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China NEW! Sichuan & Tibetan Plateau

A 16-day, small group birdwatching tour to China

Sensational and spectacularly scenic tour to the Qionglai Mountains and eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. This is among the most botanically rich regions in the world outside the tropical rainforests, with a correspondingly rich and diverse fauna. Famous for its Giant Pandas, Sichuan also sparkles with many wonderful birds - the focus of our exciting tour. Up to 9 species of pheasant (including Blue Eared Pheasant, Chinese Monal and Temminck’s Tragopan), Tibetan Snowcock, Black-necked Crane, the brilliant blue Grandala, Firethroat, White-browed Tit-warbler and Przevalski’s Finch. If you are looking for some of the very best birding in the Palearctic, with many highly desired species, this tour is a must!

Tour Dates

2019

Spaces
2

2020

Spaces
8

Leaders
David Walsh
local guides

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 16 Days

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Cost: £4695*

inc return flights London Heathrow-Chengdu

Deposit: £600

Single Supp: £455*
Land Only: £4045

* Prices Provisional (tba)

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The song of the Giant Laughingthrush is full of mimicry © Tang Jun

At the very eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau lie the Qionglai Mountains. The elevation of many mountains here exceeds 9,800ft (3,000m). At its heart lies Mount Siguniang (‘Four Girls Mountain’), which at 20,510ft (6250m) is the second highest mountain in Sichuan Province and known as the ‘Queen of Sichuan's Peaks’.

The Qionglai are home to a large, primitive forest and wild mountainous tracts that boast both spectacular scenery and superb wildlife. Safeguarding more than 30% of the world's highly endangered Giant Panda population (access to which is heavily regulated for scientists only), they are also among the most botanically rich sites of any region in the world outside the tropical rainforests. Such diversity has resulted in an equally rich and varied birdlife, with many truly wonderful species to look for - including nine species of pheasant, Tibetan Snowcock, Giant Laughingthrush, the luminous blue Grandala and stunning Firethroat, the pastel-coloured White-browed Tit-warbler and the gorgeous Przevalski’s Finch.

Our adventure begins with a flight to Chengdu, capital of China's Sichuan Province, and follows a clockwise circuit into the Qionglai Mountains and beyond onto the easternmost part of the Tibetan Plateau. Here, beautiful Black-necked Cranes, Upland Buzzards, Tibetan Larks and White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches grace high elevation fields alongside the curious Ground Tit.

Along the way, we might also encounter the likes of Snow Pigeon, Daurian Jackdaw, Azure-winged Magpie, Sichuan, Père David’s and White-browed Tits, Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Père David’s Laughingthrush, Golden and Grey-hooded Parrotbills, Kessler’s Thrush, Chinese Rubythroat and Chinese Grey Shrike.

Our travels are designed to allow for some acclimatisation at lower altitudes - our port of entry, Chengdu, sits at an elevation of 1,600ft (500m) - before climbing up into the higher mountains. As a journey, it promises to be an absolute delight, both in terms of the amazing range of birds to be seen and for the fabulous landscapes and fascinating towns we travel through.

Join Brian Small and our experienced English-speaking Chinese bird guide Tang Jun for Limosa's inaugural Sichuan tour in May 2019 - and get to grips with some of the finest Palaearctic birding and landscapes!

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A vision in blue... Grandala at Balangshan Pass © Tang Jun

Days 1-2
FLY LONDON-CHENGDU

Our birdwatching tour to China begins with an afternoon departure from London Heathrow to Chengdu, where we arrive about lunchtime on day two.

Our first birding will be in the city of Chengdu itself, where having checked into our hotel rooms we pay a visit to the local Baihuatan Park. Resident species include Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Vinous-throated Parrotbill and White-browed Laughingthrushes. In May, these might also be joined by migrants such as Taiga Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler, while Pale Martins hawk insects over the river. David’s Fulvetta, the gaudy Red-billed Leothrix, Collared Finchbill and the chunky, yellow-billed Chinese Grosbeak are also possible. Night Chengdu

Day 3
HUAN HUA XI PARK (CHENGDU), SOUTHWEST TO LONGCANGGOU

Adjacent to our hotel, Huan Hua Xi is a typically Chinese park, where people gather to walk about exercising or chatting, doing Tai Chi or playing Mahjong. Walking the paths at Huan Hua Xi might reward us with views of Black-throated Bushtit or Rufous-capped Babbler. In stands of bamboo we should, with perseverance, get good views of the stunning Rufous-faced Warbler – one not to be missed! A lake here holds the attractive Chinese Pond Heron, whilst White Wagtails of the white-masked race alboides chase about the grass and House Swifts zap by.

