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Mount Kailash: The Jewel Mountain of Spiritual World

The Spiritual Summit of Tibet

Mount Kailash, known in Tibetan as “Gang Rinpoche,” stands as a sacred pinnacle in Tibet. Its name translates to “Precious Jewel of Snow. In Sanskrit, it is revered as “Shiva’s Paradise,” a place equated with the abode of the gods in Indian mythology. Located in the Purang County, Mount Kailash stretches across the borders of China, India, and Nepal, hailed as one of Asia’s most illustrious “Sacred Mountains.” It is also referred to by various names such as “Gang Rinpoche,” Gangdise” The mountain soars to an elevation of 6,714 meters (22,028 feet).

The Mountain’s Unique Physique

Resembling an olive piercing the heavens, Kailash’s peak forms a symmetrical, pyramidal structure (locally known as “the handle of the millstone”). Capped with eternal snow, its grandeur and formidable presence are breathtaking. The mountain’s walls are even and balanced, with the south face featuring its iconic sight—a massive vertical ice gully intersected by a horizontal rock layer, creating a Buddhist swastika. Due to its perilous nature, it remains unclimbed, preserving its purity as a virgin peak.

The Sacred Surroundings

To the east of Mount Kailash lies Mount Manasarovar, believed to have been stepped upon by Shakyamuni Buddha himself; to the west is Tārā Mountain, southward lies the Mountain of Wisdom Goddesses, and to the north stands the Protector God Mountain. A mystical aspect of Kailash is the perennial snow on its sun-facing side, which never melts, while the mountain’s shadow side remains snowless, defying natural expectations.

The Sacred Waters of Mount Kailash

Kailash: The Source of Mighty Rivers

Another interpretation of Kailash is “the source of many waters,” as it is the originating point for the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra), Ganges, Sutlej and Indus rivers, the source of the four great sacred rivers. The Lion Spring River, known in Tibetan as “Senge Khabab” (the true source of the sutlej River), flows from the north slope. The Horse Spring River, “Tachok Khabab” (source of the Yarlung Tsangpo), flows from the east. The Elephant Spring River, “Langchen Khabab” (another source of the Indus), emerges from the south slope, while the Peacock River, “Macha Khabab” (upper source of the Ganges), springs from the south-western side.

The Mythic Origins of the Four Great Rivers

The four great rivers flowing from Mount Kailash, traditionally known as the Lion Spring River, Horse Spring River, Elephant Spring River, and Peacock River, don’t carry the connotation of water in their original names. In Tibetan, “Khabab” means “falling from the mouth,” suggesting that these rivers are envisioned as emerging from the mouths of their respective animals—a lion, a horse, an elephant, and a peacock—each symbolizing ancient civilizations’ revered waters.

Geological Wonders

Additionally, the region around Mount Kailash features horizontal conglomerate rock formations, a rare Eocene geological structure in Tibet. The landscape is dotted with unique, towering rock formations resembling towers or ancient fortresses. This distinctive structural geology is rare in Tibet and holds immense scenic value.

kailash nature views

Mount Kailash’s Buddhist Connections

The bond between Mount Kailash and Tibetan Buddhism is profound. In the 8th century CE, the renowned Indian Buddhist master Shantirakshita meditated and attained enlightenment at Kailash. Other esteemed masters like Padmasambhava and Atiśa Dipankara also embarked on spiritual endeavors here. The Fourth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, witnessed many wonders at Kailash, with Atiśa believed to discern time through the sounds of arhat bells on the mountaintop.

Legendary Duels and Pilgrimages

The duels between Milarepa, the revered Tibetan yogi, and Naro Bönchung are well-known tales among the locals. Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje, a disciple of Milarepa, established the Kagyu tradition’s practice of pilgrimage to Kailash, and his student Gotsangpa created the circumambulation route around the mountain. By the time of the Vajra Holder, Damchen Gyalpo, thousands of pilgrims visited Kailash, leading to the construction of numerous Buddhist temples and leaving behind a rich heritage of religious sites and devotional poetry.

