Visiting China for the first time this summer, we really wanted to experience Tibet. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time. But as you know, going to Tibet involves a lot of arranging on forehand. Get your permit in time, go with a group or at least with ‘two and a guide’ and it can be pretty expensive too.
We prefer to just walk around freely and plan our days on the go. Which is exactly what we were able to do on this trip.

Hiking around Shangri-La (Zhongdian)

Before you go

This journey goes through Yunnan and the Kham region, at the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Kham is a part of ancient Tibet, but it’s not fully the TAR region nowadays. The part of Kham that’s now in Sichuan province is free to visit for everyone with a Chinese visum. So no, this whole trip doesn’t require any extra permit for entering Tibet.

Will you really experience Tibet on this trip then? Yes, absolutely! Most of the people living in this region are Tibetans. Also the houses along the way are mainly traditional Tibetan. And Litang for example is the birthplace of many holy men, including some of the Dalai Lama’s. If you won’t feel the Tibetan spirit here, I wouldn’t know where else you would 😉

All in all it’s a beautiful journey, full of friendly people and with off the beaten track destinations all along the way! Combined with some touristic highlights of course 😉

Getting dressed at the face changing opera, Chengdu

NOTE: if you actually do want to visit the TAR region (maybe before or after this trip?) you really need to arrange things in time. In 2016 the rules for getting a permit became more tight, so it will take more time for your permit to be arranged. If you want to be sure, contact a local guesthouse before going to China. They arrange tours to Tibet on a daily basis and can help you to understand the current situation. They will answer all your questions!
One that I would recommend in Chengdu is Miss Panda Hostel. I’ve not booked a tour through them, but I saw the agency work within the hostel. They’re very helpful.

Our itinerary

We went overlanding from Lijiang to Chengdu, crossing the following highlights:
Wander through the old town of Lijiang.
Walk to the yakfields with ah overnight stay at a Tibetan home in Shangri-La.
Visit the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama in Litang, a town where you really feel the Tibetan spirit.
Go for horseback riding on the roof of the world at Tagong.
Visit the Tibetan villages, known as some of the most beautiful villages in China, around Danba.
Linger around in Chengdu, famous for the face changing opera (also great if you don’t speak Chinese!). Go to Peoples Park to dance with the locals in summer, learn how to cook with the Sichuan pepper or go shopping in the biggest shopping mall in Asia. It’s a pretty big city so you can easily enjoy yourself a few days here.

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View along the road, from Shangri-La to Daocheng

How to get there?

Chengdu will be the main city in this trip. It’s your starting point, and your ending point.
From Chengdu you can fly to Lijiang, it’s just a short hop. If you want to go overlanding to begin with, you could also go by trains and busses, it will just take a long time. It makes sense to also visit Kunming and Dali then, to break the trip.

For the route between Lijiang and Chengdu (the Sichuan- Tibet Highway the Southern Route as Lonely Planet calls it) – note that not all roads are amazing. There might be some hobbly bobbly bits at times, especially between Shangri-La and Litang. That being said, in the whole of China they’re working on the road like crazy. Within a year or 2 there might be a totally different situation!

In winter some of the roads might be blocked due to snowfall. Though in summer the rain can also play little tricks with you 😉 As you can see in our first episode about this trip. Arriving in Shanghai in complete chaos!