Tibetan places outside Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
Note: Map view for China is not correct aligned, use satellite view which is correct (it's a Google thing).
Amazing road trip
Manigango to Dege, Sichuan Province
The bus journey from Manigango to the Dega, close to the Tibetan border, must rank as one of the most beautiful road trips in the whole of China. Setting out from the small Tibetan wild west town of Manigango, you will first pass the serene mountain lake of Yilhun Lhatso at the foot of Chola Shan (6168 m) and neighbouring snow caped peaks, before slowly ascending the hairpin road to the mountain pass at 5050 m (though our altimeter showed only 4850 m). There are chances to sight both vultures and marmots – and the occasional overturned truck having gone over the edge and crashed down the mountainside. When reaching the pass, locals will (if they are not too carsick) throw colored prayer notes out of the bus windows. From here, the road descends into a beautiful narrow valley carved out by a still flowing river. You will pass by small Tibetan villages, Buddhist stupas and monasteries with prayer flags going in all directions, before arriving (hopefully) safely in Dege.
Altitude 2616 m, Sichuan Province
This is where main China ends and the Tibetan Wild West begins. The town is beautifully located along a river at the bottom of a canyon with steep mountain sides. The town itself is not among the prettiest and it is hard to tell whether it is Chinese turned Tibetan, with a bit of Tibetan architecture thrown in for pleasing local tourists, or it was once a Tibetan town turned Chinese (the latter is the truth). It functions as a getaway point for both the northern and southern overland routes into the Tibetan province (TAR), which both can be broken off into great journeys of the Tibetan areas outside TAR, which are rich in Tibetan culture and do not need special travel permits.
Alt. 2400 m, Yunnan Province
The Naxi people, who inhabit the region around Lijiang, is a branch of the Tibetan people. They are famous for their script, which is the only hieroglyph script still in use today. The old town of Lijiang is charming at first sight, but is a tarted up version of the original one which got heavily damaged during an earthquake in 1996. The layout is a maze of cobbled streets, narrow canals and wooden shops catering mainly for the Chinese tourists. For make no mistake, Lijiang is Chinese tourist territory and others will often found it too groomed, crowded and tacky. Luckily, you can always explore the countryside or keep going north to Shangri-la and Western Sichuan for the real deal.
Shangri-La / Zhongdian
Previously known as Zhongdian, alt. 3200 m, Yunnan Province
To boost it's tourist potential, the small Tibetan village of Zhongdian changed its name to more fame-sounding Shangri-la (and got a new airport). The old town is surprisingly charming with real flavours of Tibet with traditional Tibetan houses, prayer flags hanging down from stupas and town squares with group dance in the evening. Everywhere you go, you will be offered yak butter tea. There are elaborated Buddhist temples in and around Shangri-la, including the biggest prayer wheel in the world and the huge temple complex of Gandan Sumtseling Gompa. Shangri-la does draw a fair amount of tourists just as the authorities had planned, but is nothing compared to Lijiang and Dali.
Shangri-La (Zhongdian), Yunnan Province
Sumtseling Monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. Initiated more than 300 years ago by the fifth Dalai Lama, it is sometimes referred to as the Little Potala Palace. It was heavily damaged during the Culture Revolution, but subsequently rebuilt in the 1980s. Today it's again a massive Buddhism complex with more than 600 monks living and studying there. In the morning you can sometimes catch the debating lessons outside on the square, where the novices in lotus position are tested in their ability to answer philosophical questions delivered in a clapping manner by their friends. It's not in the province of Tibet (TAR), so no special permission is needed to go here.
Tibetan monastery town
Serxu Gompa, Sichuan Province
Serxu monastery (Serxu Gompa) lies 30 km outside the drab town of Serxu (Serxu Xian), in the most northwestern part of Sichuan. It is a big Tibetan monastery surrounded by rows of prayer wheels and a maze of adobe houses for the red cloaked monks, who count to more than a thousand. Across the river, a small cluster of dusty shops makes out the rest of the monastery town. Here, weather beaten Tibetans with gold teeth swag down the street (for there is only one street) in wide brim hats and homemade sunglasses. It is a fascinating place full of character and edge.
Tibetan printing monastery
Bakong printing monastery, Dege, Sichuan Province
In Dege, the last town before Tibet province, lies the red-walled printing monastery. It is a sacred place where pilgrims supposedly circle the outer walls a thousand times. Inside, Tibetan scriptures are printed by hand and put to dry, as they have been done for centuries. The store rooms are filled from floor to ceiling with almost 300,000 engraved woodblocks with Tibetan texts. You can watch the printing process in the printing hall, where printers in almost trance turn out pages at an incredible speed. The majority of the Tibetan monasteries still get their textbooks from this printing monastery, and it is considered as one of the most important cultural center for Tibetans along with Potala Palads and Sakya monastery, both in Tibet.
Tibetan sky burial
Litang, Sichuan Province
Sky burial is a Tibetan custom for giving back the earthly remains after death, when the soul has left the body for reincarnation. The body is simply sliced open and offered to waiting vultures that rip the flesh from the bones within minutes. Afterwards, the bones, along with the skull and brain, are smashed to pieces with an axe and mixed with barley flour and again offered to the still waiting vultures. Besides being a mind blowing experience (and not for the faint hearted), it's also a very rare opportunity to get close to these monster birds of prey, some of them very rare (such as Black and Bearded vultures). Remember this is not a tourist attraction and an invitation should be obtained before attending. (The picture was taken with permission from the descendants).