A common request we get is for trips in Tibet that are not “touristy.” As one traveler said: “I really want to experience the local culture and get to some non touristy places.” In this post, you will find an outstanding trip that is one of the least “touristy” Tibetan journeys you could ever take. The trip combines a visit to a little-known Tibetan horse festival at Shamalong with a trail riding adventure through the remote forests and rivers of Kham.
Note: The Tibetan-American couple who run this trip have a wonderful collection of long and short horse treks, hiking treks and nomad homestay hikes. This particular Shamalong trip is not always available, but if you find the trip interesting and want to learn all the cool options, fill out the short form here so we can put you in touch with them. This and other similar rides and treks in Kham are now open to foreigners who have been living in China during the pandemic and who have appropriate health clearance.
Shamalong Tibetan Horse Festival Ride
Some highlights of the Shamalong journey:
- Hanging out at an extraordinary and authentic Khampa horse race festival attended by thousands of local nomads dressed in their finery, with riders performing feats of courage and acrobatics.
- Sleeping at night in Tibetan tents, and in a Tibetan nunnery.
- Riding horseback through vast grasslands and among snow-capped mountains.
- Visiting important Tibetan monasteries
- Spend time with nomads deep in the mountains and if you want, get a hands-on lesson on how to herd yaks and make butter.
This is one of the most awesome and unusual Tibetan trips we’ve ever heard of, and a chance to see the real Tibet before it disappears totally.
Arrive in Chengdu, meet at Chengdu Airport. Visit the Wenshu Yuan Buddhist Temple near the hotel if there is time in the afternoon. Amazing vegetarian food for dinner and massages if wanted. Chengdu is the traditional capital of the region of Shu in China, and a city full of history. It also contains the largest Tibetan population outside of the Tibetan regions in all of China. (BuddhaZen Hotel)
Drive to Kangding. This small mountain city is at an elevation of 2600m and is mainly ethnic Han Chinese with a notable Tibetan presence and flair, particularly in its restaurants, shops and temples. For centuries it has served as a tea and yak hide trading center, and has been the meeting place of Tibetan and Chinese culture. It serves as the last outpost before the wild Tibetan mountains and passes of the Chengdu-Lhasa highway and the Kham region of Tibetan region. (6-10 hour drive, depending on road conditions. Yangqier Hotel, 2600 m/8530 ft)
Drive to Puksum, an idyllic Tibetan farming village set next to a big river. Spend the afternoon hiking the lovely hills and have a homecooked meal with the Swiss-Tibetan family that owns the guesthouse. (1.5 hour drive, Pasu Riverview Guesthouse, 3300 m/10,827 ft)
Drive up to Lhagang for your next step in adjusting to the altitude. Visit the Lhagang Monastery and a nearby hermitage. (20 minute drive, Tianzhu Hotel, 3700 m/12,139 ft)
Set out riding today. Today we ride four hours to the Shamalong Nomad Clan race site, across high hills and forests. Camp near the race site. (4 hours, camp at 4100 m/13,451 ft)
Shamalong Horse Festival. Attend the morning horse blessings, and then spectacular races of the local clan, with long races, short sprints, and stunt races. (Camp at 4100 m/13,451 ft)
Ride to Gyergo Nunnery, across hilly, forested land. Visit the Gyergo Monk’s College, and the nunnery itself, including the famous mani wall here, made of thousands and thousands of carved stones. (5 hour ride, Gyergo Guesthouse, 3900 m/12,795 ft)
Ride today over high Griffon Pass (4900 m/ 16,076 ft) with stunning views of sacred Mt. Zhakra, 5900 m/ 16,076 ft). Then walk down into the back valley to camp at the Zhakra Hotsprings. (4 hour ride, 3 hour hike, bivouac at 4100 m/13,451 ft)
Ride and hike to Zhakra Turquoise Lake. Situated below stunning glaciers, this sacred lake is fed by a waterfall. We will do a traditonal kora of the lake (a walk-around), and see the shrines and hermitages nearby. We will camp in the low valley below the lake. (5 hour ride, 1 hour walk. Bivouac at 3800 m/12,467 ft)
Ride back to Gyergo Nunnery via “Empty Valley,” where we should pass some nomad camps, and then on to Khampa Nomad Arts Center and Ecolodge. This is a long but lovely day ride with glacier views and a nice picnic lunch. Rest up at the isolated lodge. (10 hour ride, Khampa Nomad Arts Center and Ecolodge, 3900 m/12,795 ft)
Ride up into the high nomad areas. Another lovely day on the horse to end at the home camp of our guides. We will settle in to spend two nights at this camp, to be wined and dined by nomads, and experience their traditional life. (4 hour ride, camp near nomads, 4200 m/13,779 ft)
Spend the day at Dashika Nomad Camp, enjoying the traditional life. We can try yak milking, cheese and butter processing, yak fiber spinning for string and rope, and yak herding. A great place to see birds and a nice rest from the road. (Camp near nomads, 4200 m/13,779 ft)
Ride to Yibei Lake, a high sinkhole (cenote) lake. This is a short 3 hour ride across the high plateau where we will see many nomad camps dotted across the area. Yibei is a great lake for swimming, but cold! (3 hour ride, camping, 4450 m/14,599 ft)
Ride to high lookout to the west, across wolf and gazelle country and the Lhagang plateau’s highest area. Lunch at the lookout, at 4600 m/15,091 ft, with views of isolated hermitages nestled in mountains, after mountain, after mountain. Then drop down to see sacred Ragni Lake, home of lammergyer birds in cliffs and the site of many legends. Camp nearby. (6 hour ride, camping, 4200 m/13,779 ft)
Ride across the Lhagang Plateau’s most populated nomadic area. Some years we happen upon a religious festival in this area. Arrive at afternoon to high Genup Gompa, an old nomad temple, and camp nearby. (5 hour ride, camping, 3800 m/12,467 ft)
Drop down on horseback to Seka Village where we will meet vehicles (and say goodbye to the horses, yaks, and guides). After lunch in Bamei town at a Chinese restaurant popular with locals, we’ll drive down to Danba town. We’ll do some shopping in town, and then head to Gatar Gompa, where we will stay in a small monastery hotel.
Drive to the airport and fly to Chengdu. Settle in and rest up.
A free day in Chengdu. Possible optional activities include visiting the Giant Panda Breeding Center (which usually has babies in the summertime), the QingYangGong Daoist Temple, and the Tibetan quarter. Last dinner with Sichuan Opera dinner theater. (BuddhaZen Hotel)
Sendoff to the airport.
The ride is open to a wide range of riding abilities, though it is best to have at least basic horseriding skills.