Tibetan Sichuan: Traveling in the Ancient Kingdom of the Kham

In this article I will describe my travels in the Tibetan part of Sichuan.

Here’s the itinerary, if you’d prefer to “skip” directly to the place in the article that most interests you:

Hidden among the perennially snowy peaks of Mount Hengduan, 横断, it seems that nobody remembers the ancient kingdom of the Khampa anymore.

The old kingdom originally extended from the western part of Sichuan, the city of Kangding, 康定, to the start of the present-day autonomous region of Tibet, and the southern part of the Qinghai region to the north of Yunnan.

Various invasions of the Mongolian hordes along with increasingly bitter conflicts between the Kingdom of Tibet and the Ming and Qing Dynasties have resized and modified the borders of the old kingdom of the Kham, but not the habits of the people; the faces of the Malgari Kham, classified by the Chinese government as a subgroup of the Tibetan minority, appear as if from another time, dark from the burning sun that shines at an altitude of more than three thousand meters.

Their faces create a beautiful contrast with the redness of their cheeks that are exposed to the cold Himalayan wind; the green of the endless grasslands of the high plain is sprinkled with pastures of large yaks that dot the landscape in black.

The smell of butter and yak stew is a wonderful foretaste to alert travelers that they’ve finally arrived near a population center and, located not far from Tibet, there’s no shortage of the gorgeous gompas (in Tibetan it means “temple”) and white stupas, around which every moment of daily life rotates for young and old Tibetans as a sign of recognition to the gods (stupa literally means “offering foundation”).

I first came to know the Khampa region on a Spring day where I asked myself where my next travel destination in China would be. I spoke about it with a few people, made a call to my friend who’s been living in China for a few years and the airline and everything was set. There are three of us, two guys and a girl – a perfect number.

We arrived by air, from Chongqing to Kangding. The flight on Sichuan Airlines takes just an hour, and we find a ticket for 200 Yuan (25 Euro). Considering that we only have a week for our trip, we’ll see about the return.

So we start. After an hour-long flight we land at one of the highest airports in the world at an altitude of 3,500 meters. The one small runway is surrounded by mountains and looks as if it were built the day before, perhaps because the airport in Kangding is only open from April to September.

As soon as we leave the airport we are approached by many Tibetans; they’re there to sell us a ride to the city of Kangding, which is located a thousand meters downhill from the airport and an hour away by car. We choose to take the bus, which is cheaper than a car (35 Yuan), and after an hour of curves and clean air penetrating the windows, we’re in Kangding.

First day: Kangding/Litang

The city of Kangding is very colorful, with well-decorated little wooden houses that could make you think that you’re in a small Swiss village.

Walking the cramped streets of the city, it’s the people’s faces that grabs our attention – the city represents the beginning of the Khampa and its roads are a perfect crucible of the ethnic Han (Chinese) and Zang (Tibetans). After getting lost in the alleyways of the old city we head to the main square to look for a driver that could take us to Dege, 德格, a city 30 kilometers from the border with Tibet that’s three or four hours away by car.

In the early afternoon we finally find the driver we’re looking for: Lao Song (the old Song), a Tibetan who speaks Mandarin who will drive us in his Suv from Dongfeng on our trip to discover the Khampa.

We’re finally entering into one of the most mysterious and fascinating places: Tibet. And even though the map says that Tibet starts a little bit to the West, in our heart there’s no difference.

Lao Song tells us of the lamas and Tibetan monks (觉母, juemu). We ask him why the Tibetans like the little colorful flags that you see everywhere so much (经幡, jingfan); he tells us that they’re to send good wishes to those traveling the torturous and inhospitable roads and those venturing up to the peaks of these high mountains.

After six hours of travel and crossing through the cities of Xinduqiao, 新都桥, and Yajiang, 雅江, the latter being famous as the hometown of the extremely expensive matsutake mushrooms (松茸, songrong), which are highly prized in Japan, we arrive in Litang, 理塘.

It’s ten at night and Litang appears deserted; we’re immediately presented with another huge problem. As is the case in any remote region of China there aren’t many hotels that accept foreign guests. We’re turned down by two hotels, finally managing to find a hostel run by two men who – having lived in India for a long time – speak excellent English.

Lao Song leaves us to go to his room, and we use our last energy to look for something to eat, and with a little luck we manage to find a little Tibetan restaurant that’s still open where we can try the tender meat of yak.

