Mt. Kailash: The Beginners Guide for Travel and Trekking [2022]

This is a complete guide to how to visit Mt. Kailash in Tibet. 

Mt. Kailash viewed from Dirapuk Monastery, with constellations.
Mt. Kailash viewed from Dirapuk Monastery, with constellations. Photographer unknown. (Received from a friend in Tibet.)

In this up-to-date and definitive guide, you will learn:

  • Everything you need to know about the trek around Mt. Kailash
  • Answers to your top questions about Mt. Kailash
  • How to get the permits and visa you need for Tibet
  • How to stay healthy on your Kailash journey
  • And a lot more…
Prayer flags at the Dolma La Pass on the Kailash kora.
Prayer flags at the 18,372ft (5600m) Dolma La Pass on the Mt. Kailash kora.

First things first…

2022 Travel Advisory: Generally speaking, we don’t advise any foreign nationals to seek trips to Tibet at the moment because the constant policy shifts make bookings too uncertain — you are highly unlikely to be able to actually make the trip, even if you are able to submit a permit request, also unlikely. This advice applies to expat currently living in China, as well as those travelers who live outside China. The problem at that moment is largely due to the rising restrictions and hypervigilance related to rising infections within mainland China. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.

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Table of Contents Show

TOP 7 QUESTIONS ABOUT MT. KAILASH

1. How high is Mt. Kailash? 

The summit is 21,778 feet/ 6638 meters.

The pilgrimage trek that circles the base of the mountain tops out at the 18,372ft (5600m) Dolma La Pass.

Mount Kailash itself has never been climbed, because it is considered so sacred.

2. How long is the Kailash trek?

It’s a very high-altitude 32 mile/ 52 kilometer path around the base of the sacred mountain, shared by Tibet travelers and pilgrims. Most travelers take three days while many Tibetans do it in one.

3. What country is Mount Kailash in? 

The mountain is located in the far west of what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, near the intersection of Tibet, Nepal and India. You must have a Chinese visa to enter.

4. What is Mt. Kailash known for?

Although it is little known in the western world, Mount Kailash, is one of the most sacred spots on earth. Along with its sister lake, Manasarovar, Mt. Kailash is a holy pilgrimage site for people of the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Bon faiths.

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. 

Mount Kailash and major Asian river sources on a map of the Tibetan plateau.
Mt. Kailash and major Asian river sources on a map of the Tibetan plateau. From www.meltdownintibet.com.

5. Can I travel to Mt. Kailash?  

Yes, generally speaking, travelers can go to Mt. Kailash.

You need to be on an official tour in Tibet (on a private or group tour with a travel agency), starting in Lhasa. If you want help with that, click here to ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent. (We’re sorry, but our agents are not allowed to assist Indian nationals traveling to Mt. Kailash.)

2022 Travel Advisory: Generally speaking, we don’t advise any foreign nationals to seek trips to Tibet at the moment because the constant policy shifts make bookings too uncertain — you are highly unlikely to be able to actually make the trip, even if you are able to submit a permit request, also unlikely. This advice applies to expat currently living in China, as well as those travelers who live outside China. The problem at that moment is largely due to the rising restrictions and hypervigilance related to rising infections within mainland China. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.

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6. Is it safe to travel to Mt. Kailash?

Like travel to Everest Base Camp, the greatest danger of a Mount Kailash journey is altitude sickness.

But there is a lot you can do to prevent getting sick.

At the highest point on the Kailash trek — the 18,500 ft Dolma La Pass — a young Chinese woman, in blue, bent over, in trouble from altitude sickness.
At the highest point on the Kailash trek — the 18,500 ft Dolma La Pass — a young Chinese woman, in blue, bent over, in trouble from altitude sickness.

Check out our complete beginner’s guide to avoiding altitude sickness to learn how.

In terms of personal safety, we consider Tibet to be quite safe for international travelers.

Yolanda, one of your YoWangdu advisors, has traveled multiple times to Tibet and feels generally more safe there than in her home country, the US.

7. What is Mount Kailash weather like, and when is the best time to trek?

The Mt. Kailash area sits are very high altitude and for that reason is quite cold all year.

Tours usually run from May to September. Outside of those months, snow can make the Dolma La impassable, and it’s just too freaking cold!

July and August tend to be the rainiest months, like everywhere in Tibet. Also very large groups of Indian pilgrims crowd the kora (the holy path around Mt. Kailash) then.

Mount Kailash Trekking: A view of Kailash from the Barkha Plain
A view of Kailash from the Barkha Plain on the Lake Manasarovar side. This was the only day we had views of the mountain. After that, it was clouded over.

See the Accuweather report for Kailash’s Ngari Prefecture >>

Your best chance of views are in May and September. But having said that, we have found the mountain obscured by rain clouds in mid-September, except for a brief appearance on the day we were driving into the region.

Still, it was a fantastic journey, one of the most impressive and meaningful of our lives!

MT. KAILASH TREK

Almost anyone who has walked the sacred ground of Mt. Kailash will tell you that it was a highlight of their world travels.

Tibetan pilgrim mother and child on  Dolma La pass
A Tibetan pilgrim mother and child we encountered on the way up to the Dolma La Pass.

Even though the scenery is powerful, it’s may not be the most gorgeous trek you’ll ever do. But there’s something purely magical about joining devoted pilgrims on high-altitude route that has been holy for a thousand years.

For a quick overview of what the trek looks like on the outside here’s a rough, 2-minute video of the Kailash journey Yolanda took with our friend Meg Moser in 2017.

It’s impossible to capture what it feels like!

The video starts with views of holy Lake Manasarovar and Kailash at a distance over the ginormous Barkha Plain. Then you get a few glimpses of the route on the first and second days of the trek ending at the Dolma La Pass.

What you need to know about the Mt. Kailash trek

  • The mountain is located way-the-hell out in western Tibet, at altitudes higher than the Lhasa region. You’ll generally need at least three weeks for an overland trip that safely includes a Kailash trek. Even if allowed, you wouldn’t want to fly from Lhasa to Ngari — you’ll need every minute of driving and sleeping along the way for acclimatizing purposes.
  • You’ll start the trip by starting to acclimate while you check out Lhasa. Then, most folks go on a tour that includes a bunch of the highlights of Tibet before driving out to Ngari Prefecture, where Mt. Kailash is located. (See the upcoming section on Mt. Kailash tours.)
Lha Tso Lake Tibet
Lovely little Lha Tso Lake on the way to Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

Once you get to Darchen, at the foot of Mt. Kailash, you’ll want to check out nearby Lake Manasarovar and Chiu Gompa, rest and sleep for a night at Darchen.

  • Most trekkers take three days to complete the trek itself, like this:
    1. Darchen to Drirapuk Monastery
    2. Drirapuk Monastery to Zutrulpuk Monastery via the Dolma La Pass
    3. Zutrulpuk Monastery back to Darchen

      (Tibetans typically finish the path in one day!)
Yolanda in Darchen at the foot of Mt Kailash
Yolanda in Darchen at the foot of Mt. Kailash, starting the trek with a local dog friend.
  • Here’s a map view of the Mt. Kailash trek. Note that:
    • Drirapuk Monastery is written as Drira Gompa (gompa is the word for “monastery” in Tibetan), and located near the top of the loop.
    • The Dolma La Pass can be found on the upper right section of the loop.
    • Zutulpuk Monastery is written as Dzuthrul Phuk Gompa and is at the lower right section of the loop.
Map of Mt. Kailash Trek
Map of Mt. Kailash Trek (See link below in practical travel tips, to buy from Gecko Maps)
  • We are calling it a trek, but we really should call it the Mount Kailash pilgrimage, because the ancient path around the mountain originates in the spiritual journeys that Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpos have taken for at least a millennia. People of all four faiths believe that circumambulating the base of the mountain brings spiritual merit. (Tibetans call this kind of holy path a kora.)
Mount Kailash Videos: Pilgrims in the early stages of the Kailash kora on the first day out of Darchen
Pilgrims in the early stages of the Kailash kora on the first day out of Darchen
  • The trek isn’t technical at all. It’s even surprisingly flatish in many places. But it is a long, very high-altitude hike. From start to finish, you will travel 32 miles (52 kilometers).
    • Day 1: 12.4 miles (20 km)
    • Day 2: 11.2 miles (18 km)
    • Day 3: 8.7 miles (14 km)
darchen to dirapuk monastery of the Kailash trek
On Day One of the Mt. Kailash trek — the Darchen to Dirapuk Monastery section.
  • You should know that the Kailash trek reaches extreme high altitude. And we’re not exaggerating! By definition, extreme high altitude is anything over 18,000 ft (5500 m.)

    The highest point on the trek is at the 18,372ft (5600m) Dolma La Pass. The lowest
    point is the Darchen starting point, at 15,000ft (4600m), which is merely “very high” altitude.

    So even though days one and three don’t have a lot of elevation gain, you’ll still be huffing and puffing.
  • Here’s the overall elevation gain/loss:
    • Day 1: Darchen to Dirapuk: +1353 ft (412m)
    • Day 2:
      • Dirapuk to Dolma La Pass(highest point of trek): +1805 ft (550m)
      • Dolma la to Zutulpuk: -2640 ft (804m)
    • Day 3: Zutulpuk to Darchen: -518 ft. (158m)
Pilgrims and trekkers at the Dolam La pass.
Pilgrims and trekkers at the Mt. Kailash Dolma La pass. Photo by Carol Brighton: www.carolbrighton.com.
  • Because you will be spending three days at insanely high altitudes, it is impossible to over stress the need to plan for altitude sickness prevention. It’s a common misperception that you’ll do better if you’re young and fit. Actually, the risk of altitude sickness doesn’t relate to age or physical fitness. This isn’t to scare you — just to encourage you to take the fairly easy steps to remain healthy.

Practical travel tips for the Mt. Kailash trek

Here are some practical considerations if you’re considering a trip to Kailash.

The lovely little Zutulpuk Gompa on the Kailash trek.
The lovely little Zutulpuk Gompa on the Kailash trek.

These tips were compiled by Meg Moser to accompany her great guest post for us on her personal experience of making the journey: Mount Kailash Trekking: 3 Days at the Holy Mountain.

Now let’s dive in to the tips…

  • Seasonal considerations: Yolanda consulted several people who had done this Mt. Kailash trek multiple times about the best month to do this trek. Our experience of doing it mid-September was positive. I LOVED that we were mostly with Tibetan pilgrims. At other times of year (namely summer) we heard that there are busloads of tourists from India who are doing this. We did have some precipitation but we had adequate layers. And the snow was beautiful. We did not have any views of Kailash while on the kora, but I do not regret going in September.
  • We bought Gecko Maps’ Kailash Trekking Map and loved it! You don’t really need anything to find the route on this trek, because it’s clear and you have to have a guide with you, but it was great to have the lay of the land.

Dolma la pass on the Kailash trek.
  • Speaking of rain, you need to be prepared. And if you have porters, they don’t have backpacks, much less rain gear. So, you will need to provide that for them.
  • We were always agonizing about how much to tip the porters. As mentioned there is a government organization for the porters. As of September 2017 we were charged 630 yuan per porter for a 3-day trek. We were told if we had to turn back prematurely, the porters would be guaranteed the full amount. On the advice of someone who guides Americans in Tibet, we also gave the porters 100 yuan at the start of the trek that they could use for food and snacks along the way. At the end we tipped them 100 yuan for good service (which was a bit on the low side, but we took into account that we did give them money for food).
Third Day of the Mount Kailash trek
  • Yolanda and I both used our iPhones (6 & 7) for all video and photos. We both had external batteries for extra power. There was electricity for few hours at Dirapuk and Zutulpuk, sufficient for charging, if you are there during the hours they have electricity. Yolanda did not bring her iPad as at that altitude electronics start to act weird. I suspect at some point, eventually there will be wifi.
  • Lodging: we brought our own sleeping bags and were grateful we did, though there is basic bedding at both places. As stated, limited electricity. And bringing a solar-powered light like the great ones that LUCI makes, was handy.
At Zutulpuk Monastery guest house on the Kailash trek.

  • From a hygienic point of view, the cups and bowls at the teahouses on the kora are not the cleanest. I wish I had brought my mug (left in basecamp) along with my own bowl and spoon and chopsticks. But I did not get sick either.
  • If so inspired, bring some extra ziplocks and gloves for trash collection and to carry out your own!
  • There is time to just hang at the end of the day, which I didn’t expect. So bring that book or journal!
YoWangdu's Yolanda O'Bannon with travelmate Meg Moser in Darchen at the start of the Kailash trek in 2017.
YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon with travelmate Meg Moser in Darchen at the start of the Mt. Kailash trek in 2017.

A critical note to remember:

  • Since you must go with a travel agency when you travel to Tibet, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only.
  • The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture. (Note to our Indian friends: Sorry, our agents cannot assist Indian nationals on this trek due to government regs.)

[VIDEO] HOW TO PREPARE FOR A MT. KAILASH TREK

As you’re about to see, preparing for a Mt. Kailash trek is not hard.

It’s not a great mystery, and you don’t need special skills to do it.

You only need a desire to experience one of the most sacred spots on earth.

Sunrise on the holy mountain of Kailash
Sunrise on Mt. Kailash. Photographer unknown. (Received from a friend in Tibet.)

In these 7 videos, you will learn, step by step, how to prepare for a Mt. Kailash trek.

We taped these videos as Yolanda was preparing for an actual Tibet trip in 2017.

Let’s dive right in…

1. Timelines for planning your trip

The first video gives you guidelines on how far in advance you need to prepare the various stages of your trip — from international flights to special permits.

2. Staying healthy at altitude

Also, check out our whole beginner’s guide for avoiding altitude sickness.

And our full post on how to stay healthy at high altitude in Lhasa and everywhere in Tibet.

3. Setting up a 30-day itinerary

This video gives you tips for creating a 30-day itinerary for a trip to Kailash. This includes preparing to visit Lhasa and Everest Base Camp — since you will start in Lhasa and can easily visit Mt. Everest on the way to Kailash.

Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. A simple way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.

4. Booking hotels in mainland China for a Tibet trip

This one focuses on researching and choosing hotels in mainland China on your way in and out of Tibet. Here Yolanda talks about how to research and book hotels in Xining and Chengdu.

5. Focus on Diamox altitude medication

We talk about the current recommended dosages, when to start and stop taking it, and a few tips about it. (This is not medical advice! Please see your doctor for advice about Diamox.)

6. Booking hotels inside Tibet

In this video, Yolanda talks about how to book your hotels with a focus on getting good Tibetan-owned ones.

7. Packing

What to pack for your Mt Kailash trek and trip.

And here’s a Tibet packing list, that you can print if you wish.

HOW TO TRAVEL TO MT. KAILASH

To get to Mount Kailash, you’ll need to walk through some steps.

It’s not all that hard, but it does take time. (Both to arrange, and to actually travel.)

Of the various ways to do this, here’s what we recommend…

View of Kailash from Dirapuk Monastery.
View of Kailash from Dirapuk Monastery. Photographer unknown. Given by friend in Tibet.

Before your trip

  • Get a visa for China
  • Book a Kailash trip with a Tibet travel agent.
    • The agent will help you obtain a Tibet travel permit. (We can help you with an introduction to a good one, here.)
  • Book a roundtrip flight to a city in mainland China, like Chengdu.
    • We use Booking.com. Non-stop is recommended if you can afford it. Otherwise, it’s exhausting.
  • Book a flight from your chosen city in China to the city of Xining
    • Best starting point of the train to Lhasa.
  • Book train tickets from Xining to Lhasa.
  • Book flight from Lhasa back to your entry/exit city in mainland China
  • Book hotels for your nights in mainland China.
Yolanda and Lobsang in Chengdu in 2002.
Yolanda and Lobsang in Chengdu in 2002. Photo © YoWangdu.

When you travel

  • Fly to the city in mainland China
  • Spend one night in that city, to rest a bit.
  • Fly from that city to Xining
    • At 7464 ft/ 2275 m, Xining is good place to start to acclimatize, and the best place to begin a train trip to Lhasa.
  • Spend 2-3 nights in Xining
    • This begins your acclimatization process, and you can take day trips to the super sweet Tibetan monasteries in the area. We can help connect you to a great local guide.
  • Take train to Lhasa
    • For best views of Tibetan highlands, book an evening train.
  • Meet your guide at the Lhasa train station, and start your overland journey.
    • We’ll give you everything you need to know about tours to Kailash in the next section.
Arriving at Lhasa train station at dusk
Arriving at Lhasa train station at dusk. Photo: YoWangdu.

Other options and more details...

There are other ways to do this journey, for sure.

For other options, check out the detailed How to Go to Tibet section of our complete guide to visiting Tibet.

Get the specifics on almost all of these steps in our free Tibet Travel Planning Guide.

8 FUN FACTS ABOUT MOUNT KAILASH

There’s nowhere on earth like Tibet, and there’s nowhere in Tibet like Mt. Kailash!

Here are some fun facts about the holy mountain…

Tibetan nomad praying at the Dolma la pass on mt kailash
Tibetan nomad praying at the Dolma la Pass on Mt. Kailash. Photo by YoWangdu.

1. Mt. Kailash offers proof that Tibetans are crazy strong

Trekking Kailash will remove any shred of doubt you may have had that Tibetans are among the most hardy people on earth.

Most of us travelers take 3 days to trek the whole 32 mile (52 km) prayer circuit. And it requires a substantial physical effort to do that, since you are averaging 10+ miles a day, at elevations between 15,000 ft (4600m)and 18,372 ft (5600m).

Tibetan pilgrims descending the icy Dolma la pass.
Tibetan pilgrims descending the icy Dolma la pass. Photo by Meg Moser.


Once you do this, you deeply respect the Tibetans, who often make the whole circuit in one day, carrying babies and their food and lord knows what. And wearing trainers or some sort of regular shoes, and heavy chubas instead of lightweight down jackets.

It’s fairly common for Tibetans to make three circuits in 3 days, or do 13 koras, or even 108. We were wiped out after doing it once in three days!

But then you are in complete and total awe of the pilgrims who do full-body prostrations around the whole prayer 32 mile / 52 km prayer circuit!  (This takes 10-15 days.)

It was sobering to pass folks prostrating the rocky, icy, snowy trail up to the Dolma La pass.

Tibetan pilgrim prostrating around mt. kailash
Tibetan pilgrim prostrating around Mount Kailash, nearing the Dolma La pass. Photo by YoWangdu.

And this is not to mention the blind man and his wife we met, who do the kora every year, in one day. She led him on the path at this incredible pace considering that he cannot see and that the path is not usually smooth or clear of rocks or other obstacles.

And then there was the man we met, who comes every year and stays for months. He had done about 300 koras!!!!!!

Other pilgrims told us that he walked very fast and could almost do 2 koras in one day.

So we’re talking almost 64 miles in one day, at extreme high altitude!

No one should ever say that Tibetans are sissies!

2. Mt. Kailash has never been climbed

No one has climbed to the summit of Mt. Kailash (that we know of), mainly due to it’s religious significance.

These are the known attempts by mountaineers…

Climbers Hugh Ruttledge, Col. R.C. Wilson and Wilson’s Sherpa guide Tseten — considered the climb in 1926 but were stymied by a heavy snow before their attempt.

Herbert Tichy also thought about it in 1936 but was put off when a local man told him: “Only a man entirely free of sin could climb Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to actually scale the sheer walls of ice to do it – he’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.” (The Sacred Mountain, p. 129)

West Face of Mt. Kailash.
West Face of Mt. Kailash. Photo by Carol Brighton.

The Chinese offered Reinhold Messner the opportunity to climb it in the 1980s, but he declined.

Messner also criticized news that a Spanish team had been given permission by the Chinese in 2001, saying:

“If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls. I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailas is not so high and not so hard.”

Since the universal international condemnation of the news of the Spanish team, the Chinese have banned all climbing on Mt. Kailash.

3. Pilgrims of different faiths walk around the mountain in different directions

Tibetan pilgrims on kailash kora
Tibetan pilgrims on the way to Dirapuk walking clockwise on the Kailash kora. Photo: YoWangdu.

Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus make the circuit in a clockwise direction.

People of the Bön faith and Jains, though, walk in the opposite, counterclockwise direction.

When we were there in late September 2017, we only saw a couple of Bönpos circling counterclockwise. One of them was the man we mention above, who has made 300 koras.

Bön is the ancient predecessor of Buddhism in Tibet, and there are still Bön practitioners, though far fewer than Buddhists.

4. There’s a special pilgrim greeting

Tibetan pilgrims on the path at Kailash traditionally greet each other with the Buddhist blessing Chin lob chey rather than more customary Tibetan greetings.

This particular greeting is normally used only by pilgrims on big prayer circuits, like the Kailash kora, or maybe the circuit around nearby holy Lake Manasarovar.

Yolanda greeting Tibetan pilgrims on the Kailash kora
Yolanda greeting Tibetan pilgrims on the Kailash kora. Photo by Meg Moser.


This means, literally, something like “Big blessing.” And the idea is that you are wishing that the other pilgrim will have even more spiritual benefit from doing the prayer circuit than they are already getting just by doing it.

It’s a nice way for travelers to meet another pilgrim on the trek.

5. The Tibetans don’t call it Mt. Kailash

The word for Mt. Kailash in Tibetan is Kang Rinpoche.

Kang means “snow peak” and rinpoche has the same meaning as the term used for highly respected Buddhist teachers and reincarnate lamas, i.e., “precious one.”

Mount Kailash at night from Dirapuk Monastery
Mount Kailash at night from Dirapuk Monastery. Unknown photographer. Given by a friend in Tibet.

So we could translate kang rinpoche as “Precious Snow Mountain.”

It’s interesting that the word Kailash comes from Kailas in Sanskrit, which may be rooted in kelasa, meaning crystal. (From the Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia)

6. Mt. Kailash has it’s own sub-range of the Himalaya

Mt. Kailash is in the Kailash range of the Trans-Himalaya Range.

The Trans-Himalaya run parallel to, and to the north of, the central Great Himalayan range.

And though they are also called the Tibetan Himalayas, they are not the only Himalayan range in Tibet.

You can see the Trans-Himalaya in red on this tectonic map of the region.

Tectonic map of Himalaya with Trans-Himalaya
Tectonic map of Himalaya, showing the Trans-Himalaya in red. Image credit: PhD thesis of Pierre Dèzes 1999, “Tectonic and metamorphic Evolution of the Central Himalayan Domain in Southeast Zanskar (Kashmir, India)”. Mémoires de Géologie (Lausanne) No. 32, ISSN 1015-3578.

7. Four of the world’s greatest rivers start in the Kailash area

It’s sort of mind-blowing when you think about it, but all 10 of the major river systems of Asia originate in the Tibetan Plateau.

And of those ten, four find their source in the Mt. Kailash area:

  • Yarlung Tsangpo (later becomes the Brahmaputra River)
  • Mapcha Tsangpo (becomes the Karnali/Ganges River)
  • Langchen Tsangpo (becomes the Sutlej River)
  • Senge Tsangpo (becomes the Indus River)
Yarlung Tsangpo
View of the Yarlung Tsangpo near Lhasa. Photo YoWangdu.

It is little wonder that Mt. Kailash is thought by so many to be the center of the universe.

8. Mt. Kailash is thought by millions of people to be the spiritual center of the universe

It is really odd that Mt. Kailash is so little known in the western world, since a huge number of Asia people consider it to be the spiritual center of the universe.

Hindus believe it is the home of Lord Shiva.

For Jains, Mt. Kailash is where their first spiritual savior attained enlightenment.

People of the Bön faith believe that the Kailash region is the spiritual center of the world.

For Tibetan Buddhists, Mount Kailash is known as Mount Meru, and is the home of Demchok, a tantric deity who represents supreme bliss.

Mt. Kailash with chortens.
West face of Mt. Kailash with chortens. Photo by Yasunori Koide.

Two of the very greatest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava and Milarepa, have major connections to Mt. Kailash.

Guru Padmasmabhava is the powerful Indian Buddhist master who is considered responsible for the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century, and there are numerous sacred sites related to him around Mt. Kailash.

The story of the great Buddhist yogi and master Milarepa is that he basically “won” Tibet for Buddhism over the champion of the Bön religion, Naro Bön-chung.

The story goes that the two masters fought a massive battle for supremacy, and that Milarepa won the final challenge of reaching the summit of Mt. Kailash first.

It is said that Naro Bön-chung road a magic drum up the mountain while Milarepa sat and meditated until the final seconds when he passed his competitor by riding the rays of the sun to top.

