Four Rivers, Six Ranges: Riding the Frontier (008)
14 days, 4WD Overland
D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Zhongdian Flight, Hotel
D3 Derong 4WD, Camp
D4 Batang 4WD, Guesthouse
D5 Litang 4WD, Hotel
D6 Xinlong 4WD, Guesthouse
D7 Baiyu/Katok gompa 4WD, GH or Camp
D8 Dege 4WD, Guesthouse
D9 Yilhun Lhatso/Manigange 4WD, Camp
D10 Shiqu 4WD, Guesthouse
D11 Yushu 4WD, Hotel
D12 Yushu area 4WD, Hotel
D13 Huashixia 4WD, Camp
D14 Xining 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 initial orientation. If arriving early,
whereby Kunming isn’t chock-a-block with traditional ‘sights’,
it’s one of China's most pleasant cities, ideal for wandering 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.
An early morning flight to Zhongdian (now optimistically renamed Shangri-La), staying at a hotel at the bottom of Songzanlin gompa north of town. 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. In the evening eat dinner at a neighbourhood BBQ joint, then for those who want, off to the Natural Bridge hot springs for a soak under the stars.
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.
From Zhongdian it’s an easy 2-hour ride to the Tibetan town of Benzilan on the banks of the Yangtze, which for centuries was an important stop on the old trading route into Tibet (indeed in central Tibet, imported Chinese tea was often known as ‘Benzilan tea’!). Here the road crosses the Yangtze to enter Sichuan, following a windy road towards Derong, through a landscape of dipping valleys and steep river banks, dotted with typical signs of a Tibetan area - prayer stones, stupas, and flags. Derong itself, small but thriving, is tucked tightly in a gorge of the Ding-chu river which the town straddles. Camping tonight, weather providing.
This is a less trodden route, as the rougher roads will testify, following the Yangtze upstream through a pretty valley which skirts the Wutsi Nature Reserve, on a relatively untrodden road north-west to Batang. Set in a wide, prosperous valley alongside the Batang River, it’s just over 30 km east of the Yangtze-TAR border. Its low (for these parts!) altitude (2470m) gives it a mild climate, and the town itself, though small, rates as quite a hub of activity (boasts its own radio station!) owing to flow of trans-border traffic made of truckers plying the Lhasa-Chengdu route. Two sites worth seeing are the Batang gompa (Gelukpa since 1639), heavily damaged in Sino-Tibetan wars of 20c, some amazing frescoes destroyed, it’s been gradually repaired over the years. Some 400 monks reside, and the Jakyung Rito Pendeling Gon - smaller and older.
Trail heads due east on the main Sichuan-Tibet highway, following the Batang river gorge upstream to the township of Taksha. Trail then ascends a pass (4230m) offering some views of high mountain lakes and empty plains indicative of this area’s extreme environment, uniquely suited for nomadic pastoralism. Crossing a watershed pass (separating the Batang and Li river systems) we’re soon arriving in Litang, which at 4100m is one of the highest towns in the world, 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. After breakfast a day’s extreme back-country drive, north as the trails wends its way through forested valleys and grassland, to Xinlong, capital of Nyarong county and largely unvisited due to a road only recently completed/repaired Xinlong is a small town set alongside the banks of the Yalong River, largely unvisited due to a road only recently repaired/completed. 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 upwards of 50 monks here.
D7 Baiyu/Katok gompa
From Xinlong follow the the steep gorge of the Nyarong valley due south into deep Nyingmapa country, following the Yalong through a forested, fairly secluded valley. Then veer west on a little travelled road past the Dorkho gompa (Sakyapa) before reaching Baiyu, a pretty Tibetan town with tree-lined streets and the river Ding-chu flowing through it. The important Pelyul gompa (Nyingmapa) is located atop a hill behind town. Today can choose to continue on to Katok gompa - from Baiyu follow the Yangtze (on the other side of which is the TAR) to Hepo. The early 12c Katok gompa is located 850m above town. Excepting Samye (near Lhasa) this is the oldest surviving Nyingmapa monastery, a hugely religiously significant site, a privilege to be able to visit it.
4WD, Guesthouse or Camp
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.
