NOTE: Our itinerary may vary slightly depending on local road conditions, the group's acclimatization rate and the Western, Sherpa or Tibetan guide's discretion.
You will be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House (look for their sign - they will be looking for you) and brought to the Kathmandu Guest House in their van. Kim will book the extra nights for you, and your room will be ready for you when you arrive.
Day 1 - Meet in Kathmandu 1340m
You'll be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House, so look out for a Kathmandu guest house sign when you leave the airport. They will bring you back to the Kathmandu Guest House, where your rooms are booked.
Kim will meet you at the 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'll go over some of the logistics of the trek and get to know each other over a few beers ...
NOTE: We need your passport by 9:00 AM on the morning of Thursday, 19 December. If your flight arrives in the afternoon you'll have to arrive a day early, on Wednesday, 18 December. We can book the extra night for you as needed ...
Days 2 & 3 - Kathmandu
A free day to explore the Kathmandu valley. Options: Climb the many steps to Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), with its commanding views of Kathmandu (at 1420 m), its whitewashed stupas and its unique synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism. 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. 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 saffron sit serenely meditating - when they’re not posing for photos-for-rupees.
We'll have time for a bit of gear shopping in Thamel for anyone who needs to do this, and in the evening will head out for dinner of wood-oven pizza at the Roadhouse Cafe.
Day 4 - Fly Lhasa. Drive to Samye
Our spectacular hour long China Air flight takes us right across the main Himalayan range, over such Himalayan giants as Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga, for magnificent mountain views. After landing at Gonggar Airport and meeting our Tibetan guide, we'll drive the approximately 3 1/2 hours to Samye to visit the oldest monastery in Tibet, and spend the night in a hotel. En route we'll cross the sacred Bramaputra River which flows from Kailash, and the landscapes are sublime as we near the green Samye valley. We've had a big altitude gain so be sure to take it easy, drink lots of water and stay away from alcohol for the night ...
Samye Gompa is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Tibet, constructed in the late 8th century under the patronage of the great King Trisong Detsen, who sought to revitalize Buddhism after its decline from the time of King Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. The renown Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhist was influential in the gompa's construction but it was later taken over by the Sakya and Gelugpa schools. These days Tibetans of all traditions come to worship here.
Samye Gompa is famous for its sacred mandala design. The central temple symbolizes the legendary Mount Meru, the center of the universe, the physical location of which is believed to be Mount Kailash in Western Tibet. Samye is said to be modeled on Odantapuri monastery in Bihar, India, and has a strong connection to Lo Gekar in Mustang.
The story of Lo Gekar: Samye Gompa, the oldest gompa in Tibet, was repeatedly destroyed by demons when it was being built. The head lama dreamed that Guru Rimpoche could help with the construction and invited him to the site. The great Guru Rimpoche found demons to be the problem, and suggested that they first build Lo Gekar. Guru Rimpoche killed the demons at the spot that Lo Gekar was soon to be constructed. The long mani wall just south of Dhakmar is said to have arisen from the intestines of the demon, and the red cliffs above Dhakmar the blood of the demon. After Lo Gekar was completed, Samye in eastern Tibet was also successfully built.
Once settled into our guest house in Samye, we'll head to the gompa, hoping to catch the afternoon puja and the wonderful evening light ...
Day 5 - Drive to Lhasa
We'll have the morning in Samye, returning the 250 km to Lhasa after lunch and another morning's visit to Samye Gompa. We check in to our Tibetan-run hotel, the New Yak. We're staying near the Jokhang temple and the Barkor square, where the character of the city is still very Tibetan.
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 Barkor 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.
Let's explore and meet the Tibetans in December, without the hoards of tourists and under crisp, blue winter skies ... !
Day 6 - Lhasa
We have two more days to wander the streets of the Tibetan section of Lhasa, and continue with our touring of the monasteries and the famous Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas.
Lhasa: Jokhang Temple & Barkor Square - 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.
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.
Norbulingka - Norbulingka 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.
Christmas Day: What's more romantic than Christmas in Lhasa? After sightseeing we will have a cozy dinner out in town, with plenty of cheer to keep us warm. Tashi Delek, and Merry Christmas!
Day 7 - Lhasa - Christmas Day
What's more romantic than Christmas in Lhasa? After sightseeing we will have a cozy dinner out in town, with plenty of cheer to keep us warm. Tashi Delek, and Merry Christmas!
Day 8 - Lhasa. Daytrip Ganden Gompa 4300m
We'll set off early for a scenic 36-kilometer drive to the Gelugpa Ganden Monastery, on of the 'three great' Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet. Ganden is situated atop Wangbur Mountain in Tagtse County. Its full name is Ganden (meaning joyful, the Tibetan name for Tu?ita, the heaven where the bodhisattva Maitreya is said to reside) and Namgyal Ling (victorious temple).
Ganden was founded by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition, in 1409. It's history is interesting so I will quote from Wikipedia: 'The Ganden Tripa or 'throne-holder of Ganden' is the head of the Gelukpa school. Tsongkhapa's preserved body was entombed there in a silver and gold encrusted tomb by his disciples in 1419. Being the farthest from Lhasa of the three university monasteries, Ganden traditionally had a smaller population with some 6,000 monks in the early 20th century (although Waddell reports an estimate of about 3,300 in the 1890s and there were, apparently only 2,000 in 1959. At this time there are about 170 monks. Ganden Monastery consisted of two principal original colleges, Jangtse and Shartse, meaning North Peak and East Peak respectively. The three main sights in the Ganden Monastery are the Serdung, which contains the tomb of Tsongkhapa, the Tsokchen Assembly Hall and the Ngam Cho Khang the chapel where Tsongkhapa traditionally taught. The monastery houses artifacts which belonged to Tsongkhapa. It contained more than two dozen major chapels with large Buddha statues. The largest chapel was capable of seating 3,500 monks. Tenzin Gyatso, the present Dalai Lama (born 1935), took his final degree examination in Ganden in 1958 and he claims to feel a particularly close connection with Tsongkhapa.
Ganden Monastery was completely destroyed during the rebellion of 1959. In 1966 it was severely shelled by Red Guard artillery and monks then had to dismantle the remains. Most of Tsongkhapa's mummified body was burned but his skull and some ashes were saved from the fire by Bomi Rinpoche, the monk who had been forced to carry the body to the fire. Re-building has been continuing since the 1980s and the "red-painted lhakang in the centre is the reconstruction of Ganden's sanctum sanctorum containing Tsongkapa's reliquary chorten called the Tongwa Donden, 'Meaningful to Behold.' - Wikipedia
The kora of Ganden, around the small Wangbur Mountain, takes about 45 minutes and is a great way to come into contact with Tibetan pilgrims, atired in their pilgrimage best. Every once in a while you might see a sky burial on a nearby hillside, a tradition that is rarely found in Tibet anymore ...
Day 9 - Drive to Gyantse
Leaving Lhasa, the 'city of gods', we switchback up a pass to overlook the turquoise Yamdrok Tso far below. Yamdrok Tso is one of the four holy lakes of Tibet, home to wrathful deities, and a spectacular site. Be ready to have your photo taken at the top of the pass with yaks and goat by enterprising Tibetans ...
After switchbacking down the pass, we continue to drive through the fertile plain of the Nyang River valley, a traditional vignette around every corner. the fertile plain of the Nyang river valley. Once in Gyantse, we'll check into our hotel and head out to visit the sites.
Gyantse, strategically located in the Nyang Chu valley, was once part of an ancient trade route from the Chumbi Valley, Yatung and Sikkim. From Gyantse, trade routes led south to Shigatse and also over the Karo La into Central Tibet. The Gyantse Dzong (fort), built in 1390, guarded the southern approaches to the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley and Lhasa, and the town was surrounded by a long, protective wall 3 kilometers in length. Part of this wall still survives and is a dramatic backdrop for photos. Gyantse was once the third largest city in Tibet but was overtaken by Younghusband and the British in 1904. During the fierce battle, Tibetan forces fought the British for most of two months with dire consequences for both sides. (See 'Younghusband' by Patrick French).
We will visit the 15th century Palkor Chode Monastery and the magnificent Kumbum, translated as '100,000 images', the largest chorten in Tibet. Kumbum was commissioned by a Gyantse prince in 1427 and was an important center of the Sakya school. It still contains 77 chapels within its six floors and is illustrated with over 10,000 murals, many still intact and exhibiting a strong Nepali influence, the last of their kind to be found in Tibet.
'The town of Gyantse was nearly destroyed by flooding in 1954, and after rioting in 1959, local industries were dismantled and artisans fled while others were placed in workcamps. Some 400 monks and laypeople were imprisoned in the monastery. During the Cultural Revolution the fort, the monastery and Kumbum were ransacked. Precious objects were destroyed or sent out of Tibet. Fortunately, the chorten was spared. The main building of the Pelkor Chode or Palcho Monastery and the Kumbum have been largely restored but the dzong or fort is still largely in ruins but there is an Anti-British Imperialism Museum there which gives the Chinese version of the 1904 British invasion.' - Wikipedia
Day 10 - Drive to Shigatse 3840m
It's a short but beautiful drive through flat countryside, surrounded by snow peaks, to Shigatse, previously known as Samdruptse. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and is home to perhaps the best preserved but most controversial monastery in Tibet, Tashilhunpo. This Gelugpa gompa, administered by the Panchen Lama, is one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet and there is much to explore within its surrounding walls.
'In the 19th century, the 'Tashi' or Panchen Lama had temporal power over Tashilhunpo Monastery and three small districts, though not over the town of Shigatse itself, which was administered by two Dzongpön (prefects) appointed from Lhasa. Before military conflict between the PRC's People's Liberation Army and the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan territory was divided into 53 prefecture districts called Dzongs. There were two Dzongpöns for every Dzong—a lama (Tse-dung) and a layman. They were entrusted with both civil and military powers and are equal in all respects, though subordinate to the generals and the Chinese Amban in military matters. However, there were only one or two Ambans representing the Chinese emperor residing in Lhasa, directing a little garrison, and their power installed since 1728, progressively declined to end-up as observer at the eve of their expulsion in 1912 by the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1952, shortly after the PRC sent forces to the region, Shigatse had a population of perhaps 12,000 people, making it the second largest city in Tibet.' - Wikipedia
We will take a few hours for a visit in the late afternoon or early morning. We stay at a nice hotel in Shigatse, and head out for a good dinner and Lhasa beers in the evening.
Day 11 - Drive Shegar
We continue past scenic Tibetan villages past dusty Lhatse, the crossroads to sacred Mount Kailash in far western Tibet. A few hours of driving along the Himalayan range brings us to Tingri, the gateway to Everest Base Camp. Tingri is an atmospheric village composed of new and old Tingri, and including a Chinese Army post. Old Tingri, once called Ganggar, includes about 100 mud-brick houses crowded together below the hillside, very old Tibet in style, and worth a walk around for a glimpse of Tibetan village life. There are some real Tibetan characters roaming the streets doing business; or perhaps passing us on the street in their horse-carts or prayer-flag festooned tractors. The wild west of central Tibet! There is an impressive viewpoint at the remains of an old garrison called Ganggar Ri with views of Everest, Cho Oyu and the Nangpa La route to the Khumbu region of Nepal.
Soon afterwards we reach New Shegar where we stop for the night at a hotel. We'll spend the afternoon exploring the fantastic ruins of Shegar fort, just 7 km down a small road and above traditional Shegar village. The views over the valley from the high walls of the ruins are sublime, a truly Tibetan scene.
Day 12 - Drive Zhangmu
Our last day of driving in Tibet, we spend all of the day on a good road driving through gorgeous Tibetan landscapes to reach the developing town of Nyalam. Nearby are several famous Guru Rinpoche meditation caves. If time permits, we may continue on to Zhangmu 1 1/2 hours further south.
After breakfast we're back on the Friendship Highway heading south towards the border of Nepal. We drive up a wide valley we have final views of Everest and Cho Oyu, and pass the ruins of several large forts, which guarded the trade route to Nepal and were destroyed in 18th century wars. Further along the road to Shishapangma north base camp and to Kailash is sign-posted, and above are inspiring views along that road that passes Peiko Tso.
The first pass is the Lalung La, 5124m, and after a short scenic drop between we reach the Shung La 5200m (although often called other names). Here we stop to admire a Himalayan panorama that includes Shishapangma and Khambachen on the west (right) and a hard to recognize Gauri Shankar (Chomo Tseringma for Tibetans and Sherpas). We are standing on the geographic divide, although the main Himalayan mountain divide is further south.
The descent to Nyalam at 3650m takes a couple of hours, with Zhangmu another 1 1/2 hours further south. This is one of the most impressive gorge roads in the world, a winding road through a green rainforest with waterfalls streaming over the road at points. It's a relief to reach the winding streets of Zhangmu, a typical border town but perched precariously on a steep hill, making the most of its meager land allotment.
Day 13 - Drive Last Resort (Nepal) - New Year's Eve
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 and driven to the Last Resort, just half an hour south of the border past Tatopani (the hot springs).
The Last Resort is a wonderful place to spend a night after the rigors of Tibet, truly tropical after the harsh Tibetan climate. It's a lovely Nepali-style tented resort with a sauna, plunge pool, big, leafy plans shading the canvas tents and an outdoor, bamboo dining area perfect for lively happy hours! Beers in the bamboo bar/restaurant afterwards is the perfect way to wind down ...
It's New Year's Eve, and we'll celebrate in style!
Day 14 - Drive Kathmandu
Not our favorite part of the trip, but the 4-5 hour drive to Kathmandu is a good way to get some sightseeing in Nepal in! We'll be ready for our clean rooms, a change of clothes and a good, long, hot shower back at the Kathmandu Guest House, and later in the evening we'll head out for dinner and toast our wonderful winter journey through Tibet ...
Day 15 - 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!
Extra Days in Kathmandu
If you wish to stay longer, we can offer plenty of suggestions: mountain biking or rafting in the Kathmandu valley, an Everest sightseeing flight, trips to Bhaktapur or Patan (Kathmandu Valley's other historic capital cities), a night at the Fort Hotel in Nagarkot for a bit of luxury and expansive sunrise/sunset mountain panoramas, visits to interesting temple villages such as Changu Narayan, a few days at Barahi Hotel in Pokhara or a relaxing excursion to Chitwan National Park (staying at Maruni Sanctuary Lodge) or Bardia National Park. Kim can help to arrange any of these excursions for you.
Tashi Delek & Namaste!