This trek has much to offer: lakes, beautiful alpine landscapes, herders' camps and sacred sites, as well as two of Tibet's greatest centres of religious culture. With so much to offer, its popularity is understandable, but you should not underestimate this walk.
The best time for the trek is from mid-May to mid-October. Summer can be wet, but the mountains are at their greenest and wild flowers spangle the alpine meadows. Barring heavy snow, it's also possible for those with a lot of trekking experience and the right gear to do this trek in the colder months. If you're coming straight from Lhasa, you should spend at least one night at Ganden Monastery (4300m) to acclimatise, or if that's not allowed, at Hepu village (4210m).
If you're fit, acclimatised and have a pack animal to carry your bags, it's not difficult to do the trek in 3½ days, overnighting in Hepu/Yama Do, Tsotup-chu and the herders' camps. If you get an early start from Lhasa on the first day, it's possible to visit Ganden in the morning, start hiking before lunch and continue on to Yama Do. Otherwise you might consider overnighting in Hepu the first night to arrange pack animals and then have a short second day to Yama Do before continuing over the Shuga-La on day three.
You'll experience at least three seasons on this trek, probably in the same day! From the wintry feel of the Chitu-la you rapidly descend to the springtime rhododendron blooms of the middle valley until the summer heat hits you on the final approach to Samye. Pack accordingly.
Guides and pack animals can be procured in the villages of Trubshi and Hepu, situated in the Tashi-chu Valley near Ganden. Figure on paying around ¥120 per day for a horse or yak and the same again for a horse/yak handler. Yaks generally won't travel alone, so you'll need a minimum of two. You'll have to pay two days' wages for the animals and handler to return. Single trekkers or pairs could get away with a single horse.
A sealed road now connects Trubshi and Hepu to the Kyi-chu Valley.
Ganden to Samye at a Glance
Duration Four days
Difficulty Medium to difficult
Start Ganden Monastery
Finish Yamalung Hermitage
Highest Point Shuga-la (5250m)
Nearest Large Towns Lhasa and Tsetang
Best Time to Trek Mid-May to mid-October
Summary This demanding trek crosses two passes over 5000m, connects two of Tibet's most important monasteries and begins less than 50km from Lhasa. It has emerged as the most popular trek in the Ü region.
Stage 1: Ganden to Yama Do
The trek begins in the car park at the base of Ganden Monastery. Your driver will most likely transport your packs to Hepu to meet your pack animals there, so you can travel light for the first section of this hike. Some trekkers visit Ganden in the morning, hike to Hepu after lunch and spend the first night there, meeting their pack animals the next morning.
Leave the car park and look for the well-trodden trail heading south along the side of Angkor Ri, the highest point on the Ganden kora. After 30 minutes the Ganden kora branches off to the right (4360m; N 29°44.891ʹ, E 091°28.788ʹ); keep ascending to the south for another 30 minutes. You quickly lose sight of Ganden but gain views of Samadro village below you to the left, before reaching a saddle, marked by a large lapse (cairn; 4530m; N 29°44.130ʹ, E 091°29.729ʹ). (Don't confuse this with a smaller, earlier cairn.) Expect to take around 90 minutes to get here from Ganden.
From the saddle, look south to see the approach to the Shuga-la in the distance. Traversing the western side of the ridge from the saddle, dipping briefly into a side gully, you get views of Trubshi village below and the Kyi-chu Valley to the west. After 45 minutes the trail descends towards Hepu village. About 20 minutes further is a spring and a herders' camp marked by a section of stone wall. From here it's a further 30 minutes to the village, a total of three to four hours' walking from Ganden.
There are around 30 houses in the village of Hepu (4240m; N 29°42.387ʹ, E 091°31.442ʹ), also called Lewu or Lepu, and it's often possible for trekkers to find accommodation among the friendly locals. There's good camping to the south and west of the village. Look for a red-and-yellow masonry structure and white incense hearths at the southeastern edge of the village. This is the shrine of Hepu's yul lha (local protecting deity), the Divine White Yak.
Walk west downhill from the village for 10 minutes towards a bridge crossing the Tashi-chu, near the confluence with another stream, at a tiny settlement called Dekyi Pangka. This is likely where your agency has dropped your main bags to be loaded onto pack animals for your arrival. There are several campsites near the confluence. From here, the Shuga-la is at least four hours away.
Follow the dirt road south along the west bank of the side stream for five minutes until it peters out in yak pastures. You are now following the watercourse originating from the Shuga-la.
