Dartsendo (དར་རྩེ་མདོ། ) or Dardo (དར་མདོ། ) is a major gateway city on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau. Also known as Kangding (康定) in Chinese, it rises 2,600 meters above sea level and is the first Tibetan city you come to when traveling west from Chengdu. Kangding teeters on the Eastern edge of Tibet and, historically, has been a trading post between Tibetan and Han Chinese cultures. Bricks of tea came by horse over the mountains from Ya’an – the center of westward tea distribution in ancient China – while Tibetans bartered their nomad wares and yak milk products with the Chinese tea merchants.
Kangding is also the seat of political power for the majority of Kham Tibet. It is the county seat and prefectural capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan known as Garnze (甘孜 “Ganzi” in Chinese). Unlike most other towns further west and higher on the Tibetan plateau, Kangding is a turbid mixture of Tibetan and Han cultures with an approximately 50/50 split population of 100,000 people, with a small population of other ethinic minorities.
A small, but rapidly moving river divides the narrow valley city into Northwest and Southeast halves. The noise from the rushing waters echoes throughout the city streets. Summertime is accompanied by higher volumes of rainwater and thus higher volumes of river noise. Wind rips through the valley bringing with it a significant wind chill. Thus, even many Tibetans consider Kangding a colder place to spend the winter months than in their high plateau hometowns. Towering over the Southeast part of the town is the famous Paoma (“Running Horse”) Mountain. Residents and visitors regularly climb to the top of the hill for a view of the city, or for festivals or cultural events that the city hosts.
While in Kangding there are several places that travelers may wish to explore. With multiple monasteries, the Nanwu Monastery to the west side of town is the most active in the area, but the Ngachu Monastery might be one you wish to visit as it is conveniently located in town and has less traffic. The Lhamo Tse Monastery is about 2 kms from downtown, and Dentok Monastery lies at the top of Mt. Paoma, with travelers either taking the cable car or hiking to the top. Those wandering People’s Square in the morning are likely to find Tai Chi, but at night the square is filled with Tibetan or Western-style dancing. Most travelers enjoy joining in on the community fun.
There are plenty of options for day hikes around Kangding. A good source for information on nearby activities is Zhilam Hostel which is located on the west side of the valley on the hillside above Kangding Hotel. Outside of Kangding there is plenty to do as well. For active travellers there is the option of arranging a trek in the incomparable alpine wonderland of Mt. Gongga (Minya Konka in Tibetan) south of the city. The area around Gongga Mountain can accommodate any length of trek from one day to multi-day, and even extended backcountry treks for up to two weeks or more. For those who prefer a less active adventure, 40min by car west of the city sits a gorgeous alpine lake known locally as Mugecuo. Though the lake area has become commercialized with tourism in recent years, it still remains a good option for a scenic day trip.
There are multiple transportation options in and out of Kangding. The bus station sits at the northeast entrance to town just before the road drops toward Chengdu. There are multiple daily departures from Kangding to Chengdu and most major travel nodes in Eastern Tibet (Litang, Ganzi, Dege, etc.). Private vehicles are also for hire around the bus station. Travelers are now also able to fly into and out of Kangding via the recently built airport on the plateau, a 45min drive from the city. Leaving Kangding it is a 30km drive of nonstop climbing to the top of Zheduo Pass to reach the third highest airport in the world at 4,280m. On a clear day the airport has breathtaking views of the nearby Gongga and Yala mountain ranges.