The Mountain of Legends and Venerated Figures

Mount Kailash abounds with captivating legends and stories of famous religious figures, enhancing its sacred aura. Long ago, a Buddhist devotee, after enduring many hardships, arrived at Gangdise and was struck by the sight of a milk-white snow peak piercing the clouds like a heavenly realm. He saw the mountain’s halo shimmering brightly, casting a resplendent glow over the landscape, making the surrounding mountains and rivers glisten like pearls.

Mount Kailash, with its rich tapestry of myths, religious significance, and natural beauty, continues to be a source of inspiration and devotion. It is not just a geographical marvel but also a spiritual beacon, attracting seekers and saints who find solace and enlightenment in its majestic presence.

The Sacred Legend of Mount Kailash

The Divine Anchor of Mount Kailash

Upon witnessing the awe-inspiring beauty of the mountain, a devotee exclaimed in reverence, “Gang Rinpoche!” Legends tell that the Dragon King of the holy lake desired to move the sacred mountain to his underwater palace, while deities from India wished to transport it for their own nation’s glory. Their relentless dispute caught the attention of Buddha Shakyamuni, who intervened to say, “Why quarrel over the mountain? It should remain where it belongs.” With a stomp of his foot, the Buddha firmly anchored Mount Kailash in its place.

The Mystical Duel at Mount Kailash

The Kagyu school’s revered master, Milarepa, added a layer of mystery to Mount Kailash with his legendary spiritual duel against the Bön practitioner, Naro Bönchung. Born in western Tibet, Milarepa traveled to Lhodrak to learn from his master, Marpa, and after achieving enlightenment, secluded himself in a cave on Kailash to meditate deeply.

The Challenge and the Race

One day, the young Bön follower, Naro Bönchung, confident in his powers, challenged Milarepa to a magical contest for the dominion of the sacred mountain. They agreed to a mountain-climbing race on an auspicious day; whoever reached the summit of Mount Kailash first would be deemed its master.

On the appointed morning, Naro Bönchung, with a single cymbal and a drum at his waist, hurried towards the peak, while Milarepa continued to teach his disciples in the cave. Later, observing Naro Bönchung’s desperate ascent, Milarepa casually took to the skies with his robe and settled at the mountaintop, calmly reciting scriptures.

The Humbling of Naro Bönchung

After a long struggle, Naro Bönchung reached the summit, only to find Milarepa already immersed in meditation. Overcome with shame, Naro Bönchung collapsed, tumbling down the mountain with his drum, leaving behind a deep groove that is still visible today. Subsequently, Naro Bönchung became Milarepa’s disciple, devoting himself to earnest practice and securing a meditation site on the southeastern side of the mountain, known today as a sacred site for Bön practitioners.

The Spiritual Significance of the Duel

The tale of Milarepa’s victory not only highlighted the “Buddha’s” power but also deepened the devout Buddhist followers’ veneration of Mount Kailash. Since the duel occurred in the Tibetan Year of the Horse, it inspired the tradition of the “Horse Year Pilgrimage,” which occurs every 12 years and continues to this day. During these events, throngs of pilgrims create a spectacular sight as they journey to pay homage to the sacred mountain.

Mount Kailash, steeped in spiritual lore and legendary battles, stands as a testament to the enduring faith and mystical traditions of Tibet. The mountain is not just a geological wonder but a beacon of religious fervor, drawing in countless believers seeking blessings and spiritual awakening at its hallowed slopes.

The Spiritual Circuit of Mount Kailash: A Pilgrim’s Path to Enlightenment

Pilgrimage Across Beliefs

While followers of different sects may circumambulate Mount Kailash in varying directions, there is a unanimous belief that during the Year of the Horse, all “deities” from around the world congregate here. For many, the ultimate aspiration in life is to undertake a pilgrimage to this sacred peak. It is believed that a single circumambulation absolves a lifetime of sins; 13 circuits grant the privilege to perform an inner kora (a sacred path closer to the mountain) and freedom from the torments of hell for 500 lifetimes; completing 108 koras is said to purify all sins from past and future lives, leading to immediate enlightenment and ascension, with the Year of the Horse being particularly auspicious.

The Year of the Horse and the Buddha’s Connection

Legend has it that the Buddha Shakyamuni was born in the Year of the Horse, making kora during this year equivalent to 13 koras in any other year, amplifying its efficacy and merit accumulation. Thus, Mount Kailash stands as the pinnacle for devotees, worshippers, and praise-singers, as well as a spiritual zenith in the hearts of saints, followers, and laypeople alike.

