Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Gānzī Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu, 甘孜藏族自治州) takes up half of Sichuan, its boundaries forming the eastern edge of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and the eastern extent of Han-dominated China.
Ganzi, part of the ancient Tibetan Kham region, is one of the most beautiful, inspiring and forbidding destinations China has to offer. Unlike the Tibetan lands on the other side of the TAR border, its requirements for entry are less onerous, making it an attractive alternative to a flight or train into Lhasa for those seeking to experience Tibetan culture and rugged mountain landscapes.
The local Tibetans are the fierce Khampas, known for their tendency to carry short swords and cruise little nomad settlements on tricked-out motorcycles. Speaking of nomads, a number of stubbornly unsettled Tibetans in the regions still travel in caravans drawn by bell-jingling yaks, stopping off at far-flung towns to trade yak butter and yogurt for silver, gold and other necessities. All of Ganzi's towns center on a Buddhist site of some sort, be it the Tagong Monastery on the Lhagang Grasslands with its ancient Buddhist relics, or the library and ancient printing press of Dege, home to a treasure trove of Buddhist scriptures.
The border town of Kangding marks one of the entry points to Ganzi, with the booming tourist town of Shangri-La (Zhongdian) at the southernmost point of the prefecture, and Dege, which also borders the TAR, one of its northernmost settlements.
Ganzi is dotted with nomad gathering spots-turned-towns like Tagong, sacred Buddhist sites like Seda's Buddhist Institute (once one of the largest in the world until the Chinese government practically razed the town) and Dege's Palpung Monastery, as well as places of natural beauty like Lake Manigango and Hailuoguo Glacier Park. Road trips, stops along the way, nights under the stars and days spent walking through the streets of Ganzi Town, the prefecture's capital, all help to put the world in perspective.
Trips from Lijiang in Yunnan's north through Shangri-La to Litang and across to Kangding are popular (and awesomely beautiful), as are treks from Kangding across to Litang or Ganzi, then toward Dege and on to Xiahe in Gansu, the site of Labrang, one of the greatest of Tibetan monasteries.
Finally, be aware that Ganzi is not Tibet proper as defined by current borders, and you therefore do not require a Tibet travel permit. Nevertheless, the area is a stronghold of Tibetan culture and attracts a lot of government attention, especially when tensions flare. If and when trouble stirs, expect a visible paramilitary and military presence and be prepared to show your passport and visa.
Sichuan guide | Ganzi Prefecture attractions
Ganzi Prefecture flights (Lijiang) | Ganzi Prefecture hotels (Hailuogou)
Ganzi on the China Travel Blog