Tibet is not just a land of spectacular landscapes and lush grasslands, interspersed with crystal clear lakes and high, snow-capped mountains. The region abounds with holy sites of Tibetan Buddhism, historic monuments to long-dead lamas, and is full of legends that are often attached to its variety of natural structures. These mean a regular flow of monks and pilgrims through the region, to visit, pray, prostrate and perform holy koras.
Not the least of these amazing Buddhist sites are the Four Holy Mountains of Tibetan Buddhism. Holy mountains and divine mountain ranges play an important part in Tibetan Buddhism, and are treated with respect and reverence by all. The mystic glamor and majestic aura of the sites leave pilgrims and visitors alike wondering in awe. The holy mountains hold the most breathtaking sights in Tibet, and are a testimony to the fact that nature, as it always has been, is divine and beautiful in every form.
There are a huge number of mountains in Tibet that hold a significance in both culture and religion, and regularly attract streams of visitors and pilgrims to view their majesty and pray at their slopes. Tibetan Buddhists worship the mountains, lakes, and revere the color white, and it is believed that divinity resides in snowy areas on the tops of mountains, that every lake holds a dragon and that even the rocks have spirits. By circling the mountains in a holy kora, always walking around clockwise, they believe that their sins can be purged and it will help them on the road to enlightenment.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
Set in the remote western region of Tibet, Mt. Kailash dominates the landscape with its pristine, celestial beauty. It is the ultimate pilgrimage for Buddhists, as well as Hindus, Jains and Bon. For all four religions, Mt. Kailash is one of the spiritual centers of the universe, and the epicenter of their respective religions. Thousands of devotees make the journey to Mt. Kailash every year, to walk the holy kora around the mountain, and pray at its slopes.
Soaring 6,638 meters into the air, Mt. Kailash is the most venerated place in the world, yet at the same time is the least visited. As the sacred and holiest of sites for four separate religions, encompassing billions of people, the mountain sees just a few thousands of visitors every year. The region in which it lies is remote,and the trip to get there is long and arduous. The weather can often be treacherous, and with few places to get supplies, pilgrims must carry what they need with them, making it only the most devout who attempt this long, dangerous journey.
People have been coming to this sacred mountain since long before the dawn of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, all of which speak of the mountain being the mythical center, and the birth place of the entire world. The mountain is the site of a battle between the Bon shamen, Naro Bon-chung, and the Buddhist sage Milarepa. Milarepa’s defeat of Bon-chung displaced Bon as the leading religion in Tibet, and firmly established Buddhism in its place. Tibetan Buddhists call the mountain Kang Rimpoche, meaning “Precious One of Glacial Snow”, and the home of Chakrasamvara and his consort, Dorje Phagmo.
Meili Snow Mountain, Yunnan
Meili Snow Mountain, or Kawa Karpo, is really a multi-peaked range and is located in the western part of Deqin County, Yunnan Province. This border mountain range is one of the holiest of sites for Tibetan Buddhists, and another of the regular pilgrimage sites. The range consists of thirteen peaks, all above 6,000 meters above sea level, with the highest being Kagebo, at 6,740 meters.
The mountain range is one of the eight great divine mountains of Tibetan Buddhism, and a place of great religious significance to the locals who live below the mountains. They believe that their guardian deity lives on the mountain, and that if it is ever climbed by man, the deity will abandon it, leaving the local villages to their catastrophic fate.
Along with the pilgrims, the mountains’ spectacular scenery attracts the attention of foreign tourists, who come to gaze at and photograph what has become known as the most beautiful mountains in the world. Every year, in the late fall, Tibetan Buddhists will make the trek to the Meili Snow Mountain, to pay homage to the sacred mountain. Sometimes traveling hundreds of kilometers to get there, they spend a few weeks in their pilgrimage, circumambulating the mountain, and prostrating themselves at certain points in the kora. And every year of the Goat, in the Tibetan calendar, the numbers increase dramatically, with tens of thousands of pilgrims making the journey.
Amnye Machen, Qinghai
Mt. Amnye Machen, in Qinghai Province, has long been considered a sacred mountain in Tibetan Buddhism, and a place of pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of Tibetans make the pilgrimage every year to circumambulate the 180km kora around the mountain. The trek around Amnye Machen is long and arduous. The kora passes by the meditation caves at the cliffs of Goku Chenmo, passes through broad expanses of Juniper forest, and reveals a hidden monastery near Drakdar Pass.
The peak of Amnye Machen is the highest point in the range, and sits at around 6,282 meters above sea level. Located in the remote and rugged area of Golok Prefecture, in Machen County, it is part of the Kunlun Mountain Range, which the trains to Tibet cross daily on their journey from Xining.
The 105km holy kora around the mountain takes 6-9 days, and is popular with Tibetan Buddhists. But, despite being the highest mountain in the Amdo region, and being an incredibly beautiful area of Tibet, it sees very few foreign visitors. The area can be quite cold, even in summer, with an average elevation between 4,200 and 4,600 meters. The mountains are well known for being full of glaciers, making trekking more dangerous. Only in the summer is the area around the mountain free from the deep snow that persists from fall to spring.
Gaduojuewu Snow Mountains, Qinghai
Located in Gaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, the Gaduojuewu Snow Mountains consist of one main peak and dozens of surrounding, smaller mountains. The main peak is 5,395 meters above sea level, and its steep cliffs offer powerful and spectacular mountain views.
The mountains hold a special place in Tibetan Buddhism, and are associated with the Tibetan king, Thrisong Detsen, who is known to have made many visits to the mountains. As in most Tibetan regions, each area has its own living Buddha, and the living Buddha of Gaduojuewu is known as Resa, who was famous in Tibetan history for his kindness and medical skills. Another legend of the area says that the Main peak of the range was a brave and wise military commander, who was transformed into the mountain, while the other 28 smaller surrounding mountains were changed from his entourage of 7 military officers, 7 great doctors, seven swordsmiths, and seven tailors.
Much like its sister mountain, Mt. Kailash, the main peak of Gaduojuewu has two koras, an inner one of around 55km, and an outer kora of 120km. The circumambulation of the kora takes around 3days for the outer kora, and 2 days for the inner kora(currently unavailable to international tourists), though it can be a treacherous route on the inner ring. The area around the mountains is also a rich resource for herbal plants used in Chinese medicines.