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Traversing the Tibetan Plateau: Part III - Lhasa to Yunnan

Updated: May 29, 2020

In the autumn of 2007, I made one of my most memorable journeys; from Xinjiang, in far Western China, I crossed the Aksai Qin and over the Kunlun Mountain Range, entering the high Tibetan plateau. For the next seven weeks, I traversed Tibet - from Ngari in the far West, through Amdo and Lhasa to Kham; the culturally Tibetan regions of Sichuan and Yunnan.

This article covers the final part of the journey: 3800 km descending from Lhasa out of the "official" Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) through the historical Tibetan areas of Amdo and Kham, in today's Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

This region was probably the most fascinating, dramatic and colourful of the entire trip across Tibet. As it's not officially Tibetan, it hasn't received the same amount of attention by the Chinese government towards sinicising it. It felt like a forgotten, quiet and very traditional corner of Tibet; rough and super local travel passing from the heights of the Tibetan plateau, along it's craggy, eastern edge and down into the lowlands of Yunnan.


Lhasa to Xining

The Lhasa Express. In 2001 the Chinese government proudly unveiled plans for its herculean project: a 1757km-long, US$3.2 billion train line from Lhasa to Xining. Constructed between 2001 and 2007, four-fifths of the line ride above 4000m. Over 60 medical clinics were built to deal with altitude sickness, and more than half the distance is atop permafrost. A cooling system was developed to protect the permafrost from heat generated by the train, and maintain stability, using metal bars of liquid ammonia.

The journey was a very comfortable 24 hours in the sleeper carriage of the train, with striking views across the plateau to the distant mountains.

Kumbun Monastery

Kumbun Monastery was built in 1583 and lies a short distance from Xining, the capital and only large city of the Chinese province of Qinghai. It's part of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and second in importance only to the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.