Tagong and the ancient region of Kham, Tibet

Tagong, or Lhagang ལྷ་སྒང་། in Tibetan, is a small town on the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan province. Visiting Tagong allows you to explore numerous monasteries, expansive grasslands on horseback or on foot and dramatic snow mountains, and to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and culture. At an altitude of more than 3,700 meters, Tagong is one of the highest towns in the world. The town has a remote, wild west feel, its remoteness insulating it from the mass tourism and development seen elsewhere in China, so far. Rumor is that Tagong will soon be connected by a larger highway and even high-speed rail, which will likely change the quiet nature of the town. 

Tagong is part of the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is located in the ancient Kham region of Tibet, which covers much of western Sichuan, parts of northern Yunnan, Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in modern-day China. Kham is one of three ancient Tibetan regions, the others being Amdo (which overlays much of Qinghai province) and Central Tibet, now the TAR. 

What is commonly referred to as “Tibet” is generally referring to the TAR, which requires foreigners to have a specific permit to enter. However, foreign tourists can travel in most of Kham and Amdo with a regular Chinese visa. Visiting Kham allowed us to explore Tibetan culture independently without the costs and administrative difficulties of visiting the TAR

Lhagang Monastery
The 1400-year old Lhagang Monastery is in the town center beside the main square, and is well worth a visit (20 yuan admission). The Tibetan king Songsten Gampo built the temple in A.D. 652. For the next one and a half thousand years, the monastery waxed and waned in importance, alternating between different Buddhist sects. The monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and was rebuilt in the 1980s (Gillet 2012).

We were fortunate to visit the monastery for an annual fire festival, where a sand mandala is burned to get rid of bad luck. Monks emerged in their saffron robes, some adorned with elaborate headpieces. The monks sat in a square, chanting and blowing into large horns, and occasionally drumming. The sand from the mandala is burned with yak dung, and a monk would occasionally pour liquid yak butter onto the pyre. The ceremony drew locals from Tagong and rural villages nearby.

Horse riding in the Tagong Grasslands to Ani Gompa nunnery
We spent one day horse riding in the expansive grasslands surrounding Tagong. We met our horseman/guide in his village about 5km away. Although Martin had never ridden a horse before, the horses were very placid, so we had no problems riding.

We rode to Ani Gompa, an enormous Buddhist nunnery housing more than 500 nuns and more than 100 monks. First we visited the temple area, where an enormous new temple were being constructed from concrete.

We then rode to the town area of Ani Gompa, which is comprised of many small, saffron coloured houses. The streets are filled with robed nuns and monks. In the centre there is a temple and an enormous mani wall, with hundreds of rocks engraved with Tibetan script or paintings of Buddha. 

Above the mani wall, our horseman led us up a trail to a small house. A nun emerged and showed us to some small caves, where our horseman stopped to pray. These caves are where a famous hermit/lama spent his days meditating, and the nuns would bring him food. Upon his death, it was decided a nunnery would be built here.

After a quick loop around town, we wandered up a grass hill overlooking town, where the horses stopped to feed.

We then ascended further up a grassy mountain behind town, taking us above 4000m. From here, we had a spectacular view of Mount Yala and the other snowy peaks.

From here, we descended down the hill into grasslands full of yaks. Occasionally we would see marmot scurry by and dive into its ground hole. We stopped for a grassland picnic, with the horses grazing beside us.

From here, we rode our horses though the grasslands back to Tagong. We organised our horse trek through Tashi at Himalayak Guesthouse, and it was one of the best experiences we’ve had so far in China. It cost 200 yuan (AU$40) per person for about 6 hours of riding, which is vastly cheaper than other options in the area. 

Hiking from Ani Gompa to a high mountain pass (Thama Ha)
Tagong offers a multitude of hiking options. The owner of Himalayak Guesthouse, Tashi, recommended we hike through the grasslands and up to a high pass (4,900m) that overlooks the 5,820m Mount Yala, which dominates Tagong’s skyline. It is also a holy mountain for Tibetan Buddhists. With its sheer rocky walls and snow capped peaks, it stands like a sentinel on guard above the rolling hills and villages. The hike covers a total of 22km and has an altitude gain of roughly 1,000m.  

We started our hike from Ani Gompa nunnery which costs 50RMB to reach via taxi from Tagong, although we picked up a monk along the way who gets his lift free of charge. We passed rolling hills, small shepherd huts and herds of yaks. Furry marmots scurried by, darting between their holes dug into the grasslands. Giant vultures spiral downwards for their pray, skimming the grassy hillsides. 

We soon reach a beautiful lake where we stopped to eat lunch, quietly watching as the clouds pass through the mountain peaks. From here, the plateau stretches out endlessly before us. 

Near the pass, there were several motorbikes, and people lying belly down searching through the grass. They were digging for a certain caterpillar that only lives on the Tibetan plateau. During this time of year, a fungus grows out of the head of the caterpillars, which is used as an aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine. We were told they can be sold for 20-30 yuan per caterpillar. We passed by the group, exchanging Tashi Dele‘s and smiles.

The terrain became steeper as we neared the pass, and we were soon scrambling over loose stones on steep switchbacks. At nearly 5,000m the altitude was definitely having an affect, leaving us gasping for air. It was an overcast day and I was skeptical whether Mount Yala would be visible from the pass. When we reached the saddle we were met with a the clear view of the mountain gleaming in the sunlight. Snow capped peaks towered above the grasslands, and prayer flags fluttered in the wind. After a moment of enjoying the view we noticed storm clouds rolling in, not wanting to push our luck we quickly began our descent. 

