The top toursist sites in Tibetan Sichuan - also see related article Sichuan Tibetan Culture
The western half of Sichuan lies on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. High in altitude, often extremely scenic with craggy mountain ranges, meandering rivers, rolling yak grazed grasslands, the architecture and people found in this landscape give a fascinating "time has stopped" glimpse into Tibetan culture. The major Sichuan Tibetan tourist sites are shown on the map - they are marked up in green. Wolong represents the eastern edge of Sichuan Tibet, here the people are Tibetan in origin and the drive that takes you westwards over Balang Mountain will quickly bring you to towns and villages typical of the Tibetan Danba area. From Chengdu, using newly built motorway connections it will take around a four-hour drive to reach Kangding, so a trip involving an overnight stay would give plenty of time to explore many of the sites. The other sites involve longer journeys and more nights of accommodation but the further west you go the increasingly remote, beautiful and exciting the trip.
Kanding and Tagong
When travelling to Kangding it becomes quickly apparent by local dress and appearance, you have passed a cultural border and entered a Tibetan area. Just to the west of the town lies Zhedou Mountain where the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau start, which made Kangding a key trading site on the ancient Tree-horse Trail. Driving from Chengdu you travel the through tea growing areas of the Sichuan Basin, which was processed and compressed into solid bricks of tea. To get the product over through the last stage of the journey, which involved climbing high mountain passes not suited to wagon transport, the bricks were packed onto the backs of porters who carried huge loads on a route which is still used by today’s motor traffic. Ya’an, Tianquan, and Luding, all important junctions on the expressway to Kangding, were formerly important staging posts for this human haulage. Although the tea trade has long since lost it significance, Kangding is still an important trading town and Tibetan faces and costume are part of the scene as grassland inhabitants come down from the plateau to shop in bustling streets and markets.
On the road over Zhedou Mountain you not only enter a grassland habitat that typifies Tibetan Sichuan, but also get the chance to look back east and view Mount Gonga, the mightiest peak of the Hengduan range that divides the Sichuan basin from the Tibetan Plateau. At 7,556 m (24,790 ft) it ranks as the third highest peak outside the Himalayas. Over Zhedou pass you meet Tibetan villages and towns with their rugged stone buildings designed to withstand the harsh rigours of a plateau winter. With travel now made so easy by new roads and expressway this part of world has seen a tourist boom, and once sleepy villages like Xinduqiao are now big hotel centres that cater for a market fuelled by weekend trippers from Chengdu. Driving past this rather unattractive blot and you’ll once again get to a genuine version of the grasslands and Tagong, with its important temple and views of holy Yala Mountain, makes for a far more interesting stop.
Danba and Maerkang
Drive west from Wolong, over Balang Mountain and you enter a Tibetan area typified by an arid mountain landscape, where villages of tightly packed stone-built buildings cling to the steep slopes and the Tibetan farms found in the fertile river valleys now contain apple orchards and crops as well as livestock. Danba is around four hours drive from Wolong but the whole area on the western side of Balang Mountain and north to Maerkang shares this type of landscape. In this area we can also find another ethnic group that differ in language and culture from the Tibetans – the Qiang People. Their villages are notable for ancient watchtowers, sometimes dating back over a thousand years, whose original purpose has been lost in the mist of time. Some villages can contain several towers and when still erect can reach up to 60 m high. But, today, most are in ruins. Some, placed at vantage points, may have been used to watch for intruders, other in villages were certainly used for storage but also must have been easily protected areas of retreat in times of trouble or even erected as a family status symbol. Today many of towers are being restored with the purpose of attracting visitors.
