Tibetan village on a mountain
Kham is the wild Tibetan area in Sichuan, Yunnan and 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. Buses run in the area year-round but the roads are sometimes closed by snow or landslides. For a time foreign travelers in Western Sichuan were required to buy an insurance policy for around US$4, which could 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

Kham tribesman
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


Shangri-La (Zhongdian, 200 kilometers north of Lijiang) is a Tibetan village that once had a frontier atmosphere but recently has been developed for tourism. Located in a broad plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it was given permission by Beijing to be renamed Xianggelila (“Shangri-La” in Chinese) because, according to the Chinese government, it best fit the Lost Horizon description of “verdant valley crowned by a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery and encompassed by snow-capped mountains." Some thing Mount Jambeyang — an impressive peak in the area — was the inspiration for Mount Karakal.

Located at the junction of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan,, Xamgyi'nyilha County is an ethnic Tibetan township and county set high in Yunnan's northwestern mountains and is part of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. According to Associated Press: “The county was once called Gyaitang Zong, but changed its name in 2001 to Shangri-La, hoping to draw tourists by the reference to the mythical Himalayan land described in James Hilton's 1933 novel. The county has since benefited from tourism revenue. Hundreds of other Chinese cities have also rebuilt their old streets to attract visitors.”

At the same time Zhongdian was given the Shangri-La name a greater Shangri-La area was created that embraces 50 counties in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. There are plans to spend US$10 billion developing roads, building hotels and modernizing airports. A central part of the plan is to build a 1000-mile-long modern highway between Kunming and Zhongdian.

According to the Chinese government: Shangri-La was given its name because it “corresponds fairly closely to the description of Shangri-La in the popular British novel "Lost Horizon," a mystical, harmonious valley. Shangri-La means the "sun and moon in heart" in Tibetan. The azure sky, extensive fog-enveloped snowy mountains, steep grand gorges and a boundless stretch of grassland add to its breathtaking beauty and the stunning scenery. The multi-ethnic culture also makes the place very attractive. In addition, the area abounds in natural resources from valuable plants to mineral deposits and wildlife.”

Sumtsatlan monestary

Shangri-La Tourism

Situated on flat barren plateau with grazing yaks and Tibetan farms, Zhongdian is home to about 140,000 people. In the old days many of the visitors were backpackers who arrived by bus from Lijiang. Now many are Han Chinese who arrive on flights from Shanghai and Guangzhou at the new Shangri-La airport. Other towns had vied for the Shangri-La designation but only Zhongdian (also known as Gyakthang) received it. A new airport opened in Shangri La 1999 and the new road from Kunming opened a year later. After the town was renamed Shangri-La, the world's largest prayer wheel, the Fortunate Victory Prayer Wheel, was raised.

In recent years, the main roads have been paved and the run-down concrete buildings have been replaced by new concrete buildings — with Internet cafes and souvenir shops that sell yak-tail brooms and yak-butter lamps — that are set up on cobblestoned streets and are required to use traditional Tibetan-style architecture. The signs are written in Chinese, Tibetan and English. Yaks graze in open plains next the airport. To appeal to the Chinese tourists karaokes have been built and tours have been organized to local Tibetan homes.

Before 1994, access to Zhongdian was restricted. In the 1990s the bus ride from Lijiang took 16 hours and passed through steep mountains and pine forests, with isolated chortens indicating that visitors had left China behind and had entered Tibet. Zhongdian is a different place now. The number of visitors increased from 20,000 in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2006.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Shangri-La is accessible by plane from major cities in China and by bus and minibus from Lijiang. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Shangri-La Sights

North of Shangr-La town is Gyalthang Somzenling Lamasery (Ganden Sumtseling Gompa), the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan. Founded in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama, the monastery is a groups of red-and-white mud building that have been restored after being damaged during the Cultural Revolution. More than 300 monks once lived here. Only a handful remain. Murals show the pantheon of Tibetan gods. The larger temples are surrounded by small dwellings once occupied by its monks. Many Han Chinese visit the site on tour buses. Tourists can wander among the buildings and check out prayer halls with monks reciting sutras.

