EASTERN TIBET is centered around Nyingchi (between Lhasa and Qamdo) and embraces Nyingchi, Qamdo and Shannon Prefectures. A new airport there has helped open up the region, which has traditionally not seen many outsiders. Traveling there on Sichuan-Tibet Highway is a long slog. Pei is an access point for lumbering in Tibet.

Southern and Eastern Tibet lie in the river region of Tibet, which features fertile mountain valleys such as those found on Yarlung Tsangpo River (the upper courses of the Brahmaputra) and its major tributary, the Nyang River, the Salween, the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Yellow River. The Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon, formed by a horseshoe bend in the river, is the deepest, and maybe longest canyon in the world. Among the mountains there are many narrow valleys. There is no permafrost here. The valleys have rich soil and are well irrigated, and richly cultivated.

Nyingchi Mainling Airport in Mainling, Nyingchi is regarded as one the most challenging airports to land and take off in since the airport is in a winding valley. Opened in 2006 and built at a cost of US$96 million, it is 2,949 meters above sea level and able to handle 120,000 passengers a year.

Nyingchi Airport is situated in the valley of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in the Southeast of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, surrounded by over-4,000-meter-high (13,000 foot) mountains often enveloped in clouds and fog. The narrowest flight path is less than four kilometers km from one mountain ridge to the opposite one on the other side of the valley. According to meteorological data, there are only 100 days a year with suitable weather for using the airport.


Kham is the wild Tibetan area in Sichuan, Yunnan and eastern Tibet that is very different from the dry and brown Tibetan plateau. A lush and green and well-watered place, Kham features old growth forests, rhododendron trees and spectacular mountains and Alpine scenery. Antelopes, golden eagles, packs of green parakeets, snow leopards, bears, monkeys and wolves and bandits still roam here. The roads here have only recently been opened to tourists and many places are still off limits.

Kham is different from Tibet in other ways. The Khampa Tibetans live wood or stone houses with brilliantly carved windows not concrete or mud brick houses or yak-hair tents as is the case on the Tibetan plateau. There is not a large Han Chinese presence here other than police and soldiers. Some Han Chinese here have even married Tibetans. There region has long had a reputation unruliness and independence. Tibetans here have been able to practice their religion and customs with relatively little interference from Beijing. Until the riots in 2008, monasteries openly displayed pictures of the Dalai Lama. In some villages you can still find people who practice polyandry. The area is also very poor. Many people are illiterate and infant mortality rates are high.

Scenerywise, Kham is stunning. There are mountains over 20,000 feet; red pandas and snow leopards, dense virgin forests and Tibetans, Naxi and Yi villages. The upper reaches of four of Asia's mightiest rivers — the Yangtze, Mekong, the Salween and Irrawaddy — flow parallel to one another within a 55 mile band, divided by high mountain ridges. The Yangtze river, known in this area as the Jinsha, marks the boundary between Tibet and Kham.

The relatively high rainfall and drastic elevation changes in Kham produce an explosion of biodiversity, which includes more than 10,000 plant species, 162 species of rhododendron and 120 species of primrose. The region is source of Asian medicines and herbs and matsutake and morel mushrooms. The Washington-based Nature Conservancy is active in the area, preserving plantlife and wildlife.

Late August and Early September is the best time to visit western Sichuan. The rainy season is June through August. Bus run in the area year-round but the roads are sometimes closed by snow or landslides. For a time foreign travelers in Western Sichuan are required to buy an insurance policy for around US$4, which can be obtained at the China Insurance Company next to the Holiday Inn in Chengdu, Sleeper buses (with bunks, not seats) and newer more comfortable buses bound for western Sichuan, leave from Xinnanmen bus station in Chengdu. The eight-hour trip from Chengdu to Kandling cost about US$15.

