Four Rivers, Six Ranges: A Kham Tibet Odyssey Extended (007_4)
16 days*, 4WD Overland
*For a 13-day version of this trail go to Four Rivers, Six Ranges: A Kham Tibet Odyssey.
D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu Flight, Hotel or GH
D3 Xiao Weixi 4WD, Guesthouse
D4 Cizhong or Hongpo 4WD, Guesthouse
D5 Feilai / Deqin 4WD, Hotel
D6 Zhongdian (via the Gorge) 4WD, Hotel
D7 Xiangcheng 4WD, Hotel
D8 Litang 4WD, Hotel
D9 Xinlong 4WD, Guesthouse
D10 Baiyu/Katok gompa 4WD, Camp
D11 Dege 4WD, Guesthouse
D12 Manigange 4WD, Hotel or Camp
D13 Ganzi 4WD, Hotel
D14 Tagong 4WD, Hotel
D15 Kangding 4WD, Hotel
D16 Chengdu 4WD, Hotel
Arguably the most open and relaxed of China's provincial capitals, befitting to a province that straddles so many cultures and civilisations. Dubbed the 'City of Spring' due to its yearlong great climate, it's long been a summer getaway destination for the savvier of China's political and economic elite. Nowadays, it only has traces of the old city and its semi-colonial French influences, but the reconstruction has gone well and it retains much of the atmosphere (if not the actual buildings!) of earlier times.
Pick-up from the airport followed by an initial orientation. For those arriving early,
whereby Kunming isn’t chock-a-block with traditional ‘sights’,
it’s a relaxed and pleasant city to wander around, visit the Bird
& Flower market, sip tea by the lake, imbibe coffee at the pre-revolution
era coffee house, etc. Accommodation is by Green Lake in the northwest of
the city, a good place to use as a base for a rewarding stroll or two and
a chance to kick the jet lag.
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu
An early flight to Lijiang which at 2400 m provides an initial chance for altitude acclimatization. Lijiang is in many ways the capital of the Naxi minority, and despite being afflicted by the somewhat crass “authenticity” drive so popular amongst Yunnan local governments, remains an interesting place. A beautiful old town - ancient canal system, traditional architecture, with abundant cafes in the centre. Tonight the option of staying in either Lijiang or Yuhu, small village located a short drive north of Lijiang. Nestled on the lower slopes of Jade Dragon Mountain, amongst other things this was the home of Joseph Rock - who was in parts an explorer, a plant collector, and a scholar of Naxi language, who roamed SW China in the 20s, 30s and 40s. At Yuhu there is a family-run guesthouse with clean cosy rooms and superb home-cooked meals.
Flight, Hotel or Guesthouse
D3 Xiao Weixi
From Lijiang head westwards to the first bend of the Yangtze at Shigu, and then continue northwards following Yangtze for a bit more before cutting due west to meet up with the Mekong. Following the Mekong a little ways to Xiao Weixi, a mostly Naxi village with some Lisu and Tibetan people. Catholic church here, started by a French Catholic priest in the late 1800s.
D3* Liming (Alternate!)
An alternate route for this day is to go via Liming. This involves a morning drive over the hills with some great views of both Jade Dragon (Yunnan’s 2nd highest - 5596m) and Haba (Yunnan’s 3rd highest - 5396m) snow mountains before heading down to the banks of the Yangtze for the small village of Liming, a remarkable little town, populated by the Lisu minority, with a history of missionary activity. It’s set in a deep valley surrounded by red sandstone massif scenery that gives a canyon-like atmosphere to the area. A detour here via a steep switchback takes you to the Yi village of Gedala, which makes for a good tea stop, and then on to Seeleeke (Yi for “Place of Dragon”), a high patch of grassland from whence are views of Jade Dragon (5596 m), Laojun Shan (4247 m), Baima (5430 m) and Haba (5396 m).
D4 Cizhong or Hongpo
From Xiao Weixi moving north through a series of small market towns towards Cizhong, amongst other places worth a stop is the monastery of Shouguo Si, one of 13 Kagyüpa monasteries in the region, dating back to the 17c and 18c. Shouguo Si has gone through hard times with the coming of the missionaries, the expansion of the Gelukpa school in northwest Yunnan, and last but not least, the Cultural Revolution. Still it hangs on in there, full of history if not treasures! Further along is Cizhong, site of a large Catholic church and vineyards initially planted by the French. Situated on the side of the Mekong, the village (Naxi) these days is prosperous, though isolated.
Today there is also the option of continuing on to Hongpo monastery, situated up a steep, slightly nail-biting switchback. Set at 3200m in an extremely beautiful and secluded valley with a bustling Tibetan village at its head. Possibly a highlight of this route.