Songpan is best known for its horse trekking opportunities although reading reviews you find there are very mixed views about the experience. What can’t be denied is that the scenery in this area is stunning. Songpan is a bustling market town that lies just below the Tibetan Plateau and historically has been an important trading post and governmental centre for the area. There are still genuine old town gates and bridges, but most of the town wall is a modern rebuild. The surrounding country is a mix of valley bottom, arable agricultural, hillside pasture and alpine forest that rises, sometimes to spectacular mountain peaks, to form the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Any form of journey into this area will offer incredible views, but using a horse and guide enables you to really get off the beaten track and away from the tourist throng. However, before taking on a trek it’s best to consider a few factors that may affect your enjoyment. Riding a horse for two or three days can be a painful, muscle straining experience and there will also be a lot of walking, since horses rapidly tire when going uphill. The tent accommodation can be basic, and food is simple noodles cooked over a campfire type fare. Sensible preparations could include decent walking footwear, stocking up with chocolate bars and other energy giving snacks and ensuring you have the right clothes for surviving cold nights and a spell of inclement weather. The quality of the experience will also depend on the quality of your guide and, if you’re in a group, how you fit in with the others. Much of the criticism found on the web stems from trekkers being unsatisfied with the guide service – but if you’re forewarned and prepared, as long as the weather holds, and you’re physically up to task of a multi-day horse ride, then the experience is certainly worth it.
Not a Tibetan site in the same sense as the others included on this page – Jiuzhaigou is located in a Tibetan area just to the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau. While not teeming with Yak herders or traditionally clad women, like Wolong it’s one of those transitional area where the influences of Chinese and Tibetan culture meet. However, inside the park the Tibetan theme is very apparent and genuine Tibetan culture does belong to this area.
Jiuzhai Valley is one of the major Chinese tourist sites – in 2016 it attracted five million visitors! However, even with this mass tourism, this large park still offers plenty of secluded areas to escape the noisy hustle and bustle that often goes with Chinese style tourism. The reason for this mass exodus towards Jiuzhaigou are the wonderful lakes that reflect forest and mountain in their cobalt blue waters, picturesque waterfalls and rapids, where calcium rich outcrops allow trees and other vegetation to seemingly grow inside fast flowing water courses and a backdrop of snow covered peaks and forested mountain sides. There are 90 kilometres of easy to follow boardwalk trail inside the park, with no steep climbs or long flights of stairs. Since no rough tracks are involved ordinary walking shoes will be good enough footwear. Since no overnight stays are allowed, part of the entrance package are tickets for the park busses which ferry you from site to site. These buses are often packed and turning up early (07:00 during peak season) is the best way of keeping in front of the que. Many of the Chinese tourists come in groups and seem most content with stopping at the major sites, taking a few snaps and then moving on with another bus. Walking on the trail of boardwalk paths is best way to beat the crowd and those around the less famous lakes especially up the right-hand Long Lake fork of the junction at Nourilang Bus Terminal, are very quiet. However, it’s the left-hand road where the most famous lakes are found – arrow, panda, multi-coloured, pearl shoals and mirror – expect a lot more noise, attention and crowded boardwalks here. It’s also worth noting that pleasant, quiet boardwalks are also found on the road from the park gate to Nourilang and include some incredible lake and river scenery – the lakes approaching Nourilang and Nourilang Waterfalls are among the parks most spectacular.
When planning a trip to Jiuzhaigou it’s also important not getting too carried away with all the advertising hype. The scenery will certainly live up to and even exceed all expectations but other aspects of Jiuzhaigou can work towards the irritating. What you find outside the park gate rather contrasts to the wonders inside. The hotel city, that stretches for kilometres on the traffic-ridden main road outside the park, is a soulless tourist ghetto of accommodation complexes, parking lots, tacky souvenir shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, there’s no accommodation inside, and this is where you have to stay amid the noise and bustle of thousands of package groups and hundreds of tour busses. Other crowd annoyances, apart from the parks most famous attractions being packed at peak season, can include the cultural challenge of competing with the masses when getting onto a park bus. Queuing is sometimes less than orderly and patient if places are few and wannabe passengers many. And if you get into the park late, with all the area you have to cover, the 17:00 closing time can feel very early. Especially if park staff are already starting to usher you towards the park gates by 16:00. Finding food can also be an irritation. Plenty of places selling drinks together with snacks, like Chinese style instant noodles, but getting a real meal involves going to the shopping/eating complex at Nourilang Bus Terminal. Planning ahead and taking some form of packed lunch gives you far more flexibility. And if you are walking and then decide you want to take a bus, remember they will only pick up at authorised stops and that on some stretches there can be quite a distance between the bus stops.
