re you looking for views that are literally breathtaking? As in, when you’re viewing them, you might find yourself short of breath despite the fact you’re sitting on a bus? If you’re keen to experience some of the highest altitude tourism in the world, then western Sichuan’s Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture may be for you.
Visitors to the prefecture, which spans roughly the westernmost quarter of the province and is covered predominantly by the Hengduan mountain range at the very east of the vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, can stay at hotels located four kilometers above sea level, with some spots reaching well over 4,500 meters up. For comparison, that’s about a kilometer higher than Incan citadel Machu Picchu or Bolivia’s La Paz, famed as being the highest capital on Earth.
Besides shockingly blue skies, a deceptively powerful midday sun and a precipitous night-time temperature drop, the high altitude of course brings with it thinner air. Just about everyone can expect to feel short of breath, and some should expect at least a few symptoms of altitude sickness. But relief is at hand, in the form of cans of oxygen on sale just about everywhere a tourist is likely to find themselves, and visitors sucking on the cans are a ubiquitous, if initially jarring, sight. A few of the fancier hotels also offer in-room oxygen tanks, to either help you sleep or to experience where you might end up if you don’t quit smoking.
Your reward for putting up with this atmospheric hardship will be almost constant beauty. While the region does have its fair share of designated scenic spots - such as Inkstone Park in Daofu County, where karst outcrops littered with yak bones create an otherworldly landscape - almost everywhere one looks something dramatic can be found. The mountains stretching high above you, unlike on the near-bare Qinghai-Tibet Plateau proper, are often blanketed by thick forest which carry down to the rapid rivers which streak across the prefecture. The hills and peaks are sometimes festooned with colorful prayer flags, emblazed with huge mantras in Tibetan or crowned with golden temples that twinkle in the sun.
On one memorable stretch of road, nearly every sizable boulder in the river had been hand-painted with a mantra. To my astonishment, this continued for what must have been well over a kilometer, across thousands - if not tens of thousands - of stones.
Garze Prefecture is about five times the size of Belgium and has virtually no public transportation, so the only practicable way to get around is by car. You could drive yourself if you’re willing to deal with sometimes poor road conditions and the extremely aggressive driving style (overtaking on blind corners along cliffs seems to be a local sport). Otherwise, you can do as I did on a recent visit and hop on one of the many package tours that’ll scoot you around over the course of a few days, usually focusing more on natural than cultural beauty.
However both of these things can be experienced at one of Garze’s (deservedly) most well-known attractions, the Yading Nature Reserve in Daocheng County. Located at the southern extremity of the region, near the border with Yunnan Province and not so far from both Myanmar and India, the reserve is home to three towering snow-capped peaks which in local tradition are thought to be embodiments of the bodhisattvas of mercy, wisdom and power.
As you work your way up from the commercialized entrance (home to what may well be Garze’s only Burger King) and along a glacial stream into the mountains, you’ll pass herds of hardy indigenous mountain goats and the stocky local ponies, which on our visit were hauling building materials and tourists along the track. These same jobs were also being done by local Tibetans, with one young man loaded down with pipes stopping only to take a swig from a bottle of baijiu (strong liquor) before jogging up the trail, leaving us panting high-altitude neophytes in his wake.
On the way, you’ll have the chance to visit the wonderful Chonggu Monastery. The interior of the monastery, on which renovation work was still ongoing during our visit, is almost overwhelming, with every inch of the walls covered in murals showing bodhisattvas, deities, demons and skinned beasts. There are also sculptures, wood carvings and thangkas - a Tibetan art form comprised of painted silk.
After a hike of about five or six kilometers, you’ll reach the Milk and Five Color lakes, two crystal-clear pools nestled amid the peaks that mark the end of your trek. They get their name from the milky-white deposits that ring one, and the array of colors that apparently appear in the other at sunrise and sunset. When we visited, the sacred vibe was somewhat pierced by the ongoing construction of a new cafe at the peak, which may well bring comfort at the cost of peace.
To get to Garze, one can either fly directly into Daocheng Yading or Garze Gesar airports, (respectively the highest and third-highest commercial airports in the world), or drive in from lowland Sichuan. Perhaps the easiest way is to fly into the nearest major airport in Chengdu, and then travel by road for the half-dozen hours in, staying first in the town of Kangding and working your way to higher altitudes over a few days. Besides convenience, this method also offers the chance to spend a few days in Sichuan’s capital, a truly charming city that boasts a remarkably laid-back vibe for a big Chinese city and some of the best - and spiciest - food anywhere.
It might be good to stock up on flavor before you head to Garze, which has not been blessed overmuch with culinary delights - and this is coming from someone who grew up eating British food. Most of the restaurants offer Sichuanese food in a pale imitation of what can be found in Chengdu, and few offer local Tibetan fare beyond the fortifying salty tea. The best meals I enjoyed were in halal noodle joints, which substitute fresh beef for the characteristic air-dried jerky. At one, mid-meal, the burly and sun-weathered Tibetan proprietor emerged from the kitchen and gruffly asked me where I’m from.
“I’m British,” I said.
“I love you,” he replied.
Over our peals of shocked laughter, his wife said “those are the only English words he knows.”
Naturally, I told him the feeling was mutual.