Sichuan’s western half, extending north to Gansu, south to Yunnan and west to Tibet, is in every respect an exciting place to travel. The countryside couldn’t be farther from the mild Chengdu plains, with the western highlands forming some of China’s most imposing scenery – broad grasslands grazed by yaks and horses, ravens tumbling over snowbound gullies and passes, and unforgettable views of mountain ranges rising up against crisp blue skies.
Though larger towns throughout the west have to a certain extent been settled by Han and Hui (Muslims) – the latter spread between their major populations in adjoining provinces – historically the region was not part of Sichuan at all but was known as Kham, a set of small states covering what is now western Sichuan, plus the fringes of Qinghai and Yunnan. The Tibetans who live here, called the Khampas, speak their own dialect, and see themselves as distinct from Tibetans further west – it wasn’t until the seventeenth century, during the aggressive rule of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, that monasteries here were forcibly converted to the dominant Gelugpa sect and the people brought under Lhasa’s thumb. The Khampas retain their tough, independent reputation today, and culturally the region remains emphatically Tibetan, containing not only some of the country’s most important lamaseries, but also an overwhelmingly Tibetan population – indeed, statistically a far greater percentage than in Tibet proper. For details on Tibetan food, language and religious thought, see the relevant sections at the start of Chapter 14.
How you explore western Sichuan will depend on your long-term travel plans. If you’re heading north out of the province to Gansu, you first want to aim for the walled town of Songpan, horse-trekking centre and base for excursions to the nearby scenic reserves of Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou. Beyond Songpan, the road continues north via the monastery town of Langmusi, and so over into Gansu province.
Sichuan’s immense far west is accessed from the administrative capital Kangding – itself worth a stopover for easy access to the nearby Hailuogou glacier and Tagong grasslands, or as a springboard north to pretty Danba or the snowcapped peaks of Siguniang Shan. Alternatively, you can either weave northwest to Tibet via the monastery towns of Ganzi and Dêgê, with a faith-inducing mountain pass and Dêgê’s Scripture Printing Hall as the pick of the sights along the way; or head due west to the high-altitude monastic seat of Litang, from where you can continue down into Yunnan.
Travel in western Sichuan requires some stamina: journey times between towns are long, roads twist interminably, breakdowns are far from uncommon, and landslides, ice or heavy snow can block roads for days at a time. Almost all the region rises above 2500m – one pass exceeds 5000m – and you’ll probably experience the effects of altitude. You’ll need to carry enough cash to see you through, as there are no banks capable of dealing with travellers’ cheques. Be aware, too, that bus fares are high – sometimes double what you’d expect – and in places you might need to charter minibuses to get to your destination. Horse-trekking is a popular pastime in the region, too, with well-established operations at Songpan, Siguniang Shan, Tagong and Langmusi, and plenty of ad hoc opportunities elsewhere. As for the seasons, the area looks fantastic from spring through to autumn – though warm, weatherproof clothing is essential whatever the time of year. Also note that most of the region is closed to foreigners through March, anniversary of various uprisings in Tibet – Songpan and Jiuzhaigou will probably be open, but travel north to Gansu, or to Kangding and far western Sichuan, will probably be impossible.