Trekking Mount Kailash
The following post was written when we visited Tibet in 2007. In the last decade, much has changed. The roads leading to Mt. Kailash have been paved, Chinese guides must accompany tourists, and the once isolated region sees more visitors.
We were still half a day’s drive away from Darchen, the town at the foot of Mount Kailash and the starting point for our trek, when we caught our first glimpse of the snow-covered peak in the distance. After ten days bumping up and down on a series of increasingly deteriorating dirt rodes, Tibet’s holiest mountain was within sight.
The tension had been building for days. Rumors had been circulating that the Chinese military had moved into the area to clamp down on unrest resulting from the construction of an unapproved Buddha on the slopes of the mountain. Conflict had broken out between the soldiers and Tibetan pilgrims doing the Kailash kora. We had met several foreign trekkers and travelers who had been turned back by the troops. As we silently bounced our way towards our destination, we were all asking ourselves the same question: would we be allowed to trek?
Arriving in Darchen
As we rolled into town, it became quite clear that Darchen itself was quite a pit (although we did learn to love the little Chinese restaurant up the hill.) The first thing we had to do was find out about the trekking situation. Although we had seen military camps outside the town, we were not aware of any army presence within Darchen itself. Locals told us that everything had calmed down. What a relief – it looked like we would be able to leave the following day! The only worry we had was the weather.
We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for our 3-day walk around Kailash. While we loaded up on junk food, our guide Losang was trying to arrange a porter to carry excess food and gear. We had decided to take as little as possible and split one porter with our travel companions Dimitri and Irina.
In the late afternoon, Losang came back with our “porter”, two giggling teenage girls in flip flops who had never done the job before. What was going on? As it turned out, there was a shortage of qualified porters due to extreme weather at the pass. (Normally, trekkers could choose between a porter or a yak, but yaks couldn’t cross the pass in the deep snow, so all the porters had been hired up and the yaks were happily grazing in the meadows below.)
Having those inexperienced girls carry our stuff was out of the question. Tony went out to search for a porter himself and eventually found a teenage boy who had done the kora many times. Before we finally agreed on the deal, we had him try on the backpack to see if he could manage the load. He hesitatingly agreed but then assured us that everything was OK. Great, we were all set to leave the following morning!
Mount Kailash – Day 1
Our first day on the Kailash kora was full of ups and downs to say the least – and I’m not talking about the trail. It all started at 9 AM when our porter showed up and quit!
Losang, our guide, shifted into emergency mode and desperately combed the small town for anyone available. At 11 AM, he showed up with a scrawny, frail, old man whom we immediately hired because we had no other options. We needed a well acclimatized local to help us carry our things as well as to guide us over the snow-covered pass. This was doubly important as Losang was not going to come with us because his shoes were not good enough to walk through deep snow.
Guide hired and ready to go, we all grabbed our bags and left immediately – a very late start for our first day which included a trek of 20 km (12 miles). As we headed up the hill behind Darchen, it quickly became clear that the porter wasn’t going to make it with the backpack packed the way it was, so we each took some of his load into our daypacks to help him.
We were a bit stressed because of the late start and the fact that we were terrified that our porter was going to drop over dead, but once we came up over the first ridge and saw a massive circle of prayer flags backed by the full view of Mount Kailash, our worries were suddenly forgotten (for the moment). Passing the impressive collection of prayer flags, we oohed and aahed as we entered the stone canyon that marks the beginning of the kora like some colossal stone gate.
You really feel a sense of awe as you approach the exceptionally unique mountain, which is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, Hindus and Bon worshippers (Bon is the traditional pre-Buddhist relgion of Tibet.) The path was lined with mani piles and mani walls including stacks of yak skulls, many of which had also been engraved with Tibetan prayer texts. We passed stone stupas, smaller collections of prayer flags, and our first monastery perched on a steep cliff overlooking the trail. It was all absolutely magic… until we saw the cars.
Cars… driving up the riverbed below us. How could anyone be driving cars up the holiest pilgrim path in Tibet?! We assumed it had to be Chinese tourists as Tibetans would never drive in such a holy place. Or perhaps, Chinese military following up on their bombing of the 10 meter (30 foot) Buddha, making sure Tibetans weren’t carving another “unauthorized” statue somewhere in the cliffs. We bitched and complained, we mourned the loss of Tibet. Boy, did we feel like idiots when we discovered the truth.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, our guide Losang appeared on the path ahead of us.
“Hello,” he said, offering no explanation of his presence.
“Losang, what are you doing here?” we asked totally confused by how he had suddenly materialized ahead of us on the trail.
“I guide cars up river,” he answered in broken English, “someone die crossing mountain pass. He is German, too. Cars go to take body. I get good shoes from friend and come to find you to make sure you can be safe crossing mountain. There is much snow.”
We stood there, unsure of what exactly to say about the discovery that the cars were actually going to pick up someone’s body. Then it sank in that the person had died crossing the pass we were heading for. We walked on silently reflecting on what had happened and questioning what we should do next.
After about a half an hour, we saw a group of people walking towards us, quite unusual as they were walking the kora counter-clockwise (a big taboo in Tibet). It was a group of European hikers who had heard about the German’s death and had decided to turn back. This really started to make us nervous.
After another hour, the cars returned carrying the man’s body back to Darchen. There was another man sitting in the back staring out the window. Losang told us that this was the man’s brother. We stepped back off the path respectfully allowing the cars to pass. As the cars pushed by, the dazed brother’s eyes glided over us barely noticing our existence. We felt so horrible for him.
But we walked on. The landscape was so other-worldly, so spectacular that it compelled us to continue. Kailash, such a unique mountain, is like a monolithic slab of stone, an ancient, natural pyramid ravaged by the extremes of the Tibetan climate. The mountain exudes a sense of spiritual wonder, which has made it such an important pilgrimage site. In Tibet, the land of mountains, Kailash is by far the most important, surpassing all others including Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Xishabangma, and even Mt. Everest.
As the day wore on, the winds picked up whipping snow off the tops of the surrounding peaks, perhaps foreshadowing what lay ahead. From time to time, we stopped to take refuge from the strong winds in pilgrim tea tents refueling on salted black tea, butter tea, or instant noodles. Eventually, the canyon trail curved gently around to the northern face of the mountain, known as the Emerald Face, where we came to our end destination for day one, Dira Puk Monastery.
Later that evening, as we sat around the yak dung stove warming ourselves, we tried to get as much information as possible about the German’s death and the conditions at the pass. Some said he had died of altitude sickness, others said he had fallen due to the strong winds, still others said he had had a heart attack. At times, it sounded like his death was a freak accident, at others it sounded like a direct result of the weather.
After considering the situation, Dimitri, Irina, Thomas and I decided to attempt the pass, but we were going to be respectful of the weather conditions. If it looked too dangerous, we would head back. We weren’t the only ones attempting the pass, there were other foreigners and many Tibetan pilgrims who were going as well. Hopefully, everything would be much clearer the following day.
Mount Kailash – Day 2
Up early to beat the mountain winds, which usually pick up before noon, we had a very restless night sleeping at 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). We woke up in our sleeping bags, feeling like we were suffocating. All of us were absolutely freezing, even with our sleeping bags and two 4-inch thick Tibetan blankets each. We also had stomach issues all night, which I attribute to the appalling Tibetan hygiene rather than altitude sickness. (Don’t ask me how we know it was hygiene, there is no point in getting graphic.)
The weather situation was very unclear. Mount Kailash peak was in clouds, but the Drolma-La Pass seemed clear, so our guide Losang said we should go for it. At first, we were all colder than hell, but as we pushed forward, we heated up enough to be comfortable.
The trail across the pass, which is usually clear enough that trekkers don’t need guides, had disappeared beneath a blanket of fresh snow. We felt extremely happy that Losang had decided to borrow those shoes from his friend and come with us on the trek. (Official Tibet guides often wait in Darchen while trekkers trek independently.)
Since Losang was an ethnic Tibetan, he had completed the kora numerous times and was very motivated to do the kora again himself as each Kailash kora completed brings him one step closer to enlightenment. His experience at Kailash allowed him to easily guide us through the snow-covered boulders up the steep mountain slope.
