Exploring Amnye Machen, a lonely icy giant on the Great Tibetan Plateau

Exploring Amnye Machen, a lonely icy giant on the Great Tibetan Plateau

Far, far away, deep in the highest land on the Earth, there is an endless sea of grass. Large plains and valleys with curving rivers and lakes are followed by rolling hills and mountain passes. Sometimes, yak herds can be seen, scattered somewhere in the cold and fresh emptiness. While you wander on this vast land, suddenly a giant icy mountain arises in front of you, with glamorous glaciers and snow-capped peaks. This is Amnye Machen, a white remote mountain “at the end of the world”, in the northeastern part of the Great Tibetan Plateau.

About Amnye Machen

Let’s open the physical map of Asia, and focus on the Great Tibetan Plateau. You can see the arc-shaped mountain chain, surrounding the plateau on its northern side. This is Kunlunshan- a wild, remote, desolate, and almost uninhabited mountain area, which rises to more than 7000 m altitude. Let’s follow the chain to its easternmost end. It gradually branches into several other ranges and mixes with the other mountains in the northeastern part of Tibet. The famous Yellow River curves between the branches, first flowing eastward, then westward, and finally again eastward before leaving the Great Tibetan Plateau.

One of these branches is Amnye Machen (阿尼玛卿, ཨ་མྱེ་རྨ་ཆེན།), rising spectacularly above the other mountains nearby. Its highest peak is Machen Kangri (6282 m/20 610 ft), called also Dradullunshog. The range is small in area, but very prominent. Besides this peak, several other peaks are rising above 6000 m altitude. Many glaciers descend from the peaks, as the largest one is Damxung Glacier.

Amnye Machen is considered one of the “holiest” mountains in Tibet, at the same level as Mt. Kailash. The mountain range is a subject of “kora”, a circumambulation journey around it. It is performed today by the local Tibetans, and the same route is a traditional trek route for travelers.

Amnye Machen, covered by ice and snow
Amnye Machen, covered by ice and snow

History of Amnye Machen

This mountain range has been known for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese called it “Jishishan” (积石山), and the local Tibetans have veiled it by legends and religious mysteries. The first Europeans have seen Amnye Machen at the beginning of the 20th century. Seeing its stunning prominence above the other surrounding mountains, they considered it higher than 7600 m, and some American pilots declared it even higher than Mt. Everest, determining 9100 m altitude of its highest point! It was in 1980 when the real height was calculated correctly.

The peaks of Amnye Machen are not sharp and rugged, but still enough steep and difficult to climb, especially due to the heavy glaciations on their slopes. And the first humans step on the highest peak of the mountain range made it in 1981- three expeditions at almost the same time. But since then, Amnye Machen’s highest peaks remain difficult to reach, and not all the expeditions were successful.

Our first journey to Amnye Machen

All of this aroused our curiosity to visit Amnye Machen. Yes, we didn’t mean to climb its highest peaks, but at least to try to reach as high altitude as possible. So, we included it in our first Eastern Tibet journey. It was summer, the warmest season on the Great Tibetan Plateau.

We rent a car in Chengdu and designed our route through Eastern Tibet to Xining. In other words, we had to travel in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. Our journey started from Chengdu, passed Kangding, the most romantic city in China, then the stunning grasslands of Tagong. Then, we proceeded further northwest, passing Garze, Mt. Chola, and the fantastic Yilhun Lhatso Lake. Further northwest, we visited Dzogchen and Serxu monasteries, and through Anbala Pass entered Qinghai, reaching Yushu, a splendid city “in the middle of nowhere”.

From Yushu, we changed our direction to the northeast, on the G214 highway to Xining. It was a long way, crossing vast plains, summits on their ends, then other plains beyond the summits. One of the summits, called Bayan Har, was our highest point that we reached by car, at 4824 m altitude (we stopped the car there, and I climbed the nearby slopes, reaching 5000 m elevation). Then we passed the remote town of Madoi, and finally reached the small settlement of Tsogen Rawa (Huashixia, 花石峡), our starting point for reaching Amnye Machen.

Approaching Amnye Machen from northwest
Approaching Amnye Machen from northwest

On the old road from the west

It was 2016 when we reached Amnye Machen for the first time. A new highway running on the northern side of the mountain was under construction. At that time it was big trouble for the locals, who worried about the pollution of the environment with building waste. We were worried too since we could see a lot of waste and trash around the highway. But it didn’t stop us, so we had to drive about 20 km to the last village before the mountain.