People in Kham

The Khampas, or Kham, are a Tibetan tribe of herders and farmers who live in eastern Tibet and Sichuan. Known for their fierceness and skill as horsemen, they are generally larger and tougher than other Tibetans. Men often wear red turbans or fox-fur hats and robes trimmed with leopard and otter skin and carried scimitars, decorated swords or daggers in their belts.

The Khampas still pride themselves on being horseback warriors. Khampa men and women have very long hair, often braided and worn in buns or pony tails adorned with turquoise, wrapped in a red sash, or worn with red or black tassels. It is a big deal for a Khampa man to cut his hair. Traditionally only a man can cut the hair and no scissors are allowed near the head.

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: The Kham “are tall and well built, fearless and open of countenance. The Kham men can be easily recognized in the crowd with gold or silver accessories, plaited hair and purple faces. They walk on the street like moving hills. The Kham women also like wearing some gold and silver accessories. Their bright laughter definitely draws your attention. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Kham has a warrior tradition. Much of Kham was closed to foreigners until 2000 because if banditry and political resistance in the region by Khampa Tibetans, who led the resistance movement against the Chinese in the 1950s. According to legend the Kham are “the offspring of the god of war and the god of beauty. The women were born to be pretty and the men are born to be brave. The Kham people lived in a hostile environment for a long time, but they never gave up. Through brave fighting with the nature, they survived. In the Medicine King City, lived a medicine king. Impressed by the Kham's courage and charming points, he often gave them free medical treatment. At last, he even taught Kham what he had learned in his life time, including all the herbal medicine and disease treatment methods. Since then, the Kham had never fallen ill." It is also said that they are knowledgeable of medicine and other Tibetans and Chinese seek them all out to find out their secrets to good health.

Hengduan Mountains

Hengduan Mountains (occupying an area between Burma, Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet) has been designated a biological hot spot because it is rich in unique wildlife — which includes red panda and snow leopards — and plant life and because its flora and fauna are threatened by the encroachment of people. In the mountains ate peaks over 20,000 feet, three of Asia's great rivers — the Mekong, the Irawaddy and the Salween — and villages occupied by Tibetans, Naxi and Yi.

Many common garden plants — such as the regal lily, golden-throated white trumpets, white mist poppies, various forsythia, bushes, clematis vines, rhododendrons, dogwoods, crab apples. and primroses — originated from here along with 50 species of conifers; 230 species of rhododendrons; and more than 30 species of plant in the rose family Botanist count more than 3,500 species of native plant in the Hengduan Mountains, the highest number of endemic species for an temperate area. The Hengduan mountains are so biologically rich for four main reasons: 1) the region encompasses huge variations in elevations with distinct ecosystems at each level: 2) the area escaped glaciation during the last series of ice ages that scoured the landscape in other mountainous areas; 3) the isolated tall peaks and deep valleys created biological islands where new species could spawn; and 4) the harsh geography created microclimates that allowed rain-drenched rain forest to exist just a few kilometers from desert-like highlands.

Hengduan vegetation zones include: 1) Alpine desert at16,000 to 17,500 feet, characterizes by rugged moraines and tiny-leaved herbs and cushion plants; 2) Alpine from 11,500 to 16,000 feet, with moorlands and grasslands, small-leaved rhododendrons. primroses and poppies; 3) subalpine, from 10,000 to 11,500 feet with dense coniferous forests, larch and spruce trees; 4) cool temperate from 5,000 to 10,000 feet with a mix of deciduous trees, conifers and rhododendrons and shrubs; 5) temperate from 2,000 to 5,000 feet with rain forest and evergreens; and warm temperate from 0 to 2,000, dominated by cultivated land for rice, wheat, oranges. palms, bamboo and cypress. Website: Travel China Guide UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site

Sichuan-Tibet Highway

Sichuan-Tibet Highway is one of the world's highest, most dangerous and roughest roads. Built between 1950 and 1954, it consists of two main branches — the 2412-kilometer northern route and the 2140-kilometer southern route — that branch off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. The road has constantly been improved is less rough and dangerous than it used to be.