The trail itself was hard-packed from all the pilgrims doing the kora. But recent snow fall had filled in the sides effectively rendering the trail invisible. If you stepped too far left or right, you fell off the hard-packed trail into the soft side snow, suddenly stuck up to your knees. (Thomas and I were both very grateful for the knock-off North Face Goretex pants we had bought in Xining!!!) Thomas seemed to have the uncanny ability to see where the hard-packed trail was, so I stayed close behind him.
The exhausting climb became much harder when the winds kicked in early. The sky changed from clear blue to dark clouds and back to blue within minutes. Gale force winds whipped snow into our faces – it felt like you were being hit with tiny splinters of glass. Of course, whenever the clouds swept in, the temperature dropped dramatically making the whole thing that much more difficult.
At one point, as we topped a small ridge, we saw what looked like lifeless bodies lying on the boulders. It turned out to be several exhausted Tibetan pilgrims lying on the rocks regaining their strength. (Tibetan pilgrims usually attempt to complete the entire 52 km (33 mile) kora in one single day!) The pilgrims were wearing thick sheep skins with the fur inside. Many of the women had painted the outer skin with beautiful multi-colored abstract designs, which once again reminded me of Native Americans.
As we passed, the bodies started stirring and the pilgrims ended up joining us on the trail up to the pass. We all moved inch by inch trudging through the snow surrounded by a panorama of jagged stone peaks. Mount Kailash peak was partially visible as dark clouds moved over the summit. It really was one of the most dramatically beautiful moments of my life, all intensified by the spectacularly severe weather conditions and the pilgrims walking beside us.
Strangely, moving up to the pass neither Thomas nor I had any problems with altitude sickness despite the fact that we were much higher than we had ever been in our lives. Irina and Dimitri, who had far more mountain experience than we did, moved on ahead with Losang leaving Thomas and me to follow their path through the snow.
In a moment of stupidity, while stopping to go to the bathroom, I laid my gloves down on the path. Stupid, stupid, stupid!!! Propelled by a huge gust of wind, my gloves suddenly shot through the air landing in a pile of boulders twenty yards away. I can’t convey how terrified I was because the temperature was well below freezing and the extreme winds made the cold even more of a threat. Thomas screamed bloody murder at me for my stupidity and then disappeared down the path ahead.
I tried to walk in the direction of the gloves, but I suddenly plunged into a deep patch of snow and couldn’t move forward. As I climbed out of the snowy hole, my icy hands freezing in the cold, I heard Thomas yelling, “I found them. I’ve got them.” He had walked further down the path and climbed into the boulders from behind. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved in my life.
Gloves back on and hands warming, we continued up the trail stopping to rest and take in the phenomenal, snowy wilderness. After another hour and much endurance, we finally reached the top of Drolma La Pass at 5,600 meters (18,400 feet). It’s the highest place by far that either Thomas or I had ever been, and this record is likely to stay unbroken for some time as there are not many opportunities for people to get higher without serious mountaineering experience.
We thought the hardest part was behind us, but we were very mistaken in that assumption. Moving further along the pass, a new snow-filled valley opened up below us, accessible only by a ridiculously steep iced-over path. I thought back to the rumors that the German who had died had fallen to his death. I wondered once again if that rumor had been correct. We slowly slid down the trail often on all fours. A beautiful, green alpine lake lay down below us ringed in by spiky snow-covered peaks.
The strength of the winds continued to increase as noon approached whipping up clouds of snow. At one point climbing down the trail, Losang stopped to tell me something. While we were talking, a strong gust of wind knocked him right off his feet. Laughing, clearly shocked by the conditions himself, he pulled himself up and gestured to keep moving. We trudged to the bottom of the trail and began to cross the valley.
At times, the gusts were so overwhelming that we all had to stop moving and wait for the winds and stinging shower of glass-shard-like snow particles to stop. During this period, I did not take any pictures because I was afraid of damaging my camera, but Thomas did manage to snap the picture below, which shows a pilgrim with me and Losang in the background as we are just reaching the end of the trail arriving at the valley floor. It is one of the only pictures we have which conveys how extreme the weather became.
