GANZI COUNTY 甘孜县 དཀར་བཛེས་རྫོང་།
Ganzi 甘孜 དཀར་བཛེས། – 3400m
A sizable market town located amidst the fantastically needlesharp Chola mountains, Ganzi is – despite its isolation (9-11 hours from Kangding) – a hive of activity. Downtown streets bustle with the clamor of everything imaginable being bought and sold, while the traditional Tibetan area to the south echoes with the sounds of horns, bells and clashing cymbals from the famous monastery above. An excitingly bustling place with easy access to major monasteries, quiet villages and unbelievably beautiful mountain scenery, Ganzi is an excellent place to hang out for several days (or more) and watch the world go by.
The major sight in town is the Ganzi Gonpa དཀར་བཛེས་གོན་པ (甘 孜寺), one of the most important monasteries in the region. Located on a steep hillside above town, the monastery appears from below as a seemingly impregnable stronghold. However, work your way up from the end of Jiefang Lu 解放路 through the narrow lanes of a beautiful Tibetan residential quarter (Kumbum Shep village སྐུ་འབུམ་ཉབས།) , with beautifully painted woodframe houses, and you will find the monastery’s main gates perched atop a steep flight of stairs. Aside from the monastery’s various temples and halls, take time to admire the amazing views of the Chola Mountains and the Yalong valley, views which are best from the kora encircling the entire complex. A small concrete-paved pathway rising over the hilltop, the kora encompasses a number of smaller shrines and stupas. Allow at least one hour due to the sheer number of photo opportunities up here.
Another worthwhile place to visit is Den Gonpa, a spectacularly atmospheric temple located in an old neighborhood several blocks east of the bus station area. Take Chuanzang Lu 川藏路 for a few minutes until you see a gate covered with miniature stupas on the north (away from the river) side of the street; follow the alleyway through this gate and you will soon find yourself in front of an ancient building perpetually circumambulated by local worshipers. Inside are some absolutely fantastic murals, some of the most artistically spectacular in the region, which look to be quite old. This place has an aura of profound sanctity about it; after your visit, make your way three times around the prayer wheel-lined path encircling the building and you’ll feel it.
Town has few other “sights” as such, but the large food and clothing markets near the bus station are well worth a look. Upvalley from town are several Tibetan villages that are fun to wander about. As always, be careful of dogs.
Two decent lodgings are located near the bus station, which is convenient as most buses leave early in the morning. The Chengxin Binguan 诚信宾馆 (“Honest Hotel”, dbl w/shared bath 60-80, dbl with private bath 120+), directly across from the bus station, is nothing special but an adequately clean and friendly place – although the lack of heat can make for a cold night in winter. However, this place surprisingly has wireless internet! The Golden Yak Hotel 金牦牛宾馆 (Jinmaoniu Binguan, dm 50, dbl 180+) is actually located inside the bus station, making for absurd convenience. The dorm rooms are located in the bus station building (go inside the courtyard and upstairs), while the doubles are in a fancier building in a gated-off area out back.
Outside the bus station are a number of good small Sichuan restaurants. There are Tibetan restaurant-teahouses on the main street (Chuanzang Lu) as well as inside the clothing market (look for the English sign), all of which are warm(ish) and have a pleasant hangouty atmosphere.
Transportation： the road here from Kangding (especially between Luhuo and Ganzi) is under construction (January 2013 especially the section over the pass), which means that you should expect nonstop fun for the duration. A January 2012 trip included a 400 meter walk when the bus encountered lake-size pothole stretching across the entire road and surrounded by thick sheets of ice – a situation that had already eaten a China Post truck and was threatening to consume the bus next. As of January 2013, expect that you’ll need 9-12 hours to cover the 380km to/from Kangding (117元, 6:30am). Other buses travel to/from Chengdu (6:30am), Dege (6:30am, via Manigango), and Yushu (6:30am, via Manigango and Sershul). A fleet of minivans, apparently made up of drivers fed up with the bus station’s obsession with the 6:30am time slot, will take you to any of these destinations (plus Xinlong, 2 hours, and Sertal) at any other time you wish.
Rongbatsa རོང་པ་ཚ། – 3500m
This beautifully wide-open valley, which stretches out majestically below the towering needles of the Chola mountains, is an excellent area to explore at random. Peppered with fortified villages and monasteries, the area would be a great one to explore by bike (or on foot). Accommodations are few and transport is informal (read: hitching and minivans), but the jawdropping scenery and interesting cultural attractions – as well as the random, out-of-the-way hamlets that you suddenly wander upon in your travels – more than make up for any discomforts.
I’ve only explored a small bit of this area, but highly recommend the area around Dargye Gonpa དར་རྒྱས་དགོན་པ། (Dajin Si, 大金寺), located atop a small rise amidst the Rongbatsa plains. This area holds several monasteries/nunneries, an interesting monastic guesthouse, and a hot springs (not to mention really spectacular mountain views). I won’t list any more details here for fear of divulging some favorite places – so go exploring and find them on your own!