Most of the routes are comprised of twisting one lane dirt or gravel roads. Covering the distance between Chengdu and Lhasa used to take take two weeks to traverse by truck. Half the vehicles in the military convoys that traveled this route were fuel trucks that kept the other vehicles going. The Lonely Planet guides described an accident in which a truck overturned and one American lost half his arm and an Australian woman had multiple back injuries. It was several days before medical help arrived.

The Northern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is 2412 kilometers long and branches off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. Also known as Route 317, it passes over the 16,128-foot pass, Tro La, which is littered with the skeletons of vehicles that couldn't make it, and passes through the small Tibetan towns of Luhou, Graze and Dege (pronounced DEHR-geh). Buses from Kangding to Dege in Sichuan leave on odd-numbered days. The 370-mile journey takes at least two days, with buses stopping overnight in either Garze or Luhou, . Also on odd-numbered days there are buses between Chengdu and Garze. This journey takes about a day and half and and costs US$24.

Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, See Below

Chamdo Prefecture

Located in the eastern part of Tibet. Chamdo Prefecture is covered by the Hengduan Mountains and divided by the Jinshajiang, Lancanjiang, and Nujiang rivers. It covers an area of about 110,000 square kilometers with Sichuan province and a tiny piece of Yunnan Province to the east, Nyingchi Prefecture to the south, Lhasa Prefecture to the west and Qinghai Provinces to the north. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Chamdo Prefecture embraces 11 counties (Chamdo, Gyamda, Gongjo, Riwoqe, Dingqen, Chagyab, Baxoi, Zogang, Mangkang, Lhorong, and Palbar), 13 districts, 9 towns, 168 townships (including nine towns), and 1,622 administrative villages. Twenty-one ethnic groups including Tibetan, Han Chinese, Hui, Zhuang, Naxi, Lhoba, Monba, and Bai live here. The prefecture's total population is over 550,000, of which 98.26 percent are Tibetan.

Many kinds of plants and countless precious wild animals grow and live respectively in the depths of the high Hengduan Mountains. Because of its special geographical structure, Chamdo has also formed a rich nonferrous metal zone. The Yulong copper mine in Gyamda produces high-quality copper, accompanied by certain amounts of gold, silver, molybdenum, and iron. It is the second largest bronze mine in Asia.

The Jinshajiang (Yangtze),Lancangjiang (Melong), and Nujiang (Salween) rivers all go through the Chamdo Prefecture. The annual flow capacity is about 38.9 billion cubic meters. Counting other rivers, the annual flow capacity in Chamdo is over 40 billion cubic meters. Usable water resources in the area can produce 40 million kilowatts of power.


Qamdo (1,000 kilometers from both Lhasa and Chengdu) is in Tibet near the border of Sichuan. Located at an elevation of 3,200 meter, it was once a remote town of dilapidated building and rickety footbridges, but in recent years has been extensively renovated by the Chinese. New buildings, schools, libraries and hospitals have been built. The town now has a modern downtown area, named “Nanjinglu of Tibet," after Nanjinglu Avenue in Shanghai. Most of the businesses and much of construction has been done by Han Chinese-run companies. Most of the jobs that the Tibetans get are in manual labor. The world's second highest airport is in Qamdo. Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel Guide China

Qamdo (officially Chengguan and also called Chamdo) has traditionally been one of the major towns of Kham. It is Tibet's third largest city after Lhasa and Shigatse, with a population of about 46,000 people. It is located about 600 kilometers (370 miles) east of Lhasa as the crw flies but is 1,120 kilometers via the southern branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and 1,030 kilometers via the northern branch. route.

