Mt. Kailash: The Beginners Guide for Travel and Trekking [2021]

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…

2021 Travel Advisory: Permits for expats currently living in China are now open! Travelers not already living in China still seem to be subject to a 14-day quarantine and the Tibet permit situation for these is not known. However, if you want to travel to Tibet you can pre-book travel for a later date. By doing this, you will support local Tibetan-owned businesses at a time when they are struggling to survive. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.

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.

The Tibetans call the mountain Kang Rinpoche, which can be translated as Precious Snow Mountain.

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.)

2021 Travel Advisory: Permits for expats currently living in China are now open! Travelers not already living in China still seem to be subject to a 14-day quarantine and the Tibet permit situation for these is not known. However, if you want to travel to Tibet you can pre-book travel for a later date. By doing this, you will support local Tibetan-owned businesses at a time when they are struggling to survive. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.

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.

COMING SOON — TIBET MOUNT KAILASH TOUR

So that’s it for our third 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.

We will release a new sections every other week.

Next up we’ll give you all the tips on the best Kailash tours.

If you want to get notification for those releases, sign up for our newsletter (with our free Tibet Travel Planning Guide)

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Updated on October 20, 2021. 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.