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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.
Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet Province
Time spent travelling in Tibet guarantees you will emerge with interesting insights into the rituals of Buddhism. Some of them can be quite confronting such as the prostrating pilgrims you'll see along the roads, who may be years into their pilgrimage. While others, like the monks at the Sera monastery seem a lot more positive. At first you'll be unsure of exactly what they are doing! Are they acting? Are they fighting? Are they dancing? Well, apparently they're debating. However, we are not exactly sure how a discussion about Buddhist scriptures benefits from all the wild hand slapping and gesticulating that goes on in Tibet's Sera Monastery. Regardless of why, it makes for an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.
The Tibetan trading town of Ganzi (alt. 3350 m) might not seem as the most charming place in western Sichuan, but, away from the dusty and noisy main road, things get interesting. The old Tibetan quarter, with its narrow alleys and adobe walls with dry yak dung, is begging to be explored and so are the couple of Buddhist monasteries in the outskirt of town. From here there are amazing views over the valley and the rising mountain range. There is a fairly big market with all sorts of vegetables, that seem impossible to grow in these regions. The majority of shops cater for Tibetans and other people in the need of a big knife or a yak fur coat.
Highest railway on Earth
Tanggul Pass, border between Tibet Province and Qinghai Province
Passing through the Tanggul Pass at 5072 m to become the highest railway on earth, the Qinghai-Tibet railway adds to an impressive list of Tibetan height superlatives. Running 1956 km from Xining to Lhasa, the railway is also hailed as just another world-class feat of engineering for the Chinese. Much of the line is built on permafrost and requires artificial cooling during the warmer months to ensure the rail stays in place. Consider also that oxygen is pumped through the cabins to help prevent altitude sickness and it all starts to feel a little extreme. Just don't forget to spend some time glued to the window as the landscape is completely captivating.
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. 4441 m, Tibet Province
The lack of freedom to travel independently in Tibet means that getting to know the locals is nearly impossible. However, given just how jaw-dropping the scenery is, most people are willing to sacrifice that independence for a little while.
After spending the day winding your way up the mammoth mountains, avoiding potholes and massive drops, you finally reach the viewpoint above one of the world's highest lakes (4441 m).
Yamdrok Lake is the most stunning turquoise and, given the view of towering massif Mt. Nojin Kangtsang in the distance, it's definitely worth hanging around for a while. That is of course, if you can handle the altitude!
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.
Litang is the next Tibetan town coming from Kangding on the Southern Sichuan-Tibetan route. The road trip from Kangding to Litang is long, but offers amazing views over snowcapped mountains and vast grassland, and can be quite breathtaking, literally since the elevation of Litang is 4000 m (400 m higher than Lhasa). The first impression of Litang might be a bit rough and uninviting, but the Tibetan culture is strong here so please endure. In the cold morning, hordes of yaks are led through the dusty streets, which during the day will be filled with tough looking Tibetans in fur vests and monks draped in red robes. Old ladies with prayer wheels soak up the warm sun on benches along the path leading up to the town's large monastery, Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling, which was founded in 1580 by the 3rd Dalai Lama. Tibetan sky burial (where corpses are fed to vultures) is still practiced on the slopes outside town.
Mt. Everest from Qomolangma lookout
When you finally get a glimpse of the tallest peak in the world, all the hours spent winding through the Tibetan mountain ranges coupled with endless permit checks and of course altitude sickness, will immediately feel insignificant.
This is Mt Everest.
The himalaya ranges contain 14 mountains that are above 8,000 metres of which Mt. Everest is the highest, peaking at an awe-inspiring 8848 metres above sea level. From the main lookout in the Qomolangma (Tibetan name for Mt Everest) National Park you can actually see not only Mt Everest but the entire range. It is reassuring to know that from the Tibetan side, Mt Everest appears as a perfect peak and is clearly the highest amongst its peers. Apparently, the view from the Nepalese side is slightly less impressive.
Many pilgrimages to the lookout have ended in disappointment due to the presence of clouds. Early May and early October are your best chances of clear skies.
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.