We drove on a dirt road, and soon the glazing snowy peaks of Amnye Machen arose in front of us. Soon we arrived in Tawo Zholma, a small village with a big central square, surrounded by local shops and restaurants. Everything was silent. The only sound we could hear was a constant repeating mantra from one of the shops and the fresh mountain wind. We bought some necessary products and proceeded on the dirt road curving around the new highway. From Tawo Zholma the dirt road became a part of the circumnavigation “kora” route.

Drakde La Pass

Soon we approached the giant snowy peaks with their glaciers. The road passed a temple and started ascending until we reached Drakde La Pass (4610 m), the highest point of the “kora” route. We stopped here because the view was breathtaking. The giant Damxung Glacier was descending from Machen Kangri and the neighboring peak, gradually turning into a wide pile of broken icebergs. A lonely stupa was built over the road, and prayer flags were covering the rocks between the road and the glacier.

We carefully walked on the glacier, avoiding the cracks between the ice rocks. But the sunset was coming, so we had to back to the car and proceed our way, looking for a good place for camping. Our goal was Qiemu (Halong) Valley, on 4150 m altitude, where we could stay hidden from the highway, enjoying the fresh grassland beside the mountain river.

Camping on the grassland

We couldn’t reach Halong Valley. The dirt road was too bad for our car, so we stopped at another point, on 4450 m. Here we saw a Tibetan family on a picnic, taking their dinner. They invited us to eat with them, and we tried their traditional tsampa with yak meat. We experienced the typical Tibetan hospitality, along with their blessing: “Tashi Delek!” (which means “Hello, peace upon you!”). Then the sun went down and the Tibetans left on their way. We installed our tents, staring into the ghostly shining Amnye Machen on the moonlight.

Camping on the foot of Amnye Machen
Camping on the foot of Amnye Machen

Hike upward the mountain slopes

On the next day, we tried to ascend on Amnye Machen, hiking as high as possible. Unfortunately, our time was limited, so we couldn’t go too far. But at least we could reach 4750 m altitude on the grassland, not far from the nearest glacier. Then we back to our car, and following the same road, we returned to Tsogen Rawa, proceeding on our journey to Qinghai Lake. But it was not our last visit to Amnye Machen.

Our second journey to Amnye Machen

So, we back to Amnye Machen a year later. It was August again, but this time the weather was cooler. And we came from another direction- from the fantastic mountain range of Nyenbo Yurze, located south of the Yellow River on the Great Tibetan Plateau. We arrived in the city of Golog, east of Amnye Machen, and our direction was Qinghai Lake. And we wanted to reach the lake on the new highway passing by Amnye Machen, intending to enjoy this stunning mountain again.

This time the highway was ready. Actually- almost ready, the toll gates haven’t worked yet, and there were two short sections where we had to leave the highway and drive on the old dirt road. And the good thing was that they have cleaned their waste and trash around it. Besides, the two places where we had to move to the old road were in very strategic points.

A rainy-snowy day in Amnye Machen

The first point was the eastern gate of the newly-declared “Amnye Machen National Park”- a stone gate in Tibetan style. And the second point was again Drakde La Pass, with its lonely stupa, above the Damxung Glacier, with a thicker net of prayer flags, and new wooden panoramic terraces.

But this time it was rainy. I was afraid that probably we could not see the snowy peaks of Amnye Machen. To our good surprise, we not only saw the peaks, but also the rain turned into snow above 4400 m altitude, and Drakde La Pass was covered by thin snow. We enjoyed the magnificent landscape, walked on the glacier again, and took photos. Then back to the highway and proceeded to Tsogen Rawa and Qinghai Lake.

Now, about three years later, Amnye Machen remains a remote and desolate off the beaten place, far from the tourist streams, not only for foreigners but also for local Chinese. There was a plan to make it a developed tourist destination, with an entrance fee, hotels, and attractions, but due to its remoteness, for now, it hasn’t happened. Yes, with the new highway, the mountain is more easily accessible, but it hasn’t increased the tourists there.

The eastern gate of Amnye Machen
The eastern gate of Amnye Machen

How to reach Amnye Machen

Today, the easiest way to reach Amnye Machen is to hire a private car (with someone who has a Chinese driving license), and to travel on the new highway “Dema G0615”. There are two entry points to the mountain, depending on which direction you come.

The highway starts from Delingha in Qinghai and currently ends near Jigdril in Sichuan. If you are a foreigner, you can’t start your trip from Delingha, because it is closed for foreigners. But you can come from Golmud. Or, if you travel from Qinghai Lake or Yushu, you will reach the highway near Tsogen Rawa, then you have to drive to Tawo Zholma, which is the western entry point. The eastern entry point is Chuwarna (Xueshan, 雪山). It is convenient for access if you come from Xining through Golog, or from Nyenbo Yurze.

