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Simikot Trek, Saga Dawa Kailash & the Zhangzhung Kingdom
Simikot/Humla trek - Saga Dawa Festival - Kailash Kora - Lake Manasarovar
& Chiu Gompa -
In the far west of Tibet, in the province of Ngari and the land of the ‘drokpas’ or nomads of the high plateaus, sits the legendary Mount Kailash, or Kang Rimpoche (‘precious snow-peak’, as known by the Tibetans). Kailash, on 'the roof of the world', is the most sacred mountain in Asia, venerated by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and followers of the ancient Bon religion. Tibetan and Hindu pilgrims have been making the 53km kora, or circuit, of Kailash for centuries. This circumambulation, clockwise for Buddhists and Hindus, and anti-clockwise followers of the ancient Bon religion, is said to erase the sins of a lifetime. To complete the Kailash pilgrimage one should bath in the sacred Lake Manasarovar, stunningly set on the Tibetan plateau bordered by the majestic Gurla Mandata. Mount Kailash itself is 6714m high, and with its four sheer walls, distinctive snow-capped peak, and valleys peppered with brightly-clad Tibetan pilgrims, is an awe-inspiring sight. From it flow four great rivers of Asia: the Karnali, the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra, all of which drain the vast Tibetan Plateau.
The journey to Kailash begins with a seven-day trek to the Tibetan border from Simikot, in the fabled region of Humla in far west Nepal, where the people are Bhotias of Tibetan descent. This wild trek through Humla takes us deep into the most remote region of Nepal where the culture is still distinct and traditional (we will see old men with weathered, Central Asian faces, sitting smoking a hooka), the scenery spectacular, and the ancient trade routes still in use. And the flight out to Simikot, just meters above soaring snow peaks laid out as far as the eye can see, is one of the most exciting flights in the Himalaya.
Next, a highlight of the trip, the once yearly Saga Dawa festival at Tarboche, held during the full moon (of the fourth lunar month), the most important festival in western Tibet. Tibetans from all over the country flock to sacred Mount Kailash for the ritual raising of the prayer-flag pole, which foretell the yearly fortunes of the country. Saga Dawa is a carnival of Tibetan music, chants and Tibetan products brought to sell, an event not to be missed. We will spend the day camped at Tarboche, where all the festivities are held, and hike up to Chuku Gompa for some koras and a blessing from the local lama with the other Tibetan pilgrims.
The Kailash Kora itself is one of the best short treks in the Himalaya, crossing a pass of 5,600 meters, with campsites under the north face of Kailash and in other spectacular sites, all done with the Tibetan pilgrims, who have come as far as east Tibet for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to erase their sins, and acquire merit for humanity ...
After the kora, we continue west to visit the ancient Zhangzhung Kingdom, or 'garuda valley', where the crumbling troglodyte capital of Kyunglung is all that remains of a Bonpo Kingdom that ruled over most of Tibet, Ladakh and the neighboring regions for over a millennium in the pre-Christian era. This region, set amidst impressive canyons on the bank of the Sutlej, is almost never visited by tourists and has no check-posts or entrance-guards, so a unique chance to explore the tunnels, caves and old habitations of this ghost city ...
With plenty of trekking, a bit of exploring and some good karma under our belts, we embark on an epic cross-Tibet jeep expedition, visiting the resplendent gompa of Tashilhumpo in Shigatse en route. We top off the trip in the exotic capital of Lhasa, where we have three full days to absorb the exoticism of the Tibetan quarter with its colorful pilgrims and Barkor square, and to explore this history-laden city and its ancient gompas.
Once back in Kathmandu, we have a free day and a half to relax and have a few cold beers to celebrate our adventures. Don’t miss this Tibetan journey deep into the 'Land of the Snows'!
Our trekkers say
"I went on to a Mt. Kailash/Tibet trek with Kim as the leader. She was an A1 leader, always considerate of slowpoke like me! Normally I am scared to even climb a 6ft ladder! But on this trek we went up to 17,500ft! Sherpas on this trek became like my family, they even encouraged by holding my hand over really narrow portions of the trek. Fellow trekkies were equally helpful, it was so good that I gave a party for all when we returned to Kathmandu."
