A relatively new option for travelling to Tibet is via the eastern road from Deqen in the Yunnan province of China, and following it as it crosses both the Yangtze and the Mekong rivers, finally running along side the Yarlong Tsampo (a tributary to the Brahmaputra), making it’s way to Lhasa.
The trip can take anything up to about 10 ten days and the stunning scenery along the way is enhanced only by the lack of tourists currently enjoying it. The landscape changes from mountains, gorges, and rivers, to dusty and desolate plains, to lush jungly wildlife. There are isolated monasteries and you’ll be able to meet Tibetan monks away from the watchful eyes of the Chinese.
Colourful villages and herds of yak line the way up the half a dozen or so 4000 meter mountain passes. The nomads by the side of the road will welcome you into their tents and then wave you off again as you continue toward Lhasa.
The route takes you through Kham-land, home of the Khampa people. Beside being a famous warrior clan, they’re also known for the horse racing festivals they stage. Fueled by chang (beer made from barley), the young men race across the plateau bareback, cheered on by sword-wielding relatives.
The area is still a cause for sensitivity, and there are numerous military outposts. In some of the towns you’ll stay, walking anywhere off the main street, and/or taking pictures of anything at all are strictly forbidden. Although with only the odd adventure tour group, or sadomasochistic European cyclist passing through, the local Tibetans will definitely be pleased to see you, and not because you present an opportunity to sell their wares, as is often the case in other, more tourist savvy parts of the country.
Currently little to no tourists are following this trail, in part because of the expense and red tape involved, and in part due to a communal ignorance about its existence. The road is open but is admittedly a little costly. The reason being that officially you still need to be travelling as a group.
With a little bit of imagination this group can refer to a single vehicle. However, you will need to arrange your vehicle, guide, permits and overnight accommodation through a travel agency. And this is where it can add up.
There are emerging some Lhasa based Tibetan run travel agencies who can arrange the whole Shebang. They will send you a Tibetan driver, and a Tibetan guide (no longer the Chinese propaganda merchants of old) who will sort out the paperwork along route, interpret where required but basically leave you free to enjoy your trip. A massive recommendation to anyone not on a strict budget…..