Monasteries and mountains in northern Tibet
Hike. Relax. Sip yak-butter tea.
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Amdo, Tibet.
Tibet is changing fast, but its scenery has lost none of its power to amaze, said Will Ford at The Washington Post. For a decade, the Chinese government has been pouring money into building highways and railroads through the region, opening the Tibet Plateau's high grasslands and once hidden mountains to tourists who aren't intrepid backpackers. Amdo, the northernmost of Tibet's three main kingdoms, is an ideal destination for first-time visitors. It lies just a few hours by plane from Beijing, but because it averages 10,000 feet in elevation, it feels "far removed from the smog of major Chinese cities." Foreigners don't need travel permits to visit Amdo, as they do for the tightly controlled Tibet Autonomous Region, yet its landscape is "as breathtaking as any on the Plateau," and its culture is as deeply entrenched.
Amdo offers two main activities for travelers: trekking and visiting the region's many Buddhist monasteries. In the small city of Xiahe you'll find Labrang Monastery, one of Tibet's largest Buddhist institutions, with some 4,000 monks. You should wake early enough to walk around the monastery with the pilgrims, who prostrate themselves while circumambulating the complex. Late-morning prayers, marked by braying Tibetan horns and crowds of rushing monks, are sometimes open to the public. Drive four hours south and you'll arrive in Langmusi, a backpacker haven with a main street that bustles with textile shops and restaurants serving yak burgers. Sign up for a guided trek to nearby Gahai Lake. I once picnicked there with some monks I'd met in a noodle joint. "It was one of the most beautiful views I've ever had with lunch."
The best base for hiking is the mountain village of Zhagana, two hours from Langmusi. "Cliffs, high peaks, streams, fir trees, and terraced fields dominate the landscape — bringing to mind a kind of Tibetan Rivendell." The first time I visited, poor weather ruined my plans to hike to nomad camps in the high grasslands. But Zhagana was rejuvenating anyway: I read on a guesthouse porch that overlooked rows of houses clinging to the mountainside, I hiked to the monastery in the afternoons, and then I returned to the porch to gaze at the mountains and sip yak-butter tea.