Harshad Patel, Kailash 2005
Note that the trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on the trail conditions and the trekkers' acclimatization rate.
Providing you have sent us your arrival details, you will be met at the airport and escorted to the hotel. A representative from the Kathmandu Guest House will meet you at the airport and transport you to the Kathmandu Guest House, so look for their sign when you exit the airport.
Day 1 - Arrive Kathmandu 1400m
Arrive in Kathmandu. You’ll be met at the airport by Kim or a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House, so look out for a Project Himalaya and/or a Kathmandu guest house sign. If, for some strange reason, you have trouble finding us, either contact Kim on her mobile or take a taxi to the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. Everyone knows it ...
(If anyone wants to upgrade to Garden Facing single with a TV, the extra charge is $10 per night. Please let us know in advance so we can book some of the best rooms. See www.ktmgh.com to look at the accommodation).
If Kim can't come to the airport to meet you personally, she will meet you at the Kathmandu Guest House and introduce you to Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu. Thamel is a myriad of banners, signs, music shops, bakeries, internet cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops of all imaginable varieties and eccentrically clad backpackers. Over dinner we check your insurance details and equipment, collect your passport so that we can complete the Chinese visa formalities and get to know each other over a beer at the New Orleans Cafe ...
2 - Kathmandu
Today we explore the Kathmandu valley. Options: Climb the many steps to Swayambhunath (the monkey temple) with its commanding views of Kathmandu, its whitewashed stupas and its unique synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism. Visit Hindu Pashupatinath and its sacred temple complex on the banks of the holy Bagmati river. Here, monkeys run up and down the steps of the burning ghats, and trident-bearing saddhus draped in burnt-orange and yellow sit serenely meditating - when they’re not posing for photos-for-rupees. The striking Buddha eyes of Boudhanath Stupa watch over a lively and colorful Tibetan community and attract pilgrims from all over the Himalayan Buddhist realm. In the midst of traditional gompas, and hung with long strings of multi-colored prayer flags, Boudhanath attracts Sherpas, Tibetans and tourists alike for daily circumambulations (koras) of the stupa. Durbar Square, one of the old capitals of the Kathmandu valley, is a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist temples, stupas and statues, and is often the site of festivals, marriages and other ceremonies.
3 – Fly to Nepalgunj
An afternoon flight takes us to Nepalgunj, the largest city in western Nepal and a jumping-off point for many flights and buses into western Nepal, set in the steamy Terai near the border of India. We stay the night at an air-conditioned hotel, and head out back in time to explore this town seemingly right out of the 1940's.
4 – Fly to Simikot 2910m. Trek to Yakba Khola 2250m
We take another early morning flight 218km north to Simikot, the district headquarters of Humla, situated up on a ridge overlooking the Humla Karnali River. The flight is spectacular, cruising just over the tops of a mass of snow-covered peaks. We arrive early enough to have lunch while the staff gets our things together, and then set off on the trek towards Tibet, with plenty of time to wander through this atmospheric village in the hills beforehand. We head past barley and wheat fields towards a forested ridge, and back down past some small villages, camping just past Tuling, also known as Majgaon, a tightly packed Thakuri village. If we have time, we will continue on for another 45 minutes or so to Yakba Khola to camp under the walnut and apricot trees..
*** Note that the trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on the trail conditions, availability of campsites and the trekkers' acclimatization rate.
5 – Trek to Chumsa Khola 2830m
Crossing the Yakba Khola, we climb to the check post and on to Dharapuri (2270m), and then traverse a scree field. Across the river is Khanglagaon, the last Thakuri village in the region and the last we will see of cultivated rice fields in Jumla. We ascend to a shepherds' camp at some scenic waterfalls at Chachera. The new cliff-hewn trail veers steeply up above the waterfalls and continues past the teahouses at Dhara Kermi. Bypassing Kermi village, we trek up to a ridge and through a wide valley, walking past fields of potatoes and barley, and traverse through an open forest of pines to the mani walls and cairns atop a 2900m ridge. Finally, the trail switchbacks down to an extensive suspension bridge crossing the Chumsa Khola to our campsite..