4WD, Guesthouse or Homestay
D5 Feilai (Deqin)
After knocking around the monastery and village, a 2- to 3-hour drive over high passes, again with the snow peaks of the Kawa Karpo (Meilixueshan) range in view, before dropping down to the Deqin area. Staying the night a few kilometres outside of Deqin at Feilai, the nearest viewing point from town of the Meili snow mountain range. Once the site marked by just a lot of prayer flag-covered chörtens and a little shop across the street; these days there are a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to those who want the possibility of waking up to a snow-covered mountain vista.
Out of Deqin the road climbs back up to heights of 4500m+ as it heads southeast. Given the right weather, picnic at one of the passes so to say goodbye to the peaks before dropping slightly to have a look at a couple of monasteries - Dongzhulin and Shusong (a nunnery - a much rarer animal indeed). Both sub-monasteries of the huge Songzanlin in Zhongdian, both remote but active teaching gompas. Then the trail drops down to Benzilan on the banks of the Yangtze, facing Sichuan on the opposite side. A Tibetan village, for centuries another important stop on the old trading route into Tibet. Indeed in central Tibet, imported Chinese tea was often known as ‘Benzilan tea’! From here it’s a two-hour drive to Zhongdian.
Zhongdian (3344m) - now optimistically renamed
Shangri-La - is home of Songzanlin monastery. This sprawling
and, in historical terms, very key monastery was commissioned in the 17c
by the DL5, and was the central monastery in the Gelukpa order’s
south-eastern expansion. Evening options to consider are dinner at a neighbourhood
DIY grill house, and a soak under the stars at the Natural Bridge hot springs. Since the retreat of the Tibetans from the Lijiang area in the 19c, Zhongdian (Tib. Gyalthang) has pretty much marked the south-eastern border of Kham Tibet in Yunnan. Up until a few yeas ago, it had the rough reputation of a classic frontier town - but now things have calmed down, and its markets and the old town make for a fruitful afternoon stroll.
Early morning visit to the ever growing Songzanlin Monastery. In historical terms it is very key; commissioned in the 17c by DL5, it was the central monastery in the Gelukpa order’s south-eastern expansion. From Zhongdian head north, crossing two high passes on the way to the Sichuan border. Then the road twists and turns its way down to Xiangcheng. A wee village a few years ago, set along the Shu-chu River, today it’s a bustling rural town which has been given a massive face lift. Surrounding the city, residents still live in attractive stone houses. Its Tibetan name means ‘rosaries in Buddha’s hand’, while in Chinese historical annals it was long referred to as White Wolf State.
Morning visit to Chaktreng gompa. Rebuilt in the early noughts, it’s a huge towering colourful affair. Then from Xiangcheng a long day’s drive passing through the high rocky moonscape of Haizi Shan, the road making its way across a high and sparse plateau before dropping down to Litang. Litang, at around 4000m one of the highest towns in the world, is set on a broad grassland with Lithang gompa dominating it from the north. Litang itself has played a central part in the region, from its days as an independent Kingdom, allied with Kagyü rulers of the Kingdom of Dêrge, through its absorption by the great Gelukpa expansion east in the 16th, 17th & 18th centuries, to its position as a (nominal) outpost of the Qing dynasty all the way through to its role as a centre of resistance in the Khampa uprising against the incoming PLA in the 1950’s. As with Ganzi further north, it’s a market town and administrative centre, heavily coloured by its roots as a trading post for the Khampa nomads that populate the high plains.
Up early to catch Litang’s superb morning views and pay a visit to Lithang gompa, a huge monastery complex and one of Kham’s most prominent Gelukpa centres, founded 1580. A day’s backcountry drive south as the trail wends its way through forested valleys along the Yalong River. Xinlong is a small town set right alongside the banks of river. It’s the capital of Nyarong county, a relatively poor area compared to its neighbours. Set atop the hill behind town is Zera gompa, a teaching monastery with about 50 monks.
D10 Baiyu/Katok gompa
From Xinlong continue following the Yalong for a short stretch before leaving it to head westwards. This is a little-travelled road which passes the Dorkho gompa (Sakya). Baiyu is a pretty Tibetan town with tree-lined streets and the Ding-chu river running through it. The important Pelyul gompa (Nyingmapa) is located atop a hill behind town. From Baiyu the road joins up with the Yangtze River, here forming the border between Sichuan and the TAR, and soon comes to Hepo, where the 12c Katok gompa (which other than Samye near Lhasa is the oldest surviving monastery of the Nyingmapa and possibly the most sacred site in Kham) is located way above town.
Not a whole lot of miles covered this day, so to have time to do the detour to Pelpung gompa via a scenic narrow road. The establishment of this 18c monastery quickly made this region the centre for the Karma Kagyüpa school. It’s been designated one of world’s most important endangered monuments by World Monuments Fund. It’s a huge complex, visible for miles from its hilltop perch. Known as the Little Potala, some reckon its architecture to be Kham’s most stunning. Back on the main road, continue following the Yangtze to Dege, a remote city with a long history, once the seat of the Kingdom of Dêrge, whose kings ruled this area independent of interference from either Lhasa or Beijing. Its most famous building is the Parkhang Printery, the main source of printed materials for much of the Kham area. Today it’s possible to observe the monks at work, using the same age-old wood block techniques. Gonchen gompa, largely gutted, has now been restored, but with the original shell largely intact.
