2018 Sichuan and Tibet Expedition A Journey along the tremendous sichuan tibet highway from chengdu to lhasa

Spanning almost 2500 kilometres, the incredible Sichuan Tibet Highway traverses the mountainous regions of Sichuan in western China. It took nearly four years to build and at the conclusion of its construction, was considered one of the engineering wonders of modern China in 1954.

The long and winding Sichuan to Tibet highway.

Rarely travelled by Western tourists, this remote area of Sichuan is home to nomadic Tibetan people, spectacular forest clad mountains, emerald lakes and the largest institute for Tibetan Buddhist studies in the world at Larung Gar.

This expedition will explore a part of Tibet that is very difficult to access without an organised tour. It is a wondrous trip that will highlight the landscapes, wildlife, people and cultural monuments of remote western China.

The expedition starts and ends in Chengdu, the Panda capital of China.


The capital of Sichuan province in China and the home of China’s famous Pandas, it is worth considering an arrival in Chengdu a few days ahead of the expedition if for no other reason to visit the Panda Breeding and Research Centre.

Located just 6 miles (10 km) away from downtown Chengdu, the Panda Breeding Research Centre has been created to imitate the pandas’ natural habitat in order for them to have the best possible environment for rearing and breeding. It cares also for other rare and endangered wild animals within an area of 92 acres, 96% of which is verdure. Giant pandas, lesser pandas, black-necked cranes, white storks as well as over 20 species of rare animals are fed and bred there throughout the year. Verdant bamboo, bright flowers, fresh air, a natural hill scene and a beautiful artificial view are merged ingeniously at its base, making it a pleasurable place for both pandas and for the people who visit them daily.

Autumn reflections in Tibet.


After a day of acclimatisation to China in Chengdu, we will take a long drive from Chengdu to Kangding, known as Dartsendo or Dardo in Tibetan, the capital of Garnze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the Sichuan part of Kham. Kangding has always been considered as the gateway to Tibet and its inhabitants are roughly 40% Tibetan and 40% Chinese with the remaining 20% being made up of minorities including the Qiang, Yi and Hui. More or less everything east of Kangding is Chinese and everything west of the city is Tibetan.

From 1939 to 1950, Kangding was the capital of the short lived province of Xikang. Xikang comprised all of modern day Garnze prefecture as well as all of modern day Chamdo prefecture in the Kham region of Tibet. In 1950, the province was divided along the Yangtze River and everything to the east of the river was incorporated in to Sichuan, while everything west of the river lay in Tibet. Prior to the early 1900s Kangding Dartsendo was the capital of the Chakla Kingdom, one of the five kingdoms of eastern Tibet.

Taking horses to drink at at lake in the mountains of Gongga.

There are twenty mountains rising in excess of 6000m that surround Kangding.

We will hopefully arrive in time to catch a cup of Tibetan coffee and watch the start of Tibetan dances that start at sunset in the town’s main square. After an overnight stop in Kangding, we will spend the morning visiting nearby Dordrak Monastery before we jump in our vehicle to drive up to the spectacular lake of Migoo Tso (Mu Ge Cuo). This high altitude lake sits at 3700m and is surrounded by the spectacular snow-capped Gongga Mountains.


Leaving Migoo Tso, we will be travelling through lands traversed by many nomadic Tibetan tribes. On our way to Tagong we will keep an eye out for people still living in tents made from traditional yak wool and hopefully meet people who have been living this way for centuries in this remote corner of the Tibetan Plateau.

Tagong Temple.

Tagong, known in Tibetan as Lhagang, is a small nomad Tibetan trading post sitting at 3700m altitude, north of Kangding. At the foothills of the spectacular mountain called Zhara Lhatse or Mount Yala, Tagong has a bustling nomadic traders market that is filled with people in traditional dress. We will stop here for one day and two nights to get used to the altitude, explore the market and visit a local nunnery (if permitted).