6 – Trek to Muchu 2800m
We start the morning with a steep climb up and down the neighboring ridge to the Humla Karnali, and continue this exercise to Yhulwang (Yulbang) Chaur (2670m), the picturesquely situated site of the annual mela, or fair, each November. Past the grove of apricot trees bordering the meadow, we climb yet another few ridges to Yhulwang (Yulbang) village (2890m). From here towards Yangar, we’ll be following a centuries-old Humli trade route to the once important trade centers of Chala and Banjura, just to the south of Humla. Also from Yhulwang (Yulbang), we have the option of an alternate route to the Nyingmapa Namka Khyung Zong gompa 20 minutes above the trail, rejoining the trail to Yangar on the way down. Otherwise, we contour around the hillside on the main route, climb another ridge and descend to Yangar (2850m). Following the new trail right through the village, we trek close to the river to a suspension bridge. leading us across the Humla Karnali to our campsite beside the river, just before Muchu.
7 – Trek to Torea 3380m
Muchu is just ahead, over a small stream and past the apricot orchards. Heading below the gompa, we keep the chorten up on the ridge in sight, as we pass though more village orchards and fields. From the chorten, we can see across to Tumkot village and Mota gompa, where the police checkpoint also serves as our immigration post. Descending back down, we cross two more rivers, leave the Humla Karnali behind, and then head back up another steep ridge to Palbang, which the Nepalis call Torea after the fields of colorful yellow mustard which border it. We camp in a nice field above the teahouses.
8 – Trek to Tharo Dunga 4000m
Contouring around fields of wild roses and Himalaya flowers, the trail leads towards the settlement of Yari (3670m), with its stone houses and checkered fields. There is also a police check post just below. Off to the west of Yari is a pass called the Sarpa La, leading to the high plateaus of Tibet, where the Khampa leader Wangdi fled Nepal just after the CIA training force for the Tibetan resistance movement pulled out of Nepal. Fields of barley, millet and buckwheat billow all around us as we follow the old trade route, climbing to the source of the village’s irrigation system. We camp nearby at Tharo Dhunga.
9 – Trek
An extra trek day, which will give us ample time for the trek, as campsites are often full; this also gives us an extra acclimitization day if anyone is having trouble on the way.
10 – Trek to Sher 3860m. Drive to Taklakot (Purang) 3930m
This morning we head towards Sipsip, a lovely meadow, near the foot of the pass. Since this is still a frequently used trade route to Tibet, we will probably be the fellow travelers of local traders, pilgrims and their pack animals. An early morning start towards the Nara Lagna (lagna means pass in Humli, and it’s la in Tibetan) at 4580m. Just below the pass, we’ll be treated to wonderful and extensive views of the Tibetan plateau, the Humla Karnali and Sher far below us. Descending after the pass to Ranipauwa, we slip and slide down loose rock, and then contour around a canyon back down to the Humla Karnali, at 3720m, to Hilsa. Just across the suspension bridge is a stone pillar that marks the Nepal – Tibet border. After the informal border crossing at Sher, we meet our Tibetan guide and Landcruisers for the one and a half hour drive to Taklakot, where the Humli people of Humla come to barter or sell their rice and wood for cash and salt. The road follows the Humla Karnali past an important Sakya gompa at Khojarnath, over a 4000 m pass and through some small Tibetan villages before finally reaching Taklakot. Taklakot is called Purang by the Chinese, and is a large trading center for the Humli and the Tibetans.
11 – Drive to Darchen 4560m
It is a 100 km or 3 hour drive from Taklakot to Darchen, during which, weather permitting, we will have our first view of Mount Kailash just past the Gurla La. The road passed through the isthmus between the holy Rakshas Tal and Manasorovar and crosses the Barka plain to Darchen, where we bed down for the night at a government guest house. We’ll have the afternoon to do some shopping at the Tibetan bazaars, pack for the kora, and perhaps take a short acclimatization walk up the ridge below Kailash to some prayer-flag festooned ridges.
12 - Tarboche 4630m- Saga Dawa
Saga Dawa festival day! Today we will gather with the hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims from the far reaches of Tibet, all having endured the long journey to Kailash by over-loaded truck, some by yak caravan, and the extremely devout few by full-body prostrations across the continent, some from as far away as Kham or Amdo. It is said to be a two year round trip by prostration from the eastern parts of Tibet to Kailash and back ...
