TRAVELING WITHOUT A GUIDE IN TIBET
Yes, you can travel to a portion of Tibet without a guided tour! Tibet, in southwest China, is a large geographical region that has restricted access to foreigners. You typically need to buy an expensive travel permit to enter the region and are required to go on a guided tour.
Tours are generally not my style, mostly due to their high cost, so this wasn’t the best option for me. Plus, I had a limited timeframe before I needed to go home, so I didn’t have the luxury of sticking around forever.
How did I do this?
Well the key is not to head to the modern province of Tibet (or the Tibet Autonomous Region) but to head to the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in western Sichuan.
But if it’s in Sichuan, is this region still Tibetan? I won’t go into the history behind it, but the answer is yes.
You can commonly see the Tibetan language written all over the towns. Most people are ethnically Tibetan, identify themselves as Tibetan and speak the Tibetan language. Tibetan food, culture and religion is present throughout the region. I needed to stop at a Chinese “check point” when I entered the region in which they inspected my passport and looked at my information. And to top it off, all throughout my visit strangers would walk up to me as say: “welcome to Tibet!”.
Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture
The region covers 153,002 km2 and 78.4% of the population is Tibetan. It contains a wide range of terrains, including snow-capped mountains, glaciers, forests and large grassland expanses. The elevation is substantially higher than the city of Chengdu (Tibet is sometimes known as “the roof of the world”), so it’s recommended to try to adjust to the elevation incrementally.
Below I’ll give you an idea of where I travelled, my travel experiences, additional places you can go and my impression of the region.
Where did I go?
I had limited time to travel in the area, so I restricted myself two three regions: Kangding, Tagong and Danba.
A view of the city of Kangding as I was hiking up the mountain.
This mountainous city sits at an elevation so 2600m (8,530 ft) and is substantially larger than any other city in the region. It sits in a valley between the Tibetan Plateau and has historically been a border town between Tibetan’s and Chinese.
Upon entering the city, I was pretty surprised by how modernized the town was becoming. This might be due to a push from the Chinese government to increase tourism in the region. At night the town lights up and I saw quite a few Chinese tourists roaming the streets (few to zero none Chinese tourists).
Downtown Kangding at night.
Everyone that I met in this town were some of the friendliest people that I met on my entire trip. When I first got on a bus, a Tibetan man about my age who couldn’t speak any English took out his phone, used a translator app to tell me that if I needed any help all I would have to do is ask him. And I ran into the same type kindness during my entire stay in Tibet. Everyone was curious about what I was doing there, but ultimately incredibly friendly and hospitable. I could give a bunch of examples, but then this article would double or triple in length.
The city itself is quite nice! It has a perfect blend of old and new. Although I am not a Buddhist, I was quite impressed by the temples around town. And the landscape is stunning. If you enjoy mountainous hikes, some incredible places are just a short drive away. Sadly, I was there during the rainy season, so I had to cancel some trips to mountains and a glacier (I’m always heading towards ice!) but I took a nice hike up the mountains adjacent to the city. The city also has a museum which I found to be worth the visit on a rainy day.
A temple in the city of Kangding.
A path that I took to a monastery that was near the top of a mountain, next to Kangding.
One evening I decided to go to a few bars with a travel friend. I found it quite odd that they had a 12-drink minimum (you can’t just drink one beer) since I guess most establishments are meant to cater to larger groups. Luckily one place was able to make an exception for us. Another sold single “specialty” beers from the Europe and the US, so it all worked out. One bar actually tried to kick out a group of 6 to 8 locals so the two of us could sit down. We didn’t feel right about it, so we gave them their table back and left. But at the bars, we had some “phone translated” conversations with some locals, and once again, I was blown away by everyone’s curiosity and friendliness.
One thing I will mention though is the police presence was certainly heightened compared to other cities that I’ve been to in China (e.g. Chengdu, Beijing, Taiyuan). There were a lot more cameras on street corners and police stationed around the city. I experienced this throughout my time in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. I’ve read a travel blog that mentioned that they were harassed by police multiple times while traveling in the area, so I generally kept my distance from the police if I saw them off in the distance. I personally experienced no problems whatsoever on this trip though.
I stayed at the Zhilam Hostel for 3 nights which was my absolute favorite hostel in all of China. The staff is a mix of Tibetans and westerners, the interior is very cozy, food quite excellent, atmosphere is social (which, in my experience, isn’t that common in eastern Asia) and they have organized tours/travel guides. It seriously had everything I needed and more! I, without a question, plan on heading back there when I’m visiting the region again.
