Trekking in Tibet as a solo traveler on the Ganden-Samye route
I decided to put down the most relevant thoughts and info about the last part of my fabulous trip to Tibet: trekking in Tibet on the Ganden-Samye route. My memories of that trek are the most vivid of the whole trip to Tibet: this is an off-the beaten-track destination, the landscape is wild, and the altitude is challenging.
TREKKING IN TIBET AS A SOLO TRAVELER
Trekking in Tibet‘s highlands requires a permit and the company of an authorized guide, like any other sightseeing activity in Tibet. A proper travel agency will arrange the trek for you, providing a tent, sleeping bags, a mat and portable oxygen (good chance you will need it – the air is very thin at those high altitudes). The guide who treks with you will buy food for everybody in the group and cook. Trekking in Tibet along the Ganden-Samye route, you’ll retrace the ancient pilgrimage trail from Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery. Overall, few travelers opt for trekking in Tibet. Most of the people only go for the Lhasa tour and the EBC tour. Therefore, it might be difficult for the travel agency to arrange for more travelers to join you, especially if you plan your trip last minute. If you’re a few people traveling together, the cost is more affordable. The trekking is physically demanding, and besides the guide, you will need two yaks to carry our camping gears and a couple of porters to take care of the yaks. It takes about three and a half days to complete the trek.
THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE
I really liked the porters. They looked so happy about that opportunity to meet a foreigner and to earn some money. The forty-ish Tibetan owner of the yaks looked a bit older than his age. He was thin, with red-brown skin, long hair arranged in a ponytail, and had a loud, contagious laugh. He made me think of Peruvian Indians. We connected easily, even if he didn’t speak much English, and also his Chinese was poor (however, no worse than my Tibetan…). The porter’s helper was a shy 17-year-old guy, with a baseball hat and the same red-brown skin.
On the first day of the trek, before we started walking, the yak-man offered to take us to his house, where we could have tea. I called the agency and explained the situation. I had tea with the porter’s wife and daughters and gazed at their house, which was painted with lively colors and decorated with interesting motifs in the nomadic tradition.
YAKS IN THE TIBETAN NOMAD CULTURE
In my imagination, I thought we would ride the yaks. After I had spent the first day near these two creatures, I realized how far off my imagination had been. Yaks are fast and agile, and very free. They move easily on grass and rocks and spend the day grazing quietly all by themselves, but it’s not an easy task to gather them in the morning after they have spent the night away from the camp. They behave a bit like bulls, so it’s better to stay at a safe distance, as you can see below, in the very amateur video I took, in which the yak-men prepared them for the trail. We visited a few of them and had a little conversation with the women, who welcomed us inside. I got to know how everything in these people’s lives come from yaks: the material from which their snow-proof tents are made, the thick, resistant blankets fit for the Tibetan winters, and yak cheese and meat. Everything is sold at the markets and represent the major income for the nomads who raise these animals. In the center of each tent, there is a stove fueled by yak dung. A small altar with the photo of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and offerings is always present. We met less than 20 people in three days of trekking, but many, many yaks! If you wish to have a look at the photo album from the trek, please visit here.
WILL YOU NEED OXYGEN ON YOUR TREK IN TIBET?
The following morning, we set off early and past a sacred lake, which we reached in 8 hours, passing through pastures, stopping by nomad tents and climbing through a riverbed covered with huge stones: it was just amazing but very challenging. I was astonished by the fact that, even though the route wasn’t too steep, I was walking slower and slower. Tashi said I should take it easy but without stopping; at a certain point, it was a real effort to take a single step forward. My legs felt too heavy. For the first time during the whole trip, I started sipping oxygen. I decided to stop, sit on the grass and just enjoy being there with the grass and rocks, the yaks nearby and the sky so close. I guess it was at that point that I started crying. I cried because I was grateful for being up there in the clouds and the pure air (not too much air, btw) and because I had finally made it to visit that place of my dreams. I also cried because I felt I couldn’t make it, I wasn’t used to that environment and weather, it was simply too tough for me, taken all at once and without preparation.
Tashi said I should keep going at my own pace, but not to stop walking altogether. I felt like we had entered another dimension that day. We didn’t see another human being for hours, and we couldn’t even hear any sounds around us. Later on, we met a crew of four nomads who were looking for something on the ground on a slope not far from our tents, stopped by and had tea with us. They wanted to know about me and asked Tashi a lot of questions. They told me they were collecting caterpillar fungus on the mountains because it’s used in Chinese medicine and sells well at the markets.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BRING WITH YOU ON THE TREKKING?
Overall, I suggest you bring as few things as possible. Even if it’s true that the yaks are carrying all your stuff, they only get unloaded once a day, before pitching tents in the evening, and it would be super inconvenient to bother the crew to stop and unload at any other time. Once you’ve seen how annoying it is to remove the load from those animals and to put it back on again, you won’t feel at ease about asking for your bag. You can leave most of your things at the travel agency in Lhasa, and just bring a very light backpack to carry yourself.
Those 13 days in Tibet had been intense, and the trekking was definitely my favourite part of the whole trip, even with all the initial downsides. I was very sad to leave. Looking back, I would do it again, but arranging the trip two or three months in advance. I warmly suggest you design your dream trip to Tibet and prepare all the documents required by the Chinese Government with Gyantsen and Kalsang, the guides who were with me for 10 days in Lhasa and EBC, and who’ll be able to arrange your trek on different routes in Tibet. If you’re a solo traveler determined to trek in Tibet and want to find a companion to lower the cost, be careful! A bad choice could ruin the trip of your life. Upon those mountains, and without a phone signal, you’ll just want to be around people that make you feel okay! That’s also true for the guide, who will be an interpreter for you and your only connection to locals you meet on the way who do not speak English. I recommend that to begin with, you have a chat in person with the guide who’s going to be up there with you, and see for yourself if you can rely on him/her totally for two days or more. Trekking in Tibet is definitely an experience to be arranged well in advance.
Look at all the photos from the trek and others to fall in love with Tibet here!