Tarboche is marked by a tall flagpole adorned with thousands of fluttering, multi-colored prayer flags and kata scarves strung out in radiating lines from the pole. The sacred prayer-pole will be ritually raised as it is every year, and the direction the pole tilts, if it tilts at all, will foretell the future of Tibet for the coming year. It is a very significant ceremony, and monks, lamas and Rimpoches will preside over the rituals. During the festival, there is plenty of shopping as a good Tibetan never misses an opportunity to make a sale, and products from all over Tibet are available. And after the ceremony, devout Tibetans will gather for a piece of wooden prayer-pole, a 'sacred relic'. This is a day for photos, so make sure you are loaded down with extra rolls of film!
To the west of the Tarboche is the Chorten Kangnyi, and auspicious but somewhat repulsively-decorated archway. Perched above Tarboche is the Sky Burial Site of 84 Mahasiddhas, a spot revered for once having been the burial site for lamas, and containing numerous sacred springs, cairns, and power places. Pilgrims lie down on a flat rock strewn with old clothes, bones, tsampa bowls and personal belongings and visualize their death.
We set up our first camp either near the flagpole, or just across the bridge from Chuku Gompa, and have the afternoon to wander up the valley to Chuku Gompa, perched above the valley at 4780m, where pilgrims will be doing koras and rubbing parts of their body against worn areas of rock, shiny with butter, to start the kora off in an auspicious manner. Inside is a revered marble statue called Chuku Opame and a silver-inlaid conch shell with silver wings which was said to have flown here from afar, and a ‘trulku’, or reincarnated lama, resides in a cozy (but dung-smoke filled) room in the gompa. A blessing by the local lama is an extremely good start for the kora.
13 - Trek to Dira-puk 5160m
After a leisurely breakfast, we meet our team of yaks and the local ‘drokpa’ yak drivers who will escort us around the kora, yak bells ringing. From Tarboche and Chuku Gompa, we follow the Lha Chu river through a serene, meadow-lined valley, hopping over small streams, the west face of Mount Kailash towering above us. The river enters a narrow canyon with high, steep cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. Midway along the trek at the second prostration point the secret entranceway to the Inner Kora is visible to the right. One must complete 13 koras to enter inside. Continuing up the valley, the north face of Kailash comes into view just as we reach the 13th century monastery at Dira-puk. There are two routes to the camp from the convergence of the valleys, and we have the choice of crossing a small moss bridge and following a small path to the gompa, which has awesome views of the north face of Kailash, or continuing on along the main trail. We camp opposite the river from the gompa, immediately below the massive north face of Kailash. A sunset walk up to the ridge overlooking the north face is a must!
14 – Trek to Mani Camp 4650m (over the Drolma La)
We now leave the Lha Chu Valley just as the sunrise turns the snow peaks gold and pink, and enter the Drolma Chu Valley, heading up towards the 5,630 meter Drolma La. Although the altitude makes the trekking difficult, the masses of pilgrims performing their acts of devotion along the way are continuously intriguing. Those extremely devout pilgrims prostrate themselves the entire way around Kailash, kneeling down and extending their bodies and hands in front of them in prayer (and marking the beginning of the next prostration). The trail is lined with sacred sites: butter, coin & flag-covered rocks, rocks with footprints of saints, rocks to climb over, under or through, hillsides of discarded clothes as offerings and other significant sites. It's a tough climb to the prayer-flag festooned summit, but it’s all worth if from the top as juniper incense burns and thousands of colorful prayer flags send prayers out into the surrounding valleys. We take the lead from the many pilgrims up top and stop for lunch before the descent to the east valley. Below us lies the Lake of Compassion, Thukpe Dzingbu, one of the highest lakes in the world. We will camp in the valley below the pass at the eastern face of Mount Kailash at a camp called Mani camp.
15 – Trek to Darchen, drive to Drive to Chiu Gompa and Lake Manasorovar 4540m
Another couple of hours of bright early morning trekking along a boulder-filled river brings us to Zutul-puk Gompa (4790m), with Milarepa’s meditation cave and imprints of his hand, food and head prints. A monk with a Polaroid takes photos of the Tibetan pilgrims in all their finery for 5 RMB! Afterwards, it’s an easy walk along some impressive gorges and around many mani stones and mani walls back to the Barka plains and dusty Darchen where our jeeps await us. The kora is finished - we’ve erased our sins, endured extremely cold nights and mornings, crossed one of the highest passes in the world, met countless fellow pilgrims, sent prayers of peace out to the world. Congratulations!
Good karma acquired all around, we pack up camp and drive along the beautiful bluffs near Lake Manasarovar to Chiu (or bird) Gompa, spectacularly situated on a craggy cliff side along the northwest shores of the lake, and where the ubiquitous Guru Rimpoche left behind a meditation cave and reputedly spent the last seven years of his life. We set up camp right on the shores for perhaps the ultimate Tibetan sunset.
16 - Drive to Montser 4650m
It's a beautiful three hour drive eastwards, past the sacred Bon-po mountain next to Kailash, to the village of Montser, which is our base for the trip out to the ancient capital of the Zhangzhung Kingdom, Kyunglung, the next day.
17 - Montser - Excursion to Kyunglung, Zhangzhung Kingdom
This morning we set off early to the spectacularly-set Gurugyam Gompa, a Bon-po gompa just southwest of Montser, set under broad canyons walls next to the Sutlej river. Built into the cliffs, an ancient cave complex with tunnels, balconies, prayer flags and ancient artivacts mark the spot that Guru Rimpoche and the Bonpo masters meditated over a millennium ago, now used by the resident Rimpoche Lama. This is one of the most important Bonpo monasteries in far west Tibet, the present gompa re-built after the Cultural Revolution, and a beautiful spot.
Next, we'll drive a few kilometers along the Sutlej river to the modern Kyunglung village, and then on to Kyunglung itself, the ancient capital of the Zhangzhung Kingdom, which ruled over most of Tibet and neighboring Ladakh from the pre-Christian era onwards, and a fabled troglodyte community. Set amidst spectacular red-sandstone canyons, these are the relatively untouched ruins of one of Tibet's earliest cities, little visited by tourist of any nationality. The name means 'Garuda Valley', and the dzong on top is called Ngulkhar, which translates as 'Silver Castle of the Kings'; there is much mythology associated with the region, and the population was said to be between two and three thousand. Old paths lead up to crumbling cave-home with wooden doors, tunnels, old stone walls and mani walls. It's a wonderful day of exploring!
To get there, we cross the Sutlej near a large complex of hot springs and limestone deposits, and hike for about 20 minutes up to the ancient city.
18 - Drive to Parayang 4750m
It's a 300 km drive through wild country from Lake Manasarovar to Parayang. We cross wide plains, shallow rivers and pass by a few local truck stops with makeshift tea houses. Passing the stunning Mayum-tso lake, we climb to the Mayum La, where we are rewarded by a magnificent mountain panorama. The scenery along this section is some of the most beautiful of the entire journey, and a distant storm drifting in back of Tibetans, horses and sheep is a surreal sight. The kids will be out at the camp sight to welcome us to our sand dunes camp site at Parayang ... as will the village dogs! This is a wonderful spot to watch sunset and roll down the soft, dun-colored sand with the village kids.
19 - Drive to Saga 4600m
From Parayang, we drive another 255 km east, shouting 'Ki ki so so, Lha gyalo' (roughly translated 'May the gods be victorious!') as we crest the passes marked with prayer flags and cairns. The panoramas are some of the most beautiful on our journey, with the high mountains bordering Nepal on our right, and pebbly streams, small lakes, small Tibetan villages and soft hills surrounding us. We traverse this amazing Tibetan landscape, crossing more high passes, and the landscape gently transforms to a plateau of high-altitude desert sand dunes. There’s time to climb up to the wind-sculpted ridges and gaze over a bordering lake below extensive ripples of peaks. We camp near Saga, though time permitting, we might make it a bit further along towards Lhasa.
20 – Drive to Lhatse 3980m
A drive of 200 km through the high plains of Tibet, soft, beautiful and photogenic. Just before arriving in the dusty truck stop of Lhatse, we cross the Brahmaputra River, which originates from Kailash. We’ll camp in or near Lhatse, depending on time and campsites.
21 - Drive to Shigatse 3900m
From here, the roads are quite good, and usually paved, and our 157 km drive to Shigatse, past lovely Tibetan villages where the spring planting will be in full force, is a scenic one. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet, with perhaps the best preserved but controversial monastery, the Tashilhunpo gompa. This Gelugpa gompa, home to the Panchen Lama, is one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet and there is much to explore within its surrounding walls. We will take a few hours for a visit in the late afternoon or early morning before heading to Lhasa. Camping is finished, and we head to a hotel for the night.
22 - Drive to Lhasa 3650m
Another day of smooth driving through the wonderful landscapes of central Tibet and towards our final destination of Lhasa, one of Kim’s favorite cities in Asia, despite the Chinese presence there. We stay in the heart of old Lhasa at the beautiful, Tibetan-styled Dhood Gu Hotel near the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor square, where the character of the city is still very Tibetan. We will probably head out to the infamous Dunya bar and restaurant for a much-deserved beer or two in the evening.
23, 24 & 25 - Lhasa
Over the following three days we visit most of the most important sites in and around Lhasa with our Tibetan guide. Late afternoons will be free for you to discover the endlessly fascinating bazaars, walk koras around the Jokhang with the myriad other pilgrims, or sit in the Barkhor square, immersing yourself in the exoticism of Lhasa. There is also the option of additional tours to places such as the Tibetan Medical Centre, Ganden Monastery or Tsurphu Monastery at a slight extra cost, although after our last few weeks, a bit of rest in Lhasa is usually the top choice.
The Jokhang is the holiest temple in Tibet and shelters the sacred Jowo Sakyamuni statue. Shuffle among the pilgrims, butter lamps permeating the air, and find gruesome Gods in hidden annexes. There is always a procession of devout Tibetans through the complex. After walking the holy inner circle, complete a circuit of the Barkhor, the market surrounding the Jokhang, for good luck. It is the best market to shop for all things Tibetan, and just about anything else you ever wanted as well. Kim has lots of practice, and is happy to assist with any buying ... no commission attached.
Drepung and Sera Monasteries – Sera is one of the best preserved monasteries in Tibet, renown for its lively debating sessions in the courtyard each afternoon. Within its whitewashed walls and golden roofs, several hundred monks live and study. Drepung was founded in the 14th century and was once the largest gompa in the world with a population of around 10,000 monks. These days the figure has been reduced to several hundred, but there is still much of interest to see here, as the structure escaped relatively unscathed during the Cultural Revolution.
Norbulingka – Norbulinka is the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, set in a quiet and relaxing garden which used to house the Dalai Lama’s pets. One particularly interesting mural inside depicts the history of Tibet and all the Dalai Lamas.
Potala Palace - The magnificent white, black, red and gold Potala Palace dominates the skyline of Lhasa. It was the winter quarters of the Dalai Lama, housing jewel-encrusted gold and silver stupas of previous Dalai Lamas, numerous grand state rooms and many important chapels. There has been a palace on this site since the 5th or 6th century, but the present palace was constructed in the 17th century.
26 – Fly to Kathmandu
It’s a two-hour drive to the Gonggar Airport from Lhasa. The spectacular flight takes us right across the main Himalayan range and provides us with magnificent mountain views of most of the highest peaks in the world if the weather is nice. We have a final dinner together, reminiscing over wood-oven pizzas at the Roadhouse Cafe. Did we really just return from the fabled Kang Rimpoche in far-western Tibet?
27 - Kathmandu
A final free day back in Kathmandu. Perhaps some last 'koras' back at Bouddha? In the evening, we say our goodbyes over drinks and a last dinner in Thamel.
Day 28 - Depart
Farewell … We take you to the airport for your flight home. We hope you had a wonderful trip into the heart of Tibet on the roof of the world - the journey of a lifetime!
For those of you with more time, there are lots of options, including a spectacular Everest flight, a Kathmandu Valley bike trip, Pokhara, rafting or a trip out to Nagarkot and Bhaktapur, all of which we can book for you.