ITC logo

The Tea Horse Road - Yunnan & Tibet

GUILIN & LI RIVER |  LIJIANG |  ZHONGDIAN  |  LHASA  |  Gyangtse & Shigaste

During the opening of trade routes between the East and West, one of the most extensive and most incredible was the Tea Horse Road which moved tea over the high mountains of Yunnan and through Tibet to the West, largely in exchange for horses. By its peak in the 13th century China was trading millions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year.

The ancient route was actually several branches, depending on the season and sources. This trip itinerary follows the Guan Ma and Guan Zang, the longest, that once stretched almost 1,400 miles across the chest of Cathay, from Yaan, in the tea-growing region of Sichuan Province, to Lhasa, the almost 12,000-foot-high capital of Tibet. As one of the highest, harshest trails in the world, it snaked up out of China's verdant valleys, traversed the wind-stripped, snow-scoured Tibetan Plateau, forded the freezing Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, sliced into the mysterious Nyainqentanglha Mountains, ascended four deadly 17,000-foot passes, and finally dropped into the holy Tibetan city.

Snowstorms often buried the western part of the trail, and torrential rains ravaged the eastern portion. Bandits were a constant threat. The desire for trade was why the trail existed, the trail was heavily used for centuries, not for any romantic swapping of ideas and ethics, culture and creativity associated with the legendary Silk Road to the north, for the cultures at either end at times despised each other. China had something Tibet wanted, tea, while Tibet had something China desperately needed—horses.

As recently as 60 years ago, much of Asia still moved by foot or hoof, the Tea Horse Road remained a thoroughfare of commerce as the main link between China and Tibet. This trip follows this legendary trading route between China and Tibet, exploring the history and culture of its villages and cities, ancient kingdoms, high-mountain vistas, and sacred temples.

The Forgotten Road about the Tea Horse Road (National Geographic)

Tea Horse Road (click to enlarge)

Lijiang rooftops

The Many Splendors of Yunnan

With rapid development spreading across every corner of China, one region has provided a blissful escape. Situated in the far southwest and bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma, the spectacular province of Yunnan has vertiginous 20,000-foot mountains, hundreds of rivers (including the upper Yangtze) and astonishingly varied plant and animal life. Though comprising less than four percent of the country’s land area, it contains roughly half of China’s bird and mammal species, including rare snow leopard, lynx, musk deer, golden monkey and black-necked crane. A visit to this pristine environment is particularly special after time spent in the eastern cities. In Yunnan, the air is crisp and clear and the sky is often a perfect robin’s egg blue.

Here more and more are coming to see the famously romantic landscape of the Ringha Valley, tucked between Tibet and Sichuan Province (James Hilton famously mythologized a valley in this region as Shangri-La in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon).

Diqing is a place of precipitous gorges, expansive grasslands and slopes forested in pine and azalea. Bright sunshine splashes the grazing yaks and the wooden carts rumbling along the quiet country roads. The region’s settlements are constructed primarily of rammed earth and timber and are inhabited by villagers wearing colorful traditional garb. Yunnan is exceptional for its ethnic diversity, with the highest number of “minority peoples” of any Chinese province and in the Ringha Valley, the people are predominantly Tibetan. How long with this unique area of China remain unspoiled? Although it remains pleasant, Lijiang will show you how popular the region is becoming, particularly with domestic tourists. It is an exceptional time to experience the region before it feels the impact of this rising popularity.

There are endless trekking opportunities in the south’s tropical rain forests, and in the north, snow-capped Tibetan peaks hide dozens of tiny villages and temples rarely visited by tourists. Yúnnán is also home to a third of all China’s ethnic minorities (nearly 50% of the province is non-Han) and despite the best government efforts, numerous pockets of the province have successfully resisted Han influence and exhibit strong local identities. Even Kūnmíng, the provincial capital, has a flavor that seems more than half a world away from Běijīng. Despite the rapid economic growth, Kūnmíng, ‘Spring City, ’ retains an individuality that has earned it a reputation for being one of the more cosmopolitan and relaxed cities in the southwest. Yúnnán is the sight of important archaeological discoveries, including sophisticated Bronze Age cultures around Diān Chí (Lake Dian) and the oldest human remains yet found in China (human teeth fragments dating from 1.75 million to 2.5 million years ago).

View Images of Yunnan

Tibet—Gateway to Heaven

A shimmering jewel in the magnificent Himalayas, Tibet is one of the most stunning destinations in the world for its natural beauty. Source of no lesser rivers than the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Indus, and the Ganges – to name but a few – and surrounded by the jagged peaks of the highest mountains in the world, Tibet's landscapes are astonishing. Equally amazing, in the shadow of Everest, the Tibetan people have developed a gentle, mysterious culture, and visitors will discover a place lined with stupas and adorned with fluttering prayer flags marking one of the most spiritual cultures on Earth. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen everywhere, from the capital whose name literally means "Holy Land," to old citizens spinning prayer wheels, 1,300-year-old Lhasa and its otherworldly Potala Palace, home to generations of Dalai Lamas past.

