Tibet is not yet open to international passport holders due to COVID-19 prevention measures but, actually, you have many other choices to experience Tibetan culture and Tibetan Plateau scenery.
Tibetan Autonomous Regions
Apart from Tibet, there are four other Tibetan autonomous regions in China, located separately in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. These four regions are divided into ten small autonomous prefectures and two autonomous counties.
Among these 12 small autonomous regions, Gannan, Shangri-La, Western Sichuan and Northern Sichuan are at the top of our list for visitability. As a bonus, no Travel Permit is required for taking a tour there.
Gannan, with mostly-Tibetan towns and villages, is located in the southern part of Gansu Province. The average altitude there is around 3,300 meters (10,800 feet) above sea level. There, you will experience both Tibetan culture and stunning Tibetan plateau landscapes. Compared to the other Tibetan regions, there’s a lower risk of suffering altitude sickness if you are well prepared.
Shangri-La, hidden in the wrinkles of the Hengduan Mountains in the northwest of Yunnan Province, is unique for its alpine landscapes, including sacred snow-capped mountains and spectacular gorges.
Western Sichuan, with its rich Tibetan culture and diverse landscape of forests, grasslands, and glaciers, has become a paradise for Chinese adventurers and photographers.
Northern Sichuan, the peaceful homeland of Tibetan and Qiang people, is like a hidden treasure waiting for people to discover. Normally, visitors combine a Northern Sichuan Tour and a Gannan Tour as the two share a border.
What to See in the Tibetan Regions
For sure, the Tibetan monasteries are the key sites for experiencing Tibetan culture.
Labrang Monastery in Gannan is one of the six major temples of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, with the same significance as Gandan Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet and Ta'er Monastery in Xining, Qinghai.
At Labrang Monastery, you can walk the world’s longest corridor of prayer wheels.
Further to the south of Gannan at its border with Northern Sichuan, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist Temple is divided by the Bailong River into two monasteries: Sertri Gompa in Gannan with a shiny golden roof and Kirti Gompa in Northern Sichuan where the body of Living Buddha Kirti V is still kept unspoiled there. You will find monks debating in these two monasteries just as you might experience at Sera Monastery near Lhasa.
At Sertri Gompa, there’s a celestial burial platform, which is the only one that is open to visitors in Gannan. If you are curious about celestial burials and if there happens to be one taking place during the day of your visit, you may choose to witness the ceremony. This is something that you cannot experience when taking a Tibet tour.
- Cannot wait to take this unique experience? Join in our Gannan: An Earthly Pure Land tour to fulfill your dream.
The largest Tibetan Buddhist temple complex in Yunnan, Songzanlin Lamasery in Shangri-La is said to be “the Little Potala Palace”. It is a fantastic Tibet alternative, with the best Tibetan cultural experience available without going to the Potala Palace and Lhasa.
- You may have a chance to visit the Lama's Dormitory and paint your own Tangka when taking our Shangri-La Exploration Tour. This unique experience is something that you cannot get in Lhasa!
Slow down your pace, wander through the Tibetan villages, and enjoy every moment and every scene you see. You may see an Amdo man riding a horse, a Tibetan woman picking vegetables in a small field, an old Tibetan grandma holding a baby with one hand and a kettle in the other, a monk having a picnic lunch with his family in the shade...
Langmusi, where Gannan’s Sertri Gompa monastery is located, is said to be “the Oriental Switzerland”, known for its river gorges, mountains, and forests. For years, this small alpine town has been inhabited with Amdo Tibetans, Hui Muslims, and Han Chinese, who live peacefully together but stick to their own beliefs.
Zhagana is a must-see on a Gannan tour. It is in a mountainous region filled with Tibetan villages, ancient forests, and large rocky spires. The blue sky, distant mountains, rolling wheat fields, and villages together make for an awesome experience.
Zhonglu Tibetan Village is in Western Sichuan’s Danba County, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful village areas in China. The village contains hundreds of Tibetan-style houses, all with distinctive crown-shaped roofs, that are scattered across the terraced fields. Visit a local Tibetan family and get a hands-on experience of their culture.
