The eastern part of Tibet, the magnificent land on the “Roof of the World” is full of stunning views, endless grasslands, snowy mountains, and unique Tibetan culture. It also hides a lot of fantastic beautiful gems, deep and far in its off the beaten areas- in places where you can’t see and hear anything else but the virgin highland nature under the clear blue sky. One of these hidden gems in Yilhun Lhatso- the “Holy Lake of the Fallen Soul”, resting in the foot of the majestic Chola Mountain. Let’s discover this fantastic spot on the Earth, in the heart of Eastern Tibet!
Where is Chola Mountain
Before making a journey to this fantastic spot on the Earth, let’s open the map of Asia. You can see the large highland in the middle of the continent, called “The Roof of the World” and its main part- the Great Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, with its capital Lhasa, is only the western part of Tibet. But the eastern part- “Eastern Tibet”, is the part of the highland shared between the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan.
Now, let’s zoom only to Eastern Tibet. In general, it consists of vast plains covered by grasslands, mostly in its northern and western part, with average altitude 4000-4500 m, with lonely snowy mountains on these plains. And the rest of Eastern Tibet is covered by several mountain chains, called Hengduan Mountains, separated by several river valleys (among them some of the longest Asian rivers- Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween), situated in a direction from north to south.
Let’s focus on the third (from east to west direction) mountain chain. It is called Shaluli Mountains. It consists of several mountain ranges, of which Mount Ge’nyen is the highest one (6204 m). And the second-highest range of this chain is Chola, located deep in the extreme northwest of Sichuan Province- a wild, remote and isolated area, very sparsely populated, full of fantastic landscapes and silence.
Chola Mountain and Yilhun Lhatso
Chola Mountain (called also Trola Mountain, and in Chinese 雀儿山- “Peacock Mountain”), is rising spectacularly over the Tibetan grasslands between the Tibetan towns of Garze and Derge. Its highest peak is Rongme Ngatra (6168 m/20 236 ft), and there are also dozens of other sharp snowy peaks reaching altitude around 6000 m. Among them, I would mention Dophu Ngatra (6119 m), and Zhiltron (5988 m).
Now, if you watch the satellite map of the region, stare at the southeast end of Chola Mountains. You will see a long gentle-blue spot in the foot of Rongme Ngatra. This is Yilhun Lhatso (玉龙拉措), located on 4020 m altitude, one of the most beautiful glacier lakes in the whole of Tibet, a splendid gem, where the majestic alpine peaks reflect on its waters like on a mirror.
History of Chola Mountain
The area of Chola Mountain has been inhabited for thousands of years. In the 7-8th century, it was a part of the large Tibetan Empire, and after its fall, it has been a part of various local formations, in the cultural Tibetan region of Kham.
Then, in the 15th century, one of these formations became a strong Tibetan kingdom. It was Derge Kingdom, which controlled most of Eastern Tibet in today’s Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. Derge was its capital, and until today, it still presents the best of the Kham Tibetan culture in the monasteries of Gongchen, Dzogchen, Serxu and many others, as well as the best of the Tibetan literature in the Printing House of Gongchen (Goinqen), called also Parkhang, where you can see how the local monks create books in the same method as they did it centuries ago.
And the splendid gem of Chola Mountain- Yilhun Lhatso didn’t remain unnoticed by the local Tibetans. They related their culture with the lake, creating a lot of stories, veiled in mystery. But one of these stories become the most popular- the legend about Princess Zhumu.
The legend of Yilhun Lhatso
This beautiful legend takes us back in time, to the era of the mysterious Tibetan King Gesar. Nobody knows for sure who was King Gesar and whether he is a real historical person, but his story paints a picture of the era around the 7-11th centuries. Until today, King Gesar is considered by the Tibetans as one of the most significant national heroes, and we can see his monuments established in many towns across Tibet.
So, according to the legend, King Gesar had a concubine, called Zhumu. She went on a journey to the area of Chola Mountain and found this beautiful lake. Staring into its pale blue waters, she was bewitched by the places and decided to remain here forever. Then she sunk beneath the lake and the Tibetans say that her heart stays under the lake today. From this legend, the name of the lake was born- “Yilhun Lhatso”, which means “The Holy Lake of the Fallen Heart”. In Chinese, it is known as Xinluhai (新路海)- “The sea of the new road”.
And yes, today Yilhun Lhatso is one of the sacred lakes in Tibet, where the locals do “kora”- a ritual circumnavigation around the lake, sometimes performed by the religious Tibetans. You can also see a lot of mani stones at the lake shores, with inscriptions in Tibetan language, as well as a large stupa beside the lake.
All of this, combined with the fantastic views of the lake, the majestic alpine Chola peaks, and the high alpine forest around the lake attracted us to include this splendid gem as a part of our Eastern Tibet journey.
Our journey to Yilhun Lhatso
We rented a car and started our trip from Chengdu, passing through Kangding, Tagong, and Garze. It was summer and the grasslands were incredibly beautiful- deep green, full of flowers under the dark blue sky and white clouds. Our goal was Qinghai Province, and our way was in a northwest direction. The most touristy part of Eastern Tibet was behind us, and after Garze we entered a much wilder area, with only some scattered villages and local nomads. But one of these villages was bigger than the others and more important, so we had to stop there. It was Manigango.
Manigango (马尼干戈) is a big village (or a small town). It is important because it is located on a big road junction. The left road (which is Road 317) proceeds to Derge. And the right road leads to Serxu and Qinghai Province. But most importantly, Manigango is the best starting point for visiting Yilhun Lhatso, which is only 11 km away.