After Yunnan, travel from Lijiang into the upper reaches of the Yangtze River past the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge to Zhongdian, or "Shangri-la" as the Chinese have renamed this town in to the heartland of the Tibetan Plateau. In Zhongdian view sacred monasteries and admire stunning vistas of mountain peaks and harsh beauty of this once-forbidden land.

Following Zhongdian, visiting the religious and political heart of the Tibetan world, Lhasa, which sits on the north bank of the Kyi Chu River, ringed by towering mountain ranges. Here in the traditional capital of Tibet is the recognizable red and white palaces of the Potala, home to Tibet's spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lamas, since the 17th century.

After visiting the magnificent Potala Palace, traveling the Friendship Highway to the fabled cities of Gyangtse, Shigatse, and Tsetang passing glaciers, farm lands, and gigantic Yamdrok-Tso Lake en route, to discover authentic Tibetan culture.

View Images of Tibet

Day 1 | Arrive Guilin

oday, fly into China's picturesque Guangxi province under blue skies and crisp air. Although Guilin is one of China's most popular domestic tourist stops, there remains unspoiled villages and splendid landscapes around the city.

Among the Chinese, the area in the southern China province of Guangxi is legendary for its beauty and has served as inspiration for generations of poets and artists. Although there are pleasant parks, a few historic sites, and a night market that are worthwhile to explore, the city of Guilin itself lacks charm (having been heavily bombed during the World War II and rebuilt in the utilitarian style popular in the 1950s). However, it has the immense good fortune of being situated in the middle of some of the world's most beautiful landscapes. This region of limestone karst hills and mountains, rising almost vertically from the earth, has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. Formed over 200 million years ago, when the area was under the sea, the land beneath began to push upward, the sea receded, and the effects of the ensuing erosion over thousands of years produced this sublime scenery. A highlight of a visit to Guilin is a cruise on the Li river, a famous subject of postcard-perfect photographs from travelers who have cruised on the tranquil waterway through the stunning karst geography.

Arrive into Guilin, city famous for its dramatic landscapes of limestone karst and at its center are two lakes, Cedar and Banyan, remaining from a Tang Dynasty moat that once surrounded the city, which we will glance briefly before transfering Longsheng (about 4 hours) through the picturesque countryside, pausing at sights along the way.

After arrival at the lodge, afternoon relaxing and admiring the view of the legendary Longji—terraced rice fields visible from the lodge. The fields are beautiful all year round, in the early stages when filled with water, and as the rice grows and matures, changing colors as it does by harvest time to a golden hue. The lush bamboo groves surround the small hillside villages of the local Zhuang and Yao people.

Mr. Jiang Zhuo: 137-077-35588—Mobile

Junyao Airlines TBA, Depart Beijing 8:05A, Arrive Guilin 10:45A (2hr 40m) TBA

Mr. Jiang Zhuo: 137-077-35588—Mobile

Li An Lodge (Dinner)

Li-An Lodge Longsheng T

October & November weather in Guilin is sunny and clear, but with ideal temperatures in the mid-60s to 70s.

Day 2 | Longshen

Today, a full day of light to moderate trekking in Longsheng, through famous rice terraces known as Longji ("Dragon's backbone") which have created into an intricate pattern on the hillsides over centuries by the hands of farmers dating back to the Yuan Dynasty from 1271 to 1368.

Here we will also pass through and visit local villages (mostly Zhuang and Yao, but also Miao and Dong).  

During our trek, enjoying lunch back in your resort or in one of the villages cafes featuring country-style Chinese food and admiring the unique traditional architecture of the tribal houses of the region.

In the afternoon, return to resort to relax before dinner.

Hikes in Longseng vary from shorter 90 minute treks to two hours from Ping'an village to rice terraces summit reaching an altitude of almost three thousand feet), with longer hikes by preference.

Li An Lodge (Lunch & Dinner)

Yao women living in Longsheng (in the Huangluo Yao Village) are known for having the longest hair in the world, which is never cut and instead, wrapped in a bun on top of their head in a style resembling an Indian turban.

Day 3 | Longsheng to Yangshuo

In the morning, continue through the countryside by car back to Yangshuo (about four hours), stopping along the way to take in the sights. After lunch, enjoying a pleasant bicycle ride through the magnificent landscapes of karst mountains, meandering rivers and emerald green fields. Here you will witnessing authentic life of local people in villages and on their farms.

In the afternoon, return to Yangshuo to attend a cooking class, preparing your own dinner of local specialties.

GREEN LOTUS Yangshuo Resort

Banyan Tree Yangshuo Imperial Retreat Villa

An elegant rural resort featuring a setting of unmatched beauty, designed in a classic Chinese architectural style, which sprawls across a massive riverfront space framed by dramatic karst peaks.

