Exploring Tibet

The Breathtaking Land of Monasteries

Exploring Tibet

  • China
  • 23 Days
  • Kunming | Lijiang | Gyalthang | Shating | Litang | Batang | Markham | Chamdo | Derge | Ganze | Dzogchen | Amdo | Kokonor | Xining
  • The grand complex of Angkor Wat
  • Khmer styled architecture in Bangkok
  • The lively city of Yangon
  • Private boat tour at Inle Lake
  • Hotair balloon ride over Bagan
  • 150 years old U Bein teak bridge at Mandalay
  • China’s highest peak, Minya Konka at 24,783 feet
  • Shangri-La
  • Derge Gongchen Monastery
  • Kokonor Lake


The image of Tibet is gloriously barren and intriguing. Visit to unravel the enigma in the country’s little-visited, mysterious eastern provinces of Kham, home of the legendary Khampa warriors, the Dalai Lama’s escorts in his valiant escape to India in 1959. After flying to Yunnan Province’s metropolis of Kunming, fly up to Lijiang and Gyalthang to spend a couple of easy days acclimating to the higher elevations. Then drive on a spectacular roller-coaster road up to Kham’s alpine pasturelands, passing just west of China’s highest peak, Minya Konka (or Gongga Shan; 24,783 feet). Wend our way through deep gorges and over high ridges to access some of the most remote valleys in the world.

En route, visit the historic monasteries of Chamdo, on the uppermost reaches of the Mekong River, and Derge, the cultural heart of Kham and the most influential of its five old kingdoms (the most authoritative texts of the Tibetan Buddhist canon was produced in Derge’s famous printing presses). Crossing the Tro La (pass), reach the market town of Ganze, famous as well for its thriving monastery, before heading north Amdo and up to Xining.



Kunming : Arrive at the ‘City of Eternal Spring and check in at the hotel. Later, walk down cobbled alleyways that evoke the old China. We may find practitioners of T’ai Chi in the flower gardens and tree-lined causeways around Green Lake, or perhaps come upon a gatherings of old men playing chess, smoking pipes and talking. Time permitting, we can tour Yuantong Park’s pleasant zoo, or visit the 700-year old Bamboo Temple festooned with statues of Buddhist notables.


(Day: 2 & 3) Kunming- Li Jiang : Fly to Li Jiang and check in. We have these one and a half days to explore Lijiang. Narrow cobblestone streets and canals of clear snowmelt lined with weeping willows and breeched by decorative arched bridges meander through the old town. With its maze of narrow alleys, Lijiang is an idyllic place for strolling. We attend a performance of Naxi music. Several groups of old men (most in their seventies and eighties!) have kept this musical genre alive and perform regularly in town.


Li Jiang – Gyalthang : Today we set off on our drive to Gyalthang or Shangri-La to most travellers. The drive will take approximately 4 ½ to 5 hours. Our route heads north out of Lijiang, past the multiple peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Range (Yulongxueshan) in the direction of the stupendous Tiger Leaping Gorge, where 34 rapids of the Jinsha (Yangtze) River rage beneath the 18,355 foot head of the Jade Dragon. Fifteen minutes out of town sits an airstrip from the World War II days of “flying the Hump”. After crossing the Yangtze River at Xiaotou (gateway to Tiger Leaping Gorge), we pass into the land of the Yi tribe. Horses roam freely, boys herd goats, and wildflowers grace the roadside as it switchbacks up and down. The scenery in these parts is magnificent: our road carries us into a topographical maze of verdant ridges, lavishly textured fields of rice, beans and corn, lined with drying haystacks in artful array, and massive gorges punctured by waterfalls and sienna rivers colored by the rich red earth of the surrounding hillsides.


Gyalthang : Today we explore the Shangri-La and the beautiful countryside of southeastern Kham. We start at the old town, which has since ancient times been a caravan stop and staging point on the lucrative trade route between China and Tibet. We also visit the Ganden Sumsanling Monastery. This monastery was built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. In the afternoon we drive to the valleys northeast of town to visit the small but important Hampi Gompa, an ancient Karma Kargyu temple. After visiting the temple we continue our drive to the sacred hill and temple of the Five Wisdom Buddhas at Ringha. Here pilgrims come to pray in hopes of curing illnesses or to find solutions to their problems. A short excursion into the countryside, to the scenic Shudu Lake, is next.


