The Maijishan Grottoes (simplified Chinese: 麦积山; pinyin: Màijīshān Shíkū) are a series of 194 caves cut in the side of the hill of Maiji Shan in Tianshui, Gansu Province, northwest China.
This example of dramatic architecture contains over 7,800 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 square meters of murals. Construction began in the Later Qin era (384–417 CE).
The grottoes were first properly explored in 1952–53 by a team of Chinese archeologists from Beijing, who invented the scientific numbering system still in use today. Caves #1–50 are on the western cliff face; caves #51–191 on the eastern cliff face. These caves were later photographed by Michael Sullivan and Dominique Darbois, who subsequently published the primary English-language work on the caves noted in the footnotes below.
The name Maijishan consists of three Chinese words (麦积山) that literally translate as “Wheatstack Mountain”. But because the term “mai” (麦) is the generic term in Chinese used for most grains, one also sees such translations as “Corn Mound Mountain”. Mai means “grain”. Ji (积) means “stack” or “mound”. Shan (山) means “mountain”.
The mountain is formed from purplish red sandstone and the grottoes here are just one of many cave grottoes found throughout northwest China, lying more or less on the main trade routes connecting China and Central Asia.
Maijishan is located close to the east-west route that connects Xi’an with Lanzhou and eventually Dunhuang, as well as the route that veers off to the south that connects Xi’an with Chengdu in Sichuan and regions as far south as India. At this crossroads, several of the sculptures in Maijishan from around the 6th century appear to have Indian—and SE Asian—features that could have come north via these north-south routes. The earliest artistic influence came, however, from the northwest, through Central Asia along the Silk Road. Later, during the Song and Ming Dynasties, as the caves were renovated and repaired, the influences came from central and eastern China and the sculpture is more distinctly Chinese.
Cave shrines in China probably served two purposes: originally, before Buddhism came to China, they may have been used as local shrines to worship one’s ancestors or various nature deities. With the coming of Buddhism to China, however, influenced by the long tradition of cave shrines from India (such as Ajanta) and Central Asia (primarily Afghanistan), they became part of China’s religious architecture.
Buddhism in this part of China spread through the support of the Northern Liang, which was the last of the “Sixteen Kingdoms” that existed from 304–439 CE—a collection of numerous short-lived sovereign states in China. The Northern Liang was founded by Xiongnu “barbarians”. It was during their rule that cave shrines first appeared in Gansu, the two most famous sites being Tiantishan (“Celestial Ladder Mountain”) south of their capital at Yongcheng, and Wenshushan (“Manjusri’s Mountain” ), halfway between Yongcheng and Dunhuang. Maijishan was most likely started during this wave of religious enthusiasm.
An English-speaking guide charges ¥50 for up to a group of five. It may be possible to view normally closed caves (such as cave 133) for an extra fee of ¥500 per group.
The regular admission ticket includes entry to Ruìyìng Monastery (瑞应寺; Ruìyìng Sì), at the base of the mountain, which acts as a small museum of selected statues. Across from the monastery is the start of a trail to a botanic garden (植物园; zhíwùyuán), which allows for a short cut back to the entrance gate through the forest. If you don’t want to walk the 2km up the road from the ticket office to the cliff, ask for tickets for the sightseeing trolley (观光车; guānguāng chē; ¥15) when buying your entrance ticket.
You can also climb Xiāngjí Shān (香积山). For the trailhead, head back towards the visitor centre where the sightseeing bus drops you off and look for a sign down a side road to the left.
Sometime between 420 and 422 CE, a monk by the name of Tanhung arrived at Maijishan and proceeded to build a small monastic community. One of the legends is that he had previously been living in Chang’an but had fled to Maijishan when the city was invaded by the Sung army. Within a few years he was joined by another senior monk, Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain. Both are recorded in a book entitled Memoirs of Eminent Monks; eventually their community grew to 300 members. Xuangao later moved to the court of the local king where he remained until its conquest by the Northern Wei, when he, together with all the other inhabitants of the court, were forced to migrate and settle in the Wei capital. He died in 444 during a period of Buddhist persecution. Tanhung also left Maijishan during this period and travelled south, to somewhere in Cochin China, when in approximately 455, he burned himself to death.
How the original community was organized or looked, we don’t know. “Nor is there any evidence to show whether the settlement they founded was destroyed and its members scattered in the suppression of 444 and the ensuring years, or whether it was saved by its remoteness to become a heaven of refuse, as was to happen on several later occasions in the history of Maijishan”.
The Northern Wei were good to Maijishan and the grottoes existence close to the Wei capital city of Luoyang and the main road west brought the site recognition and, most likely, support. The earliest dated inscription is from 502, and records the excavation of what is now identified as Cave 115. Other inscriptions record the continued expansion of the grottoes, as works were dedicated by those with the financial means to do so.
Why Was the Jiayuguan Pass So Important?
Jiayuguan Pass used to be the starting point of the ancient Great Wall built during the rule of the Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644). It was the most important military defensive project in north western China because it guarded the narrowest point of the western section of the Hexi Corridor in a narrow corridor of otherwise impassible mountains. This was the vital defensive frontier fortress that had sealed China off from invaders since the Han Dynasty (BC 202—220). After the Jiayuguan Pass was constructed, the army of the Ming Dynasty used it to protect inner China from the invasion of nomadic groups. At the same time, the Jiayuguan Pass also played a key waypoint on the ancient Silk Road. Foreign travelers and traders came from Europe, Middle Asia, and entered into China from this gateway. While the commodities of China were also exported to Central Asia and Europe from this pass. Along with the foreign trade, a cultural exchange of religion, art and custom also flourished. It was this trade of ideas that has not only forever changed the western world but also China itself.
The History of Jiayuguan Pass
During the early period after the Ming Dynasty was established, barbarian armies of the Yuan Empire and Turpan constantly invaded the Hexi Corridor area. The Chinese general Feng Sheng was consequently ordered to construct a defensive pass to protect China from invasion from both the Yuan and Turpan peoples. He chose the Jiayu Mountains as the final staging ground for his defensive strategy because, as time has shown, this pass has been extremely hard to penetrate but comparatively easy to defend. The construction started in the year 1372, and the many troops completed the first stage of the work quickly. The first stage of the Jiayuguan Pass consisted of several ramparts surrounded by some barracks. The subsequent construction took 168 years to complete and finally became the western starting point of the Great Wall of Ming Dynasty.
Even though the walls and towers have been partially damaged by centuries of war and weather, the Jiayuguan Pass is still one of the most intact surviving ancient military buildings in China. Several restorations have been undertaken to protect the original design of its fort, towers and walls. But travelers can still see much of its original construction.
Layout of Jiayuguan Fort
Jiayuguan Pass is an immense military complex which covers more than 33,529 square meters and consists of an inner city, an outer city and an outer moat.
The inner city has the shape of a trapezoid with an imposing wall that is 11 meters high and 640 meters long. It was used as the third barrier in a series of walls and towers against incoming enemies. Two defensive gates, Rou Yuan Men and Guang Hua Men, were built in the western and eastern sides of the city. Towers for guards and commanders were built on the walls as lookouts into the vast desert beyond the city. The central area of the inner city housed the office of the commander and a Guanyu Memorial Temple. There are even bridleways for carrying horses up to to the city wall.
The outer city was the second barrier enemies would encounter. Unlike the inner wall which was built from loess, the outer city was made of exceptionally strong bricks and this section of the wall was connected directly to the long stretches of Great Wall that scattered out from the outer city. A striking plaque was inserted on the wall above the gate.
Moat and Battlefield
A deep moat encircles the Jiayuguan Fort outside the outer city. Just 50 meters in front of this moat is a battlefield where 1000’s of men died in combat defending (or invading) China’s northwestern border.
Things to do at the Jiayuguan Fort
1.) Learn about history in the Great Wall Museum
Before entering the fortress, take a short visit to the Great Wall Museum to learn some interesting facts about both the Jiayuguan Fort and the Great Wall. The museum contains some excellent historic photos and relics of this area.
2.) Camel rides
Just in front of the back gate, you can find many locals offering chances to ride a camel or to just take photos with the camels. Don’t be afraid of the camels, they are very docile. Should you decide to go for a ride, a local camel guide will accompany you.
If you want to take a look at the Jiayuguan Pass from the Gobi desert you can try the exciting four-wheel drive ATV’s. These four wheelers offer a chance to get away from the crowds and see the desert in a purer form.
Nearby Places to Visit
The entrance ticket for Jiayuguan Pass costs 120 RMB/person, and this price also includes the admission fees for visiting the Overhanging Great Wall and the First Mound of the Great Wall. But these 3 locations are not very close to each other. So make sure you leave extra time to get out to these destinations as well.
Overhanging Great Wall (Xuanbi Great Wall)
The Overhanging Great Wall, also known as the Xuanbi Great Wall. It is 8 kilometers away from the Jiayuguan Pass Fort and 14 kilometers from the city. In ancient times, it was a part of the Jiayuguan Pass, and was connected with the fort. More than 460 years later, most sections of the walls have disappeared. The remaining section is 750 meters long, rising up 150 meters and hanging on a cliff face. Unlike the sections of Great Wall near Beijing, these sections were constructed with loess because of the lack of water in this area. Hiking up the Great Wall here takes only about a half an hour.
The First Mound of the Great Wall
The First Mound of the Great Wall is also known as The First Strategic Post of the Great Wall on Tripadvisor.com. Jiayuguan Pass is the western starting point of the Great Wall and the First Mound is considered the westernmost point of the pass. It is a mound of yellow loess which is believed to be the only remaining ruins of a former watchtower of the ancient Great Wall. Most of the other wall sections connected to the tower have disappeared and been covered by blowing desert sand so it is significant that this one last monument still stands as a testimony to this particular section of the Great Wall. To visit the First Mound of Great Wall, you have to transfer 7.5 kilometers from the Jiayuguan Pass Fort.
A picture is worth a thousand words. So we have put together this video so you can see what it is like to live like a Tibetan nomad in the grasslands:
西宁 Xīníng (Standard Tibetan: ཟི་ལིང་། Ziling) is the capital of Qinghai province in western China and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. As of the 2010 Chinese census, Xining had 2,208,708 inhabitants and, as such, is a modern city that offers plenty of fast food restaurants and shopping including H&M, Sephora, UniQlo, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Burger King restaurants (not to mention a fair share of knock off brands that imitate these same restaurants).
The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road’s Hexi Corridor for over 2000 years, and was a stronghold of the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties’ resistance against nomadic attacks from the west. Although long a part of Gansu province, Xining was added to Qinghai in 1928. Xining holds sites of religious significance to Muslims and Buddhists, including the Dongguan Mosque and the Kumbum Monastery (aka Ta’er Monastery 塔尔寺 ）. The city lies in the Huangshui River valley and is surrounded by 3,500 meter mountain ridges on both the north and the south. Owing to its high altitude, Xining has a cold semi-arid climate. It is connected by rail to Lhasa, Tibet and connected by high-speed rail to Lanzhou, Gansu and Ürümqi, Xinjiang. The Xining XNN Caojiapu airport does not directly serve international destinations but this airport can easily be reached, often in 2 hours, from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xian, Lhasa, and most other Chinese cities.
