Tibet is a dreamland for many people. Its culture, high snowy mountains and mystery inspired travellers and dreamers for centuries. The landmarks of Tibet are well known - Lhasa, Potala Palace, the Buddhist monasteries, Mount Everest, Mount Kailash, lakes, glaciers, grasslands, yaks, and unique local life. There is a lot to explore in this stunningly beautiful land, but here I will focus on its eastern part. Here is our epic Eastern Tibet itinerary.
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Where is Eastern Tibet
Many people looking for Tibet, usually look to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) - a Chinese autonomous area in the same level with the other provinces of China, with Lhasa as its capital. But what most of them don't know is that TAR is only the western part of Tibet. And it is how its name sounds in Chinese - Xizang (西藏), which literally means "Western Tibet". In fact, it covers only half of the whole Tibetan land and only 40% of the Tibetan population. The rest of Tibet is called Eastern Tibet and is shared between the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Actually, this is the main reason why it is not popular- just because it is not arranged as its own administrative region.
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But it doesn't mean that Eastern Tibet is "less Tibetan", only because is outside of TAR. On the contrary, it is even more virgin than Western Tibet, because its less popularity makes this area also less touristy. In Eastern Tibet you can see everything that presents Tibet: snowy mountains, glaciers, grasslands, yaks, nomadic culture, Tibetan education, and religion- it is the same as in the Western Tibet.
Eastern Tibet has another advatange over TAR. For foreigners, it is completely free to travel- in the same way just like your travel between Beijing and Shanghai. There are absolutely no other requirements, but only your Chinese visa. No need for an organized tour, no need for travel permits (only with a few exceptions).
The best way to explore Eastern Tibet
There are a lot of places in Eastern Tibet that are really worth visiting. If you want to see high snowy mountains - they are everywhere. Mt. Konka, Mt. Chenresieg, Mt. Kawagabo, Mt. Chola, Mt. Amnye Machin, Mt. Nyenbo Yurtse and many others, some of which rise over 7000 m altitude- they are spread in the whole territory of Eastern Tibet.
If you want to see grasslands with yaks and Tibetan nomads - you can see them every day in your Eastern Tibetan trip. If you want to see Tibetan monasteries, Tibetan local villages, stupas, prayer flags, monks in red gowns - this is their land, they would be with you there, all the time.
So, how to arrange your trip to Eastern Tibet? The best way could be following a route, which can guide you to the best Tibetan destinations in this area. There are many possible routes, but here I would like to share one of the best itineraries.
How to travel on an Eastern Tibetan route
There are a few ways to travel on such a route, and the best way is by car. But since you can't drive a car in China unless you have a Chinese driving license you have to find someone with such a document. If you are travelling as a group, then it would be no problem to share the expenses for a van with a local driver, since they usually require around 1000 CNY per day (average).
The best route of Eastern Tibet
Now it is time to draw our route. The best starting point is Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. It is outside Tibet but is a great option for a long round trip around Eastern Tibet. This is the place where you have to arrange your car with a driver.
Then your route starts from Chengdu and enters the high mountains, passing through Kangding, Tagong, Garze, Yilhun Lha Tso Lake, Serxu, Yushu, Mt. Amnye Machin, Qinghai Lake, and Xining. Then its last section back to Chengdu proceeds to Taktsang Lhamo, Zoige, Jiuzhaigou, Songpan and ends to the starting point. The whole route can be passed for 25-30 days, and it is the best duration, for the best experience. It looks a bit longer, but if you don't have enough time, you can pass only some sections of this route (and keep the rest for a next trip).
Your Eastern Tibet itinerary
So, here is the best itinerary to explore Eastern Tibet and to have a really great experience, day by day.
Day 1: Chengdu (480 m altitude)
Chengdu is an important city, one of the western centres of the Chinese civilizations. It is really worth to make a short trip around Chengdu, as a good introduction to your Eastern Tibetan trip. There are a lot of interesting places to visit in Chengdu, but if you have only one day (which I would recommend), it is better to focus on the most important places:
Tianfu Square- the perfect centre of Chengdu, with its landmarks - Mao Ze Dong statue, Yin-Yang construction and the museums around it.