Gyalthang – Shating : Today we begin our overland journey to the heart of Kham, using 4-wheel drive. Expect wild mountain landscapes, deep river gorges and meeting wonderful Tibetan people. Heading out of Gyalthang, we pass the confluence of the Yangtze and Dingchu rivers at Wakha. We then drive along the spectacular upper gorge of the Yangtze, past the town of Derong with its traditional Tibetan architecture, and south of the notorious and inhospitable “badlands”. After about seven hours of driving (including numerous stops en route) we arrive at Shating, where we stop for the night.


Shating – Litang : This morning we depart Shating and drive northeast through deep gorges and ancient rock-strewn riverbeds on the fringe of the high Tibetan plateau. Gaining elevation, the terrain changes, eventually opening up to vast grasslands and pastures carpeted with wildflowers. We stop to visit with a nomad family en route, eventually reaching Dakar Ne, a temple on the edge of the great grasslands of Litang. By mid-afternoon we reach Litang and check into our hotel.


(Day: 8 & 9) Litang : The town of Litang, one of the highest settlements in China, is located in the high Puborgang range near the source of the Li-chu River (a tributary of the Yalong river). This is the heart of the high nomadic grasslands and the town is always strikingly colorful with nomads who’ve come to shop and repair equipment. In 1580 the Third Dalai Lama established the Litang Chode or the Ganden Tubchen Chorkholing Monastery here. Although the Mongol, Gushi Khan, fiercely suppressed the Gelugpa order in 1640, much of the monastery remains intact. We visit this largest of the monasteries in the area.


Litang – Batang : We depart Litang early, westward along the Sichuan-Lhasa highway, skirting the vast grasslands of Banya, before ascending the 15,335 foot Haizishan La (pass). From here it’s a long, winding descent to the low-lying town of Batang (9,040 feet). After settling into our hotel, we have time to explore Batang. In the center of town is the Batang Chode monastery, built in 1659 by the 5th Dalai Lama. It once boasted 1800 monks and seven reincarnate Lamas. Today there are about 320 monks in residence, as well as two incarnate Lamas.


Batang – Markham : Departing the one-street town of Batang, we continue our drive westward. A few miles outside of town we cross the Druparong Zampa, a bridge over the Yangtze River and the official border between Sichuan province and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). From here, the road climbs steeply to a ridge at an altitude of nearly 13,500 feet, before commencing the descent to Markham, at an elevation of about 12,800 feet. Markham (known to the local Tibetans as Gartok), is the point at which the Sichuan-Lhasa highway joins the Yunnan-Lhasa highway (Lijiang and Gyalthang are a straight shot south along this road).


(Day: 12 & 13) Markham – Chamdo : The drive to Chamdo will take us over several passes punctuated by descents into unbelievably deep gorges formed by two of Asia’s great rivers, the Mekong and the Salween. Leaving the prosperous valley of Markham behind, our route ascends the 14,300 foot Laoshan La, then descends to steeply to the Mekong (known in these parts at the Dza Chu). We immediately start switch-backing up to our next pass, the 16,465 foot Dunga La. From here we can enjoy spectacular views of the ice-bound peak of Dungri Karpo (weather permitting). Descending the pass, we again enter a deep gorge (this time it’s the Yu Chu river), and enter an area which features more forest cover.
At Pomda Junction, our route turns north toward the Tibetan town of Chamdo (chamdo is the Tibetan word for “confluence of rivers”). Chamdo was one of the earliest centers of population in the region. It also became an important stronghold of the Karma Kargyu sect prior to its fall in 1950. The monastery of Galden Jampaling was founded by Tsongkhapas’ student, and has 700 monks reside in the renovated buildings and the present incarnation of Phakpalha, Gelek Namgyel lives in Lhasa. Visit the monastery at Chamdo, explore the town and the market in the old heart of this border town. The old town (the traditionally Tibetan section), with it’s many silver workshops, is still authentic and worth wandering around.


