Western Sichuan – A Guide to Kangding, Tagong, and Litang

Western Sichuan – A Guide to Kangding, Tagong, and Litang

Western Sichuan Grasslands

Tibetan Western Sichuan – Synopsis in brief

I wrote previously about traveling in Gyalrong, Tibet (also in China’s Western Sichuan province) to climb a 5000m peak.

In this guide, we’ll be more thoroughly exploring the Tibetan plateau in Western Sichuan.

First, though, why am I so dead-set on Tibetan Western Sichuan? Those without background knowledge should be apprised that Tibet is more than just China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Prayer flags and stupas

In fact, historical Tibet comprises almost a quarter of China’s total land area, stretching thousands of miles from the Western TAR to fringe regions of Sichuan and Qinghai that border major metropolitan hubs.

Why Western Sichuan?


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Cuz it’s pretty, I guess

It takes time and money for a visa to traditional Tibet, but any foreign traveler can visit Tibetan areas in these other provinces.

In fact, the culture in these other regions may be more authentic and well-preserved then it is in the old provincial stomping ground of the Dali Lama, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

Kangding

Western Sichuan has it all: jaw-dropping vistas, vertiginous alpine lakes and rolling grassland populated by nomads, all dotted with proprietary stupas, temples, prayer flags, and monks carrying relics of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Thousands of stones painted with Tibetan glyphs on the way to Tagong

Read on to learn how to enjoy this pristine, nigh-forgotten land by privileging both culture and adventure.

This post will be an overview of the region. It includes highlights, lowlights and do’s/don’ts, as well as tips for both solo and group travelers (I was solo for half the trip and with others for half the trip).

It will lay out budgetary concerns and transportation options for the region as a whole and various cities.

Getting to Western Sichuan


As of August, 2019 there are three ways of getting to this remote part of Sichuan province.

Any method will begin in Chengdu and land you in Kangding, a city that serves as a middle ground between China and Tibet with a 50/50 split between Chinese and Tibetans.

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Downtown Kangding

Did you know? There are actually two airports in Western Sichuan – one in Kangding and one in Yading nature reserve farther west. At 4,280 and 4,411 meters respectively, they are among the highest 3 commercial airports in the world (Daocheng Yading takes the number one spot, and Kangding the third!).

Firstly, you have the bus. This is the cheapest option and is now far more attractive thanks to the construction of a new road.

Whereas the old road took between 8 and 31 hours (you read that right), the new Chendgu-Kangding expressway takes 3 to 4 hours.

You can fly to Kangding from Chengdu, but be warned; altitude sickness is real threat at the airport. I flew in, and though no one got sick it’s common knowledge that going from 500 meters to 4000 meters can be dangerous.

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At the airport – my altimeter is 200 – 300 meters off the mark

Though it’s fast and beautiful, pursue this option with the possible risks in mind.

Flying takes one hour with an extra hour of driving downward to Kangding, a city at 2,700 meters.

Thanks to the new road, either option is roughly as quick as the other. Flying is more expensive and will cost about 150 USD for round-trip from Chengdu.

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There are 10’s of 6000M peaks just a few miles from Kangding – here are some on the drive from the airport

The new road costs between 150 -200 RMB (30 -40 USD one way) for a private vehicle, less for a bus. The old road is even cheaper.

I forsook my round trip flight to sleep in and take the new road on the way back. It’s basically a massive tunnel blasted through hundreds of mountains and is a straight shot.

Inter-city travel


First, some time frames:

Chengdu – Kangding: 7 to ? hours on the old road, 3 to 4 on the new.

Kangding to Tagong: 2 1/2 to 4 hours depending on traffic

Tagong to Litang: 5 to 7 hours

I’ve no personal experience with travel to other cities.

Public buses


Twice I scooted out of my hostel far earlier than I’d have liked to buy a bus ticket. Twice I was rebuked when they were sold out.

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The only successful public bus journey I made was the result of booking through a neighboring hostel in Tagong.

Public busing pro-tip – Arrange cheap (100 to 150 Chinese Yuan) public buses through hostels/hotels, or get up earlier than sin to buy them at the station. Alternatively, buy them at the station the day before (this requires an extraneous extra trip, of course).

Private vehicles


Private vehicles are available for hire around bus stops and stations. It will cost between 150 and 200 Chinese yuan to go between major cities such as Tagong and Litang.

There may be other passengers and unexpected stops, and your chauffeur may or may not drive like a maniac.

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Expect little to no English spoken in this region, with hostels that often cater to foreigners as an exception.

Scooter rentals


Yes, you can rent a scooter/motorcycle in all population hubs in Western Sichuan, from Kangding onward.

No, you do not need a Chinese driver’s license (the law may beg to differ – though I don’t advocate for breaking it, just know that shop owners WILL rent you a bike).

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My trusty steed – 100 RMB to rent, 100 RMB for gas, 100KM of riding

They can cost betwen 100 and 150 yuan a day, and are not good for traveling between cities.

I rented a bike in Litang and a full tank of gas took me up and down multiple mountain passes. Empty roads and the freedom to stop where you may leads me to highly recommend pursuing this option.

Where to stay (and eat) in Western Sichuan


There were a number of places I stayed in, specifically in Kangding and Tagong, that were simply delightful.

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Friendly locals everywhere – though the kids may steal your phone for a selfie

Two places in particular I would rate as among some of China’s best hostels. If you’re not into the hostel scene, there are plenty of other options – I’ll recommend places I actually stayed in Western Sichuan.

Kangding


Zhilam hostel – This hostel is run by an American couple and overseen by local staff as well as volunteers. The food is delicious, especially the yak burger and the momos.

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Yak burger

Coffee comes by the french press. There’s also cake, occasional live music, and plenty of board games. I met some great people here and would highly recommend.

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View from near Zhilam Hostel

Zhilam also hosts non-dorm style beds, but be sure to book a few days in advance. It isn’t loud and is family-friendly. There was a whole family of 7 or so with an actual lemonade stand outside, and many couples with small children.

Tagong


Khampa Cafe – Boasting one of the biggest and best varieties of food I’ve had in China, Khampa cafe is not to be missed.

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To be fair, I’ll rave about any venue that doesn’t serve noodles for breakfast

The owner is a foreigner (I can’t remember from where) with a local wife, and they run the show together. Private and dorm rooms are available. Try the tsampa and yak yogurt, but be ready not to like the yak butter tea (I did, but many around me didn’t).

Himalayan Restaurant/hotel – Though not listed on google, the Himalayan restaurant and hotel is exactly what a hostel-weary traveler could want. It’s right next to Tagong temple and Khampa Cafe, and thus hard to miss.

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Himalaya Restaurant and Hotel

I stayed most of my nights here in a modest, 2 bed, 40 RMB per night room and zipped over to Khampa cafe for meals and social time (though this hotel has its own selection of good food).

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From the hill behind the accommodations in question

There are a few more foreign-friendly hostels along the strip by the temple. The best thing to do is figure out whether you want a dorm or private room and simply head to the square adjacent to the temple to choose one. I was there in Western Sichuan’s high-season and nothing was fully booked.

Litang


Tagong is replete with wonderful accommodation options – Litang not so much. It’s strange that what feels like such a cowboy town has the monopoly on good lodging, but such is the way of things.

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Litang Summer International Youth Hostel – A large hostel run by English speaking Chinese, Litang Summer hostel is just OK.

The guests were mostly Chinese (or simply friends of the owners and staff) and didn’t go out of their way to interact with us. Lot’s of smoking in the common room and no kitchen, but the showers are great and the rooms were clean/cheap.

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No, you can’t stay here – traditional architecture in Litang

This was about the best we could find for hostels in Litang – hotels abound on the main strip.

Many of the ‘hostels’ listed online were in reality closed. It appeared they’d been shut down for a while, so do call or inquire via email or WeChat before you assume your abode of choice is a guarantee.

Dining in Litang


The food was uniform across almost every venue in Litang. I even had a hard time finding authentic Tibetan food that wasn’t simply an ingredient shy of being general Chinese.

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All you need to know about Litang cuisine right here.

For some good dumplings, head to the Beijing dumpling shop (北京饺子)on the main road.

Other options


Camping – I camped for a few nights in Tagong, luckily missing the rain and low temperatures. Though I pitched tent at 4300 meters, the weather was tolerable even without a zero-degree bag.

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The great things about this region is that you can camp anywhere. With nomads living along most of the grassland, you’ll never be far from other people should you need a hand.

Nomad ‘homestay’ – Some of the hostels/tour operators can arrange for you to stay overnight with a nomad family, one of Western Sichuan’s biggest draws.

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I found the nomads on my own

A local foreigner (yup I just said that) named Angela is well-known for having the hook ups on this. She both runs a hotel in the area and is married to a local Tibetan man (whose family constitute the nomads you’ll stay with).

Personally, I couldn’t find the guesthouse she runs. Nomadasaurus travel blog has some information on it.

For a combination of the two, consider camping on the grasslands. Wander among nomad tents and you’ll surely be invited in to sup and sample fresh yak products.

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Homemade yak products

It’s only polite to offer some remuneration after you’ve finished. Nomad food was far better than I expected, but be warned; the whole process is rather less hygienic than outsiders would prefer. Hand sanitizer is a good idea here.

What to do in Western Sichuan


There’s enough culture and adventure among these cities to stuff your itinerary to the gills; included are some highlights and off-the-beaten-track destinations that I’d recommend after going myself. Check out The Land of Snows blog for even more fantastically rendered information.

If you really want to enjoy your time in Western Sichuan, do yourself the favor of acclimation days. 3500 to 4000 meters is very high for normal folk. The best way to acclimate is to A: Climb high and rest low (see my suggestion for the Kangding grassland) and B: Spend a few days slowly getting to higher sleeping elevations. Bad acclimation results in fatigue, loss of appetite, insomnia, and other things. It can even kill, so respect the place and take it slow!

Kangding


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Malaya Tibetan restaurant: Located on the 7th floor of a skyscraper above Dico’s chicken is a dining experience not to be missed.

Malaya offers the whole shebang in terms of Tibetan cuisine and backs it up with some serious atmosphere (there’s Tibetan musicians abounding and a genuine human skull for sale). The authenticity here offsets the pricey menu.

Grassland hike: Get acclimated before heading farther into Western Sichuan by making your way to the grasslands above Zhilam hostel. Ask the staff there (even if you’re not staying with them) for a map and directions.

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They’ll even let you bring Lucy the dog who, contrary to the given advice, might get you a little lost (which is just as well – trust me, you’ll see cool stuff regardless).

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Lucy led us to a cow pasture, just not the one we were looking for

Gondola ride: You can also cheat your acclimation and take Kanding’s only gondola to Paoma monastery. While there’s a hike that will get you up the hill, I wandered for hours without finding the trail – either know where you’re going or just take the bloody tram.

Entering the monastery and taking the cable car will both cost you money.

Tagong


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Tagong, or your default windows screensaver?

Tagong (Lhagang) Monastery: One of the oldest monasteries in Western Sichuan and even Tibet, this impossible-to-miss monastery sits adjacent to Tagong’s best series of hostels/hotels. There’s a well-worth it admission fee.

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Inside you’ll see monks bantering, playing music, worshiping, and doing what monks do. You can feel the energy here, unlike many temples I’ve visited in China.

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Unfortunately, most of China’s sacred and ancient buildings have been almost uniformly reconstructed from the 1970’s onward, and Lhagang is no exception. 99% of Tibet’s religious buildings were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. Thankfully, the people’s spirit lives on, and one can find solace knowing a built place can have no significance without its keepers.

Muya Golden tower: In most pictures of Tagong, you’ll see Muya Golden Tower framed by Mt. Zhara Lhatse in the background.

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Like this (the mountain is hidden)

While certainly a sight to behold from afar, the truth is that Muya was rather derelict and ill-kempt from the inside. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, but be aware that Lhagang is far more worthy of its admission fee than Muya.

You’ll encounter temples all over Western Sichuan even if you forgo either of these.

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Inside the temple

(An aside; you don’t need to pay the grassland admission fee to get to the hill where pictures of Muya are often taken. Simply take the little trail opposite the large prayer wheels near the end of the main town, and you’ll be 20 RMB richer).