Twenty minutes from the confluence you reach Ani Pagong, a narrow, craggy bottleneck in the valley. A small nunnery used to be above the trail. Across the valley is the seasonal herders' camp of Choden. From Ani Pagong, the trail steadily climbs for another hour through marshy meadows and past stone shelters to cross to the east side of the river just before Yama Do (4490m; N 29°40.511ʹ, E 091°30.918ʹ).
Yama Do offers extensive campsites suitable for larger groups. It's best to spend the night here as it's still a long climb to the pass and there are few other camping places along the way. If you have time on your hands, you could visit the herders' camps on the western side of the valley, though be careful of dogs on the approach.
630m ascent/420m descent
Stage 2: Yama Do to Tsotup-chu Valley
Above Yama Do the valley's watercourse splits into three branches. Follow the central (southern) branch, not the southeastern or southwestern branches. The route leaves the flank of the valley and follows the valley bottom. The trail becomes indistinct, but it's a straight shot up to the pass. About 30 minutes from Yama Do are two single-tent campsites, the last good ones until the other side of the pass, at least five hours away. One hour past Yama Do, leave the valley floor and ascend a shelf on the eastern side of the valley to avoid a steep gully that forms around the stream. If in doubt follow the cairns. In another 45 minutes you enter a wet alpine basin studded with tussock grass.
The Shuga-la is at least 1¼ hours from the basin and three hours from Yama Do. Remain on the eastern side of the valley as it bends to the left. You have to negotiate snowfields and boulders along the final steep climb to the pass. The Shuga-la (5250m; N 29°38.472ʹ, E 091°32.015ʹ) cannot be seen until you're virtually on top of it. It's marked by a large cairn covered in prayer flags and yak horns, and is the highest point of the trek. If you have some spare energy you can scramble up the hill to the west for superb views.
The route continues over the Shuga-la and then descends sharply through a boulder field. Be on the lookout for a clear trail marked by cairns on the left side of the boulder field. Pack animals sometimes have difficulty on this steep, muddy section. This trail traverses the ridge in a southeasterly direction, paralleling the valley below. Do not head directly down to the valley floor from the pass unless you have good reason. It's a long, steep descent and once at the bottom you have to go back up the valley to complete the trek. In case of emergency, retreat down the valley for a bolt back to the Lhasa–Ganden Hwy near Dagtse, a long day of walking away.
The trail gradually descends to the valley floor, 1½ hours from the pass and 200m below it. The views of the valley and the lake at its head are among the highlights of the trek. Cross the large Tsotup-chu (4980m; N 29°37.366ʹ, E 091°33.288ʹ), which flows through the valley, and keep an eye out for the herders' dogs. During heavy summer rains take special care to find a safe ford. The pastures in the area support large herds of yaks, goats and sheep, and during the trekking season herders are normally camped here, either in tents or in new plastic cabins. Known as Tsogo Numa, this is an ideal place to meet the herders, but dry, flat campsites are hard to find.
An alternative route to Samye via the Gampa-la (5050m) follows the main branch of the Tsotup-chu past a couple of lakes to the pass. South of the Gampa-la the trail plunges into a gorge, criss-crossing the stream that flows down from it. These fords may pose problems during summer rains or when completely frozen. See Gary McCue's Trekking in Tibet – A Traveler's Guide for details of this route.
1000m ascent/450m descent
Stage 3: Tsotup-chu Valley to Herders’ Camps
From the Tsotup-chu ford, the main watercourse flows from the southeast and a minor tributary enters from the southwest. Follow this tributary (which quickly disappears underground) steeply up for about 30 minutes until you reach a large basin and a cairn that offers fine views down onto Palang Tsodü lake. You may hear the distant sounds of a mining operation in the valley behind.
Stay on the western side of the basin and turn into the first side valley opening on the right. A couple of minutes into the valley (and 45 minutes from the Tsotup-chu) you'll pass a flat, walled group campsite (5079m; N 29°36.604ʹ, E 091°33.544ʹ). This is a nicer alternative campsite to the Tsotup-chu, but only consider it if you're well acclimatised, as it's 100m higher.
Follow this broad valley, which soon arcs south to the Chitu-la, about two hours away. The pass can be seen in the distance, a low rampart at the head of the valley that is a considerably easier goal than yesterday's pass. The faint main trail stays on the western side of the valley before switching to the eastern side of the valley as you approach the pass. If you lose the trail just look for the easiest route up: the terrain is marshy and hillocky in early summer but not particularly difficult to navigate.
The Chitu-la (5210m; N 29°34.810ʹ, E 091°33.160ʹ) is topped by several cairns and a small glacial tarn. Climb onto the stone ledges just above the pass to savour the views over a snack before moving to the western side of the pass to find the trail down and to circumvent a sheer rock wall on its southern flank. A short descent will bring you into a basin with three small lakes. The trail skirts the western side of the first lake and then crosses to the eastern shores of the second two. It takes 45 minutes to reach the southern end of the basin, where you might be lucky enough to spot blue sheep.