Leaving Chengdu, we then head west into the foothills en route to Longcanggou, our base for the next three nights. We stop along the way for lunch and again near a suspension bridge over a river. Ashy-throated Parrotbills and Swinhoe’s Minivets occur, as do Red-billed Blue Magpies, Chinese Hwamei, the large-billed Tiger Shrike and both Japanese Tits and Japanese White-eyes. Night Longcanggou

Days 4-5
LONGCANGGOU FOREST

We have two full days to explore this excellent area, with its mix of woodland habitats across a range of altitudes from 4200ft (1300m) to 7900ft (2400m) holding a multitude of key bird species.

In May, when the mixed woodlands will be coming into leaf or flowering, early morning starts will help us to find the birds when they are most active. This is a terrific spot for tits: Fire-capped, Yellow-browed, Yellow-bellied, Green-backed, Japanese, Coal and Père David’s Tits are all possible. Phylloscopus warblers are well represented too, and include the relatively common Sichuan Leaf Warbler as well as Ashy-throated and Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, while the bright-and-stripy Kloss’s Warbler is a must-see! Not strictly a ‘Phyllosc’, but certain to test our ID skills, Seicercus warblers are often rather trickier to see - but well worth putting in time for as Alström’s and Grey-crowned Warblers might be joined by Bianchi’s Warbler... when they deign to come out!

This area is notable for the appealing white-faced Przevalski’s Nuthatch that creeps along the branches high in the treetops, and for Red-winged Laughingthrush – superb in flight as they flash their red wings. Golden, Three-toed, Great and endemic Grey-hooded Parrotbills, Emei Shan Liocichla (easier to hear than see), Spotted Laughingthrush and Golden-breasted Fulvetta also await our discovery. Pallas’s Squirrels scramble about the branches as we search for Darjeeling Woodpecker and overhead Himalayan Swiftlets stitch through the deep blue skies. Two further nights Longcanggou

Day 6
LONGCANGGOU TO LUDING

Meeting early for a pre-breakfast walk, we'll enjoy another hour or two of birding around Longcanggou, perhaps watching Black-naped Oriole or Russet Sparrow or listening to Lady Amherst’s Pheasant calling on distant hillsides.

After breakfast, we set off towards Luding County, going via Tian Quan and the tunnels through the Erlangshan Pass. Though we've a good distance to travel today, we will stop to bird along the way, visiting an area of forest where the secretive White-browed Shortwing and Alstrom’s Warbler can be found.

A nice lunch will be taken Yujia village, south of Ya’an, before we swing west and then north to reach our next hotel.

At 2,000ft (600m) elevation, a spell of afternoon birding on the southern side of the Erlangshan Pass could produce the lovely Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and Ashy-throated Warbler. A series of new tunnels have shortened the drive to the town of Luding, our destination this evening, where we arrive for dinner and a two-night stay. Night Luding

Day 7
BIRDING THE ERLANGSHAN PASS

An early start to the day is needed to get to the best habitat along the old road to the Erlangshan Pass. In themselves, Lady Amherst’s Pheasants are truly stunning, but we will be here early for the amazing Firethroat – one of the special birds of this tour! The mix of trees and bushes here is perfect for them and we will devote some time to getting good views of this little cracker! Not quite so colourful, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Chinese Song Thrush and Black-browed Bushtit also inhabit the bushes and trees, where the buzzing calls of Spotted Nutcrackers are often heard.

After a picnic breakfast, we continue to ascend the Erlangshan Pass. As we climb higher, the handsome Chestnut Thrush and snazzy Yellow-throated Bunting might be seen and, as the vegetation gradually thins out, we hope to encounter four different rosefinches: Vinaceous, Sharpe’s and Chinese White-browed as well as Crimson-browed Finch (which is really a ‘rosefinch’). Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits can be found here, along with very smart Rufous-breasted Accentors that sing atop the scattered trees.