Web: Banyan Tree Yangshuo

Day 4 | Li River & Yangshuo

After breakfast, enjoying the quintessential Guilin experience—a cruise on Li River (漓江) floating through the sublime karst scenery the river meanders through. The Li River originates in the Mao'er Mountains in Xing'an county and flows 437 kilometers through Guilin, Yangshuo (our destination) and Pingle, down into the Xi Jiang, the western tributary of the Pearl River in Wuzhou. After four to five hours cruising past the breathtaking scenery, arrive in the small town of Yangshuo, surrounded by soaring limestone peaks.

In the afternoon, exploring the small town's charms.

In the evening, a performance of Liusanjie, an hour-long sound-and-light extravaganza set outdoors on the Li River amidst the Karst Mountains. The show features many of the ethnic minorities who live in the surrounding area and the show's director, Zhang Yimou, is also the impresario behind the opening ceremony for the Olympics in Beijing.

BANYAN TREE Yangshuo Riverview

Elegant dining at Banyan Tree's Baiyun Restaurant featuring Guangxi and Cantonese


Day 5 | Li River

After breakfast, enjoying the quintessential Guilin experience—a short cruise on Li River (漓江) through the majestic karst scenery. The Li River originates in the Mao'er Mountains in Xing'an county and flows 437 kilometers through Guilin, Yangshuo and Pingle, down into the Xi Jiang, the western tributary of the Pearl River in Wuzhou. Also visit to the town of Yangzhou (扬州 "Rising Prefecture"), which has a history of almost 2,500 years, including the city where Marco Polo was based.

After docking, exploring the city is famous for its public bath houses, lacquerware, jadeware, embroidery, paper-cut, art & crafts (including stuffed animals) and we'll pause to visit these shops and the local market.

In the evening, a performance of Liusanjie, an hour-long sound-and-light extravaganza set outdoors on the Li River amidst the Karst Mountains. The show features many of the ethnic minorities who live in the surrounding area and the show's director, Zhang Yimou, is also the impresario behind the opening ceremony for the Olympics in Beijing.

Day 6 | Guilin to Lijiang


Black Dragon Pool

Lijiang lies a 45-minute flight from the provincial capital Kunming. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, it was home from 1922-1949 to the Austrian-American scholar Joseph Rock, once known familiarly as “National Geographic’s man in China.” James Hilton is supposed to have based his best-selling novel Lost Horizon on his articles, with its tale of the secret valley of Shangri-La. Today, the old town remains a labyrinth of wooden houses (their upturned pagoda roofs hung with scarlet lanterns) and cobbled streets, laced by a network of tiny streams and canals.

Lijiang is one of the most distinctive regions in all of China, set in a stunning and dramatic landscape. Enjoy a full day in this beautiful city, including attending “Impressions of Lijiang” an astounding performance piece with a cast of hundreds. Also experience a guided walking tour of the picturesque Old Town of Lijiang (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and if you wish, a leisurely bike ride to Baisha Village.

During your stay, visiting the picturesque Black Dragon Pool, a legendary lake in a park with scenic views of the area’s tallest peak, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The park here contains several exhibitions about the Naxi people, essential to appreciating what can be seen in and around Lijiang. Dongba Culture Research Institute is also located in the park where the Naxi have accomplished much in preserving their 1,400-year-old heritage, passing down through the centuries by wise men and shamans called dongbas. Here, a novice dongba will provide a delightful introduction to the traditions at the heart of Naxi culture, which aims at pursuing a life in harmony with nature, animals, and the gods. After, strolling the scenic gardens and pavilions around Black Dragon Pool and sixteenth-century architectural treasures known as Five-Phoenix Pavilions. Also pausing to admire the embroidered silk “paintings” in the silk workshop off Peony Garden.

The early evenings before dining are an ideal for strolling through the streets of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritages site. In the market square traditional Naxi dances are often being performed and we may climb to Wang Gu Lou Pagoda for vistas of the Old Town and the peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For dinner, dining in the old town or returning to resort.

Bai Yun Restaurant (Cantonese) outdoor dining at the Banyan Tree

Naxi Woman in Lijiang

Banyan Tree LIJIANG Jet Pool Villa

As elsewhere in Yunnan, and other remote areas of China, including the Yellow Mountains, Banyan Tree offers the finest lodging in Lijiang. An similar dramatic rural setting as their Yangshuo resort, their Lijiang property features expansive views of of high mountains from spacious grounds and elegant villas.

Web: Banyan Tree Lijiang

AMANDAYAN Deluxe Suite

As typical with Aman, the Amandayan is situated in a spectacular location. An ancient city, Dayan has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's here the hotel is perched, overlooking an intricate bridge and canal system and dramatic mountainous landscape.

