Everything you need to know about travelling overland between Chengdu and Shangri-La (or vice-versa).

The overland journey from Chengdu to Shangri-La takes one from the megacity of Chengdu to mountainous Tibetan region of Kham. It is one of the most spectacular routes that I have ever travelled, and gives a look into Tibetan life without the restrictions that come with the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Chengdu to Shangri-La overland route
A map of the Chengdu to Shangri-La overland route

Why travel overland from Chengdu to Shangri-La?

When I was backpacking in China, I was surprised at how few people hadn’t heard of this amazing overland route.

Most people looking to travel from Chengdu to Yunnan simply take a train from Chengdu to Kunming, and then continue to other parts of Yunnan. That works, but you miss out on Western Sichuan!

The overland route from Chengdu to Shangri-La takes you through authentic Tibetan towns, over 4000+ meter mountain passes, and to one of the most beautiful places in all of China – the Yading Nature Reserve.

If you have the time for it, you definitely need to add the Chengdu to Shangri-La journey to your China itinerary.

How long does it take?

You should budget at least a week to complete this route, but if you have longer you’ll be able to take more side trips and spend time taking in the amazing Tibetan culture. Be aware that delays in this region are frequent – an 8-hour bus ride can easily end up taking 15 hours.

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Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base
A panda at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu

Chengdu is my favourite city in China, and I’m sure that you’ll love it too. It’s got a much more laid back vibe than other large cities in China – it’s got a thriving arts scene and some of the best cafes in the entire country.

Don’t hesitate to spend some extra time here – in total, I’ve spent a couple of weeks in Chengdu and can’t wait to get back soon.

Things to do in Chengdu

Chengdu is famous for pandas and spicy food. You can see pandas by visiting the Chengdu Panda Base as a day trip. Try to go in the morning – the pandas are most active then! You should try some hot pot when you’re in Chengdu – it’s a spicy boiling broth that you cook meat and veggies in right at your table.

Spicy hot pot in Chengdu, Sichuan
Spicy hot pot in Chengdu

Where to stay in Chengdu

My favourite hostel in Chengdu is the Flipflop Hostel. I made some great friends when I stay here, and highly recommend it as a place to stay in Chengdu!

Getting to Chengdu

Chengdu is very well connected to the rest of China by both air and rail. Check out Trip.com for domestic flight and train prices.

Kangding from above
Kangding from above

Kangding

Historically Kangding was the gateway between China and Tibet, and it still kind of feels that way. Kangding is the largest city in Western Sichuan and is a great place to spend a few days.

Getting to Kangding from Chengdu

Getting to Kangding from Chengdu is pretty straightforward. Most buses depart from Xinnanmen Station and take 8 hours on a good day.

Update: A new expressway has opened between Chengdu and Kangding, cutting the trip length in half. I haven’t taken the new road yet, but according to bus schedules, the journey should now take between 4 and 5 hours.

Prices are ¥135. The views during this journey are incredible. You’ll gain over 2,000 meters in elevation as your bus makes its way through incredible valleys and over high passes. Get a window seat if you’re not afraid of heights!

Be sure to check out the latest bus schedule from Chengdu to Kangding.

Sunrise views from the Zhilam Hostel
Sunrise views from the Zhilam Hostel

Where to stay in Kangding

Kangding is home to one of my favourite hostels in China. When you’re here, I highly recommend staying at the Zhilam Hostel.

Things to do in Kangding

Hike! There’s some great hiking nearby. Ask at the Zhilam Hostel for recommendations. I hiked up the mountain located behind the hostel, it offers some great views of Kangding.

If you’re up for some coffee, check out Himalayan Coffee –  great coffee and cheesecake (and the last decent coffee you’ll find until you get to Shangri-La).

It’s a good idea to spend a couple of days in Kangding doing day hikes to help get acclimatized for the Tibetan Plateau.

Horses in Kangding, Sichuan
Horses in Kangding, Sichuan

Litang

Litang sits at an elevation of 4000 meters, and is probably the closest thing to a Tibetan “wild-west”. Walk down any street in Litang, you’ll notice most local men wear cowboy hats and look 20 years older than they actually are.

I decided to only stay one night in Litang. While the town has a lot of charm, there was major construction going on everywhere while I was there, which pushed my decision to move on. I had arrived in mid-afternoon, so spent the rest of the daylight wandering around town taking photos.

Road views on the way from Kangding to Litang
Road views on the way from Kangding to Litang

Getting to Litang from Kangding

Buses leave from the Kangding’s main bus station at 7 AM and take 6.5 hours to complete the 272 kilometer journey.

Tickets currently cost ¥102. Again, this is an incredible journey and you’ll gain another 1,500 meters in altitude. Window seat!

Be sure to check out the latest bus schedule from Kangding to Litang.

Where to stay in Litang

I stayed at a hotel about 100 meters from the bus station as it was recommended in the Lonely Planet for its English-speaking owner. I discovered that the management had changed, and they no longer spoke English (they were still very friendly). Try to shop around find somewhere you like. Litang isn’t the most touristy place, so most hotels here will be fairly basic.

the monk and the cowboy in Litang, Sichuan

Things to do in Litang

Litang has a very unique vibe and just walking around the streets is enjoyable. Check out the monastery on the north side of town, and if one is happening, you may be able to witness a “sky burial” out in the nearby grasslands.

