I n the far west of Tibet is Mt Kailash, the most sacred mountain in Asia, which is venerated by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and the ancient Bon religion of Tibet. From it flow four great rivers - the Karnali, the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra - which drain the vast Tibetan Plateau. It is an important site for Tibetan and Indian pilgrims who make a 53km circuit, or kora, of the mountain. This circumambulation, clockwise for Buddhists and Hindus and anti-clockwise for Bon followers, is said to erase the sins of a lifetime. The mountain itself is 6714m high and with its four sheer walls and snow capped peak is an awe-inspiring sight. Only 30km from Mt Kailash is another important pilgrimage site, the beautiful and serene Lake Manasarovar. According to mythology it was formed in the mind of Brahma, and Indian and Tibetan pilgrims can also be seen circumambulating this lake, a distance of 90km.
Day 01: Fly from Kathmandu to Nepalganj
Today we take the ninety minute flight to Nepalgunj in the far south west of Nepal. It is a busy crowded city which lies close to the Indian border.
Day 02: Fly to Simikot and trek to Dhara Pokhari
This morning we fly north for about 50 minutes to Simikot, the headquarters of Nepal's most remote district, Humla. After meeting our crew, we set off on our trek, climbing up from the airstrip on a rocky trail past fields of barley and wheat. We ascend a forested ridge above the town of Simikot, before making a long steep descent past Dandaphoya. The trail is then fairly level, through walnut and apricot trees, until we come to the scattered village of Dharapokhari which is divided by the Yakba Khola.
After lunch we'll visit the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, as well as the Jokhang Temple. This temple is possibly the most sacred shrine in Tibet and there is always a procession of devout Tibetans through the complex. Surrounding the Jokhang is the Barkor - a maze of narrow cobbled streets which is the central market of Lhasa.
Day 03: Trek to Salli Khola
Leaving our campsite, we cross a long scree slope and follow the river to a waterfall near the shepherds' camp at Chachera. We then climb over a ridge and bypass the village of Kermi before entering a big valley with walled fields of potato and buckwheat. After walking through a sparse pine forest we descend from the ridge to the Salli Khola and camp by the river
Day 04: Trek to Muchu
We cross the river and climb over a rocky ridge before descending to the grey waters of the Humla Karnali. After crossing another ridge we come to a sandy meadow where goat herders often camp by the river. Beyond the meadow the valley narrows and we cross several more ridges, passing the villages of Yalbang and Yangar. The trail then winds its way precariously above the river before we cross a suspension bridge to the village of Muchu.
Day 05: Rest day
Today is a rest day which we'll spend in and around Muchu, exploring the village with its stone houses and Gompa.
Day 06: Trek to Sipsip
From Muchu, we follow the trail over a ridge to the Tumkot Khola and then walk along the rocky stream bed for a short distance before beginning a steep climb through a rock-filled gully. We pass through Palbang and its bright yellow mustard fields to the small settlement of Yari and beyond here the route climbs up the valley towards a pass, the Nara Lagna. We camp below the pass in a meadow known as Sipsip.
Day 07: Trek to Hilsa
From Sipsip we ascend steeply to a rock cairn marking the top of the Nara Lagna [4580m]. Descending from the pass, we have views of the Tibetan Plateau before arriving at the village of Ranipauwa. Beyond here, we slip and slide on a surface of loose pebbles down to the Humla Karnali.
Day 08: Trek to Taklakot and drive to Manasarovar
Shortly after crossing the Nepal/Tibet border which is marked only by a stone pillar, we meet our transport and drive about 130km, via the large trading centre of Taklakot, to Manasarovar, the most venerated of Tibet's many lakes.
Day 09: At Manasarovar
Today will be spent at Manasarovar, allowing our bodies time to acclimatise to the altitude and exploring this fascinating place. We will visit the picturesque Chiu Monastery on the north west shore of the lake with the imposing sight of Mt Kailash in the background.
Day 10: Drive to Tarboche
Leaving the lake, we drive for about 35 km towards Mt Kailash and Tarboche which is marked by a tall pole adorned with prayer flags. This is the starting point for our Kora, the 53km trek around the mountain.