Nixi Tibetan Village, around 40 minutes’ drive from Shangri-La, is hidden in a valley with a line of white pagodas accompanied by an old tree. Walking along the peaceful country road, you will experience the local daily life close up. This village is also known for making traditional black pottery, which has a history of around 4,000 years originating in Tibet. The villagers in Nixi mostly make household items, such as pots, jars, stoves, basins, and even soap dishes.
High-Altitude Natural Scenery
Snow Mountains and Glaciers
The Meili Snow Mountains, the highest mountains in Yunnan Province, are a holy land of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. The mountains are known for Kang Karpo Peak at 6,740 meters (22,100 feet) above sea level. The other 13 lesser peaks, each more than 6,000 meters above sea level, surround Kang Karpo Peak, which looks like it is being covered in gold as the sun rises in the east.
Haizi Mountain, the largest ancient ice cap on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is situated between Daocheng and Litang counties in Western Sichuan. The average elevation is 4,500 meters (14,800 feet). The most unique part of the landscape of this area is the thousands of lakes containing a multitude of big and small stones that glittering in the translucent waters.
In Yading Nature Reserve, three snow-capped mountains — Mount Jambeyang at 5,958 meters high (19,550 feet), Mount Chanadorje also at 5,958 meters high, and Mount Shenrezig at 6,032 meters (19,790 feet) high — sit in a triangle. These three mountains represent compassion, wisdom, and power respectively, and are holy to the local Tibetan people.
- Don’t miss taking a horse trek or hike around the mountain areas to enjoy the blue sky, have a deep breath of the fresh air, and fully free your soul.
Apart from the three sacred mountains in Yading, the three holy lakes there make Yading still more popular with tourists.
Milk Lake is an elegant lake that got its name from the outermost layer of the lake water, which is colored white. Local legend says that the whiter the water is, the bigger the golden harvest will be. It is a glacial lake shaped like a drop of water, surrounded by alpine meadows, a glacier, and snowcapped mountains.
Five Color Lake, also known as Danzengcuo, is the highest lake in Yading at an altitude of 4,600 meters (15,100 feet). The water of the lake is clear, but the bottom looks like a grid filled with rich and pale shades of blue. In Buddhist scriptures, Five Color Lake together with Namtso Lake, Yomdrok Lake, and Manasarovar Lake in Tibet are “the Tibetan Holy Lakes”. It is said that Five Color Lake can reflect history and predict the future, so many Buddhists go there for worship and pilgrimage.
Pearl Lake is also called Zhuomalacuo and is 4,100 meters (13,450 feet) above sea level. This green lake looks like a piece of jadeite that was carved by nature and then quietly inlaid between heaven and earth. The reflection of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, mirrored in this holy lake, makes it a great place for photography lovers.
- Take our Daocheng and Yading Tour to admire the sacred snow mountains and holy lakes.
Grand Prairies and Wetlands
Gannan is full of grand prairies and wetlands, and these highland meadows make Gannan more charming than other Tibetan regions. Visiting there is just like visiting the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The difference is, you can experience the traditional culture of the semi-nomadic Tibetans, not the Mongols’.
Ganjia Prairie, which is close to Labrang Monastery, is dotted with vast herds of yaks and sheep. Not far from the grassland, there’s an old town which used to be an important military stronghold along the Ancient Silk Road. It is interesting to see that the town is like a hollow cross with eight walls, instead of the traditional four walls commonly used in ancient China.
The scattered Flower Lakes make Ruo’ergai Grand Prairie more charming than other prairies. In summertime, this grassland is full of little white flowers, flourishing marshes, and vibrant wildlife — a must-visit for nature lovers.
Besides Gannan, grasslands in other regions also attract travelers and photographers for a visit.
Tagong Grassland is a vast expanse of meadow located in Northern Sichuan, with an average altitude of 3,900m (12,800 feet). These beautiful grasslands are home to Tibetan nomads who graze their herds of yaks and live in traditional black yak wool tents.
Litang Grassland, near Litang Town of Western Sichuan, is a famous equestrian site and is full of Tibetan yaks. In August, the Annual Horse Racing Festival is held there. You may enjoy both the wonderful equestrian performances and the traditional clothing of the Kangba men and beautiful Tibetan girls.