Chamdo – Derge : We have more time to explore Chamdo this morning before embarking on our onward journey into the heart of Kham. On today’s drive we cross no fewer than five passes, including the amazing Tama La (15,200 ft) and then down to steep canyons through the town of Topa. A few miles before reaching Derge, we pass once again from the Tibetan Autonomous Region back into Sichuan province. Derge is the cultural heartland of the Kham region. The Khampas who wear black braids in their long hair are from this valley (east of Yangtze River). The red braids signify Khampas from the Chamdo valley (between Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers).


Derge : We have a full day to explore the interesting sights in Derge and it’s surrounding area. Derge was the most influential of the Five Kingdoms of Kham and well known for its metal work and printing. We will walk in the old heart of the town around the Temple of Tanglong Gyelpo, the King of Derge, who claimed to be a descendent of the Gar family, and the Chief Minister of Tsongtsen Gampo – the most famous of Tibetan Kings who first started the spread of Buddha dharma. In 1729 King Tenpa Tsering conquered the north and built the (now) famous printing press, Derge Parkhang.
Here Sakya scholars printed their own edition of the Kyangur and Tanjur, regarded by many as the most accurate in Tibet. We will explore the Derge Gongchen Monastery, which contains enormous images of the Buddhas and the printing press, where one can see the entire process from preparation of the paper and ink, to carving of the blocks and actual printing and collating of the texts. The magnificent building, with its original frescoes and exquisite images of Sakyamunis, is a joy to see.


Derge – Ganza : Today our drive takes us through some spectacular mountain scenery as we cross the high Tro La pass (16,235 ft). This route takes us over the Chola Range to reach the remote market town of Ganze. Driving up into the craggy and wild scenery to Tro La pass, we are treated to expansive views of the snowcapped peaks of the Chola Shan (range). The market town of Ganze (Kandze) is surrounded by the high peaks of the Chola Mountain Range. The Den Gompa, though a lot smaller, is not only the oldest temple (built 540 years ago) but also has some beautiful pieces of art.


Ganza – Dzogchen : Dominated by the 20,000 ft peak of Trori Dorje Ziltrom, the Dzogchen village and monastery has a stunning location at the head of Rudam Kyitram valley. Dzogchen Rudam Orgyen Samten Choling Monastery was founded in 1684 on the advice of the fifth Dalai Lama by Dzogchen I Pema Rigzin. The Khamthrul Rinpoche who escaped from here to India in 1958 currently resides in Dharamsala. Tonight we will be camping by the village, while we explore this village, visit the monastery or take a short hike around the valley.


(Day: 18 to 21) Dzogchen- Amdo : On day 18, we will continue north on the grassland encountering many a nomad camp, to Sexu monastery. Sexu monastery constructed in 1710, now houses more than a 1000 monks. Continue on to Yeshukonde. Historically this is an important site as in 641 Wencheng princess of Tang Dynasty passed through this region and stayed in Yashu for a few weeks. Here we will visit an enormous Mani-stone pile. Legend has it that Xinzhai village’s last lama named Wen Bao Jian Gong of the Jiegu monastery had led his old life there and he promised to try his best to build as many Mani-stones as possible. Till 1955, 250 million Mani-stones had already been piled up on top of each other. In 1958 the lama reached Nirvana.
Next day, we will reach Madoi , a small city in the upper reaches of the Yellow river. The Yellow river is the second longest river in China with a length of 5,464 km. Time permitting we may be able to go to the source of the Yellow river.
Amdo is Tibet’s northeastern province, and most of it was swallowed by the Chinese province of Qinghai in 1928. We will drive by and along the immensely deep red gorges of the Yellow River as they cut a sweeping gorge through Amdo.
We will continue on to our camp/guesthouse by Kokonor Lake, known as the “Western Sea” in ancient times. This salt-water lake is China’s largest lake and the breeding ground of many migratory birds of which the rare black-necked crane get top billing.


Amdo – Xining : Drive down and descend to Xining. Here we will visit Kumbum, one of the six great monasteries built by the Gelug pa sect. This is reputed to be the birthplace of Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelug pa sect, which is the same Buddhist order that HH Dalai Lama.


Xining – Beijing : Fly out to outward destination to connect with your flight.
November – February: Winter months, recommended to travel.
March – June: Summer months, when it is is moderately hot in April, but May and June are avoidable.
July – September: Monsoon months where trips are doable.
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