Second day: Litang/Ganzi

The 4,000 meters of altitude in Litang make themselves known early in the morning; we knew that this altitude would cause some problems. And, to make up for the lack of oxygen, at a pharmacy in Chongqing I bought Rhodiola Rosea tablets (红景天, hongjingtian), a Tibetan plant that helps those who aren’t acclimated to high altitudes. So we all woke up at the break of day.

I discover that our hostel is a type of caravan stop for cyclists that start their trip for Lasa from here. I wish them a pleasant trip, we leave the hostel together and I start walking toward the city at six thirty in the morning with a powerful headache and a packet of Oki in my jacket pocket.

Even though Litang is an apparently anonymous city I find it fascinating. The city is sits on a plateau and is surrounded by beautiful mountains everywhere.

I realize that I’ve come to a rather remote place when, seated in a little shop eating pancakes and yak butter, a few Tibetans come up to me. I start speaking in Chinese, some know a few words in Mandarin, and some just look at me, curious at my way of eating Tibetan pancakes with chopsticks.

They ask me where I learned “the language of Chengdu”; this makes me think of how many of them don’t even know what Chinese is: for them only Khampa and Chengdu exist.

I meet up with the others, and we head by car to gompa Erlang, 二郎寺, the most important temple in Litang, which was built on one of the mountains that surround the city. After visiting the temple we stop at one of the endless grasslands a little outside the city center where, besides many herds of yak, our attention falls on the large tents all over the place that are similar to Mongol yurts.

Old Song explains why there are so many tents; in August the grassland teems with people because August is the month of the saima, 赛马, horse races similar to the Italian Palio, where the spectators who come from all around the region sleep in these giant tents.

We go in the direction of Ganzi, 杆子, where we hope to arrive before dinner. The road is very scenic, and we continuously climb and descend, passing through little canyons, herds of yak, gompas and little rivers. It was right along one of these little streams that we take our first break, curious at all the shouting of a group of Tibetans who perched along the gravel of the stream are attentively rooting through the moss formed along the rocks.

The Tibetan men are struggling with lighting a fire, looking for a mushroom called Cordyceps sinensis (虫草, chongcao). I’ve never heard of this mushroom that seems to grow only on the Tibetan plateau. It is extremely rare and if boiled in hot water it has numerous beneficial effects: it improves heart health, sleep quality, improves energy and is even an aphrodisiac. A really small mushroom the size of a blade of grass costs 50 Yuan, so we limit ourselves to just look at them, also because Lao Song says we can find them cheaper.

We get going again hoping to arrive at Xinlong, 新龙, for lunch – a town halfway between Litang and Ganzi. But the trip is long and not having found anything to eat, Lao Song recommends that we stop at Lake Tsoka, where we’ll surely find something.

The lake is located at an altitude of 4,000 meters, reflecting the image of an enormous temple of the same name as the lake: Tsoka gompa. Here we take a brief lunch break and a walk around the lake before it starts raining, then we head toward Ganzi, where we arrive just before sunset.

Of the cities we see during our trip, Ganzi is the least known, which looks more like a Chinese city with buildings that are almost identical. The Khampa region is called “Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture of Ganzi, 甘孜藏族自治州” by the government in Beijing.

To remind the citizens that the central government has not forgotten about this far-off part of China, at the entrance of the city there are two imposing statues of a Tibetan lama and a Communist functionary who are congratulating each other.

Third day: Ganzi/Dege

At eight in the morning we’re ready to leave. Route 317 (317道), which will bring us to Dege, is long, and hoping to arrive in the afternoon we have no other choice than to leave early.

The first gompa (or temple) that we visit is Gelu, 格露寺, which is built on a hill. A good part of the temple is being renovated but we enjoy an amazing panorama over the valley and the slopes of the hill where numerous Tibetan flags flap.

Before leaving the temple we walk around a mighty stupa and chat in English with the Tibetan monks. Tibetan is not a tonal language and according to the monks it’s easier for them to learn English than Chinese.

We continue on the 317, where the road is paved and in good condition. Staying at a constant 4,000 meter altitude there are few ups and downs. The second gompa we venture to is Dajinsi, 大金寺, which literally means “Large Golden Temple”.

It’s not by chance that the various buildings in this complex of temples, which looks more like a small village than a gompa, are completely golden. Some students recite sutras, men and women care for gardens, and old men sit in the shade of large trees.

Leaving the walls of the temple we lose ourselves in an immense valley. From far off we see a few small villages, each with its own golden-roofed gompa. We try to get there before realizing that after a half hour of walking, they’re still quite far away from us.

