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Wild China: Mount Kailash & Lake Manasarovar

Worshiped by the followers of no less than four religions -- Tibetan Buddhists, Bonpos, Hindus, and Jains -- Mount Kailash (Gangdise) draws pilgrims from the Tibetan world and beyond. For Tibetan Buddhists, it is Mount Meru, the center of the universe, and many aim to circumambulate the mountain 108 times, thus attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime. For Hindu pilgrims, who are allowed to cross the border at Purang (Pulan), it is the abode of Shiva, one of the three supreme gods. The beauty of the 6,714m (22,028-ft.) peak, jutting up from the surrounding arid plain, is astounding, and the sight of Lake Manasarovar under a full moon is enough to have even the most cynical visitor believing in supernatural possibilities.

The Saka Dawa Festival, the traditional pilgrimage holiday held from late May to early June, is the most spectacular time to visit, but access (even for prebooked tours) is often restricted during this festival. Regardless, try to time your visit to coincide with the full moon.

To reach Kailash, Western visitors need a guide, vehicle, driver, and a military permit (¥100, which will be arranged by the agency). Short tours, from either Lhasa or Katmandu, last 15 days and cost from ¥15,000. More extensive tours of the region run for 21 days and cost about ¥17,000. Costs can be split between four travelers. Check out the FIT branches at the Banak Shol (tel. 0891/634-4397) or the Snowlands Guesthouse (tel. 0891/655-1448) in Lhasa. Beyond Zhongba, the road is in poor shape. Inspect your vehicle before you leave. The trip is not feasible from November to mid-April.

Accommodations along the route are usually ¥60 per bed. Even basic amenities, such as hot showers, are usually unavailable. Dishes at restaurants tend to cost more than they would in Lhasa, so figure that you'll spend around ¥100 per day on food, unless you're okay with instant noodles.

The traditional gateway to the mountain is the village of Darchen (Dajin), which sits on the southern edge of the pilgrimage circuit, although you can't see the mountain from here. Admission to the Kailash area is ¥200, collected at a checkpoint at the entrance to town. Guides must register guests with the PSB in Darchen upon arrival. Accommodations range in price from ¥60 to ¥80 for a dorm bed, and popular places include the Yak Hotel and the Darchen Guesthouse. At the Gangdisi Binguan private standard rooms and triples with decent bathrooms go for ¥240 and ¥300 respectively. Outside the eastern entrance of the Gangdisi Binguan is the Lhasa Restaurant, run by a charming retired teacher from Tsetang.

Most people take 3 days to complete the 53km (33-mile) circuit. Buddhists undertake the journey in a clockwise direction, while a handful of Bonpos walk counterclockwise. Stick with the majority. Waterproof hiking boots (or a change of shoes) are a must, as there are numerous small river crossings. Bring plenty of food, as you'll only find instant noodles and a few other snacks for sale on the circuit. Even if you intend to hire a yak and driver at ¥150 per day, you should be very fit, as the trek is above 4,500m (14,760 ft.), rising to over 5,600m (18,370 ft.) on the second day.

Hor Qu (Huo'er Qu), 39km (24 miles) southeast of Darchen, is the most common jumping-off point for Lake Manasarovar (4,560m/14,957 ft.). Here you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Himalayas across turquoise waters which freeze over in winter, visit monasteries carved from the naked rock of the lakeshore, and even attempt the 90km (56-mile) circuit of the lake. Chiu Gompa, 35km (22 miles) south of Darchen and 8km (5 miles) south of the main road, has a few unmarked guesthouses that will rent you a bed for ¥40. A wash in the bathhouse that has unlimited hot-springs water costs ¥60. Entrance to the Chiu Monastery is free, and its setting, on a crag facing Lake Manasarovar, is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the view. If you go to Chiu Gompa, bring food from Darchen or Hor Qu. The Indian Pilgrims Resthouse by the lakeshore, where you can spend the night for ¥100, serves a few minimal dishes like egg-fried rice.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.