35 luxurious suites await discovery at Amandayan, all contemporary in style and unmistakably Chinese. Each Suite is decorated with local materials and opens onto a courtyard or a terrace with views of the local rooftops or the awe-inspiring mountains nearby. Aman's Spa leans heavily on traditional Chinese medicine to provide a world-class wellness facility. Four treatment rooms are on hand to offer massages, exfoliations, acupuncture and cupping. The Spa is also home to a large heated pool, a fully equipped gym and Pilates studio.

Web: Amandayan

Naxi tribal culture is one of the last matriarchal societies with males typically relegated to hunting and fishing (and playing the town's orchestra). At the head of each household is the Ah Mi—the thick-wristed, dictatorial female elder who manages the money, jobs, and lives of each family member. The Naxi also practice serial monogamy allowing for relationships without any societal inkling of marriage or exclusivity. Even if a couple births children, the man and woman will never move in together, but remain with their extended matrilineal families. It is the woman’s job to raise the child, so for this reason Naxi fathers often give more care to their nieces and nephews than their own children. Ironically, the Naxi language has no word for ‘jealousy.’ Other interesting facts about the Naxi is theirs is the last hieroglyphic language in the world, called Dongba, comprised of over 1,400 symbols and the tribe has been past practitioners of shamanism, sorcery, and exorcism.

Yunnan cuisine, like the province it comes from, is one of the most unique in China. Taking the best parts from all of the province’s ethnic traditions, Yunnan cuisine uses all parts of nature. It is not uncommon to find locals chomping on insects, flowers, ferns, wild mushrooms or algae, and those who are brave enough to try these culinary delights will find it a wonder that not everyone eats like that. The cuisine is often extremely spicy, although not in the same way that Sichuanese or Hunanese cuisine is spicy. Popular dishes include pineapple rice, mashed potatoes with chives and chilies and goat’s milk cheese. Yunnan is also home to many famous Chinese teas, most notably Pu’er.

Naxi cuisine should not be missed if you wish to taste different local food during the trip and Old City Beef Restaurant (69 Xinyi St.; 86- 139-8884-4615; meals about $15) is a perfect place to sample it. Gaze onto the streets festively lit up at night. Don’t miss the beef soup and just-out-of-the-oven Naxi baba (pancake-shaped local bread).

Evening traditional entertainment includes the Naxi Orchestra (yes, with those same Naxi men who have little else to do) playing the Naxi music with traditional instruments. Performances are from 7:30 to 9:00 PM daily

Day 7 | Lijiang

After breakfast,visiting the picturesque Black Dragon Pool, the legendary lake in a park with scenic views of the area’s tallest peak, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Afterwards, visiting the former residence of Dr. Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American scientist who lived in China from the 1920s through the 1940s, studying Naxi culture and leading National Geographic Society expeditions. Afterward, begin a pleasant, leisurely hike to Wenhai village (from 1-3 hours), where the Naxi farmers live as they have for generations, preserving their matriarchal society in midst of a pristine land. Wenhai, beneath the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering above it, is a traditional small town where the Naxi people build homes of wood and roof them with gray tiles and have intricately-carved gates and large wooden racks which are used to hang barley to dry in the fall.

Wenhai Village is enhanced by a seasonal lake, also named Wenhai. During the summer rainy season, the lake fills and endangered black storks and black-necked cranes, as well as many other migratory birds, fly in for the winter. In early spring, the waters drain into underground limestone caves, leaving a luxuriant bed of thick grass on which horses and cattle graze.

After Wenhai, venturing into Baisha Old Town, one of the oldest towns in Lijiang and the birthplace of "Tusi", chief of the Mu clan learned about the previous day's touring. In Baisha there are many ancient buildings built during the Ming Dynasty, including decorative Dabaoji Palace, Liuli Temple, and Wenchang Palace. The renowned Baisha Frescoes are located here in the Dabaoji Palace.

Lijiang Old Town tea shop

Return for lunch in Lijiang's Old Town known as Dayan Town, built in the middle of a flatland at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering in the distance. The town is a UN World Heritage Site and has wonderful old cobbled stress, meandering streams and views that will take your breath away.

After lunch, attending the outdoor spectacle, Impression Lijiang, featuring hundreds of performers staged against the backdrop of the Jade Snow Mountain (please bring clothes for varying weather, sunny to light rain and cold).

Afterwards, visit to the Mufu. Mu was a ruler of Ming dynasty who commissioned this mansion to be built in exactly the same style as the Forbidden City, first built in Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and residence and political center for generations of Lijiang's rulers.

Impression Lijiang is the magnificent outdoor singing and dancing performance about the tradition and lifestyle of the local people. Created by the famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who also produced the light show in Yanshuo.

Picnic (Lunch)

Casual: Hong Lou (70 Xin Yi St.; meals about $15), run by a group of Naxi women

Fine Dining: The Banyan Tree’s Ming Yue, serves both international and Asian cuisine

Day 8 | Lijiang to Zhongdian

In this region of China, there is pleasure just to drive through the fertile and unspoiled countryside. This morning departing on the ancient Tea-horse road into the high mountains of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to Zhongdian (renamed Shangri-La). Located at around 3,000 meters, the area is notable for the Meili Snow Mountain and colorful Tibetan culture (inhabitants are about 80 percent ethnic Tibetan).