A popular route through Xining is fly to Xining XNN from Chengdu CTU airport and then take the train to Lhasa (the highest railroad in the world) for the stunning landscapes and to aid in the acclimatization to altitude. Because few people have ever heard of Qinghai Province most people use Xining as a gateway city to get into Lhasa and spend little time in and around Xining city itself. This means that there are still many astounding, wild places in and around Xining and most of these places have never been seen by western or Chinese tourists. There are, in fact, several 5,000 and 6,000 meter mountains in Qinghai Province that have never even been climbed or named. This makes Xining a perfect destination for people looking for authentic Tibetan culture without all the hassle of Tibet Travel Permits and the bureaucracy of Lhasa, Tibet.
To acclimate to any adventure into the Tibetan Plateau, we recommend spending a night in Xining, at 2,300m above sea level, and this will help partially in your acclimatization process. To truly do your health and wellbeing a favor, it is best to spend 3-5 days in Qinghai’s capital and surroundings so that you are ready to tackle Lhasa’s 3,600m of elevation with greater ease.
While Xining is a typical medium-sized Chinese city with cement high rises and dime-a-dozen convenience stores that all sell the same products, it also offers a whole lot more character than your average all-Han Chinese city. After over 8 years of travel on the Tibetan Plateau, I have three suggestions for day tours from Xining that will not only take your breath away but will give you the time and space to help you acclimatize properly before you head into the high regions of Tibet.
Here are some of the top 3 day trips you can take from Xining (these can make for a great day trip if you are in a hurry but you can easily spend at least 3-5 days in all of these magnificent areas) :
1. Zhangye Danxia Landforms
Located just a 45 drive from Zhangye town, one of the most impressive landscapes you will ever see is that of the Zhangye Danxia Landforms (elevations range from 1,500 – 2,500m), one of China’s many UNESCO sites. Usually a 6 six hour drive in a private car, I recommend taking the 2 hour high speed train from Xining 西宁 to Zhangye West station 张掖西 and spend a day in the area. The Danxia Landforms, also known as the Rainbow Mountains or 七彩山 , is a mountain range layered with almost all the colors of the rainbow （or at least distinct shades of reds, yellows, purples, greys, and oranges). The magnificent patterns in the hills were formed from the land’s red sandstone bedrock and the passing of time with erosion and uplift. Danxia is perfect for photography enthusiasts and lovers of hiking. Take the afternoon to soak in the scenery and admire this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just a 20 minute drive from the Zhangye Danxia National Park is the lesser visited (but equally as beautiful) BingGou National Park.
The small monastic town of Rebkong (Tongren 同仁 in Chinese) sits 2.5 hours from Xining at 2,500m above sea level and is a great option for a one to three day trip outside of Xining. Rebkong is home to some of the most famous thangka paintings in Tibet and its artwork is highly valued not only on the Tibetan Plateau but by Buddhist practitioners around the world. After a stroll through Rebkong’s two most famous temple complexes, Rebkong Longwu Monastery and Wutun Monastery, you can watch 17-year old teenagers painstakingly produce some of Tibets’ most colorful and detailed paintings.
3. Qinghai Lake
Qinghai Lake (3,200m), China’s largest inland lake, is one the first landscapes you will spot from the train to Lhasa, but to truly experience it, take a day trip or multi-day trip from Xining. The lake is famous for its sweeping natural scenery, abundant birdlife and nearby grasslands that are home to traveling nomadic Tibetan tribes and roaming yaks. You can go biking (though take it slow at the high altitude) or have a champagne picnic by the lake’s shores as you watch the waves lap against the beach shore. Qinghai Lake is 150km (80 miles) from Xining and about a 2.5hr drive. But please be aware: in the summer months (June, July, August) this is a MADHOUSE of Chines tourism and if you go in these months you are sure to see 1,000’s of Chinese tourists descending upon the lake every day and you are likely to spend a few more hours sitting in traffic than normal because of the immense amount of visitors this spot receives. I personally recommend if you are going to visit Qinghai Lake – do it in the winter. There is no one else around for miles, the hotels are much more affordable, and the slowly crashing chunks of frozen ice, circling the lake for over 300km, hold an enchanting beauty in the eerie quiet of the winter.
The Tibetan name Zö/Hzö གཙོས། is pronounced Dzoi in Standard Tibetan and pronounced Hdzoi/Hdzu in the local dialect. Zö is the traditional name for a Tibetan Ibex and you can see statues of this animal throughout the town.
Today the city has been named Hezuo or 合作
Hezuo is the capital city of Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southern Gansu Province. Standing at the junction area of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, it is the hub of nomadic activity of the central plains region and the Amdo Tibetan region. And it is also the center of commerce between historical Tibetan and Chinese trading.
Located at the northeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Hezuo is 276 kilometers south of Lanzhou. The city contains many large hotels and every sort of restaurant you could hope to find in a middle-sized Chinese city. There is no railway running from Lanzhou to Hezuo, however, regular buses are available every day from Lanzhou every 35 minutes from 05:50 to 16:04. It takes about 4 to 5 hours by bus to get to Hezuo and the ticket fee ranges from 37.5 RMB to 49.5 RMB depending on the departure time.
Hezuo’s main attraction is the 9-story Milarepa Temple. It is said that there are only two temples of this kind in the whole Tibetan area, and the one in Hezuo is the only one which has nine floors and is dedicated to a primary founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa. Milarepa is one of the few saints who is thought to have attained enlightenment in one lifetime. He is often pictured as very thin and bony (as he was meditating and fasting in a cave for most of his latter years) and with his hand to his mouth as he would often sing his lessons and teachings to his disciples so they could better remember his ideas.
The Milarepa Temple is about 40 meters high and was originally built in the Qing dynasty. There are perennial resident monks and lamas studying here and if you have the time, spend an afternoon watching them perform their ritual duties, including burning juniper and lighting incense. There is also a very nice pilgrimage around the entire monastery that can take around 30-45 minutes to complete if you are up for a leisurely stroll with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. Once you have finished this walk, you can also meander over to Folk Street and Century Square which are a short walk from the monastery complex.
It’s worth a rickety climb up the steep wooden steps of the nine floors not only for the artifacts but also for the decent view of the city from the top. A nice monk who oversees the grounds may invite you into his office for tsampa and tea if you speak a bit of Chinese or Tibetan and have a little free time.
The Old Town of Lijiang is located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains are to the northwest and this incredibly scenic and snowy range is easily viewed as you take a leisurely stroll through time in the old quarters of Lijiang. These mountains are the source of much snowmelt that supplies the rivers and springs which water the plain and supply the nearby Heilong Pool (Black Dragon Pond) and the classic canals that wind through the old town of Lijiang .
The Old Town of Lijiang contains 3 main areas and you could easily spend 1-2 days getting lost amidst the cobblestone streets and antique coppersmiths that give this area its characteristic charm. These 3 areas include: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha Old Town, and Shuhe Old Town. Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion and the Guabi Tower. Numerous two-storied timber-framed houses combine elements of Han and Zang dynasty architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards, tiled roofs, and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are built in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.
Baisha Old Town, though, was established earlier than the Dayan Old Town sector. Baisha was built during the Song and Yuan dynasties and is located 8km north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing over 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people, incorporating cultural elements of the Bai people. Together with the Shuhe housing cluster located 4km north-west of Dayan Old Town, these quaint mountain settlements reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. You can even see the local tile work depicted on the courtyard floors of the homes representing bats, cats, and other animals thought to scare away local spirits. The local Naxi people still walk barefoot over these intricate tile floorscapes, feeling every ridge and crest of the hand laid tilework in what they call “a free foot massage”.
The colorful village space, the delightful sounds of the water, the outstanding folk art and calligraphy and the old style of the local architecture all make for a very pleasant environment that will leave you with a deep feeling of peace in this gem hidden among the mountains.
Tiger Leaping Gorge, set to the backdrop of the majestic Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains of China, is one of the deepest gorges in the world. The Jingsha (aka Yangzte) River flows through its beautiful 16km length, nestled between towering cliffs that have an incredible 3,900 meters in vertical drop from the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the surging river below. At its narrowest point near the mouth of the river, a large rock sits midway across the water. According to a local legend, a hunter was chasing a tiger down through the gorge and the tiger jumped across this chasm to this rock to escape the hunter’s arrows.
Generally the trek takes a total of 7-8 hours of actual hiking time and most hikers get comfortably through Tiger Leaping Gorge in 1 nights / 2 days, but if you wanted to take your time and really relax you could take 2 nights/ 3 days. Here is a great blog post on the more relaxed 2 night/ 3 day itinerary. Note that all guesthouses have full service bedding and restaurants. So all you really need for this hike are some snacks, water bottles, rain gear, a fleece, a change of clothes, and a medium to large daypack (probably in the realm of 20-35 Liters). The hike is pretty exposed so you may want to bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as well. While there are significant vertical drops down to the river I, in no way, see the hike as being dangerous as long as the conditions are dry. In fact, there are few other places in the world where you can have a leisurely walk and see such incredible vertical relief
The following itinerary was accomplished by a group of 40 middle school students (and believe me these guys travel pretty slow). So, I imagine if these middle school students can do this itinerary, you can too.
The entrance of the gorge is the small city of Qiaotou, located at 1,900 meters above sea level. The upper hiking trail (which is the one you want to take) will bring you up to 2,650 meters high (at the end of the 28 bends) before going down to Tina’s Guesthouse at 2100 meters high, which is the end of the trail.
Tiger Leaping Gorge Suggested Itinerary
Depart Lijiang around 8am in the morning. Drive 2.5 hour from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge (QiaoTou is the name of the small village where you enter the Tiger Leaping Gorge park and pay the 65 RMB park fee)
Pay entrance ticket
Drive 10 minutes up the road past the ticket gate
Start hiking up to Naxi Family Guesthouse
1.5 hours up to Naxi Family Guesthouse on a concrete road (don’t worry – after this the path becomes natural dirt or stone)
Lunch at Naxi Family Guesthouse
Afternoon- hike up the infamous “28 Bends”. Most of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is relatively flat as you are walking along a path cut sideways across the vertical rock face. However, this particular section is the exception. It is not terribly long but you can expect to gain most of your elevation on the whole hike on this section. There is a small store about half-way up the bends if you need water or snacks.
Walk 2.5 hours From Naxi Guesthouse to the top of 28 bends at 2,650 meters
Then 2.5 hours down to Teahorse Guesthouse, eat dinner and sleep at Teahorse Guesthouse
8:30am – Depart Teahorse Guesthouse
Walk 2 hours
10:30am- Break and snack at the Halfway House, great views looking down one of the steepest parts of the gorge
11:30am- Depart Halfway House as you make your final descent down the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.
1:30pm- Arrive Tina’s Guesthouse for lunch.
2:30pm- Depart for Shaxi or Lijiang or Shangrila.
2-3 hour bus drive
5:30pm- Arrive at hotel and settle in.
Located about a 3 hour drive from the Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, Kanbula National Park (or as it is called in Chinese “Kanbula National Forest Park”) is a wonderland of soaring red rock cliffs located right on the banks of the emerald green Yellow River. If you are driving the 2.5 hours south to Tongren 同仁 to see Rebkong Longwu Monastery, this makes an excellent side trip. In fact, you can see one of our favorite, best selling itineraries that combines Kanbula National Park and Rebkong Longwu Monastery HERE.
The Kanbula area is famous for its unique sandstone Danxia landforms. This scenic area has abundant rainfall and a cool and moist climate and, unlike most barren places in Qinghai Province, there are prolific evergreen forests here; the forest coverage rate is about 28% and its plant resources are extremely rich with some of the best wildflowers in all of Qinghai Province. Some of the tree species represented in Kanbula National Park are the Qinghai spruce, chinese pine, white birch, and various species of azaleas and honeysuckle. Other species include Ulmus glaucescens, Prunus sibirica, Salix oritepha, and Spiraea alpina. Kanbula also hosts a number of rare birds (including larks and cuckoos) and fauna like blue sheep, argali.
Buddhism here has a long history and this park is known for its meditation caves situated high above the park where monks and nuns silently retreat for periods of 2 months to 2 years eating only a simple diet with a singular bowl of rice per day. This is a ritual and discipline that is part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to help the practitioner release themselves from the attachments and distractions of the world. The hermitage caves are a short 45 minute hike up wooden steps just above the Aqiong Namzong Temple and are located on a 20 minute ride down a bumpy dirt road that leads off the main paved park road.
Kanbula offers amazing, unmatched views and is certainly one of the off-the-beaten track highlights of Qinghai Province. However, the price tag of tickets reflects it’s beauty, at 250 RMB/person. Kanbula can be seen as a day trip from Xining, but it has so much beauty that most of our guests prefer to spend at least one night in the park, sleeping in a local Tibetan village homestay full of roaming donkeys and colorful prayer flags waving high on the wind. On all Elevated Trips adventures transportation to and from the park as well as the entrance tickets to the park are included in the price of the tour.
Built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving Buddhist meditation caves first built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th Century A.D., the Potala Palace is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which houses the former affairs of government and daily life. This is something like the White House in Washington D.C. combined with the Vatican in Rome – the seat of historical religious and political power all in one.
The top of the Potala Palace is 119 meters above the courtyard below and the palace itself contains 1,000 rooms-including assembly halls, government offices, and temples- and has over 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Amazingly, the whole structure was fastened together without steel or nails and was fully constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks using perfectly carved interlocking blocks. At one point in history before the Industrial Revolution, this hand built architectural marvel was the tallest building in the known world. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.
In almost every chapel, red robed lamas collect donations and sit on a cushions sipping tea and chanting scriptures. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with flickering wax candles and you will see many pilgrims offering butter in thermos containers as offerings to the holy site. The gold-embossed tombs of former religious rulers contain the mummified bodies inside and these are the central attraction of the 1 hour tour that marches from the bottom to the top of the palace and winds through many dimly lit and sacred rooms .
The Potala is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most Tibetans will try to visit this holy site at least once in their lives. You can find a link to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Map here.
A seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbulingka Summer Palace was completed in August 2009. The aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture.
In August 2006, the number of people allowed to enter the Potala Palace was increased from 1,500 to 2,300 people per day. Because there are so many people that go through the palace in one day, tour times are scheduled and are limited to one hour once you are inside the palace gates. This is enough time, but it does not allow for a lot of time to just “float around” and meditate. So you can expect to be rushed a little and “herded” through crowds in the palace in order to make your time slot. Your guide (who is required to bet with you for the tour) will schedule in a specific time to enter the Potala Palace, so your day schedule will generally revolve around whatever time your tickets say that you are allowed in.
To see a possible tour itinerary that includes the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Everest Base Camp check here.
May 1 – Oct. 31: CNY 200
Nov.1 – Apr. 30: CNY 100
Free for children under 1.3m and the elderly above 70 (also free for Tibetans, Mongolians, and Nepalese who practice Tibetan Buddhism)
Ticket Purchase Procedure: Your guide will have to purchase the ticket 1 day in advance before your visit using your original ID card or Passport. Once the ticket is purchased, you will then be given a certificate with your specific visit time to the Potala Palace for the following day’s tour.
Tips when visiting the Potala Palace
1. There is no heat inside this ancient building. So be aware that it can be very cold inside the Potala Palace. It would not be a bad idea to take a coat with you even on the sunny Lhasa summer days.
2. As this is a religious site, it is hard to find an adequate bathroom during your tour. So make sure you try to take care of business before you leave your hotel in Lhasa. If you do end up finding one of the few bathrooms along the tour, it is said the bathroom at the right side of the White Palace Square is the most beautiful one on earth with an excellent view out onto Lhasa :). Lucky you if you make it here!
3. As we mentioned before, the tour time in the Potala Palace is limited to 1 hour. So don’t dilly dally and make sure you stay close to your guide. It might be easy to get lost amidst the many steps and the labyrinth of rooms and holy sites if you were separated from your tour guide.
4. Entering the palace is like entering airport security. You will have to check your bags through a X-Ray machine and lighters and any kind of liquid are forbidden. (You can buy bottles of water inside the palace for about twice as much as they are sold for in Lhasa).
5. The best spot to take pictures of the Potala Palace is Chakpori Hill, across the square from the palace. I highly recommend visiting this place at night because seeing the palace all lit up in the dark is pure magic!
Mount Kailash is a high altitude behemoth in western Tibet and provides some of the most stunning trekking in all of Central Asia. The highest point of the 3 day trek is 5,636 meters.
For this trek you are going to need some serious cold weather gear. But at the same time, because you will be sleeping in tea houses that provide food, beds, and blankets there are definitely some things you will NOT need to bring. Here is the packing list I recommend for anyone doing the trek in 3 days. As always, the less stuff you bring, the more your back and legs will thank you!
Packing list for Mount Kailash
- 2 x Synthetic or merino long underwear top (one of these is for sleeping)
- 1 x long sleeve wicking hiking shirt
- 1 x fleece jacket
- 1 x Goretex rain jacket
- 1 x Down puffy jacket for cold nights or when you are not hiking
- Synthetic or merino long underwear bottoms
- 1 x pair of waterproof rain or snow pants
- 1 x pair of fall or winter weight soft shell pants
Feet and head
- 4 x pair of wool hiking socks (keep one dry pair for sleeping)
- Boots or trail running shoes with a good tread (I wore a low top Salomon trail runner in the first week of May 2018 and was fine but you will need to check weather and snow reports as some years get up to 5 meters of snow on the Dolma La Pass)
- Gaiters for snow and mud (especially if you are wearing low top shoes)
- 1 x synthetic or wool winter hat
- 1 x sunhat (the sun up at altitude is intense!)
- 1 x foreign passport
- 1 x day pack (20-30 liters) – If it is bigger than 35 liters you are carrying too much stuff!
- 2 x one liter water bottles (can be refilled with boiled water at the teahouses for a small fee)
- 1x mid-weight winter gloves
- 1 x sunglasses (preferably polarized for the bright snow)
- 1 x chapstick or lip balm
- 1 x suntan lotion
- 1 x small bottle of Tylenol
- Optional: Diamox – for altitude sickness (consult your physician beforehand)
- Optional: 1 x small aerosol bottle of oxygen
- 4 x small packs of tissues (paper is not provided in the rustic “squatty-potties”)
- 1 x cell phone or camera
- 1 x charging cord and external battery charger (the tea houses have solar powered electric outlets but the electricity is spotty)
- 1 x hand sanitizer bottle (there is no running water on the trek)
- 8 x Snickers or Clif Bars
- 500 RMB for food (assuming your lodging is already paid for by your tour agent)
- Optional but recommended: 1 x set of trekking poles (the descent from the high pass can be rather steep and icy)
- Optional: a thin sleeping bag liner to add warmth/sanitation to blankets provided by the tea house
- Optional: “Hot Hands” – single use heat packs for keeping your hands and feet extra warm
The purpose of this blog is to provide complete updates on trekking itinerary, detailed maps, and info on where to stay and what to expect from this 3 day high altitude trek in western Tibet as of our May 2018 Mount Kailash Trek.
But before you read the blog, revel in the mountain splendor as you watch this video:
Mount Kailash is located 1,400 km almost directly west of Lhasa city (just about 20-30km directly north of the western India/Nepal border) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. So this 3 day trek is, inevitably, part of a much longer 15-17 day journey that includes 3 days of acclimatization in Lhasa and lots of car time (expect being in the car for 4 days at 6-8 hours per day before you even reach the base of Mount Kailash). So there is lots of driving through beautiful, stark high altitude environments before you attempt trekking (and sleeping at) at 5,000 meters. This provides for plenty of great photo opps of alpine lakes and glaciers and allows sufficient time for acclimatization before you trek across the high pass of Mount Kailash, Dolma La at 5,636 meters.
A typical full itinerary might look like this:
Lhasa–> Shigatse –> Lhatse–> Saga –> Mount Kailash –> Manasarovar Lake –> Guge Kingdom–> Manasarovar Lake –> Saga –>Everest Base Camp –> Lhasa
Here is a brief overview of the entire trip to give you a better idea of the bigger picture of the trip I took in May 2018 (although you could certainly cut out Guge Kingdom and shave 2 days off your total trip):
Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa, Elevation: 3600 meters
Day 2: Lhasa guided tour, See the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple
Day 3: Lhasa guided tour, Sera Monastery debates
Day 4: Driving Day // Lhasa-Yamdrok Lake-Karo la Glacier-Gyantse-Shigatse, Distance: 354kms, Elevation:3840m
Day 5: Driving Day // Shigatse to Latse Distance 150kms Elevation:4200m
Day 6: Driving Day // Latse —Saga, Distance: 340Kms, Elevation: 4500m
Day 7: Driving Day // Saga To Manasarovar Lake 520kms, Elevation:5000m
Day 8-10: Kailash Trek Distance: 54kms, Max Elevation:5639m
Day 11: Darchen—Guge Distance: 254kms, Elevation: 3699m
Day 12: Driving Day //Guge—Manasarovar lake Distance: 290kms Elevation: 4597m
Day 13: Driving Day //Lake Manasarovar-Saga Distance:897kms Elevation:4500m
Day 14: Driving Day //Saga— Mount Everest Base camp Distance: 493Kms Elevation:5200m
Day 15: Driving Day //Everest Base Camp to Shigatse Distance: 350kms Elevation: 3840m
Day 16: Driving Day //Shigatse—Lhasa Distance: 260kms Elevation: 3600m
Day 17: Departure from Lhasa
Mount Kailash, 3 Day Trek Itinerary
But for the purposes of this blog, we are just going to focus on the 3 main days of the Mount Kailash trek itself.
General Information and Packing List
Every Kailash Trek begins and ends in Darchen town. While this town only has a population of around 500 local Tibetans, I was expecting only a yak hair tent with dirt floors and no running water. So the hot shower in Darchen with reasonably comfortable 3-star hotel accommodations was a big surprise and upgrade from what I was expecting.
Darchen is also called as “Tarchen” or “Taqin” in chinese pinyin. It was formerly an important sheep and yak trading post for Tibetan nomads and their herds. Until 1994, there were just 4 or 5 permanent buildings here in this town. In 1995, a medical center was founded by Swiss partners which has become a training center for doctors. After nearly 20 years of development, it now contains about 12 small restaurants (Sichuan and Tibetan food), several hotels with heat and hot water and internet, a Karaoke bar, and a Public Security Bureau for registering foreigners. In addition to that, there are a number of simple convenience stores where you can buy Snickers, water, and Instant noodles. There is not much to see here, but you can leave unneeded luggage in your hotel or in your travel agency’s car or van.