Once over the pass at an altitude of 9,800ft (3000m), we descend the south side a little, where the mix of scrub and open ground will help us scan for views of the exquisite Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Walking down an old gravel road we look and listen for Black-faced Laughingthrush and Rufous-bellied Niltava, whilst in patches of rhododendrons we could be lucky to find the stunning Golden Bush Robin.

Sichuan Leaf Warblers nest low down in the bushes - but with such majestic vistas we may well be distracted! Yet another lovely Phyllosc, the Alpine Leaf Warbler is often to be found here and we'll also be searching for such treats as White-browed Fulvetta, Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-tailed Babbler, the water-loving White-capped Redstart, Hill Blue Flycatcher and the surprisingly smart Brown-breasted Bulbul as well as a much more familiar bird - Goldcrest!

After an exciting day of birding we return for a second night at our Luding hotel. Night Luding

Day 8
LUDING VIA ZHE DUO PASS TO RILONG

After our bird-packed day in Luding County yesterday, today is mainly a travel day as we arc northeast through some amazing upland scenery to Rilong, where we spend the next three nights.

Our route will take us up and over the Zhe Duo Pass at 14100ft (4300m) and on to Xin Du Qiao, where we break for lunch. We'll stop from time to time to take in the magnificent landscape and stretch our legs - or perhaps to admire a Golden Eagle or Himalayan Vulture soaring overhead. White-capped Redstarts dot the boulders along the gushing rivers and we could well find a trio of captivating corvids: Daurian Jackdaw and Red-billed and Alpine Choughs.

After a long journey today, in the evening we arrive at our next hotel - in Rilong, a Tibetan-style town full of character, at an elevation of 10500ft (3200m). Night Rilong

Days 9-10
RILONG & BALANGSHAN

During two full days around Rilong we shall have access to some higher elevations, where early mornings offer the chance of three more stunning pheasants. Incredible looking White Eared Pheasants are generally less shy than the distinctly unusual Koklass Pheasant - but the real star here could well be the iridescent Chinese Monal shining in the early morning sun.

As the day warms up, Common Rosefinches (here a different colour to Western birds) begin to sing and dark hooded Snow Pigeons become active, as do birds of prey. Himalayan Buzzards could well be joined - and dwarfed - in the skies by the immense Himalayan and Black Vultures, and Lammergeier. On a very different scale, passerines such as the stunning Blue-fronted Redstart, orange-flanked Himalayan Bluetail and Asian Brown Flycatcher feed busily the bushes.

On reaching the highest part of the incredible Balangshan Pass at around 14,800ft (4500m), we have a good chance of finding Brandt's and Plain Mountain Finches, and search excitedly for the unbelievably brilliant Grandala, a vision in blue - and “bluer than a very blue thing!” Further careful checking of the ridges and rocky slopes might produce views of Snow Partridge on distant rocks and though hearing Tibetan Snowcock is invariably easier than actually seeing one, we do have a chance here. 

As we head back from the summit on our way back down to Rilong, we will check an area of low scrub for the chiffchaff-like Buff-throated Warbler and yet another superb rosefinch – this time, the crimson-bodied Streaked Rosefinch. But the real prize here is the stunning Chinese Rubythroat – a recent 'split' with the division of what was formerly ‘White-tailed Rubythroat’ into two species - a fitting end to a fine day in the mountains above Rilong!

Next morning will find us heading back up towards the summit of Balangshan for further investigation of the high pass area. Three ‘new’ pheasants await us here - though Golden and Blood Pheasants are usually somewhat easier to find than the amazingly colourful but elusive Temminck’s Tragopan! And if we missed them yesterday, we have another chance to look for Tibetan Snowcock as they forage snow patches.

