Doing a kora around Mt Kailash
Tibet, a magical place, one that has been on our list of dream destinations for a very long time. It invokes images of monks in red robes, colourful and mesmirising prayer flags flapping in the wind, temples full of weird and wonderful icons, deities, ancient paintings and chanting monks. It is a place full of rugged beauty, wide open spaces, friendly locals, churtens (stupas), temples and monasteries dotted across the landscape and of course the highest mountain on our planet – Qomolangma at 8848m (also known as Mt Everest)– surrounded by lots of other mountains, some famous, others unknown but no less impressive with their snowy hats.
It’s also a country where you can still find a snow leopard if you are lucky, as well as wolves, black and blue bears, many different types of antelopes, marmots and pikas, and plenty of birds for Jude. At every tourist stop and viewpoint we would see yaks, dri (the female yak) and the Tibetan mountain dog (an enormous working dog, historically used to guard sheep), all ready to sit on or hug and have your picture taken with.
Most people know its spiritual leader (the Dalai Lama) has had to live in exile since 1959 after Tibet was annexed by China. But what you might not know is that it is very hard for Tibetan people to get a passport, and they are not free to travel, not even in their own country. The number of checkpoints we had to go through was astonishing. Not only to get around in the country, but also within Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Every time you want to go for example to the old centre where the Jokhang temple is located, the most important temple in Tibet, and the devout go there daily to pray, you have to queue up, show your ID card (for locals) or your passport (for foreigners) and have your bags checked. You are also constantly reminded of the level of control by the sheer number of police officers everywhere in the country, military stationed at various locations, as well as cameras and microphones absolutely everywhere.
We saw a lot of construction in Tibet, new powerlines criss-crossing the once pristine mountain landscapes, phone towers everywhere, and new tarmac roads in a lot of places. Including the 318 – the friendship road, connecting Shangai with Kathmandu. This means hordes of Chinese tourists in Tanks (copies of the Jeep) and campervans, drive the full length of the 318, stopping at places like Mt Everest base camp where they suck on their oxygen bottles, dance the night away and shoot the obligatory tiktok videos.
For us Mt Kailash was our main destination, whilst also of course exploring the rest of Tibet. It is a hike that has long fascinated us. To get there we boarded a flight from Guangzhou to Lhasa, which is not a great way to arrive in Tibet as you fly into 3650m directly from sea level. A better way would be to take the train from China if you have the time. We did allow for an additional day before the tour started. It gave us an extra 24hrs to acclimatise if all went well, and allowed for any potential mishaps on the way there (which almost happened as our flight out of London nearly got cancelled as the delayed incoming flight meant we passed the official cut-off time for flights departing from Heathrow).
Luckily neither of us had a huge problem with the altitude, but we certainly had a headache at night on the first day. Exploring Lhasa on our own was lovely, and we enjoyed our day of freedom before meeting our guide and fellow travelers. During our first few days in Lhasa we were a group of 10, but Shiro and Troy (Singaporean father and son living in Shanghai) only joined the day we visited the Potala Palace. They were supposed to hike with us too, but unfortunately Troy ended up in the ICU as he had High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (altitude sickness). Alejandra (Chilean lady working and living in Shanghai) and Sofia (Canadian Chinese lady living in Chengdu) left us in Shigatse, they weren’t going to Qomolangma (Mt Everest Base Camp) or Mt Kailash.
Visiting the Potala Palace was a dream come true. To walk around this holy area and visit some of the private rooms the various Dalai Lamas have worked and lived (including the current one), was truly special, even if it was just with a tour. Sonam, our guide, was fantastic. He has been a guide for many years, always smiling and incredibly helpful. He was also very knowledgeable about Buddhism and all the different temples and monasteries. We were very lucky.
In the end we were 6 hikers plus Sonam for our kora. There was Anton from Slovakia, David from the US, Kei from Japan and Vishi from India, and of course us two. It was a great group, we learnt a lot from all of them which is great. We all eat and hangout together and chat about random topics.
The circuit of Mt Kailash is a busy hike, but not with foreigners. The majority of the people we meet are all Tibetans on their pilgrimage. A kora is a Tibetan word meaning circumambulation and is performed by going around a sacred site – in this case Mt Kailash. ‘Kora’ is now synonymous with doing a pilgrimage.