D10 Yilhun Lhatso (Xinluhai)/ Manigange
From Dege, the trail is enveloped between the steep sides of the Zi-chu river gorge, before ascending a series of switchbacks up to Tro La (4916m), leaving behind the forests and snowy peaks to crest onto a vast grassland. Soon visible is Yilhun Lhatso (4500m), a beautiful blue lake surrounded by snowy mountains, held very sacred by Tibetans as evidenced by all the mani stone piles and prayer flags. Weather providing, camp tonight along its banks, with the glaciered 6186m Mt. Que’er as the backdrop if lucky. Or can opt to continue to the wild west town of Manigange on the Sichuan-Qinghai 'highway', home to Yazer gompa (Nyingma).
4WD, Hotel or Camp
Proceed north over a fantastic (and tarmacked!) stretch of road across wide nomad country rarely visited by outsiders, that foreshadows the huge grasslands of Amdo, still a couple of days north. First cross the 4633m Muri La pass, then nearby, set in a 'hidden valley', is the 17c Dzogchen gompa (Nyingmapa), one of the most important monasteries in Kham and a renowned school for teachings of Dzogchen. Time providing also make a detour to visit Zhechen gompa via a pristine valley surrounded by mountains, as well as Tsatsa gompa and Rinyur gompa, before arriving for the evening to Shiqu - recently a small concrete town filled mostly with Han Chinese PLA and police, it’s now a busy market town, mostly Tibetan. Bumnying gompa (Gelukpa) is here, home to some 200 monks.
A little outside of Shiqu is the Sershul gompa, probably the only monastery you’ll ever see built with pink (!) tiles - a large and obviously rich monastery, it’s a bit more Han Buddhist than Tibetan Buddhist, overlooking a Tibetan village. The countryside rises from hills and plains to wide open grasslands, fantastic stuff. Lunch in the tiny hamlet of Xiewu, combined with a visit to the Sakyapa monastery set on the hillside above town. The roue then heads south to Yushu, en route passing Gyanak Mani - a football field-sized pile of mani stones which must surely be the largest such mani dui from here to Lhasa - before finally arriving at the hopping town of Yushu.
D13 Yushu area
A relatively big town, there’s plenty of street life to entertain oneself, and even a few internet cafes. Jyekundo gompa (Sakyapa) on a hill overlooking town is worth a visit, before heading out of town to see some of the sites (the 7c Wencheng Temple, Benchen gompa, Trangu gompa).
Retracing part of the trail from a couple days ago to Xiewu, cross the border of Kham, leaving the gorge country of Kham and head into Amdo Tibet, birth place of many of the DLs and an area strong in Mongol influence. It’s a great road dotted by yaks and the black-haired yak tents of the Golok nomads, sightings of the Asiatic wild ass (kiang) and the Tibetan Gazelle relatively common, amid vast rolling plateaus surrounded by distant mountains The road climbs steeply to Drubgyuling gompa, well worth a visit, with hundreds of young student lamas. At Huashixia, a one-yak truck stop providing only the most basic of accommodation, turn right and the unmistakable profile of Machen Gangri (6282m) - the highest peak of the Amnye Machen (Magyel Pomra) range, held sacred by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as by Golok nomads and followers of Bön - is soon visible.
An early start for the long haul north over the high grasslands to the major metropolis of Xining. A high remote road (generally over 4000m) through empty land populated only by the Golok people, offering vast views, small towns, and the ubiquitous Muslim Hui restaurant. Closer to Xining, can pay a visit to Kumbum gompa, famous and revered as the site where Tsongkhapa (founder of the Gelukpa order) was born. Rather museum-like and touristy compared with what we’ve seen so far, it’s interesting for a visit if just to note the contrast. The city of Xining dates back to early Qing dynasty, when it was established to serve as imperial China’s administrative seat for this region. Today’s it’s still a major hub, and a place where comfortable beds and hot showers are in abundance.
Very much off the beaten track as the trail heads along some of the most remote, difficult but beautiful roads in Kham Tibet. A high adventure trail with big rewards for the hardy. Passing through what many consider the religious and cultural heartland of Tibet, the advantage of taking these remote trails is to be able to check out some extremely difficult-to-get-to monasteries. The area stands out as having historically been a stomping ground for all five major schools of Buddhism - a radical and refreshing change from the orthodoxies of central Tibet - and indeed this area provided the heartbeat for the 19c non-sectarian Rimed movement. This combination of high Tibetan culture and high roads is a heady one indeed.
The nature of the roads makes it even more difficult than usual to pin down an exact itinerary. Tents as well as the full complement of luxury camping gear will be available so as to be free of the need to make it to the next town to find accommodation.
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails