Ganden to Samye Trek: The Highs, the Lows, and Some Things to Know

We’re delighted to share with you this guest post on the Ganden to Samye trek by our dear friend and personal mountain guide, Meg Moser.  Meg accompanied Yolanda on her September 2017 Tibet trip, and she gives you a refreshingly honest appraisal of one of the most popular treks in Tibet. 

View of Ganden Monastery from the high kora on the Wangpo Ri.
View of Ganden Monastery from the high kora on the Wangpo Ri.

Guest Post by Meg Moser

This rigorous 4-to-5-day trek starts and ends at two monasteries of great significance to Tibetan Buddhism and follows in the footsteps of traditional herders and nomads. Here are some “highs” and “lows” to help you decide if it’s right for you. Sign up here if you need a referral from YoWangdu for a reliable, Tibetan-owned agency to help you set up the trip.

THE HIGHS:

Experiencing the natural open space that is Tibet. It is the Tibet you expect to see all around you, but find elusive amidst the traffic and construction in the rapidly growing cities of Tibet. Trekking is really the only way to truly experience the beauty of this land.  It becomes clear how so many Buddhist minds were cultivated under such vast skies and mountains. And if nothing makes you happier than peeing under a million stars, sleeping in a tent and sitting cross-legged on the ground, then you are in nirvana! Bring binoculars to see wildlife. To list a few from a recent trip: eagle, bear, antelope, and marmots.

Experiencing an endangered way of life: the Tibetan nomad. A way of life that has existed for hundreds of years is quickly diminishing as the Chinese government succeeds in its resettlement projects. You have an opportunity to get to know them (especially your yak porters!) and the few nomad families who are in their camps for the summer…but the time is now.

VIEW SOME VIDEOS OF THE TREK >>

Ganden Samye Trek
Yolanda coming down from the Zhugar La Pass (17,224 ft/5250 m)

Opportunities for open honest conversation to arise. Away from the constant surveillance (ie: videos in the main public areas, in your vehicles and police checkpoints), you have a rare opportunity to have open conversations with your guide, porters, and nomads. One of the highlights for me was in the cook tent at night. While the cook prepared dinner, we shared stories in a mix of Tibetan and English. We shared laughter and charades with some yak-herders who stumbled into our camp and shared dinner together.

Experience pushing your limits. Let’s face it…you could have chosen a vacation on the beach of Mazatlan, but no…you chose Tibet. You wanted to experience a different kind of trip…one that would challenge you.  This trek has it all: remoteness, high altitude, long distances,  boulder-hopping, and stream (sometimes river) crossing. Some portions of the trek you are not even on a trail, but cross-country, which takes more energy than walking on a well-worn path. And then, just as you are starting to feel like Wonder Woman, on the last day you learn that your yak-herder is now going to turn around and walk the entire distance you just covered in 4 days…in less than 12 hours!

Ganden SamyeTrek
Camping in the Yamado area on the first day of the trek.

Experience solitude and quiet. After the “noise pollution” of Lhasa and increasingly nowadays all cities in Tibet – the non-stop honking, the constant announcements in Mandarin from all loud-speakers – silence feels like a luxury. Other than a few nomad encampments on the way down from the Chitul La pass and two yak herders – we did not see another human being for days.

THE LOWS:

Being pushed beyond the limits of comfort and physical capacity. For those of you perhaps not that excited about carrying a backpack, camping, sleeping on the ground and trying to sit in a cook tent with your stiff Western hip — this could be a new low. If so, it’s a good idea to talk about these fears with your travel partner(s) ahead of time. If you want to do this but aren’t sure if your knees can handle it… ask for all your gear to be put on the yak. Bring a tiny folding chair. Do what you can to make yourself comfortable. The more honest you are in the beginning about your fears, the more you can increase your potential to enjoying and not just suffering through the trip.

The rain. By sheer luck, it did not rain on our trip.  However, our guide, who has done this tour at least twenty-five times, said he had only had five trips where it did not rain for most of the trip.  He said wet tents and sleeping bags were common. Our gear would have been wet as all of our gear was in non-water proof rice sacks on the yaks. And with near freezing temperatures at night in late September, this would have been a nightmare!

Ganden Samye Trek
Yolanda and Meg (the author) on the long way down from the Chitu La pass (16,732 ft/ 5100 m) .

Lack of dramatic scenery. I know I just waxed over the wonders of the wide-open spaces, but if you were imagining Annapurna-like views of snowy Himalayas framed by rhododendrons, this landscape is mildly anemic in comparison. The mountains and valleys are massive and impressive, but they lack the dramatic beauty of some other high-altitude vistas.  This trek is more about solitude and contemplation than stunning, photographic moments.

The lunches. This might seem minor, but when you go from a desk job to walking eight hours a day…food is what one could spent a lot of time fantasizing about, looking forward to, and then analyzing for hours after. Every morning our cook handed us large zip-locks with a bunch of chocolate digestives, sweet bread, and a piece of fruit. We started asking for hard-boiled eggs and wished we had brought some peanut butter or dried yak meat. It would be worth talking to your guide before they go shopping so you can have some input into what they are bringing. Dinners were more satisfying – usually a veggie stir-fry with rice, sometimes with a little (tasty) yak meat.

THINGS TO KNOW:

Acclimatization: Attention to this detail will make or break your trip. We intentionally planned this trek the final week of a four-week tour.  We also took Diamox (acetazolamide).  I have done a lot of backpacking and mountaineering at high elevations and I can honestly say, I have never enjoyed myself so much on a high-altitude backpacking trip. I felt so good I did yoga every day with my guide and danced around a campfire at 14,500’!

Love the one you are with: I would not do this trek with people I did not know. Many tour companies offer group tours, pairing up total strangers to offer the trip at a more economic cost. Our guide was full of (entertaining) stories of clients who were so woefully unprepared (for the altitude, the distance, and equipment-wise) that it is shocking they survived without major medical incidents of altitude sickness or hypothermia. It is particularly shocking because there is plenty of information online about how to prepare for altitude and how to pack for the trip. Even as fantastic as our guide company was, it is apparent that these companies do not vet for experience or equipment of their clients. Contact us here if you’d like us to connect you with our guide company.

Don’t do the final day: In the Lonely Planet, they mention that the final day (Day 5) of the trek is from Herder’s Camp to Samye, or you can stop that morning at the Yamalung Hermitage. Without question chose the pick up at Yamalung. There is no mention in the guidebook, and I suspect this is a recent development since the last printed version, but there is now a highway that comes up from Samye into this valley to access a mine.  Bulldozers are going right through old villages. It is heartbreaking. It is a highway of construction trucks and dust.

Ganden SamyeTrek: View from Yamalung Hermitage
View from Yamalung Hermitage, near the end of the trek.

Bag it:  It is worth checking with your company if they provide carrying containers/duffle bags for your gear in order to put it on the yak, if you don’t plan to carry it all yourself. Secondly, find out if it is waterproof.  We went with one of the top-rated guide companies in Tibet and they had only rice sacks and a backpack to put on the yaks – neither of which was waterproof! At a minimum I would recommend bringing heavy-duty trash bags for your sleeping bags and backpack cover.

Dogs: After reading about the aggressive Tibetan herder dogs to expect on this trek, I went crazy with buying several types of dog-repellants, that managed to set off airport alarms everywhere. We only encountered a few dogs, all of which were tied up with chains.

Related Resources

For a thorough description of the route one need look no further than the Lonely Planet’s Tibet or Gary McCue’s Trekking in Tibet: A Traveller’s Guide.

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Updated on March 11, 2020. First published on November 17, 2017.

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