Qamdo sits at an altitude of 3,230 meters (10,600 feet) where the Za Qu and Ngom Qu rivers join to form the Lancang River (Mekong). Historically, Chamdo was a hub of the Tea Horse Road, leading from Sichuan to Bengal via Nathu La pass. At the turn of the 20th century it had a population of about 12,000, a quarter of whom were monks. Galden Jampaling Monastery was built between 1436 and 1444 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, Jansem Sherab Zangpo. At its peak it contained five main temples and housed 2,500 monks. It was destroyed fighting in 1912 but the main hall (which was used as a prison) and two other buildings survived. It was rebuilt in 1917 after the Tibetan army retook Qamdo. It now houses about 800 monks.

Nyingchi Prefecture

Nyingchi is located in the southeast part of Tibet, where the Himalaya Mountains and Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) Mountains extend from west to east, like parallel huge dragons, joining the Hengduan Mountains in the east. Nyingchi borders Yunnan province to the east, Chamdo Prefecture to the northeast, Nagqu Prefecture to the northwest, Lhasa Prefecture to the west, and Shannan Prefecture to the southwest. The border between Nyingchi Province and India and Myanmar to the south is 1,006 kilometers long.

Nyingchi Prefecture covers a total area of 117,000 square kilometers and has a population of about 200,000 people. It embraces seven counties (Nyingchi, Mainling, Gongbo'gyamda, Medog, Bome, Zaya, and Nang). Lying at an average altitude of 2,900 meters above sea level, Nyingchi has the country's second largest forest area and enjoys an agreeable climate throughout the year, with an average temperature of above 0 degree Centigrade in winter and at 20 degrees Centigrade in summer.

Nyingchi is being touted as Tibet’s winter tourism destination. With green mountain slopes, snow-capped peaks, and crystal-clear rivers, Nyingchi has been called the "pure land" on the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau and the "Switzerland in Tibet." Nyingchi means "throne of the sun" in Tibetan. Scenic spots include Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon, Midui Glaciers, Badong Waterfall and the spruce forests in Gangyon.


Bayi (700 kilometers east of Lhasa and 1,500 kilometers west of Chengdu) is the main town in Nyingchi Prefecture. Formerly known as Nyingchi County, it is home to about 50,000 people and is located in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Both steep cliffs and flat valleys can be found in the area. The average altitude is 3000 meters above sea level. "The lowest places are just around 1,000 meters above sea level.

Scenic places in the Bayi area include Seche La Mountain Scenic Spot, in the east of Nyingchi County, is a part of the Nyainqentanglha Mountain Range, the watershed of the Nyang River and the Polung Tsangpo River. The Sichuan-Tibetan Highway through the town. The nearest mountain pass is 4,728 meters above sea level. Here one observe the sea of clouds, large expanses of forest and towering Namjagbarwa Peak." Bayi is also a military outpost that serves a sensitive Indian border area. Web Site: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide

Nyingchi Mainling Airport in Mainling, Nyingchi is regarded as one the most challenging airports to land and take off in since the airport is in a winding valley. Opened in 2006 and built at a cost of US$96 million, it is 2,949 meters above sea level and able to handle 120,000 passengers a year.

Nyingchi Airport is situated in the valley of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in the Southeast of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, surrounded by over-4,000-meter-high (13,000 foot) mountains often enveloped in clouds and fog. The narrowest flight path is less than four kilometers km from one mountain ridge to the opposite one on the other side of the valley. According to meteorological data, there are only 100 days a year with suitable weather for using the airport.

Near Bayi in Nyingchi Prefecture

Mainling (60 kilometers south of Nyingchi, is a great place to enjoy forests, rivers and snow-capped mountains. The Mainling area is home to more than 720 kinds of seed plants, including pine trees, ferns and azaleas. Additionally waterfalls and glaciers dot the Mainling landscape.Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is accesible. Mist-crowned Namcha Barwa is visible. Water flows backward at the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo and Niyang rivers.. Check out Gega natural hot spring and the primitive forest of Nayi Zhagong Valley.

