Kham Tibet straddles three provinces and one autonomous region in modern day PRC: Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The region of Kham is very diverse geographically, containing large mountain ranges and vast grasslands. Four major rivers and six mountain ranges combine to make the scenery of this part of Tibet breathtaking. The headwaters of the Mekong, the Yangtse, the Yalong and the Salween, flow out of Kham Tibet from the East and South-Eastern parts of the Tibetan plateau.
The people of Kham Tibet, known as the Khambas (or Khampas) live up to their reputation for bravery and horsemanship when they compete in summer “horse racing” festivals. However, they are also known for cheerfully enduring a beautiful yet sometimes harsh environment, especially in the winter months. The huge mountain ranges that form the valleys through which the rivers flow are responsible for the divergent cluster of dialects that have developed due to the relative seclusion of these communities throughout most of history.
The traditional occupations of nomadic pastoralism and agriculture are still the backbone of Kham society while increasing numbers find positions in the growing towns as government workers or employees in local small businesses. It’s not unusual in one family to find hard-working farmers who still depend on the land, monks or nuns committed to lifelong service in a monastery, and young people with college degrees.
Beginning in the Sichuan basin and ascending to the breath-taking heights of the Tibetan plateau, your lungs are conscious of breaking out of the sub-tropical soupy air of the lowlands to the invigorating cool and thin air that is home to one of the highest cultures in the world. Everything changes. Faces for starters: round and flat Chinese faces are replaced by the long and sharp-featured ones typical of Tibetans. High cheek bones tinted red by wind and sun, along with gold teeth, are emblematic of this people group comprised of a majority of farmers and nomads. Replacing modernity, temples and traditional homes dot the landscape and are often home to welcoming and friendly hosts. The landscape has surprising variance: tight narrow valleys with lush vegetation and steep ascents marked by countless switchbacks carry you to the vastness of the Tibetan plateau.
The Chinese cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming are the main gateway cities to Kham Tibet. From these three cities there is convenient access to a lot of the region via land or air. Public buses are more comfortable than most people think these days, and if you are traveling in a group it very economical to hire a private vehicle. Your guesthouse or hotel should be able to assist with arranging your ground transport depending on your needs. Airports are also conveniently located in Kangding, Shangri-La, Daocheng, Yushu, and Chamdo.
For a helpful introduction to the geography of Tibet’s three regions relative to each other and the rest of China, be sure to visit our page on Tibet Travel Essentials.