KANGDING COUNTY 康定县 དར་རྩེ་མདོ་རྫོང་།
Kangding 康定 (Dartsedo དར་རྩེ་མདོ། or Dardo དར་མདོ།) – 2600m
Six hours from Chengdu and located amidst the skyscraping Daxueshan range (highest peak: Minyak Gangkar མི་ཉག་གངས་དཀར། /Minya Konka/Gongga Shan 贡嘎山 at 7556 meters) Kangding/Dartsedo/Dardo is the prefectural capital for the massive, 18-county Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – and as such is a city in its own right. But this is no normal Chinese prefectural city. Your first impression of the city will likely be that of the almost excessive local topography, of endlessly upwards-sloping angles reaching skyward towards distant snows. Located in a valley so deep and narrow it seems as if at the bottom of a well, Kangding is a city in which topography dictates all. The city is pinched into a narrow, three-pronged strip stretching out from the convergence of the Dar and Tse rivers. Along the valley floor, low-rise skyscrapers are clustered Hong-Kong-like above bustling, narrow streets. At present, the population is largely Han, but as it is the capital of a largely (nearly 80%) Tibetan region, many Tibetans are present city, whether to attend school (there is a major university nearby), to go to the hospital, to deal with gov’t business or to shop in one of the city’s many markets.
Sights: The famous Paoma Shan 跑马山, known throughout China for its role in the Kangding Love Song (跑马溜溜的山上，一朵溜溜的云哟…) rises steeply to the east of town. The mountain’s forested slopes hide a number of narrow staircases that rise past pavilions and prayerflagged groves of spruce to the flat summit. Here, you will encounter a gate manned by elderly but ever-watchful park attendants who will force you to pay the 60 元 entry fee (insert snort of exasperation) to the official ‘public park area’ above. The park itself is a strange mix of awkwardly rundown tourist attractions (pose on a stuffed yak, anyone?), quiet but nicely sited temples, beautifully maintained gardens (notably the Love Song garden) and quiet forests, and great views of the 6000-plus-meter peaks up and down valley. Definitely a good spot for a picnic.
Other attractions in Kangding include two small monasteries, one located near the Sally’s Knapsack Inn in the south area of town and the other just below the Kandging Binguan (hotel) in the town center. Both are worth a quick look. There’s also the Erdaoqiao Hot Springs 二道桥温泉 (4km northwest of downtown, taxi to springs 4 kuai, entry 20 kuai) as well as the Mugecuo Lake 木格措 28km farther down the same road (taxis/minibuses available, entrance fee in the vicinity of 150元!), but as of yet I’ve been to neither and thus cannot rate them for myself. You can also simply walk around town and soak in its trading post/frontier of two different cultures ambiance.
Lodging: There are several good options in town. The hostels, in particular, are good for a town of this size. The pick of the crop – but only in summer – is the Zhilam Hostel 汇道客栈 (Huidao Kezhan, Baitukan village (白土坎村), high season (May 1-5, September 28-October 4) dm 60 suites 500; other times dm 35, suites 260). Perched just above town in a small village, this otherwise very nice hostel/inn is made stupendous by its position, which gives it rather glorious views over the whole area. The small cafe inside is fine, but (strangely) only does western food. The hostel can be reached by walking 5-10 minutes up the lane to the left of the Kangding Binguan OR by walking up a small road from the west end of Gongzhu Qiao 公主桥 (Princess Bridge, across the river from the main road entrance to Paomashan).
Second place goes to the Yongzhu Hostel 拥珠驿栈 (Yongzhu Yizhan, dm30-40, dbl 120+) which is located up a small alley just to the left of the Kangding Binguan. Double rooms and four-bed dorms (full-size non-bunk beds!) are around a four-story atrium. Hot water and wifi are some of the rare (for this region) and welcome amenities. Open but unheated in the winter, during which the chill of the atrium can be at least somewhat ameliorated by the electric blankets on every bed.
The Black Tent Guesthouse 黑帐篷客栈 (Hei Zhangpeng Kezhan, dm35-40, dbl?) is another decent hostel, this one located up the east (left, when walking uphill) side of the river from downtown in a Tibetan-styled building. Dorms are pleasant and the common area is heated – though the water in the strangely located common bathrooms (of which there are only two) is not. Many other hostels and guesthouses, such as the Kangding Konka Hostel 贡嘎国际青年旅社 near the bus station, have opened recently
Food: As a major regional center and small city in its own right, Kangding has a wide array of eating options, from hotpot palaces (Bashu Huoguocheng 巴蜀火锅城, behind the statue of the woman carrying water) to Tibetan restaurants (several on the central riverfront) and tiny Sichuan eateries and snack shops (everywhere). Follow your nose.