But the challenges just kept coming. Weaving our way along the path of pilgrim footprints, we began to walk over sections of an iced-over river that braided through the valley floor. The snow made it difficult to tell if you were walking on dirt or the river. After what seemed like hours of slipping and sliding and hopping from rock to rock over the river, we plopped ourselves down behind a huge bolder to shield ourselves from the endless wind. Losang had gone ahead once again to look for Irina and Dimitri, so we were on our own.
We refueled ourselves on chocolate bars and a can of Coca Cola we were dragging along for emergencies. Just as we were finishing, another trekker and her guide showed up and informed us that we were still two to three hours from the next monastery – I didn’t know whether to punch the guide in the face or burst into tears. I had never been so exhausted in my life, but somehow the chocolate and Coca Cola gave me enough energy to keep going.
After endless river crossings and a lot of bitching, we finally spotted a pilgrim tea tent on the other side of the river. One last very precarious river crossing and we finally had shelter from the wind. A few cups of salted black tea and a half an hour warming up in the tent provided us with enough energy to walk the last hour to Zutul Puk Monastery.
When I got inside our cold adobe room, I collapsed onto the bed and lay there for 15 minutes without moving. I have never been so exhausted in my life. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely! I think the extreme weather conditions made passing Drolma La that much more amazing. The dramatic clouds, snow-covered mountains, the pilgrims wrapped in sheep skins – it was, perhaps, the single most intensely spectacular day of my life. It really did feel like a religious pilgrimage!
Mount Kailash – Day 3
Oooh, so sore! I slept so deeply at Zutul Puk, it’s amazing anyone could wake me up this morning. Who knew you could sleep so well in an adobe refrigerator? Actually, after the extreme winds and snow the previous day, the monastery felt like a luxury resort.
Thank the Tibetan gods that our last day on the kora was an easy one. Losang had already walked down to Darchen and Dimitri and Irina had left ahead of us, so Thomas and I were on our own most of the day. We followed a long glacial valley for several hours taking in the beautiful mountain scenery and braid-like river below the trail. Our porter, who didn’t speak any English or Chinese, had found an old pilgrim to walk with; we could see them both further down the winding path.
Since we were not in a rush, we sat down on some boulders and watched the river below. We explored mani walls, Tibetan rock carvings, stupas, and more along the way. The sun was shining and the walk was a breeze, nothing could have been more of a contrast to crossing Drolma La Pass.
After several lazy hours, we walked out of the valley with magnificent views of the holy lake Manasarovar in the distance and the soaring mountain Gurla Mandhata rising up behind. We passed through a small, stone Tibetan village, which appeared to be completed deserted at midday. In the distance, large herds of yaks were moving across the plains below us. It was definitely a National Geographic moment.
As we moved out of the village, we could see yet another mani wall in the distance with a body lying in front of it. (It reminded me of the exhausted Tibetans at the pass.) As we approached, we could see the body was our porter and that he did not appear to be moving at all. Lying awkwardly on the dusty ground, his neck appeared to be twisted around pinned in against the lower portion of the wall. Terrified that he had dropped over dead, we hurried over towards him.
There was absolutely no movement – our fear mounted. Suddenly, at the last moment, his head popped up staring cluelessly at us with a goofy smile that served to break the tension. He pulled himself up, and we walked back to Darchen together, very relieved that we hadn’t killed him. (Seriously, the backpack didn’t contain that much.)
Back in Darchen, Thomas, Irina, Dimitri, and I celebrated our success over Sichuanese food at a hole-in-the-wall in the center of town. After 3 days of instant noodles, it felt like pure luxury!
As we mentioned above, this post was originally written over a decade ago when independent travel in Tibet was still possible. To give you an idea of what a tour looks like today, check out these tours to Mount Kailash, including pricing and itineraries.
If you have been to Mt. Kailash or western Tibet recently, we would love to hear from you in the comment section below. What is it like now that the roads have been paved? How long does a trip to western Tibet take in 2019? What were your guides like going to Kailash?