Giant and Barred Laughingthrushes also inhabit the slopes, but (like the pheasants) both can be tough to see. As we 'reach for the stars', Maroon-backed Accentor, Hodgson’s Treecreeper and the diminutive Chestnut-headed Tesia should hopefully prove a little easier to track down, along with Twite (of the race miniakensis). Plus there's yet another exquisite rosefinch to add to our growing collection: Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, looking resplendent in purple-pink. Two further nights Rilong

Days 11-12
BALANGSHAN TO MAERKANG

An exciting day of birding and travel begins with a pre-breakfast visit to a patch of mixed woodland near Rilong. It's a good spot to find Sichuan Jay and Crested Tit-warbler, Pink-rumped Rosefinch (still they come!) and the stunning, tail-bobbing Siberian Blue Robin. The wren-like call of Taiga Flycatchers betrays their presence and we should see a rufous-throated male or two about the trees, where other goodies to watch for can include Daurian and Hodgson’s Redstarts, the appealing Long-tailed Rosefinch and the stripe-headed Godlewski’s Bunting. It will be hard to tear ourselves away from here!

Leaving Rilong, we first travel east then swing north through the mountains to Fubian (8900ft / 2700m). We break our journey here with a stop for lunch, before continuing on our way north.

Encircled by awe-inspiring mountains, at the lofty Mengbishan Pass (13,400ft / 4100m) we may well find Upland Buzzard or enjoy further views of the very beautiful Crested Tit-warbler; there are Rufous-vented and funky Grey Crested Tits to watch out for, too. Eventually, we arrive at the modern town of Maerkang (Barkam), for dinner and a two-night stay.

Next morning, we head out to the forests of the Mengbishan Pass, devoting some time to getting better views of Maroon-backed Accentor and Chinese White-browed Rosefinch. We will also be hoping for the attractive Kessler’s Thrush, Collared Grosbeak and maybe a calling Black Woodpecker; White-throated Needletails may be seen bombing through the pass, whilst the trees hold typical pine-forest inhabitants such as Buff-barred and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, and White Eared Pheasants ‘bark’ from deep within the woods.

Dropping a little lower, we enter the realm of White-winged Grosbeak, Chinese Fulvetta and (can you believe it!) yet another rosefinch: the frosty-faced Three-banded Rosefinch, although this will probably our last new rosefinch of the tour! As a bonus, we have further chances to watch for Blood Pheasant here, along with the streaky Chinese Babax and desirable Long-tailed Thrush - another fine Zoothera to go with the similar Sichuan Thrush. Two nights Maerkang

Day 13
MAERKANG TO ROUERGAI

With a fair distance to cover today, we make an early start from Maerkang for Rouergai, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. As well as having picnic breakfasts and lunch, stops en route will be relatively short - but very sweet!

We should see our first eastern Black Kites today and, before heading out of the Qionglai Mountains, areas of grassland and bushes that mark the start of the Tibetan Plateau host the rather plain Père David’s Laughingthrush and maybe the odd migrant passing through (such as Brown Shrike) or the local Sichuan Tit, with its buzzing, Willow Tit-like call. As the landscape levels out a little, we may well pick out our first stately Black-necked Cranes, along with Black Stork, Ruddy Shelduck and the bulky Himalayan Marmot.

After a small pass, the valley opens out and the meandering river has created a series of ox-bow lakes that form a sinuous area of wetland. Great Egret, Ferruginous Duck, Brown-headed Gull, Common Tern and Common Redshank occur and eyecatching Citrine Wagtails like to sit up on grass stems. Groups of exotic Azure-winged Magpies could be about - and the presence of a few more prey items adds a realistic chance of finding Saker Falcon (here of the race milvipes). Another honorary ‘raptor’ to watch out for is Chinese Grey Shrike and, although a rare bird, we will be keeping our eyes peeled.

Smart Siberian Stonechats perch prominently on sticks and stones, and we have a chance to find the pallid and curiously wheatear like Ground Tit. Black-winged Snowfinch and the rosy-tailed Przevalski’s Finch are two more key birds to look for in the valley, along with the pale-faced khamensis race of Horned Lark– possibly to be treated as a species in future…

We should arrive at Rouergai (Zoige) in the late afternoon, with time to settle into our rooms before enjoying a delicious meal in town. Night Rouergai

Day 14
BAXI FOREST & TIBETAN PLATEAU

Rising early to make use of the early part of the day, we head east for around 20 miles to reach an area of forest near Baxi. In the crisp, early morning air we'll scan for the immaculate Blue Eared Pheasant and might also encounter Red Deer, Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush and the skulking White-bellied Redstart, which all make their homes here. In the relatively old woodland with some remarkably tall pines, ‘real’ Common Pheasants, Chinese Leaf Warblers and Père David’s Laughingthrushes can also be found.