Chunxi Road - the main trade and pedestrian area of Chengdu
Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding- you can't visit Chengdu without its symbol - the Giant Panda
Wide and Narrow Alleys (Kuanzhai Xiangzi) - an old quarter with Qing Dynasty architecture
Jin Li street and Wuhou Residence - another "Old town", presenting Three Kingdoms era.
New Century Global Center- the largest building in the world - a modern mall-city.
Accommodation: As Chengdu is one of the largest cities in China, there are a lot of options for accommodation. For those who are looking for something cheap and attractive, I would recommend Lazybones Hostel.
Day 2: Chengdu-Kangding (康定)- 2450 m altitude
Road Distance: 318 km
Now it's time to start your trip. Leave Chengdu early, because the road to Kangding is long. After an hour and a half driving, you enter the great mountains of Tibet at one of their entrances - Ya'an (680 m). From there you can drive on the new highway to Kangding for 3-4 hours, but I would recommend getting on the old road, which is the famous Road 318 from Chengdu to Lhasa. It is slower, but there is much more to see.
The road ascends to Erlang Tunnel (2200 m), then descends again to Luding (1350), famous with its Luding Bridge - a good place to stop and visit. Finally, it ascends to Kangding (2450 m), which marks the end of the Chinese and the beginning of the Tibetan civilizations boundary.
Accommodation: The best and most attractive place is Zhilam Hostel, located over the city with a great panoramic view.
Day 3: Kangding (2450 m)
This day is good to spend in acclimatization because from here the route enters high altitude areas, which may cause altitude sickness. And Kangding is a perfect place for it. Besides, Kangding has a lot to see and explore.
Kangding is known as "the most romantic city in China", due to its "Kangding Love Song"- a popular song originated from this city. Everything in Kangding is stunning- its old houses, the restaurants, shopping areas, clean streets, its raging river with flowers on the banks, the Tibetan monasteries and the stunning mountains slopes. You can also go hiking the mountains over the city, which is good for your better acclimatization.
Day 4: Kangding-Tagong (3750 m)
Road Distance: 90 km
This day you enter the "real Tibet". The Road 318 from Kangding ascends to Zheduo pass (4290 m) and to nearby Kangding airport. Here you leave this road and take another road, much less crowded. And from here you enter an endless green "sea"- this is the vast Tibetan grasslands which will accompany you during your whole trip from now on.
After an hour and a half drive, you arrive in Tagong - a small town, best known with its Tagong (Lhagang) Monastery, Muya Temple with its breathtaking view to the distant Mt.Zhara (5870 m) and the Tagong grasslands. The rest of the day can be spent exploring all these, culminating with one of the nearby hills hiking and enjoying the endless Tibetan landscape.
Accommodation: The best place is Jya Drolma & Gayla Guesthouse, beautifully decorated in Tibetan traditional style.
Day 5: Tagong - Garze (3350 m)
Road Distance: 272 km
It is a longer section of the route, passing through a few towns, grasslands and some coniferous forests. You will pass some nice places to stop and enjoy:
Bamei (3550 m) - a nice clean town on the northwestern side of Mt.Zhara, known also with its rock pyramids.
Songlin Pass (4020 m) with a stunning grassland around it.
Dawu (2980 m) - a larger Tibetan town in a larger valley
Drango (3100 m) - here you get on Road 317. You can visit the nearby Shouling Monastery and make beautiful photos from its panoramic terrace.
Kasa Tso and Kawalori (3950 m) - you will cross another mountain with stunning views before descending to Yarlung River valley.
And finally, you will arrive in Garze - a nice city, full of Tibetan culture. Here you can enjoy its local centre, you can visit its famous Garze Monastery and enjoy the stunning views to the nearby Mt.Zhuoda, with its sharp snowy peaks.
