Chengdu to Lhasa Overland Tour Planning: Sichuan Tibet Highway Northern Route or Southern Route?

Part of the China National Highway G318, the Sichuan Tibet Highway is the main route from Southwest China into the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and a great way to take a road trip to Tibet. Starting from Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, this amazing road heads all the way to Lhasa, more than 2,000 kilometers to the west of Chengdu.

Once known as the Kangding Tibet Highway, the route actually splits into two, allowing travelers to take the northern or southern route into Tibet, coming into Lhasa from two different directions. Following a dangerous but beautiful route through high snow-clad mountains and lush deep valleys, the road twists and turns up and down the various mountain passes, and is one of the best routes to Tibet for outstanding views.

The Southern Route is the one that follows the G318 all the way to Lhasa, passing through the west of Sichuan Province and Nyingchi Prefecture to get to Lhasa. The Northern Route takes a different road, heading northwest into Chamdo Prefecture, and on through the mountains into Nagqu Prefecture, dropping down to reach Lhasa along the last stretches of the Qinghai Tibet Highway.

How to Plan Chengdu to Lhasa Overland Tour via Northern Route G317

While the Northern Route of the Sichuan Tibet Highway may not be the more dangerous of the two, it is the longest, stretching out for 2,412 kilometers, and taking around two weeks to navigate. The Northern Route is also the best route for those that are interested in exploring more of the Kham Tibetan culture of the region, and the route up to Nagqu through Chamdo is one of the most outstanding roads in the world in terms of changing landscapes.

Sichuan Tibet Highway Northern Route Map

Sichuan Tibet Highway Northern Route Map

The route starts in Chengdu and follows the G317 National Highway up to Dujiangyan, Rilong, and Danba, some of the most stunning areas of Kham Tibetans in Sichuan Province. After crossing from Sichuan into Chamdo, the road heads through the mountainous region to Denqen, and on to Baqen where it crosses into Nagqu Prefecture. Traveling through vast open landscapes, the majestic peaks of the mountain spearing skywards, this area of the plateau is dotted with castle-like Tibetan houses, and the plains are covered with thousands of yaks grazing serenely in the sunlight.

The road to Tibet along the G317 soon comes to Nagqu, and heads west towards Lake Namtso, joining the Qinghai Tibet Highway at Damxung County of Lhasa, before heading south to reach the Tibetan capital.

Careful planning is needed for this route, and it is not a drive for an amateur driver. With many twists and turns, high passes, and the infamous 99-turns road, which winds down the steep side of a mountain, with 99 hairpin bends on the ends of the straight stretches, only a very experienced driver should attempt this route. The best way to do this is to book a tour taking you from Sichuan to Tibet with us. Our 16 Days Amazing Kham Tour via G317 National Highway are one of the best ways to get to Tibet.

How to Plan Chengdu to Lhasa Overland Tour via Southern Route G318

The Southern Route of the Sichuan Tibet Highway is the most dangerous road in China, and has been featured many times in the lists of International Dangerous Roads. The route was also one of the hardest and most difficult roads in terms of construction in the history of China. An epic trip that covers 2,100 kilometers in around eight days, the winding roads of the G318 National Highway take you through stunning landscapes, along deep lush valleys, and over high passes, as well as along the bottom of one of the deepest gorges in Tibet.

Sichuan Tibet Highway Southern Route Map

Sichuan Tibet Highway Southern Route Map

The Southern Route to Lhasa is also noted as being the most beautiful of all the roads to Tibet, and is a trip that is taken by adventurous tourists and photographers. Starting in Chengdu, the route follows the G318 through Kangding and on to Xinduqiao, noted for being one of the most beautiful places for photography. The road then continues on to Markam, where it crosses the boundary in to the TAR, and travels through Nyingchi to Lhasa. – See the 11 Days Chengdu to Lhasa via G318 National Highway Overland Tour

The Southern Route of the Sichuan Tibet Highway actually goes through the Hengduan Mountains in Western Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, the tail end of the massive range of the Himalayas, and takes you past the highest local mountains, as well as through the 4.2-kilometer long Erlangshan Tunnel. While it can sometimes be possible to make this trip driving yourself, it is not recommended, as it is one of the most dangerous routes in China, as well as in the world. With the many twists and turns, high passes to crest over, and narrow roads in many of the higher altitude parts of the highway, it is best to have an experienced and professional driver to navigate this strenuous route.