Darchen is also the place to make last minute plans for your trip including organizing pack animals (yaks or horses) from local nomads. Although you will not need to carry any tents, sleeping bags, or breakfast, lunch, dinner you will need to carry winter clothes, snacks, and water. Your day pack for the Kailash trek will probably weigh 15-20 pounds. That does not seem like a lot at first but at 5,630 meters you will be extremely fatigued and that extra 20 pounds could be excruciating for you. While a 20 pound backpack at sea level seems easy-peasy, I promise you are going to struggle over the high Dolma La pass (no matter what shape you are in) and that you would be happier to hire a yak or a human porter for the 3 days of the trek. In our group of 6 participants, the Tibetan guide along with two other members of our group ended up carrying the bags for the other 3 members of our group who were struggling. We were happy to assist our fellow travelers, but I have to say that it definitely made an already difficult trek a little less enjoyable because we were carrying two backpacks (our personal backpack on the back and another person’s on the front). Please save others and the guide in your group the added strain of having to carry your backpack up or down the high pass and just go ahead and hire a porter or a yak from the beginning. It can actually be quite difficult to arrange a yak or porter in the middle of the trek because of the remote location. So if you are going to do this (and you should) you should take care of this the night before you leave Darchen town.
Because of the altitude, I highly recommend really minimizing your gear as much as possible and considering hiring a yak or two or a porter for your group.
You can find a detailed packing list for Kailash here.
For your reference, for our 3 day trek from May 5-7, 2018, day temperatures at 10:30am at the beginning of the trek under a brilliant sun were 6 to 8 Celsius. As we set out from Darchen the weather was a little chilly with a slight breeze. As we hiked we definitely took off our layers under the bright, high altitude sun and just a single long sleeve shirt and/or a fleece was plenty warm as long as we kept moving along the trail.
This is generally the pattern in the spring and fall trekking season with relatively warm and springy conditions in the day and everything outright freezing cold once the sun goes down. We found that we got either light rain or snow every afternoon sometime between 2pm to 5pm so make sure you leave early and give yourself the better part of the morning to hike because once the afternoon comes there is a greater likelihood of meeting inclement weather.
Generally the best months to hike Kailash are May, September, and October. Before May 1 or after October 31 you are likely to encounter a good deal of snow and some of the teahouses may be closed at that time. The summer months are also okay to hike, but expect a lot of Indian tourists coming from low altitudes to hike this sacred pilgrimage and the views are also not guaranteed to be as clear to see the mountains during the summer rains.
There is a dirt road that parallels the kora for the first 20 km on day one and the last 10 km on day three of the trek. If something were to go wrong you could use this road for an emergency to get out but medical care is very simple in Darchen – there is is only a small clinic here. If you do decide to turn around or need a sudden evacuation you can expect to pay a premium to travel this gravel road back to Darchen town; fees to ride in a truck along this road can range from 500 to 2000 RMB just to get a lift up or down the trail for a few kilometers.
The closest medium-sized hospital from Darchen would be in Shigatse- this is 670km from Kailash.So advanced medical care is at least 14 hours away. So as you are on Kailash be mindful of the altitude and take things slow.
Maps for Trekking
Here are two maps that will give you the idea of the general waypoints on the trail. Note that each Tibetan guide provides slightly different measurements for the trail based on their own calculations, so there may be some small differences between the two maps, but the general idea remains the same:
Trek Day 1
Note: Below are given the times we, as a group of 6 moderately fit hikers, achieved. We had three people with us who had never hiked before in their lives and 2 of them lived in Holland at five meters below sea level. So, I’d be willing to bet that these times were on the fairly average side for most groups and, though your own times might be a few minutes off of ours depending our your pace, you will find this to be a fairly accurate estimation for your own departure and arrival times on the trail.
The first day of the trek will take us 20 kilometers from Darchen town around Mt. Kailash to Dira Puk Monastery (aka Drirapuk Gompa). The total elevation gain over these 20 km is 433 meters, so the trail is relatively flat for most of the day. But hiking this first day is still a lot of work as you are walking a long distance at altitude.
Today you will follow this ancient pilgrimage route with Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Hindu pilgrims. You will stay in a small guesthouse near the Dira Puk monastery. The elevation of Dira Puk Monastery is 5080 meters.
7:30am-Depart Darchen Hotel at 4,647 meters
8:00am- Start Walking from Darchen town
From the first set of prayer flags, then the next 1-2 km of trail gradually drops down and lose 100 vertical meters.
10:00am- Arrive at first view of Kailash,with prayer flags
Many of these Tibetan pilgrims do this 52 km kora in one day, leaving at 4am and returning to Darchen town at 8:00pm
Here at this first rest point, you will see pilgrims prostrating around the holy mountain. Young pilgrims will carry the clothes and goods for the elderly to a certain point and then go back and prostrate the trail themselves again. In this way they are actually doing the entire pilgrimage circuit 3 times.
For a young, healthy Tibetan, prostrating every 2 steps takes about 16 days to get around the whole mountain kora (this is a minimum for younger ones- older folks take longer.) Although there are about 8 simple teahouses on the trek that provide food and lodging, there are not enough Guesthouses for 16 days of total travel since the usual trek takes 2 nights/ 3 days. So pilgrims who are prostrating the entire trek often just sleep on the ground in warm blankets and sheep fur lined robes along the trail.
11:00am – Arrive at Serdshong Check Point (this is 7km from Darchen town). The government may check your official Tibet permits here.From this point walk another 2.6km to the first teahouse.
12:15pm- Arrive at first teahouse by bridge at 4,747 meters in altitude.
This is about the halfway point to the teahouse where we will sleep this first night.To the teahouse bridge is 9.6km from Darchen town, and it is another 11km to our sleeping destination at Dira Puk Monastery through the Lha-Chu valley.
At this first teahouse, the food offerings are very scarce. You can buy a bowl of instant noodles for 10 RMB, refill your bottle with hot water for 8 RMB, or a coke or a soft drink for 6 RMB. As you get further from civilization into the trek, these prices will go up slightly at each successive teahouse.
1:00pm- Depart first teahouse after lunch
From the first teahouse walk 6.8 km to second teahouse
From the second teahouse walk 4.2 km to the third teahouse at Dira Puk Monastery.
This is a 2 hour walk. As you approach a large bridge with prayer flags on it, you will need to ask your guide where your guesthouse is in relation to this bridge. This bridge leads to the actual Dira Puk Monastery which you can see in the distance. This is the old sight for simple guesthouses (and some groups still stay here). Our particular accommodation was in in a corrugated tin building with an all dirt floor that lay on the main trail right under the shadow of Kailash (so we stayed straight on the trail and did NOT cross left to the Dira Puk Monastery). As with most things in western China, there was construction here and this area was developing rapidly, even for being so remote. When we were there at the teahouse we saw several workers building a large 2-story concrete guesthouse which dwarfed the corrugated tin shacks and canvas tents where we were staying in size.
4:30pm – Arrive third teahouse at 5,080 meters where we will be sleeping the first night.
Note on sleeping:
Sleeping at 5,080 meters is almost as high as sleeping at Mount Everest base camp on the Tibet side. Even though your body will feel very tired, this will probably not be a great night of sleep for you because sleeping at altitude in such sheltered but primitive conditions will likely not yield a full 8 hours of rest. The simple guesthouse does provide plenty of blankets and cooked us a simple meal of hot rice and boiled egg and tomatoes.
Overall the walk on the first day is 20km and involves about 6-7 total hours of walking time (not including lunch and rest time)
Along the way there are 2 tents (teahouses) with hot water and instant noodles and these are nice places to stop to rest, refill, and get out of the bright sun and blowing winds.
Trek Day 2
The second day of our trek around Kailash will take us up and over the Dolma La Pass, the highest pass on the circuit at 5,636 meters. Although this is certainly the hardest day of the 3 day trek, excellent mountain and glacier views will follow you for most of the day. From the Dolma La Pass, you will descend to Zutul Puk Monastery (aka Dzutrulpuk Gompa on the second map), elevation 4,820 meters. The total trekking distance this day is 22 kilometers
This day you will walk 22 km total – up and down the high pass.
7:00am- Wake up at 5,080 meters in Teahouse near Dira Puk Monastery. Eat a simple breakfast of Tsampa or noodles in the teahouse.
You are going to want to have an early start because it is a long day and the snow and the wind comes in often in the afternoon, while the mornings generally have a better chance of giving clearer weather that is more comfortable for trekking.
7:30am – Depart teahouse
The road continues to be flattish with a slight incline for the first 4km of your day.
10:00am- Arrive at the last tea house before the Dolma La pass.
This is about half way to the pass. Make sure you get lots of rest and plenty of snacks here because the next 4km up to the pass is going to be the most challenging section of your whole trek, not only because you will be at the highest altitude of the whole trek but also because the last 1 hour of the trek up to the pass is the steepest trail you will encounter on the trek.
This is last place for water and snacks for another 13 km, so make sure you fill up your water bottles with hot water. You are going to need a lot of water to fight those high altitude headaches on the pass!
10:15am- Depart for high pass
The trail from the last teahouse before the pass starts out as fairly flat. Then you make a right turn at a gully and you start to go up dramatically.
About 30 minutes before the actual pass, there is a false summit of prayer flags as you go under a bunch of flags and ascend to the ridge line. I made a big push for the top thinking I only had 1 minute left to the actual pass and actually ended up wasting a lot of energy because I was still another 30 minutes from the real Dolma La Pass.
Do not make the mistake I made! When you get to this first cluster of prayer flags (that are like a little colorful cave you have to walk through and duck under) know that you are roughly at the halfway point between the sharp turn up the gully and the top of the pass.
The Dolma La pass had about 1 meter of snow on the top but there was no need for crampons, Yak Trax, or boots. The snow here was consistently between 30-100 cm thick but was all trampled down by the 1000’s of pilgrims who had all walked the same path in the previous weeks. I did not posthole even once in the hard packed snow up at the top of the pass.
12:30pm- Arrive Dolma La High Pass at 5,636 meters/ 18,500 feet. Spend a few minutes celebrating and taking pictures but do not stay too long up here! Your body will definitely be wanting to descend as quickly as possible as every step down will give you that much more available oxygen!
The first hour of the descent from the pass is a relatively steep.
The descent is often on slippery snow and you will need to watch out for pilgrims prostrating face first down the hill. I had to step around a few pilgrims as they prostrated down the hill and it made for tricky footing on the narrow, icy trail.
You will probably want trekking poles as this is steeper than the ascent to the pass and some of the melting ice can be slippery.
2:00pm- Cross Ice river
After one hour of navigating slippery switchbacks, you finally level out more on a usual evenly- graded trail. However you have one more small obstacle before you are scott free. At the bottom of the switchbacks you have to cross an frozen river (or lake?) The body of water is frozen with several meters of ice and so it will certainly hold your weight as you walk across it’s 50 meter long ice sheet. But do be cautious here with your footing as walking on solid ice can certainly result in a pretty big fall on your butt or your side. With a backpack this ice crossing is a little unwieldy but doable if you take it slow.
From here on out, most of the trail is smooth sailing and you can make good time as you descend to a lower, more comfortable altitude.
3:00pm- Arrive at first Teahouse after the Dolma La Pass
We had a late lunch here at 5,236 meters (17,130 feet). It was a nice place to wind down from the intensity of the snow and the altitude up on the pass and I laid down here for a few minutes. As I closed my eyes I could feel the swirl of light from the bright snow stimulating my eyes behind my closed eyelids. I was very thankful I had good polarized sunglasses because I could only imagine how overstimulated my eyes would have been in the 360 degrees of bright snow without the eye protection.
