Although it is little known in the western world, Mount Kailash is one of the most sacred spots on earth, and is a holy pilgrimage site for people of the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Bon faiths.
Pilgrims and tourists alike perform a seriously challenging kora – a walk circling a sacred site – around the base of Mount Kailash. This is no walk in the park – the Kailash kora is a 32 mile (52 km) trek that starts at 15,000ft (4600m) and includes an 18,372ft (5600m) pass!
To visit, you will need to commit significant time and resources for the journey to what Tibetans call Kang Rinpoche — roughly meaning Precious Jewel of Snows — usually three or so weeks for an overland trip out of Lhasa. And you may want to do it sooner than later, as we are hearing that the Chinese government is actively working on tourist development plans for the area that will very likely change the traditional experience forever. (See an article by Tibetan writer Woser: Please Stop the ‘Development’ of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar for Profit.)
The Kailash Area
Mount Kailash is remote, deep in Ngari, the Westernmost part of the Tibetan plateau. The nearest largish town is Ali, which is the Chinese-built administrative center for Ngari prefecture. But there are a number of nearby destinations of major interest which you can include on your trip: especially Lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal and the Guge ruins, but also Tirthapuri Gompa, Purang (near Nepal border) and Panggong Tso (Bangong He).
Geographically, the Mount Kailash area is massively significant, with four major rivers of Asia having their sources in this area, as you see in the image below. It is a common misperception among Tibetans and Indians alike that Lake Manasarovar is the actual mother of these four rivers:
- Yarlung Tsanpo – Brahmaputra River
- Mapcha Tsangpo – Karnali/Ganges River
- Langchen Tsangpo – Sutlej River
- Senge Tsangpo – Indus River.
Actually, though, only the Langchen Tsangpo, the Sutlej River, flows from Lake Manasarovar, although all four rivers do begin in the close vicinity.
Getting to Kailash: the Major Routes
Darchen, the village at the southern foot of Mt. Kailash, is the starting point for a pilgrimage, and there are a number of ways to get there, but here are a few common routes:
- Southern Route from Lhasa: Lhasa — Shigatse — Lhatse — Saga — Paryang — Darchen
- From Kathmandu, Nepal: Kathmandu – Dram – Nyalam – Saga – Paryang – Darchen
You can get a rough idea of the routes here, from the map on the Explore Tibet travel agency site:
- Northern route from Lhasa: Alternatively, some tours will take you on a Nothern route to the Kailash area from Lhasa, and on to the Nepal border, like this 22-day Kailash Circuit tour from Tibet Wind Horse Adventure:
Day 1-3: Lhasa sightseeing.
Day 4: to Shigatse visit.
Day 5-9: via north road to Ngari.
Day 10-13: visit to Tsaparang and Tholing.
Day 14: to Darchen.
Day 15-17: trekking circumambulation of Kailash.
Day 18: visit Lake Manasaravor.
Day 19-21: to Zhangmu via south Tsangpo road.
Day 22 cross border to Nepal
Once You are There: The Mount Kailash Pilgrimage
If you have a look at the excellent diagram from Mapping the Tibetan World below, you can start to trace the pilgrimage route. Find Darchen (15338ft / 4675m) down near the bottom and for the first day’s journey, you will work your way up via Chaktsal Gang to Drirapuk Gompa (17093ft / 5210m). (Disclosure: we get a small commission from Amazon if you buy Mapping the Tibetan World at the link above.) The summit of Mount Kailash itself is 22,027ft (6714m), but it has never been climbed, due to its sacred status.
Some Tibetans will make the whole 32 mile (52 km) circuit in a single long day (like 14 hours), but it is common for visitors to take three days, with this basic itinerary:
- Day 1: Darchen – Drirapuk Gompa
- Day 2: Drirapuk Gompa – Zutrulpuk Gompa (Also Dzutrulpuk)
- Day 3: Zutrulpuk Gompa – Darchen
Many tourists and pilgrims will come and complete a single circuit, though some Tibetans make 3, 13 or even 108 circuits. Some perform full-body prostrations as they go around, which can take weeks for one circuit.
Day two will be the hardest day, as you will have to cross the Dolma la pass, at 18,471ft (5630m). This pass is blocked by snow until April.
In general, the best time to visit will be May to October, but know that the peak of Kailash is frequently obscured by clouds between mid-June and mid-September, and that nights will be freezing, even in the height of summer.
Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus walk in a clockwise direction, while those of the Bon faith walk counter-clockwise.
Here’s a satellite image of the Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar area, including Darchen, Drirapuk and Zutrulpuk:
Ready to Make your Own Pilgrimage? Good Tibetan-owned Agencies to Start Your Planning
We always recommend that you patronize Tibetan-owned travel agencies, and since you must work with a travel agency for any trip in Tibet, a great way to start planning your trip is to contact one of the agencies below that we recommend. (We make no money from these endorsements – we only wish to promote responsible tourism in Tibet, using reputable Tibetan-owned agencies, and for you to have an excellent trip with good guides :-)
More on Kailash:
By Lobsang Wangdu
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