By Peta Rush , eChinacities.com

If you’re planning a trip out of Chengdu this winter, consider travelling to the western part of Sichuan Province. Although it is cold at this time of year, the lack of rain and brilliant blue skies make this a stunning destination.

1) Kangding
Kangding (康定) or “Dartsendo” in Tibetan has historically been the cultural boundary between Han Chinese and Tibetans. Today it still acts as a gateway into the Tibetan areas of Sichuan Province or Kham, but it is certainly worth a stopover in its own right.

The town is located in a valley, at an altitude of 2,600m. It’s surrounded by a number of mountains, including Paoma Shan, which rises to 4,500m and inspired the “Love Song of Kangding” (be sure to check out the lyrics inscribed on a stone book in the town square). If you’re visiting in May, try and coincide your trip with the Tibetan Walking Around the Mountain Festival on Paoma Shan.

The extremely helpful staff at Zhilam Hostel can advise you on hikes in the surrounding area. There’s a grassy meadow two hours up the mountain behind Zhilam, which is a peaceful and scenic place to stop for a picnic lunch. If you fancy venturing further afield, the start of the pilgrim’s trail around Gongga Shan (Minya Konka in Tibetan) lies about an hour’s drive to the south of Kangding. Sitting at 7,556m, it’s the highest mountain in Sichuan and of deep spiritual importance to locals. It takes 7-10 days to do the whole kora around the mountain, but at the start of the trail there are some beautiful pastures, which can be explored on a day trip from Kangding.

Within the town itself, there are a few Tibetan monasteries, including Nanwu Temple on the far west of the town, 400 year old Jingang Temple, and Paoma Temple, which sits on Paoma Shan and commands impressive views of the whole town. Be sure to visit Malaya Tibetan Restaurant on the sixth floor above Dico’s (opposite the town square) for some authentic local food. There are also a number of noodle restaurants in the town, and Zhilam Hostel has a selection of Western food on offer.

Accommodation: Zhilam Hostel (Tel: 836 283 1100; from 40 RMB per night in the low season) or Yongzhu Hostel (Tel: 159 8373 8188; from 35 RMB per night).

Getting there: bus from Xinnanmen Station (about 7 hours), 120 RMB.

Western Sichuan
Tagong Grasslands, Sichuan

2) Tagong
Tagong (塔公) or “Lhagang” in Tibetan lies 110km to the northwest of Kangding. The town is set on the Tagong grasslands, a vast high altitude plateau that is home to a number of Tibetan nomadic families. It’s a wonderful place to experience a genuine taste of Tibetan Kham culture, but situated at a lofty 3,725m, it’s worth spending a few days acclimatising to the altitude in Kangding before coming here.

The town is home to a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery, whose splendour is at once contrasted by the bleak surrounding grasslands and set off by the imposing backdrop of nearby Yala Xue Shan. It’s well worth paying the 20 RMB admission to visit Tagong Monastery’s prayer halls and see the impressive collection of Tibetan stupas. Be sure to walk around the monastery clockwise, or just follow the stream of devotees spinning the prayer wheels along the outer walls.

Tagong is also a good base from which to explore the remoter surrounding area, either on foot or by renting bikes or horses through Khampa Cafe and Guesthouse. Nearby destinations include Heping Fahui, the biggest nunnery in the area, and a beautiful high altitude lake (ask at Khampa Cafe for directions or a guide). Angela at Khampa Cafe can also arrange longer overnight treks, including a stay with a nomadic family in the grasslands – but make sure you book in advance.

In terms of eating options, there is the usual selection of Sichuan and Tibetan restaurants lying along the main road from the town square. Khampa Cafe also offers Western dishes.

Accommodation: Khampa Cafe and Guesthouse (Tel: 136 8449 3301; 100 RMB per night) or Jyadroma’s Guesthouse (Tel: 286 6056; 60 RMB per night).

Getting there: take a shared minivan from Kangding (about 3 hours), from 60 RMB per person.

Western Sichuan
Jiaju Village, Danba

3) Danba (丹巴)
Danba (丹巴) lies at 1,893m, 110km to the northeast of Tagong. The town itself is dusty, hectic and not really worth more than a cursory look. But the imposing mountainous setting, stunning nearby Tibetan villages and Qiang watchtowers make this area well worth a visit.

Once you arrive in Danba, buy your return bus ticket back to Chengdu from the central bus station to avoid getting stranded in the town. Danba is set at the foot of a steep valley, along a raging river. Stretching along the river from the town, perched on the rocky mountainsides are a number of beautiful Tibetan villages. The most famous of these is Jiaju (甲居), which was recently voted ‘the most pretty village in China’ – an accolade that seems thoroughly well earned. It’s made up of terraced fields and imposing stone dwellings painted in traditional colours of red, black and white and set on the steep slopes of the mountain. There are a number of small guesthouses and homestay options within the village, including Liangke Shu (两棵树), which is run by a friendly local couple. There’s a modest 30 RMB admission fee to enter and stay in the village, but with this money being invested into maintaining the village and keeping it litter free, it’s hard to begrudge.

On the main road in Danba, there are a number of minivans advertising to take travellers to Jiaju and other villages. It should cost 10 RMB per person to get to Jiaju (or 40 RMB each if your driver pays the admission for you).

Accommodation: Liangke Shu (两棵树) in Jiaju, 60 RMB per person including meals.

Getting there: take a shared minivan from Tagong (about 3 hours), from 60 RMB per person.

Getting away: bus from Danba to Chengdu (9 hours), 150 RMB.

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Keywords: trip out of Chengdu Kangding Western Sichuan

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