2-3 weeks The Tibetan Kora
Chanting burgundy-robed monks, sparkling gold statues of the Buddha, spinning prayer wheels, bitter yak butter tea, smoky incense, soaring mountains and altitude sickness are just some of the many sights, senses and feelings that will grip your soul along the Tibetan Kora. If you can, allot three weeks, but if not you can do a quick trip in two weeks in between Xining and Chengdu for a crash-course in Tibetan Culture. Regardless of how much time you have, you’ll return with a new-found sense of (near) enlightenment and spiritualism after this one.
The word kora in Tibetan means “pilgrim trail,” and by following this itinerary you can eat, pray and love through some of greater Tibet’s finest. If crossing the border into the Land of Snows is just too much, don’t worry, the areas around the border, specifically in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, are predominately Tibetan, so you can still get your fix. Note: Tibet is often closed to foreigners, but even when open it’s expensive, and you must travel with a registered tour guide. For more on traveling to Tibet, please see page 1,097.
Chengdu, Sichuan (2 days)
Chengdu is an excellent spot to start your tour of Tibet, especially since it has a sprawling Tibetan Quarter. Here, you’ll get your first introduction to the culture as monks twirl prayer wheels, women with braids pour yak butter tea at outdoor cafes, and golden statues of Buddha shine under the sun. On a side note, take a day to see the pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base and sip tea with the locals while getting your ears cleaned at People’s Park.
Tagong, Sichuan (3 days)
From Chengdu, take the six to eight-hour bus ride straight to the town of Kangding (Dardo in Tibetan). From there, either spend a day soaking up the local Tibetan culture while getting acclimated to the thin air, or take a taxi straight to the small village of Tagong and skip Kangding. In Tagong, check out the town’s central temple, spin some more prayer wheels, then go to the Kampa Café & Arts Center right in the middle of town to arrange a homestay with Tibetan nomads. Afterwards, continue west on either the northern part of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway or stick to the southern route.
Option A – Northern Sichuan-Tibet Highway, Sichuan (4 days)
The northern route will take you through some authentic villages like Garze, Maniganggo, and Dege, as well as other fascinating sites such as Darjay Gompa, Dzogchen Gompa, Yilhuan Lhatso and Chola Mountain at a staggering 6,168 m (20,236 ft) above sea level. By far the best part of this journey is winding through perilous mountain passes on a rickety bus with the locals praying for safe passage!
Option B – Southern Sichuan-Tibet Highway, Sichuan (4 days)
The southern route, on the other hand, has fewer sights, but is less traveled, so it’s a good option for those keen on escaping civilization. By heading south, you can spend a day or two in Litang, more than 4,000 m (13,123 ft) up in the mountains, all while scoping out some of the local temples and gazing in awe at the gigantic Genyen Peak at 6,204 m (20,354 ft).
Lhasa, Tibet (4-6 days)
Both the northern and southern Sichuan-Tibet Highway bring you into the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Make sure to research our Tibet section to ensure you have the proper paper work, documents and a tour guide or else you’ll be turned away. At the Sichuan/Tibet border, your guide will meet you and accompany you the rest of the way. Lhasa’s best destinations are the Potala Palace, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street, which is actually part of a real kora. It would also be worth spending a night or two at the Everest base camp, which isn’t too far away from Tibet’s capital.
Qinghai – Tibet Railway (1 day)
Exit Lhasa in style by taking the world’s highest railway through the Tibetan plateau and whiz by yaks, nomads and some of the most remarkable scenery you’ll ever see. Just riding the train is an experience in itself and will be one of the highlights of your Tibetan Kora trip.
Xining, Qinghai (3- 4 days)
Once you arrive in the capital of Qinghai province, go to the city’s well-organized museums, or take a break from the Tibetan scene and visit the Great Mosque and the traditional Chinese Muslim culture that surrounds it. On the following days, take a day trip to the one and only Kumbum Monastery and/or do a home stay in a country courtyard in the town of Guide (yes, this is the actual name of the town), just a few hours south of Xining. If you have an extra day or two left over, consider visiting the town of Repkong (Tongren) for artsy souvenirs or going to the Mengda Nature Reserve right next door.
Lanzhou, Gansu (2 days)
From Qinghai, cross the border into Gansu Province to the sprawling capital of Lanzhou. From there, make a long day-trip to the birthplace of the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism at Labrang Monastery, and give yourself enough daylight to peer into the ghostly Milarepa Palace, just a few hours south of town.
Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan (2 days)
From Lanzhou, take the direct overnight train to one of China’s most grandiose national parks at Jiuzhaigou. Apart from the roaring waterfalls, crisp foliage, all-powerful mountains and ancient trees, there’s a large Tibetan population around town for food, crafts and music. Next, you can either take the night bus straight to Chengdu, or head south to Songpan to add another fantastic destination to the books.
Songpan, Sichuan (2 days)
This optional side trip is well worth it for nature lovers and those who love the wilderness. Songpan is stunning, just like her twin sister at Jiuzhaigou, and also has a sizeable Tibetan population, but it’s less touristy and is best known for its horse treks under crisp, blue, Tibetan skies. Hiking and camping is everywhere, too, if you’re really ready to rough it. There are plenty of buses day and night heading to Chengdu, from where you can board a flight to get you back home.
The Tibetan Korla is actually a circle (more or less) through the Tibetan lands of western China, so it can be done in many ways. From Chengdu, head clockwise through Lhasa, Xining and Lanzhou as we have suggested, or do the opposite and go counter-clockwise from Chengdu, Lanzhou Xining and Lhasa. If you can’t make it to Tibet, consider the Xining to Chengdu via Lanzhou and Jiuzhaigou leg of the journey (or vice versa) for an equally fulfilling experience. You can also start in Xining or Lanzhou and head any direction you wish.
If you’ve had just a little too much yak butter tea, switch things up and tack on one of our other itineraries like the Long March, Silk Road Excursion or Riding the Yangtze for more of what China has to offer. In other words, just as the Buddhist road to enlightenment has many paths, there is no definitive way to do the Tibetan Kora; trace your own route and cater it to fit the journey in your heart.