Everything You Need to Know about Traveling to Mount Kailash
Back in 2007, I had the privilege of exploring one of the world's most unbelievably mesmerizing sites. A majestic black rock, standing wide and tall in all its glory, called Mount Kailash.
We were a group of 5 along with our guide and driver. It was one of the most exhilarating and emotional adventures of my life! I felt extremely humbled, as exploring Mount Kailash is an honor bestowed on only a few outside of the region.
Located in the far west of Tibet in the Himalayan Mountains, the 22,000 foot peak is sacred to four faiths; the Hindus, Buddhists, believers of Bon (the old Tibetan religion) and Jains. In spite of being one of the world’s most respected holy places, it is still otherworldly and seemingly untouched.
It's said that people have been making pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash for 10,000 to 12,000 years, possibly even longer! Not only is it a sacred place for believers of different faiths, it also serves as a bucket list destination for tourists and travelers alike.
Its rich history and beautiful landscapes were reason enough for us to go explore this hidden gem of Tibetan beauty. You may even hear the locals refer to it by different names. The peak of Mount Kailash gets snow all year round and is sometimes called the “Treasure or Saint of Snow Mountain.” Mount Kailash seems to be gazing at another mountain, Namcha Barwa or “Father of Iceberg,” and so it's also known as the “Mother of Iceberg.”
The Hindus believe that the god of destruction and regeneration, Shiva, resides at the summit. The Tibetans believe that when Buddhism replaced the old Tibetan religion called Bon, it was here on this very mountain! In addition, they believe that the Buddha Demchok, who represents supreme bliss, resides here. The believers of the Jainist faith respect Mt. Kailash as they believe this is where the founder of their faith achieved liberation from rebirth. It's a universal center of Buddhism for Hindus and the followers of Bon alike.
Due to the sacred significance of Mount Kailash to followers of these four faiths, the peak time that the mountain is surrounded by worshippers is during the Saga Dawa festival, which is celebrated on the fourth Tibetan Lunar month, normally around late May to the first half of June according to the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is an important religious affair where people pray and worship, honoring their respective faith. This festival marks the day of enlightenment for Sakya Monyi (Buddha). When Buddha was dying he asked his followers not to honor him with flowers and lights but by following his teachings about compassion, kindness and living a noble life. There's something in the air around this monument that embodies those feelings, and makes for an unforgettable experience to any fortunate enough to explore its astonishing beauty.
Access to the Mountain
Anyone who wishes to explore Mt. Kailash can do so all year round, however May and June and late August and September are the optimal months for exploring the rich religious culture surrounding the area.
These four months are the busiest and you can usually see hoards of pilgrims making their way towards the mountains to pay homage to Buddha or to celebrate a variety of unique religious festivals.
There are two means of travel you can take to reach the mountain; by road or by air. Connecting roads have significantly improved since early 2014, and the drive is a pleasant one, with plenty of sights to take in along the way.
If you plan to fly, there is an airport in the capital city, Ali Ngari, the closest town to the mountain. From there it is a scenic four hour drive to Mt. Kailash. We normally don't recommend you fly to Mount Kailash directly due to the high altitude risks. If you have a limited time frame, we suggest you take the overland travel route and after completing the Kailash kora, you can choose fly out back to Lhasa to avoid the 3 extra days driving.
Yes! I Want to Travel to Mount Kailash!
Our group of 5 had the same tour guide and driver throughout the journey, taking us through the high plateaus of Tibet, enjoying grasslands and wildlife along the way. You'll also find shepherds and nomads as you travel along the path to Kailash. Driving through those snow-capped mountains, deep valleys, and undiscovered lakes is such a breathtaking experience that we couldn’t stop talking about it for days!
The beautiful landscapes are a soother for the eyes, especially if you visit during the pilgrim's time. You'll be able to witness the life of pilgrims and become part of their celebrations, which is a unique experience in itself. To say that this beauty is indescribable is an understatement. A Mt. Kailash tour is truly the experience of a lifetime!
Other Destinations In Far Western Tibet
While mount Kailash is the prime attraction in far western Tibet, owing to its sacred and religious connotations and a magnet to pilgrims of the four faiths from around the world, the place is also home to other destinations that you can explore beyond this holy mountain.
At the foot of Mt. Kailash is Lake Manasarovar, which is hailed as sacred to many. Eight Buddhist monasteries symbolizing the wheel of life once surrounded the lake. Today, only their ruins can be found, where most of them have disappeared altogether.
The beauty of the lake is unmatched. Its color changes from a clear blue to a deep emerald as you near the center and it's one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world at an altitude of 4,588 meters. You can pitch a tent by the lake like other travelers and indulge your senses in its serene beauty to recuperate from the strenuous journey of the mountain, or find a quiet spot to just relax and unwind.
Tsaparang Guge Kingdom Ruins and Zanda Clay Forest Park
If you continue your journey to the northwest after Mount Kailash, you can witness the Guge Kingdom ruins in Zanda County. Tsaparang was once the capital of the Guge Kingdom. There have been 4000 rooms and 800 caves discovered by explorers , among other secret paths, fortresses, granaries and burial places. Due to its research value, the Ruins of Guge Kingdom are listed under the cultural relics of National Importance according to Chinese law. This means these relics are forbidden to be exhibited or removed.
The Guge Kingdom, founded in the 10th century, played an important role in the cultural and economic development of Tibet. It served as the center of foreign trade between India and Tibet and advocated Buddhism, making it reach the heart of Tibetan culture. The most intricate of these ruins are the temples and palaces. In the White, Red, and Samsara temples and the Imperial and Assembly Palaces you can find many artifacts, statues, and inscriptions that reflect the lives of those lost in time.
