Being one of the largest countries in the world, China’s topography is so diverse with so much room for exploration. Overlanding is one of the most adventurous ways to explore China. Driving in the roads running from one part of the country and extending over to the other side is truly an immense and immersive experience. No trip can get immersive than being on road in the remotest parts of the country with the locals.
Overlanding makes you see past through the attractions, culture, cuisine, and language of China and connect with the country in a much deeper level. There are 5 most popular overland tours in China leading to Tibet. They are: Sichuan-Tibet Highway, Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway, Yunnan-Tibet Highway, Qinghai-Tibet Highway, and Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.
Why we choose Sichuan Tibet Highway Northern Route?
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is further divides into the Northern route and the Southern Route. The northern route takes a roundabout and tricky route from Chengdu to Tibet. With a total distance of 2,420km, it takes about 2 weeks to cover the route. In the northern route you can experience the Kham Tibetan culture up close – in the form of food, villages you visit, conversing with the nomadic tribes, etc. The route is an amalgamation of rolling grasslands, open landscapes, towering mountains, pristine lakes, and peppered with traditional homes, huts, prayer flags, lazing yaks, monasteries, and temples.
It is often said that you can see significant changes of weather during the course of travel. It is like being in different places on different days. There are many parts of the roads where it is not paved properly and can get tricky to drive during the rainy months. There is a section where there are continuous switchbacks while coming down a mountains. The views at each of these turns can be daunting and exhilarating at the same time. The northern route is also the longest part of this highway.
The road is known to be dangerous, second to being beautiful. Even though the road is dangerous, it totally compensates with elegant and striking views it offers. The views include some of the most beautiful villages and country sides in China. You will see how these villages have been trapped in time. The houses are still built like the traditional houses; women still wear traditional clothes, and nomadic Kham Tibetans still wear braids and ride in horses like old times. With the natural beauty and culture still preserved, travelling in the northern route really takes you back in time.
Sichuan-Tibet Highway Northern Route and altitude changes along G317
Chengdu (300m) to Danba (1,893m, 348km ): Chengdu has a lot of direct international flights. After staying the night at Chengdu, you can start the journey next day towards Danba.
Danba (1,893m) to Bamei (3,350m, 82km): Danba is where you will get to see the traditional Jiaju Tibetan Villages and the old block towers.
Bamei (3,350m) to Garze (3,400m, 243km): After crossing Daofu and Luhuo will reach Garze. There are a couple of monasteries on the way that you can visit. Garze has a lot of small, unique, antique shops that sell Tibetan goods. This part of the journey especially has a lot of significance to the Tibetan culture.
Garze (3,400m) to Dege (3,100m, 205km): From Garze you can see the influence of Tibetan culture quiet significantly. After all, Dege is the heart of Kham region. With a lot of small Tibetan villages on the way, you will also get to see the holy Yulong La-Tso alpine lake with beautiful backdrops of towering mountains.
Dege (3,100m) to Chamdo (3,200m, 253km): By now, 90% of the population will be Tibetan. You will see a lot of monasteries on the way. You will be going across the Jinsha River which is almost near the border of Tibet.
Chamdo (3,200m) to Lhasa (3,600m, 950km): This last part f the trip s also the longest part of the trip. After crossing a series of small counties like Riwoque County, Degnqen County, and Baqing you will be reaching Lhasa. This part of the trip can be covered at your own pace, like in 2 or 3 days.
Highlights of Highway G317 from Chengdu to Lhasa
Wolong Nature Reserve
It is a well-known Panda Research Centre that allows public to see them, feed then, take pictures with them, learn about their habitat, cook their meals, and do much more. All the above mentioned activities are a part of their volunteer program. You can also just visit and take pictures with them.
Also known as the Four Sisters Mountains, Mount Siguniang is highest mountain of Eastern Hengduan Range. It borders Xiaojin and Wenchuan. This mountain is also nicknamed as Chinese Alps pertaining to its beauty. The view of this grand mountain with thick forests at its foothills is a view that will take your breath away.
Jiaju Tibetan Villages
These ancient villages of Danba are one of the six most beautiful villages in China. Known for its ornate and authentic Tibetan houses, this village is nothing short of beauty. Another attraction in this place is the block towers which were once used as watch towers. The 2 or 3 storied red and white houses are something you will see a lot in these villages.