Pudacuo National Park in Shangri-La is a stunning display of nature, with lakes, forests, meadows, streams, brooks, and rare plants and animals.
More to Explore: Non-Tibetan Attractions
For those who are interested in Buddhism, the Bingling Grottoes closed to Gannan cannot be missed. You will take a speedboat ride across Liujiaxia Reservoir, where it is interesting to note the distinct colors of the reservoir: clear blue water connects to the muddy yellow water from inflowing rivers.
The Bingling Grottoes are one of China's largest ancient Buddhist temple complexes, containing around 183 caves that showcase the differing cultures, clothing, and physical features of the worshipped gods. The earliest Buddhist carvings date from around 420 AD and have Indian features and clothing.
The Yellow River, Mother River of China, is said to have around 18 (major) bends. When taking a Gannan or Northern Sichuan tour, you will have a chance to enjoy the very first great bend of the Yellow River. Go there in the late afternoon and take a long escalator up to the platform to have a panoramic view. Enjoy the golden sunset reflecting on the vast grasslands.
Yunnan Golden Monkey National Park is located in the old-growth forests of Tacheng, home of the Yunnan golden monkeys. They are the only primates living at an altitude of 3,000–4,500 meters (10,000–15,000 feet) above sea level, apart from some humans! Just like pandas, they are a national treasure of China.
- Take our Shangri-La, Deqin and Tacheng Adventure Tour if you are a fan of wild animals, and you can also appreciate the sacred snowy mountains along the way.
Best Times to Visit Tibetan Regions
Gannan and Northern Sichuan
July and August are the golden months for traveling to Gannan and Northern Sichuan, when the grasslands are the most luxuriant, full of wild flowers. Though winter is very cold and road conditions are bad due to heavy snow, many Tibetan Buddhist festivals are held there from December to April.
Western Sichuan’s high plateau has a long winter and its cool summer has strong sunshine. The most suitable time to travel is from May to October. The best scenery is in autumn (September and October), when you can appreciate the colorful forests.
The best time to visit Shangri-La is from March to October. The mountain weather in Shangri-La is very changeable. Remember to pack a jacket even if you travel in summer, as early morning and evening can get quite cool.
Best Ways to Reach the Tibetan Regions
The best way to reach Gannan is to travel via Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, which has convenient flights from major tourist cities of China. Most tourists hire a car and driver, driving all the way from Lanzhou south to Langmusi Town (about 400 km or 250 miles), passing Linxia and Xiahe.
Western and Northern Sichuan
Chengdu is a popular staging point for journeys to Western and Northern Sichuan.
For Western Sichuan, you can travel from Chengdu to Daocheng by private car. The airport in Daocheng has 4 morning flights from/to Chengdu.
For Norther Sichuan, as it shares the border with Gannan, you may either start from Chengdu or Lanzhou and travel by private car, making a long road trip to cover all the Tibetan highlights along the way.
Shangri-La Airport is in the air corridor flying from Kunming to Tibet and Southern Asia countries. There are flights from several popular cities of China to Shangri-La, like Kunming, Chengdu, Lhasa, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Highways are the main means of transportation around Shangri-La. Taking an adventure tour by road from Chengdu to Shangri-La, you will explore the best-kept secrets on the highways connecting the Han area and the Tibetan area. Along the way, you will discover towering snow-topped mountains, magnificent gorges, high altitude mountain meadows, charming glacier lakes, and peaceful Tibetan villages.
Tips for a Tibetan Region Trip
- The above-mentioned Tibetan regions are remote locations. Hotel rooms are basic and the general service standard is lower than in most cities of China. For example, breakfasts might only be Chinese style, with limited or no Western food. Hotel staff might speak very simple English or only Chinese.
- When visiting these Tibetan regions, please respect their customs and traditions. Pay attention to any notices of what to do and what not to do.
- These regions have an altitude of over 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). Some people might suffer altitude sickness. Please follow our suggestions regarding how to reduce or deal with altitude sickness.