There are exits on these two entry points, and Drakde La Pass, the most spectacular place around Amnye Machen is located in the middle. Today it is accessible only by the dirt road, connecting Tawo Zholma and Chuwarna, part of the “kora” route. There has been a plan to pave the section of the road between these two points, but as far as I know, it still remains unpaved until today, so if your car is not a 4×4 SUV, you should be very careful on this road.

The “kora” trek

This route is 132 km long. Usually, it starts from Tawo Zholma or Chuwarna. The pilgrims, as well as the trekkers, do it clockwise. On the northern side of Amnye Machen, the dirt road curves around the new highway, passing Drakde La Pass, while on the southern side it is mostly just a trail on the grasslands, which is wilder and more remote. Depending on the time of the year, you can meet local Tibetan nomads with their yak herds, as well as pilgrims performing their kora, sometimes with full-body prostrations on the ground.

Normally the trekkers accomplish it for 6 to 9 days, camping on the grass. The whole trek is with low difficulty, but again, have in mind the high altitude- between 4100 and 4650 m- be well acclimatized before start it.

The stupa at Drakde La Pass
The stupa at Drakde La Pass

Crossing Amnye Machen?

This is the best and most popular way to trek Amnye Machen- a trip around it. But if you want to cross it, or at least penetrate inside its area- its different. Yes, you can hike upward reaching the glaciers, or somewhere around 4900, even 5200 m altitude. But above this level, you would enter another altitude zone which is much more difficult to hike. In this zone, there is no grassland, but only stones, glaciers, and snow. This is the zone only for well-prepared expeditions.

So, if you are not a mountaineer joining such kind of expeditions, you can’t cross the mountain in the middle. There is no proper mountain pass to cross it. Maybe the only thing you can do is to follow the northeastern Halong (Qiemu) Valley, cross the 4750 m high pass at its end and descend on the next smaller valley to the eastern section of the main “kora” road and the highway.

Accommodation

The only places where you can sleep are several guesthouses in Tawo Zholma and Chuwarna. You can’t find these guesthouses anywhere on the internet, and the only way is to go there and ask the locals. Another possible place to sleep is in the tents of the local nomads. Needless to say, you have to be ready for very basic conditions, but at the same time, very warm hospitality. Finally, the best way remains just camping anywhere on the grasslands around the mountain.

Food

Again, the only places that you can buy some food, or even eat in one of the several small restaurants, are the villages of Tawo Zholma and Chuwarna. In restaurants, you can enjoy some delicious Tibetan or Sichuan meals. If you plan a trek around the mountain, be sure to prepare enough food, as well as your cooking set, where you can boil water. And if you meet some Tibetans, don’t be surprised if they invite you to try their food- some tsampa, some butter tea, some yak meat or some potatoes.

Dinner on the grassland with local Tibetans
Dinner on the grassland with local Tibetans

Weather and seasons

As in most of Tibet, the weather on Amnye Machen is cold, only in summer, you can enjoy some warm, or at least slightly cool weather. In general, the climate is dry, but in July and August rains are more often. As we personally experienced, above 4000 m altitude snow can fall even in summer.

So, summer remains the best season to visit Amnye Machen. Although rain (or snow) is quite possible, usually it is short. Rainy days are rare. So, most of the time is sunny. But since you most probably would go camping, be ready for the cold night. Even in summer, the temperature can drop to 0°.
The other seasons are drier but much colder. And winter is the coldest time of the year. There is not too much snow, but the temperatures can drop to -30°, even lower. Besides, due to the Tibetan New Year, the area can be closed between the second half of February and the first half of March.

This is Amnye Machen- a cold, desolate, and incredibly beautiful place. A place where you can enjoy the silence of the endless grassland and its fresh breath, with the majestic snowy giant above it. You will always remember the sunset, the yak herds in the distance, and the friendly local Tibetans you would meet. And if you want to feel what is “the end of the world”- come to Amnye Machen, deep on the Great Tibetan Plateau!

Get more impressions from the video below:

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Let's make a journey deep on the Great Tibetan Plateau, to the lonely icy mountain of Amnye Machen, Eastern Tibet! Let's make a journey deep on the Great Tibetan Plateau, to the lonely icy mountain of Amnye Machen, Eastern Tibet!


Krasen and Ying Ying

a travel couple from Bulgaria and China. We love to explore our planet and we want to make it meaningful. Welcome to our travel blog!

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