Sìchuān–Tibet Highway (Northern Route)
The famous Sìchuān–Tibet Hwy splits in two just west of Kāngdìng. The northern route is 300km longer than the southern route, and is generally less travelled. Following it, you’ll traverse high-plateau grasslands and numerous Tibetan settlements, often attached to a local monastery.
Your bumpy bus ride just got bumpier. Dégé (Derge) is cut off from the rest of western Sìchuān by the towering Chola Mountain (雀儿山, Que’er Shan, 6168m); to get here from the east, you have to endure a highly uncomfortable, harrowing, five-hour ride by dirt track over the 5050m-high Chola Pass.
It’s easy to spend a couple of days in the lively market town of Gānzī (Garzê) exploring the beautiful countryside, which is scattered with Tibetan villages and large monasteries surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Photo opportunities abound, especially from late July to October, when the grassland is an impossible green accented with wildflowers in bloom.
Tǎgōng (Lha Gang)
The Tibetan village of Tǎgōng (Lhagang; 3700m) and its surrounding grasslands offer plenty of excuses to linger. On the road from Kāngdìng is a sea of mani stones carved (and spray-painted) with ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པདྨེ་ཧཱུྃ (om mani padme hum), the mantra of Buddha's path. Explore this terrain on horseback or foot, sip real yak butter tea, then fall asleep in tents under the stars.
There’s not much going on in Mǎnígāngē (Manigango), a rough two-street transit town halfway between Gānzī and Dégé. The surrounding hills do offer wonderful hiking opportunities, though. The vast monastery and school, Dzogchen Gompa (竹庆寺; Zhú Qìng Sì) an important seat of the Nyingma (Red Hat sect), is also within striking distance, on the road north to Yùshù.
The little valley town of Xiāngchéng (Chaktreng; 3180m) is a good spot to break your journey into or out of Yúnnán province. It benefits from a microclimate that keeps temperatures here slightly warmer than everywhere else around it, making it a particularly comfortable stop. The ornate Sampeling monastery at the top end of town commands fine views of the surroundings.
Although the small town centre is modernized these days, Dàochéng (Dabpa; 3750m) still packs bags of rural charm and makes a lovely base for exploring magnificent Yàdīng Nature Reserve. After Yàdīng, you can fill another couple of days here, walking or cycling around boulder-strewn wetlands, hills, and barley fields, which are scattered with Tibetan monasteries.
Yàdīng Nature Reserve
The magnificent Yàdīng Nature Reserve centres on three sacred snow-capped mountains, which form a holy trinity around forested valleys, wonderfully clear rivers and glacier-fed lakes. It is, quite simply, one of China’s most stunning pieces of scenery, but it’s also been a highly revered region for local Tibetans for more than 800 years.
Xīnlù Hǎi (Yilhun Lha-Tso)
The fabulous turquoise-blue waters of this holy alpine lake (admission ¥20), 13km southwest of Manigango, are the main reason most travellers stop in this area. The stunning lake is bordered by chörten and dozens of rock carvings, and is then framed by snowcapped mountains. You can walk an hour or two up the left (east) side of the lakeshore for views of the nearby glacier.
Lying 32km from the Tibetan border and 5½ bumpy hours down a dirt track from Lǐtáng, low-lying Bātáng is the closest town to Tibet that is open to foreigners. An easy-going and friendly place with lots of streetside barbecue grills and outdoor seating, the town itself is quite modern but the surrounding suburbs of ochre Tibetan houses are lovely.