The Ritual of Changing Prayer Flags

Mount Kailash hosts an annual ceremony of changing prayer flags, known in Tibetan as “Darchen” (erecting prayer flags). Every year on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, the flag-changing ceremony takes place at “Sershong” on the western base of the sacred mountain. The tradition dates back to when the King of Ngari, Gendun Tawang, first raised prayer flags at Sershong near Mount Kailash.

The Tale of Norbu Sangpo

A merchant named Norbu Sangpo once journeyed to Mount Kailash with a load of gold, only to run out of funds upon reaching the sacred site, unable to even pay the fee for a mule driver. In memory of this devoted yet impoverished pilgrim, the area in front of the mountain was named “Selkang” (Sel means “gold” and Kang means “exhausted”), where the prayer flag ceremony is now held.

The Ceremony of Tarchen

On the afternoon of the 14th day, the community lowers the wind horse flagpole (24 meters high and 30 centimeters in diameter), also known as “Gaden Wind Flag,” to attach new prayer flags and scarves. By 4:00–5:00 PM, the pole is raised halfway, and by dawn on the 15th day, it is fully erected.

At this time, pilgrims from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Mongolia, Russia, Westerner, and domestic regions like Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, and various parts of Tibet offer scarves, burn juniper incense, cast wind horses, circumambulate the flagpole, and prostrate themselves in a festive atmosphere. From this day forward, people embark on the challenging and spiritually fulfilling journey of circumambulating Mount Kailash with joyful hearts.

The traditions surrounding Mount Kailash are a profound testament to its spiritual magnetism. The annual rituals and the belief in the mountain’s power to cleanse and elevate souls exemplify the deep-rooted reverence and commitment of pilgrims who travel great distances to engage in these sacred acts. Kailash remains an emblem of spiritual pursuit and divine presence, an everlasting beacon for seekers of truth and enlightenment.

Mount Kailash: The Ultimate Pilgrimage for Cleansing and Enlightenment

The Darchen Trailhead

The journey around the sacred Mount Kailash begins at Darchen, an important hub for Horse transportation, porter and Yaks. Here, pilgrims pass through what is considered the mountain’s gateway marked by a Buddhist stupa and arrive at “Chaktsal Gang” (Prostration Point) near the mouth of Lha Chu valley. Hindu Believer call this place ass Yama Drawa (Doors of Yama). The eastern mountains symbolize the palace of the wealth deity. Pilgrims often pause here briefly before continuing westward, past the meditation cave of Naro Bönchung, and on to see the imprints of Milarepa’s feet and the self-arisen images of the Sixteen Arhats on the rock faces ahead.

The Path of Fortune and Faith

Crossing the Lha Chu, travelers reach the black rock mountain symbolic of the Wealth God, with its summit signifying the palace of the disciples of Avalokiteshvara. The mid-mountain holds Milarepa’s meditation cave, with caves of high-ranking Kagyu monks nestled in the valley below. The Nyanri Monastery encountered along the path is the first temple pilgrims meet on their circuit.

The Sacred Circuit Continues

After crossing Dolma La Pass (5,638 meters), the highest point of the circuit adorned with prayer flags, pilgrims descend to the holy Gaurikund lake. Bathing in this lake is said to purify negativities and obscurations. The path then leads to the valley on the mountain’s eastern side, passing through the third temple, Zutrulpuk (Miracle Cave), built to commemorate the magical duel between Milarepa and Naro Bönchung. Below lies the “Southeastern Immovable Nail” footprint of the Buddha. The circuit concludes at “Maidong,” marked by the footprints of Sakya masters and the split rock of Pabongka.

The Inner Kora: A More Intimate Journey

The inner kora also begins at Darchen and leads north to the first temple, Choku Monastery, rich in artifacts and revered as “Ngari’s Ornament.” The mountain top of “Milungden” (Mirror Peak) is known for the meditation cave and footprint of the high-ranking Togden lama, Zutrul Thuktrul. The site known as “Sangye Kuk,” believed to be where Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Dragon King, is nearby. Westward, Selung Monastery, rebuilt in 1986 by Togden Rinpoche, continues to be a beacon of spiritual practice.

