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Saga Dawa Kailash & Guge Kingdom

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Kathmandu - Lhasa - Shigatse - Guge Kingdom - Kailash Kora - Saga Dawa - Lake Manasarovar

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 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.

We arrive at Kailash in time for the Saga Dawa festival 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.

This trip includes two and a half days to explore exotic Lhasa and a visit to the ancient and mystical Guge Kingdom, the remains of one of the most significant and the oldest civilization in Tibet. We drive to Kailash and the Guge Kingdom via the scenic southern route, thus seeing much of far-western Tibet en route. Desert dunes, yak caravans, Tibetan villages, glaciers, the 8000 meter Himalayan snow-peaks and prayer-flag adorned high passes ... it's all there.

This is the trip – or pilgrimage – for which devout Buddhists, Hindus, Bonpas and adventurous Westerners wait a lifetime, a kora of sacred Mount Kailash. We make it an unforgettable experience with top-notch guides and crew and an unbeatable itinerary in Tibet and Nepal. Don’t miss this one!

Outline itinerary

Day 1 - Arrive Kathmandu

2 - Kathmandu

3 - Kathmandu

4 - Fly Kathmandu-Lhasa

5 - Lhasa

6 - Lhasa

7 - Drive to Gyantse

8 - Drive to Shigatse

9 - Drive to Lhatse

10 - Drive to Sasang

11 - Drive to Tsochen

12 - Drive to Gertse

13 - Drive to Gyaki

14 - Drive to Shiquanhe

15 - Drive to Tsada (Guge Kingdom)

16 - Excursion to Guge Kingdom

17 - Drive to Manasarovar

18 - Drive to Tarboche

19 - Tarboche - Saga Dawa Festival

20 - Kailash Kora trek

21 - Kailash Kora trek

22 - Kailash Kora trek. Drive to Manasarovar

23 - Drive to Paryang

24 - Drive to Saga

25 - Drive to Peiku Tso

26 - Drive to Zangmu

27 - Cross the border, drive to Kathmandu

28 - Kathmandu

Day 29 - Depart


Lhasa's Tibetan Quarter

The Potala Palace and Barkor Square

Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries

The 'northern route' to Guge Kingdom

Guge's ancient forts, caves & monasteries

Kailash Kora & Saga Dawa festival

The 'southern route' back to Kathmandu

Lake Manasarovar & Chiu Gompa


See Our treks

Cost - US$3180

Max 12 bookings

$150 single supplement for Tibet


Kim Bannister

Leaders: local Nepali & Tibetan guides

Arrival hotel

Kathmandu Guest House

Thamel, Kathmandu

tel: (+977 1) 470 0632, 470 0800

Contact: Mr Sohan Shrestha, Guest Manager

Kim: Room 413

Local office contact

Expedition Himalaya

Tel: +9771 400 1066

Nabin Trital: +977 98510 04278

Pasang Nuru: +977 98130 91051

Our service includes

airport transfers

3 star hotel in Kathmandu

hotels and guesthouses in Tibet

group transportation by private vehicle

entrance fees and permits as needed

China (Tibet) visa

emergency PAC bag (Portable Altitude Chamber)

all meals from day 10-25

expedition-style trek:

all meals and hot drinks on trek

Our service excludes

insurance, Nepal visa, meals in cities and towns

international flights, equipment rental, alcohol and soft drinks, laundry, tipping and other items of a personal nature

For meals and possible tips for the crew and drivers allow approx $200-250

Detailed itinerary

As a prelude to our Kailash adventure, we spend two full days in Kathmandu, experiencing the sights and smells of the bazaars, wandering the fascinating streets, and visiting the local temples, stupas, monasteries and ancient Durbar square.

Our flight to Lhasa is spectacular as we pass over many of the highest peaks in the world and look down on the patchwork of southern Tibet. Once in Lhasa, we have three more days to absorb the exoticism of the Tibetan quarter with its colorful pilgrims and Barkor circuit, and to explore this history-laden city. We will be expertly guided around the Potala Palace, the Barkor square and some of the most significant and ancient gompas in the Tibetan world by our Tibetan guide, who will instruct us on the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Our first day on the road takes us to Gyantse, and the second day to Shigatse, with its gilded and shimmering Tashilumpo Gompa. After restocking in Lhatse, we head west via the 'northern route'. En route to the Guge Kingdom and Mount Kailash, we cross the vast Tibetan plateau by Landcruiser, camping at spectacular locations and feasting on 'gourmet' meals prepared by our Sherpa chef. The Tibetan plateau, at an average altitude of 4500 meters, is an untamed land of nomads (drokpas), yaks, wild ass (kiang), sand dunes, and grasslands, bordered on the Nepali side by range after range of snow-capped mountains. The road out to Kailash will be peppered with Tibetan pilgrims, dressed in their most colorful wardrobes, all crowded into large cargo trucks on their way out to Kailash. 