Tagong is a small town in the grasslands, sitting at an elevation of 3700 m. It has numerous Buddhist temples are quite spectacular (I heard that one was the second most important in Tibet, but I’m not entirely certain how accurate that is).
I took a shared car with two other travelers to Tagong, although buses run regularly between these towns. I stayed at Khampa Nomad Eco Lodge for 2 nights which is a ~20 minute drive outside of town. I read online that the owner of this place (Angela) is known around town so I was excited to meet her. As luck would have it, she was not there for some reason, so we largely interacted with the other friendly staff. My general impression of this place: incredibly cozy. It felt a lot more like a family gathering than a hotel or hostel, often having one meal shared between everyone. And the meals are quite good. A lot of the ingredients are grown right at the eco lodge. Local tours and homestays with semi-nomadic Tibetans can be arranged and this lodge even has a sauna! But there is no denying that this accommodation is a bit more expensive than other nearby options. So, is it worth the price? Honestly, I really enjoyed my time here and didn’t mind paying a little more (despite being a budget traveler) but it might turn some travelers away. Regardless, the view from just outside of her place is quite nice:
A view of the grasslands and mountains from outside of Khampa Nomad Eco Lodge.
Well… they are even nicer when the clouds aren’t blocking the mountain tops!
There really isn’t too much to do in the town itself. It’s pretty small and can be experienced in a day. There are plenty of Buddhist monasteries inside the town if that is of interest. The regions outside of town deserve a bit more attention. I was lucky enough to show up when an important Tibetan festival was happening. So, on my first day I traveled to a small remote village and watched some Tibetan performances. I still feel incredibly privileged to have been present for this. On the following day we traveled to a nunnery outside of town and then back into the town to witness a special performance that was occurring at the town’s main monastery. I guess the following day there were horse races too, but we didn’t have time to see them.
An important Tibetan festival. Here we were invited into yurts for food and drink (a lot of which was from yaks). Such hospitable people!
A mountain village just outside of Danba.
Danba is a city that sits on the edge of the Tibetan plateau but is at a lower elevation than Tagong. Although the city itself seemed pretty nice (not a tourist friendly city though) people mostly travel here to go to the mountain villages surrounding the region that contain unique architecture and towers. The most well-known are Jiaju, Zhonglu and Suopo.
I ended up taking a shared car with another traveler to one of the villages for one night and then I spent a second night down in the city of Danba. Buses can take you from Tagong to Danba and Danba to Chengdu. We ran into a little bit of a snag, as our driver only knew how to get us to Danba, but not to our hotel in the mountain village. As soon as we pulled up into down, he tried to drop us off with other taxi drivers who were arguing with us and amongst each other about giving us the best price. This was a bit stressful, but the hotel ended up sending a driver to pick us up, so it all worked out. Which I do not regret but the views were spectacular from the hotel!
The view from immediately outside of my bedroom door at my hotel.
And let me just say that I’m very thankful to have had the travel companion that I had (a British woman who was fluent in Mandarin Chinese). Along this entire journey, life would have been sooo much harder if I didn’t have a Mandarin speaking person with me. By the stroke of luck, I always seemed to be with someone who spoke Mandarin when I needed help with it. So, word of advice: learn a little bit before you travel here or around China. It can help you in a pinch! Anyways, the village ended up being absolutely stunning and worth the trip!
Another shot taken from a mountain village just outside of Danba.
The following day and night I spent in the actual town of Danba so I could catch the morning bus to Chengdu the following morning. Danba was nice, but the heavy police presence made me feel like I shouldn’t be out in public alone too much, so I kept my exploration very minimal. I saw only one or two foreigners in Kangding and Tagong, but in Danba I saw zero. Nonetheless, everyone seemed quite friendly.
When to go? I was there in June, which apparently isn’t the best time to go because it’s the rainy season. I’ve heard it is quite nice in spring (April to May) when Rhododendron are blooming and in autumn (September-October) when the forest begins to change colors.
Minivans- I’ve heard tales of locals in these minivans trying to rip you off. You can take them from one town to the next, but they only go if they are completely full. I’ve dealt with something similar traveling in Morocco but decided to avoid it altogether here. Feel free to use it, but I’d advise that you make sure that you are getting a decent price.
Traveling further west- While you cannot go all the way to Llasha without a permit, you can travel further west in this province. Travelers that I spoke to frequently include Litang in their travels. If you have more time you can move even further east and southward and make it to “Shangrila” in Yunnan province and circle down to a major city in Yunnan.