Nomad tents near Tagong.
Nomadic Tibetan woman
on the road in Sichuan and Tibet


From Tagong we will drive up to Sertar to visit the stunning buddhist homes of Larung Gar Buddhist Institute (if permitted). Larung Gar is home to over 40,000 monks and nuns and is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Institute on the Tibetan Plateau. While the town itself is uninteresting, the drive into it is adventurous and we will be rewarded by encounters with pilgrims from as far away as Lhasa and Amdo at Larung Gar. Given the difficult drive into Sertar we will spend two nights here before we move out of the region.

Larung Gar


From Sertar we will travel via Ganzi and Manigango to the town of Dege. En-route, if time permits, we will stop at the mesmerisingly beautiful Lake Yilhun Lha Tso that sits at an elevation of 4025 metres and is surrounded by the spectacular Cho La mountains to photograph the lake and its stunning scenery before we travel to Dege.

Dege is considered to be the cultural heart of the Kham region and the town is the home to the Parkhang Printing Press. The printing press was built in the early 18th century and houses over 70% of Tibet’s literary library. Buddhist scripture books are made here using traditional wooden blocks and it is quite fascinating to watch the printers, who work in pairs, work as fast as they can to print the scriptures on to paper.

In Dege there is also a fantastic 1000 year old monastery called Gonchen and we will spend a day in the town marvelling at the unique wooden architecture of the town’s residential buildings, visiting Gonchen and also the press at Parkhang before we leave for Sershul.

A mixture of Chinese and Tibetan prayer symbols.


Leaving Dege early we will start the long drive north to Sershul, stopping briefly to see the Dzogchen Monastery and the stunning glaciated mountains near Manigango. Most of the route between Manigango and Sershul is high altitude grasslands that are filled with yaks. There are only a few small villages along the way. This is mainly a ‘transit day’ to allow us to gain ground and enter the wilder, northern region of Kham.


We will leave Sershul early and travel around 30 kilometres north of the town to join the circumambulating pilgrims around the remote Sershul Monastery. From there we will drive into the Yushu Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to the headwaters of three of Asia’s most famous rivers – the Yellow, Mekong and Yangtze. Most of this prefecture is high at an average of 4800m altitude. It is above the tree line and permafrost. Snow can fall here at any time during our trip but we will spend time in transit here stopping to photograph the region’s stunning scenery and wildlife.

Cooking momos.


Our home for two nights, Budong Quan is located in the remote Kunlun Mountains. Thought to be a paradise of the Tao religion, the Kunlun is home to a fantastically biodiverse ecosystem. We will spend two days here in our vehicles searching for resident wild yak, Tibetan Antelope, White-lipped Deer, brown bears, Black-necked cranes, Kiangs (Wild Tibetan Donkeys), Tibetan Wolves, Tibetan Foxes and Himalayan Marmots.

Due to the high altitude of this region our travel will be slow, allowing for enough time to do photography and search for animals without getting exhausted. Our time here will be assessed on the day, depending on how the group is feeling during our drives.

We will be staying at Budong Quan for two nights to search for and photograph the region’s wildlife.


Over the years I have been visiting Tibet, Lhasa has never failed to leave a lasting impression on me. It is characterised by one of the world’s most famous buildings, the Potala, but is also home to some incredible monasteries including Sera, Drepung and Ganden.

During our time in Lhasa, we will join the monks for their daily debate at Sera. At Drepung we will explore the prayer halls and hillside rock murals of a monastery that is literally perched on a bed of granite boulders. We will take three guided tours through the incredibly old Jokhang, the Potala and also the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, Norbulingka.

We will have enough time during our stay in Lhasa to do a day tour to Ganden, a very large monastery with a spectacular Kora (prayer walk) that winds its way around a mountain with stunning views.

We will also take in the Potala by night and enjoy tea and lunch with Tibetan people at a secret café I discovered there on my first journey to Lhasa. This tiny hidden café remains a Lhasa institution. We will most likely be the only western people drinking tea there with the friendly Tibetan patrons.

If time allows I will also try to arrange a visit for you at the Ani Sankhung nunnery where we may lunch with the resident buddhist nuns.

The Potala by night

Join me on a journey through the wilds of Tibet!


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