Leaving the pretty valley of Dege, ascend a steep series of switchbacks through the steep-sided Zi-chu river gorge. The scenes change dramatically to rugged mountains and snowy peaks as the trails crests the 4916m Tro La pass, passing a small Sakya monastery en route.
4WD, Hotel or Camp
Shortly out of Manigange is a small detour well worth it - the 'hidden valley' of 17c Dzogchen gompa (Nyingmapa), one of the most important monasteries in Kham. Continuing on, the landscape widens out and you’re driving through a really superb stretch of country, the road tracing the Yalong River, hillsides scattered with formations of prayer flags and one of the highest concentrations of monasteries in Kham – including Dargye gompa (Geluk order – it’s the oldest of the 13 Horpa monasteries, and was once the top monastery in these parts. Renovation started in the ‘80s, and the interior painting, taking 7+ years to complete, is astounding), Yazer gompa, Beri gompa (originally an old Bönpo temple that converted to Gelukpa), as well as the ruins of Beri castle, the renovated Kablung gompa and Böngen gompa. The pace will determine how many there is time to stop and see. Retracing the path back south, take the turn-off at the small road-junction town of Manigange (3800m), and with a bit of luck - and weather providing - tonight's campsite will be on the banks of Yilhun Lhatso (4500m), on the road to Dege. Yilhun Lhatso is a beautiful blue lake surrounded by snowy mountains, held sacred by Tibetans as evidenced by the number of mani stone piles and prayer flags. With a bit of luck, the glaciered Mt. Que’er as tonight’s backdrop.
As so many are in this region, Ganzi is something of a cowboy town, it is also THE market town in NE Kham, having gained wealth and influence as a meeting place serving the needs of the Khampa nomads to the west and north and the farmers from the surrounding plains. Up to a couple of years back, yaks roamed the streets, electricity was a rarity and the main form of entertainment for the nomads was drinking and playing pool on the outdoor tables that lined the streets. Now the shops and stalls selling all manner of Tibetan ware remain, but neon & KTV have arrived, if anything only increasing its wild west-like atmosphere. A dazzling site after several days on the road! Ganzi is quite simply very enjoyable. Surrounded by the old Tibetan quarter, and with an eagle-eye view of town, is Kandzê gompa, a large, very active, though very monastic/orthodox Gelukpa monastery that has seen its fortunes grow impressively in the last few years. Compared to many monasteries in the area, it has an almost austere atmosphere, but given time is worth the walk up.
From Ganzi continue down the pretty Sershul valley, coming first to Luhuo, with the towering Drango gompa overlooking town. Then visit Nyitso gompa near the town of Daofu. This valley is the widest in Kham, offering ample grazing lands and arable fields, consequently here are some of the wealthiest and prettiest Tibetan houses of the region. In Tagong is the impressive Lhagang gompa, where views of Mt. Yalha (3809m) and Paojiashan (5400m) can be had.
From Tagong road drops sharply from the high plateau, crossing two passes – Gye La and Lama La (4320m). Kangding was the trading post between the Tibetan Highlands and Sichuan lowlands and as such provides the last taste of Khampa Tibet.
Hit the road for an early start to this day's drive, which follows what was the old tea route between China and Tibet and is now the main military road into the TAR. The road takes the 10-km Erlang tunnel before crossing the 3000m Erlang pass. Lunch at Luding, site of one of the more heroic episodes of the long March. Then the road skirts north of the 7756m Minyak Gangkar (Gonggashan) to the south.
Chengdu is a huge intense city, with a history dating
back to pre-Han dynasty. It has variously acted as a dynastic capital
and centre of southern radicalism, before reaching its status today as provincial
capital of Sichuan and home to some 6 million people. Today it carries all
its history with it in the sheer complexity of its layout and culture -
modern boulevards, intersected by mazes of narrow crooked side streets,
traditional neighbourhoods next to high end department stores, Sichuan opera
houses, the Mao statue in the main square, the street-side restaurants serving
arguably some of the best food in China, the parks, Zen monastery and neighbourhood
tea houses - where for centuries rebellion has been plotted.
An extension to the 2-week trip that transforms the deep exploration of Kham Tibet into a massive 3000+km sweep of SW China + Kham Tibet in its entirety. From the high plateau and grasslands of Kham Tibet, the trail cuts south across the Eastern Himalayas to the Hengduan Range and down into the valleys and gorges of the Mekong and Yangtze rivers in NW Yunnan - Naxi, Yi, Lisu and Bai territory. For sheer scope and diversity, this route is in a class of its own.
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails
Min 2 Max 8
£1730 (3-5 people)
£1595 (6-8 people)
£1310 (3-5 people)
£1180 (7-8 people)