Accommodation: There are a lot of hotels in Garze. Since most of them are not registered in Booking or Agoda, you can just choose one when you arrive.
Day 6: Garze (3350 m)
Garze is not only a nice Tibetan city, but it is really worth to make a trip to Mt. Zhuoda. There is a road, heading to Baiyu, which leads you to Zhuoda La Pass (4760 m). It runs on a deep valley with breathtaking views to the giant peaks above it. You can stop on the pass and make some hiking in the area. Here you can reach more than 5000 m altitude, enjoying fantastic panoramas to the mountains and grasslands beyond. Finally, you back again to Garze.
Day 7: Garze-Yilhun Lha Tso Lake (4020 m)
Road Distance: 104 km
This day you proceed further westward on Road 317. The road passes through stunning grasslands, marked by the mighty mountains Kawalori, Zhuoda and finally Chola on their southern side. You can stop in Darjay Monastery as a nice place to relax and photos. After about 2 hours you will arrive in Manigango - a beautiful clean village, where the road divides in two. Proceed some 11 km more and you will reach Yilhun Lha Tso - one of the most beautiful glacial lakes in Tibet.
Yilhun Lha Tso is located on the north side of Mt.Chola. The landscape is really breathtaking- the mighty Chola, reflecting on the lake water, the beautiful coniferous forest on its coast, the grasslands with wild horses and eagles around- all this makes this place like a fantastic dream.
There is an entrance fee to the lake- 40 CNY. And it is really worth to spend the night there in a tent. The silent beauty of the lake at night and the cosmic view of the night sky, full with stars is unforgettable (if you sleep there in a tent, you just have to pay more 30 CNY for the whole tent, not per person).
Accommodation: Camping (or back to Manigango for those who don't want camping).
Day 8: Yilhun Lha Tso - Derge (3260 m)
Road Distance: 98 km
This day you proceed westward on Road 317 to the border of TAR. There is a beautiful Tibetan town, called Derge, known as a centre of Tibetan education. And indeed, there you can see its Parkham printing house, where the Tibetans still use the old ways of printing books.
But before you reach Derge, you will pass the highest point of the whole route- Chola Pass (5050 m), if you take the old road, not the new tunnel through the mountain. Here you can enjoy fantastic views to the mighty Mt. Chola with its highest peak Rongme Ngatra (6148 m).
Accommodation: Choose a few hotels, which are not registered in Booking. Most notable of them are Golden Yak, Dege and Jun Lan.
Day 9: Derge-Dzogchen Monastery (3870 m)
Road Distance: 143 km
This day you have to back on the same road to Manigango. Then you leave Road 317 and take the other road to the north, which leads to Serxu. After crossing another mountain pass, you descend to a small village, on the left side on the road. Turn left and proceed for a few km, and you will arrive at one of the largest monasteries in Eastern Tibet- Dzogchen.
Dzogchen Monastery is located on the north side of Mt. Chola, under a large glacier. The monastery is now renewed and is a splendid example of Tibetan architecture. After you explore it, you can make some short hiking on the northern slopes of Chola, then back to the village and spend the night there.
Accommodation: Dzogchen Monastery guesthouse.
Day 10: Dzogchen Monastery - Serxu Monastery (4250 m)
Road Distance: 202 km
This day the road enters the extreme northwest of Sichuan province, to its wildest and most remote areas. Crossing endless grasslands, finally, you arrive in Serxu- a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Proceed some 30 km further and you will reach Serxu Monastery. It is another famous Tibetan monastery, best known as an important educational centre. It also presents beautiful architecture but also features a local school. We were lucky to see the students (only boys) in their classroom, in one of their lessons.
Accommodation: Serxu Monastery guesthouse or back to Serxu and choose one of the few local hotels.
