Four Rivers, Six Ranges: The Horse Festivals (009)
14 days*, 4WD Overland
*For an 8-day trekking extension around Amnye Machen, go to Four Rivers, Six Ranges: The Horse Festivals Extended.
D1 (22 July) Xining Hotel
D2 Huashixia 4WD, Camp
D3 Yushu 4WD, Camp
D4 Yushu Camp
D5 Yushu Camp
D6 Shiqu 4WD, Hotel
D7 Manigange Hotel
D8 Dege Hotel
D9 Katok/Baiyu 4WD, Camp or Hotel
D10 Xinlong 4WD, Hotel
D11 Litang 4WD, Camp
D12 Litang Camp
D13 Xiangcheng* 4WD, Hotel
D14 (4 Aug) Zhongdian 4WD, Hotel
*It's possible to drive from Litang to Zhongdian in one day (~11 hours), allowing for an extra day in Litang.
Take off early afternoon to spend the rest of the day (and night) in the vicinity of Kumbum gompa for a chance to explore one of Tibet’s most famous monasteries. Although becoming increasingly commercialised, as the birthplace of Tsongkhapa (founder of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism) this is still one of the most sacred sites in Tibet. And despite the superficiality of the ticket gates, souvenir stalls, etc., still a teaching gompa of no little import. A great gateway to the area.
An early start as the trail heads southwest by 4WD up onto the Amdo grasslands on a high (generally over 4000m) remote road through the vast rolling plateaus, which are the stomping grounds of the Golok nomads. Sightings of the Asiatic wild ass (kiang) and the Tibetan Gazelle relatively common on this stretch down to Yushu. Cresting onto the plateau, the scenery just keeps getting bigger, dotted with yaks and nomadic tents, until finally the unmistakable profile of Machen Gangri (6282m) - highest peak of the Amnye Machen (Magyel Pomra) range, held sacred by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and located in the heart of the Golok country - starts to loom above the horizon.
Another long day’s drive over the high plateau (reaching 5000m), passing plains scattered with nomadic summer camps. Worth a visit en route is Drubgyuling gompa with its hundreds of young student lamas, to the hamlet of Xiewu in the afternoon where the plateau begins to break up into the mountains and valleys of Kham. Time allowing, a chance to stop off at the Sakyapa monastery overlooking Xiewu, before heading along a valley lined with monasteries, burial grounds and what might indeed be the worlds’ largest mani pile (Gyanak Mani). Nearing Yushu the road descends to the Yangtze, into the gorge country of Kham, where the 3 rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong and the
Salween – flow off the plateau in close proximity. Yushu is a big town with even a few internet cafes. Pulling up to the festival site as the sun goes down, fires being lit and tents going up… Great stuff.
The Jyekundo (Yushu) Horse Festival is a huge event, attended by nomads and townspeople from a 2-300 mile radius. Much of the festival’s prominence stems from the importance of nearby Yushu town, for centuries a major way-point on the caravan trails between Lhasa and Xining, and the festival is still as much about trade as it is about dancing or riding skills. What also adds special character to this area (and thus to the festival) is that the Yushu area has long been dominated by the Sakyapa and Kagyüpa schools of Tibetan Buddhism rather that the more orthodox Gelukpa school.
More of the above - enjoying the festival, catching the dancing competition, etc. However, for those with itchy feet it’s possible to take the jeep off to explore the surrounding area (Jyekundo gompa, Wencheng Temple, Benchen gompa, Trangu gompa, etc.). We’d recommend spending at least the whole of one of the days actually on site, but it’s your choice!
Leaving Yushu the trail climbs out of the valleys back up to the high plateau, aiming southwest for Shiqu (Sershul). Shortly before town is Sershul gompa - a rare pink-tiled monastery. Large and obviously rich, it’s a bit more Han than Tibetan Buddhist. Back on the road to Shiqu proper, which was recently a small concrete town filled mostly with Han Chinese PLA and police, but is now a busy-ish market town, mostly Tibetan. Bumnying gompa (Gelukpa) is here, home to some 200 monks.
Departing Shiqu, detours worth taking if enough time include Tsatsa gompa and Rinyur gompa, as well as Zhechen gompa gotten to via a pristine mountain-lined valley. Further north and alongside the main road, set in a ‘hidden valley’, is the 17c Dzogchen gompa (Nyingma), one of the most important monasteries in Kham and a renowned school for Dzogchen teachings. Cross 4633m Muri la pass and drive through wide nomad country before arriving to the wild-west-kind-of-town of Manigange, home to Yazer gompa (Nyingma).
Leaving Sichuan-Qinghai ‘highway’, road slowly ascends, en route passing 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. Soon after the road crests at Tro la (4916m) and the landscape changes from grassland to forests. Descend via a series of switchbacks, the trail enveloped between the steep sides of the Zi-chu river gorge before coming into Dege.
Dege is 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, which has been 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.
Not a whole lot of miles covered this day, so plenty of time to make the detour to Pelpung gompa via a scenic narrow mountain 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 to the main road, continue following the Yangtze to the small town of Hepo, just beyond which is another important monastery, the early 12c Katok gompa located 850m above town. Excepting Samye (near Lhasa) this is the oldest surviving Nyingma monastery, making it a hugely religiously significant site.
Baiyu is 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.
4WD, Camp or Hotel
First following a little travelled road east, past the Dorkho gompa (Sakya), to meet up with the Yalong River, where the trail turns north and follows the steep gorge of the Nyarong valley into deep Nyingma country, through a forested, fairly secluded valley. Xinlong is capital of Nyarong county and largely unvisited due to a road only recently repaired. Set atop the hill behind town is Zera gompa, a teaching monastery with about upwards of 50 monks here.
A day’s back-country drive to Litang, following the river south. At ~4000m Litang is one of the highest towns in the world, set on a broad grassland with Lithang gompa dominating it from the north. It 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 to 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.
Of the three festivals, the Lithang Horse Festival is perhaps the best known to the outside world and consequently has got a bit less of a remote feel to it. But being big does bring its own advantage - the level of skill is high, with an interesting variety of races.
From Litang the road quickly climbs to the edge of a high and sparse plateau, most the day’s drive spent crossing the high rocky moonscape of Haizi Shan. A wee village a few years ago, set along the Shu-chu River, today Xiangcheng is 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. The road from Xiangcheng quickly begins to twist and turn its way up to the Sichuan border, crossing two high passes en route 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.
Let the summer fun begin… This trip pairs together the camping, dancing, horsemanship display and general merry making of the horse festivals with a fair amount of gompa stomping.
It is focused around the two big horse festivals in Kham Tibet. The trail starts with a night at the renowned Kumbum gompa and 2 fast days’ drive up to and across the high wide grassland of Amdo Tibet, stopping to camp in sight of Amnye Machen, one of the most sacred sites in Amdo. Arriving the eve of the horse festival (just outside Yushu), set up camp for 3 nights. Then just enough time to take in one of the more interesting loops of the region, via the cultural centre of Dege and a couple of out-of-the-way monasteries, before heading to the Litang Horse Festivals, and finally winding up the trip in Zhongdian.
These festivals are the highlight of the nomadic Tibetan year and people travel from far and wide to attend. A fantastic chance to catch a huge diversity and mix of peoples from all over Kham Tibet, providing a good opportunity - rather than travelling all over Tibet, let Tibet travel to you.
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails