Tibet in China: An Alternate Way to Experience Tibet
1 Week in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – Tibet in Western Sichuan
Don’t let the overly wordy title scare you. The Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, may sound like a medical injury, but it’s actually an invigorating place. It is an area in western Sichuan that is mainly inhabited by Tibetans. An autonomous prefecture is a territory in China that has a population of 50% or more ethnic minorities. In Garze, there are around 880,000 people and around 78% of them are Tibetan. When my bus rolled into Kangding, the capital of the Garze region, it felt like I had entered another country. This isn’t your typical China. The Tibetan culture is here, which makes it a great alternative to traveling Tibet.
The Problems with going to Tibet
Let’s get something straight. When I say Tibet in China, I’m referring to the areas that aren’t apart of the autonomous region of China.
A quick history lesson: Tibet was taken over by China in the early 1950s. Everything that was Tibet is now under Chinese control. While most of it is referred to as an autonomous region, some of it is considered an autonomous prefecture. That all sounds pretty complicated, so I’m just going to refer to the autonomous region as Tibet and the prefecture as Tibet in China.
Now a quick Geo-politics lesson: The Tibetan government in exile claims that Tibet is an independent state that is being held under unlawful occupation. Many Tibetans in Tibet feel like they are losing their culture. The Chinese government says that Tibet is apart of China, and before they took control of it in 1951 the area had slavery, torture, a 95% illiteracy rate, and a life expectancy of only 36 years.
These are the opinions of the two sides. I am not apart of the argument. If you want to read about it, this article is the best I’ve read on the topic. But I don’t know enough about the issues to get involved, so please don’t send me hate emails. I know pro-Tibet people say not to travel to Chinese occupied Tibet, but I don’t think doing so is taking away from the Tibetan culture. If anything, it’s celebrating it. The Tibetans in western Sichuan are happy to take my money. I doubt that me not taking this trip, and therefore making it harder for them to make a living, is a good way to show support for them. It sounds more like abandoning them.
All that being said, what are the positives of traveling to Tibet in China rather than the autonomous region of Tibet?
Firstly, there’s the matter of altitude sickness. Jumping from sea-level to Lhasa’s 3650 meters might have you feeling hungover without the fun of drinking. This is still a factor when traveling to western Sichuan, but the elevation isn’t as great and it’s taken at a much more gradual pace. Altitude sickness is real and it sucks ballz.
Secondly, and more importantly, every non-Chinese passport holder need a permit to go to Tibet and it takes at least 15 days to get it. In order to get the permit, you need a detailed itinerary including reservations with a Chinese travel agency, and a tour guide and driver for every day there. This ends up costing $1000 or more. It also takes away some of your travel freedom. I do not like tours. I’ve said this a lot. They make me roll my eyes a lot. I don’t like rolling my eyes. As much as I wanted to take the train from Chengdu to Tibet, I will not be going there anytime soon. I’ll settle with the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in China, or the Tibetan areas in Nepal and India.
Kangding, Sichuan, China – 康定
There’s a reason why Kangding is referred to as ‘the gateway to Tibet’ – for the most part, everything west of it is more Tibetan than Chinese. When you step into Kangding you’re transported to a valley of culture and excitement. The largest city in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture unquestionably has a different vibe than the towns east of it. Even though it’s China, it is home to the emotions, passions, and struggles of the Khampa people (a subgroup of Tibet).
Through the center of it all runs the Zheduo river. Its cold fast-moving waters are loud but soothing; full of life but deadly. Tourism in Kangding is growing at a steady pace. The German-made cable car is evidence of that, but it’s still a great place to hangout for a few days. Not only are there unique markets, panoramic views, and a vibe that can only be found at the bottom of a mountainous valley – but you can also use Kangding as a place to adjust to the altitude. At 2500 meters it’s well-above sea level, but it’s modest compared to the climb that’s coming.
Yak Heads and the Cure for Cancer // Kangding, Sichuan, China
How to get there
Kangding can easily be reached by bus from Chengdu. When I say easily I mean if you aren’t traveling on a holiday. In the video above you’ll see what happens if you do travel on China’s most popular week to vacation.
On a normal day, you’re looking at an 8 hour bus ride with a 30 minute lunch stop. The most options leave from Xinnanmen Bus Station. The cost should be about 111 RMB ($16.50).
If you’d prefer to fly, the third highest airport in the world is only about an hour away from Kangding. Most flights stop in Chengdu, so with inexpensive flights from the rest of China to Chengdu, it’s often cheaper to book 2 separate flights. Perhaps you can stay in the city for a couple days before moving on to Kangding. Only China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines, and Lucky Airlines fly to Kangding. From Chengdu you can expect to pay $100-200 one way.
Where to Stay in Kangding
Accommodations are no longer hard to come by in Kangding. A quick search on Agoda might have you thinking I’m a liar and that I should be hanged, but before you ring the hangman you should have a look on eLong, one of the top travel sites in China. Just be sure to check the exact location of anything you see. There are a few properties that are well outside the town center, which wouldn’t be ideal.
Most of the cheaper options are basically apartments that have been turned into guesthouses. Something like this. They don’t offer any frills, but if you’re looking for a cheap place to crash they will do.
If you want a western toilet, you’ll probably have to stay in a proper hotel, which will cost you a bit more but something like this is reasonable enough.
The most popular option for westerners is Zhilam Hostel, which comes highly recommended, has western toilets, and is by far the best option if you are looking for a dorm. They also have private rooms, but only a few so you might want to book ahead. If you want to do some trekking in Kangding, the owner can tell you everything you need to know.
It’s perfectly okay just showing up to Kangding and finding a place to stay. I doubt everything has ever been fully booked, and there are a ton of places that have no internet presence. That being said, if you arrive in the city late (which is often hard to predict), many of the options will require a phone call to a person that doesn’t speak English. Also, without being able to read Chinese you might have trouble figuring out what is a hotel or guesthouse. Many of them are located on the upper floors of large buildings. There’s a lot of spaces in Kangding that require you going through dark dingy hallways and staircases, only to find a perfectly acceptable accommodation on the other end. Of course, there are also hotels that are obviously hotels, and have a 24-hour reception, and rarely fill-up, but you might have to pay a bit more for them.
One last quick note: if you book ahead, make sure you copy down the hotel’s phone number in case you can’t find it or you arrive late. We arrived in Kangding at around 3AM, and without that phone number and a helpful Chinese couple, we wouldn’t have been able to stay at the place we had already paid for. It was just too difficult to find. In fact, in the daylight we still wouldn’t have found it without some help.
Where to Eat in Kangding
There are a bunch of cheap authentic food joints on the north-side of the river. Dumplings and noodle soups are the easiest to come by. Many places have a roughly translated English menu, but even if they don’t you can always point to what someone else is eating. Many of these places only do a couple dishes. You might be asked “la?” with a point to the mouth. This means spicy. “Bu la” means “no spicy”, but “yes” and “no” with a nod or shake of the head should work.
Another, lesser known, option is a restaurant that’s on the 2nd floor across from the Guo Da statue (the archer). Look for a dark alley that has a sign that says “Young Tibetan Restaurant”. After walking up to the second floor in fear, go through the curtain to the beautifully decorated restaurant that overlooks the lively square where where Kangding’s two rivers meet. View a quick video of how to get there and some shots of the food here: fungal parasite that supposedly can cure cancer. They’re for sale in the shops where the share rides are stationed.
A short taxi ride will take you to this hot spring resort where you can get a private room or use the public pool. The prices and cleanliness are reasonable. BYOT (bring your own towel).
This probably doesn’t need mentioning. I hope every place you go to, you at least have a few walks around, but Kangding is a great places to explore. The quaint streets are full of surprises. For example, I detoured down a side alley to find this image to the right.
Not a fan of horror movies? Well there are also some beautiful temples hidden around the street of Kangding and even a mosque and a church.
My map of Kangding
Note: Google Maps isn’t accessible in China unless you have a VPN. This hand-drawn map from Zhilam Hostel is a decent alternative.
Step 2: Head to Tagong
Catch a share minivan for 45 RMB. The drivers will be on you as soon as you get close (location marked on map above). We didn’t have to barter at all, but maybe it’s possible to get it for cheaper..? The ride takes about 3 hours. There are a couple ways they might go, but one involves driving by the 3rd highest airport in the world. The minivans are relatively comfortable and, I think, a fun experience.
Tagong, Sichuan, China – 塔公
Approaching Tagong you’ll be presented with gorgeous rolling hills of grass. The Tagong grasslands are the main reason to come to the village, which is also known as Lhagang. The mountainous charm and friendly culture are reasons to stay. The heart of Tagong is a square that doubles as a parking lot. One side of the square is trimmed with the main road, another is the home to the Tagong Monastery (and its grocery store?), and the other two are lined with shops and guesthouses. It’s an easy place to navigate, and an easy place to find beauty.
How to Say 1000 Mantras in a Second: Tagong, Sichuan, China
Where to Stay in Tagong
There are a decent number of options in Tagong, but not really much variety. All the places I saw were in a traditional Tibetan house with bright colors, steep staircases, heated blankets, and squat toilets. A lot of the properties listed below are on Airbnb, but not any other booking sites.
The most recommended place online seems to be Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse, which you’ll find at one of the corners of the square (look for the sign, follow the path). It’s run by locals who don’t speak much English but are very friendly. The house is really cool and tucked away a bit so it’s relatively quiet (but you’ll still hear dogs barking, cows mooing, and birds cawing). They have dorm, double, and twin rooms. Around $15-20/night for a double room. There are 2 bathrooms (squat only), but only 1 shower. If you’re not traveling on a holiday, you probably don’t need to book ahead, but you can reach the guesthouse at +86 8362866056.
Khampa Cafe is pretty similar to Drolma’s place, but much smaller with only 4 double rooms and 1 triple room. It’s owned by a very friendly Czech guy who speaks perfect English and can offer great advice on hiking. You’ll easily find it right on the main square above a gift shop. Whether you stay there or not, you’ll probably be stopping by their cafe once a day (more on it below). The cost is about $20 for a double room. Squat toilet only. They have 1 shower but also a giant wooden bathtub. They also have hot water in their sink, which Drolma doesn’t have. Depending on the time of year you travel, that could be valuable. You can get in touch with them on their website (I didn’t have any success with email but try calling – +86 18302879858).
Khampa Cafe was once owned by a gal named Angela. She’s since opened a place out of town, in the grasslands, called Khampa Nomad Arts Center and Ecolodge. I didn’t get a chance to visit it, but I’m told the facilities are beautiful. The house is a self-sustaining ecolodge. It only opened in the spring of 2016, so I’m not sure how complete it is yet, but you can contact them on their website Definitely Nomadic if you have any questions. The few people I’ve talked to about it have told me it’s really beautiful.
If you absolutely need a western toilet, there is one hotel in town that I know of. Garze Tagong Grassland Hotel seems nice enough. You won’t get the real Tibetan experience, but at least you don’t have to share a squat toilet with a bunch of stinky backpackers.
I also wanted to mention a place that I can’t remember the name of. We popped in for a cup of tea and talked to the owner for a bit. He’s a Tibetan man who’s married to a Swiss woman. They run a place outside of town as well. I really don’t have any information about the place in Tagong, other than that it’s located in a corner of the square. If you decide not to book ahead, and Drolma & Gayla’s Guesthouse and Khampa Cafe are booked up, this would probably be the place to go.
Where to Eat in Tagong
Your options in Tagong are basically limited to Tibetan food (thick dumplings and yak meat dishes), Sichuan food (chili and oil soaked dishes), bowls of noodles, and Kampa cafe’s small western menu. Not to say that any of these aren’t delicious.
Our favorite Tibetan food came from a small place across the road from the square, just down the street a tiny bit. Since I can’t read the signs, I can’t tell you the name of it (not that you’d be able to read the sign to find it anyways). But a picture is worth a thousand words (or as the Chinese say, hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once).
In the mornings, it’s easy to find a hot bowl of noodles. Just walk the main street heading away from the monastery. The place we liked the most was on the same side as the square just 50 meters away. It’ll probably be fairly busy with locals.
The Khampa Cafe has the best, and maybe the only, real cup of coffee in the town. They also do a mean hot chocolate. Legend has it that some Israelis once traveled all the way there from Israel just for a cup of it. You can also get a cup of tea including mint or ginger.
I can vouch for the yak burger and fries, the sandwich, the tomato soup, the crepes, and the English breakfast. The menu isn’t huge, but it offers a nice break from the local dishes.
The cafe is also the best place to relax with a beer or glass of wine. Their patio overlooks the square, the inside is nice a cozy when it gets cold, and there’s always someone to chat to. Max, the owner is very friendly and will sit and talk if he isn’t out looking for the dog, who has Houdini-like escaping skills.
What to do in Tagong
- The best answer I can give you is: pick a direction and walk. Since there aren’t many trees and the hills are somewhat rolling, there aren’t really hiking trails around Tagong. You can kind of walk anywhere once you’re out of town. I’ve tried to mark a few areas on the map below, but it’s probably easier to describe where to go in words.
- If you are coming from the square, go right on the main road and walk for 5-10 minutes. On the left, there’s a corner with a motorbike garage on it. Turn left there and follow that path up to the top of the hill. The grasslands that appear before you are fair game. If you go far enough (a few hours), you’ll eventually find a small town with Gyargo Ani Gompa, a nunnery.
- Back in the main square, turn right on the main road, take your first right (not counting small alleys). You’ll hit the river. Cross the bridge and follow that road out into the country. Eventually you’ll hit a town. You can keep going to even more remote areas and maybe even find some Tibetan nomads (look for the black yak wool tents).
Both of these walks will undoubtedly lead you to yaks.
Yaks seem to be everywhere in Tagong. They’re fairly timid and won’t likely hurt you, but don’t be that idiot who tries to ride one, or make out with one, or whatever idiots do. Remember, they could really mess you up if you pissed them off. Yaks are a hugely important animal for the Tibetan people. Thousands of years ago, they domesticated them. Now, they use their wool to make clothes and even homes (tents). They eat their meat, the drink their milk, and they use their dung as a fuel to keep warm and cook.
When hiking in Tagong, be careful not to overdo it. Bring water and drink plenty of it. The altitude in this area is around 3700 meters, so you’ll get dehydrated easier. You can buy oxygen at some of the stores around town, but it will only help temporarily. The best remedy to altitude sickness is water and rest. We met a guy who looked like he was about to welcome death. This was after a long hike into the hills and only drinking the water from the streams. Apparently the water is pretty clean, but he said he found a large turd in it upstream.
- Tagong Monastery
While the monastery itself isn’t really worth the 10 RMB admission, the surrounding area is free and a must-see in Tagong. Just head out of the square on the left side of the monastery. Follow it around and you’ll eventually come to a large line of prayer wheels. Every morning a flock of Tibetan Buddhists will come here to spin the wheels. Each wheel has a bunch of mantras written on them. Every spin is the equivalent of saying the mantras. It’s a shortcut to being a good person, I guess. You can spin the 100 or so wheels yourself, walking around the entire monastery, or just watch others and get some great photos. The wheels have a small bell that dings when they make a complete rotation. The sound along with the motions of the wheel and the Tibetan people in their traditional clothing, make up an unforgettable experience.
- There are a bunch of other adventures you can go on in Tagong. Short horse rides (about 150 RMB per hour) can be arranged at the large temple (which apparently is bleh inside, but looks nice from the outside especially with the snowy mountain in the background). For longer horse rides or organized treks, I’d head to Khampa Cafe and talk to Max. He won’t rip you off and can arrange something, or at least point you in the right direction.
My Map of Tagong
Step 3: Head to Danba
To go to Danba you’ll need to take a shared minivan. The drivers sit on the road right along the main square. They’ll likely find you before you find them.
I found negotiating in Tagong a bit difficult. The first price they quoted was an extortionate 200 RMB. We ended up getting it down to 70 RMB each, but we wanted to grab breakfast while they waited for other people to fill the car and the guy ended up finding a large group and leaving without us. In the end, we paid 80 each and had a very carpet-filled ride. The driver might stop in Bameizhen and pawn you off on another guy. No need to worry, you’ll just have to change cars.
Danba, Sichuan, China – 丹巴县
Danba’s claim to fame is that it was voted the best area in China for beautiful women. I didn’t actually find the women there more beautiful, but maybe that’s because I was checking out the incredible natural beauty that’s in Danba’s small villages and tree-filled hills. Either way, your eyes will thank you for going to Danba. While it’s slightly less Tibetan in population, the small villages outside of the town are filled with Tibetan-style architecture that goes back many generations. The branch of Tibetan here is called Jiarong. Their culture and customs make this area of Tibet-in-China a unique one.
The colors that adorn the trees in autumn (Sept, Oct, Nov) make it the best time to hangout in the Danba region. In December, January, and February the temperature drops to just above freezing, so I’d probably avoid those months.
Danba was built in a valley along the Dadu river. In Tibetan it’s known as Rongdrag. It’s a pretty cool town, with the hills and river forcing it to have some character in its structure, but the real reason you’re in Danba is for the villages outside of the town. Chinese National Geographic declared them the most beautiful ethnic villages in the country.
Staying in a 670 Year Old House in a Small Tibetan Village
Where to Stay in Danba Region
The first step in finding an accommodation is to decide where in the Danba valley you want to stay. Danba town offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and other amenities. The three villages outside of town are more beautiful but you might have to eat the majority of your meals at one place.
Danba – 丹巴
You’ll find decent souvenir shops and restaurants on the road over from the one that runs along the river. In fact, the small bus station is also there — when you arrive you might want to think about buying bus tickets to Chengdu. They sometimes sell out a day or two in advance. Show the person at the ticket counter the numerical date that you want to travel — they won’t speak English.
Along the river by the cable bridge is a nice hotel with some western perks. Jiaju Fengqing Hotel is a couple kilometers from the downtown, but with western toilets and 24 hour hot showers, the 30 minute walk might be worth it. Around $25/night.
Dengba Hostel is cheap and the owner is apparently the go-to person when a driver needs a quick English translation. It’s location is convenient, and it’s a popular spot for backpackers.
Jiaju – 甲居
Located about 8 kilometers from the town, Jiaju has been called the most beautiful village in China. While charm is certainly present, some of it is being overshadowed by the tourism industry. The entrance fee (50 RMB, about $8.50) is immediate evidence of that. Nonetheless, you’ll be wow-ed by the many colorful Tibetan houses sitting in their fairytale-like setting.
There are plenty of homestays in Jiaju and you should be able to find something if you get dropped off in the town and look for signs. Just make sure the driver doesn’t just drop you off at the bottom of the hill. Point to signs and get him to go a specific place if you have to. If you want to book ahead, it’s a bit tough. This option is one of the few I’ve found online. It’s probably pretty typical of the homestays in Jiaju.
Get there: First try the bus station in Danba. It should only be about $1. Otherwise, you can take a taxi or a share van for 50-60 RMB.
Suopo – 梭坡乡
With about 175 of them, this is the land of the watchtowers. These 30-60 meter high stone structures were once used for defense. At times of war, the villagers would hide in them, shooting out arrows from the tower’s windows. Other times, they would be used for storage or to transmit messages using smoke and fire. There’s a strange story about how they were built to ward of evil spirits, but I think that’s just specious reasoning.
Accommodation options in Suopo are more limited, but you should be able to find something when you arrive. The town has an entrance fee of 30 RMB, but I’ve heard that it’s not always enforced.
Get there: It’s only about 3 kilometers, but you’ll have to take a taxi for about 30 RMB, or negotiate a share van.
Zhonglu – 中路乡
This quieter option doesn’t have an entrance fee. It’s less visited by tourists and has a nice sample of both towers and Tibetan-style architecture. We spent hours walking around and exploring. There really isn’t much to visit, but the overall atmosphere is almost perfect.
Zhonglu’s road is steep and a bit rough. As you reach the village, you’ll see signs for guesthouses. I’d guess there are about 12 options scattered around town.
You can book this place on Airbnb. We stayed here and absolutely loved it. The main house is over 670 years old and the owner has a small collection of artifacts from the area that he’d be happy to show you. They also feed you breakfast and dinner (included in the price). Dinner was an absolute feast.
If you don’t want to book ahead, you’ll probably be okay just showing up. If not, the place next door also rents out rooms.
Get there: You should be able to get a van or taxi from Danba for around 70 RMB.
For more options, you can have a look around these maps (might have to zoom out a bit, pan around, etc).
Danba – Zhonglu – Jiaju – Suopo
They’re in Chinese, but the little bed icons represent hotels. Click them, look at the photos, if it looks decent you can copy down the Chinese name and get your driver to drop you there.
Where to Eat in Danba
In Danba town there are a bunch of restaurants around the bus station and further into town on Jiarong Street (嘉绒). Most of the food is Sichuanese, but there are some local Jiarong-Tibetan specialties worth seeking out.
Qionglai Mingchi (邛崃名吃)
You can try their Matsutake stewed chicken (松茸炖鸡块) – a chicken and mountain mushroom mix that’s suppose to help you live longer.
Chouge Restaurant (丑哥大排档)
Pickled pork is the specialty here. Try it stir-fried with some salted vegetables (酸菜炒腊肉).
Looking for a good Sichuanese restaurant?
Youziyouwei (有滋有味) is located on 团结街 and serves up spicy concoctions including a Sichuan shrimp dish.
For a quick bowl of noodles, go to the T intersection where the bus station road ends.
If you’re staying in a village, you’ll have less options for food. Often, the owner of the guesthouse will cook up a feast of local delights.
What to do in Danba
Visiting the 3 villages is the main attraction in Danba. You can arrange a driver for the day almost anywhere. In fact, you’ll probably be approached by someone before you even have a chance to check-in to your hotel. Most the the drivers hang around the bus station and just down the street where the road turns off to the bridge. Be careful when selecting a driver, besides the usual rip-off attempts, alcoholism is also somewhat of a problem in this area, and there’s been reports of drivers secretly getting drunk while you visit villages.
It’s possible to just take individual trips out to the villages, but hiring a driver for the day will save you money if you are going to see all three in a day. I’ve heard it’s possible to do it for only 100 RMB, but I highly doubt it. I could barely get to one town for that. Anyways, negotiate hard and don’t be afraid to walk away.
Mosika is a small village and nature reserve only 20 km from Danba. You’ll have to hire a driver for the day to get there and back. The village is surrounded by green hills and is known for it’s large groundhogs that aren’t shy if you have food.
more on Mosika
Step 4: Back to Chengdu
Buying a bus ticket to Chengdu as soon as you arrive in Danba is probably a good idea. I believe there are 3 buses per day that make the trip. The cost is around 100 RMB each. The bus takes around 10 hours, but delays are common.
A comfier and probably quicker option is to arrange a share-van. We paid 180 RMB ($26) each – perhaps a bit too much, but really not that bad considering it’s almost 350 kilometers. We were packed into an SUV-like ride that sped a little too quickly along the decent roads. For some reason, we were asked to switch vehicles part way through the trip, even though the car we were originally in followed us with the other passengers all the way to Chengdu (I think our young driver recruited some of his friends for a night out on the town).
The ride back is scenic and involves a few tunnels including the almost 9 kilometer long Zhegushan Tunnel. I’ll admit, the first 5 minutes of being inside of a mountain were kind of cool, but not long after that I wanted out. At any rate, it shaves off a good chunk of time.
We arrived back in Chengdu after about 8 hours. The rent-a-drivers don’t really have a set location to drop you off, so if you want to be let out somewhere specific you’ll have to let them know. Of course, that’s difficult when you can’t speak the same language, but this 地铁 means subway (dìtiě), which is better than being let out in the middle of nowhere.
Please, if you’ve made this trip or if you found this guide useful, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear how it went.