Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, (甘孜藏族自治州), also known as Garzê in Tibetan, is located in western Sichuan Province, China. It is set amongst the scenic high alpine mountains of the province and it is historically part of the Tibetan region of Kham making the area interesting for both culture and landscape. Ganzi (Garze) and Kangding (Dardo) are its largest cities.
The region sits on the Eastern edge of the Himalayan plateau. The plateau gradually descends eastward into the plains of China, and the Eastern edges of Ganzi are both geographically and culturally a Tibetan/Chinese mix. The western parts of Ganzi therefore are generally higher in altitude.
The area is characterized by long mountain ridges, with river valleys running between them. In the lower areas (roughly speaking, below 3000 meters), the landscape consists of lush forest, while the upper reaches (roughly above 5000 meters) are comprised of rocky peaks. Most of the region, which sits in between these elevations, consists of alpine grasslands.
Permanent settlement has taken place mostly in the valleys, especially the river valleys, where one sees numerous villages and towns consisting of traditional stone houses in a style that is endemic to the region.
Travel restrictions vary from time to time, but in general, it is more difficult for foreigners to obtain permission travel to the region in the spring because of regular protests during the Tibetan new year. However, there are usually fewer restrictions on travelers in Ganzi than there are in Tibet proper. Visiting this region can therefore be more hassle-free way to experience Tibet and its culture.
A great many Tibetan dialects are still being used in this region, despite wide spread language discrimination from the Han Chinese dominated government. Bi-lingual signage does exist to an extent and some efforts are being officially made to compensate the majority Tibetan population but the region is still far from being truly autonomous. These dialects differ enough from each other and from Lhasa Tibetan as to be mutually unintelligible. There are also some local languages such as Minyak that are considered separate languages and are only distantly, if at all, related to Tibetan. Some ethnic Tibetans speak Mandarin Chinese and/or only the Sichuan dialect of Chinese. Most can switch back and forth to both. Younger people regardless of their ethnicity will speak Mandarin and may also speak English. As a rule cities are dominated by written Chinese and the further you venture out the more likely you will hear and see Tibetan. Local people are very happy to hear you attempt to learn a few words of their local language.
Bus service leaves from Chengdu. Major hubs are Kangding and Garze/Ganzi. There is an airport serving Kangding that lies about halfway between Kangding and Tagong.
Most towns have minivan drivers available who will drive you anywhere for the right price. A private van (包车, bāochē) costs something like ¥100 per hour. Shared vans with strangers (pingche) can often be arranged -- sometimes on the spot, sometimes the day before. A van usually seats seven, and if the remaining strangers cannot be found, you may need to either wait around or pick up the tab. If your driver is waiting around for the last passenger, and you are eager to go, offering to (even partially) pay for the seat may resolve the issue.
The roads are of varying quality, and their condition changes with time. They often get damaged by landslides during the rainy season, and some have not been fully restored following the May, 2008 earthquake. As of August, 2012, the national highways (G317 and G318) were being rebuilt and were essentially dirt roads, while the provincial highways were in generally good condition. Hotel managers can be a useful source of information about road conditions.
Most of the major towns in Ganzi have old Tibetan monasteries (gompas), many of which are of historical significance. Of particular importance are the monasteries in Tagong, Litang, Sershu, and Darjay Ghompa (near Ganzi city). Often, though, visiting a local gompa just offers an interesting destination for a local hike.
As a rule, the towns in Ganzi are dusty, and the beautiful areas are the grasslands outside of them. It is therefore more pleasant to stay outside of the towns whenever possible. This is a slow-moving, rural region, and often the most enjoyable activity is just to sit back and take in the scenery.
Hiking and even mountaineering trips are also possible. Enquire with hostels in Tagong and Kangding for information about trekking and mountaineering activities.
There is a horse festival that takes place every August in the prairie outside of Litang, and other similar Tibetan festivals may take place throughout the region in the summer.
Many of the towns have hot springs nearby, though not all of the hot springs are open air.
The businesses in the towns of Ganzi are dominated by Chinese, while ethnic Tibetans fill out the rural areas. It is therefore quite common to find both Chinese (especially Sichuan) food and Tibetan food in the region.
Try the Tibetan barley wine if you can find it. Avoid drinking while you are still acclimatizing to the altitude.
Ganzi is quite the hotbed for Tibetan secession activities and you will get noticed very fast by local authorities if you make any visible signs of support. If you are allowed in (if there is no foreigner travel ban in effect) local authorities will most likely not bother you and be quite friendly (as in all of China), provided you follow this advice. You will be putting local people at risk by even discussing Tibetan independence with them in open so best to avoid this topic for their sake.