This teahouse is pretty simple and only offers instant noodles and soda. While that was not exactly checking the list for all my hunger cravings, it made for a refreshing stop.
From this teahouse the trail becomes a dirt road that a car could drive on and all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and make good time to as you hike another flat 10km slightly downhill to your sleeping destination.
6:30pm- Arrive at Zutul Puk Monastery
Get settled and sleep at Zutul Puk Monastery. This guesthouse offers a nice stone block guesthouse with cozy rooms. Our rooms did not have any heating but putting 6 people into a small room was more than enough (that combined with the ample thick blankets available) to keep us cozy throughout the night.
The guesthouse has a simple stone building with squat toilets outside and offers a little restaurant where you can eat simple bread and home made Tibetan fried noodles, french fries, and Tsampa.
Trek day 3
The third and final day of our trek will cover 10 kilometers from Zutul Puk Monastery back to the town of Darchen. After the trek, we will return for one final night along the shores of scenic Lake Manasarovar.
From Zutul Puk Monastery to Darchen the road is all down hill and flat but is long
8:30am- Breakfast – Tsampa and Tortillas with Egg at teahouse
9:00am- Depart / walk down on a dirt road
1:00pm- Arrive Darchen/ eat lunch in Darchen
2:30pm- Drive to Lake Manasarovar / 30 km
4:00pm- Arrive Lake Manasarovar / Check Into Guesthouse on Lake (has beds and blankets but no shower/ toilet is a simple concrete squatty)
Lake Manasarovar lies at 4,590 m (15,060 ft) above sea level, a relatively high elevation for a large freshwater lake on the mostly saline lake-studded Tibetan Plateau.
Lake Manasarovar is relatively round in shape with the circumference of 88 km (54.7 mi). Its depth reaches a maximum depth of 90 m (300 ft) and its surface area is 320 km2 (123.6 sq mi). Lake Manasarovar is considered one of the 4 greatest and holiest lakes in Tibet. It is said just a single dip in the lake’s frigid waters can wipe away a lifetime of sins. It is connected to its “evil twin”, the nearby black waters of Lake Rakshastal, by the natural Ganga Chhu channel. Lake Manasarovar is near the source of the Sutlej, which is the easternmost large tributary of the Sindhu. Nearby are the sources of the Brahmaputra River, the Indus River, and the Ghaghara, an important tributary of the Ganges.
Like Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar offers a holy pilgrimage and this kora is 110km in length around the the lake’s shore.
You will see pilgrims prostrating around the lake against the brutal winds and fierce colds of the high altitude lake. Many of the Tibetan pilgrims, despite their naturally silky black hair, look as if their faces and hair are all totally white from weeks spent prostrating in the dirt and salty sands around the lake.
This is one of the most inhospitable places in the world yet somehow there is a lively population of shorebirds and migratory ducks that live off the insects that bury in the shore’s muddy banks.
Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try to jump into the lake’s water for a swim. I was expecting to dive into the waters to wash off several days of dirt and stench from hiking but I found that the lake shore was very shallow and muddy. With only a water depth of around 6 inches (15cm) for the first 100 meter of shoreline, there was no choice but to plop in the mud and roll around the mucky waters. As I was traipsing around the mud I totally submerged both of my Crocs in the mud and almost lost them forever to the sucking, sinking abyss. I rooted through the icy mud for a minute and recovered my shoes but I decided it was time to get out of the soupy pool of muck on the shores of Lake Manasarovar.
After about 2 chilly, muddy minutes in the lake, I dashed onto the shore where I had stashed my clothes away from the blowing winds and as I trotted over to get some clothes on I was hit by an intense sand storm. The sand pounded right into my face and sent a terrible chill through my body. Shivering and with my heart pounding from the bitter cold, I put my clothes on and desperately ran the 200 meters back to my guesthouse to get warm and dry.
After this little excursion, I opted to go 200 meters up the road to a natural hot spring bath house. The hotspring had been piped and captured in a concrete building that offered 10 private wooden tubs with the hot spring water, so it was not exactly a totally natural outdoor experience. There were also no towels or soap provided- just a tiled room and a wooden tub full of hot water. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to wash off and get clean and this certainly made for the perfect end to days on a dusty trail and a wild Kailash trek.
7:00pm- The guesthouse on the shore ofLake Manasarovar offers a simple Tibetan restaurant and we had dinner here.
After dinner I walked along the lake shore and got some great pictures of a brilliant sunset over Lake Manasarovar. When it turned darked, I turned in for sleep in the simple concrete rooms at the guesthouse (with no running water or heat or electricity). The guesthouse was cold and there was no electricity or heat in our room but most of the clients wore 3-4 thick blankets to keep warm.
I was definitely ready to descend to a lower altitude!
Ladakh ( known as the “Land of High Passes”) is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun Mountain range to the Great Himalayas in the south. Ladakh is inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent and is one of the most sparsely populated regions in all of India because of its high altitude and extreme weather. The culture and history of this ancient land are closely related to that of Tibet. While the Ladakhi language is different from Tibetan, about 60% of the language can be mutually understood by both Tibetans and Ladakhis.
Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and historic culture. Ladakh is the highest settlement in India and as such the population of this expansive land is a meager 274,289. Among this population there is a mixture of many different ethnic groups, predominantly Tibetans, Monpas, Dards and Muslims. In 1979, the Ladakh District was divided into the Leh District (mostly occupied by Tibetan Buddhists) and the Kargil District (mostly occupied by Shi’a Muslims).
Life in Ladakh is mainly characterized by rhythms of spirituality because the native people have been devoutly faithful to its ancestral customs and traditions. Life here is simple and relatively untouched by the fast pace of technology and development that is so endemic across the rest of India. In the winter, hot water is hard to come by, and any running water at all (including flushing toilets or running faucets) is even harder to find. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, just got its first major provider of high speed internet in 2018 and most homes in the region still use wood and dung stoves for heat. The architecture in Ladakh exhibits strong influences from Tibet and India and many homes and structures are made from a simple construction of rammed earth and sticks.
The culture of Ladakh is mystical and is quite similar to Tibetan culture. The most popular cuisines of Ladakh, mostly of Tibetan origin, are Thukpa (noodle soup), Momo (meat or potato dumplings) and Tsamba (Barley flour porridge) . Religious mask dances play an important part of Ladakh’s cultural life and religious ceremonies. The traditional music of Ladakh includes the folk instruments like the Surna and the Daman (a type of shenai and a drum).
Ladakh is a highly charged spiritual center and I was most excited to unearth its secrets in my 7 days of travel. This was to be the 10th wedding anniversary celebration for my wife and I. We started our marriage thru-hiking 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2008. Now, 10 years later, we felt that Ladakh was the perfect place to represent the life we have lived together since that time on the Tibetan Plateau. This was both a shared adventure for our family and a new experience for all of us to enjoy the culture and grandeur of an ancient land.
And so we felt the electricity of excitement wash over us as we landed in the Leh airport as our necks craned furiously this way and that to try to take in all the glory of Leh’s majestic mountains…
As our plane touched down in Leh IXL airport we were immediately surrounded by gnarly mountains. The tallest of these mountains just around 30km from town is 6,150 meters / 20,177 feet. I had read that the only way to access Leh in the winter time is by airplane. It is literally closed off to the rest of the world by road because the high passes are too icy and too high to be crossed safely in the winter. During the summer months there are many Indian tourists who drive over the pass from Srinagar but in these lonely winters the whole town shuts down and 97% of all hotels and business close their doors. The entire industry of Leh is focused either on a very short burst of tourism in the mild summers OR a large contingent of Indian military bases who work year round to protect the well guarded border with Pakistan. Looking at these snowy 5000 meter/ 16,400 feet jagged mountains that surround the town I could see why nobody was coming in or going out on the roads. This is a desolate, isolated place.
The flight attendant announced that the air temperature is -7 Celsius outside. While that is certainly in the range of cold, below-freezing weather, I was still surprised. The travel agency that was hosting us had told us it could get down to -25 Celsius during the day so I was prepared for something quite Siberian (it turns out that it did later actually get that cold on the high passes outside of town). We had to get off the airplane and get onto a bus that drove us to the airport arrivals building. I stepped outside with no jacket and instantly felt the rush of the mountain wind. We crammed into an old 1980’s jalopy bus and it rattled across the tarmac with several Indian travelers standing up in the aisle. We were almost certainly the only white people in the whole military-style rickety bus. I was surrounded by huge men with whispy mustaches. These men had a hardiness- something that speaks of legend and bravery- of life in the Himalayas.
As we walked into the tiny airport in Leh (which literally had one door to get in the airport and only a solitary gate where all the flights board) it at first felt familiar because it was decorated with red paint and the colorful treasure vases and gems of Tibetan Buddhism. I had seen this type of decor a 1000 times on the other side of the Himalayas in Tibet. The columns all resembled those of a Tibetan monastery with the eternal knot and other Tibetan religious icons swirling around the pillars. In fact, it felt more like a small countryside monastery or a home then it did an airport. Except for the singular turning luggage carousel this could have been a well furnished restaurant (except there was no food to purchase here and the whole space was freezing). The tall, steel, restaurant-style space heaters that you see on an outside patio at in upscale Italian bistro- these were scattered around the inside of the airport and passengers wearing all their winter jackets were all bundled around them like campers around a bonfire. I had never before seen an airport that was so cold that you needed space heaters to keep from freezing as you picked up your luggage from baggage claim.
My wife took the luggage off the carousel amidst the disorganization of everyone trying to get their luggage at once. Meanwhile, I headed about 50 feet over to the exit hall where there were luggage carts strewn about willy-nilly. As my hands gripped the metal bar of the cart I was shocked. This was probably the coldest metal I had ever touched in my life and we were still inside the airport.
My wife and I placed our luggage on the chilly cart and as we did we tuned into the repeating loud speaker announcement that was continually saying that we needed to rest for our first 24 hours because of the severe altitude. We were certainly happy for that advice as we had woke up at 4:00am to catch our 6:40am flight from New Delhi DEL to Leh IXL. We wanted nothing more than to hit a comfy bed and curl up for a long winter’s nap.
Rinchen, owner of Atisha Travels, recognized me as I filled out my arrival form (compulsory for all foreigners) and patted me on the shoulder with a warm welcome. I had not even left the baggage claim area and somehow my tour organizer was standing next to me. I guess in a small town of 30,000 people a guy like this knows everyone and can just stroll through security to pick up his guests. I was also a little taken aback by the fact that he immediately knew my face even though we had never met before. I guess there were not too many other foreign faces in the crowd so it was an easy process of elimination.
We hopped into the white Toyota Innova van that would be our faithful mountain companion for the next 7 days. This is apparently the nicest vehicle you can buy in all of Ladakh and is the standard for most private foreign tourist groups. In America, it would be a mid-end family mini van. But here among the clunky army trucks and the Indian Tata tractor trailers this is seen as a luxury vehicle. The Toyota Innova is the Mercedes of Ladakh.
Because the town is so small we drove 20 minutes and we had already passed the airport area military bases, downtown Leh, and were now on the opposite side of town. We arrived at a little alley way with a modest metal signed painted with the words “Shanti Guesthouse”. We walked through an outside stone-walled corridor and were in the lobby of one of the only places that were still open in the winter. While almost every other hotel and tour operator had packed their bags to vacation on the warm beaches of Goa, Southern India, Nicky and her crew at the Shanti Guesthouse stuck around to brave the brutal winters and host Indian and foreign tourists who were preparing to walk on the frozen Zanskar River. This is an epic 100km walk over a frozen ice sheet that takes around 10 days to complete. This trek is known globally as the Chadar Trek and the small amount of tourists permitted to walk this savagely cold river represent most of the groups coming through in the dead of winter in January and February. This means that Shanti Guesthouse with its 30 rooms was fully booked out every single night while we were there. Much of the only other accommodation available was in local Homestays (which are much more rustic than this official hotel).
