9/5/2007 to 9/9/2007 | Tibet

Ganden to Samye Trek

As of September 1st “the powers that be” here in Tibet (i.e. the Chinese Government) decided that it would now take 10 days to get a permit for Mount Kailash instead of the previous 3 days.  Having been to most of the attractions around Lhasa on my pervious trip I jumped at the opportunity to hike the 80 km (50 miles) from Ganden monastery to Samye monastery with an Alaskan gold miner who was also going out on the same trip with me to Kailash.  He had come to Tibet prepared to trek, bringing with him a tent, stove, and water filter, so all I had to do was rent a sleeping bag.  The trek is a fairly popular route between two of the most important monasteries in Tibet.  Ganden monastery was founded by the Tongkhpapa the founder of the yellow hat school of Tibetan Buddhism which the Dali Lama adheres too, while Samye was the first monastery in Tibet.  While the trek is popular, meaning at any given day during the summer there are probably between 2-8 people on the same stretch of the trail, it is not that easy, the trail crosses a 5250 m (17,325 ft) pass and a 5100 m (16,830 ft) pass.  After the first day my Alaskan counterpart realized the pack plus the altitude would be too much so he hired a horse to carry his pack and mine, which I didn’t complain about.  The main point of concern was the weather, although the monsoon which hits Nepal and leaks into Tibet over the Himalayas was supposed to end sometime in September, as of yet it hadn’t. This means rain is likely and even snow at higher elevations.  Fortunately the rain was confined to the evenings for the most part.  The third day of the trek as we hiked over the 5100 m pass it snowed, a wet snow that melted on impact which turned first to freezing rain and then to cold rain once we descended to lower altitude.  Needless to say that day was less than pleasant.  It did finally let up about noon.  Most of the trek passed through beautiful green alpine valleys dotted with yak herds and the occasional lake.  The coldest and highest night was spent between the two passes at an elevation of 5000 m (16,500 ft) more than 2000 ft higher than the highest point in the continental US.  As well as acclimated as I was, having spent most of the last month on the Tibetan plateau, I still got a bit of a headache that night from the altitude.  The air is amazingly thin at that elevation, breathing feels like an exercise in futility, since there is so little oxygen to be had.  We arrived at Samye around noon on the fourth day and spent the day there exploring the monastery.  I climbed up the nearby scared hill for a spectacular view of the surrounding valley and the monastery.  It was fortuitous that we ended up staying in a small guesthouse just outside the monastery gates as we found out the next day that people who stayed in the monastery guesthouse had there permits checked.  You are theoretically supposed to get yet another permit to go to Samye but many people don’t and we didn’t either.  In fact trekking on your own is also technically illegal but rarely enforced as the police generally don’t want to hike up into the mountains just to harass a few tourists.  We made it back to Lhasa managing to avoid getting fined.

2 comments to Ganden to Samye Trek

  • Micah,

    Your Tibet trip sounds like a real adventure! Your photos make it look spectacular. And I admire the fact that you did this independently, especially in the light of all the stuff I’ve read from various sources stating that this out of the question.

    How has the situation changed since your 2007 expedition, would you judge? Is it still feasible to do this just with two of you? I ask because a partner and I are also thinking of coming to Tibet in the next month, travelling independently, if possible, and taking in the Kailash trail as you did.

    You mention that you simply “hopped on a train to Lhasa” – where was this from? We’re looking at coming from Kathmandu. Do you know about access into the country from this side?

    Quite apart from the expense of an organised tour, one chief objection to coming to Tibet is all the money that one seems to be paying to the Chinese government just to get access to the country and certain areas within it – something I disagree with in principle. It seems you got round paying for certain permits – but were you continually “looking over your shoulders”? How much of a risk is one taking by doing this? (I have heard of foreigners being detained in certain regions such as Delingha). How much did you pay, in fact?

    I also very much object to the idea of being chaperoned by an official “Chinese-approved” guide – but I certainly wouldn’t object to hiring the services of a local guide. Could you recommend one?

    I’ve also read that one needs to have a fixed itinerary for every day that you’re in Tibet. I guess you didn’t do this! Were you ever asked to produce one?

    I see you camped for some of you time – how much did you use the tent? Is it possible to dispense with one on the Kailash trek, and simply stay in guesthouses and monasteries? You mentioned taking food – do they not provide any in those places?

    Lastly if you have any tips on what kit to pack – and what not to, seeing as we’d like to keep weight to a minimum – we’d very much appreciate it. (Quite like your friend’s idea of hiring a horse actually . . .)


    Jean-Louis (English, male – yeah, strange, huh?)

  • Hi Jean-Louis,
    The situation has changed quite a bit since 2007 unfortunately for independent travelers. From what I hear it is no longer possible to do what I did and just buy your own ticket and hop on the train from Golmud up to Lhasa and although regulations seem to constantly change it seems it is not possible any longer to roam around relatively independently within Tibet as I did. Train only goes from the China side not Nepal by the way. Nepal has always been a more difficult way to enter Tibet. Even in 2007 you couldn’t cross from Nepal to Tibet without being on a tour and a group visa at that. So your chance of going from Kathmandu to Tibet these days independently if your not Chinese is probably non-existent. If you don’t want to do the all inclusive travel agent arranged tour then you could look at regions of Cultural Tibet that are not in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Portions of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai have very Tibetan regions that I believe you may still be able to visit relatively independently and free from permits. Many of these regions have a much higher concentration of Tibetans than places like Lhasa that have seen a huge influx of Chinese settlers, though of course they do not have the Potala Palace or Jokang Temple. Out side of China, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh in India have culturally Tibetan Areas. In Nepal Dolpo, Upper Mustang, and Nar Phu areas (though all require special permits).

    As you are likely not going to be allowed to do you own independent traveling in Tibet much less trekking. Bringing a tent would not be necessary, if you opted for a trek the agency that provided your tour would also provide tents. By the way I didn’t take a tent on the Kailash trek and slept in monasteries, when I was a Kailash there wasn’t that much in the way of food but you could always get hot water to make noodle soup. But again this info is out of date plus irrelevant since you are unlikely to be allowed to do it these days with out an all inclusive tour.

    On clothing for the mountains and Himalayas I always recommend things you can layer because the weather can change so widely and suddenly. A water proof outer layer that can also be used to windbreaker in strong mountain winds is a good idea. A fleece is good because its warm plus it drys quickly when wet. Quick drying shirts and hiking/travel pants are good as well.

    have a good trip,

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