In Tibet without being in Tibet


Another few hours by bus north from Lijiang and another 1000 metres higher up in altitude is Zongdian (Gyelthang in Tibetan). Zongdian was renamed Shangri-la by the Chinese government for tourism and marketing purposes. Some people choose to believe that Zhongdian is the fictional town of Shangri-La that’s featured in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon”.

At 3300m above sea level, it’s pretty fresh much of the year. Altitude sickness can be a problem, so it is probably advisable to acclimatise in Lijiang (2400m) for a few days before coming here. The old quarter is quiet, peaceful and very low-key compared to Lijiang (hopefully it will stay this way). It also has some nice cafes and restaurants which makes Zongdian a good place to chill out.

This area is where you see rugged and remote scenery and where white stupas dot hill tops. As the bus nears Zongdian, you will notice that it is far less populated here, and the architecture is distinctly Tibetan. The population is 80% Tibetan, but there are also Naxi, Bai, Yi and Lisu ethnic minorities, and also a small population of Han Chinese. The surrounding countryside, however, is entirely Tibetan. Road signs are in Chinese and Tibetan.

For most foreigners, this is a good place to experience Tibetan culture without the hassle of getting a travel permit. You can travel freely without restrictions, visit Tibetan temples, monasteries, villages, eat Tibetan food, drink Tibetan wine, stay with Tibetan families and more. The countryside is beautiful and lakes and hot springs abound. But if you really want to go to Tibet, it is possible, but the permit will take 1-2 weeks to arrange, and like most closed, or semi-closed places, you must be on a tour with a fixed itinerary. And the privilege will also come with a price.

It was much harder to travel into Tibet in 2012. You had to have a minimum of 5 people in a group, and they must all be of the same nationality. But this year, it is easier although the rules and regulations can change at a moment’s notice.

Saskia, Michel and I were pretty excited initially when we found out about the more relaxed regulations. It got us thinking if we should consider going. Although I was tempted, I had already made other plans. With the Chinese ID, it is also easy for me to enter Tibet so I could do it another time. For Saskia it is actually not that simple as she has a Chinese work permit and not a tourist visa so the procedure is more complicated. For Michel it means further visa extensions and the uncertainty about whether or not it really is possible to extend in Lhasa despite what he’s been told. So, my feeling is they will stick to their original plan and leave Tibet for another time.

Zongdian is a great place for getting off the beaten track, with plenty of trekking and horse-riding opportunities. It does get cold here though. Despite the town’s often freezing temperatures, most guesthouses do not have heating or 24-hour hot water. However, there is almost always the trusted electric blanket.


Yet another 5-hour bus ride north of Zongdian is Deqin, one of the most remote towns that lies in some of the most ruggedly beautiful scenery in China. At 3550m, it is a border town and is the last town you’ll pass on your way to Tibet.

Travel is rougher in this part of China, and you must be prepared to put up with some discomfort. It’s scenic and beautiful but the high altitude can be too much for some. The passes go up to almost 4300m+ on a few occasions. The bus ride can also be very hairy at times, and the roads are bad in some sections. And like most parts of China, everything is under construction.

We got to Deqin drama-free and pretty much on time. The bus ride was actually the most comfortable to date. There were a lot of Tibetans on board, a few women in bright and colourful ethnic costumes, and two Westerners – Saskia and Michel! We got off the bus but were desperately needing the toilet. There were no public toilets nor bush to be found so I decided we should try the local hospital. All I can say is that was THE scariest hospital I have ever been in and I prayed there and then that I will not get sick while in Deqin. It also made me grateful to be living in a country where you never have to question the hygiene level in medical facilities!

Our destination was in fact 10km from Deqin in a tiny place called Feilai Si. We hopped back on the bus and bobbed along to Tibetan music and before we knew it, we were there. The next challenge was to find a room. We inspected a few scary rooms and settled for the least scary within our budget – one with truly awesome views of Meili Mountain, or Kawa Karpo (6740m) and a smelly toilet with a hole in the bathtub. Ah well, you can’t have everything!

We ended up spending three days in Deqin enjoying the environs which included a hike up to Mingyong Glacier before returning to Zongdian where my travel companions for the past two weeks and I split ways – more bus rides for them towards Western Sichuan, and a flight for me to the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu.