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Frequently Asked Questions about Travel in Kham
How do I get to Kham?
What's the public transportation situation?
How can I hire a car?
Where can I get a good map?
Which roads are currently closed?
Which areas are closed? How do I get a permit to enter a closed area?
What about using a travel agency? What are my choices?
Does anyone speak English?
What's the best season for travel in Kham?
What clothes should I bring?
What conditions should photographers expect?
What items make good gifts for the people I'll meet in Kham?
Can I access the Internet in Kham?
How can I travel from Chengdu to Lhasa?
Where can I study the Kham dialect of Tibetan?
Q. How do I get to Kham?
A. There are four main routes, and a variety of sub-routes within each (See this sketch for details):
You can fly directly into the farthest reaches of Kham by taking the Chengdu-Chamdo flight, however you will need to acquire a permit for Chamdo before you will be allowed to buy a ticket, as Chamdo is not (yet) on the list of open places.
Lijiang, a Naxi town in Yunnan province located a mere 5 hours away from Shangrila, also has a commercial airport.
In 2008 a new airport will open two hours west of Kangding with commercial flights to/from Chengdu.
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Q. What's the public transportation situation?
A. You can reach Kangding via bus from Chengdu; they depart every day from the Southwest Bus Station (xinan che zhan near the Traffic Hotel), and from the Ganzi Hotel (Ganzi Binguan). As of spring, 2007, the journey takes about 7 hours. At times there is construction or fallen debris on the road that may increase the drive-time by as much as 70%. See Roads in Kham for more information.
Among the day buses, you have a choice of small, fast, comfortable Iveko minibuses which cannot take much baggage, large maxibuses that have stowage underneath the passenger area. Virtually all buses have air conditioning and most have VCD movies. Bus tickets run 116-130 yuan. The fanciest bus is the one that leaves Chengdu or Kangding at 9am each morning - this vehicle has a toilet. All others do not have toilets and passengers must use truck stops.
When you buy a bus ticket to Kangding, you have to buy travel insurance, too. Since 2003, the insurance comes automatically with the ticket; its a little card that's stapled to the back of your ticket and costs 2 yuan.
In Kangding you'll find a lot of buses radiating outward to destinations south, north, and west. The further the destination, the less frequent the service. For example, there are several departures every day for Tagong, one departure in the morning for Ganzi, but Dege buses run less frequently, maybe every other day. There is little or no public transportation on routes that don't include the Kangding hub; for example, there are no buses (at present) between Dege and Baiyu, or between Ganzi and Xinlong, but sometimes you can find privately-owned an operated taxis or minibuses running these routes. Ask the local people about the existence of such alternate transportation. Note that these non-government buses have highly variable schedules, and private drivers are not as safe as the government bus drivers. Ride at your own risk.
See also: this article about bus travel and these sample costs. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. How can I hire a car?
A. There are several ways. If you don't speak Chinese and you need a four-wheel drive vehicle, the easiest way is to contact a travel outfitter or travel agent. You can book your vehicle by phone or just walk into an office you see in Chengdu. Free-land drivers of 4WD vehicles can also be found in the open markets of some towns - Chengdu and Zhongdian (Shangrila) are the best places for this. In Chengdu, ask around at the Kangding Da Jiudian (Kangding Hotel).
If you don't need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can negotiate a deal with any taxi or minivan driver you see hanging around the bus station or town square. This works in most towns, especially those that are at transportation hubs such as Kangding, Manigango, Xinduqiao, and Zhongdian (Shangrila). A small taxi can do the drive from Kangding to some nearby towns such as Yajiang or Tagong for a few hundred yuan. If the driver refuses, it may be because the road to your destination is too rough, or he doesn't know it, or he just doesn't want to go that far. Try another car and driver.
Don't know if you need a 4WD or not? See this list of Roads in Kham.
Depending on the quality and age of the car you hire, how far you want to go with it, and whether your trip is one-way or round-trip, the cost could be anywhere from US$50/day to $500/day. On long trips, even if you are stationary for a day and don't use the car at all, you still have to pay for that day, but you could try to negotiate a reduction. Usually, the price includes gas, tolls, and any repairs needed during your trip (and repairs are almost always needed during long trips thru Kham!). If the trip takes more than one day, then you are expected to pay for the driver's food and lodging outside his hometown. If you are camping, then bring an extra tent for your driver and expect to pay a bit more as "hardship pay". At the end of a multi-day trip, it's normal to give the driver some sort of tip, especially if you hired him through an agent and the car is not his own.
Among 4WD cars, a typical jeep holds 3 passengers and a very small amount of luggage. A typical Landcruiser or equivalent holds 4 passengers and one large duffle per passenger. Some cars are fitted out to take six passengers, in which case baggage space is about nil.
Among NON-4WD cards, a small taxi will take either 3 or 4 passengers, and a minivan will squeeze in 5-7. If you want the car all to yourself, then you'll have to pay for all the seats. If you have a very large backpack, you may have to buy a seat for it, as baggage space is limited.
SAFETY NOTES. Free-lance drivers often are not licensed to take passengers, so if you go with them you will be at risk of losing your ride if your driver gets caught at a checkpoint. Also, there is no guarantee that a free-lance driver will be trustworthy, and it is not uncommon for them to drive too fast - sometimes MUCH too fast. If you're uncomfortable with the speed of your vehicle, don't hesitate to complain. The word for "slow" is kaley kaley in Tibetan and man in Chinese. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. Where can I get a good map?
A. First of all, see the maps on this site. Beyond these, there are several options, none of them ideal for the typical traveler. You might want to purchase several maps, because the deficiencies of one are often made up by the others.
Guide books. Virtually all of them have maps of one kind or another. See the Kham reading list.
Chinese language . Unfortunately, the best road maps of Kham are printed in Chinese. Even if you don't read Chinese, they are still useful for communication with locals, and are the most reliable in terms of roads. For western Sichuan, look for a provincial map sold at many newspaper and magazine kiosks around Chengdu. For eastern T.A.R., likewise look for an all-T.A.R. map sold at the Xinhua bookstore in Lhasa.
Another option is to get an all-China highway atlas. Many of the Chinese atlases devote one double-page to each province--definitely a disadvantage if you are planning travel in one of the larger provinces. Recently we have seen an all-Sichuan highway atlas for sale, and this is the best Chinese map we've found for the region. There are virtually no topographical maps available in Chinese, since the topography of the country is considered a state secret.
Tibetan language. If you're going to Dharamsala or Lhasa on your way to Kham, ask around for Tibetan language maps. They are very hard to find.
English language. ICT has a full-color map called "The Eastern Regions of Tibet" that has Romanized Tibetan names for a great many towns in Kham and Amdo, as well as interesting historical information on the back. There is no topography, no roads, and most small towns and villages are omitted; nevertheless this is a very useful map. Try phoning the publisher at 202 785-1515 or fax 202 785-4343.
Tibet Map Institute is compiling maps labeled in Romanized Tibetan. The last time we checked, they did not yet have any maps of eastern Kham. Until they get around to mapping Kham, your best bet is probably to pick up the largest, most detailed all-China map you can find. Get a recently-printed one, because new roads are being constructed all the time.
If you are going way off-road, then you want a topographical map. There is only one place that we know of that the average person can get topos of China: the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). You do not have to be a U.S. citizen to do this. These maps are primarily for air navigation, and the data were compiled through air surveys, so they are not very reliable on ground features such as roads and towns.
The series called ONC (Operational Navigation Chart) is 1:1,000,000 scale, and covers eight degrees of latitude. The contour interval is 1,000 feet up to an elevation of 13,000 feet above sea level, above which the interval is 2,000 feet--not very good for trekking but better than nothing. The series called TPC (Tactical Pilot Chart) is 1:500,000 scale, and cover one-fourth the area of ONCs. Many map stores can order ONCs and TPCs for you.
Russian language. If you are a student of Stanford University, or have a friend on the campus with a library card, take a look in the Geophysics library at their collection of Russian topographical maps of China. These are the most detailed topos we know of. The library has a black and white copier capable of handling these maps; bring lots of cash because copies cost $1 each.
Q. Which roads are currently closed?
A. Memorize this: Today's landslide can be tomorrow's cleared road, and today's cleared road can be tomorrow's landslide. No website can possibly provide up-to-date information. The only way to know for sure is to try to do the journey yourself. The second best way is to stand by the side of the road, flag down drivers coming from the direction of your intended journey, and ask them. The third best way is to go to the bus station and ask the ticket-seller or (better yet), the drivers. The fourth best way is to inquire among the people of the town.
That said, there are some roads that are extremely prone to landslides, and are not cleared quickly afterwards by the authorities because they are not considered main trunk roads. See Roads in Kham for more information.
Peak snow season is March to May. Any and all high passes in the region can be blocked by heavy snowfall during this period, or indeed anytime after August. If the blocked pass is on a trunk road, it will usually be cleared within a few days, provided snow has stopped coming down.
Another pitfall for travelers are the peak Chinese travel periods during which bus tickets are hard to get. They are: the holidays at Oct 1-7, May 1-7, and Chinese New Year. Also, when school starts in the fall (early August), and finishes in the summer (late June/early July), public transit is heavily used by parents escorting their children to or from distant schools.
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Q. Which areas are closed? How do I get a permit to enter a closed area?
A. First of all, please do not write us asking for information on which areas are closed and which are open. As of 2008, the situation is changing too quickly for us to keep up. To get the most up-to-date information, you should contact a travel agent in China or your local Chinese Embassy. The most reliable way is to book your trip into a questionable or closed area is through a travel agency. If you have a legitimate research purpose, you need to find a Chinese co-investigator or host organization who can do your paperwork for you. If the purpose of your journey is Buddhist pilgrimage, you may be able to get a travel permit simply by applying to your local Chinese consulate, or Public Security in Chengdu or Lhasa. This is a long-shot, however. If there has been any recent trouble in the area you want to visit, or if there is any suspicion about your purpose, you will be refused. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. What about using a travel agency? What are my choices?
A. See this list of outfitters. Be aware that tourism in Tibet has a long way to go before it can match the service provided in Nepal, let alone more developed countries. Hotels can be dirty, noisy, and cold. Vehicles may be in poor condition, guides inexperienced, and food - especially breakfast - not to Western tastes. Road wash-outs and bad weather can necessitate a change of itinerary that may put you in conflict with the driver who is carrying you. The good news is, the situation has gotten a lot better in the last five years. There are a number of outfitters and guides with growing experience in serving foreign tourists. You should still negotiate carefully, ask many questions, get references, and take nothing for granted. If you do this, and your expectations are realistic, you can have an excellent adventure travel experience.
Foreign outfitters who run trips to Kham are usually middlemen for Chinese companies. You pay more for these middlemen, but they perform a valuable service. They know the companies and their staff, and stake their reputation on the reliability of same. They ensure that the food you will eat is sufficient and edible, that your vehicle's tires have air and tread, that Tibetans will be hired in preference to Chinese, and that the itinerary will be reasonable. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. Does anyone speak English?
A. Not many people in Kham speak English, although the number is gradually increasing. If you travel without a translator it is unlikely that a local English-speaking person will materialize to help you through rough patches, so be resourceful, learn some Chinese or Tibetan, and practice your sign language. If you want to hire an English-speaking guide, you can do so through a travel agency. If you're traveling without a guide and you have an emergency, go to the nearest middle school (chu zhong) and look for an English teacher. Usually such people do not have very good conversational ability, but at least they can read and write. Another place to find English speakers is at large monasteries, especially Gelug sect monasteries, where you might find a monk who learned the language in India.
Q. What's the best season for travel in Kham?
A. Everyone in Kham will tell you, the best season is July and August. This is the time of summer festivals, when the wildflowers are at their riotous height. But be forewarned: summer is the season of heavy rain, and that means landslides and road closures. Prepare alternate itineraries in case your first choices are cut off. Do not expect that you will be able to use marginal roads (e.g. Xinlong to Litang). Hire a four-wheel drive vehicle, and carry a shovel and rope.
From the standpoint of road conditions, the single best season is May. September-October is another window of good travel conditions (but beware the monsoon that runs late, as it did in 1997). Winter (November to April) is very cold, but roads can be good if there has been no recent snowfall.
See also this page about climate and weather. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. What clothes should I bring?
A. The cardinal rule for mountain travel is, dress in layers. In all seasons, you should have thermal underwear--although in summer you may not have to use it. In winter you will never want to take it off, so bring two sets. For your in-between layers, consider two or three jackets or pullovers in wool, fleece, or down. Pants should have plenty of pockets, and be easy to wash. In summer, rain gear is essential; in winter you will want a thick down jacket. You don't need more than two equivalent anything, because you won't have that many chances to change your clothes. Light hiking boots are fine for car trips; of course trekkers and mountaineers will need something tougher. Regardless, your feet will meet a lot of rocks and mud, so leave white sneakers at home, but a pair of light shoes are helpful for midnight treks to the toilet. A hat is essential to repel rain and protect your skin from the sun. In very cold weather, a soft fuzzy hat will keep you warmer at night. Light gloves are nice for horseback riding, and in cold weather. Ear plugs allow sound sleep in noisy guest houses. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. What conditions should photographers expect?
