Sichuan’s far west begins some six hours over the mountains from Chengdu at Kangding, the regional capital. Yet it’s only after you leave Kangding, bound northwest towards the Tibetan border or southwest to Litang and Yunnan, that you enter what, geographically and ethnically, may as well be Tibet. Roads beyond Kangding are rough in places – mostly due to landslides or roadworks – but on the whole, journeys are exhausting due to length rather than physical discomfort. What makes them worthwhile are your fellow passengers, mostly monks and wild-looking Khampa youths, who every time the bus crosses a mountain pass cheer wildly and throw handfuls of paper prayer flags out of the windows. Buying bus tickets is frustrating, however – expect to find flexible schedules, early departures, ticket offices open at unpredictable times and unhelpful station staff.
Northwest from Kangding, it’s close on 600km across mountains and prairies to Tibet, and the main targets on the way are the people and monasteries around the highway towns of Tagong, Ganzi and Dêgê . The whole area hovers above 3500m, and the passes are considerably higher. Even when Tibet is open to foreigners, it has never been easy to cross from Western Sichuan into Tibet; if you do manage to buy a ticket for the ride, you’re likely to be hauled off the bus at the border and booted back the way you came. Coming the other way from inside Tibet, however, the authorities are hardly likely to send you back if you try to enter Sichuan here, though you may well be fined.