At Guge, we have time to visit some of the most remote, colorful and untouched ruins - caves, gompas, forts - of the Tibetan Buddhist world, and venture into an ancient Kingdom that suddenly vanished centuries ago. A highlight of any trip to Tibet!

The kora itself follows deep valleys around Mount Kailash and crosses the 5,600 meter Drolma La pass just past the north face in order to gain a good rebirth into the next life. Hindus and Buddhist regard Kailash as the earthly manifestation of Mount Meru, the cosmic and spiritual center of the universe, and as home to the Hindu lord Shiva and his consort Parvati as well as the abode of the Buddhist diety Demchock and his consort Dorje Phakmo. 

We arrive at Kailash in time for the Saga Dawa festival 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.

After the trek, we spend the night on the shores of sacred Lake Manasorovar at Chiu Gompa, built high up in the rocks overlooking the lake, the ideal spot to relax after the rigors of the trek. We head back to Kathmandu along the 'southern route', so new scenery, new mountain panaoramas, sand dunes, and more lovely camping spots. After crossing the Himalayas, we re-enter Nepal, and return to Kathmandu, with an extra day in Kathamndu to wind down after our journey into west Tibet.

Day 1- Arrive Kathmandu 1400m

You’ll be met at the airport by a representative from Explore Himalaya, one of our travel partners in Nepal, so look out for a sign with your name on it. We take you to the Kathmandu Guest House and get you checked into your room.

You'll have the afternoon to explore 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 and 3 - Kathmandu

Today is a free day to explore the Kathmandu valley with a guide. We usually cover three of the listed 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.

*** NOTE: if you have an extra day to spare in Kathmandu, we highly recommend a night at Nagarkot, a hill-station village at 2000 meters with spectacular mountain panoramas, and a great way to acclimatize for the jump to Lhasa. We will arrange single or double rooms for you at The Fort hotel ($50/$60), or can arrange less expensive accommodation, and will give you the options for transport there & back.

4 - Fly Kathmandu to Lhasa 3650m

This spectacular flight takes us right across the main Himalayan range and provides us with magnificent mountain views. After landing at Gonggar Airport and meeting our Tibetan guide, Pemba, it is a further 2 hour drive by Landcruiser to Lhasa. 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. It's advisable to take it easy for the remainder of the day due to Lhasa's high altitude. And drink plenty of water.

5 and 6 - Lhasa

Over the following two days we visit most of the most important sites in and around Lhasa with our Tibetan guide. Most afternoons will be free for you to discover the endlessly interesting bazaars, walk koras around the Jokhung with the myriad other pilgrims, or sit in the Barkhor square, immersing yourself in the exoticism of Lhasa.

The Jokhang

This 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.


This 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.

7 - Drive to Gyantse

Today we start our overland journey towards Mount Kailash and Manasarovar with scenic drive to Gyantse, traveling by Landcruiser along the Friendship Highway. We cross the Khamba La (4794m), from which there are stunning views across the waters of Yamdrok Tso (lake) to the snowy summit of Nazin Kang Sa. We dontinue westwards over another high pass, the Karo La (5045m), where we are treated to the spectacular sight of a huge glacier tumbling down to the road. After passing through beautiful valleys and colorful Tibetan villages we arrive in the town of Gyantse. Before continuing to Shigatse, we visit the Gyantse Dzong and Kumbum (huge Buddhist temple). The Dzong is a fort dating from the 14th century, from which there are amazing views of Gyantse town and the surrounding Nyang Chu valley. The Kumbum is a large gold-domed stupa, and its many small chapels house an impressive array of Tibetan Buddhist murals.

8 - Drive to Shigatse 3900m

A short day's driving today, but a scnenic one as we continue through classic central Tibetan countryside, and past many traditional Tibetan villages. Shigatse, which we reach in a few hours (or 90 km), is the second largest city in Tibet, with perhaps the best preserved (but controversial) monastery, the gilded Tashilumpo Gompa. This monastery is one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet and there is much to explore within its surrounding walls. We have all afternoon in Shigatse, also time for a 'kora' of the monastery, very worthwhile!

