3 most popular trekking tours in Tibet


Helen Wang's picture

With spectacular alpine landscapes and mysterious cultures, Tibet offers incredible opportunities for trekking. I've been a huge fan of Tibet trekking, and had tried most of its trekking routes over the years. Here's a quick review of the top 3 Tibet trekking routes.

Photo of Helen trekking in Mount Kailash - Tibet
Photo of Helen trekking in Mount Kailash

Ganden to Samye trekking is my first choise. It is a challeging yet incredibally rewarding route. From May to mid October, the valleys will be covered by lush vegetation and wildflowers. Snow capped mountains towering the valleys will offer you a sense of magnificence as you walk through the meadows. 

Mount Kailash Kora is the runner up for my list. During my Kailash tour I caught sight of Tibetans singing and praying on their pilgrimage to the holy Mount Kailsh, along with their yaks and horses. It was a great joy to blend into them to have a close look at their cultures. Plus this area boasts a massive senery. Prepare yourself for Asian wildwest scene.

Definitely not the last, the Tsurphu to Yangpachen trekking comes third. It is a great balance of cultural and wilderness activities. You will hike across several high valleys and have spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. 

Detailed descriptions of the 3 most popular ones are given below. All based on my first hand experience as a backpacker.

1 - Ganden to Samye Trekking 

Brief Introduction

Duration: 4 Days

Distance: 80 km. (50 mi.)

Efforts: Medium

Highest Point: Shuga-la at 5,250 m. (17,224 ft.)

Accommodation: Camping

Map of Ganden to Samye trekking in Tibet
Map of Ganden to Samye trekking in Tibet

The Ganden to Samye Trekking is one of my favorite trekking route in Tibet. It has lots to offer: rivers, vast alpine valleys, herders' camps and the historical sites where you can explore the ancient cultures of Tibetans. 

Be warned that even though it is popular, it does not mean you can underestimate this trek. Most of the routes are at an altitude of over 4,000 m. (13,123 ft.) and the highest point, Shuga-la reaches 5,250 m. (17,224 ft.)You need to be well prepared with hiking equipment in advance. 

The best time for this trek is from May to mid October. During this period, the valleys will be covered by verdant vegetation and wildflowers. Snow capped mountains leave a magnificent backdrop as you walk through the meadows. 

Day 1: Ganden to Yama Do

5 - 6 hours/17 km. (10 mi.)/300 m. (984 ft.) ascent/450 m. (1,476 ft.) descent

Ganden to Samye Trekking Route
Meadows dotted along the trekking route

The trek starts from the parking lot at the base of Ganden Monastery. We will arrange pack animals such as yak here to help carry your bags during the trekking (Fee is included.). 

Following the well-trodden trail heading south, you will quickly get to Angkor Ri, the highest point on Ganden Kora. Then turn to a branch in the right to keep ascending to the place where you lose sight of Ganden and gain views of Samodro village below you.

The first destination of this stage is Hepu Village, which takes you about 2.5 hours from Ganden. In the village you will see a red-and-yellow masonry structure and white incense hearths at the southeastern edge of the village. This is the shrine of Hepu's yul lha, which is believed the local protecting deity, the Divine White Yak.

After a short rest in Hepu Village, walk west downhill towards a bridge crossing the Tashi-chu, near the confluence of another stream. Next you will chase the Shuga-la, the highest point of this trek by following the watercourse originating from there. 

About 1 hours' walk, you will reach Ani Pagong, a narrow, craggy bottleneck in the valley. Across the valley is the seasonal herders' camp of Choden. Spending another 1 hour by ascending and passing through several marshy meadows you will reach the final destination of this stage, Yama Do at 4,456 m. (14,619 ft.), which offers you a great camp site. 

Day 2: Yama Do to Tsotup-chu Valley

5 - 7 hours/10 km. (6 mi.)/1,000 m. (3,280 ft.) ascent/450 m. (1,476 ft.) descent

Tibetan People with Mastiff
A Tibetan boy and his mastiff

Today is the most challenging day as you will ascent 1,000 m. (3,280 ft.) to get to Shuga-la. As the reward, you will receive the most majestic scenery in this trekking route. Make sure you have prepared.

