Soaring mountains, minority peoples, yaks: all of these things are found in abundance around the tiny villages of western Sichuan province. “Tibet’s backdoor,” this is the place to go if you want to get close to The Roof of the World and its culture but can’t afford a permit. Be forewarned, though, that western Sichuan is a difficult and time-consuming place to access, as it’s virtually absent of train tracks and paved roads. What follows are some tips that I’ve compiled after a two-week trip through the region. I started in Dali, in Yunnan province, and worked my way northeast to Chengdu. Do not attempt to apply my advice to a trip in the reverse direction.

Dali vs. Lijiang

Dali and Lijiang have received substantial attention from independent travelers in recent years. Both are tourist traps of a kind, but I found Dali to be considerably less offensive than Lijiang. Old-town Lijiang was nothing more than a really Chinesey outdoor shopping mall. If you’ve spent time in Yangshuo, you’re not going to be impressed. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was at the China exhibit at Epcot Center. Dali, on the other hand, is actually a working village where normal folks – Chinese, Bai, Naxi, Tibetan, and the occasional Westerner – go about their lives. Get away from the main drag and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of life in charming little community. Hot tip: Ask Jia Yang for a bed at Smile Bar, then go see Adam at ClimbDali and arrange a trip to the other side of the lake. You’ll be glad you did.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lots of independent travelers come for the trek. Having recently been in the Himalaya, I found the scenery uninspiring. TLG is no Grand Canyon, and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain doesn’t hold a candle to the Alps. It certainly didn’t help that the trek followed a set of powerlines and water pipes. Still, it was fun to get out and do some walking… and some eating. The guesthouses along the way are fun places to meet other travelers and gather your thoughts about the road ahead.

Shangri La

A bit of a border town, Zhongdian (aka “Shangri La”) has become a convenient place from which to attempt to sneak in to Tibet. It isn’t a terribly interesting urban environment, but the surrounding countryside is stunning. Bus-loads of Chinese tourists, and a fair number of Westerners, come for the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa that sits nestled in the hills outside of town. Most folks fork over 85 CNY to see the place; I went for free. How? I wasn’t interested in spending that kind of money so I went for a walk in the fields, leaving the ticket office and heading for the “Shangri La” sign on the hill. Taking lots of pictures, I climbed the ridge on the left, trying to get a good shot of Zhongdian in the distance. When I turned around, I discovered that I’d pretty much walked to the temple itself. I wandered through the alleyways of the adjacent village until I was standing under its golden eves with all the other tourists. No one ever asked for my ticket.

Shangri La to Daocheng

The scenery on this leg of the trip was absolutely stunning, and I wish that I’d hired a minivan instead of taking the bus. It would have been lovely to have stopped for some decent pictures. There’s a long – say, 25km – chain of limestone spires that, from the road, look like they’d make for some amazing new-routing.

Daocheng

This place is a bit of hole. It’s only redeeming quality is HERE Cafe, a cozy little place in the basement of a traditional Tibetan home. It’s expensive but boasts the only good coffee you’ll get until Chengdu, not to mention free Wifi and a cute owner. It’s about 50m to the left of the bus station, on the opposite side of the street. On your walk, you’ll inevitably be hassled by the local minivan drivers. They’ll want to take you to Yading or Litang. They’re a predatory bunch, but give them your 50 yuan and get out of Daocheng that same day if you can. There’s little reason to bother spending the night when more exciting destinations are only a few hours away.

Daocheng to Litang

This ride only takes three hours and has some impressive scenery. Still, the landscape’s not nearly as dramatic as what you’ve just seen on the ride from Zhongdian… that is, unless you’re a boulderer. The area around Rabbit Ears could be China’s most untapped climbing resource! Still, it’s very much at altitude and the weather is persnickety. Hopefully you’ll be luckier on that front than I was.

Litang

Charmless unless you get yourself out into the countryside. There are lots of desperate looking men standing around the main drag and few places with palatable food. It’s pretty much the epitome of a border-town. Still, you’ll definitely get the feeling that you’re in Tibetan territory.

Kangding

The bus ride down from Litang is, admittedly, painful. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with this little hole-in-the-wall city, though. Nestled in a deep river valley, the whole town is maybe only a kilometer wide and five long, so you can easily cover it in a day. While it doesn’t have much infrastructure for Western backpackers, it is pretty interesting from a sociological perspective. This is the place where Chinese and Tibetan cultures have set up their trading post. You’re definitely back in China proper, with its strip-malls and fast food joints, but there’s a striking outland population wandering around.

Chengdu

Big, hot, noisy, and… really relaxed. If you start to get sweaty, you can always head up to Emei Shan or the Four Sisters.You’ve just been out in the boonies for two weeks. Don’t you want a pizza?

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