Ending our visit to the temple we get back on the road, planning our next stop at Malaganga, a small town with a beautiful gompa, but as happened to us often during our trip, we don’t stick to our plans and stop at a beautiful temple, the Tashi Triling Retreat Center 扎西持林, which ended up being one of the best discoveries of our trip.

We go up the hill where the gompa is by car and try to understand what’s behind the big gate that separates us from what seems more like a village than a temple. A young monk comes to open it for us and welcomes us inside the courtyard. With a cheerful expression the girl tells us that she has studied English and German at the language university of Xi’an before dedicating herself to the monastic life and moving to the Khampa.

The main temple of the Tashi complex is very big. On its shoulders an imposing peak rises up, and in front of us there’s a scenic view over the valley, one of the most beautiful panoramas we’ve seen so far. The young monk tells us that the temple is closed since all the monks are busy organizing the inauguration ceremony party that starts that same day, the Amitabha Dharma Ceremony in Saka Dawa, one of the most important Buddhist ceremonies in the area.

The monk continues by telling us that we can participate in the ceremony, and if we want to, we can make a brief pilgrimage around the mountain outside the temple. To find the path, all we have to do is follow the numerous faithful.

We tell Lao Song to meet us in the valley where they hold the ceremony and begin our first short Tibetan pilgrimage. We look for the path by following the other monks, but having much more time available before the ceremony starts, they ask us to have lunch with them in the cafeteria.

The lunch is strictly vegetarian and men eat on one side and women on the other. We’re not the only secular people there, but there are many who tell us that they’ve come to the temple for long or short periods to study sutras and meditation techniques.

A woman from Shanghai who currently lives in New York gives me as a gift, a book written by a monk of the Tashi gompa that was translated into English. Casually after receiving the book I meet a young monk with her Ray Bans and Apple headphones heading to the ceremony.

The monk tells me that she was the one who translated the book I have in my hand and that she herself recently arrived at the temple after attending university in Manchester. She shows me how to get to the path while she’ll watch the ceremony streaming from her smartphone Bluetooth headphones, confessing that she’s too lazy to walk all that way.

I observe her, reflecting how ancient philosophies like Buddhism can coexist with modernity like the girl’s headphones and cellphone, her Western habits and scarce propensity for making the effort of a pilgrimage. Buddhism is ultimately a philosophy centered on an analysis of a man’s internal being, and not the physical sacrifice of its practices or what one gives up in order to guarantee future salvation.

I find my travel companions again and finally we walk to the ceremony. Our pilgrimage around the mountain together with the faithful begins. They stop frequently, sitting on the grass with their eyes closed and bracelets in their hands, or walking around the stupas we find along the way.

Out of respect for their beliefs we don’t sit or walk around the stupas, limiting ourselves to look at them admiringly and walk toward the valley.

It starts to rain, and we seek cover under one of the many umbrellas before looking for Lao Song’s car to leave for Dege.

We go through Malaganga and Lake Xinluhai, 新路海, before arriving in Dege, a city that represents the eastern border of the present-day region of the Khampa, 30 kilometers from the city of Changdu, 昌都, where Tibet starts. The little city of Dege is famous for the Yinjingyuan gompa, 印经院, which, along with the Potala of Lasa and the Labrang Monastery in Gansu is considered one of the three most important Tibetan temples.

Fourth day: Dege/Luhuo

It’s our fourth day and we’ll start our return. We have two days to get to Tagong, 塔公, then it will be up to us, without Lao Song, to worry about getting back to Kangding. First, though, we have to see the Yinjingyuan gompa and Lake Xinluhai.

Visiting Yinjingyuan takes a lot of time, since besides being a religious site, it’s also a print shop, a library and the perfect place to meet real ‘holy’ Tibetans. On the first floor they carry out religious services, on the second monks and others copy sutras that will then be available at the libraries near the halls in the back.

The copying techniques consist in placing a thin strip of rice paper on a stone slab covered in black ink where the most important texts of Buddhist religion, history, astronomy and philosophy are recorded. From the temple balcony you can also enjoy an amazing view of the city of Dege. Here there are also little rooms inside of which Tibetan monks bless almost any object that is placed in their hands.

It starts to rain and in an instant the ground becomes completely muddy. We start off in the direction of Malaganga for our lunch break and to decide which way to go to return to Tagong.

The tavern is run by two old men from Chengdu and faces the state road in Malaganga. It’s the ideal place where while drinking a good soup we consult the map to figure out which road to take. We don’t have any other choices other than passing back through Ganzi, but this time instead of going south towards Litang we continue on Route 317, which then becomes 319, towards Luhuo, 炉霍, and then the next day go down to Tagong.

