Site of a thriving arts and Buddhist scholarship, the Dege region has been a nerve center of Tibetan culture. Highlight of this journey is the Kora (holy circuit) around important monasteries and trading centres along the ancient caravan routes. We also visit several towns that make up the Wild East - a fascinating foray into the culture and lifestyle of Kham.
Meeting in Chengdu (Sichuan), we land cruise along the Sichuan-Tibet highway to begin our adventure at Dartsedo, the former gateway to eastern Tibet and a key loading station along the old tea caravan route. Until the mid-20th century, Dartsedo was the capital of the historic Chakla kingdom governed by a hereditary monarch.
The town offers numerous day hikes for acclimatisation. Sights include Dentok Riwa hill (Paomashan) and the 17th-century Ngachu Monastery, a branch of Drepung Monastery's Loseling College in Lhasa. There are also inviting hot springs at the outskirts of town.
Between Tawo and Kandze we travel through historic Trehor Khampa country, home of the descendants of native Tibetans and Mongols migrants. Tawo’s local farmers’ market is worth a visit, as are Nyitso Monastery, and a Christian mission with its Sino-European styled church. Kandze is a trading town that draws people and goods from the surrounding areas. Must sees include 17th-century Kandze Monastery and Dargyé Gonpa, a monastery founded by the Mongol prince Gushri Khan.
Situated on a sunny hill-side at 3,292 m in a beautiful river-valley and more than 600 kilometers away from Lhasa, we finally reach Dege. The higher-lying old town is made up of traditional chalet-style two-story houses with carved and painted windows. We visit the Dege Parkhang, largest sacerdotal printing press of the Kangyur and Tangyur scriptures, as well as Dege Gönchen, the main monastery. There is also Tanggyal Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to the Tibet's saint and iron-bridge builder Tangtong Gyalpo.
Following the old pilgrim’s trail we hike and ride through lush alpine river-valleys camping on the shores of sacred lakes. Village-homes in the distinct log-home style architecture typical for this part of Kham change with vast pastures. We encounter pilgrims and herdsmen, and enjoy the serenity and peace prevailing in this magnificent mountain landscape.
Under the patronage of the historic Dege kings, numerous lesser-known Buddhist schools once flourished. Monastic centres such as Dzongsar and Palpung offer us insights into contemporary Buddhist practice. We also have the chance to view some very old and exquisite Buddhist frescoes.
We leave Dege with indelible impressions. On the way back to Dartsedo, we have more opportunities to immerse ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Wild East towns such as Manigango, Drango and Rongtrak before exiting the Tibetan highlands for Chengdu.