Retracing The Footsteps of The Ancient Buddhist Pilgrims: A 4-Day Himalayan Trek From Ganden To Samye On The Tibetan Plateau

To many western travellers, Lhasa conjures misty visions of lost Himalayan kingdoms, hidden Buddhist hermitages and breathtaking mountain vistas. While the former is slowly losing its old-world charms to new construction projects, thankfully the latter remains as majestic as ever.

Since time immemorial, an ancient trail has guided nomadic herdsmen and pilgrims across the mountains and valleys on their way from the Ganden monastery complex to the town of Samye. Over 4 days, this itinerary will explain how to get onto this trail, what to expect, and the safety precautions of trekking in high altitude in a remote area like this.

Trekking upwards to the Shuga-la pass
Trekking slowly up to the Shuga-la pass

Pre-trip preparation

Barring discomfort from the altitude, it’s easy enough to visit Tibet and explore the ancient city and its warren of alleys and brick buildings. But getting on a trek outside the safe confines of Lhasa is entirely different. Here, weather changes are fast and potentially deadly if you are caught unprepared, and trails may disappear into a boulder field or a sprawling grassy madow that extends for miles in all directions.

The first step is preparing yourself mentally for the rigours of trekking at high altitudes. On the Ganden – Samye trek, a day’s trek may last for 10 hours and cover over 20 kilometers of rough terrain. It’s not an easy walk in the park, and coupled with the thin air, you will be challenged physically. Bear that in mind before committing to a tour package.

Squint and you can see the red speck of leading trekker. The scale of the distances here is massive.
Squint and you can see the red speck of leading trekker. The scale of the distances here is massive.

This leads on to the next requirement – you’ll need to engage the services of a licensed tour guide wherever you go in Lhasa. In line with strict security rules, all foreigners are to be escorted around within Tibet, and need to have a valid Chinese visa and Tibet travel permit. The authorities do let foreigners roam around Lhasa quite freely though, although entrance into the Potala Palace and other ticketed monasteries is only permitted with a guide.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa
The Potala Palace in Lhasa

It’s advisable to maintain a reasonable level of fitness before setting off on a Himalayan trek. While you should take it easy and not over-exert yourself, the risk of walking on a rough trail is exponentially increased when darkness falls. The camps that run along the Ganden-Samye route are located within a day’s trek for for most tourist, but you’ll still need to make sure you can maintain a reasonable pace. As a rough gauge, stopping for a 5-minute breather every 10 minutes will still get you to the campsite in time for dinner.

Here are some activities that can get you in decent shape for a mountain trek in the Himalayas.

  • Walking up steep slopes for 30 minutes a day over 2 weeks
  • Walking up and down flights of stairs of an apartment block every day
  • Swimming (to regulate your breathing)
  • Long-distance hiking (to improve stamina)

Packing list

It’s advisable to pack light for the trek, but do bring the essentials that will help you survive against the elements. As the trek can get depressingly lonely or frustrating at time, packing some chocolates or comfort food is also highly recommended.

Pack enough, but too much. The yaks have their limits too, you know.
Pack enough, but too much. The yaks have their limits too, you know.

Use this packing list as a starter guide to pack for a Himalayan trek.

Clothes

  • Light fleece jacket
  • Heavy insulated/down jacket
  • Thin gloves (for spring, summer and autumn seasons)
  • Thick winter gloves (for winter season)
  • Long johns
  • Beanie / scarf (for winter season)
  • Ski pants (for winter season)
  • Waterproof trekking boots

Accessories

  • Sunglasses (sunlight is very intense, more so when walking over snowfields)
  • Sunblock lotion
  • Moisturiser
  • Chapstick / lip balm
  • Trekking pole (1 will suffice)
  • Camera and at least 1 spare battery
  • Pocket knife
  • 3 x 1 liter water bottles
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Playing cards or a good book

Food & medicine

  • Chocolate bars
  • Dried beef/yak jerky (available in Lhasa)
  • Powdered isotonic drink
  • Water purification pills
  • Diamox altitude sickness pill
With power generation and water supply, I'm a walkin', talkin' utilities company.
With power generation and water supply, I’m a walkin’, talkin’ utilities company.

Finding a good travel guide for trekking in Tibet

As your tour guide will be with you throughout your time in Tibet, it is important to engage the right travel agency. With numerous operators offering similar itineraries, it’s hard to pin down a reliable and well-regarded company.

I found Tibet Vista after extensive research, and their package is among the most fairly priced among all the others. They have an office based in Lhasa (Jia Cuo NO3-070 Beijing Xi Lu), and another located out of Chengdu, so I was less apprehensive compared to engaging an agency based in Kathmandu or anywhere else outside Lhasa.

My assigned agent, Chloe, helped handle the logistics for the registration and delivery of the Tibet travel permit, and carried it out without a hitch. She was also a wealth of information early on, when I was trying to find ways to reduce the number of yaks and food catered for the trek. In hindsight, I can only advise not to save that couple of hundred dollars – having hot cooked food and a lighter load is worth far more than that.

During the trek, my guide Lhakpa is a true professional and a jovial fella that lightens the mood during the most arduous parts of the trek, and at the campsite towards the end of the day. He cooks a mean dinner and ensures there’s plenty of food and water to go around throughout the trek. Now here’s a picture of him sprinting across a mountain pass at 5,200m. Man… he’s amazing.

Lhakpa, looking all majestic while waiting for us to catch up (again)
Lhakpa, looking all majestic while waiting for us to catch up (again)
Our hardy yak herders, who accompanied and endured us for 4 days with a constant smile.
Our hardy yak herders, who accompanied and endured us for 4 days with a constant smile.

As always, do some homework before settling on your tour company. I’ve tested Tibet Vista and they have delivered on their promise of an adventure of a lifetime. I’ll recommend them without a doubt, and you can use them as a starting point for your own research.

Food and Beverage

It’s important to keep hydrated and well-fed during the trek. Covering miles and miles of rocky terrain and steep slopes at energy-sapping heights is tough, and you need to consume a regular diet of protein and carbohydrates to keep your body going strong. Lhakpa, my guide, is capable of whipping up a 5-course feast on short notice, with limited ingredients and a makeshift kitchen. It’s absolutely tasty though, since he lugs along a pressure cooker, a wok, gas stove, cooking oil, spices, salt and other ingredients that would put many restaurants to shame.

After setting up camp in the evening, the first meal will be a tea break with:

  • Cups of ginger honey lemon to ease into the increased altitude and replenish lost fluids
  • Plain biscuits and peanuts. The biscuits keep your stool hard, I guess. And NO, I did not literally feel my stool okay?
Tea break after making camp
Tea break after making camp

After an hour of cooking, dinner will be served. A sample menu for the evening might consist of:

  • Pearl rice or spaghetti
  • Chunks of pork cooked with black fungus
  • Stir-fried leafy vegetables
  • Cucumber salad
  • Carrots and potato soup
Intense preparation for dinner, immediately after setting up the tent
Intense preparation for dinner, immediately after setting up the tent
Everyone looks forward to freshly cooked food during dinnertime.
The split second where the food is unveiled, and before everyone digs in with gusto!

Dinnertime is also the best time for trekkers to mingle around and socialise, before darkness falls and everyone retires early to their tents. It’s a simple lifestyle out in the mountains, and you may miss your daily grande mocha latte, but you’ll learn to appreciate this soon after you get back to dining on bland restaurant heaped with sodium and sugar.

Answering the call of nature

As this is a trek in the wilderness, there will be no toilet facilities anywhere along the way. If you’re shy, you’ll need to do your business far away from prying eyes by hiding behind boulders, small hills or the occasional bushy plant.

If you’re a naturalist who doesn’t mind flaunting it for the world to see… well, make an effort to be discreet anyways. It makes for less awkward mealtimes with your guides and trekking companions, and everyone can pretend to each other that they don’t actually need to go pee-pee and poo-poo.

Yes, this could be your toilet too.
Yes, this could be your toilet too! (yak shit, by the way)

Setting off on the trek

After the first two days of acclimatisation and monastery-hopping in Lhasa, it’s time to start the trek. Some operators drive up to the Ganden monastery to begin the trek, if you’re on a longer trek. To save time on the 4-day trek, you’ll be taken to a small village 30 minutes away where the yak herders live. While your guide negotiates and manages the loading of the supplies and baggage, you’ll be invited to start walking. Rest assured, any headstart you think you have will be gone in short notice, once the yak train sets off.

Crossing the small river on way up
Crossing the small river on way up

The trek starts off rather uneventfully, as you follow a paved road down, and turn off into a dirt trail. From here, the trail leads up into the mountains with a noticeable upward incline. Along the way, you will pass by a couple of single-storied houses where the local herders live with their yaks. If you’re leading the pack, you might be invited for a cup of butter tea while waiting for the rest to catch up. Life in the mountains may be harsh at times, but the locals are among the friendliest people around.

You might feel your energy sapping away as breathing gets harder with the increasing altitude. Take it easy at the start and climb at your own pace, for the first day’s trek is relatively short and there is enough buffer to fit in rest stops on the way to the campsite. For most people, this means a 5-hour trek, after which you cross a small stream and reach a flat grassy area with a million-dollar view. Take photos sparingly though, for there’ll be many more vistas in the coming days.

The final ascent before reaching the campsite
The final ascent before reaching the campsite
Panorama of first campsite
Panorama of first campsite

Climbing up to the Shuga-la pass (5,250m)

Start the day early on the second day, as you gobble down dry biscuits, stale bread and omelette for breakfast. Generally, dinner is cooked fresh while breakfast and lunch consist of prepared items like sandwiches, fruits and cooked eggs. If the altitude is suppressing your appetite or the quality of food is hard to bear, force it down nonetheless.