To do it real justice Jiuizhagou needs at least one whole day – and if you are into walking then 2 or three days can easily be used here. Irritations aside this is an incredible place to visit.
When researching Jiuzhaigou on the web you may read that during 2017 the park suffered a major earthquake. This caused a long term closure as road and hotels were repaired but as from autumn 2019, with a break during Covid, it's again fully open.
Many tourist agencies offer Huanglong in the same package as Jiuzhaigou, with the two sites being 130 km and 3 hour’s drive apart. Huanglong is also set in an area of sublime mountain scenery, with alpine forest, highland pastures and craggy mountain peaks. However, the park’s main attraction is a series of travertine pools formed by rich calcium deposits, They are best viewed when during the wet season that starts from around May and usually peaks in July. There are again boardwalks for hiking but also a cable car to transport you to the main attractions. This is another site that can be busy during peak season with many tour buses bringing groups in from Jiuzhaigou. However, like Jiuzhaigou, walking the trails will bring you to quieter, secluded spots. It’s important to note, that being over three thousand metres in altitude and with some steep sections to the paths, this park is a much tougher walk than Jiuzhaigou, You can avoid a lot of the walking by taking the cable car but some visitors are still liable to suffer the common effects of altitude at Huanglong – breathlessness, headaches and nausea.
Ruoergai Tibetan Grasslands
With an elevation of over 3000 m in altitude, Ruoergai is a large area of grassland on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. A day’s drive from Chengdu and very accessible via trips from both Jiuzhaigou and Songpan it’s an area that is getting increasingly popular with tourists. Many tourist agencies offer trips but this has led to ugly tourist ghettos of fake, rubbish strewn Tibetan tent villages where package groups are offered rides – being pulled around by the halter, like kids taking a donkey ride on the beach – on teams sad looking horses, or a cup of Tibetan yak butter tea. If you want the real Ruoergai we suggest avoiding this type of visit.
The real Ruoergai is a bleak, bare landscape – miles of rolling grassland, bordered by high mountain, inhabited by herds of yak and flocks of strange curly horned sheep. Here you’ll see local Tibetans in their traditional costume – the men in long-armed jackets and the women sporting long dresses, ethnic head wear and jewellery. In the summer, many herders migrate to the pastures and set up real tent villages – but be very careful in getting close to these since they are nearly always guarded by fierce Tibetan Mastiffs who can be less than friendly to intruders
For wildlife enthusiasts this is very good site with a top highlight being the rare Black-necked Crane, which breeds and can usually be found around Flower Lake (Huahu Scenic Area). In many areas, visitors may notice small hamster like creatures, which form large colonies of burrows and may be seen trying to cross the road. These are Pikas, a relative of rabbits, and the staple diet for most of the carnivore species – foxes, badgers, cats, polecats, falcons, buzzards, eagles, owls – that live in this habitat. For those less interested in the local wildlife, the site of an occasional early-morning Wolf crossing the road may still be an exciting experience.
There are two main places to stay in the area – Ruoergai town or Langmusi. With the areas newfound tourist popularity there are many hotel options at Ruoergai. With an altitude of 3,300 m some visitors, especially those who haven’t taken time to properly acclimatize to altitude (a day or two sleeping at an altitude approaching 2,000 m) may find themselves with headache and nausea symptoms. These symptoms usually disappear, and the vast majority of our clients have no problems after one or two nights. Langmusi is to the north, just over the Gansu border. Here there are a couple of important monasteries, that have long been popular tourist destinations, and the local town also contains several hotels.