We arrived at the Guesthouse at 9am. It was still early but we all felt totally bushed. They let us partake of their amazing Indian buffet breakfast and then let us take a mid-morning nap in an unoccupied hotel room while they prepared our room.
Our whole family snuggled under a giant fluffy white duvet and had an amazing sleep.
In the afternoon we drove to the downtown area and had Tibetan momos and Thukpa noodle soup in one of the few restaurants still open in the winter. Then we took a short drive 10 minutes above town to Shanti Stupa (there is also a series of about 400 steps you can walk up from the bottom of the Guesthouse but we opted for the car ride as we had our kids with us). The Shanti Stupa was a gift from Japan and has an amazing overlook into the nearby mountains. I was eager to photograph the surrounding mountains and this was the perfect place to jump into shooting some of the most incredible panoramas.
We returned to the guesthouse in the mid afternoon and after a nice buffet dinner at the Shanti Guesthouse, our family headed in for an early night. Everything was exhausting. I felt like I had to take a nap every time I walked up the 12 marble steps to our second floor guest room. Everything I did at that altitude took the breath out of my lungs and left me gasping for air. Even bending over to tie my shoes got me out of breath and this simple task took about 5 minutes to complete because I had to take a break a few times. I felt like a 85 year old man who had been smoking his whole life. Yet I had never smoked and was in relatively good shape and I was only 36 years old.
Like many first nights at altitude, I did not sleep well. That first night in Leh, I was laying in bed for 12 hours but only 7 hours of that time allowed me much sleep. At one point I woke up and was terrifically thirsty for water because of the severe dry climate. I wanted to listen to an audiobook and drink some water to bide the long uncomfortable night, but it took an hour for me to lean over and grab my headphones and my water bottle because I was in such a daze. I was neither awake nor asleep, my head throbbed and I felt like I was in some form of foggy sleep purgatory. I can only imagine how the mountaineers on Mount Everest feel at the top. They must be very disoriented and confused in both their waking and fitful sleeping.
The only actual activity we managed this first day was a brief 15 minute car ride up to the Shanti Stupa and a 200 meter stroll around downtown. Yet that minimal amount of activity had thoroughly worn us out in our first 8 hours at 3,500 meters/ 11,483 feet. Based on this experience, I highly recommend doing nothing in your first 24 hours in Leh.
The lady on the airport intercom was absolutely right!
We had a late morning and ate breakfast at 9am. We met Tenzin, our driver and guide for the week, at 10am and took off to the Leh Palace. Then we drove through the downtown area of Leh and up a winding overlook sitting above Leh. It was only a 15 minute drive and suddenly we were climbing the steps up into the dark, mud-daubed halls of Ladakh’s iconic Leh Palace. Ladakh is well known for tall medieval-looking imposing palaces sitting high up on vertical, lofty cliffs. I was eager to see and photograph these extremely picturesque fortresses hovering above the valleys like untouchable sentinels. But I was surprised to see that such a Palace was just right above the town of Leh. We were right over the town and the view was incredible! And, best of all, we had the whole palace to ourselves in the winter low season.
Leh Palace is one of the most important historical monuments of the Ladakh region. Modeled on the Potala Palace of Lhasa in Tibet, this 9-story royal palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. But later in the 19th century, the royal Ladakhi family abandoned the palace when the Dogra kingdom took control over the Ladakh region. The design and architecture of the palace is similar to the Potala Palace and it resembles the fine Tibetan architectural style with high sloping walls that slope inward at a precise 85 degree angle thrusting upward into the sky like a series of chimneys from a Charles Dickens novel. The dark, relatively unlit interior of the palace is decorated with beautiful motifs and murals and remains rather primitive and rustic. Walking inside the Palace, it is easy to feel that even for royalty this was a stark and cold place with few creature comforts.
The palace is open to the public and the roof provides fantastic panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas. The real highlight of the Leh Palace is winding up through creaky old wooden steps through 9 floors of low ceilings and narrow hallways. I truly felt like a kid exploring his grandma’s attic for the first time and somehow the passage was leading me not only back in time but to further into the discovery of a mythical Narnian land. I have to truly say that I enjoyed the exploration of the fairy tale palace as much as my kids as they eagerly climbed the steep steps to the top.
There are several places along the way to stop and take photos on many of the different levels of the Palace, including some medieval open windows where you can actually stand on a barely supported balcony if you dare to step out of the window and onto the ledge.
From the top of the Leh Palace there is an excellent view of the 6,150 meter mountain, Stok Kangri, in the Zanskar mountain range. There are excellent views across the Indus Valley to the south, with the Ladakh Mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.
After about 1 hour exploring the Leh Palace we drove around the corner to the slightly higher neighboring Namgyal Tsemo Monastery.
Founded in early 15th century, Namgyal Tsemo monastery is renowned for its three-story high solid gold idol of Maitrieya Buddha. Situated on a mountain top behind the Leh palace, the monastery offers similar views as the nearby Leh Palace but from a slightly higher and wider vantage point.
The gompa was founded by King Tashi Namgyal in 1430 AD who was a major follower of Buddhism. As a mark of his respect to Buddhism, the king built the partner monastery above his palace. Situated at the cliff of Namgyal hill, its architecture is impressive.
The view of Leh from the gompa is breathtaking as the view changes with light. For this reason Namgyal Tsemo monastery is a favorite with photographers.
Down the hill side there is the Shankar Gompa which is also associated with Namgyal Tsemo monastery. It is a daily ritual followed by monks to walk from the Shankar Gompa to worship Buddha and light butter lamps at Namgyal Tsemo.
There is actually a mountain path from Leh Palace that runs up into the saddle where Namgyal Tsemo Monastery sits. This is about a 30-40 minute walk and many either walk up or down between the monastery and the Palace. If you do take the path rather than driving between the 2 points be warned that you should take steps very slowly and with deep breaths. Overexertion, even on something as simple as a 30 minute hike, can really hit you later on in the day and may make you really feel the first signs of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.
After seeing Leh Palace we had a terrific Indian lunch back at the the Shanti Guesthouse and had a rest.
In the afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Shey Palace and had a terrific view of the colors of sunset as they danced over the Leh Valley and highlighted the snowy mountain tops.
We drove another 15 minutes to our guide’s house, right between Tiktsi Monastery and Shey Palace. This was hands down one of the highlights of our journey as we got to experience true Ladakhi hospitality and participate in making authentic momos. This was a process that involved rolling the dough out, cutting it in circles, and stuffing the dough with a delicious mixture of pork and special spices and herbs.
Our hosts steamed the momos and we had a delicious dinner! Of course, the ones we rolled out didn’t look as good as the perfectly pinched folds of their professional dumplings but, nonetheless, they were all very tasty!
It was an incredible night spent laughing and drinking Chai tea by their warm fireplace and I have to say it was really on that night that I so fell in love with the warmth and kindness and good humor of the Ladakhi people.
We left our delightful hosts at 11pm and were back at our guesthouse by 11:30pm for a much better night sleep than we had had the previous night. Now we were getting better acclimatized and our breathing was a little less troubled than the night before.
Every day we ventured a little further from the town of Leh out into the true wild beauty of Ladakh. On this 3rd day we started to feel a little bit more ourselves and generally started feeling better acclimated. From Leh we drove 3 hours to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we stopped at Alchi Monastery. This is a very special monastery because it records the history of Tibetan Buddhism BEFORE it moved into the Tibetan Plateau. Most of the monasteries we saw in Ladakh were created when Buddhism moved from India to Tibet and then returned back into India. But this monastery is from the 11th century and predates much of the the movement of the teachings of the Buddha before it moved north across the Himalayas. After a 15 minute walk down a small alley way through a very tiny village, we arrived in the middle of Alchi Monastery. From a position of size this was not much to look at. There must only have been a handful of monks that still take care of this old countryside monastery. While I have been in monasteries in Tibet that hold thousands of monks and you can hear the roar and bellow of chanting and drums and horns, the only sounds that whispered about Alchi Monastery were the tinkling of a few windchimes and the pittering songs of chirping sparrows. This was a peaceful place.
What Alchi Monastery lacks in size in makes up for in history and character. The woodwork from the stupas and the few small temples (each little bigger than a quaint wooded cottage) bears definite fingerprints of Indian architecture. The wood is dark and stained with years under the bright sun and the the lattice work on the windows is definitely different from the carvings on any other Tibetan Buddhist monastery I have ever seen. Even the main stupa in the monastery courtyard had features that were markedly different from those on the Tibetan Plateau. This stupa has a cave built inside of it where you can walk in under the holy relics inside. Essentially there is a small 2 meter high stupa within the greater 7 meter tall stupa and you can walk in under the smaller (and assumedly holier) stupa. There is a small set of prayer wheels around the monastery and we took the quick 10 minute kora around the compact complex. On the far side of the kora we passed a single pilgrim walking around the monastery clockwise. I stopped as the pilgrim passed and climbed a fenced wall to get a peek into the nearby the flows of the legendary Zanskar River. From there I saw a perfect turquoise blue river that was flowing under a massive vertical cliff face. This view alone made Alchi Monastery so worth it. Altogether we spent about 35 minutes around the monastery. You can pretty much take the whole thing in about 20 minutes because of its size.
We departed Alchi and drove another 1.5 hours on our way to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we drove by the confluence of the Zanskar River and the Indus Rivers. It was stunning to see where the glacial ice meets at the convergence these two rivers. Seeing these two rivers pour into one was like watching two brilliant turquoise snakes intermingling and mating and shedding their skins and scales as they merged into one larger churning snake basking against the sunlit backdrop of dramatic reddish mountains with not a scrap of vegetation on them.
20 minutes before we got to the monastery we stopped at a landscape that is literally called the “Moonland”. This is an all yellow and brown landscape that has mountains and hills that arise out of the ground like a network of burgeoning bubbles. There must be 1000’s of tiny humps and ridges (at least they looked tiny to us from far away) and they all sit within a 1 mile area on top of each other like some alien super colony of termites. I am not exactly sure what the surface of the moon really looks like, but I can only imagine that the first astronauts there must have experienced something close to this in the eerie sense of barren unfamiliarity as they stepped out of their moon rover for the first time.
After a few pictures of the Moonland, we dropped down to 9,500 feet to Lamarayu Monastery. This was, ironically, the lowest altitude we were at in our entire stay in Ladakh. Lamarayu Monastery is one of many picturesque monasteries that sits perfectly perched high atop a steep hill. In fact, the location of the monastery doesn’t just make for a great picture, it truly evokes wonder that long before cranes and backhoes and CAD there were men in the 12th century who climbed these great mountains and built 7 story structures in the highest and most impossible spaces. Just the act of building the monastery seemed like an act of spirtual discipline and determination. The distance we drove from Leh became immediately worthwhile. We spent an hour just walking around this impressive structure and taking 100’s of pictures from every angle as we gazed down across the valley and into the jagged peaks that protect and encircle the monastery like menacing guards. There was something very sacred here and I walked slowly around the high, steep walls of the monastery over the rubble and scattered stones of staircases that had crumbled and fallen over 10 centuries of weather and erosion.