Which one shall I choose: Northern Route G317 or Southern Route G318?

The route you choose to get to Tibet from Chengdu is entirely up to you. Each of the two routes along the Sichuan Tibet Highway has its own merits, with lots of great views and amazing landscapes and scenery along the way. For those with a love of high mountains and winding roads through lush sub-alpine meadows and deep ravines, then the southern route is the better of the two, as the mountain ranges are higher with deep ravines and canyons as well as lush valleys.

Travel overland to Lhasa via Southern Sichuan Tibet Highway

Travel overland to Lhasa via Sichuan Tibet Highway (G318)

If you love the open countryside, vast plains, and expansive prairies, then the northern route, with its sporadic high mountains in a field of lower mountainous areas is a perfect choice. The northern route takes you north of Lhasa and Chamdo into the area of Nagqu, with its Changtang Prairie, the vast grasslands that abound with Tibetan yaks, Tibetan antelopes, wild asses, and many other species of wildlife and birds that make it a nature lover’s delight.

Travel Permits Needed for Sichuan Tibet Overland Tour

If you are taking one of the two roads to Tibet from Chengdu, then you are going to need a plethora of passes and permits in order to get you there safely. Independent travel in Tibet is not permitted, and all travelers entering the region are required to be on a pre-arranged tour, complete with guide, driver, and private vehicle. This is all arranged for you by the tour operator, who also arranges the permits and passes you will need for your trip to Tibet.

Firstly, you will need your passport and visa, which can be obtained from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in your home or resident country. Once you have that, we can book your tour and use scanned color copies of the visa and passport to make the applications for the permits you will need.

Tibet Travel Permit

Tibet Travel Permit is essential for you Tibet travel.

The first permit is the Tibet Travel Permit (TTP), which is required for all travelers entering Tibet and traveling in the area of Lhasa. The permit is applied for by us on your behalf using the scanned copies of your passport and visa, and can take up t 15-20 days to process.

You will also need to have the Alien’s Travel Permit, which is normally applied for in Lhasa when you arrive, if traveling by flight or train. However, as you will be crossing an area of Tibet outside Lhasa, you will also need this permit in advance. We will use the Tibet Travel Permit and your passport copy to make the application on your behalf, which normally takes just an hour to process. However, it can take a few days to send it from Lhasa to Chengdu ready for your trip.

Nyingchi is one of the areas of Tibet that are known as “restricted areas”, and therefore requires another permit to cross through it. Nagqu, on the northern route, is another such area of Tibet. The Restricted Areas Permit is required for travel through areas that are classed as military restricted, which is why it is sometimes known as the Military Permit. This is applied for in advance of your trip, and can take around two weeks to process, as well as a few additional days to have it sent to Chengdu.

Once all the permits are complete and in hand, you are ready to start your trip to Tibet. The permits are all given to you in Chengdu before you depart, and you should take a couple of photocopies of each permit before you depart from Chengdu, as some checkpoints will want to keep a copy. Your guide or driver can help you with where to get them done, and will help with dealing with the many checkpoints along the routes.


Taking a trip to Tibet via one of the two routes of the Sichuan Tibet Highway is an amazing adventure that is not for the faint-hearted. A trip that can take from 9-14 days, depending on your itinerary and where you want to stop along the way, this long drive is demanding and arduous, even for the passengers. However, it is one of the best ways to get to Tibet, and is an exciting adventure that you will never forget.

So if you’re ready to an Adventure Tour to Tibet

1.) enjoy the mind-blowing Himalayas

2.) trek to the foot of Mt. Everest, the world’s summit

3.) explore mysterious Tibetan Buddhism

4.) appreciate the beauty of holy Tibetan lakes

5.) experience divine kora around holy Mt. Kailash

6.) witness exotic Tibetan culture

7.) taste Tibetan, Nepali, Indian cuisine

8.) look for a paradise of photography

9.) have safari on the roof of the world

Then Let’s Get Started with Our Local Tour Experts

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