If you are familiar with Tibet and the Tibetan people, you have probably heard about the different regions of their land. Ngari མངའ་རིས་ is located in the far west region of Tibet. U-Tsang དབུས་གཙང་ is located in the central region while Kham ཁམས་ is found in the southeast and Amdo ཨ༌མདོ་ is in the northeast. One area you might not be very familiar with is the Gyarong རྒྱལ་རོང་ region. Gyarong, also spelled Jiarong, lies in the heart of Sichuan province in a small area right between Amdo speaking Tibetans and Kham speaking Tibetans.
Gyarong Tibetans number around 175,000 and are mostly found in 6 counties in north-central Sichuan. Five of the counties are located in Ngawa/Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, while one county is found in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (though a small Gyarong population also lives in Dartsedo/Kangding). Here is a list of the counties where Gyarong Tibetans are found:
Ngawa/Aba Prefecture རྔ་བ་ཁུལ་
Barkham འབར་ཁམས་ / Ma’erkang 马尔康 Trochu ཁྲོ་ཆུ་ / Heshui 黑水 Chuchen ཆུ་ཆེན་ / Jinchuan 金川 Tsenlha བཙན་ལྷ་ / Xiaojin 小金 Lunggu ལུང་དགུ་ / Wenchuan 汶川
Garze Prefecture དཀར་མཛེས་ཁུལ་
Rongtrak རོང་བྲག་ / Danba 丹巴
Though officially grouped with the rest of Tibetans into one of China’s 55 recognized minorities, some people disagree as to whether the Gyarong people are actually Tibetan or not. Gyarong people speak a Qiangic language that is much different than Tibetan and cannot be understood by Tibetan speakers. Also, some aspects of the culture, particularly their clothing, is much different that other Tibetans. There is even disagreement among other Tibetans, some of whom say that the Gyarong people should not be classified as Tibetans, but should be classified as their own separate minority group. All of the Gyarong people I have talked to refer to themselves as Tibetans, so I will refer to them as Tibetans as well.
Around 90% of Gyarong Tibetans are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, while the remaining 10% follow the traditional Tibetan religion of Bon བོན་. There are dozens of Buddhist monasteries spread across the Gyarong region as well as Bon temples. Historically, the Gyarong region was divided into 18 separate kingdoms, each with its own king. The Gyarong area is very fertile and most people work in farming. The elevation in Gyarong is generally much lower than the rest of the Tibetan Plateau. Most of Gyarong lies between 1800 meters and 2500 meters above sea level and has a much more temperate climate than the nearby Amdo and Kham regions. Rivers cut deep valleys in the region and high, snow-capped peaks surround much of Gyarong. The highest mountain in the area is Mt. Siguniang, which rises to 6250 meters, and is found in Lunggu/Wenchuan county.
The Gyarong region is relatively small and covers only about 26,000 square kilometers (10,000 square miles). The cultural heart of the Gyarong region is found in Rongtrak, known in Chinese as Danba. Danba is located in western Sichuan’s Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, about 140 kilometers north of Kangding and about 340 kilometers west of Chengdu. Though the county town of Danba is pleasant, the Gyarong villages surrounding the county town are amazing. Most of these villages are within 20 kilometers of town and can be easily reached by taxi. These farming villages have amazing architecture, friendly people and are a great place to spend 3 or 4 days exploring. One of my favorite villages is Zhong Lu, which is less than 15 kilometers from Danba town. Zhong Lu has a great guesthouse to stay in that also serves great Gyarong style meals.
The architecture found in Gyarong is very unique among Tibetan people. Their homes are generally very large and have up to 4 stories. They are also built in a beautiful stone design. There are also many hundreds of ancient stone watchtowers found throughout the area. These watchtowers, some said to be over 1000 years old, rise over 40 meters into the sky.
The starting point for traveling to the Gyarong region is the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province. There are daily buses from Chengdu to all of the Gyarong counties. The bus station will only know the Chinese names of these counties. Danba is the most popular place to go in Gyarong and I definitely recommend staying here for at least a few days. Another part of Gyarong that sees few foreign travelers is Barkham (Ma’erkang in Chinese), which is the capital of Ngawa/Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The town of Barkham is very clean and modern and has great hotels and restaurants to choose from. Not far outside of town, there are many Gyarong villages that are great to explore. Barkham is 340 kilometers northwest of Chengdu. There are daily buses between the two places.
If you have any questions about the Gyarong region or any other region of the Tibetan Plateau, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org