The vast, open grasslands with the background of towering vistas of Haizi Mountain are another stellar view of this trip. In the grasslands you can spot a few nomadic Tibetans with a heard, hut, and some Yaks mulling about. Some of the attractions you can visit here are Tagong Temple, Muya Gold Tower, and Yala Snow Mountain.
Larung Gar Buddhist Academy
This is one of the most significant sites relating to Tibetan Buddhism. This Academy is one of the largest destinations for studying Tibetan Buddhism. People from all around the world come here to educate themselves. It was established in 1980 in Serta County and is home to some 40,000 students. It is an endless sea of small, red dorm houses surrounding the monastery and academy.
Established in 1972, it is one of the oldest printing houses in Asia. This is also a monastery that houses some of the oldest texts and scriptures of Buddhism and about subjects relating to science, medicine, and mathematics. This printing house is also famous for using woodblock printing method which is one of the oldest printing methods in the world.
Galden Jampaling Monastery
This is bone of the oldest monasteries in Qamdo built sometime between 1436-1444; Located in Chamdo, this monastery was built sometime during 1436-1444. It is said that it once housed around 5000 monks and administered around 70 smaller monasteries around it.
Best time to travel overland to Tibet from Sichuan via northern route G317
When you are overlanding, weather is one of the most important things to consider before booking the trip or starting the journey. Since most of the time in a day will be spent on road, the weather is really important. It is also important to remember that the roads are not in the ideal or stable conditions in some parts of the highway, they are not paved properly, or mostly just dust and sand.
Best months to go – May, June, September and October
May, June, September, and October are the ideal months to travel. In months of May and June, the roads are dry and dusty. The skies are blue, the views are clearer and the wind is lighter. September and October are the autumn months and the months that follow the rainy season. The weather is drier and less prone landslides. The roads may not be completely dry in the early September, but they are much safer than the rainy season. During September and October the peaks of the mountains can be seen much clearly.
Months to avoid – November to February and July to August
July and August are the rainy months. Landslides and rockslides are more prone during these months. While the rains might be low in the southeastern parts of Tibet, the other parts of the highway receive high rainfall. The roads become very muddy and soggy which makes it hard for vehicles to drive. Winter months are also not advisable for travel in this highway. Winter usually starts in November and stays till February. Early November, the snowfall maybe less but they are consistent. They often cover up the roads, make it hard to see many mountain views, create road blockades, and many inns and guest houses are not usually open during those months. It is best not to travel during the rainy and winter months.
Travel visas and permits required
Apart from visa to enter China, you will need some permits to enter Tibet. Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) should be acquired through a Tibetan Travel agency. It takes about 3-4 working days to attain it. You will also need Alien Travel Permit to travel outside of Lhasa and Military Permit to travel in some military sensitive areas. You can also only travel through a certified travel agency with a guide in Tibet. All these permits will be acquired by your tour operators. You cannot travel solo in Tibet, you can only travel as a part of a group. Travelling with guides in the overland trip is important and necessary as they know everything about the route and every possible hurdle that might occur.
Dining and accommodation along National Highway G317
There are plenty of dining and accommodation options along the way. There are a lot of small inns and guest houses along the way. The prices are reasonable as many tourists who travel on road stay there. You get basic amenities like bed, bath, hot water, and breakfast in most of the places. There are also many restaurants to eat from. You will mostly find only Tibetan and Sichuan cuisines in these restaurants. Continental dishes like pasta and pizza are very hard to find but few restaurants do offer them. While travelling, the experience is complete and more authentic when you have the local food. If you feel that local food will not suit you, you can buy packed foods from Chengdu like cup noodles and ready mix items before starting the journey.
Tibet overland tour cost and packing list
Warm clothes, sun blocks, sun glasses, water bottles, snacks, energy bars, medicines, travel documents, passport, extra batteries, portable charger etc. are some of the important things to pack. Even if you are travelling during spring or summer months, it is important you bring warm clothes as the nights are always super cold in Tibet. Sleeping bags are important if you camping through the trip. Medicines for altitude sickness should be brought along. Consult your doctor and get medicines before coming to China. You can buy small oxygen tanks in Chengdu in case you get light headed due to altitude sickness. Always have extra batteries for your camera as the cold tends to drain the batteries faster.
Road trip along the highest and dangerous highways to Tibet can sound daunting, but it will be one of the most exhilarating experiences. Once you start the journey daunting is not what you will feel, adventurous is how you will feel. With amazing views waiting for in you in every bend, the trip will be soul cleansing and freeing.