THE BEST TIBET MOUNT KAILASH TOUR

The best Mount Kailash tour is the one that gives you the epic Kailash experience and gets you home safely.

And the main ingredient you need for that is time.

Because you need time to acclimatize to the sometimes extreme high altitude of the Mt. Kailash area.

Yolanda and Meg near Dolma La Pass on Kailash Trek
Yolanda O’Bannon and Meg Moser near the Dolma La Pass on Kailash Trek in September 2017. Photo: YoWangdu.

In this section, first we’ll give you the itinerary that Yolanda designed for her own trip to Kailash in 2017. Then, we’ll point out the highlights of what you see and experience along the way. And finally, give you some pro tips and trip notes about logistics.

Let’s dive in with the itinerary…

Yolanda’s personal itinerary

Here’s the itinerary used by Yolanda and her friend Meg for a trip to Kailash in 2017.

She designed it specifically for maximum acclimatization, so that she and her travel buddy Meg would feel as good as possible on every step along the way. And that worked!

Yolanda and Meg scared at Darchen
Just before setting out on the Kailash trek, Yolanda and Meg joking about the real trepidation we felt about trekking at such altitude. Photo: YoWangdu.

Mt. Kailash itinerary designed to avoid altitude sickness

DayFromToActivitiesElevation of sleep (ft)Gain/Loss
(ft)
1San Franciscomid-flightTravel daymid-flight
2mid-flightChengduTravel day and overnight Chengdu1640+1594 (from San Francisco, at 46)
3ChengduXining Sightseeing + travel day7464+5824
4XiningKumbum + Shazong Ritu74640
5XiningOn Tibet trainGonlung Jampaling 11986+4522
6On trainLhasaArrive Lhasa and rest11975-11
7LhasaAround Lhasa119750
8LhasaDrepung/Sera…119750
9LhasaAround Lhasa119750
10LhasaGyantseEn route: Kamba la – view of Yamdrok Tso – Nakartse (lunch) – Samding Monastery – Mt. Nyechen Kangsar Glacier at Karo La – Gyantse Kumbum + Pelkhor Choede monastery.13210+1235
11GyantseShigatseTashilumpo monastery and kora12585-625
12ShigatseLhatse (via Sakya)Tashilumpo again en route to Sakya13205+620
13LhatseSagaDriving15223+2018
14SagaDarchenDriving and Lake Manasarovar15010-213
15DarchenRest day and short hike above Darchen150100
16DarchenDirak Puk Kailash Kora16666+1656
17Dirak PukZutul PukKailash kora via Drolma La Pass at 18,372 ft, so gain of 1706 then loss of 254115831-835
18Zutul PukDarchenKailash Kora15010-821
19DarchenSagaDriving15223+213
20SagaOld TingriSaga – Shisha Pangma – Peiku Tso – Old Tingri14268-955
21Old TingriLhatseOld Tingri to Rongbuk/EBC – Shegar Lhatse. If time, Shelkar/Shegar Monastery and hike to Shelkar Dzong13205+1063
22LhatseLhasaReturn Lhasa11975+1203
23LhasaAround Lhasa. Buffer day for catching flights.119750
24LhasaChengduTravel day, overnight Chengdu1640-10335
25ChengduSan FranciscoTravel day46-1594

Highlights of this Kailash journey

The fantastic thing about this itinerary is that it is like a greatest hits of Tibet destinations. It’s pretty amazing!

Here’s what you see and experience…

Buddha statue at Serkok Monastery Near Xining
Buddha statue at the main hall of Serkok Monastery near Xining. Photo: YoWangdu
  • Starting out at Siling (Xining in Chinese), on the far eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, you have time to see not only the popular Kumbum Monastery, but also the fascinating and less-touristy and less-visited monasteries in the Siling area.

    Because Xining is outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, you can arrange travel here yourself. Or, you can ask your Tibet travel agent to help you. (For a good referral, ask us here.)
  • From the train, the impressively huge salt lake Kokonor (Ch: Qinghai Lake). Plus, an endless vista of the high, wild, yak-dotted landscapes of the Amdo and Kham Tibetan regions
Tsonag Lake in Amdo at sunrise from the Tibet Train
Tsonag Lake in Amdo at sunrise from the Tibet Train. Photo: YoWangdu.
  • A luxurious amount of time exploring the incredible sites and people and eats of Lhasa
  • Views of Yamdrok Lake and the Mt. Nyechen Kangsar Glacier as you go over the Kamba La and Karo La passes.
  • Visits to majorly significant and unique monasteries in the culturally rich towns of Gyantse and Shigatse
  • Time to visit holy Lake Manasarovar and Chiu Gompa near Mt. Kailash
  • The truly unforgettable Mt. Kailash Kora trek itself
Prayer flags on day hike from Darchen on Kailash Trek
Prayer flags on day hike from Darchen on the Kailash Trek. Photo: YoWangdu
  • And, if that’s not enough, you swing by Everest Base Camp on the return journey to Lhasa! What?!