On this second day, you’ll need all the energy you can muster to make it up to the 5,250m-high Shuga-la pass, and then down the stunning Tsotup-chu valley (4,880m). Over the 10 hours of trekking, you’ll cover 20km of boulder fields, marshy meadows and a memorable stretch of dirt trail hugging along the side of a mountain. It’s not for the faint of heart and you’ll be pushed to your physical limits, but the views are more than worth the effort many times over.

After crossing over the Shuga-la pass, youll have to walk carefully along the slopes of the mountain.
After crossing over the Shuga-la pass, youll have to walk carefully along the slopes of the mountain

A note of caution though, if you wander off from the main trekking group. The valley is home to several farms which are guarded by massive Tibetan mastiffs. These ferocious dogs are among the most loyal and aggressive breeds, and are very territorial animals. If you hear their barking from afar, plot a path to skirt around them, or arm yourself with a handy stick or trekking pole to fend off any potential attacks.

The campsite for the night is a sheltered meadow hidden behind several small hills, and fed by a small stream bringing in fresh glacier water. A stone barrier marks the boundary of the campsite, and don’t be surprised if herds of yaks trod past the campsite in the evening. With the altitude just below 5,000m, the nighttime temperature will plummet quickly, so dress warmly once you make camp.

The second campsite is a welcoming sight after 10 hours of trekking.
The second campsite is a welcoming sight after 10 hours of trekking

Conquering the Chitu-la pass (5210m) and down to the herder’s camp

After the tough second day, wake up to one more day of long-distance trekking. For most people, the toughest part has passed, and Day 3 is one for taking photos and enjoying the scenery.

After breaking camp, head towards the Chitu-la pass, which is a lot easier to climb over compared to Shuga-la the previous day. Nevertheless, altitude sickness is still a real threat here, so drink loads of water and walk at a comfortable pace.

The first stretch to the pass crosses a wide expanse of lush green meadow. While it looks flat from far, it is more accurately described as a bumpy landscape interspersed by boulder fields. If you’re a breakfast person, think of it more as a lumpy bowl of muesli with milk, rather than the smooth surface of a pancake. This, of course, makes it tiring to hop over small rocks and cross holes in the ground, so expend your energy wisely.

Starting the day right with a climb up to the Chitu-la pass
Starting the day right with a gradual climb up to the Chitu-la pass

From the Chitu-la pass, you’ll need to slowly scramble down a sheer rock wall carefully. Loose gravel and slippery rocks make it especially dangerous, so use a trekking pole for balance if possible.

At the bottom of the rock wall, you’ll reach the shores of a basin with three small lakes. According to local folklore, these are sacred lakes that demand respect. Excessive noise will anger the spirits, who will bring in clouds and rain. You have been warned, so tread lightly and quickly over to the edge of the mountain in the distance, which is still a good 1 hour trek away. If you’re making good time, this area offers one of the best vantage spots in the whole journey, and is an ideal spot for a lunch break with million-dollar views of a deep, vast valley and a serene lake on opposing sides.

Pondering on the steep descent up ahead
Pondering on the steep descent up ahead
The best spot for a lunch picnic during the trek.
The best spot for a lunch picnic during the trek

From here, the trail snakes down the mountains and into the forests of the lower reaches of the valley. From here to the herder’s valley campsite, it’s a 1,000m drop in altitude that will take around 6 hours to (carefully) navigate the gravel-strewn path. After 2 nights in the high-altitude plains of the Tibetan plateau, you’re now in the more hospitable zone where massive mountains block howling winds and trees provide plenty of cover for doing the pee-pee and poo-poo business.

The last part of the day’s trek is an easy walk through the herder’s valley. Mud tracks with tyre tracks hint that of human civilisation, and you’ll pass several houses inhabited by Tibetan families and their fearsome mastiffs. As always, walk quickly through these areas and avoid eye-contact with the dogs. With a good pace, you’ll reach the campsite by late afternoon, and your guide might even have time to gather firewood and prepare a campfire.

The campsite at the Herders Valley
The campsite at the Herders Valley
The last night is spent by the warmth of a campfire
The last night is spent by the warmth of a campfire

The end game

At last, the final day of the Ganden-Samye trek has arrived. After 3 days of camping, some trekkers might already be at their breaking point. Thankfully, the day starts off with a short 3-4 hour easy trek on a flat dirt trail along the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley. The destination is the Yamalung village, famed for a Buddhist hermitage build into the side of the mountain high above the valley floor.

After a well-deserved break in the neighbourhood grocery shop, a van will shuttle you to Samye, marking the end of the trek as you return to the urban world of shops, restaurants and showers.

The final stop for the trek, Samye Monastery, was reached a lot faster on wheels
The final stop for the trek, Samye Monastery, is reached a lot faster on wheels. So yeah, we cheated a bit. Awww c’mon!

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