In our journey, we were five people. Two of us wanted to spend the night in Manigango. It is a quiet Tibetan settlement with several guesthouses and several restaurants and supermarkets- a great place for relaxing. So, we chose one of the guesthouses (for 120 CNY per room), had a delicious Tibetan meal and proceeded to Yilhun Lhatso.
Yilhun Lhatso entrance
Although Yilhun Lhatso is a wild and remote place, it is still turned into a national park with an entrance (and entrance fee). There is a small parking lot, a gatehouse, and several Tibetans selling tickets and some souvenirs. The ticket price was 35 CNY.
We entered inside, crossed a mountain river on a bridge, and proceed on a dirt path to the lake shores. From this point, there was no “trace of civilization”, except the large stupa nearby, and the mani stones in the lake. We reached the lakeshore and the first thing we did was to enjoy the stunning landscape of the lake and the fantastic peaks of Chola reflecting on its pale blue water.
It was a cool sunny day. The only people except us were several happy monks who played on the water. We greet them and walked around. This evening we decided to spend the night, camping on the lake shores. But before that, we wanted to walk around the lake.
Hiking around the lake
We started hiking on the eastern coast of the lake, following a narrow path. In the beginning, it was easy, but later the path entered the alpine forest and began disappearing on the stones at the coast. We had to climb and jump on the stones to reach the southern side of the lake. So we passed the distance of a little more than 2 km for more than 2 hours. But obviously, that’s no problem for those who perform “kora” around the lake.
But what we saw in the southern end of the lake was worth our efforts. It was one of the most fantastic views I’ve ever seen. Rongme Ngatra was rising straight in front of the southern grassland of the glacier valley. Its glaciers were descending steeply to the grasslands, and we could see and hear a waterfall, formed by the glaciers. A herd of wild horses passed, running on the grassland below the glaciers. And free eagles were crossing the deep blue sky.
Everything was completely silent, except for the sound of the distant glacier waterfall. There was nobody around. We didn’t want to leave this paradise, but we didn’t have enough time, the night would soon fall, and we had to back to our shelter- the tents that we were going to set on the northern shores.
Camping at the lake shores in August
We spent the night under the pure black sky, filled with millions of stars. I have never seen the space so clear before! Yes, in the clear sky, on this high altitude (4020 m above the sea level), you can see the cosmos in so many details, that you can feel like you are on another planet! We couldn’t stop watching the sky for more than an hour!
Around 9:30-10:00 pm, the weather suddenly changed. A strong wind appeared, so we had to enter our tents and tried to protect them from damage. One year later we were on the northern shores of Yilhun Lhatso again. It was August again, and the same wind appeared at the same time- around 9:30-10:00 pm, so probably it is a specific local phenomenon that happens at this time of the year.
After 30 mins strong blowing, the wind suddenly stopped and we had a quiet night. In the morning we walked again on the shore, this time in the opposite direction, and we reached a wooden bridge over the river that outflows from the lake. It was a great site for photos and on our second visit, we enjoyed this beautiful place with our cameras again.
Then we left Yilhun Lhatso, but we had to see more of the spectacular Chola Mountain.
The same road (Road 317) on which we came from Manigango to Yilhun Lhatso proceeds westward to the city of Derge. In the past, this road ascended to the main mountain pass, separating Chola in two subranges- Cho La Pass (it is considered that the name of the mountain is derived from the name of this pass), on 5050 m altitude. But now this pass is abandoned, and the road crosses the mountain through a new tunnel. So, we couldn’t reach the pass, but it remained a goal in a future trip to this area.
Instead, we back to Manigango and took the other road to the northwest- to Serxu. It crossed another mountain pass (through the main summit of Shaluli Mountains) and descent to Dzogchen Monastery.
This monastery is located on 3890 m altitude, on the northern foot of the northwestern subrange of Chola Mountain. There is a spectacular glacier descending above the monastery, with some alpine coniferous forests around. All of this, along with the opportunity to see more of the local Tibetan culture led us to turn left from the main road and to visit it.
Dzogchen Monastery was established at the end of the 17th century. Since then, it passed through several destructions (by an earthquake, by fire, and by people), and several rebuilding, until it took today’s image. Now it is a large complex of temples, monk’s residential area, and other administrative buildings.
When we arrived there, there was a local festival, and many Tibetans have arrived from various parts of the Great Tibetan Plateau. There was a large open-air market, a lot of cars, various attractions, and in the main temple- a special religious ritual, and many monks sitting in front of it. And all of this in front of the majestic background- the spectacular Chola Mountain with its glaciers.
Chola Mountain trekking
I don’t know about you, but when I see this fantastic mountainous landscape, I always have a desire to “attack” the mountains by hiking, or better, by a longer time trekking. Until now, I didn’t have this opportunity, but I have researched routes and their level of difficulty.
The best route would start from Yilhun Lhatso, then following the summits and valleys on the southern side of Rongme Ngatra. It crosses the road 317 around Cho La Pass, then proceeds in the same way through the northwestern part of Chola Mountain. Finally, it would finish in Dzogchen Monastery.
Such a route would take at least 2 weeks. Maybe it would be a little shorter, but I know from my experience that it would require a faster and longer walk during the day, and not everybody could bear it. You can add 2-3 more days to climb the top of Rongme Ngatra, but to do it, you have to pay a climbing tax in the Sichuan Mountaineering Association in Chengdu. And of course, you must have experience with high altitude, rock and ice climbing, and extremely unpredictable weather.
With such thoughts, we left Dzogchen Monastery and proceeded on our Eastern Tibet route to Serxu and Yushu in Qinghai Province. Chola Mountain disappeared behind us and behind the endless sea of green rolling hills and valleys. But its beauty impressed us so much that we visited it two times, and wish to visit it again.
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