Few places on Earth hold the same allure and mystique as Tibet. From the majestic landscapes of rolling grasslands against a backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains to the tranquil stoicism of the indigenous people and culture, Tibet is truly an enthralling place. Compared to more popular travel destinations like Thailand or Malaysia, relatively few travelers make the journey to “the rooftop of the world.” While it can sometimes be less-than-luxurious and a test of one’s patience, the trip to the Tibet can be precisely the kind of life-altering experience that one imagines it would be.
Beyond the TAR
The Tibetan Plateau, with an average elevation of about 4,500 meters (15,000 feet), is an expanse of harsh terrain that covers some 2.5 million square kilometers–roughly one-fifth of the land mass of China–and extends well beyond the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Tibet is traditionally comprised of three major regions: Ü-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo. For foreigners, travel to the TAR requires a special permit and independent travel is strictly forbidden. This means either joining a tour group or hiring a private tour guide. That being said, it is possible to have a genuinely Tibetan backpacking trip without ever stepping foot into the TAR.
Heart and Soul–The Garze Prefecture
Perhaps the most prominent of all the autonomous prefectures outside of the TAR is the Garze Prefecture of the Sichuan Province. This prefecture is in Kham, and it is said to be the heart and soul of the region.
The nearest major city to Garze is Chengdu, making it the most common starting point for a trip to Kham. Buses run daily from Chengdu to Kanding, the capital of Garze, which makes for a good first leg of the journey. Kanding is a quaint town of about 100,000 people, lying in a valley at 2,500 m with several rivers roaring through the middle of town. The turquoise hue of these glacier-fed waterways accent the streets as the incessant sound of rushing water fills every pocket of town. In many ways, Kanding acts as the unofficial gateway to Tibet. Lying on the border of the Tibetan Plateau with a unique blend of Tibetan and Sichuanese cultures, it is the perfect place to spend a few nights acclimating to the higher altitude before continuing on to more remote locations. Western-style coffehouses dot the town’s main square, providing a place for those returning from a trek to offer travel advice to those preparing to embark on one. Kanding also has several monasteries that are well worth the visit.
Litang–Beauty in the Void
From Kanding, many travelers end up heading directly west to the town of Litang. Only a portion of the roads are paved between the two, there is often construction, and, at many points, the road is too narrow for traffic to move both directions at the same time. The hairpin turns around 5000 meter mountains on gravel roads would be much more unsettling if the scenery of the rocky peaks of the Himalayan hills and colorful prayer flags wasn’t so utterly stunning.
Sitting at more than 4000 m (13,000 ft), Litang is a dusty town of dirt roads surrounded by vast plains. The town is well-known for its annual horse racing festival that takes place every summer. Tibetans travel from all over to compete in the event, or just to showcase their prized stallions. The men wear their hair in long, traditional braids with brightly-colored ties; large, loosely-fitting cloaks of yak wool; hats and boots made of leather—true cowboys, if there ever were such a thing. The women don gorgeous gowns of every conceivable color, with beautiful Tibetan jewelry gracing their wrists, necks, and ears. The horse racing doesn’t seem to be a competition as much as a preservation of culture and an opportunity for Tibetans to gather with old friends and family.
Outside of Litang, grasslands consume the landscape. There are herds of yaks grazing and a few yurts belonging to the nomadic shepherds that look after them, but mostly there is nothing—and the volume of nothingness is the most staggering thing of all. Much of the beauty of the Tibetan Plateau lies in the absence of things, rather than in their presence. These grasslands also provide a great place to hike and camp for a few nights. Horseback riding and homestays in the traditional yak-skin yurts can be arranged without too much trouble.
After Litang, one may head south to the Tibetan prefectures of Yunnan province, or north toward Qinghai. If heading north, a long day’s journey will put in you in Garze (a town by the same name as the prefecture). Despite being a town of about 10,000 people, Garze can keep you busy for several days, as it has an enormous, 600-year-old monastery with an estimated 1,000 monks studying there. At this point in the journey, the road splits yet again—west to Dege, home to roughly 70% of religious manuscripts printed in Tibetan script, or north to Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist institution in the world.
Sertar–The Essence of Buddhism
About 30km north of a tiny town called Sertar, in a valley surrounded by absolutely nothing, lies a massive sprawl of tiny box-like houses built into the sides of the hills. This is Larung Gar, and it is one of the most influential Buddhist centers of education in the world. With population estimates of up to 40,000 people, it is also the largest. Besides the few temples for worship and study, there only are thousands of small homes for monks to reside. Meals are cooked in massive quantities and dispersed three times a day— free for the monks and three or four RMB for visitors. There are only a handful of small hostels for backpackers from which to choose. The simplicity of the lifestyle at Larung Gar reminds you of the principles by which the monks all around you are vowing to live their lives. Visiting the temples, sitting in on prayer circles, or even attending ceremonies is much easier than you might think—the monks are remarkably friendly and welcoming. While a few days visit to Larung Gar may not reveal exactly what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk, it’s probably about the closest thing a backpacker could hope for. It is quite a surreal experience.
No matter the region you visit or the route you choose, a journey to Tibet will be an epic one. It may not be the same sort of relaxing vacation as a visit to a tropical island, and it is certainly not a weekend getaway, but the journey to Tibet is rejuvenating in a different sense. It is one that leaves you feeling centered, with a clear mind and sense of enlightenment.
Text & Images // Daniel Pigeon