You’re standing in front of one of the world’s holiest sites. The base of the mountain is pure granite. It’s capped with snow, even though the summer is almost over. Thick, white clouds obscure the peak. After months of planning, endless hours of flying, adjusting to the altitude, and traveling through the barren countryside, you’ve finally arrived at Mount Kailash.
Mount Kailash is part of the Transhimalaya mountain range in western Tibet. The remote area is full of green valleys, pristine lakes, and snow-capped peaks. Four religions—Bon, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism—consider this a sacred place. Pilgrims come to walk the circuit around the base, 13 times, to bring them good fortune. The Buddhists and the Hindus walk clockwise, while the Bons and the Jains walk counterclockwise. All perform full-body prostrations as they go. The 32-mile trek can be accomplished in as few as 15 hours, though most people do it in three days. You’ve arrived during the year of the horse, an especially sacred time to visit.
You start at Darchen looking toward the south face of the mountain. The old sheep station now acts as the starting and ending point of the circuit. A few guesthouses, a couple of vegetarian restaurants, and a doctor are set up in the makeshift town. Have your permits stamped—the pilgrimage requires three separate permits, not including the one just to enter the country.
On day one, you pass the colorful Tarboche prayer flagpole. Walk through the glacial Lha Chu Valley with its green meadows, sculpted red towers, and gravelly streams. Follow the river through a narrow canyon with steep cliffs by beautiful waterfalls. Pass long mani (prayer) walls and the Chuku Monastery that sits on the western hillside. Eventually, the Dira-puk Monastery and the surrounding campsites come into view. You fall asleep gazing at the north side of Mount Kailash.
The hardest section of the circuit comes on day two. You ascend through the Dolma Chu Valley. Pilgrims undergo a symbolic death at Shiva-tsal, leaving hair or blood, to be reborn again at Dolma La, the highest point of the trail. Tibetan prayer flags wave in the cool breeze. You pause for a water break before beginning your descent to Thukpe Dzingbu, one of the highest lakes in the world. The Zutul-puk Monastery, built near the cave of miracles, is your well-deserved resting spot for the night.
The final day, which only takes a few hours to hike, is relatively easy. You cross small streams, follow a deep gorge, and take in the amazing view. For the first time, the clouds have parted, so you can see Mount Kailash’s peak. More prayer flags wave across the river. The bright, blue water of Lake Rakshastal is in the distance. And a dirt road leads you back to Darchen. You just completed one of the most important circuits in Asia. Only 12 more loops to catch up with the pilgrims.