NANGCHEN COUNTY 囊谦县 ནང་ཆེན་རྫོང་།
A stunning and stunningly diverse area of high peaks, vast grasslands, deep river gorges, and shaggy coniferous forests, Nangchen county is a somewhat paradisaical place. Cut by the gorges of the upper Mekong river (which has its source in neighboring Zaduo county) and its tributaries, Nangchen is outstanding for the diversity of its landscapes and the richness of its culture. Well over 100 monasteries exist within this smallest of Yushu prefecture counties, many located in amazing natural settings. While the county town is a friendly, bustling regional trading center, you won’t start to feel the magic of Nangchen until you venture out into the boonies. But be forewarned: there is little to no accommodation outside of the county town (e.g. bring a tent), and restaurants and shops are few and far between (bring food and water). While locals will often invite you into their homes, you don’t want to be dependent on their hospitality; e.g., reduced to begging from these already incredibly poor and incredibly generous people.
The Nangchen county town, Sharda (Ch: Xiangda 香达), lies in the valley of the upper Mekong below a distinctively-shaped mountain bearing clear marks of glacial scouring. This friendly, midsized town has clearly absorbed some of the post-earthquake population outflux from Yushu. There are several temples and mani walls on the outskirts of town, as well as good hiking, but coming here is more about relaxing and gearing up for longer trips outside of town. There are scheduled buses to Sharda from Yushu (3+ hrs) and Xining (20+ hrs), as well as minivans (面包车 mianbaoche, frequent, 3ish hours) leaving from downtown Yushu. Downtown Sharda is the place to find onward transport to the remote areas of Nangchen county, including the Zurmang and Dana Monastery regions.
The Zurmang 苏莽 Region, which lies to the east of Sharda and to the south of Yushu (both routes cross high passes), is a good option for exploring. The main attraction here is the Zurmang Namgyeltse monastery located in Maozhuang 毛庄 Township. This surprisingly large monastic complex, with large new central temples, is quite a sight…just beware of the dogs. The smaller Zurmang Dutistil monastery is located to the west, near Xiao Zurmang 小苏莽 Township. This area is extremely close to the TAR border; DO NOT TRY TO CROSS.
The Gar monastery, located deep within a forested gorge, is also popular – but as I haven’t yet visited, I won’t write it up. I’ve heard, however, that there are multiple monasteries and even monkeys in this remote corner of the county.
Far to the west of Sharda is the well-known Dana monastery and gorge 达那寺, where you will find stunning scenery and a hot springs area. The Gar monastery to the south of the county town is located within a beautiful forested gorge as well. Get more information on these areas in Sharda.
If you’re planning on traveling within the county you must rent a car or hitch.
Be ready for some rough but rewarding travel!