I often receive emails from people asking which area of Tibet they should travel to. This is a difficult question to answer since in my opinion, all regions of the Tibetan Plateau are amazing. In this post, I will list some of my favorite areas in all of the main regions of the Tibetan Plateau: Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang (Central Tibet).
Picture above is of the holy mountain of Amnye Machen ཨ་མྱེས་རྨ་ཆེན་ in Golok Prefecture in Amdo.
The Amdo region is home to over 1.6 million Tibetans, or roughly 30% of the Tibetan population, and covers an area slightly smaller than France (these figures include the Gyarong Tibetan areas as well) . Amdo Tibetans are found in 6 Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Qinghai, 1 prefecture in Sichuan, 1 prefecture in Gansu and one small autonomous county in Gansu. If you think of Tibet as rolling grasslands filled with yaks and nomadic herders on horseback, then Amdo is probably the area you are thinking of. The picture above is of the grasslands of Ngawa Prefecture རྔ་བ་ཁུལ་ in northern Sichuan.
A vast portion of Amdo is grasslands lying between 3000m and 3500m above sea level. The majority of the remaining Tibetan nomads live in this region. Despite being the closest region to mainland China, the culture among the Tibetans of Amdo is still strong. It is quite common to come across Amdo Tibetans who either speak very little Chinese or none at all. Many of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are found in Amdo including Kumbum, Labrang, Drakar Tredzong and Taktsang Lhamo. Amnye Machen, one of the 4 main holy mountains in Tibet, and Tso Ngonbo མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ།, the largest lake in China, are both found in Amdo.
The best part of traveling in Amdo is that it is completely open! Unlike Lhasa and other regions in the Tibet Autonomous Region, no travel permits, no tour guide and no private vehicle are needed. You are free to travel independently on your own using public buses.This is great news for budget travelers who want to see Tibet, but can't afford an expensive tour. Buses from Xining, Chengdu and Lanzhou go to all counties of Amdo. In many ways, the Tibetan culture found in Amdo is far more preserved than the culture found in Lhasa. I have traveled all over the Tibetan world and some of my favorite places are found in Amdo. Here is a list of some of my favorite areas:
Mt. Amnye Machen: The highest and most famous mountain in Amdo rising above 6200m. It is located in Machen (Maxin) county, Golok prefecture in Qinghai province.
Mt. Nyenbo Yurtse: Another holy mountain rising to over 5800m. It is located in Jigdril (Jiuzhi) county, Golok prefecture in Qinghai province.
Gonlung Monastery: Well known among Tibetans, but seldom visited by foreigners, this monastery lies in a wooded valley at 2900m. The monastery is located in Gonlung (Huzhu) county, Haidong prefecture in Qinghai province.
Rebkong: The unofficial "capital" of Amdo. Rebkong is well known across Tibet for its skilled painters. Rebkong (Tongren) is located in Malho prefecture in Qinghai province.
Labrang Monastery: One of the 6 famous Gelukpa monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. Labrang sits in a beautiful valley at 2900m. It is located in Sangchu (Xiahe) county, Ganlho prefecture in Gansu province.
Gangya Grasslands: These vast grasslands are home to thousands of Tibetan nomads during the summer time. The grasslands are located in Sangchu (Xiahe) county, Ganlho prefecture in Gansu province.
Taktsang Lhamo: This small town is home to 2 large monasteries. This is the best place in Amdo to do organized horse trekking and hiking. Taktsang Lhamo (Langmusi) is located in Luchu (Luqu) county, Ganlho prefecture in Gansu province (though technically it lies on the Gansu-Sichuan border).
Tangkor: Tangkor sits on perhaps the best grasslands that Amdo has. Thousands of Tibetan nomads herd their yaks and sheep here. Tangkor (Tangke) is located in Zoige (Ruo'ergai) county, Ngawa prefecture in Sichuan province.
The Kham region has around 2.1 million Tibetans scattered across an area twice the size of the state of California. Kham is the most rugged area of the Tibetan Plateau and is often referred to as "Chushi Gangdruk" which means "the land of 4 rivers and 6 ranges". Kham is characterized by high mountains with deep river gorges. The Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers all begin in Kham. Kham is rough and rugged with poor roads meaning that travel is often slow. However, even with the ruggedness and remoteness of Kham, it is often listed as the best region by people who are frequent travelers to Tibet.
The Kham region of Tibet lies in western Sichuan, southern Qinghai, northwest Yunnan as well as the eastern portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). With the exception of the areas that fall within the TAR, Kham is also open to independent travelers. No permits or tour guides are required for the Kham regions in Sichuan, Qinghai or Yunnan. You can travel by public transportation throughout this area. The Kham regions that lie within the TAR require multiple travel permits, a tour guide and a private vehicle with a driver. Though the Kham regions that are within the TAR are very beautiful and amazing, don't feel like you are not seeing the real Kham if you only make it to the open areas of Kham outside of the TAR. In fact, many people have good arguments that the Kham culture in places like Garnze and Yushu prefectures in Sichuan and Qinghai is far more intact than the culture within the Kham areas of the TAR.
