Facts about the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu Overland
The Friendship Highway, also known as the China-Nepal Highway, is an 806 kilometer road that connects Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with the Nepal border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge between Zhangmu And Kodari. It also includes the westernmost end of the G318 National highway, which runs from Shanghai in eastern China to Zhangmu, and covers a total distance of 5,476 kilometers.
The plateau landscape along Friendship Highway
One of the highest roads in the world, it crosses over three passes above 5,000 meters, and is the single most traveled road in Tibet. However, while the road ends at the border crossing point of the Friendship Bridge, it is no longer the way to get to Kathmandu. Since the earthquake in 2015 which destroyed parts of the highway and bridge, and caused massive evacuations in the area, the crossing point has been closed, and a new one recently opened for tourists a little way north at Gyirong Port and Rasuwagadhi. The Friendship Highway also extends into Nepal, where it follows the Araniko highway for another 115 kilometers to Kathmandu.
China-Nepal Friendship Highway
In actuality, the China-Nepal Friendship Highway follows two separate roads. The main highway runs direct along the G318 from Lhasa to Lhatse, where it then turns south to head for the Nepal border. The other part of the Friendship Highway continues on from Lhatse, and ends at Gar in the far west of Tibet, in the Ngari Prefecture. This section of the road is little traveled by tourists, except those that are going to the holy Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, which the highway passes close by.
Tha main section of the road starts at Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and heads west, Passing the beautiful Lake Yamdrok and on to Gyantse and Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. Gyantse is famous for the Kumbum, a huge stupa that stands 35 meters tall inside the famous Pelkor Monastery. The Friendship Highway passes right through the middle of Shigatse, crossing the Nyang Qu River as it enters the city, and then heading west towards Lhatse.
After passing through the town of Lhatse, the Friendship Highway turns southwest at the small village of Chawarong, and continues for another 320 kilometers until it reaches the town of Gyirong.
Sights along the Lhasa to Kathmandu Highway
One of the first sights you will see along the highway is the beautiful Lake Yamdrok. Following the Kyichu River, a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo, you soon come across the lake, shimmering in the sunlight, the turquoise waters glistening, and surrounded by rolling hills. The lake, which first comes into view as you cross the 4,700 meter Kamba La Pass, lies at 4,447 meters above sea level, and is one of the three Great Lakes of Tibetan Buddhism.
Next you will come across a small town called Nakartse, after which the second great sight is the Samding Monastery. Few travelers top at Samding, but it is well worth it for the amazing views of the sweeping plains below the hill on which it stands.
As the boundary between Lhoka Prefecture and Shigatse Prefecture, Karo La Pass lies at just under 5,000 meters, and sits at the base of Mount Nojin Kangtsang, the snow-covered peak visible from Lake Yamdrok. From here you can also get a great view of the famous Karola Glacier, its pristine white surface shining in the bright sun.
In Gyantse you can visit the spectacular Pelkor Monastery, with the Gyantse Kumbum in its grounds, and the massive hilltop fort of Gyantse Dzong, which dominates the local skyline. Pelkor Monastery is the destination for many pilgrims who travel to the area during Losar, the Tibetan New Year, which is one of the best times to visit Gyantse.
After a short drive that passes through flat plains of wheat and barley, you will arrive at Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. The former capital of the Tibetan Tsang region, Shigatse is a modern city that lies at an elevation of 3,845 meters. The main attraction of Shigatse is the beautiful Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which was built in 1447. One of the six main monasteries of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it once held more than 4,000 monks. Now there are only 600 in residence. It is also the traditional home and seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest incarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. The tombs of the Panchen Lamas from fifth to tenth can be found in the monastery, and there are normally a few hundred pilgrims at the monastery praying on any given day.
Once outside Shigatse, the road to the Nepal border continues through plains full of fields and small farming communities. Just off the highway a few kilometers lies the massive fortress of the Sakya Monastery, the main seat of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in the form of a huge fortress, with high walls and watchtowers, Sakya Monastery is one of the most impressive examples of Tibetan architecture in the region. Originally founded in 1073, the main part of the monastery was built up in 1268.
Further along the road after getting back to the highway from Sakya, you come to the turning point of the Friendship Highway, Lhatse. This small town lies at an elevation of 4,025 meters, and is famous only for being the point at which the highway turns south. It is, however, a good place to stop for lunch, and has several good places to eat with delicious Tibetan and western foods.
More than 80 kilometers further on you finally get to the edge of the Everest Nature Reserve, and the nearby town of Shekar. While there is not much interesting in the town, the nearby hill has a old, ruined dzong at the top, from which you can get one of the most stunning views of Mount Everest. It is a 2km hike to the top, but the view and photo opportunity is well worth it. Once inside the reserve, it is a short distance off the Friendship Highway to get to the world famous Mount Everest, and the base camp, which is as close as you can get. However, this is easily close enough, and unlike the base camp on the south side of the mountain in Nepal, there are clear views of the peak from here.
Coming back from EBC, the road back to the highway takes you past the highest gompa in the world, Rongbuk Monastery. This ancient monastery lies at the end of the valley that leads to Everest Base Camp, and has some excellent view of the mountain. An unusual monastery, it houses both monks and nuns in the same complex, and has long been a stopping point for travelers on the way to Mt. Everest. While Everest is a long way off the main Friendship Highway, it is worth the side trip to see it, and no visit to Tibet could possibly be complete without seeing Mount Everest in all its glory.
Back on the Friendship Highway, it is only a short drive from there to Zhangmu, but there is one place nearby that is worth another little excursion off the main route. Just past Old Tingri, there is a small dirt road that leads you west to a beautiful area in which lies the stunning Paiku Lake and the base camp of the world’s 14th highest mountain, Mt. Shishapangma. This is a very beautiful region of Tibet that very few visit, and is abundant with wildlife that come to the lake to drink. From wolves and foxes to the herds of wild gazelle, wild Tibetan donkeys, and the amazing Himalayan Griffons.
Peiku Lake sits at an elevation of 4,585 meters, and the crystal clear waters of the lake offer great reflective views of the surrounding mountains. Not far past the lake lies the now unused base camp of Mt. Shishapangma. The base camp has an old stone sign that lists the elevation as 5,000 meters, while the peak of the mountain rises to a staggering 8,013 meters.
Once back onto the Friendship Highway, it is then on to the last high pass on the road, the Tong La Pass. Sitting at an elevation of 5,129 meters, this is the last high pass you will climb over before heading across the border and into Nepal. From the top of the pass, you get a sweeping view of the Himalayas, and eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, as well as Shishapangma.
From the top of the pass, the road drops and heads for the last town in Tibet, Dram. Known in Chinese as Zhangmu, it is the most unique town in the region, clinging precariously to the side of the Himalayas, and is very narrow and steep. Once one of the busiest places in Tibet, with the traffic that came through the border crossing and across the Friendship Bridge, it is now almost a ghost town, with only a little local trade across the border continuing. The evacuation of the people during the earthquake, and the subsequent closure of the border crossing due to extensive damage, has left Dram with little trade except for the few Nepalese traders who still travel across the border to buy Chinese goods at low prices to sell in Nepal.