Tibet is a dreamland for many travelers. Giant snowy mountains, glaciers, endless grasslands, scattered herds of yaks, mysterious monasteries and stupas, and unique culture – this is the image that appears in most traveler’s minds. And what makes this image even more incredible is the altitude – all of this is located high above the sea, between 3000 m and 5000 m, and the highest peaks on the Earth rising up to more than 8000 m. Yes, this is the “Roof of the World”.
Where is Eastern Tibet
When people think about Tibet, they look at the map and see the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, with its capital Lhasa, the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, and many other peaks, lakes and rivers. They see the border of TAR and they think: “This is Tibet.” What most of them don’t know is that this is only the western part of Tibet. This is how TAR is pronounced in Chinese – Xizang, which literally means “Western Tibet”.
But if they look at the physical map of Asia, they can easily notice that the highlands proceed far beyond the borders of TAR – not only the high altitude, but also the same landscape, the same people, the same culture, and the same mystique.
This is Eastern Tibet – the eastern part of this highland. It is shared between the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. It is a place much less famous than the touristy Lhasa, Everest, and Mt. Kailash. But at the same time, it is much easier for foreigners to travel there since there are no requirements for organized tours and a travel permit as in TAR. Moreover, this off-the-beaten-path area is not only the same Tibet, but it is even more authentic, just because it is more preserved from mass tourism.
Routes and Destinations in Eastern Tibet
Traveling to in Eastern Tibet is simple, and not much different than traveling elsewhere around most of China. The best way to reach this land is from the southeast, east, and northeast. There are several starting points that are really worth visiting, not only to start your Eastern Tibet journey, but to explore their culture, history, and modern image. These are the capitals of the Eastern Tibet provinces: Kunming, Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Xining.
Many roads start from these destinations, ascending deep within the Great Tibetan Plateau. Today, they are well-paved and there are various ways to travel on them. They cross the lands of Eastern Tibet, and some of them proceed into TAR (however, currently foreigners can’t cross into TAR from Eastern Tibet). And they pass through a lot of hidden gems, amazingly beautiful spots, where you can dive into a different world.
Let’s make a journey to the 10 best of them.
You have probably heard this name before – a fictional place, somewhere in Tibet, described by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Nobody knows exactly where it is, but one of the places that best fits its description is the small city of Zhongdian, located in the northwestern corner of Yunnan Province, at the edge of Eastern Tibet. That’s why it was dubbed Shangri-La, and today it is known by this name.
Shangri La sits at an altitude of 3150 m, on a large grassland, not far from the Three Gorges area, where three of the longest rivers in Asia flow through their deep valleys: Yangtze (called Jinsha in this area), Mekong, and Salween. Today, it is a middle-sized Tibetan city, featuring a beautiful “Old Town” area.
Here, in this “Old Town”, you can see the largest Buddhist prayer wheel in the world. You can walk around the colorful streets of the town. And if you have time, you can enjoy the beautiful grassland out of the city and the nearby monasteries, decorated with golden roofs. Finally, you can proceed northwest of Shangri-La, reaching the frontiers of Yunnan, the Three Gorges, and the majestic Mt. Kawa Karpo
Yading Natural Reserve
Deep in the southwest frontiers of Sichuan, you can find one of the most fantastic mountain landscapes in Asia. Sharp alpine giant peaks, deep glacial valleys with lakes, and gorgeous forests in the lower areas – this is a picture in the “style” of the Swiss Alps or the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Yading is one of the “holy” mountains of Tibet, a subject of Buddhist pilgrimage. Its highest peak is Chenrezig (6032 m), followed by two other notorious peaks called Jampayang and Chanadorje. All of those three peaks are involved in the Buddhist legends by the Dalai Lamas, which can be seen from their names, but nevertheless, the landscape created by them, and the surrounding nature is truly breathtaking.
The best and easiest way to reach this remote place is from Daocheng City. From there, you can travel by local bus or shared van to a small town, called Shangri La (yes, there is another town pretending to be the “real Shangri La”!), and finally, you will arrive in Yading village. From there, one of the best experiences you can try in Yading is hiking. There are several difficult, but amazing routes crossing the mountain, giving you plenty to choose from regardless of how long you’re staying.