While my wife entered a few temples to look at the ornate Thangka paintings, I walked the perimeter of the monastery like a curious child digging a tunnel through the underbelly of a sand castle. Then we both ascended to the roof of the monastery for more incredible views along a line of lonely flapping prayer flags. It was 360 degrees of jaw dropping beauty up there and I really could have stayed on that roof laying in the sun like a lazy cat all day long.
Like Alchi Monastery (and just about every where we went) there was a still reverence here. But this monastery – even more so than the other hill top structures – seemed to also carry a commanding, kingly authority. There was something quite grandiose about this monastery in its geography and in its ancient foreboding walls. This was like a mighty castle looking down on all its subjects in the valley below, confidently certain of its regal position.
Feeling the high from a great scenic drive and the inspiring walk around Lamarayu Monastery, we drove back in the direction of Leh town and pulled off the road to stay in homestay just 45 minutes from the hallowed corridors of Lamarayu. We got into the homestay just as the sun was setting and we could feel as soon as it did that the air significantly dropped in temperature from cool and sunny to dark and icy.
Fortunately there was an incredible wood fire in the stove burning in the homestay and we were very cozy inside. There we ate yet another filling and scrumptious dinner of homemade Indian food.
While there was no hot water (and no heat in our small room) we all had 2 thick blankets on us and were quite cozy and warm in the corner bed room of the homestay.
Today we drove from the homestay location to the famous Chadar Trek. We spent much of our time on the road. About 2 hours of this time was actually spent on paved road and then we spent another 5 hours in the back of a Japanese Gypsy SUV bumping our heads against the unpadded roof as we navigated a very narrow and dusty road that winded along the steep canyons that hung 600 meters over the Zanskar River.
Probably the most unnerving thing about the road were the places where backhoes were doing construction amidst piles of boulders to help clear and widen the road from treacherous, unpredictable rock fall. It was at these time that, due to the presence of construction on an already tight road, we were no more than a hand’s width away from the unprotected edge on a road that was not much wider than our own car’s frame. The drop below into the river was at least 300 meters and we would have all died instantly if any rock fall or sudden driving malfunctions were to push us over the edge. I trusted our car and our driver and I just tried not to think about that possibility too much as I knew that our guide had driven this bumpy mountain pass many times with many different groups.
The Zanskar River was made particularly famous by the BBC documentary called “Human Planet”. One of the series in the documentary highlighted a Ladakhi girl who had to cross 100 km of the river to get from her father and mother’s humble dirt-walled home to her small boarding school so she could start her semester with her classmates. The journey across the ice looks particularly daunting and several times she walks with her father across crackling, dangerously thin ice so she can make it to her studies. The particular climax of the whole episode is where most of the ice on the river has melted and there remains only a narrow, life threatening sliver of ice as the single passage along the bottom of the steep canyon walls. Every conceivable path is blocked for this little girl except a thin sheet of ice that is clinging to the side of the river bank; all the rest of the river is surging with the terrible current of fast-flowing, hypothermia-inducing melt water. There is only a small margin of ice less than half a meter wide for the girl and her father to belly crawl under an overhang so she can make it to school. The young girl bravely and faithfully follows her father’s experienced movements through the narrow ice passage and she squirms to an area that is more stable and well protected. Ultimately, the girl heroically makes it to her school for the year without any incidents. But the whole affair leaves the viewer with a sense of awe that so many sacrifices and challenges are undertaken just to make the commute to elementary school.
Since this famous scene in BBC’s “Human Planet”, thrill-seeking curious trekkers have found their way to the north of India to see and discover the river for themselves.
For these reasons, the Chadar Trek (which means “Ice Trek” in Ladakhi) is like no other trek in the Himalayas. Like the girl’s journey in the film, this trek involves walking on a frozen sheet of glass that is ever shifting and creaking above the current of the waters underneath it. Dramatic mountains rise on both sides of the river adding to both the beauty and the danger. While the trek does not gain much altitude because you walk along the icy surface of flat river, it almost feels like an expedition to the North Pole where the temperatures drop down to -35 degrees Celcius at night. The food rations are transported on improvised wooden sledges by local Ladakhi porters and the trekkers find their lodging in such wild and strange places as caves along the rivers’ edge and by beaches littered with sharp ice wedges and snow crevasses.
The trek allows you to get to know the Zankari culture up close through the lense of locals and their hospitality. One of the highlights of the trek is the magnificent Nerak Waterfall that is frozen completely from top to bottom. The best (and only) time to do this trek is from mid-January to mid-February. That is when the Zanskar river freezes and the ice is thick enough to walk across – at least for most of the trek. There are a few sections where the trekkers actually have to traverse the canyon walls like mountain goats on the crags in order to avoid thin or non-existent ice and the rowdy whitewater currents of the below surging river.
I had seen the “Human Planet” documentary and, like many watchers, I was immediately taken by this alluring, bewitching icy serpent. I had even been planning to take my family on the full 10 day trek up and down the Zanskar River and had determined that I would pay a local Ladakhi porter to pull a sled with my kids on it so they did not have to walk across the slippery ice. When I presented this plan to my wife she was not so keen. Having talked to locals, we realized that trek was realistically safe enough for our children, especially under the watchful and experienced eye of local Ladakhis who knew exactly where to step for the best passage on the ice sheet. But I think the real sticking point for our children would have been the blistering cold. It is one thing to walk on a river as an adult in -25 Celcius because we’d be producing some body heat in our movement. But for kids to sit on an ice sledge in that kind of weather and then to spend the night in an uninsulated tent on the ice felt a little imposing for us.
My wife, though, is pretty adventurous so she did compromise with me to at least go out and see the Zanskar River close up. So we opted to make a day trip out of it so at least we could have fun sliding about on the ice without having to commit to 10 days of relentless cold.
As soon as we got out of the car and skidded across the ice, my wife looked at me with a big smile and said, “I wished we had done all 10 days with the kids!” Once we were out there we could see that whole trek was well organized and well equipped. There were fancy cook tents that provided hot meals every night for the trekkers and private bathroom tents and meeting tents that housed each and every expedition. Every day, the government of Ladakh allows exactly 100 trekkers to be out on the ice. These trekkers are usually divided between 5-10 different expeditions, most of which are comprised of Indian travelers who want to walk on the ice. After being on the ice and hanging out by one of the main base camps for a few hours, it was easy to tell that most of these native Indians were wealthy suburban tourists who were looking to get out the busyness of Delhi or Mumbai to have an adventure. These were regular people – doctors, accountants, taxi drivers- and seeing those regular people out doing something extraordinary really made me feel like our family could have probably done the whole trek. My wife and I both agreed that with the right ultra thick and warm sleeping bags (which can be rented from the Chadar Trek expeditions), we could have managed the trek with our kids.
But, in the end, we were totally fine that we did not do the whole trek. After all, it gave us something to come back for. The day we spent out slipping and sliding on Zanskar River was precious. Our kids had a blast throwing huge chunks of ice into parts of the exposed river. And we even got to borrow a little miniature sleigh to pull them along the ice. They loved every minute of it and it was really quite sunny and warm out on the ice under the afternoon sun.
After playing on the ice, we drove back to Leh and got into the Shanti Guesthouse for a nice night in the heat of the hotel’s working radiator. And boy did a hot shower feel good that night!
Despite the perceived (but probably not actual) danger of the Chadar Trek, there was something that was haunting me far more than walking on shifting ice. I had heard about the highest motorable road in the world. And I had even watched a few YouTube videos as cars drove carefully over the packed snow and ice on tires covered with chains and with nothing on the edge of the road to protect them from sliding off into a Himalayan abyss. And it all sounded pretty gnarly to me.
The Khardung La is a dirt-road pass that crosses over an elevation of 5,600 meter / 18,300 feet. After driving over some pretty narrow mountain roads myself in Tibet, it wasn’t the steep drop off that really concerned me. It was that I was bringing my family to an elevation higher than any we had been to before. My wife and I had climbed to over 17,000 feet around Lhasa before we had kids, and living on the Tibetan Plateau our kids had even been to 14,000 feet a few times with us on family backpacking trips. In all these conditions we had all done very well in regards to health and acclimatization. But 18,300 feet was a whole new level. This was starting to get up near the top of North America’s tallest mountain, Mount Denali. This was the stuff of epic mountaineers and crampons and oxygen tanks.
But through a lot of research and planning and after many talks with our experienced tour agency, we decided that it was possible. Our kids were, after all, no more likely to get Acute Mountain Sickness than any other adult. We just were not sure if they did start to feel nauseous up there how they would react. But we did know this: we had spent plenty of time acclimating in and around Leh, we had emergency oxygen in the car if we did run into any disconcerning situations, and the best cure for any altitude related sickness is to descend quickly to a lower altitude. Since we were driving up from 11,500 feet to 18,300 feet in a matter of about 2 hours we knew we could descend pretty quickly in our car along the road.
So with those contingencies in hand, we set out to drive over the world’s tallest motorable road with our two children. As we drove up, I kept glancing at the back seat looking for headaches or other signs of discomfort. Other than our son feeling a little sleepy, we got up to the high pass without any incident. And, of course, we snapped a few selfies on the top and we did not spend much time up there in that rarified air because we wanted to descend quickly. All in all, I was very proud of my family for doing so well and we all felt very good considering the winding roads and the high altitude. All my fears about the big high pass were put to rest.
And then came the really fun part. As we descended from the Khardung La into the Nubra Valley, we could see large stretches of sand before us. There was, too, a river that braided in and out between the piles of sand as it wove into the foot the hovering mountains. As we crept down in altitude, the whole valley opened up into a flood plain full of blowing dust. This was the famous Nubra Valley, famous for the indigenous fuzzy two-humped Bactrian camels that lived there. These camels were some of the only animals in the world who could survive in both the extreme cold and lack of water. There were obviously quite specialized to make it at 10,500 feet in one of the driest, toughest places in the world.
Once at the bottom of the valley, we visited Diskit Monastery and the statue of India’s largest future buddha. This statue had to be at least 30 meters tall and it sat on a golden throne that overlooked the entire expansive desert valley. From the future buddha statue we drove through long stretches of highway into the real heart of the Nubra Valley right smack into the rolling sand dunes. At around 5 meters high, these dunes were certainly not anything near the size of the dunes you might see in the Sahara Desert. But there was a very certain texture on them that made them enchanting. The wind blew the sand into an intricate pattern of miniature waves and ridges that almost made the dunes look like they were covered with crochet work.
After jumping into the dunes and rolling down them like we were lost raiders fleeing desperately in the desertscape of planet Jakku in Star Wars, we headed to a remote desert camp. After about an hour drive we arrived at this camp and had a wonderful soak in their hot springs tubs. The water was so hot (being directly piped from the ground) that we had to wait two hours for it to cool off before we could even get in it. But our whole family eventually had a wonderful bath and that was a great way to wash all the sand off our bodies from jumping about the sand dunes.
With an incredibly relaxing hot springs bath we were all very relaxed and clean! That night we slept awesome!
Day 6 was our last full day in Ladakh and we definitely took advantage of every daylight hour.
We woke up in our VIP hit Springs Camp and had a warm cup of Chai and jumped in the van.
The sun was just cresting the snowy peaks and the soft morning light played on the new morning snow.
We drove back to the small town where we had lunch the day before and ate a simple breakfast of eggs and Indian bread.