Fifth day: Luhuo/Daofu/Tagong

Luhuo, 炉霍, is not known for being a lucky city, as it has been plagued by continuous earthquakes and fires, the last happening as recently as 2017. The city was built in what the inhabitants consider to be a cursed place.

The earthquake of 1973 and fire of 2010 have in part marked the end of the old city of Luhuo, halving its population. After these two catastrophes the city’s appearance suffered the effects, as almost all the old wooden houses built on the hills caught fire and the few remaining ones are about to be replaced by cement buildings.

We spend the morning walking through the disorder of this large site, where despite it all there’s no lack of the extremely interesting Malgari Tibetan faces who with flocks and horses in tow pray in the rising streets of the city. Arriving at the top we enjoy an excellent view of the plateau over the new part of the city and the never-ending larch forests, which makes us understand why a fire would be frightening in these parts.

After a brief morning climb through the old streets of Luhuo we’re ready to leave for Tagong, 塔工. We continue going down, exactly like the day before, and we’re tired and really want to get into Tagong before it gets late, partly because there aren’t many stops planned on our route.

Only one stop is marked in our notebook, Daofu: the city of the Dalai Lama.

Even though the Dalai Lama was born in a small Tibetan ethnic majority city in Qinghai Province, it’s in Daofu that he studied and started his monastic life, and for this reason the city is considered by all as the city of the last Dalai Lama.

We’ve gone down a lot in altitude, and we can tell when we feel the burning midday sun, which unlike the other days, here it’s much more similar to Chongqing. At first glance the city seems very modern and barely interesting, but just get off the main road, go up and lose yourself among the small houses and the farmyard of the old city to change your mind.

We continue wandering around and enter the religious heart of the city where there are many temples one after another, and I’m struck at how there are pictures posted everywhere of the Dalai Lama without fear, something that I’ve never seen during my trip.

We walk from temple to temple until a monk comes up to us; the old lama has a peaceful and smiling expression and its seems that our presence has interrupted his moment of leisure to play with the little dog that keeps following him anywhere he goes.

He accompanies us inside the temple – he doesn’t speak Chinese well but we manage to understand each other, but then again what he shows us needs little explanation. He opens an enormous wooden door and shows us inside, which was once the accommodations for the Dalai Lama, and according to the monk everything has remained as it is when the XIV Dalai Lama lived here, even in the bathroom.

We come out of the room incredulous and keep asking questions, but the language gap doesn’t help. Fortunately a younger monk arrives who speaks excellent Mandarin, and we continue the conversation with him when my attention is captured by a photograph. I take a good look at it and I’m certain that the guy in the picture is the Panchen Lama.

The Panchen Lama was for a long time the Dalai Lama’s assistant. I use the past tense because the poor Panchen Lama was invited to Beijing during the 70’s to then never return to Tibet. Nobody knows what happened to him. Some think that he’s dead, some think he’s still in prison, and for sure the Tibetans have not proclaimed a new assistant and consider him as being the last one. I talk about it with the monk and he’s amazed since he likely never thought he’d find himself in front of foreigners who know this history.

So he asks us to leave our cameras and cell phones on a table and to follow him. He takes away a large padlock from a wooden door and tells us that we can go inside. The room and furniture are virtually identical to the Dalai Lama’s room, with the difference being that this was the Panchen Lama’s.

Finishing the visit we leave the temple feeling very satisfied, and I think back at what we just saw and the secrets of the two mysterious people hidden in such an incredible place.

We get going again and we’re about to arrive in Tagong. The last two stops will be at the immense grasslands of Longdeng, 龙灯草原, and a quick visit to the Huiyuan gompa near the city of Baima, 白马.

We arrive at Tagong towards six in the afternoon. At 2,800 meters above sea level this little city extends along the valley that reminds many of the mountainous landscapes of the Alps.

We say goodbye to Lao Song, who will head back to Kangding and we get situated at the Himalayak hostel in the city’s central square.

It seemed as if we suddenly returned to reality. The shops, food and faces of the people of Tagong are completely different than those we met on our trip. In the main square there are many Westerners that pass by, and they’re the first I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Khampa.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Monastery – Kangding, Sichuan by Axel Drainville

1 thought on “Tibetan Sichuan: Traveling in the Ancient Kingdom of the Kham”

  1. I am enjoying your blog. I will be travelling to some of these places in October. I am curious what is the name of the hostel you stayed at in Litang is? I am trying to find accommodation in Litang, and would like to make a booking on the internet, so I can include the booking confirmation with my visa application.


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