From Danba རོང་བྲག་ we took 3 days to drive to Gyeltang རྒྱལ་ཐང་, which is known as Shangri La/Xiang Ge Li La in Chinese. Most of the 775kms between Danba and Gyeltang was on rough roads so it required 3 long days to cover. From Danba, we drove south to Tagong in western Kangding county where we had lunch. Tagong ལྷ་སྒང་ is the first real Kham Tibetan town as you head west from Chengdu. Along the way to Tagong, we crossed a high pass that had a great view of Mt. Yala rising to over 5800m. After Tagong, we continued south through the pleasant town of Rangaka, known as Xinduqiao in Chinese.
From Rangaka, we began heading west and eventually arrived in Yajiang, known as Nyachu ཉག་ཆུ་ in Tibetan. West of Rangaka, there is a 4412m pass that has a decent view of Minya Konka, the highest mountain in SIchuan rising to 7556m. Yajiang is a decent sized town located in a valley at 2620m above sea level. The town was surprisingly clean and built in Tibetan design. Most of the hotels were full by the time we arrived in the early evening so it took us a while to find a decent place to stay. At the main square in town, a large gathering of Tibetans were dancing in a large circle. We only spent one night here, but wished we had time to stay longer to explore the area. All together, from Danba to Yajiang was 215kms.
After just one night in Yajiang, our goal for day 9 of our trip was to reach Xiangcheng, the last town in southern Sichuan along the highway to Shangri La. We were told that the 340kms to Xiangcheng , known as Chaktreng ཕྱག་ཕྲེང་ in Tibetan, was not a good stretch of road. The reports we heard were true. For the most part, the road was quite bad and very slow going. The scenery of the area was beautiful, however. From Yajiang, we quickly gained in elevation as we drove west towards Litang ལི་ཐང་. By the time we reached Litang for lunch, we had gained about 1400m in elevation. The landscape had changed from dense vegetation to high altitude grasslands that were only suitable for yaks and strong Tibetan nomads.
We had a picnic lunch just outside of Litang on the grasslands at 4000m. There were many nomad families in the area living in their yak wool tents. Several of the children who were curious about us, came over to join us. The children were dirty with matted hair and were wearing many amulets around their necks for protection against evil spirits. Having spent much time over the past 8+ years around Tibetan nomads, the nomads in the Litang area were quite similar to the other nomads I have come across. After a quick picnic lunch and a look at my many maps, we were back on the road towards Xiangcheng.
South of Litang, the landscape changed even more. The green grasslands disappeared and were replaced by a very rocky terrain that looked quite similar to the moon. There area was uninhabited. Not even yaks were found. We continued to ascend until we finally reached the Tu'er Pass at an elevation of 4696m / 15,406 feet.
Between the Tu'er Pass and Xiangcheng, there are several more smaller mountain passes that we climbed. The last pass before Xiangcheng wasn't extremely high, but it was a very narrow and windy road with long dropoffs on the side. In parts, the road easily dropped 300m to 500m. I drove slowly to reduce the risk of an accident. After winding down the last high pass, we found a clearing near a river about 20kms before Xiangcheng where we set up camp for the night.
Early the next morning we packed up camp and set off for the final stage to Shangri La. The drive from Xiangcheng to Shangri La is about 220kms. I asked some local Tibetans regarding the road conditions and was told that the road to the Sichuan-Yunnan border was quite bad but that the road on the Yunnan side was excellent. Locals told me to plan on 6 or 7 hours to reach Shangri La. The road leading to the provincial border was HORRIBLE on the Sichuan side. It was extremely slow going as the road was nothing but deep mud and boulders. On top of that, the road was narrow with deep drop-offs on one side.
We finally reached the top of the pass that serves as the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Shortly after descending on the Yunnan side, the rough dirt road changed to an amazing Western quality paved (sealed) road. The road was amazing, especially after driving through the horrible roads on the Sichuan side of the pass. We descended from around 4500m down to 3200m over the next 100kms or so. The barren jagged mountains gave way to lush vegetation and evergreen forests. The drive from the Yunnan border to Shangri La was amazing.
Around 4pm on day 10 of our trip, we arrived in Shangri La, known as Gyeltang རྒྱལ་ཐང་ in Tibetan. From Xining, we drove roughly 1800kms to reach Shangri La. Shangri La is located in far northwestern Yunnan province. This is the furthest south that the Kham region of Tibet extends to. I am well traveled through the Greater Tibet area, but it was the first time I had ever been to this region. The town of Shangri La at first looked like any other town on the Tibetan Plateau. The first part of town that I drove through was quite dirty and I felt extremely disappointed. However, after we arrived in the "old town" those feeling quickly disappeared. The old town is a maze of stone walkways filled with shops, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses. The old Tibetan style buildings are beautiful and for the most part, are really well kept.
We checked into a nice guesthouse off of the main square in the old town and took a much needed shower. We then went over to The Compass and had an excellent dinner. The Compass is by far the best restaurant in the old town. It is foreign owned and is staffed by both Tibetans and foreigners. It is a very welcome surprise if you have been on the road for a while eating only Tibetan or Chinese food. We then spent the next 4 days exploring the town.
It was nice spending 4 nights in Shangri La and not having to drive on horrible roads. We spent days 10 through 13 of our trip resting, relaxing and eating amazing food. We knew that the roughest and most remote parts of our month long trip still were ahead of us, so this was a welcome break in the middle of our trip. In addition to The Compass, our old friend Baskar, who we knew from his years working in Amdo, is the co-owner of a great Nepali restaurant across the street from the parking lot in old town called Bhaskar's Kitchen. Bhaskar owns the restaurant along with Dakpa, one of the founders of Khampa Caravan, which is a Shangri La based travel agency specializing in tours of the area.
This is the second of 4 posts on our 1 month trip through Kham and Amdo.