Knowing that we were going to be a long way from civilization on our drive out to Pangong Lake, I wanted to stock up on Snacks and drinks for the 8 hour car ride ahead of us. I stopped in a very small convenience store in a town of about six single-room concrete-block buildings (which altogether had probable total population of around 15 locals) set out in the middle of the Nubra Valley desert. Half of the buildings in town were buried under 3 meters of rubble and trash because of a recent flood that had surged through the floodplain of this desert valley. Desert landscapes are not used to receiving large amounts of precipitation or snow melt and this basin had fully been washed out and submerged in a recent deluge. The town was already very forlorn and rustic looking and having the few buildings in it being destroyed by a flash flood made it even more lonely. To add to the desperate feeling, there was a pack of 10-15 starving wild dogs who roamed the 50 meter-long strip in town looking for food scraps. They were all quite scraggly and were constantly biting and arguing about the pecking order of the group. Just the day before, our guide Tenzin was attempting to feed these wily dogs and had gotten bit pretty severely on his left hand. The dog bite bled on his finger and we were unable to find any Tetanus or rabies shots in the nearby town of Diskit. So a caution to travelers: do not feed the wild stray dogs and be careful to keep your fingers and your food close to your body. Some dogs may be aggressive enough to try to take food from your table or from your hands so have your radar up and do not leave your food unattended.
I was curious what the small dark convenience store had in the way of supplies. I was really just hoping for a few bottles of water and some Snickers. The convenience store had a strange assortment of goods from chips to laundry detergent to pots and pans and plastic flowers. I knew I was in the middle of nowhere when the only bottle of water that was for sale in the whole dimly lit store was an already used half-filled bottle. They obviously had no water for sale. I bought a few juice drink packages of sickly sweet mango syrup juice and hoped that would be enough to stave off thirst and headaches as we drove over another 5,400 meter/ 17,716 foot pass back to Leh. For snacks there were no Snickers. But they had some dried lentil beans which turned out to be quite tasty.
So another warning: When traveling to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, I recommend bringing 2-3 days of water in your car because bottled water can be hard to find. As it was, there was no place for us to get clean water for around 24 hours so we had to live off the few almost empty bottles we already had in the car and those sweet box drinks. We turned out to be okay but we were definitely cutting it pretty close in regards to hydration at altitude.
It was another 4 hours drive to Pangong Lake across the vast seas of rolling high desert. There were moments when the winds had completely covered the single track road with drifting sand and we had to drive over newly formed and ever shifting sand dunes in an attempt to find the other side of the road where the pavement continued several 100 meters out. And there were times the road just totally ended without warning and we found ourselves skirting disheveled fields of rocks with no clear path. Apparently in the summer lots of temporary tents pop up offering souvenirs and snacks in this area of Nubra Valley. But in the winter season this was a truly wild, forgotten place. We did not see another single car or a person for hours. One time I saw a lonely Ladakhi nomad walking by himself on the road and I found myself wandering wherever this man could have come from or where he was walking to. There seemed like no point of reference for his journey as we hadn’t seen a town or anything resembling a house for an hour.
We arrived at Pangong Lake around 2pm. There was no one else out on the whole lake except us. The only two people we could see from a distance were two local Ladakhis wearing ice skates and hockey gear who were hitting an ice hockey puck around on the frozen lake. It was strange to see signs of western development and recreation out there in the wilderness. But what I did not know at that moment was that the crowds were already preparing to gather around the shores of the frozen lake for a world record breaking Guinness Book of World Records event. Just the next day was to be the competition for world’s highest ice hockey game. Unfortunately we missed this game by a day since we had to fly out but apparently most of India’s Olympic hockey team is drawn from the ranks of local Ladakhis who love love and cherish the sport!
Pangong Tso (Tibetan: སྤང་གོང་མཚོ) is Tibetan for “high grassland lake” (“Tso” is the Tibetan word for “Lake). This an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India into China. Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in China and 40% of the lake is in India. The lake is 5 km (3.1 mi) wide at its broadest point. All together it covers 604 km2. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline in nature. It is not a part of the Indus River basin area and is geographically a separate land locked river basin.
The brackish water of Pangong Lake has a very small amount of hardy micro-vegetation. Reportedly, there are no fish or any other aquatic life in the lake, except for a few small saltwater-tolerant crustaceans. The lake is in the process of being identified as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. As such it will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under this convention.
In the summer the waters of the lake are a brilliant blue and this is said by many to be India’s prettiest lake. However, the lake in winter lacks the bright colors of summer and gray ice stretches across the shores and the rim of the lake is spotted with brown vegetation and is chilled by piercing winds that rush across the flat surface. But there is still a rugged beauty here in the silence of winter.
In winter the Indian army drives their trucks across the lake to reach remote outposts that protect this disputed border.
We drove from Pangong Lake back to Leh without stopping too much. On the way back to Leh, we crossed India’s second highest motorable road at 5,400 meters / 17,716 feet. As we descended the high pass back into the Leh Valley the sun was setting right in front of us on the ridges and peaks that stand over Leh. It was a perfect view of dancing pinks and oranges that eventually faded into misty purples and then the ink black night sky.
This was our last night in Ladakh.
We got up early in the morning to fly out of IXL Leh airport. As I mentioned before this is a very small airport. Because it is so small I figured there would not be much time spent in getting from one place to another and I thought we could get through security in 1 hour. Thankfully our guide told us we really needed a full 2 hours to make it the 50 meters from the entrance to the flight departures gate.
I was, at first, a little skeptical of this warning, but the whole place is actually very chaotic and it literally took us the full two hours from our drop off at the airport to the time we were at the airplane gate.
Be aware that in India (or at least in Leh) there are several extra steps in flying out that we do not have in America.
The following list shows exactly why we took 2 hours to make our way through a building that was no bigger than a hometown grocery store.
1.) Getting in the door
There is exactly 1 door to get in the airport from the freezing cold weather outside.
Everyone was standing in the freezing cold at 6:30am in the dark parking lot in a confused gaggle (remember that Indians do not celebrate the concept of an orderly “queue”, so you may need to push your way to the front).
There were so many army soldiers all crowded about the doorway all ready to leave their military posts to go home and see their family. Fortunately, a kind airport attendant let us in the front of this mob of people because we had kids with us. Then once we were through the door we had to go through the presecurity check outside of check in to enter into the airport.
Here they examine your bag and after it goes through a X-Ray machine they tag it.
Strangely, at this presecurity check they ask for your flight ticket – which is unusual because you do not even get your ticket until you go into the airport and check your bags at the desk of your airline. So I was a bit taken aback by this but I was able to pull up my itinerary on my email on my phone.
So make sure you have a paper or electronic copy of your flight reservation handy as they will ask for this.
After your luggage goes through the X-Ray machine they throw your luggage into a jumbled pile of 100’s of bags.
Note to travelers: There is no order and all the bags get completely buried here so make sure when you sort through the pile to find all your luggage so that you do not forget small bags like laptop cases, purses, or backpacks which could get easily misplaced in the mess.
2.) Check bags and get tickets
This is what you would expect to be the most normal, standardized process in the whole airport. You walk up to your airline counter and you hand them your passports. The airline attendant taps a few things on her computer and she prints out your boarding passes and voila! – you are free to fly!
But the Leh airport was not quite that simple. As we were standing in line all sorts of people started to cut in line in front of us. This included a ton of army people.
When we finally got up to the counter they took all of our 5 large bags and put them on the conveyor belt weigh station at one time. Apparently Air India weighs the total of your bags rather than each bag individually so they want to weigh them at the same time.
Therefore we had 5 suitcases tottering on that small scale next to the check in counter for all 4 of us. As the rules were explained to us, you get 25 kg per person on Air India (that could be divided between 20 bags or 1 bag- it does not matter to them ).
It took the flight desk about 20 minutes to find our ticket in their system and during that time the power went out in the airport and my poor son was left in the bathroom with no light to see.
Eventually the Air India Staff was able to locate our reservation and we did actually get tickets. In the meantime our whole family bought a few cups of Chai and hoped that somehow they had not goofed our online reservation.
3.) Go through security
One of our hand bags/carry on items did not have a bag tag from the presecurity checks. So when I went to go through security the official there made me turn around and go all the way back to the front door to get a baggage tag. What I did not understand was that these bag tags were all the same generic tags that had the company logo. Every tag was identical and had no individual bar code or cereal number to identify this as a special bag or even your own personal bag. But for some reason they would not let me through without this useless piece of paper dangling from my bag. I suspect this is arbitrary proof that my bags had been through the outside X-ray pre-security screen and they accidentally missed tagging my bag in the chaos. Which, of course, is arbitrary proof that the whole process could do with a little streamlining.
So I dragged my tired son back across the airport and we tagged his little child suitcase and then we were allowed to go through security. At this point my wife and daughter had already gone through the second security screen and were waiting on the other side for us with a Indian pastry filled with microwave-warmed chicken.
4.) Examine your baggage
After you have put your carry on bags through a second redundant X-Ray machine you have to physically go outside in the freezing cold by the airplanes and see where all the checked bags are coming out. Again, the checked bags are lying in a pile and, for some reason, you must positively identify that, yes, your bags have in fact travelled the small length of the carousel and are sitting next the airport bus that will take you to your plane.
I suspect this is because the airport is so disorganized and chaotic that they have lost bags somewhere around this point and need people to make sure that nothing got lost on the hidden conveyer belt from check in to the time you get on the plane.
(Or this might be an added layer of security).
5.) Get in line for your flight
There is only one departures gate in the whole airport. Right next to this gate there is a sign that says “To Gates” and points left. So it would appear that you are to follow the ambiguous arrow to your gate. But actually the sign just points you to walk into a wall and there is really nowhere to go. For some reason this sign is basically placed directly over the one single gate. In fact, if you are standing at the sign close enough to see it’s words, you are already in line to board your plane and therefore have no reason to follow the sign. By this one gate there is no flight info listed on a screen to tell you which flight is boarding.
There were 100 army soldiers in civilian clothes waiting in line, so I just figured we could joined in that line. So like a sheep following the flock, I just got in line. Because there was no flight board or announcement I accidentally got in the wrong line. But eventually we figured out that this was the flight boarding before ours. I guess this is the problem with only having one gate. You might be in the right place, but you never know which flight you are actually in line for.
That first line was boarding a flight to Delhi. We got in the next line at the same gate which flied out to Chandigarh.
6.) Load on a crowded bus and boarded the plane
Just like the bus on our arrival this was an old jalopy that had standing room only. But the people of India are so hospitable that they gave our family some of the last remaining seats so our kids did not have to stand on the moving bus.
In summary, the Leh airport takes a long time to get through. If you are flying in or out of Leh expect that there will be about 2-3 extra steps in the check in process and a lot of people (mostly military) milling around the airport.
So leave yourself lots of time and expect mid amounts of disorder.
But once you are in the airplane what you can expect is the most terrific views of the Himalayas below you (and a lot of turbulence in the first 20 minutes of your flight). Ladakh offers many highlights and opportunities to see the raw breadth of the immensity of Himalayas. It is fitting that as you fly out from this mountain mecca that you pass over the very mountains that have given Ladakh its remote and untouched character.
As I watched the mountains pass away into the clouds I knew I would come be back to this land of mountains, monasteries, and mysteries.
One time was really just not enough!
Thanks for reading our story and hope it helps you along your own travels to Ladakh!
Keep coming back for more travel and trekking tips!