Northern Garzi Prefecture
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 (德格; 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 (甘孜; 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.
There’s not much going on in Mǎnígāngē (马尼干戈; 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 Tibetan village of Tǎgōng (塔公; 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.
The little valley town of Xiāngchéng (乡城; 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.
Dàochéng (稻城; Dabpa; 3750m) packs bags of rural charm despite the fact that its small town centre has been modernised. It makes a lovely base for exploring the 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.
Situated about 32km from the Sìchuān–Tibet border, Bātáng (巴塘; known as Bathang in Tibetan; elevation 2589m) is a quaint town that many travellers stop through on their way overland into Tibet. The Sìchuān–Tibet border remains closed to foreign travellers, so few people find themselves in remote Bātáng.