China // Sichuan and Chongqing //


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.