Trekking in Tibet offers you the opportunity to explore an incredible landscape and catch a glimpse of an ancient lifestyle. It is a fantastic experience and quite different to trekking in Nepal. The landscape does not come well-equipped with conveniently-spaced tea house accommodation, nor a ready supply of people waiting to make money from portering. Though yaks and handlers can be hired for treks, this is not their main source of income. Camping involves the hire and transport of food and equipment as well as additional staff like cooks and so on. So, whilst treks such as the Ganden-Samye trek provide a fantastic wilderness experience, they are more expensive than what most people would associate with camping.
These treks can be incorporated into any private trip in central Tibet or added, as a private extension to the end of a group tour ending in Lhasa. You have to remember that you are at high altitude (4,000m+) and also require a moderate to high level of fitness. A minimum of three nights in Lhasa prior to trekking or and longer (in Lhasa or travelling in central Tibet) is advisable before longer treks in order to give sufficient time to acclimatise.
Ganden Samye Trek (6 days)
From the ruins of the great monastery of Ganden, you head for the high valleys. The scenery is spectacular and herders are often camped beside small lakes and streams, their herds of sheep, yak and goats scattered across the high pastures. The end of the trek brings you to Samye. On the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), this is Tibet’s oldest monastery and one of its most beautiful. Moderate-strenuous
Tsurphu Trek (3-4 days)
This trek to the north of Lhasa offers a great mix of small villages, great and tiny monasteries, uninhabited valleys and high passes. On arrival at Tsurphu, you can set off on your trek immediately after visiting the monastery or camp here and take an afternoon hike to the nearby mountain where there are many meditation caves. En route you pass a small village, highland pastures with herds of yak and sheep, high grassland valleys, and cross small streams to the 5,300m Lasar-la (pass) where countless colourful prayer flags wave in the wind by the nunnery at Dorjeling. Moderate
An alternative to a full-scale trek are day hikes, of which there are a number of options around Lhasa including:
Drip Valley: Explore the lifestyle of rural Tibet on this day-hike through the farming villages of the Drip Valley. Enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit their small monastery and be invited into local homes to share butter tea, yoghurt and perhaps barley beer.
Pabonka – Ani Gompa: This is a full day hike along the ridges north of Lhasa (average altitude 4,160m). Pabonka, one of Lhasa’s oldest monasteries, is the start point. It is then a steepish climb to Tashi Choling and on to Chupsang nunnery. Pass hermitages and small monasteries with stunning views over Lhasa.
Chimphu: Add a day in Samye and make a day hike to Chimphu. This is a complex of cave hermitages approx 13 kilometres from Samye which is actively used by practitioners of Nyingmapa tantras. Guru Rinpoche also spent time here.
Mount Kailash Trek
By far the greatest trekking option in Tibet is to Mount Kailash, the holy mountain that stands at the centre of the Buddhist, Hindu, Bon and Jain universes. The earthly manifestation of Mount Meru, it is the focus of journeys to western Tibet. The giant snow-topped pyramid of Kailash stands apart and distinct from those around it, dominating the landscape. Along with Lake Manasarovar, it was the heart of ancient Zhangzhung and soul-mountain of the pre-Buddhist Bonpo. To the Bon, it is called Yungdrung Gu Tse (Nine-Storey Swastika Mountain) and is the place where their legendary founder, Tongpa Shenrab descended from heaven to earth. In the 11th century however, Naro Bonchung ‘lost’ both Kailash and Lake Manasarovar to Milarepa in a contest of magical powers. To complete a kora (circumambulation) is the goal of every Tibetan; a single kora cleanses the sins of a lifetime whilst 108 guarantee enlightenment. Kailash is also the geographical watershed of South Asia, here its great rivers are born – the Indus, the Sutlej, the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and the Karnali / Ganges. At its foot lies the most venerated of Tibet’s lakes, Manasarovar, believed by Hindu’s to have been formed in the mind of Brahma.
Generally, tour groups make the 52-kilometre kora (circumambulation) in two and a half days, overnighting at the monastery guesthouses of Diraphuk and Zhutrul Phuk. These accommodations are very basic, but you are usually too tired to care too much. Kailash is within the capabilities of any basically healthy person and great fitness is not required but is tough due to the altitude. The second day is the longest and toughest, crossing the Drolma pass at 5,630m. Join-in group departures for Kailash are offered throughout the year.
It is also possible to make a kora (circumambulation) of Lake Manasarovar. The circuit of the lake is just over 100 kilometres and it is reasonably flat, although still at over 4,600m. Taking 4 to 5 days, you can overnight in the monastery guest houses along the way or camp.
Everest Base Camp, North Face
Often enquired about is the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC). North Base Camp (the Tibet rather than Nepal side) is accessible by road and the trek route is within sight of the shortcut that many vehicles use between EBC and Lao Tingri, hence it invariably disappoints people.
Author of this story is Catherine Spence
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: