Travelling by road is one of the most exhilarating and adventurous way to travel today. Travelling by road in one of the biggest countries in the world is as exciting as it can get. Adventure aside, the views, various topography, different landscapes, and changing weather through the journey are some of things that will keep you on your toes.
One of the most popular overlands in China is the road trip through Sichuan Tibet Highway. It is one of the highest highways in the world and is divided into two routes – northern route (G317) and southern route (G318). In this article you will provided with all the information that is needed to start this journey.
Why Choose Sichuan Tibet Highway Southern Route?
The southern route is known for unprecedented scenic beauty and equally treacherous route. But its reputation as a scenic route precedes its reputation as a dangerous route. The southern route is shorter than the northern route and is considered as the pilgrimage route for all the pilgrims. Traversing through the wild lands of Sichuan, valleys of Tibet, and switchbacks of everything between, Southern route is the total package with everything, if not more, that constitutes a long road trip.
The landscape consists of lakes, mountains, grasslands, monasteries, forests, canyons, villages, and prayer flags scattered along the way. Though southern route traverses more into mountainous regions, this route is very populated for most of the way. There are so many villages along the way, it is the best way one can experience local culture and learn about them.
The G318 highway also has a historical significance. It follows the ancient Tea and Horse Road. Many archeological discoveries have been made in this route and many spots have been excavated. This route was very important for trade and was a connecting corridor for the people of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. Even though the road is not used for trade like old times you can see the traces of ancient history in this route. Southern route is also at a higher elevation compared to northern route, with an average elevation of 4,500m the highest point in this route is Litang at 4,700m.
Sichuan- Tibet Highway Southern Route and Altitude Changes along G318
The total distance of this route is 2,413 km and route will be via G318 National Highway. Here is a simple breakdown of the travel route with altitude changes along the way.
Chengdu(500m) – Kangding(2,900m, 327 km): First leg of the travel starts in Chengdu and travelling to Kangding via Ya’an. You will be passing through the famous Erlang Tunnel.
Kangding(2,900m) – Xinduqiao(3,300m) – Litang(4,650m, 292 km): You will find a lot of small villages dotted along the way in this part of the journey. This part of the journey is also a treat for photographers.
Litang(4,650m) – Markham(4,371m, 270 km): You will be traveling through many tunnels and driving via Batang to get to Markham. Driving across Jinsha River and over Haizi Mountain are the highlights of this part.
Markham(4,371m) – Zogang(3,750m, 158 km): In this part of the journey you will be climbing the highest mountain pass in the Sichuan-Tibet Highway – Dongda Pass at 5,008m.
Zogang(3,750m) – Baxoi(3,280m, 201 km): You will be driving upward for most part of this journey and you will at the crossroads of Sichuan-Tibet Highway and Chamdo-Kunming Highway.
Baxoi(3,280m) – Bome(2, 750m- 3,750m, 220 km): The highlight of this part of the trip will be the Ranwu Lake surrounded by snow capped mountains. Bome is also known for its greenery.
Bome(2, 750m- 3,750m) – Lulang(3,285m) – Bayi(2,930m, 222 km): You will be seeing many views of snow capped mountains in this part of the journey. If the skies are clear you might even get to see the peak of mighty Mount Namche Barwa.
Bayi(2,930m) – Lhasa(3,680m, 400 km): Driving along the Niyang River you will finally reach Lhasa. The last part of the journey will also include driving through another high pass – Mila Pass before reaching Lhasa.
Highlights of Highway 318 from Chengdu to Lhasa
This is the first highlight in your route. This tunnel connects Garze and Sichuan. Constructed in a time span 3 years, this tunnel is 4,200m. This tunnel is at an altitude of 2,200m in Ya’an city. The scenery and weather is different on both the ends of the tunnel.
Surrounded by soft, golden colored sand, Mugecuo Lake is one of the biggest highland lakes. It is also known as the savage lake. The scenic area surrounding the lake consists of lakes, hot springs, and forests. The frozen view of the lake is truly a magical view which looks like a silver floor reflecting the heavy skies.
This picturesque village is everybody’s paradise, photographers and travelers alike. It is located in western Sichuan at an altitude of 3,300m with a great view of Mount Gongga. The houses are something that captures everybody’s attention and do not fail to try the native drink Tsamba.
These endless sprawling grasslands are located in the west of Litang en route to Markam. It is surrounded by mountains and the view has a calming effect on you. An additional highlight close to the grasslands is the Genie Mountain. This sacred mountain consists of three main peaks at an elevation of 6, 224m, 5, 807m, and 5, 780m.
Daocheng Yading Scenic Area is famously known as the last pure Shangri la on Earth. Although this place requires a short detour from Litang, it is totally worth it. The colourful lakes, low altitude glaciers, valleys, and forests make this place an explorers’ treasure land.
This glacier is the lowest glacier in the world with snow line at just 4,600m. It is located in Yupu Town and just 8 kms off the G318 Highway. It is a must visit spectacular in Tibet.
Namcha Barwa is considered as the main holy mountain for Bonism which is the oldest religion in Tibet. This snow mountain towers 7,800m above the sea level and is the highest mountain in Nyingchi. It is scattered with plenty greenery and tropical rainforests in its river valley.
Located in Nyingchi prefecture, Lulang forest is famous for its rich repository of rare biodiversity and a whole lot of natural beauty. The peach flowers are the most to be looked for. It has different types of plants and trees. At an elevation 3,700m, Lulang forest shows a different kind beauty every season. Lulang means ‘a place you will forget home,’ or a ‘place where you will never feel home sickness.’
These are just some of the highlights you will see along the way. Be assured of seeing many more highlights in your Sichuan Tibet overland tour that are lot more spectacular than you can imagine.
Best Time to Travel Overland to Tibet from Sichuan via Southern Route G318
As the roads are already somewhat dangerous and not always in best of its condition, it is best to go during the times when the weather is stable. Months of May, June, September, October, and November is highly recommended. Although July and August are summer months, Tibet sees occasional downpours during these months. They are usually in the late evenings. Tour packages are available during those months but it is not recommended to go on a road trip during these months as the risk of landslides is higher and the roads are often blocked because of that.
Winter months, November to February is not recommended as the visibility is low, roads are covered in snow and none of the views are clearly visible. This is off-season and prices might be a little low during these times. In the months of February and March tourism services are not available for foreign tourists. Most of the accommodations and hotels and attractions are closed during the winter months.
Travel Visas and Permits Needed
In addition to visa required to enter China, you will need to extra permits to enter Tibet. The Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) is the main document required to enter Tibet. It can be acquired through a certified Chinese or Tibetan travel agency. You will need to send copies of your passport to the agency; it will be acquired in 3-4 working days. In addition to TTB you will need Alien Travel Permit to travel outside of Lhasa and a Military Permit to explore remote and military sensitive areas of Tibet. All of the permits will be taken care of by Tibet Vista. You can only travel as a part of a group in Tibet and are not allowed to travel solo.
Dining and Accommodation along National Highway G318
You will find comfortable hotels in Kangding, Xinduqiao, Zuogong, and Bomi. In other places along the route you will find hotels with basic accommodations. You can also stay in guest houses or local houses if you can. Some of the lodges allow only hitch hikers and cyclists to stay. The small highway lodgings and hotels available for tourists usually cost higher than what it would in China. You get basic amenities like bed, bath, hot water, and breakfast in most of the places.
You will mostly find Tibetan and Sichuan cuisine on the road. Occasionally in some restaurants you might find a menu with limited western food items. The journey is better when you completely immerse yourself in the culture. But, if the local food doesn’t suit your stomach it is best for you buy plenty snacks, energy bars, and cup noodles to eat on the road.
Packing List for Tibet Overland Tour
Here is a list of most important things to pack: warm clothes, sun block, sun glasses, water bottle, snacks, energy bars, altitude sickness medicines, travel documents, passport, extra batteries for your camera, portable charger, thermal wear, small emergency kit, down jacket, oxygen tanks, socks and gloves, shoes to trek.
No matter the month you travel, bring warm clothes as the nights are always cold in Tibet. Sleeping bags are necessary if you are planning to camp through the trip. Doctor prescribed medicines for altitude sickness should be brought along as it is best to be ready for any kind of situation. Always have some extra batteries for your camera as the cold weather tends to drain the camera batteries faster.
An overland trip in highest highway of one of the largest countries in the world can sound daunting, but the experience is one of the most gratifying travelling you would have done. With new breathtaking scenery in each switchback, overlanding in Tibet is one of the most overpowering scenic experiences you will go through.