Surrounded by deep green hills and plains, snowcapped peaks, and fortress - like Tibetan homes at the center of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Litang is one of the highest elevated towns in China. At an altitude of 4,014 meters, it lies 350 meters above Lhasa (3650m). The only feasible route there is the Chengdu - Lhasa Highway, which passes through the town after two bone jarring but beautiful days of bus travel from Chengdu, making Litang nearly impossible to reach. After recently being opened to foreigners in 1999, the town has not yet spawned three star hotels, but despite such remoteness (and perhaps because of it) most of the tourists who flock to Litang find the trip worth it.

This area, up until the late 1500s, was a stronghold for the Kagyupa school. In 1640 Gushri Khan's Mongol forces squashed all opposition to the Gelugpa school, and the Lithang Monastery then grew to rival the Chamdo and Ganzi monasteries as the most important Gelugpa establishment in Kham. Founded in 1580 at the appointment of Dalai Lama III, the Litang monastery is a huge complex overlooking the valley, its recent restoration taking 10 years. Somewhere between 1000-3000 monks here now. The majority of its people are Tibetans (eighty percent of Ganzi's 870,000 people are Tibetan, a higher percentage than in Lhasa) - which makes it one of the best places to experience Tibetan culture. Litang's few dusty streets are crowded with a mix of yellow - hat sect Tibetan Buddhist monks in crimson robes and golden visors, muscular Khampa Tibetan men with heavy yak skin jackets and sinister knives, road weary travelers, and enterprising Han people peddlers. Town life centers around the Litang Lamasery (Litang Lamamiao), which is roughly divided into two structures. The lower temple is more active, but is not as old as the one above, which was constructed when the 4th Dalai Lama visited Litang over 400 years ago. Both structures were rebuilt after suffering damages during the Cultural Revolution. Together the two temples house 1,400 yellow hat sect monks and are worth checking out for a half - day. The best time to visit is in the morning, when the monks chant prayers and meditate. The Jiage Shenshan Lamasery, which is currently being built, 18 kilometers south of Litang along the road to Daocheng, is also worth visiting. The Lamasery glorifies a cliff where monks say Tibetan "hadas" (white silk scarves traditionally given to show respect in Tibetan culture) have grown naturally out of the rock face in the image of the Chinese and Tibetan patron Bodhisattva Guanyin. (Guanyin is generally depicted sitting in the lotus position, and she is discernable on the hada - strewn cliff.) Hike around the cliff to enter a small cave where pilgrims leave offerings. The Lamasery plans to offer an attached guesthouse in autumn 2000. Five kilometers west of Litang along the road to Batang is a hot spring (wenquan). There are a number of places to bathe there, but don't expect to be a wash in nature - the hot water is piped into white - tiled tubs ,The government - run bathhouse is to be the cleanest option; to get there, look for a white compound with an orange tile roof after a bridge five kilometers from Litang. There is a Tibetan - owned wooden bathhouse on the hillside above it. Aside from these sites, Litang itself is a curiosity. Wonder the main street in the afternoon, when Tibetan Khampa men strut, play cards, and buy supplies for their nomad tents. Climb one of the hills around the city to see yak herding. Stroll through the Tibetan homes on the city's edges where you are likely to be invited in for yak butter tea or Tibetan barley liquor (qingke jiu), and scour local stores for deals on Tibetan clothing and paraphernalia.

The best time to visit Litang is in August, when the city hosts a horse racing festival (usually in the first 10 days on the seventh month by Tibetan calendar). This year (of 2002), the festival will be held from August 1st to 15th.