and Myanmar. All together it travels well over 2500kms / 1563 miles. It is one of my favorite highways on the planet. I have been fortunate enough to travel many tens of thousands of kilometers along this route.
Highway 214 begins in northeast Amdo in the city of Xining (known as Silang in Tibetan). Not far outside of Xining is Kumbum Monastery (pictured above), which is one of the 6 great Gelukpa monasteries of Tibet. This monastery is a major tourist destination in the summer months, but during Tibetan New Year many Tibetan pilgrims from across Amdo come here to worship. The area around Xining is around 2400m / 7875 feet above sea level. The population here is an interesting mix of Han Chinese, Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Mongolians, Tu and Salar (a Turkic speaking Muslim people group).
About 90kms south of Xining you cross over the Sun Moon Mountain pass which is the historical and cultural boundary between Chinese and Tibetan people. Once you cross this pass, the landscape changes to wide open grasslands full of yaks and sheep. Nomads living in white canvas tents are often seen. Nomads are very friendly people and almost always invite foreigners in for some tea. Though this is China, it is traditionally referred to as the Amdo province of Tibet.
Two hundred and fifty kilometers south of Xining or 160kms south of the Sun Moon Mountain Pass you come to Xinghai county (known as Tsigorthang in Tibetan). This county sits at 3500m / 11,480 feet and has a high percentage of Tibetan nomads. There are no trees in this area, but grasslands are far as the eye can see. In the early fall through late spring, most of the mountains here are snow capped. There are many places to stop and camp with nomads in Xinghai. This area sees very few tourist, but is a great place to go.
Mado County (Maduo in Chinese) is one of the highest and coldest counties in all of Tibet. It sits at 4300m / 14,105 feet and is cold all year long. I have seen snow here every month of the year. Mado, 480kms south of Xining, is situated on the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The actual source of the river is found about 300kms west of Mado. Mado, like Xinghai county, is populated heavily with Tibetan nomads. In the winter, the highway through here can often be closed due to heavy snow.
The holy mountain of Amnye Machen (elevation 6282m / 20,605 feet) is located not too far off of Highway 214. You can't actually see it from the highway, but there is a pass about 60kms off of the highway (southeast from Huashixia heading towards Darlag) which provides an excellent view of the mountain. One of 4 main holy mountains in Tibetan buddhism, Amnye Machen attracts many Tibetan pilgrims during the summer months. It is the best place in the Amdo region for high altitude trekking.
One hundred twenty kilometers south of Mado and 600 kms south of Xining, you pass the Bayan Ka La Mountain Pass which is the border between the Amdo and Kham provinces of Tibet. This county is known as Trindo (Chengduo in Chinese) and also is very high. The northern regions of the county have an average elevation of over 4400m / 14,432 feet. The population here is nearly 100% nomadic with many of the nomads living in black yak hair tents. The only two towns along this stretch of highway are Domda (Qingshui He in Chinese) and Shewu (Xiewu in Chinese).
The large Kham Tibetan town of Jyekundo is 825kms south of Xining and 375 kms north of Riwoche on Highway 214. This growing town has a large monk population due to several large monasteries in the area. It is a major trading center being situated roughly halfway between Xining and Lhasa. Each year on July 25th, Jyekundo is home to one of the largest horse festivals in Tibet. During the festival, thousands of Tibetan families live in tents at the horse festival grasslands (pictured above).There are many interesting sights to see around Jyekundo (elevation 3700m / 12,136 feet) such as the Princess Wencheng Temple, The Gyanak Mani Temple and the Lheba gorge.
Nangchen (elevation 3550m / 11,644 feet) is located 985kms south of Xining and 215kms north of Riwoche. It is an amazingly beautiful county that very few people outside the area get to see. Nangchen has one of the highest percentages of monks and nuns anywhere on the Plateau. There are around 80 monasteries in this county, many of which are in remote locations far off the main highway. The Mekong River flows through Nangchen county. The river is a turquoise color in the late summer and early fall. The south part of the county has evergreen forests and incredible rocky mountains. Tibetans make up over 98% of the population of Nangchen county which is one of the highest percentages of Tibetans anywhere.
Located 230kms south of Jyekundo and 30kms north of the border between Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region, is the former residence of the Nangchen king. A monastery as well as a large collection of mani stones (hand carved prayer stones) are found near the kings former home. The home sits about 5kms off of highway 214. This little known place is very important in the history of Tibet. There are around 250 monks who live here.
About 115kms north of Riwoche town and 1085 kms south of Xining is the border between Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). There are a couple of checkpoints in this area. The first one is a quarantine checkpoint. A man will come out and spray all the tires of your vehicle with some kind of disinfectant. The next checkpoint is where they will inspect the inside of vehicles, though this is mainly done to large trucks. Once you enter into the TAR, there is another quarantine checkpoint where they will spray your tires again. To legally be in this region of the TAR you need to have 4 seperate permits, a 4WD, driver and a guide. Getting caught in this region without these could land you in a lot of trouble. The road leading south into Riwoche county is a nice, new 2 lane highway in excellent condition. Not too long ago, this road used to be a muddy path.
Eighty-five kilometers south of the Qinghai-TAR border is the large Riwoche Tsuklakhang monastery (pictured above). This massive building is lined with prayer wheels all along the outisde walls. On the south side of the building are the massive doors which lead inside. There are many monasteries in Riwoche county, but this monastery is the largest and most famous. Pilgrims can been seen walking the kora around the monastery every day.
Chamdo, 3350m / 10,990 feet, is 105kms east of Riwoche and 480kms south of Jyekundo. Chamdo is the unofficial capital of Kham province, Tibet. The large modern town is spread out along the Mekong River. Because this area is so remote and inaccessible using public transportation (foreigners must arrange all travel through a travel agency in order to go to Chamdo legally), Chamdo doesn't see many foreign tourists. Chamdo is full of history and culture and is worth going to if you have the time and money.
From Chamdo, Highway 214 runs south 420kms to Markham. From Markham it is another 225kms before reaching Dechen (Diqing) in far northwest Yunnan province. From Dechen it is 185kms to Shangri-La (Zhongdian) which marks the end of the Tibetan world along highway 214. From Xining to Shangri-La, the highway covers 2135kms / 1335 miles. All of this route is excelent to take. For an authentic Tibetan experience with few other tourists around, this route is one of the best to take through Tibet. Conditions along the way are often poor. Many places have only basic guesthouses with no running water or attached bathrooms. Food options are limited in many of the small towns and villages. Weather can be very cold in the high elevation regions. English speakers can be difficult or impossible to find. But, for those wanting to get off the beaten path, this is the route for you. It promises to be an adventure. I just returned from doing the route from Xining to Chamdo prefecture and it was great. I would have loved to continue all the way down to Shangri-La, but I ran out of time.
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