Before you reach Zanda town on the way from Mount Kailash, you'll be driven down to the deep, fantastically eroded wadi-like gullies. The layers of the former sea bed are clearly visible and the scenery is a wonderland of eroded cliff faces that have taken on the most astonishing shapes. This is the mind-boggling Zanda Clay Forest Park, which is a must see on the far western Tibetan lands.
Chang Tang Reserve
Another interesting area and one of the oldest to explore, is the Chang Tang Reserve, which is more than 14,000 feet in elevation and the second largest protected area on earth encompassing endangered species and wildlife. Chang Tang is covered with high pastures and is uninhabited by humans, with the exception of a few nomadic yak herders. With historic remains and beautiful landscapes like these, the entire region is a heaven to master your photography skills!
Now, crossing Chang Tang Reserve after Mount Kailash is another challenging and exciting route for those adventurous travelers. Due to weather conditions, the Chang Tang Reserve is only accessible from May to late October.
The two most popular travel routes to consider when planning your trip to Mt. Kailash are outlined below. Both routes will take you to Darchen, a village at the foot of Mount Kailash. Both routes have plenty of beauty and culture to offer, so go with your gut and enjoy!
Travel Route 1: Start your trip in Lhasa, follow the Tibet - Xinjiang highway G219 (also called southern route) to Darchen.
Travel Route 2: Take the overland travel from Kathmandu (in Nepal) to Mount Kailash via the border Gyirong, after the junction city Saga, then follow the Tibet – Xinjiang highway G219 southern route to Darchen. If this route is chosen, you will be required to spend some days in Gyirong for further acclimatization.
A starting point for the trip from Lhasa to Mount Kailash makes the trip around 13 days long. During that time, you will follow the Tibet Xinjiang highway (southern route) to Mount Kailash after 2 days acclimatization in Lhasa city. Along the route you will visit Gyantse, Shigatse and Lake Manasarovar. For Mount Kailash, you will experience a 3 day Kora to worship this holy mountain. If you choose to add a detour to the Everest Base Camp, this requires another 1-2 days time.
To travel further to visit the Tsaparang Guge Kingdom ruins in Zanda, it takes another 2 days.
For the full experience of visiting Mount Kailash and traveling across the Chang Tang Reserve to Namtso Lake, it could take 20 to 22 days. There will be so many types of of wildlife, high plateau lakes, snow capped mountains and vast pastures to take in, this is one adventure you'll want to experience fully!
You can also follow Tibet Xijiang highway all the way to Kashgar, which takes about 20 days. After you explore the charming natural scenery and learn about the rich culture of Tibet, you will reach the door to discovering the Muslim culture and minorities in Xijiang.
The Best Time To Visit Mt. Kailash
The best time to plan your trip to Mt. Kailash is between late April and early November, after which the temperatures begin to fall. It's highly recommended that you don’t make it any later than that. During July and August the landscapes are at their best, but it may rain quite frequently. Tibet experiences half of its annual rainfall in these two months. If you plan to go on a pilgrimage, be aware that there is always a chance of snow close to some of the high passes, even in the middle of summer.
Mount Kailash Kora
Hindus, Buddhists and Bon believers make a pilgrimage around the circumference of Mt Kailash. This is called a Kora by Buddhists and a Parikarama by Hindus. It's a strenuous walk that takes 2-3 days to complete.
The word Kora essentially means ‘circumambulation' and is a meditative practice and as well as a pilgrimage in the Tibetan Buddhist and Bon traditions. It's advisable that you prepare for this walk two-three weeks in advance due to the considerable altitude. You'll be walking around areas between 4500 and 5600 meters, so the right gear is also essential. It can also get very cold, depending on the weather at that time, so gear up and get the best from your first (or maybe not?) Kora!
Tibetan Buddhists believe that walking around the mountain once will wash away all their sins. However, they don’t believe in climbing the mountain as they consider it an act of sacrilege to step on its slopes. According to Legend, the Buddhist champion Milarepa is the only person to have reached the summit. It's said he flew to the peak in the 12th century, while others who attempted to defy the taboo died during the process.
It’s a 52 km circle, which Tibetans complete in a single day while Indian pilgrims complete the ritual in three days. If you want to receive the most enjoyment from your Kora we suggest that you do it in three days.
Tibet Travel Permit
Based on current travel policy for foreign passport holders, you are required to take an organized trip accompanied by a licensed guide during your entire experience in Tibet. The Tibet permit application to Mount Kailash takes around 3 weeks. Please keep that in mind when planning your trip. In order to ensure things are properly arranged, we suggest that you plan and book your trip only once you have fully committed to embarking on this grand adventure. Especially in the peak season, such as around the time of the Saga Da Wa festival, we must book the accommodation, vehicle and guide in advance.
Mount Kailash is a phenomenal cultural and religious attraction, especially significant to believers of or those who seek knowledge regarding Hinduism and Buddhism. When we embarked on this adventurous journey, we had little idea of how amazing the experience would turn out to be! From the vast plains to the clear blue skies and fresh water lakes, from camping under the stars along the Manasarovar, to exploring historical ruins that give away clues of the mighty dynasties living there centuries before,there is so much to explore and experience in and around Mount Kailash. If this experience calls to you, it will be a deep and life changing journey that you will not soon forget.
Yes! I Want to Travel to Mount Kailash!