Dege and Further West
The further west from Kangding and the more your travel takes you off the beaten tourist trail. This route is known as the Northern Sichuan-Tibet Highway – Chengdu to Lhasa – and Dege (sometimes called Derge) is close to the Sichuan border where the Tibetan Autonomous Region starts. Before you reach Dege the road winds up the Cho La pass, which, at over 4,900 m, used to be the highest point of the journey. However, a newly built vehicle tunnel – at 4,378 m, one of the world’s highest - now means a quicker, safer but, unfortunately, slightly less scenic journey.
Being so remote the area has been able to avoid Han influence and preserve more of a genuine Tibetan feel with traditionally built farmsteads, plentiful monasteries and most of the people still wearing traditional costume. Sights to see on the journey include the wonderful Xinlu Lake – or in Tibetan Yihun Lhatso – a glacial lake just 10km south from the junction town of Manigango. Regarded as a holy lake there are many mantras carved into rocks and boulders, and the surrounding mountains make this an exceptionally scenic site. Dusty, dirty with the feel of a frontier town, Manigango is not a pretty place, but is a fascinating site for people watching – local herders and farmers who trade in the stores and whole variety of other plateau travellers. At Manigango you can chose to keep travelling the Lhasa route or take the road NW towards Serxu and over the Qinghai border towards Yushu.
Dege town has a long history of political and religious importance for the region. It has a large printing workshop where religious scriptures are hand printed using an archaic system of carved wooden printing blocks, inkpots and brushes and muscle power. Apparently, the collection of 217,000 printing blocks contained in this building represent around seventy percent of Tibetan literature.
The drive heading west from Kangding can follow an alternative historic route towards Lhasa, known as the Southern Sichuan-Tibet Highway. This road, now called the G318, goes through the town of Litang. Historically important as a religious and political centre the area has produced two Dalai Lamas and boasts an important monastery - Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling. However, today the town is best known for its annual horse festival – an incredibly colourful meeting of tradition, athletic skill, ethnic pride, sporting excitement and religious fervour. Grasslanders congregate both to participate in religious ceremony and watch (and often place wagers on) racing events that call for the riders not only to race but also display horseback skills such as shooting bows and picking up ribbons from the ground. Long haired riders, often looking like members of a heavy metal band, on wild looking, prancing, ribbon decorated Tibetan Ponies mixed into a canvas of religious banners, red-robbed monks, Tibetan woman in their finest, Khampha men proudly dressed in traditional regalia – a magnificent visual event. The excitement and competitiveness generated by the events sometimes leads to scuffles and argument over results, and the gatherings have also been the scene for political rallies – troubles during 2006 and 2007 led to a long official ban but in recent years officially sanctioned races have again started. Today’s event maybe a little more institutionalized and scripted than the more traditional version of just 15 years ago – but at their heart, the colour, excitement and ethnic pride of riders and spectators, still represent the true grassland spirit of the Kham.
The races are held during the first week of August and other, unofficially organised, races maybe be found at nearby grassland locations.
At 4,000 m in altitude, 350 m higher than Lhasa, Litang ranks as one of the highest towns in the world and it’s important that a road journey from Chengdu allow for a sensible acclimatization process. A couple of day’s stay at lower sites such as Luding (1,600 m) and Kangding (2,600 m) are a good solution. Once you driven west from Kangding,, over Zhedou Mountain, you will be on the plateau and remain at altitudes over the 3,000 m mark and, for most people, already past the comfortable acclimatization point.
Yading is a nature reserve and tourist park set in an area of outstanding alpine scenery – forest, snow topped mountains with peaks reaching the 6,000 m mark, flower pastures, glacial lakes – where all can be explored through a network of walking trails. Daocheng, 80 km away, is the nearest town, containing hotels and other tourist services, and is the usual port of entry for those making a trip to the area. There is also accommodation at Yading village, from where a park bus transports you to the trail heads. The park is at elevations around 4,000 m, which means that visitors, especially those considering hiking, should be aware of potential altitude problems. Appropriate acclimatization is recommended. Forty km outside Daocheng is Daocheng Airport, which gives the quickest access from Chengdu. However, flying into Daocheng, which is 3,750 m in altitude, gives no chance for acclimatization and for some visitors can lead to initial discomforts – usually in the form of headache and nausea.