Riwoche: Riwoche is remote and difficult to get to, but the towering Tsuklhakang Temple makes it worth your effort. Riwoche (Leiwuqi) is in Chamdo prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Chamdo: The unofficial "capital" of Kham, Chamdo is full of history and has several major monasteries to be explored. Chamdo (Changdu) lies in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Gar Monastery: This monastery is set in one of the most beautiful settings in Kham. It is located in Nangchen county, Yushu prefecture in Qinghai province.
Dzado: Dzado county lies along the upper reaches of the Mekong River. It is one of the most remote counties in Kham, but has amazing scenery of mountains, grasslands and the river. Dzado (Zaduo) is in Yushu prefecture in Qinghai province.
Dege: Dege is the cultural heart of the Kham region of Tibet. No trip to Kham is complete without going to Dege. Dege is located in Garnze prefecture in Sichuan province.
Litang: Situated at 4000m above sea level, this nomad grassland region is stunning and has some of the best Kham Tibetan culture around. Litang is located in Garnze prefecture in Sichuan province.
Manigango: The town of Manigango is not the attraction, but the lake of Yilhun Lha Tso certainly is. The lake is at the base of a 6000m glaciated mountain. Manigango is located in Dege county, Garnze prefecture in Sichuan province.
Gyelthang: The so called "Shangri La" is a cool town to explore for a few days. Amazing mountains a huge monastery are the main attractions here. Gyelthang (Xianggelila) is located in Dechen prefecture in Yunnan province.
U-Tsang, or Central Tibet, is found entirely within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). More than 2 million Tibetans live in this area, which is slightly larger than the state of Texas. This is the most well known and most traveled region of Tibet. The Tibetan capital city of Lhasa is located here as are the Himalaya Mountains. All foreigners traveling to U-Tsang must have travel permits, a tour guide and a private vehicle with a driver. There are no exceptions to this. This is the most regulated and most expensive region of the Tibetan Plateau to travel in. Though it is regulated, it is still an awesome region to travel through. The most famous monasteries and mountains in the world are located within Central Tibet.
The summer season brings tens of thousands of tourists each day to Central Tibet, compared to very few tourists in Amdo and Kham. Recently I wrote a post about traveling to Tibet during the low season. I still recommend people who want to go to Central Tibet to go there during the winter. Tour prices are at their lowest, there are hardly any other travelers and the weather is generally clear, with bright blue skies. Send me an email and I will let you know which travel agencies I recommend for travel within Central Tibet.
Here is a list of my favorite places within U-Tsang:
Mt. Shishapangma: This little visited mountain in western Tibet is amazing. Rising to 8012m, you would think a lot of people would visit it, but they don't. Shishapangma is located in Nyalam (Nielamu) county in Shigatse prefecture.
Drigung Monastery: Drigung is the lead monastery of the Drigung Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. During festival time, thousands of pilgrims come to the monastery for pilgrimage. Drigung is located in Meldro Gongkar (Mozhu Gongka) county in Lhasa prefecture.
Mt. Everest: Though I have been there many times now, I still get excited when I am there! Everest is located in Tingri county in Shigatse prefecture.
Suge La Pass: This is one of the highest passes in Tibet with an excellent view of the Nyenchen Dangla mountains. The pass rises to 5430m. It is located on the border of Damshung (Dangxiong) and Nyemo (Nimu) counties in Lhasa prefecture.
Yamdrok Lake: If the crystal clear blue water isn't enough, the 7000m glaciated mountain in the background is. Yamdrok Lake is located in Nagartse (Langkazi) county in Lhoka prefecture.
The Friendship Highway: This classic overland route has it all with high mountains, lakes, rivers, monasteries and culture.
So which region of Tibet is the best? They all are. All of them have amazing scenery and even more amazing people. When people email me and ask what they should do, I tell them to take 4 to 6 weeks and explore all 3 main areas of Tibet. It is easy and relatively inexpensive to take 3 or 4 weeks traveling across the open, unrestricted regions of Amdo and Kham before spending 1 or 2 weeks in the Tibet Autonomous Region. If you don't have that much time or money, choose to spend a week in either Kham or Amdo before going to Lhasa. Having traveled extensively across the Tibetan Plateau (well over 200,000 kms overland) I have to say that some of the best places are in Kham and Amdo. People unfamiliar with Tibet probably have never heard of these areas, but they are just as much a part of the Tibetan world as Lhasa is. Kham and Amdo cover half of the Tibetan Plateau and have more than 60% of the total Tibetan population. Most people who frequently travel to Tibet will agree that Kham and Amdo are the best kept secrets in Asia.