We stand awestruck, gazing out at 19,100ft (5,820m) Zhara Lhotse, known in Chinese as Yala Snow Mountain, a towering and snowcapped triangular peak considered holy by local Tibetans. In the west of Sichuan Province, some 250 miles (400km) from Chengdu and about eight to nine hours by road, the peak protrudes high above the dry grasslands below, and we feel like we’re in an extraordinary living landscape painting, an experience not easily found amongst China’s 1.3 billion.
Escaping China’s crowded eastern regions, my wife Raquel and I have headed to its “wild west,” the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu, in search of open spaces for trekking, and Tibetan culture without the permits, hassle or expense of traveling to Tibet proper.
Despite feeling a million miles from anywhere, it’s pretty simple to get to the heart of China’s mountain paradises. A comfortable bus ride of four to five hours from Chengdu brings us to Danba, an ancient Tibetan stone tower village where we spend the night in an ethnic homestay. Then it’s a four-hour minivan ride on to Tagong, a small dusty town on the edge of the grasslands, busy with Tibetan pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and counting prayer beads as they make kora, a counterclockwise spiritual pilgrimage around the golden Lhagang Monastery.
We do our own kora around the grasslands, where an array of hiking trails all head out to the same direction, taking us to the Ser Gergyo nunnery, several monasteries, and to the base of the peaks. From here, you can also climb up to high alpine lakes and do a three-day trek back out towards the road to Chengdu.
We’re completely alone here, save for the occasional long-haired Khampa Tibetan cowboy or nun in a traditional chuba robe passing by, heading for Ser Gergyo Ani Gompa, a nunnery at the base of a mountain, covered in Tibetan scripture stones and with colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Leaving Tagong, to head north towards Langmusi, after five hours and 170mi (275km), we pass through Garze, the largest town in the region. Here, we make the best decision of our trip, to take a three-hour detour in a shared minivan, to Yarchen Gar, a nunnery on an island at 13,100ft (4,000m), home to the world’s largest gathering of practicing Tibetan Buddhists.
We arrive in this magical place during a spring snowstorm, and are the only foreign visitors, drawing curious stares and polite smiles from hundreds of maroon-robed nuns who walk through the snowflakes impervious to the freezing temperatures.
Some 10,000 nuns live here without electricity or running water in cramped quarters, but they, and the thousands of monks who reside just off the island, don’t seem to mind, as it’s one of the last places left in China where Tibetan Buddhism is allowed to flourish.
They pack the main monastery complex each morning to listen to the teachings of a revered tulku (reincarnated lama). We sit in silence as the lama chants, mesmerized by the sea of robes around us.
Further north, some 400mi (650km) and 15 hours by bus, with a necessary overnight stop in the town of Aba (known in Chinese as Maerkang), and straddling the Sichuan-Gansu border, we reach Langmusi. We do massive double takes at the scenery here, and feel like we’re in the European Alps or Tyrolean Dolomites, but while it might look like a slice of Bavaria, with its verdant hills framed by jagged peaks, Langmusi is very much China.
Hui Chinese Muslims sell freshly baked flat bread and hand-pulled long noodles in the town square, and local horsemen sidle up to us to ask if we want to go horse trekking. Giddy from either the altitude or the views of mighty 13,800ft (4,200m) Mount Huagai (Mount Huagaishan) rising above town, we make plans to head to its summit the following day, but rising at dawn, our plans are thwarted by a heavy blizzard. Our spirits aren’t dampened though, as it’s like having a white Christmas in April, with the entire town and vertical surroundings bathed in a coat of fresh snow.
From Langmusi we take a five-hour bus 240mi (390km) to Langzhou, then hop a train to Zhangye (four hours via high-speed train).
Zhangye is a modern and compact city, laid out on a grid, and wandering the backstreets, we are invited by several toothless old men into small teahouses, where we are served the regional specialty ba bao cha (eight treasure tea), a Muslim fruit tea that comes with dried longan, Chinese dates, rock sugar, goji berries, and spices, and is sweet and flavor-packed.
We take a day trip via a 1.5-hour bus ride (and a five-minute taxi ride to cover the last 3mi/5km) to the Mati temples, to see ancient caves carved high up into rock faces, requiring a bit of renouncing vertigo to climb. With the Qianlan Mountains in the background, it’s a marvelous spot, but a few signs warning us of bears in the area keeps us from exploring further.
We’re keen to do more hiking here, but Danxia’s Rainbow Mountains, formally known as Zhangye National Geopark, are calling.
An hour on a local bus takes us 20mi (32km) from Zhangye to the park from where we jump on a 10-minute eco-shuttle which brings us into this desertscape, with wind-eroded layered sandstone formations of vivid contrasting colors as far as the eye can see.
We are dazzled by the kaleidoscope canyons surrounding us, and we smile at each other, knowing that our wild west sojourn has been completely fulfilled.
Almost all of Gansu and Sichuan is situated above 10,000ft (3,000m), something not to be taken lightly. Even in mid-summer it can snow here, so you’ll want to use a proper layering system: a base layer (polypropylene or Merino wool, but not cotton), fleece or another microfiber-type mid-layer, followed by a down or synthetic jacket as an outer layer, and finally a Goretex or water/windproof shell and pants set to keep everything dry.
Waterproof boots are preferable to tennis shoes, and are a must if you are planning to do extended trekking. Other essentials include a waterproof rain cover for your pack, and a water filter or purification tablets for heading out into the wilds (although anywhere with indoor accommodation in China will supply you with boiled water). Note that winter travel here involves extreme temperatures of below -20°C and is only recommended for the insane!
Do try to stick to the medically recommended advice when traveling at high elevations. Once above 10,000ft, don’t sleep higher than 1,000ft (300m) higher the following night, and for each subsequent 3,000ft of gain, take a rest day.
While Tagong and Langmusi offer the best trekking, you’ll also find a great combination of grasslands, mountains, and monks at Xiahe, famed for its massive Labrang Monastery, just a two to three-hour bus ride north of Langmusi.
En route to the Danxia Landforms, stop at Mata Si, the complex of Tibetan Buddhist cave temples set against the Qianlan Mountains, easily done by public transport as a day trip from Zhangye city.
You can also hop on a bullet train west from Zhangye to Jiayuguan and in under two hours be hiking up in the Heishan Black Mountains which is where you’ll find the last section of the Great Wall.
At the time of writing (August 2019), the Yarchen Gar nunnery is still open to travelers. It often gets grouped together with Larung Gar (Sertar) monastery, which is several hours away, which is off limits to foreigners.
Tour agencies in Chengdu or online may say the nunnery is a no-go for travelers, but the Chinese authorities are actually building up the complex for tourism, as opposed to tearing it down (such as the case with Larung Gar), so you just need to get yourself to Garze (also known as Ganzi), where public minibuses leave from when full each morning.