Bomi (60 kilometers northeast of Nyingchi, 800 kilometers east of Lhasa) features breathtaking scenery from mountains and lakes. Bomi, is the home of the Kaqin glacier, the largest marine type glacier in China. In May and April, Bomi has large areas of peach blossoms and highland barley that enhance the area's beauty.

Ranwu Lake (near Bomi) is called "the Tibetan Switzerland." The lake is set more than 3,800 meters above sea level and covers an area of 22,000 square kilometers. The seasons dictate the water's color, which ranges from aquamarine to turquoise. When the sun rises, the lake looks like a mirror reflecting snow-capped mountains, white clouds and the surrounding forest. Ranwu Lake is the largest lake in Eastern Tibet, and is surrounded by Mt. Gangrigabu in the southwest, the Azhagongla Glacier in the south and the Bosula Peak in the northeast, with the famous Lagu glacier extending to the lake from the north.

Zayu (near Nyingchi) sits between the Himalaya Mountains and Hengduan mountain range. It numerous lakes and abundant rain have earned it the nickname "Water Town." Due to its special physical features, many varieties of fruits and vegetables grow here. The weather makes it suitable for tea to be grown, too. In fact, this is the land that first produced Tibet tea.

Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is 2140 kilometers long and branches off from the main road west of Chengdu past Luding and Kangding. It passes through the small Tibetan towns Litang and Batang before reaching Tibet. The Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is said to be the more spectacular and beautiful than the Northern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway of the two branches but is also considered to be more dangerous so make sure you have a good driver and good vehicle.

The Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway — which is part of the G318 that runs from Shanghai to the Tibet-Nepal border — has traditionally been part of the Tea Horse Road and the a pilgrimage route to the holy city of Lhasa from Sichuan. In recent years it has become a passageway for Han Chinese youths seeking their fortune in Tibet.

Spectacular sights along the way include the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, Mount Gongga, the expansive Maoya Grasslands, Mudui Glacier and Namcha Barwa, the highest mountain in Nyingchi and the 28th highest peak in the world. The route also takes you deep into Kham region culture to places like Danba, Kangding, Xinduqiao, and Litang and Nyingchi — where it can be argued Tibetan culture is more alive than it is in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

March to April is good to visit. While most of Tibet is still cold, the climate in Nyingchi is already warm. In Nyingchi area thousands of peach trees are in bloom. In May and June, the azaleas are blooming and a good place to see them is at Sejila Mountain in Nyingchi Prefecture. Here there are 25 different azalea species on one 50 kilometers section of road. During July to August everything is green and horse racing festivals are held in Litang and elsewhere. Be careful though: this is the rainy season. Although rain showers are usually short landslides and road washouts occur. September to October has some of the best weather. The rainy season is over and skies are deep blue and the air is brisk. November to February is still okay for trekking and sightseeing in western Sichuan and the southeastern Tibet but is generally too cold and dangerous to travel along the highway. Some of the passes are closed with snow and many of the lodges and hostels along the route are closed.

Three Parallel Rivers Area of Yunnan and Tibet

Shu Pass (near Kawa Karpo) divides Yunnan and Tibet and the Lacang (Mekong) watershed and the Nu (Salween) watershed. Reaching an elevation of 4,800 meters (16,000 feet), it is marked by prayer flags and often covered in deep snow, Although the Lacang and Nu are only 22 miles part as the crow flies, the gorges are so deep and steep it take two to hike up from the Lacang, which sits at 2,135 meters (7000 feet) and is so warm farmers grow grapes and cactuses thrive, to the pass. The climb up takes one past a new ecozone about every thousands feet or so, starting with deciduous forests, and then graduating to evergreen broadleaf forests to temperate coniferous forests, with trees with foot-long needles and dangling strands of lichen, to talus and finally to snow. One the decent the trail is so rutted in some places it is two feet deep and so steep there are switchbacks every 20 feet or so.

