Over the course of this 12-day trek, Tibetan guides lead us across three passes over 4,420 meters (14,498 feet), and through a variety of alpine terrains with lakes and meadows. We stop in Tibetan homes and share butter tea and tsampa with our hosts. The climax of the trip will be our visit to Gongga Temple, which in times past produced many famous lamas.
The preferred months for this trek are May, August, September, and October, when there is little rain and the mountain views are clearest. In May you have the added bonus of rhododendrons in bloom. You may also visit during the rainy season in July, when you can see wildflowers spreading over grasslands everywhere, but clouds may obscure your views of the high mountains and you should be prepared to be wet.
Day 1: Chengdu. The program begins this afternoon when the tour leader thoroughly briefs us on the trip itinerary. After that, we go to a restaurant to sample the delicious and spicy cuisine for which Chengdu is famous. After dinner, we have time for any last minute shopping we need to do in preparation for the trek ahead.
Day 2: Kangding 2,765 meters (9,069 feet). In the morning, we spend 6-7 hours on bus driving into the Hengduan Mountains to Kangding, one of Sichuan's "Wild West" cities. On the way we visit the famous Luding Bridge, a unique structure built in 1706, with nine iron chains spanning the roaring Dadu River. We can still see calligraphy by Emperor Kangxi at the east end of the bridge. In 1935 the Red Army successfully captured this bridge and broke through defending troops of the Nationalist (KMT) Government. The battle was considered one of the turning points of the Long March.
As we near Kangding, we find ourselves among grasslands, alpine lakes, virgin forest, glaciers and snow-capped mountains. The rushing Zheduo River flows through the center of Kangding. As the capital of the Ganzi Tibetan Ethnic Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, Kangding is a culturally rich area, home to several lamaseries in and around the city.
Day 3: Da Caoba (King Gesar's grassland) 3,720 meters (12,202 feet). After breakfast, we drive half an hour outside of Kangding. At Yu Lin Village, we meet our packhorses and set off on foot. We hike up steadily along rushing Gyazi Chu. The extraordinary diversity of plants and trees is immediately evident. Today's trekking takes us about 4 hours; we take our time, resting frequently, as it is our first day of trekking. Most of the walk is gentle and easy. We camp in a meadow surrounded by the Da Caoba mountains.
Day 4: Shuangcha River 4,000 meters (13,120 feet). Our route continues steadily up along the Shuangcha River. The vegetation changes as we gain altitude, with the dense forest thinning to open meadows and scattered scrub trees. In the afternoon we arrive at our campground in a small meadow by the edge of a clear, cold stream. Similar to yesterday, today's hike is gentle with only two or three brief sections of steep terrain.
Day 5: Shuangcha River 4,000 meters (13,120 feet). Today, we rest in order to acclimatize to the high altitude in preparation for the next few day's of hiking. Depending on how energetic we feel, we relax, do some reading, or take a day hike.
Day 6: Shangriwuqie 4,200 meters (13,776 feet). We continue our trek up the valley for 3-4 hours before reaching our campsite. Weather permitting, we see Mount Jiazifeng (Gyazi Gangkhar), glaciers, and mountain lakes in the distance. We may be able to get closer to the glaciers and alpine lakes if the weather conditions and our energy levels permit it. This is our highest campsite of the trek.
Day 7: Muxinazha 4,175 meters (13,700 feet). Today we cross over our first mountain pass, called Rixina Pass (4,800 meters, 15,749 feet). On the top of the mountain, we see majestic scenery including glaciers, lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks. We descend the other side and camp at the foot of the mountain.
Day 8: Grasslands 3,700 meters (12,136 feet). After breakfast, we hike down to Gongga Temple (Minya Konka Gompa). Having crossed the high pass, we now walk down into an area that receives a high amount of rainfall and has felt minimal human impact. As we re-cross the tree line, we enter a primeval alpine rainforest of exceptional beauty and cross several streams. After 5-6 hours of trekking, we reach our campground.
Day 9: Gongga Temple 3,700 meters (12,136 feet). After 5-7 hours of trekking, we reach the revered Gongga temple (Minya Konka Gompa), which has 500 years of history and is considered holy by the Minya Tibetans who inhabit this area of Sichuan. The temple is small and simple, and seems to grow out of the landscape, with majestic Mount Gongga towering above it. We see murals in this temple portraying ancient people, wild birds and landscapes. We have a choice of camping inside the temple or staying in one of the simple guest rooms made available for pilgrims in the monastery.
Day 10: Gongga Temple 3,700 meters (12,136 feet). We rest for one day around Gongga Temple. Accompanied by our local guide, we can also explore the surrounding area, with spectacular views of the peak from every angle.
Day 11: Yak Ranch 4,000 meters (13,120 feet). Well rested, we hike 5-6 hours through the valley towards Yak Ranch at the foot of Mount Yulong. The trail retraces some areas we have traveled previously. In the late afternoon, we reach our campsite in the Yak Ranch area. We spend the night there and prepare to cross Yulongxi Pass tomorrow.
Day 12: Yulongxi Ranch 4,093 meters (13,425 feet). Today, we trek about 2-3 hours over our second mountain pass, Yulongxi Pass (4,602 meters, 15,095 feet), where we have our last panoramic view of Mount Gongga. After 1-2 more hours of walking downhill, we camp at the foot of Mount Yulongxi near a small Tibetan village. En route, we see herders looking after their yaks. We may stop by the homes of some nomads for some yak butter tea and Zanba. This gives us a glimpse of what typical Tibetan life is like.
Day 13: Kangding 2,765 meters (9,069 feet). This morning, our 4WD vehicles pick up us, and we drive back Kangding via Liuba and Xinduqiao. We drive about 8 hours through the countryside, dotted with picturesque Tibetan villages. We arrive in Kangding in the late afternoon and check into our hotel. After cleaning up, we have a sumptuous Sichuan meal-our first dinner in ten days not cooked over a camp stove.
Day 14: Chengdu. We set out for Chengdu in the morning, a bus journey which takes us 6-7 hours. We enjoy a farewell banquet in Chengdu.
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