Epic Experience—Saga Dawa at Kailash, 2019—15 Days
15-DAY EPIC EXPERIENCE LEAVING FROM LHASA
MOUNT EVEREST: In 1865, Mount Everest was so-named by the Royal Geographical Society of England. Tibetans honor the mountain as Jomolangma or Queen of the Universe. Often pictured with a plume of condensation streaming from its pyramidal summit, the mountain peaks at 8,848 m/29,029 ft. Tibet is home to Everest’s stunning North Face. From Everest Base Camp at 5,100 m/17,000 ft., the mountain face soars another 3,648 m/11,969 ft overhead.
MOUNT KAILASH: An imposing 6,174 m, the majestic Mount Kailash (Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan, Precious Snow Mountain), in the far-western Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), offers unforgettable outer and inner experiences. Not only is this one of the highest regions in the world, it is the watershed of the mighty rivers of Asia. Mount Kailash is also one of the most important spiritual places on the Earth and is revered by millions —Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Bonpos and others— for its cosmic, geomantic powers.
JUNE 10: Arrive Lhasa by plane or train. Check-in to your hotel.
JUNE 11: Visit the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor in the morning. The Jokhang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the spiritual heart of Lhasa and of Tibetan Buddhism. The most sacred of all temples, it houses a Shakyamuni statue consecrated by Buddha himself. Built by Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal in the early seventh century, the temple is built on an important geomantic site and has undergone continuous renovations. The Jokhang is widely celebrated because it is not controlled by one particular school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Barkhor is a promenade (without vehicles) that encircles the Jokhang Temple. It includes a large plaza in front of the Jokhang and a circuit around the temple. Here, locals and pilgrims gather for devotional practice, relaxing and shopping. It's very enjoyable to join in and observe a lot of ethnic diversity. There are also places for devotional practices such as offering candles and incense.
In the afternoon, you will be driven to the nearby Sera Monastery. Founded in 1419, this is still one the great religious institutions of Tibet. About 600 monks are currently in residence, down from a historical population of 5,000. The complex features spectacular prayer halls, chapels and views. There is an inspiring, hour-long path that is relatively easy to complete. Return to your hotel in Lhasa.
JUNE 12: Visit the Potala Palace in the morning and the Norbulingka Palace in the afternoon.
The Potala was named after the mountain abode of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. For centuries, the palace was the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas. Built in the 7th century and reconstructed by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century and many times since, it towers over the city of Lhasa. There are several palaces within this complex, designated by color—red, yellow and white. With thirteen levels and containing over 51,000 rooms and 200,000 images, the Potala is an invaluable monument of historical, cultural and spiritual significance. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Norbulingka, Jewel Park, served as the traditional summer residence of the Dalai Lamas from the 1780's until 1959. It also consists of several complexes and gardens and embodies the culture of Tibet. Return to your hotel in Lhasa.
JUNE 13: Leaving Lhasa and driving south, you will arrive at breathtaking views of shimmering turquoise waters against a backdrop of glaciers—Yamdrok Yutso Turquoise Lake and Karola Glacier. Yamdrok Lake lies at 4,408 m/14,461 ft. It is revered as the life force of Tibet. Stretching over 754 km, its teal blue waters make it the largest lake in southern Tibet. Surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges, the lake is fed by icy streams and inlets that flow down from the higher elevations during the warm summer months. Its curved pincer shape boasts nine islands, numerous bays and is home to several monasteries.
In the afternoon, you will reach Gyantse, a town famous for having retained its rural Tibetan character through the centuries. You will visit the unique 15th century octagonal Kubum Stupa, Stupa of 100,000 Deities, and, the beautiful Pelkor Monastery next to it. Both are exquisite examples of ancient Buddhist architecture, murals and imagery.
Then you will drive onward to the city of Shigatse with a population of just over 100,000. Shigatse is slightly higher in elevation than Lhasa and was once Tibet's second largest city. Traditionally, an important trading center, it was also the home of the famous Panchen Lamas. Check-in to your hotel.
JUNE 14: Leaving Shigatse, you will drive to Mount Everest Base Camp (EBC). The first destination today is Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world rebuilt since the Cultural Revolution but still a very simple place.
A 15-minute drive past Rongbuk Monastery brings you to the Everest Base Camp (18,192 ft (5,150 m). You will have several hours to explore or hike back to Rongbuk Monastery. The night will be spent in a comfortable tent hosted by locals.
JUNE 15: Waking up early, you will enjoy the sunrise over Mt. Everest before leaving for a day-long drive to Saga. Along the way, you will enjoy spectacular views of Mount Shishapangma and the turquoise Pigutso Lake. Check in to your hotel or guesthouse.
JUNE 16: Driving on to Mount Kailsash, your next destination is the small village of Darchen (4,575 m) at the foot of Mt. Kailash. Check in to your hotel or guesthouse.
JUNE 17: From a spiritual or religious perspective, the hike around Mt. Kailash is called "kora". This is an important practice for Buddhists, Bon and Hindus— you will be able to join as well. The trail winds around the base of the mountain, through barren lands and lush green valleys, offering views of snow-capped peaks and pristine blue lakes. There are several monasteries to visit along the way. The hike around the Mt. Kailash requires three days for a distance of 53 km. In Darchen, you will have the option of hiring a horseman and his horse if you wish and/or a porter to carry your backpack.
From Darchen, it’s 8 km to Darboche (4,660 m). This is where the Saga Dawa Festival takes place. Saga Dawa is a sacred month for Buddhists. It celebrates Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment and parinirvana and Buddhists reserve this month for their spiritual practice. Crowds of Tibetans will come to help erect a huge prayer flag pole while monks are chanting. After this, it's another 12 km to the grassy meadows of Drirapuk Monastery (4,920 m), Cave of the Female Yak Hor. Drirapuk offers a spectacular view of the great north face of Kailash, a vertical sheer cliff consisting of jet black rock. You will stay in a simple guest house and enjouy the view of Kailash towering above and very close to you.
JUNE 18: The next day, you will cross Dolma Pass, 6.4 km from Drirapuk. The ascent takes about four hours and is the most arduous part of the journey. The peak of Mount Kailash now rises to your right. The trail meanders and passes a charnel ground where pilgrims discard an item of their possessions, representing their renouncement of worldly attachments. At the Pass, there is a large boulder into which the Twenty-One Taras (female buddhas) are said to have dissolved when the great Buddhist yogi Gotsangpo journeyed there.
After Dolma Pass, you will gradually descend into the fields of Dzutrulpuk Monastery where you will find another night's accommodations in a simple guesthouse and explore a famous Milarepa cave the following morning.
JUNE 19: This morning, the trail winds back to Darchen and the circuit around Kailash is completed! In the afternoon, you will drive to Zhada and enjoy your first spectacular view of the ruins of the Kingdom of Guge. Simple guesthouse.
JUNE 20: Today you will visit the ruins of the mysterious Guge Kingdom and then, not far away, Tholing Monastery. Founded in the 10th century by a descendant of a Tibetan king, Guge's emergence marked the second promulgation of Buddhism in Tibet. Lost in the 17th century under mysterious circumstances, it was rediscovered in the the 1930's by the Italian explorer, Guiseppe Tucci. The site includes houses, once-inhabited caves, monasteries and stupas as well as sculptures, carvings and murals. The ruins cover an area of 720,000 square meters and lie at 3,800 m/12,400 ft. Excellent YouTube documentary.
In the afternoon, you will drive to the nearby sacred emerald green Manasarovar Lake (15,015 ft), the highest freshwater lake in the world. The Tibetan names for this lake are Mapham Yutso and Tso Madropa. Its surface reflects Mt. Kailash for most of the year except in winter when it freezes over. Revered as the epitome of purity, its waters are believed to have healing properties, both physical and spiritual. Religious Hindus can often be seen performing their ablutions in the lake. Overnight in a simple guest house.
JUNE 21: Return to Saga. Hotel or guest house.
JUNE 22: Return to Shigatse. Hotel.
JUNE 23: Visit Tashilhunpo Monastery founded by the First Dalai Lama in 1447 and one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet. Then drive back to Lhasa via the scenic Yamdrok Turquoise Lake and have a few hours left for last-minute stopping or restaurants in Lhasa. Check in to your hotel.
JUNE 24: Leave Lhasa by plane or train, unless you have extended your itinerary.