A. When the sun shines there is a tremendous amount of light in Kham so when shooting outdoors you should use a fill flash. Inside homes and monasteries can be very dark, so if you want to use natural light then you'll need a tripod. Bring lots of storage media because you are unlikely to find memory cards for your camera for sale in Kham. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. What items make good gifts for the people I'll meet in Kham?
A. We suggest the following: photos of yourself, home, family, workplace, etc; magazines with pictures in them, postcards of your home town, stickers or pins, postage stamps, toothbrushes. We definitely discourage the following: indiscriminate giving to children, gifts of Dalai Lama photos (although photos of other rinpoches are fine). The reasons are, children who come to associate foreign tourists with free candy, pens, etc become extremely aggressive and obnoxious in very short order--one only has to travel in the countryside around Lhasa to see this. If you want to give pens and the like to children, find a responsible adult such as a teacher who will distribute the goods equitably. Dalai Lama photos, in addition to being politically problematic, are often treated more like a trophy ("see what I got out of the foreigner!") than an object of veneration. Dont worry: although you might have read that DL photos are forbidden, they are actually quite easy to buy in Kham; certain shopkeepers have boxes of them stashed out of sight. Excepting the very poorest of folks, most people who want DL photos have already got them. It's not uncommon to see them displayed in private homes and even in some monasteries. On the other hand, giving a photo of the thirteenth (previous) Dalai Lama is no problem whatsoever, and this is worth considering as an unusual gift that will be very much appreciated. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. Can I access the Internet in Kham?
A. Yes. Nowadays there are internet cafes in most if not all county seats in Kham, and you can use these to get on-line and read your mail on Yahoo, Hotmail, or some other web-based mail service. The cost is usually about 3 yuan/hour. (RETURN TO TOP)
Q. How can I travel from Chengdu to Lhasa?
A. See this page about traveling from Kham to Lhasa. On the Sichuan side of the border you can use public transportation, but on the TAR side you need a travel agency to provide car, driver, guide, and travel permit. Usually these items are sold as a package. If you're using public transportation on the Sichuan side, the driver can come to the Sichuan-Tibet border, pick you up, and take you onward to Lhasa. This requires accurate timing, and a good rendezvous point such as the county guest house in the border town on the Sichuan side. On the northern route, this would be Derge; on the southern route it's Batang.
If you're going to use an agency for the whole trip, be aware that some agencies cannot provide service in more than one province. This kind of agency will have to pass you off to some other company at the border.
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Q. Where can I study the Kham dialect of Tibetan?
A. First of all, there are many dialects spoken in Kham, some of them so different from one another that they are mutually unintelligible. Dawu, for instance, speaks a variant of Tibetan that is not useable anywhere else. They all differ substantially from Lhasa-ke, and Lhasa-ke is almost never heard in Kham, nor are there many people who understand it. Another noteworthy fact is that farmers and townspeople in most areas speak a different dialect from the nomads who live in the mountains above them. That said, everyone does agree that the "most standard" Kham dialect is the Derge dialect, variants of which are used in neighboring counties. If you want to learn Kham-ke, then the Derge dialect is what you should probably choose to study.
The most reliable and effective place to learn Kham-ke seems to be Southwest Nationality University (Xi Nan Minzu Xueyuan) in Chengdu. Foreigners situate themselves as either students or teachers, and then they either take classes in Kham-ke or they get tutoring. At this university you can be legal, have a proper visa, and no one minds that you're learning Tibetan. There are other foreigners there doing the same thing as you, and there is a population of Tibetans to practice on. Plus, you have the creature comforts - and discomforts - of living in a large city.
Currently, there is no way to legally establish yourself as a foreign resident of Kham, except as an English teacher, and these posts are scarce. (see our volunteer English teacher program). Teaching English is demanding, and you'll find it hard to make enough time for study of Tibetan, but it can be done. While a lot of people speak Kham-ke in Kham, very few have any notion of how to teach it as a foreign language, so be prepared to learn by imitation and rote. In Kham, it is possible to dig up Kham-ke textbooks, but they are aimed at Chinese people, and are not in English.
Some travelers on tourist visas manage to situation themselves in the same town in Kham for several weeks, and if you have a good tutor you can make significant progress in that time. (RETURN TO TOP)