Kailash trip notes and pro tips

  • This itinerary includes lots of time in Lhasa to acclimatize and see the major sites. Even if you take a group tour, you can arrange with your Tibet travel agent to spend extra time in Lhasa for the safest adjustment to Tibet’s very high altitude.
Yolanda and porter on Kailash trek
Yolanda with our porter Dolma la on the last stage of the Kailash trek
  • To do this, you ask for a few extra days of private tour be added to the beginning of your group tour. Note that Yolanda spent 4 nights in Lhasa on arrival. (To ask us for an introduction to a reliable travel agent — the very same one Yolanda always uses — send a request here.)
  • This itinerary is 25 days door-to-door from the US West Coast. Of that, you have 18 days in the Tibet Autonomous region.
  • For the actual trip in 2017, Yolanda extended the itinerary by 6 more days after the return to Lhasa, to include a second big trek, from Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery. We’ve left that off so you can see the part that is relevant only for Mount Kailash.
  • After arriving in Chengdu, Yolanda flew to Xining, and spent two nights there, for acclimatization purposes. Xining is at a good moderate altitude to allow initial acclimatizing. (While in Xining, she used the time to visit some of the awesome local Tibetan monasteries.)
Exteriors of Serkok Monastery near Xining
Exteriors of Serkok Monastery near Xining. Photo: YoWangdu
  • Following Xining, this route includes taking the Tibet train for a bit more acclimatization.
  • You can go to Everest Base Camp (EBC) either on the way to Kailash or the way back. If you’re on a private trip, you can try to time getting to EBC during the best weather, but that’s a crap shoot, of course, because Mother Nature does what she wants!

STAYING HEALTHY AND SAFE ON YOUR MOUNT KAILASH JOURNEY

Tibet is safer in many ways than most people think. In our opinion you are less likely to be robbed or harmed by other people in Tibet than in other Asian countries.

Approach to Kailash from Mansarovar
Approach by road to Mt. Kailash from Lake Mansarovar. Photo by YoWangdu.

But there are definitely some things you need to look out for, and prepare for.

Let’s have a look at those now…

Driving

To get to Mt. Kailash, you have to drive quite a bit.

It’s in the far west of Tibet, and for acclimatization reasons, you want to take your time to get there from Lhasa. (Lhasa is where most people will start.)

On the road from Saga to Mt. Kailash in western Tibet.
On the road from Saga to Mt. Kailash in western Tibet. Photo: YoWangdu.

On Yolanda’s last trip, she chose to take 5 days to get to Kailash, and 4 days to return.

There were lots of visits to sites and mini hikes — mostly on the way there — but a lot of the time is driving.

Sometimes you’re on long, flattish stretches, and often you’re on mountain roads.

Here are a few things to know that could keep you safer on the road:

  • Since you’ll be driven by a driver, who works with your guide, you want to pick an excellent agency that does their utmost to hire safe drivers with a good record. (You can do that by asking us for a referral for one such agency here.) Most of the drivers we have encountered have been wonderful, and very skilled. But that’s because we go with great agencies. And even then there are some things to look out for…
Yolanda and Meg with Guide and Driver at Kailash in Tibet.
Yolanda and Meg with Guide and Driver at Kailash in Tibet. Photo by Meg Moser.
  • The speed limits on the main highways are very carefully controlled by trackers on the tourist vehicles, so the drivers tend to either drive really slowly on those roads OR drive fairly fast for long stretches, then pull over somewhere, like a tourist trap, and wait a certain amount of time to pass before they hit the next monitoring area. We haven’t found the speed to be a problem so much, because the posted speeds are sooooo slow. The problem is the the horribleness of stopping at tourist traps, like the one below. Since we really HATE those kinds of places, we just requested our driver not to stop at those places. (The numbers of which are on the rise.) If they want to stop and wait somewhere else, that’s fine.
Tourist trap with Tibetan mastiffs and baby goats on way to the Kamba La Pass in Tibet.
Tourist trap with Tibetan mastiffs and baby goats on way to the Kamba La Pass in Tibet. Photo: YoWangdu
  • When you’re not on main highways, the drivers will tend to go at more normal or faster speeds. If there is ever a time when it feels unsafe to you, SPEAK UP. Don’t be afraid of being rude or whatever. Yolanda was involved in a very scary slide that ended on the very, very edge of cliff over a river — that could have been avoided if she had spoken up in the minutes before the incident. She had been really uncomfortable by the speed the driver was taking the turns down a dark road, but said nothing.
  • Check with your guide that there are chains in your vehicle. It is possible to encounter snow pretty much any time of year on the passes, and you may well need them. Few vehicles are four-wheel drive these days because those are so expensive in this age of government-owned and managed tourism vehicles. There have been times, in Eastern Tibet, when we just paid the higher prices for a 4WD vehicle for a day or two, and were soooo glad we did.

