While we were in Yunnan province, China, we were tempted by the idea of going up onto the old Tibetan plateau – The idea of tibet had always fascinated me, ever since reading Tintin in Tibet when I was a kid.
However, getting into tibet is not that easy – Tourists are required to have a very expensive and difficult-to-obtain visitor permit, which requires you to have booked a tour AND a car for the entire duration, and there are lots of restrictions – no public transport, no hitchhiking, no doing your own thing, basically, which sounded like a bit of a buzzkill for us.
However, there’s a loophole in the system – The old Tibetan Kham regions were assimilated into Yunnan and Sichuan provinces to make the tibet autonomous region easier to manage.
This mans that you can get into tibet without a permit, as long as you stay in the Ganzi autonomous prefecture and don’t cross over into the Lhasa autonomous prefecture – and you manage to escape all the hords of Chinese tourists that were swarming around in Yunnan! 😀
We did it from Shangri-la to Kangding (Yunnan province to Sichuan province), but is equally doable the other way around.
Shangri-la was the first properly Tibetan town we got to, on the way up after doing Tiger Leaping Gorge (which really was magnificent by the way).
The “old town” was destroyed in a fire a few years ago, but they rebuilt the town in the same style, so although the woodwork and paint is new, it still feels authentic, and very pretty to boot.
The old town is very walkable, and this is the only place to buy adventure gear from here on out (and the only ATM for a while), so make sure you stock up on cash and warm jackets before heading out.
We stayed at Shangajoy seasons in, which was clean, passable English and a cute restaurant attached with some hilarious items on their menu (Milk shit balls anyone??). There’s lots of accommodation in town, and outside of high season you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a bed.
Getting to Shangri-la : There is tons of transport going to shangri-la from “below”, both from Tiger Leaping Gorge (at Tina’s) and from Lijiang – just ask at your hostel. There’s also an airport, for those wanting a quick in or out.
Northbound: Bus to Xiangcheng, tickets and station in the north of town, follow google or any of the main arterials northbound and ask people along the way. Only one bus per day, there’s apparently a bus to Daocheng as well, but it wasn’t running when we were there. Bus leaves early in the morning, which is a mission to get there – public buses northbound are few and far between that time of the morning, but they do run – grab one if you see it.
We were eager to get going to Litang when we finally arrived after a crazy bus ride to Xiangcheng – push to sit near the front if you can, the views are unbelievable (and it’s long, so you might as well enjoy it). We had read poor reviews of the Xiangcheng, so we grabbed a shared minibus taxi as soon as we arrived – the touts stand and wait for the Litang bus to arrive, so don’t worry about not finding onward transport.
If you want to continue the same day to Litang like we did, you can get seats on a shared minibus, but having done so ourselves, we would recommend staying over a night and catching the public bus the next day: the shared minibus ride was unbelievably cramped, bumpy, the driver smoked constantly with the windows closed the whole route there, and the windows were tinted so we couldn’t even get nice photos. Rather stay the night and take the bus if you have the time.
Litang was a gem. We arrived late at night and checked into an average hotel, if you go up the road immediately opposite the bus station for about 500m or so, there’s a strip with a bunch of neon lights and cheapish hotels, find one that doesn’t look too grimy and spend your time exploring instead of chilling there.
Litang is high up – we felt the oxygen deprivation as soon as we arrived. Simply strolling on level felt like effort, and any sort of hill had to be done very slowly, even for us as fit hikers. This fades fairly quickly though, after a day or 2 we felt much more comfortable.
The town itself feels very authentic and Tibetan, dominated by a large monastery at the north end of town – If you enter the main hall and turn left immediately you can climb the stairs all the way to the roof of the monastery, which is unreal.
There is a sky burial site just outside town. Please remember that this is a sacred site for the locals, and if you are lucky enough to see a sky burial, be respectful, stand at the back, don’t say anything and absolutely don’t take any photos, even if they say it’s ok.
We spent 2 days in Litang, and managed to see most of the town – apparently there are some nice treks in the area, but we didn’t have enough time to venture out.
Bus station is near the east end of the main road in town, and basically just run between Xiangcheng and Kangding (maybe one or 2 other places), buy tickets the day ahead. Most busses leave early in the morning. Shared taxis are available to most bigger towns in western Sichuan, the touts stand around smoking outside the bus station, just ask anyone who looks a bit scaly.
We arrived in Kangding in the mid-afternoon from Litang on the bus, as before, the ride is long and hard, push to get seats near the front and enjoy the views – some unreal mountain passes over this area.
Kangding is a fairly big transport hub, with busses to and from most parts of western Sichuan, and even an airport.
We heard rave reviews about the kangding konka youth hostel, but weren’t that impressed. It was clean enough, but not as much value for money as we were used to, the staff spoke very little English and couldn’t give us info on the tours they apparently ran or didn’t care enough to try.
We hiked up to the grasslands, which was lovely, but a proper climb – don’t do it in flops. Easily doable as a day trip, around 4-5 hours round trip depending on how fit you are. If you are staying longer, there are other treks, but getting info in English can be tricky.
There are some hot springs up the river north of town, catch one of the public busses if you can, the taxis will try rip you off going there and back. There different rooms with prices based on cleanliness and size etc.
There’s a fair bit going on in Kangding, with dancing in the main square at night, enough restaurants to choose from and a nice monastery. We stayed 2 nights.
We decided to go climb emeishan after kangding – the tickets to emeishan were sold out, so we had to take a bus to leshan and then catch a public bus to emeishan. We stayed in Emeishan Jinmao hotel, and it was incredible, sparkling clean, the best showers of the trip so far, and a total bargain. Would recommend.
There is only one truly excellent place to eat in Emeishan, and that’s Paddy’s, at the north end of town. Paddy and his wife are wellsprings of joy and open-heartedness, and the food is some of the best we ate in china. All the other restaurants in emeishan are preying on the hordes of tourists and are average and overpriced.
Paddy also offers small intimate tours including tea picking (we aren’t tour lovers, but got talked into one and it was lovely).
The hike up the mountain is stunning, and well worth it if you have the time and energy. Leave your bags at the hotel and sleep at one of the temples – there are loads of ways up and down. Beware of monkeys. Take a stick, and don’t eat or drink anything if they are around.
The capital of Sichuan province was a crazy frothing pot of fun and human activity compared to the last couple of days out on the Tibetan plateau, and we loved it – Chengdu is a very fast-paced city, with loads of delicious eateries and a surprisingly efficient metro system.
The dragon alleys and the wide and narrow alleys are fun to visit, but packed to capacity at almost any given time. There are also tons of great gardens and parks if you want a breather, and some physiotherapy/massage parlours if you need to recuperate after all the hiking and bus rides.
Careful if they offer you “cupping”, this left us with bruises for 2 weeks afterwards.
The panda base in the north of town is worth a visit – chengdu is bonkers about their pandas and you’ll need to hustle to get a spot to see the pandas around feeding time. They are very cute though, and the less popular red pandas are also a treat to spot.
Hotpot is a classic Sichuan meal, try find one if you can – the red ones are ridiculously fierce. Most of the eateries on tripadvisor do hotpot, and on a busy night people queue outside for an hour or more for a table. Mapu Tofu is another classic Sichuan dish of soft tofu, bean sauce and chilli, and it’s delicious.
Chengdu airport is a major transport hub, with flights to and from all over asia, as well as loads of budget domestic flights.