Xinjiang-Tibet Highway (Yecheng-Burang) is also called the national highway 219, with a total distance of 2,743 km. It is the highway with the highest altitude in the world. The highway starts from Yecheng, a city in southern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, passes by Gar county in Tibet and reaches Shiquanhe town, which is located in Ngari prefecture, Tibet, then the highway winds south to Burang county, where China borders India and Nepal. The highway turns east to converge with the China-Nepal Highway, and then extends to Xigaze and finally stretches into Lhasa. On its way the highway winds its way among several mountains, five of which soaring more than 5000 meters (16400 feet) high above the sea level. Among them the highest is Jieshan Daban Mountain, which is at an altitude of 6,035 meters. When you cross over the mountains, you can sense the grandness as you see the great mountains dwarf the surrounding ones. And it is easy to appreciate the spectacular view of the heavenly holy mountain Kailash, which is also called the “center of the world”, and to feel the overwhelming charm of the holy lake Manasarovar.
2743km Yecheng<-69km-> Pusa<-88km-> Kudidaban<-83km-> Mazadaban<-339km-> Sweet Water Sea<-110km-> Jieshandaban<-177km-> Duomaping<-143km-> Rutog County <-87km-> Shiquanhe town<-331km-> Parga <-334km-> Zhongba<-145km-> Saga<-293km-> Lhaze <-157km-> Xigaze<-337km-> Lhasa
Crossing over Jieshan Daban, the bus is driving in Ngari prefecture, Tibet. The scenery along the highway changes a little, with spreading alpine meadow and pasture coming into sight ever and again. Then suddenly when the bus passes a curve in a mountain, a huge, crystal clear lake appears. That is the lovely Banggong Co Lake.
Banggong Co Lake, which means “the long, narrow enchanting lake” in Tibetan language, has an altitude of 4,241 meters, with a total length of 150 km and approximately an area of 427 sq. km. It is 8 km when the lake reaches the widest part and only 50 meters at the narrow part, 5 meters at the narrowest part. The eastern part of the lake belongs to China, while the western part is in Indian Kashmir. What is the most wonderful about Banggong Co Lake is that water quality varies although it is the same lake. Water in the Chinese part is fresh water, teeming with fish. When in the Kashmir part, water becomes salty.
Passing the Banggong Co Lake, it is not long before reaching Rutog County, Ngari prefecture, if what you see can be called a county town. There is only one 200-meter-long street in the county town, where the government departments, shops and stores, hospitals and hotels are crowded. The town is so small that one can see everything there at one look. But it is also a town of old and rich culture. Rutog was one of the three great dynasties in Ngari at the Guge Kingdom Era. The ruins of the dynasty reveal that the palace at that time was a huge building group, which had been built at the foot of great mountains. The building group of the palace have the similar structure of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, so the palace is also called the “mini Potala Palace”, and is among those buildings with typical Tibetan flavors.
On the bridge over the Shiquanhe River, you can hear the flapping and cracking sound when the multicolored sutra streamers fly over winds. It is said that wind in Shiquanhe Township is fierce, which usually begins at 4 in the afternoon. When it winds, sand blown fly everywhere.
The main streets in Shiquanhe Township are the two crisscross streets, and most of the stores concentrate on the street which extends from south to north. Along both sides of the street are stores and hotels. Some of the restaurants are Muslim ones operated by people from Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu province, but more are Sichuan cuisine restaurants. Roadside stands are crammed in the street, where abundant Han’s and Tibetan households goods, souvenirs are displayed. All these make the street a bustling place, which may be the busiest, the largest-sized street you will see after you enter Tibet by highway. People in Shiquanhe Township, no matter the Tibetans, Han nationality, Hui or the Uygur ethic groups, all get along harmoniously.
In Ngari prefecture, there goes a saying that if you visit Tibet, you won’t feel that you have really appreciated the best without going to Ngari, and similarly, if you visit Ngari, you won’t find you haven really appreciated the best without going to Burang, the terminal of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. And it’s worth you while to go there.
In the Guge Kingdom Era, there existed 3 dynasties. The first was Burang dynasty, the second was Ladake dynasty in Rutog County, and the third was Gege dynasty.