En route, pausing to visit one of China's most famous natural attractions, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, where 6,000-foot cliffs compress the Yangtze River to a width of just 75 feet wide. Upstream from the gorge, also visiting the so-called First Bend of the Yangtze, where the river makes a dramatic 90-degree turn from south to east. As well as being scenic, the area is a famous crossing point where both Kublai Khan in the 13th century and the Red Army on its Long March in 1936 forded this formidable natural barrier.

In addition to the natural wonders, stopping en route to explore small communities, farms, and small fruit stands and any markets that may be happening. Along the route are also historic monuments including a Red Army Memorial, which commemorates the winter crossing of the Yangtze by 20,000 Red Army soldiers at the start of the Long March in 1934, and Shigu’s giant sixteenth-century shigu (stone drum), which memorializes a joint Naxi/Han army victory over an invading force from Tibet.

After visiting and light hiking around the gorge, breaking for lunch before continuing the drive north to Zhongdian, climbing to Zhongdian at about 10,500 feet altitude (to help ward off altitude sickness, please drink plenty of water during the drive). After arrival, relaxing at the resort drinking ginger tea, the local antidote for altitude sickness. The lack of oxygen can be tiring you out, and it is recommended to take it easy, avoid alcohol, and turn in early.

Banyan Tree RINGHA Tibetan Spa Sanctuary

Nestled in the beautiful Shangri-La highlands in Tibet, Banyan Tree Ringha unravels the stunning beauty of the Himalayas. The resort is one of the most secluded hideaways in the world, surrounded by majestic mountains views. Built from traditional Tibetan farmhouses, the resort itself is a picturesque experience.

Web: Banyan Tree Ringha

For local fare, the Puppet Restaurant (in the Old Town) serves the thendu soup (with yak meat and handmade noodles), Tibetan potato curry, and momo (Tibetan dumplings) stuffed with either yak or vegetables.

Has Zhongdian always bee the fabled Shangri La? Not actually. Over a decade ago, it was Chinese authorities declared Zhongdian the location of the fictional Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon—a place that Hilton described as having “snow mountains, grassland, Tibetan people, red soil plateau, three rivers flowing along, colorless snow-tea, and a lamasery.” The name-change gimmick to promote tourism has, alas, worked—and it puts Zhongdian at risk of becoming as popular as Lijiang.

Day 9 | Zhongdian

Today, exploring Zhongdian or Shangri-La but (or Gyalthang, pronounced gehl-tung, as the locals call it) which sits amid a stunning landscape of tranquil lakes framed by snow capped mountains and valleys dotted with wildflowers and horses. The region’s three parallel rivers—the Mekong, Salween, and Yangtze— have made it a World Heritage Site. Zhnongdian has a Wild West flavor—yaks and black pigs wander through the streets at rush hour—and the car-free Old Town has not yet been dressed up Lijiang-style. However, here you will discover the same Naxi warm friendliness is also true of the Khampa Tibetans.

At sunrise, taking in the splendid views of the sacred mountains, feasting on the magical scenery of sunrise over the snow mountains.

Afterwards, driving to visit Bitahai Lake, a protected reserve of rare flora and fauna and picturesque landscapes, located 35 kilometers east of Zhongdian. In the reserve are century-old pines, cypresses, cedars, and azaleas growing around the crystal clear lake, a bucolic setting perfect for photography. Around the lake are virgin forests-the ideal habitat for rare animals including red-footed pheasant, silver pheasant, wild bull, leopard and lynx. Bitahai Nature Reserve covers an area of 840 square kilometers. After watching for rare wildlife, visiting a local village where we'll witness the cultural differences of the ethnic Tibetans.

Also visiting the "Little Potala Palace," Songtsam Monastery, home to about 500 lamas, where you will witness monks chanting and praying. Also visiting the old vegetable market, observing Khampa Tibetans in their traditional ethnic garb, as well as monks, will be buying everything from yak cheese to noodle soup to Tibetan black clay cookware. Here is also a Tibetan-style Old Town, the renovated section is lined with shops with trilingual signage (Tibetan, Chinese, and English) and names like Lucky and Trustworthy Silver Workshop Handed Down from Generation to Generation.

After, by preference, visiting the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Museum, which will introduce you to the region’s colorful Tibetan minority clans. Here pause for lunch of warm, sweet, gooey yak cheese and baba at a spot in the New Town that’s a favorite among locals—Tashi Khata (“Lucky White Scarf”)—also the perfect place to buy a prayer flag.