For dinner, I highly recommend Mr. Zhang’s restaurant, which is a fairly popular place among travellers who pass through Litang. I had some gong bao ji ding that was delicious! Mr. Zhang is very friendly and speaks a bit of English.

father and son spinning prayer wheels in Litang

Daocheng

Sitting at 3750 meters above sea level, Daocheng is mainly visited by travellers on the way to the Yading Nature Reserve.

It isn’t a terrible place to spend a night, however.

Getting to Daocheng from Litang

There are minivans leaving from Litang frequently in the morning. The ride will take 3-4 hours and cost around ¥50. The road between the two towns is actually pretty good and mostly flat now that you’re up on the Tibetan Plateau.

My hostel in Daocheng
My hostel in Daocheng

Where to stay in Daocheng

I stayed at the Yading Backpackers International Youth Hostel and enjoyed it. They have a fluffy white dog that likes to hang out with guests 🙂 The hostel is in a very cool Tibetan-style building.

Things to do in Daocheng

I was only in Daocheng for one evening, so I climbed up a hill on the outskirts of town and watched the sunset. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t many other attractions. Just walk around and take in the unique atmosphere of this remote town.

Sunset over Daocheng
Sunset over Daocheng

The Yading Nature Reserve

You definitely don’t want to miss the Yading Nature Reserve.

Yading is one of the best places for trekking in China. There are a number of different hikes you can do in the area, ranging from 1 to 7 days long.

Getting to the Yading Nature Reserve from Daocheng

From Daocheng, there are buses, minivans, and shared cars that head to Riwa Town, which is at the entrance of the Yading Nature Reserve.

The trip from Daocheng to Riwa takes about 3 hours. You’ll want to spend a night in Riwa, and then set out for the mountains the next day.

Visiting the Yading Nature Reserve

I’ve already written a detailed guide to travelling and trekking in the Yading Nature Reserve, so go and check it out!

The Yading Nature Reserve
The Yading Nature Reserve

Shangri-La

Formerly known as Zhongdian, Shangri-La is the final stop on this route. The “old town” of the city burnt down in 2014, so it’s currently being rebuilt.

Getting to Shangri-La from Daocheng

From Daocheng to Shangri-La, the bus ride is about 10-hours and will cost ¥108. According to the schedule, the bus should depart at 6:10 AM. I’d recommend checking with your hostel/hotel to verify it’s departure time.

It’s an incredibly beautiful ride as you descend from Sichuan into Yunnan (seems like these incredible journeys are a common trend in Western Sichuan eh?).

Be sure to check out the latest bus schedule from Daocheng to Shangri-La.

Where to stay in Shangri-La

There are quite a few decent hostels here. I stayed at Tavern 47 and had a great time. It’s in a traditional wooden Tibetan house and is very close to the main square of the Shangri-La Old Town.

en route to shangri-la
En route to Shangri-La

Things to do in Shangri-La

Walk around the recovering old town and pay a visit to the cities largest monastery. Personally, I’d recommend spending more time in other parts of Yunnan! I think that Shangri-La is more interesting if it’s the only Tibetan place you visit (travelling only in Yunnan, for example). If you’re coming from Western Sichuan, Shangri-La isn’t quite as cool 😉

And that’s it! You’re now in Shangri-La and have all of Yunnan to explore next.

Chengdu to Shangri-La Overland Itinerary

Here’s a sample 8-day itinerary for travelling the overland route between Chengdu and Shangri-La:

  1. Chengdu to Kangding – On your first day, take the gorgeous bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding
  2. Day in Kangding – Explore Kangding (consider going on a short hike to help acclimatize)
  3. Kangding to Litang – A long but beautiful drive, taking you to above 4,000 meters in Litang. Spend the evening strolling around Litang and experiencing it’s unique wild-west vibe.
  4. Litang to Daocheng to Riwa – In the morning, get a ride from Litang to Daocheng. Have lunch in Daocheng, and then continue onto Riwa (the entrance of the Yading Nature Reserve).
  5. Hiking in the Yading Nature Reserve – Spend the day hiking in the Yading Nature Reserve, and sleep in Riwa.
  6. Riwa to Daocheng – Short drive back to Daocheng, spend the rest of the day trying some local Tibetan food and walking around town.
  7. Daocheng to Shangri-La – Very long but incredibly beautiful drive. Upon arrival in Shangri-La, check into the amazing Tavern 47 hostel.
  8. Day in Shangri-La – Roam around the newly restored old town and check out the amazing Ganden Sumtseling Monastery near town.

This is a pretty rushed itinerary, but is totally doable if you’re limited on time. If you have more time, I highly recommend spending a bit longer in certain places like Kangding, Litang, and the Yading Nature Reserve.

en route to shangri-la

How to get your China Visa

Still planning your trip to China and haven’t got your visa yet?

The Chinese tourist visa can be a bit of a pain to get, so why not have the folks over at iVisa handle it? They make the application process much smoother than going directly through the embassy, and can even get a 10-year tourist visa for certain nationalities.

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Also – if you’re still planning your perfect China trip, check out my ultimate China backpacking itinerary for some inspiration!

Feel free to contact me with any questions, and let me know if you manage to travel the route!

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Yay transparency! There are affiliate links in this guide. If you book or buy something using my links, I’ll make a bit of money at no extra cost to you.