Venturing ‘off piste’ along a steeper trail may reveal such treats as Snowy-browed and Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Chinese Nuthatch, Yellow-streaked Warbler and Chinese Fulvetta. We also have another chance to find the impressive Giant Laughingthrush, with its song full of mimicry.

Returning west, a diversion onto the Tibetan Plateau will take us to fields that can be alive with tiny, black-nosed Plateau Pikas. White-rumped Snowfinches nest in the pika burrows, as do wheezy Rock Sparrows. A nearby wetland holds yet more interesting species, including Black-necked Cranes and perhaps a few migrant waders - but we have another important ‘target here: the big Tibetan Lark. Flurries of Rufous-necked Snowfinches across the plain may well be joined by actual snow flurries… and maybe the odd Lammergeier!

As another exciting day's birding draws to a close, we will head back to town for dinner and our second night at the hotel. Night Rouergai

Day 15
ROUERGAI TO DUJIANGYAN

We take breakfast taken in town this morning before heading back to Baxi Forest for one last chance to pick up specialities such as White-browed Tit. From there, we steadily descend to the Gar Tai Pass at 12,500ft (3,800m), hoping to come across the exquisite little White-browed Tit-warbler and fabulous Siberian Rubythroat.

The long journey back to Chengdu will take most of the rest of the day, along roads through the spectacular mountains. Taking in the superb scenery as we drive will give us time to reflect on the many memorable moments of the tour. Evening arrival at our hotel. Night Dujiangyan

Day 16
FLY CHENGDU TO LONDON

Our flight home today is scheduled to depart Chengdu in the early afternoon. So for those that wish, there should be time to enjoy an optional pre-breakfast birdwalk locally, hoping to pick up a last few species for the tour.

After breakfast, we transfer to Chengdu Airport and check in for our flight home. Evening arrival at London Heathrow, where our spring birding tour to China concludes.

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A superb male Firethroat - one of the potential stars of our May 2019 tour to Sichuan © Tang Jun

What To Expect

A 16-day, small group birdwatching tour to Sichuan, China, beginning in the provincial capital Chengdu and looping north through the Qionglai Mountains to the Tibetan Plateau. Along the way, we will visit Erlangshan and Balangshan passes, ascending to more than 4000m (14,800ft), and exploring the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau at 3500m (11,500ft).

This trip calls for something of a 'pioneering spirit'. In order to make the most of our stay in China please be aware that days will be long and tiring - but extremely rewarding - with long journeys necessary on some.

Early morning is by far the most productive time for bird activity so we anticipate making early or very starts most days - leaving the hotel at times that will vary between 5.00am to 7:00am. Most days, we will have picnic breakfasts provided for us by our ground agent. [There may sometimes be the opportunity to opt out of early morning sessions on days where we either return to the hotel later or when our 'ground crew' will catch us up on the road later.]

At the higher altitudes we will limit our physical activities, avoiding excessive uphill walking and choosing (where possible) to walk downhill. We move at a very sedate pace watching birds and this can help to avoid altitudinal headaches and breathlessness. Most problems can be overcome by drinking plenty of water and resting quietly in or near the vehicle.

Our guides will advise you locally about the day's events. If you wish to opt out of a particular activity or walk, please don’t be afraid to ask them.

At low altitude at Chengdu in mid-late May, the weather should be fairly warm and humid (25-30°C/77-86F). As we climb higher, temperatures will cool considerably and it will become much less humid. On some early mornings, it can even be cold. This will be especially true near the summit of Longcanggou, at the Erlangshan and Balangshan Passes between Rilong and Wolong, and on the Tibetan Plateau around Ruoergai. We anticipate making early starts in these areas and temperatures at that time could well be below freezing (rarely dropping to as low as minus 4°C/25F if skies are clear). There will probably still be some snow lying at higher elevations and on the highest peaks.