After lunch, driving back to Zhongdian, and then to the tiny village of Ringha, set amid rolling meadows where medicinal herbs grow and after arrival, climbing of several hundred steps to reach Five Wisdom Buddha Temple, a serene hilltop haven that is a reflection of the local culture of people and animals living together in harmony. Beneath the countless prayer flags strung around the temple, you’ll find clusters of surprisingly outgoing goats, sheep, and black pigs. (At the Tibetan New Year, such animals are given to the monastery as a form of atonement for livestock that have been killed; at the temple, nobody will harm them— which is why they are so friendly toward strangers). Here is the perfect place too, to tie it up your prayer flag among the other flags.

Here at the hotel, enjoy a herbal massage in its wonderful Tibetan spa.

Potala Log Cabin (Bei Men Lu). A cozy place whose specialty is Gyalthang hot pot.

Yunnan is famous for its wild mushrooms, many of which come into season in August; among the choicest harvests are matsutake, shiitake, chanterelle, morel and jizong (this tender mushroom is prized for its rich, unusually chicken-like flavor). You'll also find piles of lotus root, turnips, cabbage, bamboo shoots and tender young pea and green garlic sprouts on display. Yunnan cuisine is really a mix of cuisines. It blends the spicy flavors of neighboring Sichuan Province to the north with the savory, mellower flavors of southeastern China, and also incorporates the food traditions of the Tibetan and other ethnic groups which make up a large part of the population here.

At 8 every night in Zhongdian, the locals come out—older ones in ethnic dress, younger ones not—and dance around the illuminated market square in concentric circles to galvanizing Tibetan rhythms. While the dancers you saw in Lijiang’s market square were paid to perform, these people do it for free and with heartfelt zeal: It is a local tradition that knits the community together. Surprisingly, just as many men dance as women—and every bit as gracefully and enthusiastically. Hopefully, you’ll join in too. This “square dancing” is a tough scene to photograph, given the darkness and the rapid movements, so don’t be shy about standing in the best spot for pictures: smack in the center of the square, while everyone swirls around you in a colorful circle.

The small village of Benzilan (奔子栏), on the banks of the scenic Jinsha River, is located about 20 kilometers from Zhongdian. In Benzilan are traditional houses, orchards, and farms, and Dhon-Drupling Gompa (Dongzhulin Temple or East Bamboo Forest Temple). The temple sits dramatically on the edge of a gorge and the monastic village that surrounds it is also pleasant. Dhon-Drupling Gompa was founded in 1667 by Kusho Dondrub and received its name by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1670 and has many beautifully intricate paintings inside and houses several precious statues.

It’s a full day trip to visit Dechen, high up on Snow Mountain Kawakarpo with stunning mountain vistas. The drive takes you north along the Yunnan-Tibet road and Upper Yangtze Gorge to a lovely village where wooden tea cups, barley bowls and carved tables are crafted. You’ll also pass Dhondupling Monastery, the second largest in the region, and then begin the exhilarating ascent into the Baima Mountain Pass—with its lush alpine scenery and stunning views of the Dragon Back Peaks—to arrive at Dechen.

Day 10 | Zhongdian

Today, enjoying a full day exploring with an option for easy hiking in idyllic Napa Lake Nature Reserve and grasslands (about 5 miles from town) and through surrounding Tibetan villages. In autumn Napa Lake is popular as a resting place for many migratory birds, including the rare black-necked crane (only about 10,000 remain worldwide) famous in Bhutan.

We will start our journey from a Hamu Village, visiting with a Tibetan family on route. After Napa Lake, driving to Nixi Village where we will enjoy a local style lunch before visiting the Tutao Village, also known as the Pottery Village. Songzanlin Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in the area, is not far from the wetlands, and be visited this day as well. In the afternoon, return to resort to relax or visit Zhongdian, strolling around town before dinner.

Tibet, Gateway to Heaven

Day 11 | Zhongdian to Lhasa

This morning, fly to the Tibet, soaring over the stunning Tibetan plateau into Lhasa to arrive at the "Roof of the World". Although Lhasa literally means "place of the gods," its location at 3,650 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level on the northern slopes of the Himalayas under a glorious sun set against a dark blue sky, bright white clouds, and desolate mountains have earned Lhasa the nickname "The City of Sunlight." Over 1,300 years old, it sits in a valley on the Lhasa River and is the highest region on Earth.

On arrival, transfer to resort to freshen up and relax after the flight. It is imperative at this altitude to acclimatize for at least 6-10 hours before even light exertion. Please review a summary on Acute Mountain Sickness prevention, symptoms, and treatment (pdf).

Remainder of the day is at leisure, resting to acclimatize to the thin air.

Acute Mountain Sickness Prevention, Symptoms, and TreatmentTBA

St. Regis LHASA

Located in the eastern part of Lhasa, The St. Regis Lhasa Resort is this unique city's most coveted address—conveniently located in the famed Barkhor area. The sweeping landscapes surrounding this exclusive resort provide a timeless, inviting setting for contemplation as well as exploration. The resort faces the World Heritage Site, the Potala Palace, once the chief residence of the Dalai Lama. A mere six minutes by car from the resort, the palace has been converted into a museum. Jokhang Temple, another iconic structure and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former Summer Palace, are also close by.

