Travelling overland we traverse the vibrant cultural and economic centres of Kham, separated by spectacular valleys and gorges created by Asia's mightiest rivers - the Mekong, the Salween and the Yangtze.
Combining the tour with day-hikes, we camp in the vast grasslands alongside nomads and herdsmen. In the evenings, around a campfire, we listen to the tales of the Khampa cowboys. This trip captures the spirit of the Wild East.
Meeting in Kunming (Yunnan) we fly to Gyalthang (3,344 m), southern-most Tibetan town and historical caravan staging port. We spend a few days exploring the town and its surroundings while allowing our bodies to acclimatise to the altitude.
Sights include the chalet-style adobe houses of Dokhar Dzong (old town), 17th-century Sumtsenling Monastery built by 5th Dalai Lama, and the revered Gyalwa Ringa temple in the countryside.
The highway to Chamdo follows the great waterways of eastern Tibet and the high ranges dividing them. We drive along the Mekong traversing the forest-covered hills of the Baimang Nature Reserve. Our first stop is Jol, where we are afforded spectacular views of Mt. Khawakarpo. Continuing through Tsakhalo known for its wells along the Mekong, we reach Markham, at the crossroads of the Yunnan-Tibet and the Sichuan-Tibet highways. Markham is a prosperous and densely populated region situated between the Mekong and Yangtze rivers. It's men in their trademark red braids negotiate offers with tourists not by words but through palm shakes.
From here we travel to Chamdo, the former capital of the historic Kham province. Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Ngomchu, the town is an important administrative and trading centre.
The landmark is the 15th-century Ganden Jambaling Monastery on the outskirts of town. We visit this important Gelug monastery and explore the local market and street life.
Moving deeper into Khampa cowboy country, our next destination is Dege, the ancient kingdom known throughout the Tibetan world for the Dege Parkhang, the ancient printing press of Buddhist sutras. The green, alpine landscape is wonderfully suited for relaxing day-hikes. See also The Historical Dege Kingdom - A Cultural Centre of Eastern Tibet.
Between Kandze and Tawo, we travel through historic Trehor Khampa country, home of descendants of native Tibetans and Mongol migrants. Kandze, is a one-day drive from Dege, and one of the five ancient Trehor states founded by the Mongols in the 17th century. The trading center draws people and goods from the surrounding areas. Must sees include 17th century Kandze Monastery and Dargyé Gonpa, a monastery founded by the Mongol prince Gushri Khan. A short 4–hour hike up to Lamdark Nunnery makes for an interesting extension.
Tawo is a prosperous valley that became a major center of Catholic missionary efforts in the old days. Tawo offers ideal day-hikes, a welcome change of pace. The local farmers’ market, Nyitso Monastery, and a Christian mission with its Sino-European styled church are some of the sights.
Dartsedo is our last station in the Tibetan highlands. The former gateway to eastern Tibet and a key loading station along the old tea caravan route was the capital of the historic Chakla kingdom governed by a hereditary monarch until the first half of the 20th century. Stories abound of fortunes lost and profits gained and the ever-changing alliances among Khampa traders of old. The Docha tea, drunk by every aristocratic Tibetan household in Lhasa, was packed and loaded onto caravans here before departing for the three-month long journey for the great city.
Here too is the starting-point for treks to Mt. Minyag Gangkar. We might be fortunate to catch a glimpse of the peak in all its glory. The town also offers numerous day-hikes. Sights include Dentok Riwa hill (Paomashan) and 17th- century Ngachu Monastery, a branch of Drepung Monastery's Loseling College in Lhasa. There are also inviting hot springs at the outskirts of town.
We exit the Tibetan highlands in Dartsedo and continue to Chengdu (Sichuan) where our trip ends.
The length of this trip can be customised.