One of the roads leading to the interior of Tibet is the so-called “Heavenly Road 318”, connecting Chengdu with Lhasa. If you approach the Great Tibetan Plateau from the east, you will cross Zheduo Pass (4290 m), and the first thing you will see is an endless sea of rolling hills, covered by grasslands. Head north across the grassland sea, and soon you will arrive in a small Tibetan town, called Tagong.
Tagong is located at an altitude of 3750 m. It is established around the monastery with the same name, Tagong (Lhagang) Monastery, featuring splendid Tibetan architecture. The town is surrounded by hills with a lot of prayer flags on them. But the most spectacular point is located just 1 km north of the Tagong – Muya Temple.
Muya Temple is beautiful, but what makes it special is the breathtaking panorama view behind it. The rolling grassland hills proceed eastward, and behind them, you can see a prominent snow-capped mountain. This is Mt. Zhara (Yala), reaching 5820 m high.
Mt. Zhara is one of the holy mountains of Tibet, and there is a circumferential “kora” route for the local pilgrims. The same route with several versions, around the mountain is used as a hiking trail. Although you can’t reach the peak (unless you are a professional climber), walking around this majestic mountain offers a fantastic experience.
If you approach Eastern Tibet from Chengdu, on the same “heavenly road 318” to Lhasa that can lead you to Tagong, you will arrive in Kangding, known as the most romantic city in China. Leave the road 318 and turn southward. You will enter spectacular gorges, stunning alpine lakes and forests, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Soon you will see one of these peaks rising significantly higher than the other peaks. This is Mt. Minya Konka.
Minya Konka is the highest peak of Eastern Tibet, the eastern “guard” of the Great Tibetan Plateau. With its 7556 m altitude, it is the easternmost 7000-er on the Earth. This is the deadliest peak in the world, with the highest mountain death rate.
But you don’t need to climb its summit. Just start a trekking on one of the routes around the peak. It will lead you into the fantastic world of the majestic Minya Konka, and you can enjoy its breathtaking views under its shadow.
If you proceed on “Heavenly Road 318” westward to Lhasa, you won’t be able to cross into the Tibetan Autonomous Region, unless you are a Chinese citizen. But before you reach the border of TAR, you will arrive in a beautiful Tibetan town, located on wide grassland. This is Litang, well-known for its local horse races.
Litang is beautiful, but we recommend leaving the road to Lhasa and heading southwest. Soon you will see several stunning snowy peaks rising high above the surrounding grassland hills. This is Mt. Ge’nyen (Ge’nyen Massif), reaching 6204 m above sea level. It is also considered a holy Tibetan mountain, and Rengo Monastery is built at its feet.
Ge’nyen Massif and its branches are one of the most challenging hiking areas in Tibet. There are also several local dirt roads crossing the area and connecting the scattered villages of the mountain, partly used by hikers. And if you join a hiking team, you will enjoy breathtaking views of its highest snowy peaks, its grasslands with Tibetan nomadic life and herds of yaks, and its fantastic labyrinth of summits and valleys.
There is a high snowy mountain chain, rising at the edge of Eastern Tibet, in the extreme northwest of Sichuan Province. Its highest peak is Rongme Ngatra (6168 m), and there are many other peaks next to it, with an altitude around 6000 m. It is rugged, high-rising, alpine, and covered with glaciers. This is Chola Mountain, one of the most beautiful mountains in this region of Earth. These peaks are difficult to access, unless you are a professional climber, and the best way to explore them is to enjoy the breathtaking views of them at a distance.
But there is a fantastic hidden gem on the eastern foot of Chola. This is Yilhun Lhatso – one of the most beautiful lakes in the whole of Tibet. The majestic Rongme Ngatra reflects its image on the pale waters of the lake, surrounded by alpine forest and grasslands. Wild horses roam on the grassland, eagles fly free. Everything is silent, except for the waterfall cascading down from one of the Chola glaciers.