The resort is within a 10 minute stroll to the ancient Barkhor shopping area and Jokhang Temple. Lhasa has many other famed attractions to explore including Barkhor Street, Lhasa's oldest thoroughfare, brimming with eclectic market stalls and diverse colorful architecture.

Web: St. Regis Resort Lhasa


Minutes from the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in a city with over 1,300 years of history, Shangri-La Lhasa exudes local elegance matching exactly its peaceful and ancient surroundings.

Comprising of 279 sophisticated guest rooms, the rooms and suites combine subtle hints of Tibetan décor with modern amenities offering guests a unique and contemporary home away from home. Guests can unwind in the hotel’s oxygen lounge and reflexology pavilion while adjusting to the high altitude then revitalise the body and mind at CHI with a soothing signature treatment.

There are four dining options available offering a variety of international and local cuisine. All-day restaurant Altitude features live cooking stations in an elegant and comfortable setting while the hotel’s signature restaurantShangPalace serves authentic Cantonese and Sichuan dishes. The Tibetan-Yunnan tapas bar Shambala blends regional menus with a variety of imported beers, whiskies and cocktails, while more casual dining can be experienced surrounded by the Himalayas on the outdoor patio of Lodgers Lounge.

Web: Shangri-La Lhasa

Shangri-La Restaurant. A casual, family run restaurant featuring a wide range of Tibetan, Chinese and South Asian dishes.

The word "Lhasa" is Tibetan for "the holy land" and at an altitude of 3,680 meters above sea level, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. Lhasa is the capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region and has a fascinating history dating back more than 1,300 years. Extraordinary sites in Lhasa include Mount Everest, the "Goddess Mother of the Land' and the Tashilunpo Monastery, founded in 1447. Yungbulakang, also known as "the Mosher and Song Holy Hall," an ancient palace built during the second century BC and sits atop the east bank of the Yalong River.

Day 12 | Lhasa

This morning, touring the famed symbol of Tibet, Potala Palace and Jokhang Monastery. The site was used as a meditation retreat by King Songtsen Gampo, who in the year 637 built the first palace there. In 1645, the Fifth Dalai Lama started the construction of the Potala Palace which was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India after an invasion and failed uprising in 1959. Today the Potala Palace has been converted into a museum by the Chinese.


The mammoth building measures 400 meters east-west and 350 meters north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 m. thick, and 5 m. (more than 16 ft) thick at the base. Thirteen story of buildings contain over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and approximately 200,000 statues, soaring 117 meters (384 ft) on top of Marpo Ri, the "Red Hill", and rising more than 300 m (about 1,000 ft) in total above the valley floor.

After exploring Potala, strolling through Barkhor Street, a quarter of narrow streets and a public square located around Jokhang Temple, to get a glimpse of local life, pausing to visit and talk with a local family. In the afternoon, return to resort for time at leisure.

Tibetan cuisine is both hearty and oily, perfect for the freezing winter months when a little bit of extra fat goes a long way in keeping one warm. Yak appears on every menu, in every shape and form: yak steak, yak cheese, yak yogurt and of course the traditional yak butter tea (a local favorite that must be tried even though it’s not to everybody’s taste).

Popular local dishes (which may take some getting used to) include Tsampa (a food staple composed of barley), balep (bread), thukpa (noodle soup), yak butter, yak cheese, yak yoghurt, and raw meat. A note on etiquette: An empty cup will always be refilled, so if you wish not to drink, leave some tea in your cup.

All Tibetan Buddhists aim to visit Lhasa at least once in their lives, drawn by the sacred Jokhang Temple, which forms the heart of the Tibetan quarter. We recommended that you spend most of your time exploring this captivating neighborhood, also known as the Barkhor District.

Day 13 | Lhasa

A second full-day of touring in Lhasa, visiting the sacred sites Drepung Monastery located outside of Lhasa on Gambo Utse Mountain at the foot of Mount Gephel. The massive monastery is Tibet and at one time, the largest in the world housing an estimated 10,000 monks. Along with the monasteries Ganden and Sera, Drepung is one of the "great three" Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet though its stature has declined since loss of independence. Chance permitting, mingling and conversing with novice monks of the monastery.

After Drepung, driving over to Tatipu Hill north of the city to hike up and explore the Sera Monastery, another of the great three monasteries of Tibet. In scale, Sera is just as impressive as Potola and Drepung, monastery covering an area of 114,946 square meters (28 acres) with several massive structures including the residence hall for monks.

Lingying TempleThe last stop of the day is Anitsamkhum Nunnery built in the 7th century and home to Buddhist nuns, where will meet and discuss their lifestyles. In the afternoon, return to resort for relaxing after a long day of hiking the temples.

