The 1100 kilometer (685 mile) route from Chengdu to Shangri La (known as Gyelthang in Tibetan) is the most popular overland route through the Kham region of Tibet. Beginning in Chengdu, this route travels westward through Garze/Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture before finishing in Shangri La in far northwest Yunnan. Also popular with cyclists, this route goes through some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain the eastern Tibetan Plateau has to offer. Glaciated peaks, evergreen forests, snow-fed rivers, high altitude grasslands and traditional Tibetan culture are all found along this route. This route can be done using public transportation, but with so much to see and do along the way, a private vehicle is much better to use.
From Chengdu, the first recommended place to stop is Dartsendo དར་རྩེ་མདོ།, known as Kangding in Chinese. This beautiful town is 325kms west from Chengdu and lies at an elevation of 2600m (8530 feet). Though most travelers only stay 1 or 2 days in Kangding, there are plenty of things to see and do to keep you busy for several days. The town sits in a narrow valley surrounded by huge, glaciated peaks with the highest rising well above 6000m. The town sits deep in the valley so the only visible snow-capped mountains are those to the west. Just a short 20 or 30km drive west or south of town and you get a sweeping view of the mountains including Minya Konka, the highest mountain in eastern Tibet rising to 7556m / 24,790 feet. In addition to all of the mountains, there are 4 notable Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in town that are all worth exploring. When in Kangding, stay at Zhilam Hostel, by far the best hostel and cafe in town.
After spending a few days exploring the area in and around Kangding, I recommend going north to Lhagang ལྷ་སྒང་, known as Tagong in Chinese. Tagong lies 112kms north of Kangding at an elevation of 3700m (12,136 feet). Tagong is a small nomad trading town with lots of traditional Tibetan culture. From late spring through the fall season, Tibetan nomads living in black yak wool tents live on the grasslands surrounding Tagong. There are many monasteries in the area, most notably the Lhagang Monastery and the Ani Gompa (nunnery) just outside of town. Very near to town is the 5820m peak of Zhara Lhatse, known as Yala Xue Shan in Chinese. This mountain dominates the skyline surrounding Tagong. It is possible to go horse trekking and hiking in this area. Contact Chyoger Treks, based in Tagong, for more information.
Tagong is a great place to base yourself for 2 or 3 days.There are no public buses going directly to Tagong. If you don't have your own vehicle and driver, then you can either take the bus from Kangding to Garze/Ganzi and get off in Tagong or take a shared mini-van to Tagong from Kangding.
From Tagong, it is best to return to Kangding before setting out for Litang as there are no buses from Tagong to Litang. Litang ལི་ཐང་ sits at 4000m and is 285kms west of Kangding. Tibetan nomads from the region, on motorcycles or even horseback, come to Litang each day to buy and sell goods. Litang is well over 80% Tibetan and has several places to see. On the far west end of town, there is a huge, white stupa where Buddhist worshippers gather each morning. They walk the kora around the stupa while spinning prayer wheels and chanting mantras. On the north end of town is the Litang Chode Monastery, which was established in 1580. It is the largest monastery in the region with several hundred monks. Litang was the birth place of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lama’s. The actual home that the 7th Dalai Lama was born in still exists in the center of town and can be visited free of charge.
Litang is worth spending at least 2 days exploring before heading south. From Litang, there is a daily bus to Chaktreng ཕྱག་འཕྲེང་, known in Chinese as Xiangcheng. South of Litang, you begin your ascent up the Tu'er La Pass, which rises to 4696m (15,403 feet). This is the highest pass along the way from Chengdu to Shangri La. The distance from Litang to Xiangcheng is 205kms. Xiangcheng has a few markets to explore and has quite a few Tibetans around, but is otherwise fairly uninteresting. There is a daily bus from here to Shangri La. There is an ATM in Xiangcheng that normally accepts foreign ATM cards. This is the first ATM since Kangding that will accept a foreign ATM card. Xiangcheng is just a stopover between Litang and Shangri La. There is no need to stay here more than 1 night.
NOTE: An interesting detour is to travel southeast of Litang to the Yading Nature Reserve in Daocheng county. This nature preserve has 3 massive snow-capped peaks that are worth exploring for a day or two.
From Xiangcheng, there is a daily bus to Shangri La, known in Tibetan as Gyelthang རྒྱལ་ཐང་. This drive covers 200kms. The drive is amazingly beautiful as it crosses the jagged mountain peaks that form the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Shangri La marks the end of the Kham Tibetan world. The Old Town in Shangri La is a maze of great restaurants, bars guesthouses and shops. At the big square in the Old Town, there is Tibetan dancing each night. On the north end of town is Ganden Samtseling Monastery, which is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. It is over 300 years old and has over 650 monks.
The overland route from Chengdu to Shangri La is amazing. The culture, the landscape, the people, the remoteness....it has it all. I would allow yourself about 2 weeks to really do this route. Anything less and you are rushing through a great area that has a lot to offer.
Currently, the roads all along this route are open, though mudslides and heavy rain do occur during the summer months. In the winter, heavy snow can block some of the high passes, especially the pass between Xiangcheng and Shangri La near the Sichuan-Yunnan border. It is best to avoid this route during the middle of winter (January and February) since a lot of hotels and restaurants in Kangding, Litang and Shangri La are closed during that time.
For more information about this route or if you have any questions about travel in Tibet, please email me at email@example.com.