Litang (ལི་ཐང།) is a small Tibetan town in western Sichuan Provence (四川), China. Traditionally known as the Kham (ཁམས) Provence of the former Tibetan Kingdom, Litang is a dusty trade town in a high, grassy valley.
At an altitude of 4,014 meters (13,169 ft) it’s actually higher than Lhasa and one of the highest towns in the world. Every summer, they hold one of Tibet’s biggest horse racing festivals, an event that draws Tibetans (and tourists) from all over.
Several famous Buddhists are from Litang including the 7th and the 10th Dalai Lama. It has a beautiful, huge monastery (Litang Chöde) up on the mountain side overlooking the town. This area has a long history of resistance to Chinese rule, from before the Chinese bombing of the monastery in 1956 to a recent riot at the horse racing festival in 2007. During the PLA’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, Litang County was one of the strongest areas of resistance.
Litang is possibly my favorite small town on Earth. I’ve never been to a place that has so many rough looking people that are so friendly. Litang is the Wild West of Asia. The men dress in a mix of traditional Tibetan clothes and cowboy hats. They’re also known to be some of the best horse riders in Tibet.
A funny custom that seems unique to Litang is the decorating of motorcycles. Everyone from cowboys to town-folk to monks decorate their motorcycles to the nines. Streamers, saddle bags, and hand stitched seat covers are the norm.
Surrounding Litang are many grass covered, rolling mountains. Each one has a chörten on the top. A chörten is basically a big rock pile that Tibetan Buddhists go to pray and hang prayer flags.
Litang’s monastery, Litang Chöde, is set above the town just behind the old town. I spent most of my time in Litang in this area, wandering the dirt roads and meeting locals. As I said before, this is a very friendly town. Rarely would I pass anyone with them smiling or saying hello.
Because the people were so friendly, I decided to return two years after my first visit. I wanted to return the pictures that I had taken on the previous trip. It was amazing to find the same people in the same places and to see the children age two years.
Xiangcheng is an even smaller town about half way between Zhongdian (Shangri-La) and Litang. I highly recommend the bumpy, uncomfortable bus ride from Zhongdian to Litang (or vice-versa). It’s a very rough 2 day ride that overnights in Xiangcheng. But it goes through some of the most remote and beautiful landscape that I’ve ever seen. The beautiful mountains, valleys and small villages will help you to forget the difficult bus ride.
When you arrive in Xiangcheng, there will probably be a lady with a sign in English trying to get you to go to her home-stay. Do it! She lives directly behind the bus stop and will treat you to a truly traditional home-cooked Tibetan meal in a truly traditional Tibetan home.
Before you eat, head to the north side of the town to visit the local monastery. As usual, it’s an incredible sight. Ornately decorated and populated by very friendly monks, they might ask you to pay a small entrance fee, but they’ll probably also give you a guided tour that includes the entire monastery, including the head lama’s sleeping quarters.
If you’re interested in solitude or really finding traditional Tibet, Stay in Xiangcheng an extra day and visit some of the outlying villages. This is really one of the most un-touristed, remote places you’re ever going to find.
Thanks for reading,