9 - Drive to Lhatse 4050m

Today before leaving Shigatse, we explore the local market and make a detailed visit to Tashilumpo Gompa (monastery). It's 157km from Shigatse to the small, dusty town of Lhatse, where we will stay and restock on fresh fruit and vegetables. From here to Manasarovar our itinerary is dictated by road and bridge conditions, and the location of good camp spots. The drivers, guide and sherpas decide where we camp so the following itinerary is approximate only.

10 - Drive to Sasang

Today we have an early breakfast, and then proceed on the 122 km drive towards Sasang via the Northern Route to Kailash and western Tibet. Crossing the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River), the road emerges to a lush river valley, where a small, beautiful Tibetan settlement warrants a quick visit. We set up camp for the night in Sasang, a small, typically Tibetan village.

11 - Drive to Tsochen

It's a long drive today (355 km), but a wonderfully scenic one along a grassy riverside valley. We reach ourcamp at Tsochen in the late afternoon, and are rewarded with steaming mugs of milky Nepali tea and snacks before dinner.

12 - Drive to Gertse

Another beautiful drive, today just over 250 km, along a route which winds up through lush, green hills, and is backed by impressive views of snow-peaks in the distance. The road finally opens out to a wide plane, and a further 85 km brings us to Gertse, where we set up our camp for another stary Tibetan evening.

13 - Drive to Gakyi

Today is a 375 km drive through a wide valley, and across another high pass, to the village of Gakyi. The Nepali chef will prepare a delicious dinner to help us wind down after the drive.

14 - Drive to Shiquanhe

This morning we start the drive by following the impressive Indus river, which eventually passes through Ladakh (Northern India) and Pakistan, for 110 km to the 'modern' town of Shiquahne, where we camp for the night.

15 - Drive to Tsada (Guge Kingdom)

We finally reach the Guge Kingdom today! The rough road which follows the Indus River from Shiquanhe eventually leads us to a small village, from where we emerge into the Guge Kingdom after crossing a series of passes.

16 - Excursion to Guge Kingdom

Today we make an extensive visit to the ruins of the ancient Guge Kingdom, which was founded in the 10th century, and played an important role in the second coming of Buddhism to Tibet. The Kingdom thrived for 700 years, was a center for monastic learning and possessed incredible riches, both monastic and belonging to the King, before mysteriously disappearing in the 17th century. The ruins lie at a hilltop near a snaking river, covering 180,000 square meters. Houses, cave dwellings, monasteries and stupas are distributed on the hilltops and surrounding areas. Guge Kingdom is now rightly famous for its Buddhist murals, sculptures and stone inscriptions, a fusion of Northern Indian Buddhist art, Kashmiri art, Tibetan classic art and Chinese art. The White and Red Palaces, Yamantaka Chapel, Tara Chapel and Mandala Chapel are remarkably well preserved. The themes of these murals, which have survived in the arid climate for hundreds of years, include stories of Buddha, Shakyamuni, Songsten Gampo, the Kings of Guge and the court and village life of the era.

17 - Drive to Manasorovar

It's a wonderful drive to the sacred Lake Manasorovar today, with spectacular views throughout; finally, views of the south face of Guru Rimpoche, Mount Kailash, just in front of us.

18 - Drive (or Trek) to Tarboche

This morning we head to Darchen for formalities, and then on to Tarboche. Darchen is marked by tall poles adorned with prayer flags (charchok) and the starting point for the 53 km sacred kora of the mountain, a kora done by Buddhist, Hindus, Bonpa and Christians alike. Early in the morning, we meet our team of yaks and Tibetan yak drivers who will escort us around the kora, yak bells ringing, and take a short drive along the jeep trail to the start of the kora at Tarboche.

Tarboche is marked by a tall flagpole adorned with thousands of multi-colored prayer flags and kata scarves strung out in radiating lines from the pole. To the west of the Tarboche is the Chorten Kangnyi, and auspicious but somewhat repulsively-decorated archway (you’ll see...) to walk through. 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. We have the afternoon to wander up the steep hillside to Chuku Gompa, perched above the valley at 4780m, where pilgrims will be doing koras and rubbing against sacred, worn areas of rock to start the trek. 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. A blessing by the local lama is an extremely good start for the kora!

The 'kora trek' around Mount Kailash

19 - Tarboche - 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 ...

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!

20 - Trek past Chuku Gompa 4750m to Dira-puk

From Tarboche, we follow the Lha Chu river through a serene and beautiful meadow-lined valley, hopping over small streams, the west face of Mount Kailash’s towering above us. The river enters a narrow canyon with high, steep cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. Midway along the trek the secret entranceway to the Inner Kora is visible to the right. One must complete 13 koras to enter. Instead we continue up the valley and the north face of Kailash comes into view just as we reach the 13th century monastery at Dira-puk. We camp opposite the river from the gompa, below the massive north face of Kailash. A sunset walk up to the ridge overlooking the north face is a must!

21 -Trek over the Drolma La to Meadow Camp

We now leave the Lha Chu Valley and enter the Drolma Chu Valley, heading up towards a 5,630 meter pass, the Drolma La. Although the altitude makes the trekking arduous, we will be continuously intrigued by the masses of pilgrims performing their acts of devotion along the way. 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. Peace throughout the world! Pilgrims, as well as our group, stop for lunch before the decent to the east valley. We pass above the the Lake of Compassion, Thukpe Dzingbu, one of the highest lakes in the world. We will camp in the valley below the pass near the eastern face of Mount Kailash.

22 - Trek to Darchen, Drive to Manasorovar 4560m

Another couple of hours brings us to Zutul-puk Gompa, 4790m, where there are several meditation caves and another cave containing an image of Milarepa. 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 Bharka Plains and dusty Darchen where our jeeps await us. The kora is finished - we’ve erased our sins, endured 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!

Sins cleansed, we drive the 35 km to Chiu Gompa on the shores of Manasorovar, to visit this picturesque gompa perched on a craggy hill-top with an imposing view of Kailash in back, and a famous Guru Rimpoche cave inside. Lake Manasorovar is separated from the smaller sister lake, Rakshas Tal, by a narrow strip of land, and the two lakes are linked by a small channel, an auspicious spot for Tibetans. Once at Manasorovar, the hearty have time to take a dip in the lake to wash away the more physical signs of our Kailash Kora. We camp either at Chiu Gompa or farther west along the lake.

23 - Drive to Paryang 4750m

Today is a long drive, about 270km, to the wonderful sand dunes camp site at Paryang. The kids will be out at the camp site to welcome us, as will the village dogs. Along the way, we cross the Mayum La and make several river crossings. 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.

24 - Drive to Saga 4600m

We continue driving today along a 255km stretch of road to Saga, passing through the small, dusty town of Zhongba en route and back over the passes, La Gyalo! We camp in a lovely spot just before the large village of Saga, where cold beers are available!

25 - Drive to Peiku Tso

Leaving Saga, we cross the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River) by ferry and continue our journey for 115km across the vast open plains. There are stunning Himalayan views, particularly of Shishapangma, accompanying us as we head towards the surreal turquoise lake, Peiku Tso. Here, we set up camp for the night; campsites don't get much better!

26 - Drive to Zangmu

The next few hours are as spectacular as they come, as we rejoin the Friendship Highway, pass through Tingri and are rewarded with magnificent views of the surrounding peaks of Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Menlungtse and Gauri Shankar. We spectacularly cross the Himalaya over the Lamlung La (5125m), and descend through a patchwork of silvery Tibetan villages to the charming village of Nyalam. From Nyalam, the road drops severely for about two hours of white-knuckled driving into a deep mossy gorge with cascading waterfalls before reaching the border town of Zhangmu. This outpost is a bit rough but certainly not lacking in character, with Tibetans offering to change any additional Chinese RMB into Nepali rupees and 'discos' lining the cliff-hugging streets.

27 - Cross the border, drive to Kathmandu

From Zhangmu, it's a short drive to the Friendship Bridge which spans the Bhote Kosi River and marks the Chinese - Nepalese border. We say goodbye to our Tibetan guide and driver and walk to Nepalese Immigration Control in Kodari where we will be met by our Nepalese staff. After passing thru Immigration we drive about four hours, through scenic middle-hills Nepali landscapes, to Kathmandu. Perhaps we have the afternoon free to do some sightseeing and shopping if we arrive early enough. And a hot shower!

28 - Kathmandu

We will book you in your rooms for an extra night to wind down after the trek; perhaps the afternoon in the Kathmandu Guest House to wind down ...

Day 29 - Depart

Farewell, we take you to the airport for your flight home. We hope you had a fantastic trip, the journey of a lifetime! You are welcome to stay longer in Kathmandu and we can assist with hotels, tours etc.

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