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.
Eight hours from Ganzi via the crossroads townof Manigange (马尼干戈, mănígàngē) and scary, 5500m-high Chola Shan mountain pass, DÊGÊ (德格, dégé) initially appears to be no more than a small cluster of ageing concrete buildings squeezed into a narrow gorge. Dêgê was, however, once the most powerful Kham state, and the only one to resist the seventeenth-century Mongol invasion – hence the absence of Gelugpa-sect monasteries in the region.
KANGDING (康定, kāngdìng), 250km from Chengdu at the gateway to Sichuan’s far west, is a crowded, artless collection of modern white-tiled blocks packed along the fast-flowing Zheduo River. Visually this is a very Chinese town, but the deep gorge that Kangding is set in is overlooked by chortens and the frosted peaks of Daxue Shan (the Great Snowy Mountains), and, whatever the maps might say, this is where Tibet really begins.
The town is the capital of huge Ganzi prefecture and bus schedules mean that a stopover here is likely, but with a couple of temples to check out and huge, communal evening dancing in the central square it’s not the worst of fates. In addition, Kangding is a stepping stone for day-trips to the Hailuogou Glacier Park, which descends Gongga Shan, western China’s highest peak.
From Kangding, it’s 290km west to the monastery town of LITANG (理瑭, lĭtáng), a major marketplace and transport hub from where you can head southwest to Yunnan. The Kangding–Litang road is a real treat, steadily rising to a mountain pass at 4700m. The pass opens onto undulating highlands, whose soft green slopes drop to forests far below – look for marmots on the ground and wedge-tailed lammergeiers (bearded vultures) circling far above. Just as you’re wondering whether the road continues indefinitely, Litang appears below on a flat plain, ringed by mountains.
Litang is a lively, outwardly gruff place with a large Tibetan population and an obvious Han presence in its businesses and army barracks. Wild West comparisons are inevitable – you’ll soon get used to sharing the pavement with livestock, and watching monks and Khampa toughs with braided hair and boots tearing around the windy, dusty streets on ribboned motorbikes. It’s also inescapably high – at 4014m above sea level, it actually beats Lhasa by over 300m – so don’t be surprised if you find even gentle slopes strangely exhausting. As usual, the main distraction here is people-watching: the shops are packed with Tibetans bargaining for temple accessories, solar-power systems for tents and practical paraphernalia for daily use; meanwhile Muslim smiths are busy turning out the town’s renowned knives and jewellery in backstreet shacks.
Litang’s week-long horse festival kicks off each August 1 on the plains outside town. Thousands of Tibetan horsemen from all over Kham descend to compete, decking their stocky steeds in bells and brightly decorated bridles and saddles. As well as the four daily races, the festival features amazing demonstrations of horsemanship, including acrobatics, plucking silk scarves off the ground, and shooting (guns and bows) – all performed at full tilt. In between, you’ll see plenty of dancing, both religious (the dancers wearing grotesque wooden masks) and for fun, with both men and women gorgeously dressed in heavily embroidered long-sleeved smocks.