It’s not easy for Tibetans to get a permit to go there, but doing a kora is very important to them. We even met lots of people prostrating the entire lap, they take about 15 days to complete the 56km. Prostrating means after every 2 steps they lay flat and touch the ground with their forehead. An enormous physical challenge, especially at altitude and often with inclement weather. The kora is always done in a clockwise direction by all Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. Only the Bonpos (people following the Bon religion) walk the route in a counterclockwise direction. The mountain is sacred for all four religions. And is also the source of four of the largest rivers in Asia including the Brahmaputra and the Indus.
We were lucky with the weather for our kora. We had seen Mt Kailash in all her glory on the day of our arrival. The morning of our hike she was hiding in the clouds, but it was dry. We drove the first few km to the start gate where we took a group picture and all rang the bell to announce we were there. There are thousands of prayer flags strung on every rock and post, it looks amazing. The walk is easy and we take our time, enjoying the company of the marmots, some of which are very used to humans and come over to check if you have any food. About halfway through the day it starts to snow.
The second day is the big day. We cover 22km and cross three passes. Each higher than the previous one, with the highest at 5650m – Drombala Pass. We all make it, and we are in awe with the people prostrating. There are no cars here of course, so support for them is minimal. They prostrate to a specific point, then walk back or forward to their support team to spend the night. Then they hike back to their previously reached destination and continue their slow journey around the sacred mountain. It’s impressive. Makes our kora look like a piece of cake.
On the last day we let the group hike ahead, back to the hotel without us. We want to take our time and enjoy the beautiful valley. We have a refreshing dip in the glacial river meandering its way through the valley, eat our lunch in its meadows and take lots and lots of photos of animals, including lots of birds of course. A perfect way to finish the hike.
It takes 4 long days in the bus on occasionally smooth roads to drive back to Lhasa, luckily with a few interesting stops along the way. We thought we would have seen enough monasteries for a while, but we really enjoyed two of the last ones we visited. Sakya was probably our favourite town and monastery. It still felt authentic even though also here there were signs of ‘progress’ (the oldest hotel in town no longer exists and is being replaced with a monster building right in the middle of town). But the monastery and the rest of the town felt real. Meeting the only monk who speaks English was a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse in the life of a monk. But this was no ordinary monk. Instead of studying the usual 2 subjects, or maybe 3, he was doing 5 or 6, including medicine and history of arts. We spent the afternoon with him, and were invited into his home within the monastery where we admired the many books he is studying. We invited him to dinner and he took us to his favourite restaurant where we enjoyed some more Tibetan food.
The monastery in Shigatse was very memorable for another reason. We loved the whole village-setup, and the fact they are all still wearing the traditional shoes as well as the robes. But we were incredibly lucky to be able to watch the older, more experienced monks chant and play music, see the younger monks practice the chanting as well under the watchful eye of their teacher, hear them practice playing their massive horns for the upcoming festival, and see them starting the painting of the new ginormous thangka for the upcoming festival. The thangka they were making is a 32m high and 42m wide painting on cloth that they hang up on the purpose built wall for it in the monastery, the wall was built in 1468.
We had a great time in Tibet, it is a stunning country with many options for more adventures. Maybe one day we’ll be able to return for some independent adventures (currently as a foreigner you have to book a tour to be able to get a Tibetan permit).
How to get a Tibetan Permit
We applied for our Chinese visa online. It requires you to fill in about 20 pages of personal details, including current and previous employers, education history, travel history (last 10 years) and family history. It’s a time consuming job, but fairly straightforward. Once you submit your application you can pick a date and time to go to the visa processing centre – in our case located in Brisbane. We were lucky and managed to get an appointment the same week. At the processing centre you hand over your passport, a few more documents, including a passport photo and some cash. They will then process your application and if successful you can pick up your passport after a few days with a new and shiny visa sticker. We paid for express as we were flying to Europe a few days later and needed to make sure we had our passports back on time.
Once you have your Chinese visa you can proceed with the Tibetan permit. An approved tour company in Tibet can organise this for you when you book a tour with them. They will send you an electronic copy, but you need to pick up the original too. We managed to have ours delivered to a hotel in Guangzhou. We flew into Guangzhou in the evening, spent one night in this hotel, picked up the permit and flew to Lhasa early the next morning. It worked ok.We weren’t asked too many questions at check-in about the permit and our travel to Tibet, but some people we spoke to did. Just be prepared for this.
The tour company we used was Tibet Vista, and we can highly recommend them. We were very lucky with our guide too – Sonam – and we most certainly recommend asking for him.