Lancang River Canyon (at the border of Yunnan and Tibet) is a 150 kilometer stretch of the river that cuts through the mountains from Foshan township to Yanmen township. On the left bank of the canyon lies Meili Snow Mountain, while on the right bank is the Baima Snow Mountain. The canyon is about 14 kilometers long.

Great Nujiang Gorge — with the Biluo Snowy Mountains one side and the towering Gaoligong Mountains on the other side — is one of the world's deepest and most dangerous gorges. Extending for 315 kilometers, it is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of China. Dangerous rocks tower emerge from the mountains and precipitous cliffs drop to the river. Water in the valley flows rapidly and tempestuously. Since ancient times traveling on the river or crossing it has been so perilous and difficult that was said, "blue sheep has no way out and monkeys worry, too". There are only several ferry crossings where the flow of water is a bit slow and wooden boats can cross the water. Except for these, there is no place for erecting bridges or wading across. For most The Nu people, there is only one way to cross the river—overhead cables.

72 Turnings of Nujiang River

The 72 Turnings of the Nujiang River (50 kilometers from Baxoi County in Chamdo Prefecture) is a section of the Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway also known as "72-turnings of sky road". Regarded as one of the most dangerous sections of road in the world. The “72" refers to the number of switchbacks between its lowest point on the Nujiang River and its highest point on at the Nujiang Mountain.

Many of the high-latitude highways in China display spectacular engineering and construction, but this section of road takes the cake. This 12-kilometer long stretch of the highway switches back and forth, as it ascends the mountainside, with sharp turns at each interval. Drivers must take particular care driving down this road, and make sure their brakes don’t fail them.

In 2019, a viewing platform is situated on the edge of a cliff between the 72-turnings and the Nujiang Gorge on National Highway 318 was opened. According to Architect Magazine: “The design of the viewing platform strives to bring the risk of the 72-turnings into full play, to seek danger in danger...On the cliff of Nujiang Canyon with a drop of more than 100 meters, a creative glass viewing platform is designed. The platform is cantilevered 27 meters outward and the ground is covered with transparent glass.

“The main platform contains reception center, exhibition hall, cliff restaurant, supermarket, toilet and other functions. The project contains river-crossing zip line, cliff swing, cliff sightseeing Lift, suspension Bridges, river-crossing glass suspension bridge, plank road and other sightseeing and recreational facilities, so that the project has more participation and interaction.

Places Along the Southern Branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway in Tibet

Namcha Barwa is the highest mountain in Nyingchi and ranks as the 28th highest peak in the world. Rising 7,782 meters (25,531 feet) above sea level, it is the main holy mountain for Bonism, the oldest religion in Tibet, and is one of the most revered mountains in southeast Tibet. Reputed as the “Museum of Natural Vegetation”, Namcha Barwa has the most intact vertical vegetation zone in China, with evergreen and semi-evergreen tropical rainforests scattered in the river valley below and tundra and Alpine zones below the glaciers.

Midui Glacier (at Yupu Town, just eight kilometers off the Sichuan-Tibet Highway) is one of the lowest glaciers in the world with its snow line at just 4,694 meters high. The glacier is passes through four distinct regions: snow-capped mountains, forests, lakes and villages and temples. Midui was ranked by China National Geography Magazine as one of the top six most beautiful glaciers in China. It has only been open to tourists since in 2007; Admission: 50 yuan; Travel Information: :It is about an hour's walk from the entrance to the glacier.

Lulang Forest (Lulang Town, Nyingchi County) is a beautiful 3,700-meter-high mountain meadow nestled between the mountains and glaciers. There are charming villages a wide variety of vegetation. In Tibetan, the Lulang means “a place to forget your homesickness”.

Basum-tso Lake features picturesque scenery. . Basum-tso means "green water" in Tibetan. The lake features jokuls, forests and an islet with a monastery whose stretches back more than 1,500 years.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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