After lunch, visiting the School for the Blind which provides care and vocational training, including learning to read braille, for Tibetan refugee children between Lhasa, Tibet (China) and Kathmandu (bringing gifts or donations are customary). In the afternoon, relaxing at hotel before tomorrow's departure.

For shopping, check out the Tianhai Night Market with many stalls of local snacks, fruits, and handicrafts lining the street. The curios aren’t all authentic, but the scene is.

Optional visit to Norbulingka Palace, served as the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas from the 1780s up until the P.R.C. takeover in the late 1950s.

Day 14 | Lhasa to Gyangtse & Shigaste

This morning, depart on an overland drive of about five hours, crossing the Ganba-la Pass (at nearly 5,000 meters) to Gyangtse, en route taking in the amazing scenery, including the tranquil turquoise waters of Lake Yamdrok below, tucked amongst the mountains of the Tibetan plateau (where we will pause for a picnic lunch). Further in the distance we’ll also spy the towering Mount Nojin Kangtsang (7,191 meters) and the Karo-la glacier.

After arriving, visiting Gyangtse's most important attraction—the Kubum monastery.

Note: Driving over the pass today can be quite chilly with wind, pack a day bag with warm sweater and windproof jacket and hat. The road condition is very good.

Also stopping to explore the Pelkor Chode Monastery, which includes the Kumbun Chorten complex, one of Tibet’s great pilgrimage sites. The sprawling Kumbun Chorten houses over a hundred chapels, each of which is elaborately decorated with historic frescoes. We'll take time here to wander around the dzong, or fortress, which sits on a hilltop surrounded by a panorama of landscapes.

Following Pelkor Chode, continue on a two-and-half-hour drive through more dramatic mountain scenery surrounding vast cultivated fields that brings us to Shigatse late this afternoon (90 kilometers/54 miles and located at 3,800 meters).

Qomo Langzong Hotel
Basic 4-star Luxury Hotel is Shigatse's newest and finest hotel with central location.

Day 15 | Shigatse

Formerly the political center of the Tsang region and now Tibet's second largest city, Shigatse is also the spiritual home of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dali Lama in the hierarchy of the Gelugpa “Yellow Hat” sect, the largest and most influential of Tibetan Buddhist denominations.

Today, exploring the impressive complex of temples, prayer halls and residences at the Tashilumpo Monastery, strolling the cobbled streets to view the great 86-foot-tall Maitreiya Buddha figure that sits covered with over six hundred pounds of pure gold, gems and precious stones. Once home to over eight thousand monks, there remain only several hundred now in the monastery.

In the afternoon, visting the walled Summer Palace of the Panchen Lamas, a complex at the southwestern end of town. It's known in Tibetan as the Dechen Kalzang Podrang. Afterwards, exploring highlights of the old city.

Day 16 | Shigatse to Tsedang

Formerly the political center of the Tsang region and Tibet's second largest city, Shigatse is also the spiritual home of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dali Lama in the hierarchy of the Gelugpa “Yellow Hat” sect, the largest and most influential of Tibetan Buddhist denominations. We begin today exploring the impressive complex of temples, prayer halls and residences at the Tashilumpo Monastery, strolling the cobbled streets to view the great 86-foot-tall Maitreiya Buddha figure that sits covered with over six hundred pounds of pure gold, gems and precious stones. Once home to over eight thousand monks, there remain only several hundred now in the monastery.

After lunch, continued traveling overland on the Friendship Highway through the awe-inspiring Tibetan landscape for about five hours to Tsedang. In the afternoon, arrive in Tsedang located in the Yarlung Valley along the banks of the Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) The cradle of Tibetan civilization

Tsedang Hotel

Day 17 | Tsedang (Zêtang or Tsetang)

Today, taking ferry across the Yarlungzongpo River to visit the Samye Monastery, the the first temple to be built in Tibet (by King Trisong Detsen in the latter part of the 8th century). The Monastery combines the three distinctive architectural styles that of India, China and Tibet (the three Buddhist jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), symbolizing the source, stability and spread of the Buddhist faith.

With the building of this monastery, the community of monks began. With seminal features, this sacred temple attracts pilgrims from near and far. After, driving outside of town explore Yambulakhang Palace, which was the very first building in Tibet, constructed in 2nd century for Tibetan Kings. Situated on a summit of a small hill on the east bank of the Yarlung River, it has wonderful views fo the area.

Afterwards, return Tsedang for further exploration of the town.

Tsetang supposedly dates back to the founding of the Tsetang Gompa in 1351 which became an important center of learning and was the seat of the ancient emperors of Tibet and, as such, a place of great importance. In myth, one of three caves in the mountainside to the east of the town is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people who resulted from the mating of a monkey and a beautiful cannibal ogress. In the 19th century, it is said to have comprised some 1,000 houses, a bazaar, a gompa and a fort.

Day 18 | Shigatse Departure

Depart this morning return to Shigatse for flight.


Zàijiàn (see you again)! Xie Xie (thank you) for traveling with us!