Yilhun Lhatso is located on the road connecting Garze and Derge, two colorful Tibetan towns, full of Tibetan culture. Today, the lake area is turned into a national park. You can stop at the gate of the park (not far from the village of Manigango) and enjoy the fantastic landscape of the lake and the mountain. And if you bring your tent, you can spend the night at its coast, watching the cosmos from 4020 m above sea level.
This place is deep inside the extreme northwest of Sichuan Province. It is remote, scattered, and seemingly “in the middle of nowhere”. But when you reach it, you will discover a whole unreal world. This world consists of thousands of red houses covering the slopes of the rolling grassland hills. This is a city unlike any other city in the world.
The city is called Larung Gar, a part of Sertar County. Actually, it is a community of students, monks and nuns around the local Serta Larung Five Science Buddhist Academy. It started from a few houses in 1980, until it covered the whole valley and surrounding hills.
However, the Chinese government demolished a part of the community, and gradually turned it into a local tourist attraction. Temporarily, foreigners are not allowed to travel there while it is a sensitive area. But eventually, it will be opened, and everybody will be able to enjoy its uniqueness.
This is another remote and incredibly beautiful place. No matter where you approach it from, you will see a chain of sharp alpine peaks rising magnificently above the grassland rolling hills. And when you reach its gate (because it is another national park), you will discover a stunning gem – one of its glacial lakes, called Xiannü Lake (Fairy Lake). Then, if you proceed further, you will discover more lakes like this – Yaonü (Enchantress) Lake, Xiarigan Tso, Arjia Tso, Etso Doma, and Shangwen Tso.
Nyenbo Yurtse is a mountain range that traverses along the border between Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. It is not the highest range, but it is one of the most beautiful in all of Tibet, with its sharp alpine formations and lakes. Its highest peak is Mt. Guoge (5369 m), and the whole range has a “sea star” shape of ridges and valleys (with lakes) between them.
The mountain range is a favorite area for the migrating Tibetan nomads with their yak herds. Today, it is a national park, reachable from the road connecting the Tibetan towns of Jigdril and Banma. It is a hiking paradise, excellent for high-altitude trekking and camping beside the lakes (however, there are some restrictions recently, to protect its beautiful environment).
The northeastern part of Eastern Tibet consists of wide valleys and rolling hills with an average altitude 4000 m – 4500 m, and covered by vast grasslands. This is a remote area, almost entirely uninhabited. And if you travel through this place, you can suddenly see a white icy giant. This is Amnye Machen – one of the easternmost branches of Kunlunshan. And its highest peak is Mt. Amnye Machen (6282 m).
Amnye Machen is one of the holy mountains of Tibet. There is a dirt road around it, often used by the Tibetan pilgrims for a circumferential march, called “Kora.” Now, this Kora route is also used by some more adventurous trekkers.
The mountain doesn’t feature sharp peaks, but is heavily glaciated. Its largest glacier descends below the main road, so you can go there and actually walk on it. Again, it is a great place to meet local Tibetan nomads with their yaks, wandering through one of the most remote places on Earth.
If you stare at a map of Asia, you can see it from above looking like a precious stone. This is the “Blue-Green Sea” of Tibet – the largest lake in Tibet, and the whole of China. A place at the edge of the Great Tibetan Plateau, where three civilizations meet – Tibetan, Mongol, and Han Chinese.
Qinghai Lake is located in Qinghai Province, at an altitude of 3205 m, and is an endorheic lake with salty water. It is surrounded by vast grasslands and small sand deserts. You can see the local yellow rapeseed flower, one of the Qinghai Lake’s symbols. And there are sheep, yaks, and horses everywhere.
Qinghai Lake is considered holy in Tibet as well, and is a part of the circumferential “kora” route. Now, this route is very popular for bikers. While you travel around the lake, you can stop at its western coast. This is the location of the Bird Island – one of the largest bird sanctuaries in Asia. You can also enjoy wandering on the dunes at the northwestern mini-desert. And you can enjoy fantastic lake views everywhere around the lake shores.
This is Eastern Tibet, the eastern part of “the Roof of the World” – a fantastic land of dreams. Besides these 10 gems, there are so many other amazing and off-the-beaten-path places that are just as stunning and waiting for you to explore.