Mount Jambeyang is a 5,958-meter-high peak described by Joseph Rock. It is another mountain suggested as a source for mythical Mount Karakal. It is located near Nyiden village in Dabpa county in the Gazne Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture along with Mount Chanadorge and 6,032-meter-high Mount Chenreisg. Treks on foot or the back so horses,or donkeys are offered in the area. All three mountains are regarded as holy to the local Tibetan people. In 2006, about 200,000 tourists showed up in the area.

Tibetan Villages in the Shangri-La Area on a mountain

White water terraces
Deqin (near Zhongdian) is another town that vied for the Shangri-La name. It is prettier than Zhongdian and has more impressive mountains and lays claim to the Shangri-la myth because of the presence of a Roman Catholic Church and a Tibetan monastery but ultimately it missed out because it lacked the infrastructure and airport that Zhongdian had. Most travelers to Deqin pass through Zhongdian first. In Deqin (also spelled Diquing) one can go on treks with the Shangri-La tour agency and sing at the Shangri-La karaoke parlor.

Web Sites: Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Map: China Highlights China Highlights Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Deqin is accessible by bus and minibus from Shangri-La. Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Cizhong (near the Tibetan border, three hours on a bad road from the nearest town) is a village of 1,000 in Yunnan trying to cash in on Shangri-La tourism. It claims to be the model for Shangri-La "because so many Tibetan Catholics live here." The leader of the lamasery in Lost Horizon was a Catholic priest. The town features a European-style Catholic church with tiles with ying and yang symbols built more than a century ago by missionaries. Around 600 of the village's 1,000 villagers are Tibetan Catholics. They go to church every Sunday, sing chants from, hymnal called Chants in Religeux Thibetan, and observe a mass that features a dance around a bonfire, presided over by a priest that comes to the village only two or three times annually. Web Site: China Trekking (click under Tibetan towns) China Trekking

Dukezong, has a Tibetan quarter which is more than 1,000 years old and is known for its preserved cobbled streets, ancient structures and Tibetan culture. It is part of the scenic Shangri-La county in Deqen prefecture and had been renovated to lure tourists. In 2014, it suffered a devastating fire that destroyed more than 100 traditional wooden homes. Associated Press reported: “An inferno that raged for 10 hours early Saturday razed an ancient Tibetan town in China's southwest Yunnan province that's popular with tourists. There was no immediate report of casualties, and the cause of the fire was unclear, although a provincial news site said it started in a guesthouse on an old street. The blaze broke out at 1:27am in the ancient part of town. Photos and video footage showed the ancient neighborhood of Dukezong and its labyrinth of houses engulfed in flames that turned the night sky red. [Source: Associated Press, January 11 2014]

“He Yu, a resident, said she woke to loud, explosion-like sounds to find the ancient neighborhood on fire. "The fire was huge. The wind was blowing hard, and the air was dry. I was scared because my home is a little distance away from the ancient town," she said. "It kept burning, and the firefighters were there, but there was little they could do because they could not get the fire engines onto the old town's narrow streets." More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers, police, local officials and volunteers responded to the blaze and brought it under control around 11am, the Shangri-La county government said. More than 100 houses in the old Dukezong quarter were destroyed, local authorities said. Most structures were made of wood and the fire spread easily because of dry weather, state media said. Earlier this month, much of Shangri La’s old town in Yunnan was destroyed by a fire that had been caused by a faulty heater. A sad month for cultural heritage in China.


Meili Xueshan (Meili Snow Mountain), also known as Mount Kagpo,, is believed to be the model for mythical Mount Karakal in the novel Lost Horizon. It is 6,740 meter tall and described by the explorer Joseph Rock. Local Tibetan Buddhists worship it as a sacred mountain. About 30 Tibetans live in Miyon village, located at 2,350 metes above sea level. A steep four-kilometer hike from the village leads one to the top of a glacier that stretches along a deep valley for 11½ kilometers. Meili Snow-Capped Mountain located at Deqen Prefecture, has 13 mountain peaks with an elevation over 6,000 meters and ranks first among the eight holy mountains of the Tibetan area. Web Site: China Trekking (click Kawa Karpo) China Trekking

Kawagebo (White Snow Mountain) is the second holiest mountain in Tibetan Buddhism and the main peak of Meili Snow Mountain. The highest peak in Yunnan, it is 6,738 meters (22,107 feet) high. Tens of thousands of pilgrims circle it every year. Around the mountain are sacred forests and sacred waterfalls. In many places prayer flags flap in the wind. Website: China Trekking (click Kawa Karpo) China Trekking

Kawagebo has never been conquered, and locals believe its summit — and its glacier — should remain untouched. When a Sino-Japanese expedition tried to scale the peak in 1991, an avalanche near the top of the glacier killed all 17 climbers. Jia Son remains convinced the deaths were not an accident but an act of divine retribution. Could Mingyong's retreat be another sign of Kawagebo's displeasure?

Tens of thousands of pilgrims come from all over Tibet and the Tibet regions of China to circle Kawagebo (also known as Kawa Karpo). The main pilgrimage route takes about 10 days to complete. Some of the “pilgrims” are boisterous teenagers giggling and listening to MP3 players. “The inner circuit” is a shorter walk that many Chinese and foreign tourists do that goes from the valley of the Lancang (Mekong) River to the secluded Tibetan village of Lower Yubeng. Sacred sites include Mystic Waterfall and Mystic Lake.

Hiking Around Kawagebo

Yubeng (a six hour hike from the nearest dirt road) is a lovely village with about 130 residents situated below Kawagebo on a ridge between the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers. The main trailhead for the hikes is the village of Xidang, a two day drive from Zhongdian with a stop halfway in Deqin. Many stop to admire Kawa Karpo from the lookout point at Leilaisi. There is a sprawling glacier, the lowest in China, above the village of Mingyong. The rutted road from Mingyong to Xidang take in stunning scenery along the Mekong Valley. On the valley walls are villages with white Buddhist stupas.

At the trailhead to Yubeng horses can be hired to ride or carry stuff. Many Westerners do the hike on foot, some hiring horses to carry their gear, while Chinese prefer to ride horses. It is long slug through pine trees to 14,000-foot-high Nazongla Pass, where there are lots of Tibetan prayer flags and soda vendors but no real views.

For views you have to wait until you reach the villages of Upper Yubeng and Lower Yubeng, situated in a valley at the foot of Kawa Karpo. The area has recently become popular with Chinese backpackers, A number of guest houses are under construction but there are still no roads. From Lower Yubeng it is a three-hour hike to Mystic Waterfall, located in a cirque of mountains. Along the trail you are more likely to see pilgrims than tourists. Mystic lake is reached by a five hour hike that features stunning views of Kawa Karpo. Some are disappointed by the dull-water lake and the unimpressive landscape around it. Others are taken by its holiness.

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Here the upper reaches of three of Asia's mightiest rivers — the Yangtze, Mekong, and the Salween — flow parallel to one another within a 90-kilometer (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 Mekong is known as the Lancang. The Salween is called the Nujiang or Nu. “Jiang” is the Chinese word for river. The area is stunningly beautiful but rarely visited because the terrain carved by the rivers is so severe and rugged.

Fed by monsoon rains, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween all sweep east of the Himalayas then drop due south, parallel to one another, before heading off in different directions. The gorges of the upper Yangtze, Mekong and Salween are among the deepest in the world, each twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, and reaching three kilometers in some places. Each gorge is separated from the others by towering mountains with more than a hundred peaks over 5,000 meters.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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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