Day 11: Trek to Dira-puk
From Tarboche, we walk up the Lha Chu Valley through beautiful green meadows and streams with Mt Kailash towering above us. We follow the river which enters a narrow canyon with high, steep cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. Continuing up the valley, the north face of Kailash comes into view before we reach the 13th century monastery at Dira-puk.
Day 12: Trek to Zutul-puk
We now leave the Lha Chu Valley and enter the Drolma Chu Valley, heading up towards a high pass, the Drolma La [5630m]. It's a tough climb to the summit which is festooned with prayer flags but from there it is all downhill or flat to Zutul-puk, with views of one of the highest lakes in the world, Thukpe Dzingbu Lake, known as the Lake of Compassion. As well as the monastery at Zutul-puk, there are several meditation caves and another cave containing an image of Milarepa.
Day 13: Trek to Darchen
On the final day of the Kora we cross several streams, and follow an impressive gorge. Along the way we are once again treated to magnificent views of Kailash. We then enter the Bharka plain and it's about an hour's walk through this desert-like landscape to Darchen.
Day 14: Drive to Paryang
Today is a long drive, about 300km, to Paryang. Along the way, we cross the Mayun-la and make several river crossings. The scenery along this section is some of the most panoramic of the entire journey.
Day 15: Drive to Saga
We continue driving today along a 255km stretch of road to Saga, passing through the small, dusty town of Zhongba en route.
Day 16: Drive to Shigatse
Today is the longest drive of our journey, 452km to Shigatse. Leaving Saga, we pass the turn-off for the northern route and skirt around a lake, passing through a series of valleys. Approaching Kaga, we'll come across the first trees and agricultural fields that we've seen for many days and the town itself is situated next to a picturesque lake. We continue on to Lhatse where we join the paved Friendship Highway and follow it for the final 150km to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet.
Day 17: Sightseeing & drive to Gyantse
This morning in Shigatse we have time to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet, before driving 90km to Gyantse. Once in Gyantse, we can explore the Pelkor Chode Monastery and the Gyantse Kumbum. The Kumbum is a large gold-domed stupa and its many chapels house an impressive array of Tibetan Buddhist murals.
Day 18: Sightseeing & drive to Lhasa
A spectacular 261km drive today will take us over the Karo La [5045m], where we are treated to the awesome sight of a huge glacier tumbling down to within a few hundred metres of the road. Beyond the small, developing town of Nagartse, the road follows the bank of a beautiful turquoise lake, the Yamdrok-tso, for about 20km. We then cross the Khamba La [4794m] and continue on to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Day 19: Sightseeing in Lhasa
Today will be spent visiting several of Lhasa's many monasteries in the company of a guide and interpreter. One of these is the Sera Monastery, one of the best preserved monasteries in Tibet. Within its white-washed walls and golden roofs, several hundred monks live and study. After lunch we'll visit the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, as well as the Jokhang Temple. This temple is possibly the most sacred shrine in Tibet and there is always a procession of devout Tibetans through the complex. Surrounding the Jokhang is the Barkor - a maze of narrow cobbled streets which is the central market of Lhasa.
Day 20: Sightseeing in Lhasa
This morning we will visit the Potala Palace which dominates the city of Lhasa. A spectacular building, it contains the private quarters of the Dalai Lama as well as 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.
A visit to the Drepung Monastery this afternoon will complete a truly awe-inspiring day. Founded in the 14th century, this monastery was once the largest in the world with a population of around 10,000 monks. These days that figure is down to several hundred, but there is still much here of interest as it was left relatively unscathed during the Cultural Revolution.
Day 21: Free day in Lhasa
Our final day in Lhasa is a day at leisure in which we are free to explore further, revisit a favourite monastery or simply sit in a café overlooking the Barkor and watch the pilgrims as they circumambulate the Jokhang, stopping regularly to peruse the merchandise at the stalls lining the route. There is also the option of an additional tour to places such as the Tibetan Medical Centre, Ganden Monastery and Tsurphu Monastery, but this will incur extra costs.
Day 22: Fly to Kathmandu
We leave Lhasa early in the morning for the 2 hour drive to Gonggar Airport and our flight back to Kathmandu. The Air China takes us right across the main Himalayan range and the mountain views are spectacular.