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The trail starts on the road and leads up to the stupa in view

Hillside hiking: There’re plenty of prayer flag laden hillsides around Tagong that let you get a bird’s eye on the town.

Though steep, the views are incredibly rewarding and make for some great pictures. I went up the one directly across the river behind the town – it’s the closest and most obvious with a large stupa on top.

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You think I was kidding about ‘rewarding’?

The nunnery: Every wonder how Tibetan nuns in Western Sichuan go about their daily business? Of course you have. On the far outskirts of Tagong proper is one of the largest nunneries in Tibet.

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The nunnery from Tagong

The hike takes 3 hours and brings you up close with another, far more authentic Tibetan village bordering the nunnery – spare some time to stroll around it (bring all your supplies, as I couldn’t find a store in the village).

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The grasslands: Tagong’s coup de grace. It’s not a big town, which makes plenty of room for the swirling pseudo-alpine vistas afforded by the rolling hills around town.

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Here you’ll find plenty of nomads, yaks, and the occasional angry dog (usually tied up, but be vigilant).

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I camped high in the hills, past the village and nunnery at about 4300 meters. The experience was mind-blowing, nearly akin to walking an alien planet. The details of this excursion will be recorded in a forthcoming post. Needless to say, get out there and explore!

Litang


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For it’s lack of stunning accommodations and food, Litang still remains a cultural gem. The people are friendly and inviting and monuments and culture well-preserved.

Litang Monastery: A word to describe Litang’s dominant cultural feature would be: wow. It’s simply one of the most impressive temples I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in many.

Wander around the giant Buddha and then circle back to a little door to the left of the entrance. Climb a few floors and if you’re lucky you’ll hear a choir of monks chanting in Tibetan.

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Sky burials: I didn’t attend one thanks to a lack of sleep and their early start, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. If you’re not squeamish about dead bodies, then inquire with the locals about the spot.

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Downtown Litang, because I don’t know where the sky burials are held

Keep your camera pocketed as you observe a ritual of the deceased’s body being offered to the man-sized vultures which haunt the plains.

The Horse Festival: This is an annual event that’s been reinstated by local officials and is not to be missed if you’re around. Some people plan their whole trips to Western Sichuan around this one event.

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The racing grounds

Just imagine a street biker rounding a corner in competition and almost touching pavement, except with Tibetans and horses. This is no exaggeration – just be prepared for massive convoys of military vehicles in the vicinity.

HaiZi Shan National Nature Reserve: I stumbled upon this by mistake, and I’m incredibly happy about it. This reserve is about 45 minutes out from Litang via rented motorbike.

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On the winding road over the pass (which culminates at 4700 meters, so be ready) there were hardly any other vehicles and the views were epic. Alpine architecture dominates and really flares with views of the great glaciated ranges ranges across from the pass.

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The adventurous can scramble up one of the choss-pile mountains like the one above. The view from a few hundred meters above the road is not to be missed and was the highlight of my whole trip.

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The road is rather nondescript, so have a guide or keep a sharp eye for a left up a winding street off road GS318 (the main road to Litang from Kangding, except going the opposite direction from Kangding).

Zha Gar Rock: As a rather out-of-place limestone feature punctuated by caves, stupas, and Buddhist paraphernalia, Zha Gar Rock makes a nice little day trip. There’s a monastery and steppe to explore nearby.

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THE ROCK

One of the greatest features of this little attraction is the view of Litang from the hill above the rock. I did this and Haizi Shan reserve in one day with a scooter, so there’s no reason to miss this place as it’s not out of the way.

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Jump on highway 217 to Yunnan and, passing preparations or remnants from the horse festival, you’ll see it after some switchbacks.

Closing thoughts


There’s tons I didn’t add here – the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, for example, or the treks to Yala and Gongga Shan – because I didn’t get to them.

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Tibetan girls in Litang

There’s also some stuff in this region that I did that I wouldn’t recommend and thus didn’t include it.

Western Sichuan of the world is special, and you’re bound to have one hell of an experience regardless. Feel free to email me or ask any additional questions below.

Western sichuan

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