Burang is the southwestern gate of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. To the south of Burang are the Himalayas Mountains, and to the north is Kangdese Shan, so Burang is called the place surrounded by snowy mountains.
For the Buddhists, no matter where they are from, if only they can have a chance to come the Holy Mountain, they feel greatly honored. Buddhists believe circumambulation around the holy mountains can scour away ones sin. So there are people who come to walk around the Holy Mountain all year around. Some people save money for a whole life just for a trip to the Holy Mountain. When they leave the Holy Mountain, they will sacrifice all their money and grain. In order to show their godliness, some pilgrims kowtow by prostrate body length until they get to the Holy Mountain. The roads to the mountain are at an average altitude of 5,000 meters, and are dangerous. With the severe climate and frequent snow, many people die on their way of walking around the Holy Mountain. Buddhists think death on the way to the holy mountain is to go to the Buddhist paradise and is worthwhile, which will result in a good retribution in the future world.
Opposite to the Holy Mountain and across the Bagala prairie, the grand Namunani Peak looms through the mist. Walking toward the Peak, you can arrive at Burang.
In Burang County, the Holy Lake, Manasarova (Mapam Tso), enjoys equal popularity as the Holy Mountain. The lake covers 412square kilometers (159 square miles) and its altitude is 4,587 meters (15049 feet) and is 77 meters deep at the deepest point. Judging by the area, altitude and depth of the lake, Lake Manasarova doesn’t stand out. But because it is called the “Jasper Lake” on earth [Jasper Lake is a place mentioned in clinical Chinese mythologies as a lake in the Kunlun Mountains where a Goddess lives], it is considered the most venerated queen of the plateau lakes. Many Buddhists deem that as long as they can gaze upon the lake, they are sainted. If they circumambulate the lake, it was just like the circumambulation around the Holy Mountain, which can accumulate benevolence and at least excuse the pain of being sent to the hell after their death.
Standing apart facing the Burang county town, Gugong Temple is a suspended one built in a holed cliff. The temple is made up of three floors of cliff caves, which are linked by wood ladders. The first floor is the storeroom. The cliff and strait wood ladders lead to the second floor, where the monks’ living place and kitchen are. On the third floor are three halls, the hall for worshipping Buddha, the hall of the Buddhist scriptures and the main hall of the Buddhist temple, all with frescos on the walls around.
May to early July or September to October is the best time for tourists. July to September is the rainy season, when the road condition becomes worse. If you choose to start the travel from the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, there are two best seasons. One is from end of May to beginning of June, when the snow has melted, but the rainy season hasn’t begun. The second is September, when the rainy season is over, but it hasn’t begun to snow in most places. When it is October, it snows in many places in Ngari prefecture.
Yecheng-Shiquanhe: the two places are 1,100 km from each other, and it takes 3 days bus ride. Buses ply between them irregularly. It is possible to hitchhike a truck at the Bus Station of Yecheng or Shiquanhe, or sometimes possible to hitchhike a military vehicle.
Shiquanhe-Burang: 1,741 km from each other, and it takes a 2 days bus ride. If you transfer to visit Zada, another 280 km and 1 more day’s bus ride is necessary. Then take a bus to Burang from Zada(443 km). Because Burang is an important town of frontier trade, there are many vehicle passing by, it is convenient to hitchhike a truck or a military vehicle.
Shiquanhe-Lhasa: 1,741 km from each other and it’s a 6 days’ ride. But no bus service is available. And not many vehicles pass by, so it takes some time to find a vehicle to hitchhike.
The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway will be blocked by snow in winter and spring and it’s impossible to travel. The best time to drive is from May to the middle of October. The climate in the trip is terrible and food and accommodation condition is not good, either. Clothes to guard against the coldness should be prepared. Medicines against ailments and illness (medicine to stop diarrhea, diminish inflammation, and to treat the cold) according to the physical conditions of the tourists themselves should also be prepared. All people will have altitude reaction on Jieshandaban Mountain, so tourists are advised to take some medicines and oxygen.
Room and board conditions are not good along the highway. So it’s advisable to take some solid food and sleeping bag. Vegetables are short along the road, so some vitamin pills should be taken.
If the tourists want to trek in Tibet, many bridle paths, pilgrims’ byways and ferries can be chosen (make necessary consultations to the locals or just follow the pilgrims).