Drop down from the basin on the western side of the stream and in 15 minutes you'll pass a collection of cairns (5077m; N 29°33.924ʹ, E 091°32.790ʹ) to the right. A further 10 minutes brings you to the stone walls of a camp where herders have carved out level places for their tents.
Below the herders' highest camp, the valley is squeezed in by vertical rock walls, forcing you to pick your way along the rock-strewn valley floor. Pass a side stream after 15 minutes and then cross over to the western side of the widening valley to recover the trail. In 20 more minutes you will come to a flat and a seasonal herders' camp on the eastern side of the valley, which is good place to stop for yak-butter tea. At the lower end of the flat, return to the western side of the valley. The trail again disappears as it enters a scrub-willow and rosebush forest, but there is only one way to go to get to Samye and that is downstream.
In 20 minutes, when a tributary valley enters from the right, cross to the eastern side of the valley to reach another seasonal herders' camp, inhabited for only a short time each year. Another 20 minutes beyond this camp, hop back to the west bank to avoid a cliff hugging the opposite side of the stream. Pass through a large meadow and cross the bridge back to the east bank. From this point the trail remains on the eastern side of the valley for several hours.
Campsites are numerous here. After 20 minutes you'll pass herders' tents near the spot where the side valley coming from the Gampa-la joins the main valley. A bridge crosses the side stream here. There are several possible campsites on the finger of land formed by the river junction, but the area can be busy in early summer with motorbike-riding Tibetan youth heading to the highlands in search of yartsa gunbu, a valuable medicinal fungus that is almost worth its weight in gold. If so continue on to the Diwaka Zampa bridge.
300m ascent/400m descent
Stage 4: Herders’ Camps to Yamalung Hermitage
The trail is now wide and easy to follow as it traces a course down the eastern side of the valley. Walk through the thickening scrub forest for 45 minutes and you will come to another stream entering from the eastern side of the main valley. Look for the wood-and-stone Diwaka Zampa bridge (4335m; N 29°30.439ʹ, E 091°33.165ʹ) 50m above the confluence.
The valley now bends to the right (west) and the trail enters the thickest and tallest part of the scrub forest. The right combination of elevation, moisture and aspect create a verdant environment, while just a few kilometres away desert conditions prevail. Several grassy campsites along this section make for a good alternative end to stage 3.
The next two-hour stretch of the trail is among the most delightful of the entire trek. According to local woodcutters more than 15 types of tree and shrub are found here, some growing as high as 6m. Fragrant junipers grow on exposed south-facing slopes, while rhododendrons prefer the shadier slopes. The rhododendrons start to bloom in early May.
The trail winds through a series of meadows. After 40 minutes the stony floodplain of a tributary joins the river from the north. In another 30 minutes look for a mass of prayer flags, stone shrines and an ancient juniper tree at a place known as Gen Do. This is a shrine (4165m; N 29°29.525ʹ, E 091°31.805ʹ) to the protector of the area, the goddess Dorje Yudronma. Just past the shrine, cross a small tributary stream beside another potential camping spot. In 45 minutes the forest rapidly thins and Changtang, the first permanent village since Hepu, pops up with its oddly jarring modern street lights. There's good camping just before the village. From Changtang the walking trail becomes a full-fledged motorable road.
Look south to the distant mountains; this is the range on the far side of the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley. About 45 minutes down the valley at a prominent bend in it is the turn-off for the Yamalung Hermitage, visible on the cliff face high above the valley. A small teahouse run by the nuns of Yamalung sells soft drinks, beer and instant noodles. There's fine camping across the bridge; the path to Yamalung also leads up from here. It's a 45-minute steep climb to the hermitage. Yamalung (also called Emalung) is where the Tibetan wonder-worker Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated and received empowerment from the long-life deity Tsepame (Amitayus).
Most trekkers end their trek after a visit to Yamalung. On the 20-minute drive to Samye look for a ridge spur called Dragmar. On the ridge is the partially rebuilt palace where King Trisong Detsen is said to have been born. Formerly a lavish temple, it now stands forlorn. Below, just off the road, is a small red-and-white temple (3687m; N 29°22.802ʹ, E 091°30.399ʹ), which is often locked and enshrines the stump of an ancient tree. Legend has it that a red-and-white sandalwood tree grew here, nourished by the buried placenta of Trisong Detsen. During the Cultural Revolution the tree was chopped down.