The watercourse which will lead you to Shuga-la splits into 3 branches at Yama Do. Take the central one which is a straight shot up to the pass. First you will head to a wet alpine basin studded with tussock grass. The Shuga-la is at about 1.5 hours from the basin.

The Shuga-la at 5,250 m. (17,224 ft.) cannot really be seen until you are virtually on top of it. It is marked by a large cairn covered in prayer flags and yak horns. Once you have seen them, proud of you, you have made it to the highest point of the trek. Stay here for a while and enjoy the moment. 

The trail starts descending sharply after you say "goodbye" to Shuga-la. You will reach a valley floor where you can see a splendid lake at its head. Cross the vast Tsotup-chu at 4,907 m. (16,099 ft.), which flows through the valley and be careful about the herders' dogs. This is an ideal place to camp and meet the nomads.

Day 3: Tsotup-chu Valley to Herders' Camps

5 hours/14 km. (9 mi.)/300 m. (984 ft.) ascent/400 m. (1,312 ft.) descent

From the Tsotup-chu, the main watercourse flows from the southeast and a minor tributary enters from the southwest. Start your trek today by following this tributary. You will be rewarded a spectacular view of a large basin and the Palang Tsodu Lake. 

Ganden to Samye Trekking Tour Camping
Camping in the valley

After that, keep on following the broad valley and stay on the west. You will ascend to the Chitu-la Pass at 5,210 m. (17,093 ft.), which is topped by several cairns and a small glacial tarn. Next a short descent will bring you into a basin with 3 lakes. Head towards the west side of the stream in the basin, you will capture a collection of cairns. 

The goal of this stage is to reach the seasonal herders' camp on the east side of the valley, good for camping. Walk around there, you will find a large meadow. Camp sites are numerous here. 

Day 4 and 5: Herders' Camp to Samye Monastery

10 hours/39 km. (24 mi.)/1,200 m. (3,937 ft.) descent

As the last stage of the trek, you will walk descending to the last destination, Samye Monastery. The trail now is wide and easy to follow. The next 3-hour stretch of the trail is among the most delightful of the entire trek.

The river near Samye Monastery

Because of the right combination of elevation, moisture and aspect, the environment is verdant. By walking through  the wood-and-stone Diwaka Zampa bridge at 4,380 m. (14,370 ft.), you will enter a thick scrub forest. According to the locals, more than 15 types of trees and shrubs are found here. 

The trail winds through a series of meadows. As you walk further, you will enter the region which is considered as the birthplace for Tibetan culture. Lots of temples, villages can be found here. 

This evening or more likely next morning, you will reach the last destination of the trek, Samye Monastery. Notice that in a village called Sangbu Village, which is about one hour trek from Samye, you will have good views of its golden spires. It is a great place to take some photos. 

An alternative route that most our clients choose is to Yarmalung Heritage, where you can take a tractor or your land cruiser will pick you up to Samye Monastery. This route will save you about 1 day on the trek.

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2 - Mount Kailash Kora

Brief Introduction

Duration: 3 Days

Distance: 52 km. (32 mi.)

Efforts: Medium to difficult

Highest Point: Drolma-la at 5,630 m. (18,471 ft.)

Accommodation: Camping or guesthouse.

Map of Mount Kailash Trekking in Tibet.
Map of Mount Kailash Kora in Tibet.

If you are looking for a trekking route which can take you deep into the ancient cultures of Tibetan Buddhism, I would recommend you the 3 days Mount Kailash Kora.

This trekking route is based on the age-old pilgrims' path around Mount Kailash, Asia's most sacred mountain. With a 5,630 m. (18,471 ft.) to pass, this kora is a true test of your mind and spirit.

Compared with Ganden to Samye trekking, the scenery along the Mount Kailash kora is much more massive. You will be rewarded lots of gorgeous snow mountains, including close-ups of the holy pyramidal Mount Kailash.

Another highlight of the trek is to see and meet pilgrims, not only the Tibetans. If you have done some research in advance (I bet you will), you will know that Mount Kailash is the holy mountain for 4 ancient religions, Tibetan Buddhism, Bon, Hinduism and Jainism.

The main pilgrim season is from June to September. It is a real treat during this season to catch sight of this Asian-style wild west scene. Tibetans travel on foot, singing or intoning prayers, while Hindus ride on horseback, with yak teams carrying their supplies. Both of them are usually friendly and approachable.

Kora is a transliteration of a Tibetan word that means "circumambulation" or "revolution". Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist or Bon traditions. A Kora is performed by the practitioner making a circumambulation around a sacred site or object, typically as a constituent part of a pilgrimage, ceremony, celebration or ritual. 

Day 1: Darchen to Dira-puk Monastery

6 hours/20 km. (12 mi.)/200 m. (656 ft.) ascent

Tibet Kailash Trekking Tour
Camping near Mount Kailash

First you need to take eco-bus from Darchen to the starting point of this trek. Then heading to the west, you will quickly leave all traces of the village behind. Then walk across the Barkha Plain, a sandy expanse where you can still see some scrub vegetation. 

To the north, the east-west ridge blocks your view of Mount Kailash, but to the southeast you will have clear views of Gurla Mandata at 7,728 m. (25,354 ft.). Api and other peaks in Nepal are visible to the north, while sharp humps of Kamet at 7,756 m. (25,446 ft.) can be witnessed in the southwest of India. 

Keeping on walking until you get to a cairn with prayer flags at 4,730 m. (15,518 ft.). This is the first place you can capture the south face of Mount Kailash. 

Following the ancient pilgrim trail you will enter the barren Lha-chu Valley, where you can have a open views and see the narrow Lha-chu River. Another 1 hour's walk you will arrive a significant site, the Tarboche flagpole, which is served during the Saga Dawa Festival.

In the rest of the day, you will have a chance to visit several chortens and monasteries where you can explore the cultures of Tibetan Buddhism. The goal today is to get to the Dira-puk Monastery, which will offer you a rather basic guesthouse where you can have a warm sleep. 

Saga Dawa Festival is observed on April 15th of the Tibetan calendar. This day is said to be the birthday of Sakyamuni, the Great Buddha, and the day he died and became a Buddha as well as the day of the arrival of Princess Wencheng (the queen to Songtsen Gampo, a great Tibetan king of the 7th century AD) in Lhasa.

In Mount Kailash. Local people will hang up their own prayer flags together with other thousands of multi colored flags. Each represents a prayer that someone wants fulfilled. The flags are let to fly in the air so as to increase the potential for answer. Then crowds of pilgrims will have a 3 days Kora (or trek) around Mount Kailash.

Stage 2: Dira-puk Monastery to Zutul-puk Monastery

7 - 8 hours/18 km. (11 mi.)/550 m. (1,804 ft.) ascent/600 m. (1,969 ft.) descent

The most challenging part of the trek comes today as you will pass the highest point, Drolma-la, which is at an altitude of 5,630 m. (18,471 ft.) above sea level. 

Pilgrims in Mount Kailash
Pilgrims kora around Mount Kailash

The first part of the trek is keep ascending. You will want to revel in the glory of your surroundings as Mount Kailash's shiny black face dominates the sky along the way. Along the route you will pass 2 glacier at the north face of Mount Kailash. 

A few hours' walk you will arrive the 5,630 m. (18,471 ft.) Drolma-la, There are some start, jagged peaks to the right. Remember to look south for your last glimpse of the north face of Mount Kailash.

After passing Drolma-la, it takes approximately 2 hours to make the long and very steep 400 m. descent to the grassy banks of the Lham-chu Khir. Later the trail turns dry, and rocky.

About 30 minutes south, you will enter a valley, which provides the only glimpse of Mount Kailash's eastern face. Another 2 hours on, grassy fields appear alongside the river affording those with tents endless spots to set up camp. Here you can meet lots of pilgrims with their yaks and horses.

Stage 3: Zutul-puk Monastery to Darchen

3-4 hours/14 km. (9 mi.)/150 m. (492 ft.) descent

From the monastery, the trail follows the river closely for an hour and then enters the Gold and Red Cliffs, a narrow canyon whose walls are stained purple, cobalt and rust. 

Next the trail emerges onto the Barkha Plain, you will have a chance to witness the Gurla Mandata again. Then have an easy one-hour walk back to Darchen, which is also the final destination of the trek.

3 - Tsurphu to Yangpachen Trekking

Brief Introduction

Duration: 3 - 4 Days

Distance: 60 km. (37 mi.)

Efforts: Medium

Highest Point: Lasar-la at 5,400 m. (17,716 ft.)

Accommodation: Camping

Map of Tsurphu to Yangpachen trekking in tibet
Map of Tsurphu-Yangpachen trekking in tibet

Only 60 km. (37 mi.) away from Lhasa, the Tsurphu to Yangpachen trekking route is a great balance of cultural and wilderness activities. You will hike across several high valleys and have spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. 

The best time for this trek is from April to middle October. Summer can be rainy but be prepared for snow at any time as Tibet is an alpine kingdom. 

Stage 1: Tsurphu Monastery to Leten

3 - 4 hours/11 km. (9 mi.)/500 m. (1,640 ft.) ascent

Camping in Yangpachen Trekking
Camping in a valley

Starting from Tsurphu Monastery, which offers you a good place to acclimate, the trek begins by heading west or up the valley. The first sightseeing spot is a walled copse of old tree with a brook. This garden-like wood is used by the monks in the summer.

After the trees you will head to the northwest branch and remain on the north side of the stream. Another 1 hour's walk you will get to Shupshading, a seasonal herders' camp. Then you will see a line of ruined chortens to your right as you walk through the valley.

The goal today is easily to be achieved as you arrive Leten, where you can see several nomads families living here.

Stage 2: Leten to Bartso

5 hours/15 km. (9 mi.)/300 m. (984 ft.) ascent/600 m. (1,969 ft.) descent

It is about 3 hours' walk from Leten to Lasar-la, the highest point of the trek. The route will climb steeply up in the first part until you reach a spur marked by 3 cairns at 5,270 m. (17,290 ft.). The peak attached to here is called Damchen Nyingtri and is holy to the god ruling the environs.

I will suggest you follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition by staying to the left of the 3 cairns and descending sharply into a narrow valley. Walking through the valley, O-lha peak, the prominent jagged mountain will leave a magnificent backdrop to the northeast.

Keep on ascending as the valley opens wider the the direction of the pass. The Lasar-la at 5,400 m. (17,717 ft.) is a broad gap at the highest point in the plain. It is heralded by cairns and prayer flags

After the Lasar-la, you will quickly descend into the north-running valley, which is covered with hummocks. You can have views of the snow capped Nyenchen Tanglha range to the north.

Keep heading westwards, you will easily get to the final destination of today's trek, Bartso, another settlement for the nomads in Tibet.

Stage 3: Bartso to Dorje Ling Nunnery

3 - 4 hours/15 km. (9 mi.)/150 m. (492 ft.) ascent/150 m. (492 ft.) descent

Today you will follow a trail in the northwest to the far end of the valley. The highlight of today is a 20-minute climb to the top of the hill to the right (east), known as Nyinga. Views of the Nyenchen Tanglha mountains, the holiest mountain in central Tibet and is said to be inhabited by a god of the same name, are splendid from here.

After leaving Nyinga, a half an hour descent will bring you to a stream at the base of a ridge. From here you will have good views of a village, which located upstream of Dorje Ling Nunnery. 

The final destination, Dorje Ling Nunnery sits at the bottom of a rock outcrop. Good camping is found in the meadow to the southwest of the nunnery. If you are interested in it, you can have a kora to a hillside meditation chapel before arrival at the nunnery.

Stage 4: Dorje Ling Nunnery to Yangpachen Monastery

3 - 4 hours/14 km. (9 mi.)/mostly level

Today's trek almost remains at the same level. Your final goal of the trek is to reach Yangpachen Monastery. Several meadows along the route will offer you some fine picnic spots.

The Yangpachen Monastery is perched on top of a ridge. It was originally constructed in 15 th century. Here you can overlook a broad sweep of trans - Himalayan peaks. A comfortable Land cruiser will wait for at monastery to pick you up to the nearby Yangpachen town, where you can have a hot springs to celebrate the ending of the trek.

No matter which trekking route you choose among the top three recommendations, they will all offer you fantastic walking, superb scenery and a great chance to explore the Tibet Cultures. 

So Which Trek Do You Want to Go?

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