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 traveled, and gives a look into Tibetan life without the restrictions that come with the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Time required: You should budget at least a week to complete this route, but if you have longer you’ll be able to check out more side trips. Be aware that delays in this region are frequent – an 8-hour bus ride can easily end up taking 15 hours.
Table of contents: - Kangding - Litang - Daocheng - Yading Nature Reserve (Separate post) - Shangri-La
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 there: From Chengdu, getting to Kangding is simple. Most buses depart from Xinnanmen station and take 8 hours on a good day. Prices are around ¥120.
Where to stay: Kangding is home to one of my favorite hostels in China. I highly recommend staying at the Zhilam Hostel.
Things to do: 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.
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.
Getting there: Buses leave from Kangding in the early morning and take around 9 hours. The ticket will cost about ¥100.
Where to stay: 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.
Things to do: Litang has a very unique culture 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 travelers 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.
Sitting at 3750 meters above sea level, Daocheng is mainly visited by travelers on the way to the Yading Nature Reserve.
It isn’t a terrible place to spend a night, however.
Getting there: There are minivans leaving from Litang frequently in the morning. The ride will take 3-4 hours and cost around ¥50.
Where to stay: 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 🙂
Things to do: The one evening I was in town, 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.
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 there: From Daocheng, you can take a 12-hour bus ride. It’s an incredibly beautiful ride as you descend from Sichuan into Yunnan.
Where to stay: There are quite a few decent hostels here – take your pick.
Things to do: 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!
And that’s it! You’re now in Shangri-La and have all of Yunnan to explore next. Feel free to contact me with any questions, and let me know if you manage to travel the route!