Summer is the perfect time for an adventure on the Tibetan Plateau. But you don’t have to go through the process of getting special permits to Tibet in order to experience the richly spiritual and deeply welcoming Tibetan culture. In fact, some of China’s most exciting adventure destinations lie just outside the borders of Tibet proper on the outer edges of the Tibetan plateau. Here are our favorites:
1. Western Sichuan – Sacred mountains and Tibetan villages tucked into the hills
Sichuan is better known for its pandas in Chengdu, but venture further west to where this friendly province borders its Tibetan neighbor and you will find more than a dozen Tibetan tribes, including the fierce warriors and horsemen of the Khampas.
In the hillside Tibetan town of Riwa you can find Tibetan architectural details throughout the village in both monasteries and homes. The town is also referred to as the “New Shangri-La” for its exceptional scenery. In the early 2000’s, there was a campaign in search to find the “real Shangri-La,” from James Hilton’s, Lost Horizon. The small town of Zhongdian, situated in northern Yunnan, won the name Shangri-La, but the debate still continues on whether or not Riwa is indeed James Hilton’s true paradise.
Milk Lake in Yading Nature Reserve
Yading Nature Reserve
Nearby is the pristine Yading Nature Reserve, with its three sacred mountains, which Tibetan Buddhists believe symbolize the compassion, wisdom and energy needed to achieve enlightenment. Wander through grasslands and gaze into the stunning colors of Milk Lake. Embark on foot or horseback on a hike to the lesser-known Frog Lake, which sits between the mountains, for a picnic with a view.
Begin your own adventure to western Sichuan.
Venture a bit back to the east and you’ll find the hillside mansion of a Tibetan village chieftain. Part mansion, part fortress, the walls of this enormous hillside structure are nearly 1m thick. The mansion is made up of a series of courtyards and many of the rooms house beautiful Buddhist shrines and artwork.
2. Eastern Qinghai – The ancient meeting place of Mongolia and Tibet
Qinghai was once the hiding place for many of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred scripts and artifacts when Buddhism was under threat in China during the 12th century. Today it is a fascinating mix of Tibetan, Muslim and Taoist traditions.
Qinghai is China’s largest lake, a saltwater body that holds a sacred significance throughout the region. In the 16th century, the Mongol Khan and the third Dalai Lama met on the shores of Qinghai lake to solidify their alliance (after this Dalai Lama died, his successor was discovered to be a young boy of the Mongol Khan’s tribe).
Today, the faithful journey here to circumvent the lake on a sacred kora pilgrimage journey, bowing low every few steps. The kora around the lake takes at least two weeks. Qinghai lake is also a waypoint for many of species of birds that stop here over the course of their migration paths. Go on your own journey around the lake by foot or by bicycle.
Ta’er Monastery in Xining
Experience the Tibetan, Hui (Muslim) and Han Chinese communities that each have shaped the traditions and customs of the region. The city itself may remind you of many Chinese urban centers but, only on the surface. A moment more of observation will reveal the many cultural layers that exist. Journey outside the city to Ta’er Monastery, one of the most important monasteries of the Gulag sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Admire the multicolored thangka art here, and watch elderly monks carve intricate figurines out of yak butter. Nearer the city center, you’ll find the Dongguan mosque. During Friday prayers, the street outside the mosque is blocked off to accommodate the hundreds of devotees who face their prayer mats toward Mecca.
Venture into these sacred Buddhist lands on a personalized journey.
3. Central Gansu – Home to the largest Lama monastery outside Tibet province
In central Gansu province, you’ll find the city of Xiahe, situated in a mountain valley high on the Tibetan Plateau. If you come during the Monlam festival you can witness the unveiling of a giant thangka painting unrolled down an entire hillside.
The majority of the town of Xiahe is made up of the Labrang Monastery and Nunnery. Labrang is the largest monastery outside of Tibet. Pilgrims from rural areas pour in every morning to pray in prostration along the 3km kora. Here, roofs are beautifully gilded, and chapel halls are softly illuminated with yak-butter lamps, the fuel’s distinctive smell lingering in the air. Wander about town, venture into the encircling mountains, or enjoy the stunning morning views at the Thangka Display Terrace in the monastery grounds. Don’t miss the library of wood-blocks used to print sacred tests.
You can’t leave Xiahe without venturing outside the city into the surrounding plateau. Book a stay at Norden Camp the luxury camp staffed by local nomads just outside of Xiahe. Norden offers travelers a home on the grasslands with minimal ecological impact. Stay in a yak wool tent or log cabin, surrounded by summer flowers and grazing wildlife. Indulge in some stargazing, go horseback riding, hike through the surrounding countryside, or visit a local nomad family. Get crafty at Norlha Workshop and learn how to weave scarves and blankets from yak wool from the nomads.
Embark on a luxurious Tibetan retreat at Norden.
4. Northern Yunnan – Fabled Tibetan villages of Shangri-la
Yunnan is one of China’s best kept travel secrets, full of great food, diverse local cultures and wilderness to explore. In the hills and mountains of northern Yunnan you’ll find a rich Tibetan heritage.
The Songtsam Circuit
This series of five lodges, each nestled into its own mountain valley, is an unparalleled way to experience life on the Tibetan plateau. Each of the Songtsam lodges showcases the unique scenery, culture and spirituality of its location. At Meili lodge, enjoy breakfast in the library and practice yoga at sunrise on the terrace viewing platform. In Shangri-la, enjoy views of the sacred valley from the terrace, accompanied by scrumptious Tibetan cuisine.
Travel the Songtsam Circuit on a personalized retreat.
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