Day 11: Serxu Monastery - Yushu (3650 m)
Road Distance: 116 km
This day you reach the westernmost point of your route. The road crosses Anbala Pass (4650 m), where it leaves Sichuan province and enter Qinghai province. From here it descends to 3450 m, to the road from Yushu to Xining. Turn left and you will reach a big mountain river. This is Yangtze River- the longest river in China, which here is in its upper section, called Tongtian River. Drive another 15 km and you will arrive in Yushu.
Yushu is the third largest city in Qinghai province. It was devastated by a strong earthquake in 2010, but now is renewed and presents a new astonishing architecture. Its main square with King Gesar monument, its thick monument walls, a memorial from the earthquake and symbol of the city's resurrection, its beautiful buildings, clean and wide streets- all this is really a pleasure to walk and explore. You can also visit its monasteries and stupas- Jyekundo Dondrub Ling, Mani Temple, Princess Wencheng Temple, located outside of the city.
Accommodation: There are a lot of hotels and hostels in Yushu. Most of them are in the centre.
Day 12: Yushu - Madoi (4280 m)
Road Distance: 322 km
This day you will cross the wildest part of Eastern Tibet, an area when you can feel the best the vastness of the Great Tibetan Plateau. Take the road to Xining, back to the place where you reached Yushu on the previous day and proceed further. The road gradually ascends to 4810 m altitude- to Bayankala (Bayan Har) Pass. Here you can stop and hike the nearby hills, setting another altitude record over 5000-5100 m.
Then proceed further through the vastness of the grasslands. Long time you will see nothing but empty green surface, in some places mixed with small lakes, in other places- with yellow flowers. You can see some yak herds and nomad's tents too. And above- the endless deep blue sky with white clouds.
Finally, you arrive in Madoi- a small and very remote Tibetan town, in the middle of an endless emptiness, with its local life. Here you will also cross another small stream. This is the other famous Chinese river- the Yellow River (Huanghe), in 4250 m altitude.
Accommodation: There are a few hotels in Madoi and a few guesthouses with basic conditions. They are not registered in Booking and Agoda, just go and choose one of them.
Day 13: Madoi - Mt. Amnye Machin (4450 m)
Road Distance: 174 km
This is the day for one of the most splendid "holy" mountains in Tibet- Mt. Amnye Machin. It rises magnificently over the surrounding grasslands, up to 6282 m altitude. It is a subject of "Kora"- a religious circumnavigation, made for a week or more. This circumnavigation is today performed by hikers too.
Proceed on the road to Xining. After Tsogen Rawa (Huashixia) you will reach a new highway. You can drive on the highway until Tawo Zholma (Xia Dawu) village, then take the old road. It is a dirt road, but only in this way you can reach the most beautiful points of the mountain. The old road ascends to Drakde La Pass (4610 m), where you can stop and descend to the giant Damxung glacier, some 200-300 m aside. Take a walk on the glacier (but be aware of the glacier cracks!). Then proceed on the old road to Halong Valley, which is another good place for camping.
Accommodation: Camping, or in the guesthouse in Tawo Zholma village.
Day 14: Mt. Amnye Machin - Qinghai Lake (3205 m)
Road Distance: 389 km
Today you will leave the highest areas of Eastern Tibet and will descend to the larger lake in China- Qinghai Lake. Back on the same road (enter the new highway on the first entrance) to the road from Yushu to Xining. Then proceed on this road. After crossing more and more grasslands, the road will start descending more than 1500 m downward. The grasslands here are drier and the climate- warmer. You will reach Kungo (Gonghe) city, from which you better take the smaller direct road to Qinghai Lake. This road will cross another mountain with fresh green grasslands, a lot of yaks, sheep, and horses and finally will descend to the lake, accompanying with breathtaking views.
Qinghai Lake is a place where the Tibetan civilization meets with another civilization from the north- the Mongolian. It offers fantastic views and beautiful coasts with its famous yellow flowers. At evening you can enjoy a stunning sunset, then relax in a yurt restaurant with delicious local food. There is an entrance fee everywhere around the coasts, and it is usually between 10 and 20 CNY.
