Trip to Namtso: Sky Lake

Tibet is home to many of the world’s natural wonders: glaciers and rivers that provide water to billions of people. Vast grasslands the size of Western Europe. And of course Chomolangma – better known as Mt Everest – the highest mountain in the world.

Then, you’ve got the lakes. I remember 10 years back being shown images of Tibetan lakes. “Wow, nice!” I thought, “but heavily photoshopped.” Perhaps it was growing up in London with it’s greenish ponds, but I simply couldn’t believe that the kind of turquoise blue in the pictures was real. But that’s the thing about Tibet: reality isn’t relevant. The light, atmosphere and colours are magical.

One such place is Namtso (གནམམཚོ་), a sacred lake that is home to a goddess called, well . . . Namtso. She’s married to Nyenchen Tanglha (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ་), the mountain range running alongside the lake. The word “lake” doesn’t quite seem to do this place justice:

Yes, huge waves. On a lake that's almost the size of Luxembourg. Woah.

Namtso is one of those summer destinations. A crystal-clear lake surrounded by beautiful grasslands and lofty mountains - perfect for picnics. Naturally then, I went in the winter. Luckily, I like winter and I can tolerate cold, or so I thought.

It takes between four and five hours to reach Namtso from Lhasa, perhaps longer in the winter when some of the roads are blocked and/or icy. Many people choose to stay overnight at one of the guesthouses located by the lake. That’s probably fine during the summer but we wanted to make it a day-trip. We passed a nomad with his yaks at sunrise, had a small breakfast of thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), and then arrived at a road leading through the snow.

All of our Tibetan friends had warned us that it’d be freezing. Dress warm, really warm, they told us. We were going with one of our oldest friends in Lhasa, Nyima, a doctor who speaks excellent English. He arrives to pick us up in his car and looks incredibly underdressed. We’re in full winter gear – and he’s in a jumper, pretty normal shoes, and a pair of gloves. He seems to think he’ll be fine. Okay - I'm not really wearing much either :/

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But the wind at Namtso is something else. A freezing wind that shoots at every piece of uncovered flesh, biting you like icy piranhas. Not even joking. Of course I wanted to take pictures but I could only take my gloves off for 15 seconds at a time: I was actually worried that my camera would crack open!

Most tourists come to Namtso, see the lake, take a picture with the “lucky” white yak by the shore, and then move on. Tibetans, however, either circumambulate the lake – this is the year to do this by the way – or then circumambulate the holy mountain next to the lake. This route takes you up the mountain, providing spectacular views of the lake and the landscape. It’s not a difficult hike – but I was living in Lhasa at 3,750m altitude at the time – it might be different if I’d only been in the region for a couple of days. Namtso lies at 4,750m - definitely high altitude sickness range for most people.

We arrived past midday and surveying the little mountain, decided to do the tour around it before lunch. It couldn’t possible take that long, we thought. You’d think I’d have learnt from past mistakes, but no. I’m not good when I’m hungry (I can be a real monster!), but battling the elements to climb up the snow-covered side of a mountain? Yeh, why not.

Along the way are some beautiful temples. In the picture on the right are two statues - one of the goddess Namtso, and one of her husband Nyenchen Tanglha:

Actually, when we reached the top, all feelings of hunger dissipated. The views, the views!!!

We then made our descent. Actually, we seemed to be the only tourists/pilgrims there. We didn't encounter anyone else except one Tibetan family doing the rounds, and that was it. I know Tibet empties out over the winter (especially of foreign tourists), but I struggle to understand why Namtso is not a popular winter destination. I mean, look at the place!

For the locals however, life is really tough in the winter. There were two restaurants open – one selling Sichuanese food, and one Tibetan place that we ended up in. Their yak meat, they said, was local and very good and actually, the thukpa here was really not bad. Some kids came around to check us out, as did some adults.

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Namtso is so worth it! It was worth waking up in the freezing cold and driving for five hours and going light-headed from a lack of oxygen. It was even worth going hungry for! Now that's saying something.

My advice: go in winter. No tourists, beautiful snow-covered scenery, and a way to contribute slightly to the local economy, as long as you eat thukpa at the Tibetan restaurant :)

If you've got your own special tips for Namtso, or questions about it, write in the comments below! Much <3

Matt