Rainfall occurs throughout the year in Sichuan. On this tour, precipitation is perhaps most likely at Longcanggou and in the Wolong area; it is perhaps least likely at Rouergai on the Tibetan Plateau, but cannot be discounted anywhere.

Birds

260-280 species

Mammals

10-15 species

Accommodation

14 nights accommodation at hotels in China. Hotels on this tour are of a variable but improving standard, ranging from rustic to good or best available Western-style hotels in this 'less-visited' corner of China. All rooms have Western-style private facilities (not the traditional Oriental-style toilets).

Please note that at some hotels the hot water supply can be intermittent. Laundry service is erratic and it may not be easy to get clothes laundered on tour – taking travel soap with you is a good idea.

Wifi  Most hotels do have internet access in the lobby and/or rooms, but please note that some services are blocked in China. These include all Google services including Gmail.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price (and with bottled drinking water also provided), commencing with dinner on arrival in Chengdu on Day 2 and concluding with breakfast there on Day 16. Chinese cuisine is tasty, widely appreciated and usually plentiful.

The Chinese way of eating is to share a selection of dishes. Few restaurants are likely to provide knives and forks; chopsticks are provided instead so if you are unused to using these you may wish to bring your own knife, fork and spoon. Green tea will be served with food.

On longer days, particularly when we are travelling, our leaders will do all they can to make sure the group eats at a reasonable time. However, occasionally early or late lunches and/or evening meals cannot be avoided. Snacks will be provided to help fill the ‘gaps’ and you may also wish to bring your own 'trail food'.

We will have very few hotel breakfasts on this tour, opting instead to have picnic breakfasts in the field. These typically consist of items such as muesli, instant noodles, biscuits, chocolate, fruit, peanuts, and bread and jam (where bread is available).

On quite a few days we will also have picnic lunches and these will consist of similar items to breakfast with probably cheese and/or ham or jam sandwiches.

Hot water is available in hotels and restaurants so you may like to bring your own tea, instant coffee or drinking chocolate and powdered milk and sugar. Cups are rarely provided so a travel mug or 'flat pack' mug is recommended.

Walking

Inevitably when walking in the mountains there will be some steeper sections along the roads and tracks. These are usually quite short and, wherever possible, we will aim to drive uphill and bird as we walk back down.

Comfortable, lightweight waterproof walking shoes or boots with stout soles and good grip are recommended. Walking poles or seat sticks can often be a good idea on slopes and for resting while birding.

Altitude: Though Chengdu sits at an elevation of 1600ft (500m), this is a tour based largely in the mountains. Much of the tour is operated at quite high altitude and we will spend some time above 11,500ft (3500m), with the highest point being at Balangshan, 14,800ft (4500m). Our birding at high altitudes will necessarily be very leisurely – we expect to stay mostly on the road and to walk slowly downhill from the upper slopes.

The list below gives an idea of some of the altitudes (height above sea level) we visit:

  • Chengdu (1600ft/500m)
  • Longcanggou (4000ft/1200m)
  • Longcanggou Forest (4200-7900ft/1300-2400m)
  • Ya'an (2,000ft (600m)
  • Luding (4200ft/1300m)
  • Erlangshan Pass old road (max. 9800ft/3000m)
  • Zhe Duo Pass (14,100ft/4300m)
  • Rilong (10,500ft/3200m)
  • Balangshan (max. 14,800ft/4500m)
  • Mengbishan (11,800-13,100ft/3600-4000m)
  • Maerkang (8,900ft/2700m)
  • Rouergai (11,200ft/3400m)

The altitudes of the hotels vary: at Longcanggou  we are at ca. 4000ft (1200m): Maerkang 8600ft (2615m); and Rilong 10,500ft (3200m). For our two nights near the end of the tour at Ruoergai, on the edge of Tibetan Plateau, we are situated at 11,200ft (3400m).

Travel

Return flights from London Heathrow to Chengdu (Sichuan), typically with a change of planes in either Hong Kong or Amsterdam.

Ground Transport   By small coach with local driver.

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