The kora around Mount Kailash is a profound spiritual experience, interwoven with religious significance, historical narratives, and natural wonder. Each year, the sacred journey around this revered peak renews the faith and spiritual commitment of countless pilgrims, continuing an age-old tradition of seeking divine blessings and pursuing the path to enlightenment.

The Sacred Pilgrimage of Mount Kailash: A Journey Through Spiritual Landmarks

The Footprints of the Buddha and the Saga Ancestors

On the rocks below the monastery near Mount Kailash are found the “Southeastern Immovable Nail” footprints of the Buddha. Descending further to “Maidong,” visitors encounter the footprints of the Sakya founding masters and the split rock known as “Pabongka,” believed to have been cleaved by the demon general Biza. Further down the path, pilgrims pass through “Kandro Rawa,” meaning “Sky Dancer’s Stage,” and through Dajung and Zonglung, leading back to the starting point of the kora, Darchen.

Journey Through Jetho and the 17 Stupas

Continuing the pilgrimage, travelers pass through Jetho Mountain, home to the 17 stupas of the Togden lineage, including Togdenpa, Lingje Repa, and Rinchin Gyaltsen, among others. In front of the stupas lies “Neden Yenlakang” (Rinchen Bumpa Mountain), with the sacred gathering place of Black Deities, “Dayo,” on the right. Below lies the medicinal “Gabalak Lake,” also known as “Sister Lake,” with purple and white waters, believed to be the bathing site of Sky Dancers. The lake’s shores are known for sacred herbs and holy water for blessings.

The Mystical Saddle Peak and Stream of Gesar

To the south of Mount Kailash flows a small stream where, according to legend, Queen Dromu of King Gesar washed her hair. To the west stands a saddle-shaped mountain peak, believed to be the saddle of King Gesar’s steed. It is said that pregnant women who climb to the top and sit at the saddle, then descend on the right side, will bear a daughter, while descending on the left ensures the birth of a son, a belief held with great conviction by the faithful.

The pilgrimage around Mount Kailash is a spiritual odyssey through a landscape rich with religious history, mystical beliefs, and sacred sites. Each landmark tells a story of enlightened beings, legendary battles, and divine miracles, adding layers of profound meaning to the journey. For pilgrims and spiritual seekers, this circuit is not just a physical trek but a journey through the heart of Tibetan religious tradition and belief.

The Mystical Journey around Mount Kailash: Sacred Sites and Legends

The Red Rock of Shiva and Pravat

Halfway up Mount Kailash, a massive pale red rock stands out with its jagged, tooth-like edges, resembling a gear wheel. The space between the rock and the snowcapped peak is distinctly marked by circular grooves. Hindu mythology narrates that the god Shiva, who loved to wear a great snake around his neck, removed the snake for his beloved Pravat, who was afraid of it. He placed the snake on this rock, leaving behind an eternal groove that now marks the mountain.

Mount Kailash’s spiritual journey is woven with tales of divine beings, sacred geography, and profound religious significance. Each site along the path carries stories from Buddhist, Hindu, and local Tibetan traditions, making the kora around Kailash not just a physical trek but a passage through a realm of myths and legends. This sacred mountain continues to be a source of spiritual inspiration and a destination for seekers of wisdom and enlightenment from around the world.

Exploring the Sacred Mount Kailash: The Journey of Milarepa and Pilgrimage Tips

Milarepa: The Revered Yogi of Tibet

Milarepa (1040—1123), the second patriarch of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in the Gungthang region of Tibet. Son of Mila Sherab Gyaltsen and mother Nyangtsa Kargyen, he was the principal disciple of Marpa (mar-pa, 1012—1097). Known for his ascetic practices and retreats in the mountains, Milarepa is celebrated for spreading teachings through songs. His collection of songs, “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa,” has profoundly influenced Tibetan poetry, earning him the status of a founder of Tibetan religious and scenic poetry. His notable disciples include Rechungpa and Gampopa.

Milarepa’s life is a tapestry of legend and spiritual endeavor. Orphaned at seven, he suffered abuse from his relatives and lived in extreme poverty with his mother and sister. He initially learned sorcery to avenge his family, causing harm through hailstorms and curses. Feeling the weight of his actions, Milarepa turned to Buddhism at the age of 38 under Marpa, undergoing rigorous trials before receiving the complete transmission of teachings.

He retreated to solitary meditation in Ali, subsisting on nettles, and achieved the highest state of enlightenment. Milarepa’s disciples, who achieved yogic realizations, numbered in the hundreds, with Rechungpa (ras-chung-pa, 1083—1161) and Gampopa (sgam-po-pa) being the most eminent. His life story has been immortalized in biographies, paintings, Tibetan operas, and greatly influences Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa’s practices, notably “Tummo” (inner heat), “Naro’s Six Yogas,” and “Mahamudra,” led him to attain Buddhahood in one lifetime.

Pilgrimage Tips for Mount Kailash

Best Season for Pilgrimage: The ideal time for the Kailash kora is from April to June, when the weather is neither too cold nor snowy, and the path is frequented by many pilgrims, reducing the risk of getting lost.

The Ritual of Kora: This solemn and sacred ritual, widespread in Tibet, attracts pilgrims from various places. There are two main routes:

The Outer Kora: Centers around Mount Kailash, known as the “Great Prostration Path.” Spanning 56.5 kilometers, it typically takes 3 days on foot.

  • Day 1: Starts from Tarboche, passing the God’s Stupa (4,750 meters) and Nyari Monastery (4,860 meters), ending at Dira-puk Monastery (4,900 meters) after a 22 km trek. Accommodation is available at the monastery or nearby guesthouses.
  • Day 2: From Dira-puk Monastery, traversing Dolma La Pass (5,638 meters), the Valley of the Dead, Mani piles, Gaurikund, and various sacred sites to Zutrulpuk Monastery (4,790 meters) covering 22 km. Overnight stay at the monastery or nearby lodgings.
  • Day 3: The final leg returns from Zutrulpuk Monastery to Tarboche, covering 11 km in about 3-4 hours. Prostrating the entire kora may take 15-20 days. This route is dotted with historical sites and breathtaking scenery.

The Inner Kora:

Focuses on the southern side of Mount Kailash, centering around Jetho Mountain, known as the “Small Prostration Path.” Traditionally, 13 circuits of the outer kora are completed before undertaking the inner kora for complete spiritual merit. Starting from Tarboche, passing Choku Monastery and the 13 stupas of Togden, the journey takes 5-7 hours. Hiring a porter can be very helpful for the trek.

The kora around Mount Kailash is more than a physical journey; it’s a spiritual odyssey steeped in Tibetan Buddhist traditions, scenic beauty, and profound religious significance. Pilgrims from around the world embark on this sacred pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of revered masters like Milarepa, to seek enlightenment and purify their karma in the shadow of this holy mountain.

Travel Tips for Visiting Mount Kailash

Accommodation and Dining in Darchen

Travelers can find food and lodging at the base of the southern side of Mount Kailash in Darchen. Situated at an altitude of 4,686 meters, Darchen serves as both the starting and ending point of the Kailash kora. This town offers facilities like three or four star rated hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and medical services. The cuisine primarily includes Tibetan and Sichuan dishes, with prices being reasonably fair.

Transportation to Mount Kailash

  • Renting Vehicles: In Lhasa, visitors can rent off-road jeeps for the journey. There are also buses from Lhasa to Ngari.
  • Northern Route: One approach is from the north, starting from Yecheng in Xinjiang, passing through Rutog, Shiquanhe (Senge Khabab), and Menshi to reach Darchen.
  • Southern Route: The quickest path to Mount Kailash (southern line) begins from Shigatse, traveling through Saga, Zhongba, and Burang to Darchen. This route has naturally formed due to frequent vehicular travel.

Best Photography Spots

  • Lha Chu Valley: This valley offers excellent views for photographing Mount Kailash. The scenic canyon cliffs, Mani stone piles, and prayer flags can be used as foreground elements. The lighting is best in the afternoon, providing optimal photography conditions.

A visit to Mount Kailash is not only a spiritual pilgrimage but also a journey through stunning landscapes and Tibetan culture. From the convenient amenities in Darchen to the breathtaking photography opportunities in Lha Chu Valley, every aspect of the journey is imbued with the profound significance and natural beauty of this sacred region. Whether you’re a devout pilgrim or an adventurous traveler, Mount Kailash offers an unforgettable experience.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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