The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
1. MOUNT KAILASH
Distance: 52 km
Time: 3 days
It is an irony born of isolation: the world’s most revered holy place is also the least visited. Mount Kailash (22,028 ft) in western Tibet was being venerated long before the arrival of Hinduism. It is Mount Miri, the Axis Mundi - the axis upon which the world turns - the world’s epicentre, our ‘navel’, the birthplace of our planet. For Hindus it is the realm of Lord Shiva, the destroyer of ignorance who lives there in eternal meditation. For the Jains it is Meru Parvat, where the first Jain attained Nirvana. The founder of the Bon religion, a Tibetan sect with similarities to Tibetan Buddhism, also dwells on Kailash, and for Tantric Buddhists it is the home of Demchok, the embodiment of supreme bliss.
Religious pilgrims come here in their thousands every year to walk once around the mountain, a holy ritual called the kora which, it is believed, will bring good fortune, if not salvation. Hikers and adventurers come here from around the world, drawn in part by the mountain’s mysticism and rich mythology but also by the tapestry of challenges the 52-km walk around its base represents, involving uneven terrain, multiple crossings of difficult mountain passes, including the 5,669-m-high Dolma La Pass, and the risk of altitude sickness due to the average 5,000-m-plus elevation of the trail that encircles this pyramidal mountain. Its four striated faces give it a beauty and an overwhelming presence that sets it apart from many higher though far more ‘common’ Himalayan peaks.
Photo: Ondrej Žvácek
Nowadays you are not permitted to climb Kailash, and it is said that those who have gone to the summit in the past never returned. In 1985 the great Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner was given permission to climb it but refused, saying that to climb Kailash would be like trampling on people’s souls.
Pilgrims usually aim to circumnavigate Kailash in a day, while some Tibetans may continue to circle the mountain and might make as many as 108 circuits. The walk, which is best done between May and October, requires a considerable commitment of time and resources, and just getting there is something of an achievement. The most popular approach has always been from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, from which there is both a northern and a southern route that, with the aid of a 4WD, will get you to the walk’s starting point - the nondescript ‘seasonal’ village of Darchen, which will be full of tents at pilgrimage time. Since June 2015, however, a new route using buses from the town of Nathula in Sikkim has been opened by the Chinese government, an approach which will slash ‘commuting’ time to Kailash to just two-and-a-half days.
Most set out in a clockwise direction from Darchen (Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims and the majority of hikers walk in a clockwise direction, while adherents of the Bon faith walk it counter-clockwise), and the trail itself is of course somewhat predictable and well worn, the choices of where to spend each night are fairly straightforward. Day 1 will see you set out from Darchen and spend the night at Drirapuk Gompa; Day 2 will have you depart Drirapuk Gompa for Zutrulpuk Gompa; and on Day 3 you will head out of Zutrulpuk Gompa back to Darchen. It may read as if it’s straightforward, but this circuit is a challenge, a true test of mind, body and spirit.
Heading out from Darchen into the unending barrenness before you, the landscape soon broadens to provide enticing views over fertile green valleys, deep blue lakes and perennially snow-capped peaks. A cairn at 4,730 m will give you your first look at Kailash’s southern face, and from there you follow the Lha-chu Valley (you can walk along either bank of the Lha-chu River) all the way to Drirapuk. The next day if you’re feeling particularly energetic and get up early enough you can make the two-hour return trek to Kangkyam Glacier on the mountain’s north face; otherwise just steel yourself for the ascent to Dolma La Pass, the circuit’s high point, before making the hour-long 400-m descent to the green embankments of the Lha-chu Valley and a three-hour hike to some lovely flat grassy fields - or push on another hour and you’ll reach the relative comfort of Zutrulpuk Gompa’s simple guesthouse. From Zutrulpuk the trail parallels the river and leads into the Barkha Valley and along a dirt road that will take you back to your starting point at Darchen.
Before you arrive to begin your Tibetan adventure, a little time spent researching the circuit from a pilgrim’s point of view will greatly enhance your experience of what many people consider the world’s greatest walk. Virtually all of the surrounding peaks, rocky promontories and various rock outgrowths have their own religious significance, their own stories to tell. There are five monasteries around Kailash: Nyari, Drirapuk, Songchu, Gyangzha and Thailong, and a visit should be made to them all, as each has its own very distinct hoard of legendary stories to share. All might be in various stages of decay, but each is able and very happy to offer accommodation if you want to transform your three-day circuit into something a little longer.
It’s also well worth looking a little further afield now that you’ve made all the effort just to get here and make a visit (permits required from the Cultural Relics Bureau in Lhasa) to Tibet’s very own hidden ‘Shangri-La’ - the ancient kingdom of Guge in the Garuda Valley - home to the ‘lost’ cities of Toling and Tsaparang with their astonishing array of 10th- and 11th-century monastic ruins, fortifications, temples and palaces. Tsaparang still contains Tibet’s greatest concentration of Buddhist art.
You’ll want to keep your eye out for wildlife too because although the Tibetan Plateau might be a desert, it is hardly devoid of life. Bar-headed geese and ducks can be found on Kailash’s surrounding lakes, and Siberian cranes migrate through here on their way south to Nepal. There are mountain deer, antelope, and of course the ubiquitous yak (mostly domesticated, though wild yaks can be seen roaming the region’s remote valleys). There are also domesticated sheep and goats, and the skittish, donkey-like khyangs, large reddish-brown wild asses.
When you walk around Kailash you won’t be alone. You’ll be sharing the trail with many pilgrims, some of whom have been preparing for years to come here. They potentially will become as integral a part of your Mount Kailash circuit as the mountain itself, and you shouldn’t miss an opportunity to share with them your experiences and to learn what you can of their own journeys. Like many of the other walks in this book, this trail is as much about what you can learn, as what you can see.