Transport: Kangding is a major transportation hub, serving as the node of bus transport throughout western Sichuan (and beyond). Sleepers run from as far away as Chongqing and Chamdo (in the TAR), and closer destinations are served with fortuitous frequency (Chengdu, every hour). Here’s the basic rundown (sorry- currently incomplete):
- Chengdu (Xinnanmen station): 6-7 hours, 123元, hourly 6am-5pm (there is also a bus to the Chadianzi station leaving every morning at 8:00).
- Chengdu airport (Shuangliu): 6-7 hours, 115元, morning
- Luding: 45 minutes-1 hour, blue taxis all over town (especially near the river confluence) will find you
- Xinduqiao: 1 hour or so; many minibuses two blocks up the street from the bus station (towards the center of town)
- Lhagang/Tagong: 2 hours, minibuses will find you (or go to the bus station)
- Danba: 7:00am, 3:00pm (with more departures in some seasons)； 3-4 hours, 38元
- Ganzi: 9-11 hours, 117元, convoy of four buses leaves around 6:15am
- Derge (via Ganzi, Manigango): 16-20 hours, 6:30am, overnight
- Yushu (via Ganzi, Manigango, Sershul): 2 days or so, 6:30am
- Litang (via Yajiang): 9 hours (this may have decreased due to construction), 105元, convoy of four buses leaves around 6:30am
- Yading Nature Reserve: Ask at the bus station. Schedule varies by season
- Xiangcheng (via Litang): Morning (usually around 6:00 or 6:30)
- Xichang: 6:00am, 3:00pm; a long time; 92元
- Chongqing: 10:30am, 9 hours or so, 220元
- Many other destinations are available; see the bus station for details.
Xinduqiao 新都桥 – 3400m
Located west of Kangding in a grassy valley surrounded by similarly grassy hills, Xinduqiao is located at a major road junction. After crossing over the barren, stupa-topped Zheduo pass (4300 meters) and passing the bizarrely located Kangding Airport (amidst high-altitude nomadic grasslands), the Sichuan-Tibet Highway passes through town before splitting into two branches – the northern leading to Dawu/Drango/Ganzi/Derge/ Manigango/Sershul/Qinghai and the southern leading to Litang/Batang/Daocheng/Yading/Xiangcheng/Shangri-La. As such, the town is a moderate transportation hub. Aside from the surrounding scenery, there’s not too much to keep you here; however, if you get stuck here there’s accommodation and food available. Minivans and buses to Kangding, Tagong, Bamei (past Tagong), Danba, Yajiang and other destinations are easily available in town.
Lhagang ལྷ་སྒང། (Tagong 塔公) – 3700m
A small town in a sheltered valley amidst vast nomadic grasslands, Tagong is famous for its monastery, which contains a much-revered image in its inner sanctum. As such, the town sees a lot of pilgrims at all times of year, and you will likely see many pilgrims laboriously prostrating their way up the roads leading to Lhagang/Tagong from Xinduqiao and Bamei. Due to its proximity to Kangding, however, Tagong has become a popular (by regional standards, at least) tourist destination as well for travelers who would like to get a taste of Tibet without enduring all-day bus rides or shelling out for expensive permits. As such, Tagong has a level of tourist infrastructure – foreign-friendly cafes and hotels, several English speakers, coffee, etc. – that is uncommon in this area. Enjoy it while you can.
Aside from the monastery, the area is famous for its vast and beautiful nomadic grasslands, which are overlooked by the sacred peak of Zhara Lhatse (5800 meters), which is still unclimbed. In some areas, you may be able to see the mighty Minyak Gangkar (Gongga Shan) towering in the distance. If you don’t want to set out on your own, many guesthouses and travel agencies in town run horse treks and other guided trips (one or multiple days) into the grasslands; ask around for specifics.
It’s easy to get here from Bamei (30-45 minutes to the north), Xinduqiao (45 minutes), or Kangding (2 hours) – all of these places have small armadas of minivans making the trip. Scheduled buses to/from Ganzi, Kangding and Danba also pass through town, allowing for easy access to these areas.