Accommodation: One of the hotels and guesthouses at the southern coast of the lake. We were in Zhaxi Tibetan hostel, richly decorated in Tibetan traditional style.
Day 15: Qinghai Lake - Xining (2250 m)
Road distance: directly to Xining- 143 km, around the lake, then to Xining- 379 km.
Before you descend to Xining, I would suggest to not take the shortest road, but to get the road around the whole Qinghai Lake. There are many spots where you can stop and enjoy the stunning lake landscape. One of the best is Bird Island, where thousands of birds come as their seasonal home. Finally, when you reach the northeastern side of the lake, you can visit the Silver and Golden deserts- small sandy deserts (for 70 CNY entrance fee), offering stunning views of yellow sand, green mountains and deep blue sky with white clouds. Then, for another 2 hours, you arrive in Xining.
Accommodation: There are many hotels and hostels in Xining. Some of the best are Mandala and Letu hostels.
Day 16: Xining (2250 m)
Xining is the capital of Qinghai province. Its most important feature is the mixed culture, where a few civilizations meet together: Han Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian and Hui Muslims. So, this day you can dedicate only to this city. There are many things that you can see and also relax before the last part of the route.
You can visit Dongguan Mosque, one of the city's landmarks. Other nice places to explore are the centre of Xining, its spice markets, Qinghai Museum and the parks around.
Day 17: Xining - Labrang (Xiahe) (2980 m)
Road Distance: 236 km
It is time to head back to Chengdu. And the section of the route between Xining and Chengdu has also a lot to offer. You take the road to the southeast, cross a mountain pass and again reach Yellow River at 2250 m. Here it is very different than in Madoi. There is a beautiful dam, where you cross the river and enjoy the beautiful mountain gorge around it.
Proceed on the road and reach Rebkong- a nice Tibetan town, best known for its Tibetan art pieces. You can also visit its two monasteries- Wutong and Longwu.
Then the road ascends again and back to the high Tibetan grasslands. Take a rest in one of the roadside panoramic terraces and proceed to Labrang.
Labrang is best known for its Labrang Monastery, which is one of the largest in an area in the whole Tibet. It is really worth to explore and to make some hike above the city for some great panoramic photos.
Accommodation: There are some nice hotels and hostels in the city. Budget: Redrock and Tara, splurge: Baoma, Wangfu.
Day 18: Labrang - Taktsang Lhamo (3350 m)
Road Distance: 184 km
After some 3 hours drive through the grasslands, you will reach Taktsang Lhamo (Langmusi)- a nice town in "Old town" style. It is located exactly on the border between Gansu and Sichuan provinces (actually the border passes through the town). Taktsang Lhamo is best known for its two monasteries- Kirti in Sichuan and Sertri in Gansu (each monastery with entrance fee 30 CNY). Sertri is larger, built on the high slope over the town. Kirti is smaller, built in the neighbouring valley. You can also walk on the valley to the beautiful coniferous forest, where you can visit the Tiger Cave for only 10 mins walk.
In Taktsang Lhamo, you can also make some hiking in the area, as well as horse riding, which can be arranged by the local Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking company.
Accommodation: There are many hostels in the town. Among the good ones are Rtsampa, Tibetan Barley, Zhaxi and Nomad Youth hostel.
Day 19: Taktsang Lhamo - Zoige (Ruoergai) (3400 m)
Road Distance: 91 km
Back to the main road from Taktsang Lhamo and proceed on the road. Soon you will enter a vast grassland area, known as Zoige (Ruoergai), which is one of the largest grasslands in China. It is worth here to stop and rent a horse for riding. You can also visit the Flower Lake (entrance fee 60 CNY)- a beautiful lake in the middle of the grassland. Finally, you will arrive in Zoige town- a nice Tibetan town, one of the last Tibetan towns of your journey.
Accommodation: There are a few hotels and hostels in the town, without reservation. Another option- in the yurts outside the city. Basic conditions, but exciting.
Day 20: Zoige-Huanglong-Jiuzhaigou (2060 to 3150 m)
Road Distance: 304 km
This day you will leave the vast grasslands of Tibet and will descend to some lower mountain areas. But there are other kinds of beautiful places to see.
The road crosses another mountain pass and descends to the villages north of Songpan. From there you take another road to Huanglong.
Huanglong is a stunning valley, well known for its stone pools, where the mountain river descends by steps. There is a deep forest around it, which is especially beautiful during autumn when the whole forest is a mix of green, yellow and red colours. Entrance fee: 220 CNY
Then you back to the main road and head north. After another mountain pass, the road descends into a deep gorge, covered by coniferous forest, until you reach Jiuzhaigou town- a mountain resort, related with one of the most beautiful natural landscape in China.
Accommodation: A lot of hotels and hostels, many of them can be booked in Agoda and Booking.
Day 21: Jiuzhaigou-Songpan (2870 m)
Road Distance: 104 km
This day is time to explore Jiuzhaigou. It is a valley system and natural reserve, featuring beautiful lakes in various colours, waterfalls, deep mountain forests and local Qiang culture. The entrance fee now is around 200 CNY, but it changes according to the seasons. There are special buses, running between the spots of the valleys, allowing you to explore the whole area.
After the powerful earthquake on August 8th, 2017, many of the spots in Jiuzhaigou were destroyed and the reserve was temporarily closed. Now it is restored and opened again, but only up to 2000 visitors are allowed per day, so it is advisable to book it from their website in advance.
Then you back on the same way, but proceed to Songpan, which is the last place before you leave the mountains.
Accommodation: Many hotels and hostels, some of them can be booked in advance in Agoda and Booking.
Day 22: Songpan-Dujiangyang (720 m)
Road Distance: 252 km
It is time to leave Tibet. Before that, in the morning, you can explore Songpan. It is a beautiful town, presenting Han and Qiang culture. Then you proceed southward, gradually descending back to the lowlands of the Sichuan Plain. The road passes Wenchuan- a city, well known for its tragic devastation by one of the strongest earthquakes in China in 2008, but now- again resurrected from the ruins.
From now you go out of the mountains. A good stop before back to Chengdu is Dujiangyan. There you can visit the famous Yuzui (Fish's Mouth) levee, built by an outstanding engineer during the Qin Dynasty era, to control the river's levels.
Accommodation: Many hotels, most of them bookable in Booking and Agoda.
Day 23: Dujiangyan - Chengdu
This is the end of the trip. You back to Chengdu and say goodbye to your driver (or back the car if you have a Chinese driving license). From now is time for the memories and great sharing of your trip.
Best time for the trip
Tibet is a high altitude area, so it can be cold. In summer is only cool, but not hot. Every season has its own beauty. The most green is in August, with deep green grasslands and many flowers. But it may be rainy sometimes. Spring and autumn are dry months, and not very cold, but the grasslands are yellowish. And winter is dry too, only with a little snow, but can be very cold, sometimes below -20 C.
Some useful tips and bits of advice
- If you go there in summer, don't expect to drink cold beer. They don't use fridges, because they say that "outside is enough cold".
- Beware of dogs. There are many dogs, some of them can be aggressive.
- The roads are in good condition. The Internet can be found in most of the area, and the mobile signal is very good.
- It's better to avoid discussing the "political status of Tibet"- both with Chinese and Tibetans.
- The food is very delicious for those who like beef, noodles, and spices.
- And again- be cautious about the altitude sickness. Ascend gradually, not immediately, at least at the beginning of the trip. Not proper for children under 5 years old.
Generally, don't look for something luxury. This itinerary is for more adventurous people. It is not difficult, it can be a pleasure for everybody. And you can have a really unforgettable journey, in one of the most amazing lands on the Earth.