On the way back, we passed by a herd of yaks munching on grass a few hundred meters away. For some unknown reason, the entire herd stampeded directly towards us as we walked by. With nowhere to go, we stood our ground as around 40 yaks ran at us. They stopped only a few meters away from us, staring doe-eyed. Thinking that they may be after some food, we give them some bread, but they seem disinterested. The stand off continued for another couple of minutes before we backed off slowly and continued our way down. The yaks continued to stare as we sunk into the valley and out of sight. 

By late afternoon we were back at Ani Gompa, and we managed to hitch hike back to Tagong in time for dinner and a well-earned beer. 

Where to stay in Tagong?
We stayed at Himalayak Guesthouse, which is beside the town square and monastery. It is run by the friendly Tashi, a local who speaks great English and serves delicious Tibetan food in the cafe downstairs, including momos, thukpa vegetable soup, shapale pie with pork and vegetables and yak butter tea, as well as a great dal baht. We would highly recommend staying here, with a twin room going for 80 yuan per night.

Himalayak GH doesn’t have much of an online presence, however you can just turn up without a booking.

Sipping (yak butter) tea at the cafe at the bottom of Himalayak Guesthouse and people watching was one of our favourite past-times. From here you can see locals circumambulate Lhagang Monastery in a clockwise direction. Both men and women commonly wear traditional clothes. Women wear long, wrap-around skirts and usually keep their hair braided, often entwined with thick red string, which can be tied around the top of their head or their hats. The men wear leather cowboy hats, and sometime robe-like jackets draped over one shoulder. 

As they wander by, alone or in groups, they hold a string of beads in their hands, counting them one by one. Ancient Tibetans hobble by on their walking sticks, dutifully spinning the prayer wheels. They are sometimes joined by the town pig, which seems to wander the streets independently, yaks, or a mother horse and her foal clopping along the cobblestones.

Getting to Tagong
We took the public bus from Kanging which costs 20 yuan. The small green bus leaves from across the road from the main bus station in Kangding at about 8.30am, although its advisable to be there earlier. You will have to stand your ground as you will be heckeled by the many minivan drivers offering you a lift to Tagong. We took the same bus back to Kangding, which leaves from Tagong main square at 8.30am and 2pm.

Kangding, on the road to Tagong
The small city of Kangding, or Dartsendo དར་རྩེ་མདོ། in Tibetan, is the eastern gateway to Kham. On your way to or from Tagong, you will almost certainly pass through Kangding on the G318, the bike-packer filled highway connecting Chengdu to Lhasa. Kangding is a lively Tibetan city wedged in a valley of large mountains, and within a few minutes walk you can visit monasteries, a Catholic church and a mosque. Kangding is worth spending the day in for its tasty Tibetan food and day-hiking opportunities, and if you’re coming from Chengdu or other low-lying places, to acclimatise to its 2,600m altitude before the Tibetan plateau proper, which regularly reaches 4000m. 

We stayed at Zhilam Hostel, which is perched on a hill overlooking Kangding. You can take Bus 2 from the main bus station to the small road that leads up the hill to Zhilam. Alternatively you can take a taxi – make sure you have a screenshot of the address in Chinese. Zhilam offers a cosy common room and decent Western and Tibetan food, and comfortable dorms. They also have hiking and travel information for the area, and a homemade trail up Julian Mountain to a yak meadow, which is just behind the hostel.
We took the gently ascending country road up Julian Mountain to yak meadow. At the start of the trail you will pass Nanwusi Monastery, which was originally built in the 7th century. It was destroyed when the Mongols invaded in the 1200s, and again during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 

Hiking along the road itself is not particularly exciting, although you get nice views the higher you go. At one point, you reach a closed gate on the road – go through it. Closer to the top of the trail you reach a small meadow, where you need to find a trail on the right hand side. From here, you leave behind the honks of trucks and buses roaring down the G318, and pass colourful wild flowers and horses. You also have 180 degree views of snowy mountains. When we reached yak meadow, there were no yaks, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We took the steep trail back down, which took us back to Zhilam Hostel after a few wrong turns.

We recommend having dinner at Malaya Tibetan Restaurant. It is slightly higher end than most restaurants we frequent on a backpacker budget, but the 120 yuan (AU$24) for two people was worth it. We had the momos, potato curry, fried broccoli (eat greens when you can find them), thukpa soup and yak butter tea. Finding the restaurant is interesting. Enter the building that houses Dicos fast-food restaurant on the first floor. Although it looks dodgy and smells weird inside, take the elevator from the 1st to the 6th floor, and you will find Malaya.

On the street behind Malaya, there were night markets on, where we found puffed highland barley snacks, locally brewed beer and handicrafts. There is also a SPAR supermarket if you want to stock up on familiar supplies before entering the plateau, and an ATM that accepts foreign cards.

Gillet, T. 2012. ‘SIchuan’s Tibetan Corner, Outside of Time’. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/travel/sichuans-tibetan-corner-outside-of-time.html

One Reply to “Tagong and the ancient region of Kham, Tibet”

  1. This is marvellous writing, Zali – as good as most of the well-known travel writers! And Martin, the photos are just a knock-out!

    I am very relieved you both stared down that alarming encounter with 40 yaks! Bravo !!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *