Tibet: The Mount Kalias Circuit

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

My soul to keep: Tibetan prayer flags catch the breeze near Mount Kailas

Trek Length: 15 days, 75 miles
Maximum Altitude: 18,368 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Group Trek): $2,500–$7,500 Self-organized trekking is forbidden by the Chinese authorities.
Prime Time: May–June, September–October
Staging Cities: Kathmandu, Nepal

The Rhapsody: The case can be made that the most revered mountain on the planet is Mount Kailas, an exquisitely chiseled 22,028-foot pyramid that juts out of the arid high plains of western Tibet and is the source of four of Asia's great rivers: the Brahmaputra, Indus, Karnali, and Sutlej. Kailas is held sacred by no fewer than four religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism (an Indian offshoot of Buddhism), and Bön (an ancient Tibetan practice that predates Buddhism by several centuries). Although the geographic remoteness of Kailas limits the number of annual pilgrims to about 5,000, it only enhances their ardor: Some Kailas pilgrims walk 300 miles round-trip, crossing the Himalayas twice, for the privilege of making the Kora, the ritual 33-mile circling of the mountain that is said to cleanse past sins and lead to enlightenment. For trekkers, Kailas carries the allure of the unknown. It is exceedingly remote, 900 miles west of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa via a wretched, rutted dirt road. The peak itself is uncannily symmetrical, visible in its lone splendor from miles away.
The Route: Trekkers fly from Kathmandu to Nepalgung and then to Simikot, in far-western Nepal. From Simikot it's a six-day walk through river valleys and mountains to the Tibetan border, from which you'll drive about 50 miles north to Lake Manasarowar and then on to Kailas for the three- to five-day circumambulation. According to Tibetan Buddhists, the walk must be made clockwise, with the mountain always off your right shoulder. In terms of logistical uncertainty and physical challenge, this a very rugged and unpredictable trek. Outside Lhasa, tourist facilities of any kind are primitive— if they exist at all. And altitude is everything: You'll spend three weeks above 12,000 feet and almost two at 15,000 feet or higher.

Guides and Outfitters: Several Kathmandu-based outfitters offer Kailas treks. Check the Visit Nepal Network (011-977-1-416-239; www.visitnepal.com) for a listing of outfitters. Getaway! Himalayan Eco Treks (011-977-1-424-921; www.visitnepal.com/getaway) offers a 15-day Kailas trek that bypasses Lhasa and completes the circuit in a brisk three days.

Several American outfitters (among them, Himalayan High Treks, KE Adventure Travel, Snow Lion Expeditions) offer turnkey trips out of Kathmandu, with extensive side trips and tours. A New Zealand outfitter worth noting is Footprints Tours (011-64-3-548-0145; www.greenkiwi.co.nz/footprints), run by John and Diane McKinnon, compatriots of Edmund Hillary and longtime Nepal residents.

Read Up: Sacred Mountain, by John Snelling ($30, Books Britain) is an excellent history of Kailas. In Trans-Himalaya ($75, Greenwood), Swedish explorer Sven Hedin describes his 1907 expedition to Tibet.Trekking in Tibet, by Gary McCue ($19, The Mountaineers Books), is the best guidebook to walking the region. —D.N.

Filed To: Tibet, Snow Sports

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