    Here’s some footage of the conditions at the Gondang Lhamo Pass between Old Tingri and Kyirong in January 2020, as a sample of where you can be if you’re not mindful of the weather:

  • It’s not often talked about, but a fair number of drivers drink in their downtime in the evenings. Some of them overdrink. If you see that over drinking is making your driver sleepy or less aware than he or she should be, or downright dangerous, SPEAK UP. You have every right to do so. We hope more people will complain about this issue to reduce the number of drivers over drinking while on the job.
  • If you’re on a private trip, work with the guide and driver to make sure the driver gets adequate rest. The drivers are amazing but they are humans!
  • We were surprised to learn that our guides and drivers didn’t check for upcoming sections of the journey. Ask that they do so, or check some weather sites or apps yourself, and talk to your guide about what’s coming up. (It may be hard to find Kailash itself in English apps, but you can look at Ngari Prefecture, like in the photo of the AccuWeather site pictured below.) Weather is a HUGE factor for your trip, and there’s no reason to be stuck on a pass in a gnarly storm when the itinerary could have been easily switched around to avoid it.
Accuweather report from Ngari Prefecture in Tibet, the area where Mt. Kailash is located.
Accuweather report from Ngari Prefecture in Tibet, the area where Mt. Kailash is located.

Altitude Sickness

The single biggest health risk for you on a trip to Mt. Kailash is altitude sickness.

The Dolma La Pass on the Mt. Kailash kora trek is the highest point that most travelers will reach in Tibet. Heck it is the highest point that most people will ever reach in their lifetimes!

The highest point on the trek is over 18,000ft, so it is officially “extreme high altitude.”

As you drive there, you will be above 13,000ft for much of the time.

Without proper acclimatization, you will feel ill, and you risk getting seriously sick and even dying. We don’t say this to scare you, because you can take simple steps to acclimatize safely.

Please note that IT DOES NOT MATTER how young, fit and healthy you are. These are not risk factors for altitude sickness. You can be the healthiest young marathon runner, mountain bike, climber, judo expert alive, but as the world’s greatest altitude experts, Dr. Peter Hackett and Dr. David Shlim note on the US CDC site, “Susceptibility and resistance to altitude illness are genetic traits, and no simple screening tests are available to predict risk. Training or physical fitness do not affect risk.”

Yolanda with travel buddy at the Gyatso La Pass in August or September 2007
Yolanda with travel buddy at the Gyatso La Pass in August or September 2007. Photo: YoWangdu

So, what do you need to do?

Here is what we recommend…

Here are some main points from those guides (but definitely still read the guides):

Bottle of the altitude sickness prevention medicine acetazolamide, also branded as Diamox.
Bottle of the altitude sickness prevention medicine acetazolamide, also branded as Diamox.
  • Ask your doctor about getting a prescription for acetazolamide altitude sickness prevention medicine. (It is the only proven medicine. Unfortunately, none of the natural remedies for altitude sickness yet have sufficient scientific data to show that they work. We keep an eye on these studies.)
  • Follow our guidance in the How to Travel to Mt. Kailash section above. (Fly to a city in China, rest one night, fly to Xining, sleep there 2-3 nights, take the train to Lhasa.)
  • Follow the itinerary in our Best Mt. Kailash Tour section above, which provides for safe acclimatization.
  • Keep aware of how you and your companions act and feel all along the route, and descend if necessary.

Here are two videos that Yolanda and her travel buddy Meg Moser shot just before and after their Kailash trek, to record how they felt at altitude:

Darchen, at the foot of Mount Kailash (15,010 ft/4575 m)

At Saga, following the Mt Kailash trek (15,223 ft/4640 m)

Stomach Health

This one is simple.

Basically, you want to follow the same rules in Tibet as you would for any travel to a developing nation…

Follow the travelers adage of “Cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget about it!”

Eat meals that are cooked while you wait and served hot. (Bread has been an exception to this, so far…)

Food at a restaurant in Tibet.
Food at a restaurant in Tibet.

For water or drinks, drink bottled, boiled or filtered. (One of the big bummers about this is that one uses A LOT of plastic, since you need a lot of water in Tibet to stay well hydrated, except in your room, when you can always get hot water.)

Boiled water is available everywhere in Tibet.
Boiled water is available everywhere in Tibet, like here, at a restaurant table.

There are more good tips and tools in the Staying Healthy and Safe When You Visit Tibet section of our How to Visit Tibet post.

COMING SOON — WHERE TO STAY ON A TRIP TO MOUNT KAILASH

So that’s it for our seventh installment of Mt. Kailash: The Complete Beginners Guide for Travel and Trekking.

If you need help with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency to plan a trip to Tibet, contact us here.

Because this post covers A LOT of content, we are releasing it in sections.

By the river on the Zutulpuk to Darchen section of the Mt. Kailash kora. Photo © YoWangdu.
By the river on the Zutulpuk to Darchen section of the Mt. Kailash kora. Photo © YoWangdu.

Next up we’ll give you all the tips on good places to stay while you’re on the trip.

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Updated on February 11, 2022. First published on February 16, 2019.

Your Tibet travel advisors, Lobsang and Yolanda

Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip. Learn more about us and YoWangdu here.